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The 10 Most Intriguing Matchups of the Month Ahead

 

Following an eventful month of April, the action inside the Octagon in May goes international, as the UFC delivers a trio of events, all of which take place outside the United States.

In addition to next week’s return to Rio de Janeiro, the month ahead also features the first UFC fight cards in Santiago, Chile and Liverpool, England, with all three events offering an assortment of compelling matchups and the opportunity to see emerging talents continue to prove themselves inside the UFC cage.

Here’s a look at the key fights to keep tabs on in the coming weeks.

This is The 10 for May 2018.

UFC 224: Nunes vs. Pennington – Saturday, May 12 (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)

Vitor Belfort vs. Lyoto Machida

The final bout in Belfort’s legendary career is also an opportunity for Machida to continue his comeback in the middleweight ranks and a chance for Brazilian fans to watch two of the top competitors from the host nation over the last decade compete against one another for the very first time.

Machida returned to the win column back in February with a hard-fought split decision victory over Eryk Anders. After getting stopped quickly by Derek Brunson in his previous bout, “The Dragon” looked far more comfortable in his second bout following a two-year layoff and believes he still has what it takes to make a run at the middleweight title.

After much speculation, Belfort announced he would be walking away from the sport following his January bout with Uriah Hall, but the fight was scratched from the card at the 11th hour and now “The Phenom” gets to say his goodbyes in front of his adoring fans in Rio de Janeiro.

John Lineker vs. Brian Kelleher

Business has been picking up in the bantamweight division in recent weeks and this contest should have a significant impact on how things shake out in the Top 10 in the second half of the year.

Lineker has produced a 4-1 record since moving up to the 135-pound weight class and is 11-3 overall inside the Octagon. Currently stationed at No. 6 in the rankings, the Brazilian powerhouse holds notable wins over Rob Font and John Dodson, while his only setback in the division came against current champ TJ Dillashaw.

From the time he was signed, Kelleher has made it clear that he wants to be champion and will fight whomever it takes to help him accomplish that goal. In his first year on the roster, “Boom” has shared the cage with Iuri Alcantara, Marlon Vera, Damian Stasiak and Renan Barao, posting a 3-1 mark with a pair of stoppages.

With several key fights already on the calendar in the next few months and Aljamain Sterling coming off a crucial conquest a couple weeks back, both Lineker and Kelleher need a win in order to land a marquee matchup later this summer and potentially position themselves in the Top 5 by the end of the year.

Mackenzie Dern vs. Amanda Cooper

Ask and you shall receive.

Following her debut win over Ashley Yoder at UFC 222, Dern voiced her desire to take part in the festivities in Rio and the organization obliged, pairing the rising star off with the underrated Cooper in the middle of the UFC 224 Pay-Per-View main card.

This is a quick turnaround for Dern, a decorated Brazilian jiu-jitsu player considered to be one of the top prospects in the sport, and while she sports a perfect 6-0 mark to start her career, Cooper represents a step up in competition for the 24-year-old upstart as well.

Last time out, the former TUF finalist earned a quick submission win over Angela Magana and though she’s just 3-3 in her professional career, each of those losses have come against an elite prospect – Aspen Ladd, Tatiana Suarez and Cynthia Calvillo.

Will that trend continue in Rio or will Cooper hand Dern her first professional loss?

Ronaldo Souza vs. Kelvin Gastelum

While the focus of the division is on the impending championship rematch between Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero slated to headline UFC 225 next month in Chicago, this contest could determine who will be the first to challenge the future undisputed champion for the middleweight title.

Gastelum enters off his first-round knockout win over former champ Michael Bisping in Shanghai last September, a performance that built upon the strong foundation of efforts the one-time TUF winner has turned in since moving to the middleweight ranks. Souza arrives following a similarly impressive showing earlier this year on FOX, where he returned from a lengthy hiatus to stop Derek Brunson and pick up his third Performance of the Night bonus in his last four fights.

Souza has been close to title contention for a number of years without yet having a chance to challenge for the title, while Gastelum was tabbed for greatness coming off Season 18 of The Ultimate Fighter and has never been closer to fighting for UFC gold. There are never any guarantees, but with Luke Rockhold and Chris Weidman currently out of the picture, it’s conceivable that the winner of this one could emerge as the No. 1 contender in the 185-pound weight class.

Amanda Nunes vs. Raquel Pennington for the UFC women’s bantamweight title

After retaining her title in a thriller opposite Valentina Shevchenko back in September, Nunes returns to the cage in search of her third successful title defense in a main event assignment in her native Brazil.

Over the course of her title reign, Nunes has not only shown her punishing power, but also that she’s growing as a fighter. She was more conservative and measured in her second bout with Shevchenko, cognizant of the 25-minute time limit and keen to avoid the sluggish shift of momentum that made their first encounter so close and its follow-up so anticipated.

Following a 2-2 start to her UFC career, Pennington has found her footing in recent years, rattling off four straight victories to emerge as one of the top contenders in the division. Last time out, the Colorado native dominated Miesha Tate in what turned out to the final bout of the former titleholder’s career.

Can she turn in a comparable effort and claim the women’s bantamweight title or will Nunes extend her winning streak to seven and maintain her place atop the 135-pound weight class?

UFC Fight Night: Maia vs. Usman – Saturday, May 19 (Santiago, Chile)

Brandon Moreno vs. Alexandre Pantoja

Ray Borg was originally scheduled to face Moreno in a bout that was postponed from UFC 223, but was forced to withdraw due to ongoing medical issues with his newborn son. Please keep Borg and his family in your thoughts during this extremely difficult time.

Talented flyweights looking to get back in the win column clash in this preliminary card gem.

Moreno had his 11-fight winning streak snapped by Sergio Pettis last August in his native Mexico, while Pantoja’s similar run of success was halted by Dustin Ortiz at UFC 220 at the start of the year.

Still just 24, Moreno remains a work-in-progress, but possesses the potential to make major strides between each appearance. Far more seasoned and four years his senior, Pantoja is a polished veteran and a considerable litmus test for the plucky Mexican prospect.

Both men are stationed inside the Top 15, but have some ground to make up before challenging for the title and the road to contention begins here.

Jared Cannonier vs. Dominick Reyes

There have been a handful of new names working their way up the light heavyweight roster in recent months and this pairing is an opportunity for both Cannonier and Reyes to make their case for inclusion in that group.

A powerhouse that used to compete at heavyweight, Cannonier has alternated wins and losses since dropping to the 205-pound ranks, but his setbacks have come against veteran contender Glover Teixeira and the surging Jan Blachowicz.

Following a viral knockout on the regional circuit, Reyes has arrived in the UFC and continued dropping opponents in quick fashion. He iced Joachim Christensen in 29 seconds to win his debut and followed it up with a submission win over Jeremy Kimball in his sophomore appearance at UFC 218.

Will the undefeated former NFL hopeful keep rolling and emerge as one of the top up-and-coming talents in the light heavyweight division or will the more tested veteran show that he’s the knockout artist of note in this pairing and the one to watch going forward?

Alexa Grasso vs. Tatiana Suarez

Two of the top prospects on the female side of the roster square off in this co-main event attraction.

After arriving in the UFC with an 8-0 record and tons of buzz, Grasso has posted a 2-1 mark in her first three Octagon appearances, sandwiching victories over Heather Jo Clark and Randa Markos around a unanimous decision loss to Felice Herrig. The 24-year-old was a high output striker who pressured opponents during her days competing under the Invicta FC banner and if she can get back to that form, Grasso has a chance to make a rapid climb in the strawweight rankings.

A former Olympic hopeful and two-time bronze medalist in freestyle wrestling at the World Championships, Suarez has the potential to be a force in the 115-pound weight class. She made quick work of Amanda Cooper to win the strawweight tournament on Season 23 of The Ultimate Fighter and bounced Viviane Pereira from the ranks of the unbeaten last time out with little resistance.

With the division now under the rule of Rose Namajunas and the lower two-thirds of the rankings being wide open, this is an opportunity for one of these women – and perhaps both – to make a statement and establish themselves as future contenders worth tracking at strawweight.

Demian Maia vs. Kamaru Usman

With all due respect to the surging Santiago Ponzinibbio, who has won six straight and was scheduled to headline opposite Usman before getting injured, this feels like a much more compelling test for “The Nigerian Nightmare.”

Maia is as experienced as they come, having fought for both the middleweight and welterweight titles and who is one victory behind Georges St-Pierre, Donald Cerrone and Michael Bisping on the list of fighters with the most victories in UFC history. He’s been in the Octagon with some of the top talents at both 170 and 185 pounds over his 10-year UFC career and is still more than capable of making an impressive winning streak come to a screeching halt with his smothering submission game.

That’s what makes this such a compelling short-notice matchup for Usman, who is a perfect 7-0 in the Octagon and riding an 11-fight winning streak overall. A suffocating wrestler with more pop in his hands than people recognize, the 31-year-old former TUF winner needs a signature victory to graduate from fringe contender to legitimate title threat and beating Maia will get him there quicker than getting the better of Ponzinibbio would have.

Now he’s just got to stride into the cage and do it, which is much easier said than done.

UFC Fight Night: Thompson vs. Till – Sunday, May 27 (Liverpool, England)

Stephen Thompson vs. Darren Till

Less than one month 'til the pride of Liverpool returns. @DarrenTill2 #UFCLiverpool pic.twitter.com/MSoppDMaJJ
— UFC (@ufc) April 30, 2018

Man, is the Echo Arena going to be lit for this one.

Actually, the Echo Arena is going to be lit from the jump, but once Liverpool’s own starts to make the walk to the Octagon, expect things to get extra raucous inside the host venue.

Till stands as a giant, intriguing question mark in the welterweight division. A massive specimen for the 170-pound ranks, the hometown favorite is coming off a blistering first-round knockout win over Donald Cerrone last fall and blessed with the ability to cut a quality promo in both English and Portuguese, with a Scouser twang attached to both. He’s one win away from being a legitimate contender and is already a burgeoning star, so this headlining assignment in his hometown is a chance for the 25-year-old to ascend to the next level in front of an uproarious, partisan crowd.

All that stands between Till and title contention is one of the top welterweights in the world; a two-time title challenger with an unpredictable style and plenty of ways to finish a fight.

Thompson bounced back from his dual appearances against Tyron Woodley with a quality win over Jorge Masvidal in November, and he represents a considerable jump up in competition for Till. He’s been in there with only the elite in recent years and while a title shot might not be in his immediate future, “Wonderboy” can play spoiler and dash Till’s dreams for the time being and cement his standing as a force in the division with a road victory in this one.