Welcome to the New Year!
With 2018 in the rearview mirror and the “Year in Review” pieces underway, it’s time to start looking ahead to what 2019 has to offer and the first month brings the start of something new in the UFC.
January’s lone event marks the beginning of the UFC on ESPN era, as the January 19 fight card from Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York will be the first to air on the ESPN+, the network’s online streaming platform.
And the powerhouse partners are commemorating the event with an outstanding fight card featuring several compelling clashes between divisional contenders, a couple intriguing and emerging prospects returning to action and capped by a “Champion vs. Champion” clash in the flyweight division.
How strong is the fight card?
So strong that even with just a single event in the month ahead, we’ve got more than enough fights to discuss in 2019’s first installment of The 10.
Allen Crowder vs. Greg Hardy
Former NFL defensive end Greg Hardy made the transition to mixed martial arts in October 2016.
A year later, he had his first amateur fight, which lasted just 32 seconds. Two more amateur wins that took a combined 110 seconds followed and this past June, the heavyweight made his professional debut against fellow 2010 NFL Draft pick Austen Lane on the initial episode in Season 2 of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series.
Lane lasted 57 seconds and Hardy returned two months later to similarly lay waste to Tebaris Gordon. A third straight first-round stoppage victory in under a minute followed in September and prompted the UFC to promote Hardy to the biggest stage in the sport.
The 30-year-old is an undeniable talent — an elite athletic specimen who has made a quick and impressive transition to MMA in a very short time — and he stands as one of the most intriguing heavyweight prospects to come around in some time.
Crowder is a 12-fight veteran who earned his shot in the UFC with a win on the Contender Series in Season 1 before losing his debut to Justin Willis. He’s a far more seasoned and dangerous opponent than anyone Hardy has faced to date and should be a good litmus test for the former Pro Bowler.
Belal Muhammad vs. Geoff Neal
This is one of those fights that showcases just how deep and talented the welterweight division is and should put the winner in a position to potentially make some moves in the 170-pound class in 2019.
Muhammad has registered four straight victories heading into this one, including victories over Jordan Mein and Tim Means, and is 5-1 over his last six starts after beginning his UFC career with a gutsy effort on short notice against Alan Jouban.
As for Neal, he was one of the quiet breakout stars of last year, registering a pair of stoppage victories in his home state of Texas, first submitting Brian Camozzi in Austin before felling Frank Camacho with a head kick at UFC 228 in Dallas.
Neither is currently ranked in the division, but the victor will certainly make a case for consideration and begin the year by adding to their momentum and generating some much-needed buzz right out of the chute to kick off their 2019 campaign in the cage.
Paige VanZant vs. Rachael Ostovich
Flyweights hoping for a fresh start this year square off in this one with the ultra-popular VanZant taking on TUF 26 alum Ostovich.
VanZant hasn’t competed since last January, when she dropped a unanimous decision to Jessica-Rose Clark on the debut event of 2018. Midway through the fight, the Dancing with the Stars finalist suffered a broken forearm that sidelined her for the remainder of the year. It has been more than two years since VanZant registered a victory in the Octagon, but she’s still only 24 years old and has shown flashes of elite potential throughout her career.
After getting bounced from the tournament to crown the inaugural women’s flyweight champion by former Invicta FC titleholder Barb Honchak, Ostovich rolled into the finale and made quick work of Karine Gevorgyan, submitting the Armenian fighter in less than two minutes. Her sophomore appearance in the Octagon didn’t go as planned, however, as she was submitted by fellow TUF 26 cast member Montana De La Rosa eight months later.
Both women have obvious upside and supportive fan followings, but this battle is one that could dictate what kind of opportunities come their way inside the cage going forward. With both VanZant and Ostovich eager to get back into the win column and start the year off right, this one has the potential to turn into a high-energy scramble-fest.
Joanne Calderwood vs. Ariane Lipski
This one should be fun.
Calderwood made some major changes in 2018, relocating to Las Vegas and moving up in weight compete in the 125-pound ranks. After a 13-month layoff, “JoJo” returned to action in August, earning a first-round submission victory over Kalindra Faria, the first submission finish of her career.
Nicknamed “The Violence Queen,” former KSW champion Lipski was initially linked to a bout with Maryna Moroz in November, but the contest was scrapped when Moroz suffered a broken foot. Now the 24-year-old puts her nine-fight winning streak on the line as she steps into the Octagon for the first time.
Stylistically, this has the potential to be a back-and-forth Muay Thai fight under MMA rules, as both women rep the art of eight limbs and are at their best when they’re coming forward aggressively. With the flyweight division still sorting itself out, the winner of this one has a chance to make an accelerated run towards the top of the rankings and into title contention in 2019.
Gregor Gillespie vs. Yancy Medeiros
Following a four-fight vacation to welterweight, durable Hawaiian veteran Medeiros is headed back to the lightweight division for a showdown with the streaking Gillespie that should tell us a lot about where each fighter stands in the ultra-competitive weight class.
Medeiros earned three wins in as many starts to begin his 170-pound adventure, securing stoppages against Sean Spencer, Erick Silva and Alex Oliveira in entertaining affairs that furthered his standing as a fan favorite. But his run of success came to an end last February when he threw down with Donald Cerrone in Austin, Texas and now he’s headed back to the 155-pound weight division to see if he can find lasting success at lightweight.
A perfect 5-0 in the UFC and the winner of a dozen straight fights to start his career, Gillespie is one of the top up-and-coming talents in the organization. The former collegiate wrestling standout picked up two more victories in 2018, earning finishes over Jordan Rinaldi and Vinc Pichel, and now he gets his toughest test to date as he looks to break into the Top 15.
Will “The Gift” keep rolling or will Medeiros end his lengthy winning streak?
Glover Teixeira vs. Ion Cutelaba
Nothing like kicking off the New Year with a terrific “Veteran vs. Upstart” battle in a division that needs some further delineation.
The 25-year-old Cutelaba enters this one off the most impressive performance of his career — a first-round mashing of Gadzhimurad Antigulov in July where he showed tremendous improvements in his defensive grappling and the same punishing offensive firepower that has made him a must-see fighter through his relatively brief UFC tenure.
This time around, “The Hulk” gets a chance to cement his standing as a contender in the light heavyweight division by taking on one of the weight classes’ most senior and seasoned fighters.
More than 15 years into his career, Teixeira has more UFC appearances (15) than Cutelaba has career victories (14) and has only ever lost to top-flight competition inside the Octagon. While he’s alternated wins and losses over his last six fights, the well-rounded Brazilian remains the kind of savvy, dangerous veteran who could string together a couple wins and dash the hopes of an emerging fighter like Cutelaba in a heartbeat.
Once this one gets started, we’ll find out if Teixeira still has something left in the tank and another run at contention in store for 2019 or if Cutelaba can join the list of new names looking to make waves in the light heavyweight division this year.
John Lineker vs. Cory Sandhagen
Sporting a 6-1 record since moving to the bantamweight division, Lineker was initially slated to square off with former titleholder Dominick Cruz in a crucial clash at the top of the list of contenders in the 135-pound weight class. Unfortunately, Cruz was forced to the sidelines with a shoulder injury, but Sandhagen was more than happy to step up in his place in hopes of usurping his place in the queue of contenders.
Lineker has carried the same stalking style that made him successful at flyweight into his stay at bantamweight and proven he’s a “top of the food chain” type with wins over Rob Font, Michael McDonald, John Dodson and Brian Kelleher. Only current champ TJ Dillashaw has been able to best him thus far and if he gets through Sandhagen in impressive fashion, he could land an opportunity to avenge that loss later in the year.
A member of the Elevation Fight Team, Sandhagen has earned four straight victories overall and back-to-back stoppage wins since arriving in the UFC one year ago. After dispatching Austin Arnett in his debut, the steely Colorado native rallied to finish Brazilian veteran Iuri Alcantara in one of the most entertaining six-minute fights you’ll ever see.
Building on that performance with a short-notice win over the ultra-tough Lineker would further elevate his standing in the division and put him on the radar as one to pay close attention to in the future.
Joseph Benavidez vs. Dustin Ortiz
Reports of the demise of the flyweight division may have been a bit hasty as Benavidez and Ortiz will lock up in the 125-pound ranks with the winner having a legitimate case as challenging for championship gold later this year.
A fixture in the Top 15 from his first appearance in the Octagon, Ortiz has put together the best run of his career over the last 18 months, posting victories over Hector Sandoval, Alexandre Pantoja and Matheus Nicolau to vault into title consideration. Last time out, the 25-fight veteran stunned Nicolau, staying on the outside until he shook his equilibrium with a heavy head kick before putting him away with a series of follow-up punches.
While Ortiz is a fairly new contender, Benavidez is as familiar as they come, having fought in the inaugural flyweight title fight in UFC history and never fallen out of the mix since. After dropping a close fight to Sergio Pettis in June following more than a year on the sidelines, Benavidez bounced back in a major way last time out, finishing Alex Perez (twice, actually) to get back into the win column.
Regardless of what direction the division takes from here, this is a tremendous fight that shouldn’t be dismissed or overlooked. Ortiz and Benavidez always bring it and this time will be no different.
Donald Cerrone vs. Alexander Hernandez
Hernandez made quite the impression during his rookie campaign and gets the chance to start his sophomore season in the Octagon with a splash.
Called up on short notice to compete at UFC 222, the Texas-based lightweight took just 42-seconds to register his first win, dropping veteran Beneil Dariush with a swift left hand. In his next outing, the confident newcomer out-grappled Olivier Aubin-Mercier to push his winning streak to eight.
Now he’ll step in with the most ornery customer on the roster.
Fresh off a first-round armbar win over Mike Perry in the co-main event of the UFC’s 25th Anniversary show in his hometown of Denver, Colorado, Cerrone heads back down to lightweight to offer Hernandez the biggest test of his career.
After a tremendous start to his welterweight journey, “Cowboy” hit a rough patch, dropping four bouts in five appearances between January 2017 and June 2018. But he looked outstanding in his appearance against Perry in early November and if he can carry that over as he returns to his old stomping grounds, Cerrone will not only halt Hernandez’ rise, but re-establish himself as a contender as well.
Henry Cejudo vs. TJ Dillasahw for the UFC flyweight title
How’s this for the first main event of the year!
Following his split decision win over Demetrious Johnson, Cejudo looks to kick off his reign atop the flyweight division by toppling reigning bantamweight titleholder TJ Dillashaw, who happily accepted the Olympic gold medalist’s challenge and looks to join Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier and Amanda Nunes as only the fourth fighter in UFC history to hold two belts simultaneously.
This is the greatest test Cejudo could have undertaken after ending Johnson’s nearly six-year run atop the 125-pound weight class. He’s continued to improve his striking throughout his UFC run, while his elite wrestling remains an ever-present threat to all of his opponents, and if he completes the Johnson-Dillashaw double, “The Messenger” will establish himself as one of the top fighters in the history of the lighter weight divisions.
The two-time, reigning bantamweight champion, Dillashaw cemented his place atop the division with an emphatic first-round stoppage win over Cody Garbrandt at UFC 227 in August, putting himself in the discussion as one of the top bantamweights of all-time. Now he makes his maiden voyage down to flyweight with the opportunity to win a second title and drastically alter his legacy.
Cejudo and Dillashaw are two of the best fighters on the planet at the moment and this one should be an intriguing, entertaining chess match between the more versatile, varied bantamweight ruler and the stellar fundamentals of the defending flyweight champion.
You won’t want to miss it.