The hardest part about writing a monthly column looking at the best fights poised to transpire inside the UFC’s Octagon isn’t coming up with 10 fights to talk about, but rather paring down the list when there are so many amazing fights on deck.
Some months are easier than others. There were only two events in March, which narrowed the crop of bouts to choose from, although UFC 185 was such an impressive lineup that it alone could have populated this column. Conversely, there are also months like the one that’s just about to jump off.
With five events over the next four weeks, including the biggest Pay-Per-View of the year, a loaded Fight Night event in San Diego and a FOX show in Chicago headlined by a championship rematch and a bout to determine the next title challenger in the women’s bantamweight division, terrific fights don’t end up making the cut. So as much as Matt Brown facing Tim Means and Edson Barboza getting after it against Paul Felder are must-see attractions during the month ahead, they’ve been relegated to honorable mention status this month.
That’s how many great fights are coming up in the month ahead.
This is The 10.
UFC 189: Aldo vs. McGregor (July 11 – Las Vegas, Nevada)
Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald
While the main event of the month’s first fight card is garnering the vast majority of the attention, the penultimate fight of the night should produce fireworks as well.
More than a decade after he left the UFC and having come up short in his first attempt, Lawler claimed the welterweight title back in December and walked away from the cage repeating the word, “Finally” over and over. It was the culmination of a comeback story for the ages, but now the next book starts with a familiar foe that poses a real threat to ruin Lawler’s happily ever after.
MacDonald is a perfect 3-0 since losing a split decision to the current champion at UFC 167, most recently having stopped former Strikeforce champ Tarec Saffiedine back in October. Tagged as a future champion when he arrived on this stage in January 2010, this is the Canadian challenger’s first shot at UFC gold and he’s intent on making the most of it.
Chad Mendes vs. Conor McGregor
With Jose Aldo officially out of the UFC 189 main event, Mendes is now in opposite McGregor with the two men battling for an interim title.
On his way to this championship opportunity, plenty of observers said they would have liked to see the Irish contender have to work his way through a wrestler and now they're getting their wish.
Mendes is arguably the best in the division - a two-time All-American and National runner-up in his senior year. He's also been through a pair of championship fights before, most recently going the distance with Aldo in an instant classic last October, and though he came out on the wrong side of the results, he cemented himself among the elite in the lighter weight classes in the process.
None of this seems to be bothering McGregor though; the confident Irishman has said he'll face and beat whoever the UFC puts before him and in a division rich with wrestling talent, there is no way that he isn't prepared for the takedown attempts that are sure to come his way.
Even with the shift in combatants, the UFC 189 main event is bound to be electric. McGregor has fired verbal jabs at Mendes numerous times and the Team Alpha Male standout has said all along that he'd like to be the man to halt McGregor's climb. Now they'll get the chance to deal with each other face-to-face inside the Octagon and it should be all kinds of fun.
The Ultimate Fighter: ATT vs. Blackzilians Finale (July 12 – Las Vegas, Nevada)
Jake Ellenberger vs. Stephen Thompson
A perennial contender in the welterweight division, the 30-year-old Ellenberger righted the ship after three straight losses with a second-round submission win over Josh Koscheck last time out. And those losses came against the two men fighting for the welterweight title the day before this bout and Kelvin Gastelum, one of the top emerging talents in the entire organization, so hold off on writing a career obituary for the Omaha, Nebraska native for now.
Thompson has quietly put together four straight wins and added new dimensions to his game since debuting at UFC 143. After earning back-to-back knockout wins over Chris Clements and Robert Whittaker, “Wonderboy” used his superior movement and varied attack to collect a decision win over Patrick Cote, showcasing improved takedown defense.
With the welterweight division in a perpetual state of activity and new names scratching and clawing to break into the Top 15, this is a pivotal fight for both men. For Ellenberger, he’s out to maintain his place among the division’s elite, while Thompson is looking to prove he should be the one residing within that group.
UFC Fight Night: Mir vs. Duffee (July 15 – San Diego, California)
Holly Holm vs. Marion Reneau
Following an outstanding boxing career and an unbeaten climb up the regional ranks, Holm made her long-awaited UFC debut back in February with a split decision win over TUF 20 alum Raquel Pennington at UFC 184. Though it wasn’t the spectacular performance many anticipated, “The Preacher’s Daughter” was able to get her first appearance in the Octagon out of the way and emerge with a victory over a durable, gritty opponent.
Conversely, Reneau arrived on the scene with much less fanfare, but used two fights in eight weeks to announce her presence as a threat in the 135-pound ranks. After battering Alexis Dufresne in her debut at UFC 182, the 38-year-old “Belizean Bruiser” collected a first-round submission win over Jessica Andrade in under two minutes in Brazil at the end of February.
Though there are two other ladies vying for the next shot at the women’s bantamweight title later in the month, the winner of this one should move into the conversation and find themselves facing a Top 5 opponent the next time out.
Josh Thomson vs. Tony Ferguson
Ferguson, who won Season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter, has been on a tear since returning to action following a loss to Michael Johnson and a 17-month layoff. Five wins and four stoppages, including a Performance of the Night bonus for his first-round submission win over Gleison Tibau at UFC 184, have carried “El Cucuy” to the brink of breaking into the Top 10 in the lightweight division.
Next up is a date with Thomson, a dangerous veteran coming off back-to-back razor-thin decision losses to Bobby Green and Benson Henderson. “The Punk” pondered retirement following each of those setbacks, but ultimately returned to the Octagon and continues to stand as an experienced impediment standing between rising stars like Ferguson and the upper echelon of the 155-pound weight class.
Gilbert Melendez vs. Al Iaquinta
This one only came together a couple weeks ago, but it has the masses salivating, and with good reason.
Melendez is looking to rebound from a poor showing opposite Eddie Alvarez at UFC 188 in Mexico City. After cracking Alvarez with a nasty elbow in close and touching him up with some heavy right hands in the first, “El Nino” faded and couldn’t fend off the takedown enough to avoid coming out on the wrong side of the scorecards once the final bell sounded.
That prompted the former Strikeforce lightweight champion to jump at the opportunity to replace Bobby Green here, and it gives the surging Iaquinta a chance to push his winning streak to five with the biggest win of his career.
The Serra-Longo Fight Team member has won four straight and seven of his last eight since emerging from Season 15 of The Ultimate Fighter, collecting three straight stoppage victories before going to the cards with Jorge Masvidal in April. Currently resting at No. 13 in the rankings, a win over Melendez could push “Raging” Al into the Top 10.
Frank Mir vs. Todd Duffee
The heavyweight division has been front and center as of late and it remains so here as the two-time former champion Mir steps into the Octagon with Duffee, once hyped as “The Next Big Thing” in the big boy ranks and the owner of the fastest knockout in the history of the UFC heavyweight division.
Four straight losses prompted Mir to take a year off to ponder his future, but a first-round knockout win over Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva showed that the Las Vegas native still has something left to offer. Now he’s looking to build more momentum with a victory over the 29-year-old Georgia native and make one last run at the brass ring before his career is up.
Following a two-year hiatus that resulted in Duffee being diagnosed with Parsonage Turner Syndrome, the intriguing heavyweight prospect returned in spectacular fashion at UFC 181, knocking out Anthony Hamilton in 33 seconds to earn his second consecutive first-round stoppage win inside the Octagon. A physical specimen with established power, a win over Mir would catapult the American Top Team representative into the Top 10.
UFC Fight Night: Bisping vs. Leites (July 18 – Glasgow, Scotland)
Michael Bisping vs. Thales Leites
While there is already a line forming for potential title challengers in the middleweight ranks, the winner of the Glasgow main event will definitely be joining that queue when this one is over.
Leites is a former title challenger who has transformed himself from a jiu-jitsu stylist into a complete threat, rattling off five straight victories since returning to the UFC and eight consecutive wins overall. Having shown off his improved hands in knockout wins over Trevor Smith and Francis Carmont, the Nova Uniao standout reminded everyone of his grappling prowess with his slick arm-triangle choke of Tim Boetsch last time out.
Fresh off a unanimous decision win over CB Dollaway in April, Bisping dives right back into the fray in search of his first two-fight winning streak since he won four straight between May 2010 and December 2011. Boasting underrated takedown defense, tremendous conditioning and a high-volume striking approach, “The Count” has been one of the best fighters in the middleweight division for the last five years and has no plans to relinquish that title any time soon.
UFC on FOX: Dillashaw vs. Barao II (July 25 – Chicago, Illinois)
Miesha Tate vs. Jessica Eye
Seven days before Ronda Rousey defends her UFC women’s bantamweight title against Bethe Correia at UFC 190, Tate and Eye will square off in Chicago to determine who will be next to challenge for said championship.
After coming out on the wrong side of the results in each of her first two UFC appearances, Tate has rebounded to collect three straight wins heading into this one. Last time out, the Xtreme Couture-based contender authored a gutsy come-from-behind effort against former title challenger Sara McMann.
Last we saw Eye, the StrongStyle Fight Team standout was sending an eruption of blood into the air after blowing up Leslie Smith’s cauliflower ear at UFC 180 in Mexico City. The feisty 28-year-old is on a mission to bring a championship home to Cleveland and with the Cavaliers coming up short, the city’s baseball team currently struggling and the Browns still being the Browns, it’s a two-person race between Eye and her teammate Stipe Miocic to see who can accomplish the feat first.
TJ Dillashaw vs. Renan Barao
Twice postponed, Dillashaw and Barao will finally meet in a rematch of their UFC 173 meeting that saw the Team Alpha Male representative halt the Brazilian’s lengthy winning streak and end his reign atop the bantamweight division.
Dillashaw picked up a fifth-round stoppage win over Joe Soto last summer at UFC 177 the first time these two were scheduled to run it back, showcasing the same darting, combination-heavy striking approach that earned him the title three months earlier. As for Barao, he rebounded from his first loss in nearly a decade with a third-round submission win over Mitch Gagnon in December.
There is a lot of animosity between these two rivals and their respective camps. Add in the bantamweight title being on the line and you have the makings of a heated battle that should close out an action-packed month of July in style.