Welcome to June or as I like to call it, “The start of an insane stretch of amazing fights that has me so pumped that I cannot contain myself.”
There is so much goodness on tap that I might need to make next month’s installment of this column a two-part special, and this month is no different as UFC 225 is so loaded that it would be easy to select 10 must-see contests from that card alone to fill this month’s collection of killer fights.
But since I’ve got to keep this to 10, some terrific scraps are going to be left off this list, but that doesn’t mean I’m not pumped to see Andrei Arlvoski face Tai Tuivasa or Joseph Benavidez return to action opposite Sergio Pettis or “The Carpenter” Clay Guida try and continue his run of success since returning to lightweight when he takes on Charles Oliveira.
Now that we’re clear on that, here are my selections for the most exciting matchups set to hit the Octagon this month.
This is The 10.
UFC Fight Night: Rivera vs. Moraes – Friday, June 1 (Utica, New York)
Sijara Eubanks vs. Lauren Murphy
First and foremost, this is a crucial contest in the still-developing women’s flyweight division.
Eubanks was slated to face Nicco Montano for the title back in December before being forced out due to a bad weight cut, while Murphy is coming off a split decision win over long-time Invicta FC titleholder Barb Honchak, and heading into this one, they’re stationed at No. 2 and No. 3 in the rankings, respectively. Theoretically, the winner of this one could put herself in position to challenge for the title in the not too distant future.
What ups the ante on this one, however, is that there is legitimate tension between these two as Murphy was a vocal critic about Eubanks’ struggles to make weight during their time on Season 26 of The Ultimate Fighter, even hustling into the sauna to start shedding pounds herself in order to be available to replace Eubanks if she couldn’t make weight.
Given that history, there is no way things don’t get tense between the two during Fight Week and since both have been consistently entertaining inside the cage on their own, there is a very strong likelihood that they combine to deliver one of the more entertaining bouts of the month in Utica.
Gregor Gillespie vs. Vinc Pichel
Back when I used to write a “5 Reasons to Watch” column before every event, one of the five points was almost always “This Week’s Important Lightweight Clash” or something along those lines because on pretty much every fight card, there is one terrific lightweight contest that is going to have an impact on the stacked 155-pound weight division.
That’s what this fight is.
Gillespie and Pichel have won eight consecutive UFC appearances combined; the former having gone a perfect 4-0 to begin his time inside the Octagon (and 11-0 overall), while the latter dropped his debut way back in December 2012 and has cobbled together this run of success despite a lengthy hiatus between his first two victories and his two most recent triumphs.
Winning five straight in the UFC is a difficult task in any division and doing so in the lightweight ranks is even more challenging, but whomever emerges victorious in this one will be standing on five consecutive wins and be difficult to overlook in the second half of 2018, even in a division as deep and talented as the 155-pound ranks.
Jimmie Rivera vs. Marlon Moraes
The bantamweight main event is quite similar to the women’s flyweight scrap between Murphy and Eubanks in that it’s not only a matchup between Top 5 fighters, but it’s also a grudge match of sorts, which should ensure that fans at the Adirondack Bank Center are treated to something special to close out the night.
Rivera currently sits at No. 4 in the rankings and enters on an incredible 20-fight winning streak, the last five of which have come inside the Octagon. The Team Tiger Schulmann staple has posted wins over Pedro Munhoz, Urijah Faber and Thomas Almeida during his three-year run in the UFC and is the kind of well-rounded, durable talent that is a nightmare matchup for anyone in the division.
Following a wildly successful run under the World Series of Fighting banner, Moraes moved to the UFC, and after dropping a split decision to Raphael Assuncao in his debut, “Magic” has rebounded with back-to-back wins over John Dodson and Aljamain Sterling. After going the distance in his first two outings, Moraes knocked Sterling out cold in just over a minute back in December, finally showcasing the explosive offensive skills he became known for prior to arriving in the UFC at this time last year.
These two have been jawing at one another in person and on social media for months and are both surely champing at the bit to finally get in the cage and resolve things.
UFC 225: Whittaker vs. Romero II – Saturday, June 9 (Chicago, Illinois)
Ricardo Lamas vs. Mirsad Bektic
Featherweight is brimming with young, emerging talent, but Bektic might be the best of the bunch. I know that sounds like blasphemy to the Zabit loyalists out there or those who still want to consider Brian Ortega a prospect (which I do not), but the 27-year-old brings an impressive assortment of skills to the Octagon and the work ethic to potentially rise to the top of the division one day.
Last time out, Bektic punched Godofredo Pepey right in the sternum, ending the fight. Do you know hard you have to get hit right in the sternum to be unable to continue? That’s a frightening thought and now that he’s working with the likes of Firas Zahabi and everyone up at Tristar in Montreal, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Bektic start making a serious run up the divisional rankings.
But he’s stepping in there with a guy in Lamas who has made a career of turning back over-eager upstarts and who is competing at home in The Chi for the first time in five years. Last time he fought at home, “The Bully” blasted one-time potential title challenger Erik Koch in a performance that then earned Lamas a crack at the featherweight title.
On top of that, he’s coming off a first-round knockout loss, so you know the always aggressive, always entertaining 36-year-old will be looking to remind Bektic and everyone else in the division that he’s still a force to be reckoned with.
Claudia Gadelha vs. Carla Esparza
Not only is this a battle between two of the top talents in the women’s strawweight division, but it’s also a bout that has been brewing for years and has finally come together after two different attempts under the Invicta FC banner.
Gadelha and Esparza were scheduled to face off at Invicta FC 4 and Invicta FC 7, with Gadelha replacing Esparza in a bout at Invicta FC 6 as well, but both times, the Brazilian was forced from the contest, leaving fans longing to see how a bout between the two would play out.
While Esparza marched through the competition on Season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter to become the inaugural strawweight titleholder, Gadelha fell short of securing a bout with “The Cookie Monster” when she came out on the wrong side of a split decision verdict in her first fight with Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Both have slipped back in the division a little since then, but remain elite talents, with this fight likely launching the winner back into title contention heading into the second half of the year.
Expect a spirited affair from start to finish with the winner lining up opposite another Top 5 talent not too far down the line.
The results haven’t been great for Holm since she shocked the world and upset Ronda Rousey, but you have to look beyond the wins and losses to see that what the multiple-time world champion boxer has been doing has been impressive nonetheless.
Three of her last five fights have been championship bouts and she was right there in all three of them, despite ending up on the wrong side of the results each time. Another came against Valentina Shevchenko, who is universally regarded as one of the top pound-for-pound talents in the world, and she was 10-0 and sitting on top of the world before that.
If anyone has earned a little leeway on the women’s side of the sport, it’s “The Preacher’s Daughter,” who is always game and will be here as well.
For me, the draw of this fight is Anderson though. More correctly, it’s a chance to see how the talented Australian matches up with someone as seasoned and skilled as Holm.
Out of action for more than a year, Anderson was mauling the opposition under the Invicta FC banner prior to her hiatus and has been actively chasing a fight with Cris Cyborg for quite some time, which is the kind of gutsy move you have to respect.
If she can get through Holm, the 28-year-old Queensland native might get her shot at the women’s featherweight champ.
Rafael Dos Anjos vs. Colby Covington for the interim UFC welterweight title
All Dos Anjos has done since debuting in the welterweight division a year ago is rattle off three straight wins over established, ranked opposition, including a first-round submission win over Neil Magny and a five-round drubbing of former champ Robbie Lawler.
The former lightweight champion has looked like a force to be reckoned with and a serious title threat and now he’s one victory away from collecting the interim title and securing himself a title unification bout some time later this year.
Standing in his way is Covington, a talented grinder who has turned himself into a contender by collecting five straight victories and lobbing verbal salvos at anyone and everyone whenever he gets the chance.
There is no denying that “Chaos” has looked good as of late – winning five straight is no easy task and his last two victories over Dong Hyun Kim and Demian Maia were solid triumphs over experienced veterans. But Covington has talked a huge game of late and now it’s time to back up everything he’s said against a guy who already knows what it’s like to compete under the brightest spotlight imaginable.
The build-up to this one should be fun and the action should be electric once the cage door closes as well.
Robert Whittaker vs. Yoel Romero for the UFC middleweight title
Their initial encounter last summer at UFC 213 kind of flew under the radar, but it turned out to be one of the best fights of the year, with Whittaker rallying from an early deficit to earn a unanimous decision win and claim the interim middleweight title.
Just under a year later, they’re set to run it back, this time without any interim tags attached and with the anticipation ratcheted up to 11.
Whittaker has won eight straight overall and is a perfect 7-0 since moving to middleweight, though he hasn’t competed since their first encounter thanks to a knee injury suffered during that bout and a series of ailments that sidelined him prior to UFC 221 back in February.
As for Romero, he ended up replacing Whittaker on that Pay-Per-View fight card in Perth, Australia at the start of the year and came away with an impressive third-round knockout win over former titleholder Luke Rockhold, setting up this rematch.
The first bout was a thrilling chess match and the familiarity they have with one another should only make the sequel even better.
UFC Fight Night: Cowboy vs. Edwards – Saturday, June 23 (Kallang, Singapore)
Ovince Saint Preux vs. Tyson Pedro
My excitement about this fight centers on Pedro, the promising Australian who rebounded from his first professional loss with a brilliant first-round submission win at UFC 221 earlier this year.
After earning first-round finishes in each of his first two Octagon appearances, Pedro took a giant step up in competition and came out on the wrong side of the scorecards against Ilir Latifi. Bouncing back in spectacular fashion while dealing with a more intense spotlight than normal as a result of fighting at home was impressive and it’s not like losing to Latifi seven fights into his career should be viewed as some kind of permanent stain on Pedro’s resume.
He’s got good size for the division, a granite chin and a ton of room to continue to grow and develop as a fighter. While everyone is getting hyped about the emergence of Dominick Reyes (understandably so), I’m still over here repping Pedro as the most promising young talent in the division.
And this showdown with Saint Preux will go a long way to help determine where he fits the 205-pound ranks both now and going forward.
“OSP” has been in there with a non-stop diet of Top 15 talent since arriving in the UFC after an impressive run under the Strikeforce banner and if Pedro can turn back the University of Tennessee product, it will cement his standing as a Top 10 talent and one to keep tabs in the year ahead in the light heavyweight division.
Donald Cerrone vs. Leon Edwards
“Cowboy” is that dude everybody knows and you know what to expect from him every time he sets foot inside the Octagon. One of the last true gunslingers in this sport, the proprietor of the BMF Ranch brings it no matter who he’s fighting or where he’s fighting and this headlining assignment in Singapore will be no different.
Edwards is that dude that people have been sleeping on for far too long and now he’s finally getting a real chance to make some noise.
The man from the West Midlands has won five straight, including a dominant decision victory over the dangerous and surging Vicente Luque, and he celebrated his last-second stoppage win over Peter Sobotta in London by calling out Darren Till in person. The fight obviously didn’t come together, but you’ve got to give Edwards respect for shooting his shot.
And he’ll command even more respect in the fluid welterweight ranks if he can push his winning streak to six by knocking off the ever-popular, always feisty Cerrone in his first main event assignment.
Aljamain Sterling & Henry Cejudo GET HEATED previewing…