Welcome to another year of The 10, your monthly look at 10 outstanding fights that are set to take place inside the Octagon. I’m your host, Ryan Seacrest.
All right, the second part may not be true, but the first part is and the first entry into the 2016 edition of this series is a good one, offering a mix of championship bouts, potential title eliminators and a handful of pivotal divisional battles, plus a couple fights featuring competitors you’re going to want to keep you eye on as the year progresses.
Let’s get into it.
Here is The 10.
UFC 195: Lawler vs. Condit (Jan. 2 – Las Vegas, Nevada)
Dustin Poirier vs. Joe Duffy
Originally scheduled to headline the UFC’s return to Dublin in October, this fight was scuttled at the 11th hour due to injury, but quickly cobbled back together here.
After years as a title contender at featherweight, Poirier got sick of making the cut to 145 pounds and moved back to lightweight in 2015, picking up consecutive first-round knockout wins over Diego Ferreira and Yancy Medeiros to quickly establish himself as a threat in the 155-pound ranks. Boasting more energy and the same punching power (if not more) than he carried at featherweight, “The Diamond” could crack the Top 10 with a third consecutive impressive victory.
Duffy, who landed at No. 4 on Thomas Gerbasi’s list of Top Newcomers of 2015, also collected a pair of first-round stoppage wins in 2015, knocking out Jake Lindsey and tapping out Ivan Jorge to become an intriguing addition to the division. This fight is his litmus test – his first outing against an established, known entity in the UFC – and how he performs against Poirier will dictate where his year is headed.
More on UFC 195: Ageless Lawler enjoying career resurgence | Title shot decade in making for Condit | Watch Countdown: Lawler vs. Condit | Inside the numbers for Lawler vs. Condit | Arlovski making most of 2nd run | Watch Countdown: Miocic vs. Arlovski | UFC 195 fight card | Reasons to watch UFC 195 | Stage bigger, but Irish Joe stays humble | 'Hot sauce' living the dream | Moment arrives for Larkin | Kish brings experience into her UFC debut | Pre-order UFC 195 digitally | Buy tickets for UFC 195 | Watch UFC 195 Embedded: Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3
Lightweight is crazy deep with plenty of contenders already queuing up for their crack at the title, but the winner of this will fall in at the back of that line and should find themselves standing across the cage from a Top 10 opponent next time out.
Albert Tumenov vs. Lorenz Larkin
There are always a couple of bouts on each card that fly under the radar that prove to be an introduction of a new talent to a larger audience.
This is that fight.
Tumenov has earned four straight stoppage wins and is coming off a Performance of the Night-winning effort against Alan Jouban in Houston. He just turned 24, already has 18 professional fights under his belt and appears to be growing more comfortable and confident with each appearance, which makes him one of the brightest prospects in the welterweight division – and perhaps the entire UFC – heading into this one.
Once a light heavyweight prospect, Larkin has steadily made his way down the scale and appears to have settled in at welterweight, where he has maintained his speed, increased his power and collected a pair of impressive stoppage wins (and bonuses). And oh, by the way, he already has a victory over current champ Robbie Lawler from back in their middleweight days under the Strikeforce banner, so you know that has to bolster his confidence in his new division.
While a place in the rankings may not be on the line, this is one of those quality prospect vs. prospect clashes that send the winner forward into the deeper waters and it should be electric from start to finish.
Stipe Miocic vs. Andrei Arlovski
As impressive as Lawler’s resurgence has been, Arlovski’s return to prominence in the heavyweight ranks might be even more unexpected.
While Lawler was sleepwalking through his time in Strikeforce, Arlovski was getting slept, losing three straight in the promotion and getting knocked out in two. He looked finished, but he’s been nearly unbeatable since then. The former heavyweight champion has won six straight overall and four in a row in the Octagon to surprisingly land as a legitimate title contender as 2016 begins. If he beats Miocic, it will be hard to deny “The Pit Bull” an opportunity to fight for the belt he once held later in the year.
But getting by Miocic is no easy task.
Back in May, the Ohio native and firefighter ripped through Mark Hunt, swarming the former title challenger from the outset and racking up a new record for the most significant strikes landed in a heavyweight contest. It was the best he’s looked in the Octagon and further cemented the Strong Style Fight Team member as one of the top contenders in the heavyweight division.
The heavyweight division became compelling again in 2015, and with tons of pivotal pairings on tap for the opening six weeks of 2016, these competitors know this is their chance to make a statement and secure their position in the title chase, so don’t be surprised if the UFC 195 co-main event is non-stop action.
Robbie Lawler vs. Carlos Condit for the UFC welterweight title
Coming off the consensus Fight of the Year in 2015 against Rory MacDonald, Lawler looks to remain on top of the welterweight division and secure his second successful title defense in another potential barnburner with “The Natural Born Killer.”
While there was a lot – I mean A LOT – to like about Lawler’s epic clash with MacDonald at UFC 189, it might have been the champion’s indomitable spirit that stood out the most. Lawler took everything the Canadian could throw at him and stayed standing, staggering a few times, but always answering the bell before getting the finish he needed a minute into the final round in order to retain the title.
It was a gutsy effort from a guy that worked a long time to reach the top of the division and showed future opponents how hard it is going to be to wrest the welterweight strap away from him.
Enter Condit – an equally dangerous striker who returned from an extended layoff to batter Thiago Alves to the point that their fight had to be called off between the second and third rounds back in May. Add in that the Albuquerque native and long-time Jackson-Wink MMA product has been a champion, but never the champion and you have a recipe for something special just two days into the New Year.
There are going to be plenty of fights that hit the Octagon after this one, but it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Lawler and Condit replicated the feat performed by Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard five years ago and delivered the Fight of the Year to close out the first event of 2016.
UFC Fight Night: Dillashaw vs. Cruz (Jan. 17 – Boston, Massachusetts)
Travis Browne vs. Matt Mitrione
Remember how I said there were a bunch of pivotal heavyweight fights on tap for the first six weeks of 2016 a little earlier? Let’s call this Exhibit B.
Browne has long been considered a potential contender, but he’s yet to pick up that signature win that carries him to top of the list of challengers. While he’s coming off one of the most entertaining rounds and fights of 2015 at UFC 187, he did lose that bout to Arlovski and is just 1-2 over the last two years, so the pressure is on the rangy, athletic Hawaiian to find his rhythm and put together a string of wins in order to affirm his status as a serious contender.
First and foremost, Mitrione deserve credit for cobbling together a five-year, 13-fight career in the UFC after entering the organization with zero professional fighting experience. The former NFL defensive lineman had won three straight before getting submitted by Ben Rothwell in June and remains in the group just below the elite contenders in the big boy ranks. If he wants to break free from that classification, he needs to beat Browne in Boston, simple as that.
Anthony Pettis vs. Eddie Alvarez
Fighting for the first time since losing the lightweight title to Rafael dos Anjos in March, this is a crucial contest for Pettis.
“Showtime” was on the brink of superstardom heading into UFC 185, but ran into a freight train and hasn’t been heard from since. Now after 10 months on the sidelines, people are eager to see how Pettis responds to having been on the business end of a one-sided drubbing against dos Anjos, and because this is the lightweight division, there is no room for error and no time for a “get right” fight.
Instead, the former champion has to step in with Alvarez, who rallied to beat Gilbert Melendez last time out and is looking to affirm his standing as a Top 5 fighter in the ridiculously deep and talented 155-pound ranks. As game as they come, the 31-year-old Philadelphia native knows a win over the returning Pettis puts him in the thick of the title chase just two weeks and change into 2016.
This could go any number of ways and that’s what makes it exciting. Regardless of how it plays out, it should answer some lingering questions about both fighters and help clear up some of the congestion at the top of the lightweight division.
TJ Dillashaw vs. Dominick Cruz for the UFC bantamweight title
It’s the current champ versus the man that never actually lost the title in the Octagon and it should be incredible.
Dillashaw has been lights out over his last three fights, winning the title from Renan Barao in a thrilling performance at UFC 173 before stopping Joe Soto at UFC 177 and stopping the former champion in their oft-delayed rematch in July on FOX. Utilizing more movement and fluidly switching stances during that stretch, the former TUF finalist has taken a lot of the footwork that worked so well for Cruz throughout his career and added finishing power on top of it to become a dominant figure atop the division.
But despite nearly three full years on the shelf with various injuries, Cruz looked like he didn’t miss a beat by waltzing back into the Octagon and icing Takeya Mizugaki in 61 seconds at UFC 178 to run his winning streak to 11. While another injury has kept him out of action since then, it’s hard to doubt “The Dominator,” given how good he looked last time out and the fact that he’s been champing at the bit to get his title back for the better part of two years.
This has the potential to be a technical and tactical masterpiece – a battle between two fighters with similar styles and skill sets and a healthy amount of animosity between them. Can the current champ cement his standing as the top dog in the division or will the former king reclaim the throne and begin a new reign?
UFC on FOX: Johnson vs. Bader (Jan. 30 – Newark, New Jersey)
Iuri Alcantara vs. Jimmie Rivera
Certainly not the most high profile fight of the year – or even the most buzz-worthy fight on this card – this bantamweight matchup gets the nod because Rivera is an “under the radar” prospect that could make a lot of noise in 2016, starting with this bout against Brazilian veteran Alcantara.
Currently ranked No. 15 in the division, Alcantara has settled into a gatekeeper position in the 135-pound ranks; he’s a tough out with plenty of experience and enough savvy to turn back those that aren’t ready to face the cream of the crop and a respected name that gives an emerging talent some clout on the way up if they’re able to hand him a loss. Coming off a win over Leandro Issa, rest assured that the 35-year-old has no intentions of being a stepping stone for anyone in 2016.
Finally arriving in the UFC in July after a lengthy winning streak on the east coast regional circuit, Rivera quickly established himself as one to watch in the division with a debut knockout win over Marcus Brimage (on short notice in Scotland no less) and a split decision victory over Pedro Munhoz. The New Jersey native has won 17 straight overall and No. 18 would carry him into the Top 15, setting him up for bigger and better fights in the currently unsettled bantamweight division going forward.
Josh Barnett vs. Ben Rothwell
Exhibit C in my “plenty of pivotal heavyweight contests on tap” argument from earlier, this one should be entertaining and will also contribute to clarifying where everyone stands in the division before Fabricio Werdum and Cain Velasquez renew acquaintances at UFC 196.
Barnett looked outstanding in his September Performance of the Night-winning effort opposite Roy Nelson in Saitama, Japan – he was in great shape, maintained a steady pace and showed off the myriad weapons in his arsenal that still make him a dangerous opponent for anyone in the heavyweight ranks. We have seen a lot of veterans make late career runs as of late, especially in this division, which makes you wonder if 2016 is going to be the year “The Warmaster” goes on the rampage?
The unfortunate odd man out when marquee heavyweight matchups were being put together, Rothwell lost out on the chance to further climb the ranks and make a statement when his fight with Miocic in Dublin was felled by an injury. Rebooked here against Barnett, “Big Ben” has been carrying a bit of a chip on his shoulder all fall and with the way he’s been rolling of late, it might not be a good time to have to share the Octagon with the man with the maniacal laugh.
Anthony Johnson vs. Ryan Bader
This one could very well determine who will be the second man to challenge for the UFC light heavyweight title in 2016, assuming that current champ Daniel Cormier and former champ Jon Jones run it back in the first title tilt of the year in the 205-pound weight division.
Johnson rebounded from his loss to Cormier at UFC 187 with a second-round knockout win over Jimi Manuwa in September where he showcased some of the work he’s been doing refining his wrestling and grappling skills with Neil Melanson. Still one of the most lethal knockout artists in the division, “Rumble” floored Cormier to start their fight and only needs to land one clean shot to end things, which makes him dangerous both here against Bader and in future, regardless of whom he faces.
There is a very real possibility that Bader has asked himself “What more do I have to do to get a title shot around here?” at some point in the last couple months, as the former TUF winner ran his winning streak to five at UFC 192 and still needs at least one more win to get the one fight that has eluded him thus far. Bader outworked Rashad Evans in October and has looked more fluid and well rounded of late, exchanging size for speed inside the Octagon.