April represents the kick-off to the “Unstoppable” collection of events scheduled to grace the Octagon over the next several months, and checking out the assortment of fights on deck in the month ahead, that title seems rather apt.
Over the course of three consecutive weekends, the UFC will deliver a trio of events on three different platforms – FOX Sports 1, FOX and Pay-Per-View – where each card offers bouts that will have a significant impact on divisional rankings and should deliver plenty of action to sit back and enjoy.
Here’s a look at some of the most important and intriguing fights on tap for the month ahead.
This is The 10.
UFC Fight Night: Rothwell vs. dos Santos (April 10 – Zagreb, Croatia)
Gabriel Gonzaga vs. Derrick Lewis
On a fight card loaded with heavyweight action, the penultimate fight of the night features a former title challenger looking to build some momentum and make one more push towards the Top 10 squaring off with a punishing finisher that is creeping towards cracking the Top 15.
Gonzaga has been up-and-down since returning to the Octagon with a win over Ednaldo Oliveira at UFC 142. He submitted current contender – and one of the men headlining this show - Ben Rothwell, but dropped three straight prior to righting the ship against Konstantin Erokhin in December. As for Lewis, the Houston-based knockout artist has earned consecutive wins over Viktor Pesta and Damian Grabowski and takes this step up in competition on short notice, tagging in for the injured Ruslan Magomedov.
“The Beast” has faltered in his first two attempts to climb to the next level in the heavyweight hierarchy and Gonzaga is no pushover. Will the upstart keep rolling or does the savvy veteran halt his climb?
Ben Rothwell vs. Junior Dos Santos
You have to love Rothwell’s approach these days. Fresh off becoming the first man to submit Josh Barnett inside the cage, “Big Ben” quickly signed on the dotted line to meet former heavyweight champion Dos Santos in the main event of this debut show in Croatia. His thinking? Everyone else is booked, so keep knocking off major names and I can’t be denied.
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While Rothwell is rolling, “Cigano” is looking to right the ship. The Brazilian contender is coming off a second-round TKO loss to Alistair Overeem and is making his quickest return to action (four months) in quite some time. Jumping in with Rothwell while he’s in the midst of an impressive run is a gutsy move on Dos Santos’ part, but bringing his winning streak to an end is the fastest way for the ex-titleholder to get back into the championship hunt himself.
UFC on FOX: Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson (April 16 – Tampa, Florida)
Beneil Dariush vs. Michael Chiesa
The preliminary card headliner for the UFC’s return to FOX is an outstanding matchup between lightweight contenders looking to continue their ascent up the divisional ladder.
Dariush has won five straight since suffering the lone setback of his career two years ago in Abu Dhabi. While his most recent victory was a debated split decision win over Michael Johnson, there is no denying that the Kings MMA product has become a legitimate player in the 155-pound title chase with his slick grappling and steadily improving hands.
Heading into his bout with Jim Miller back in December, Chiesa told everyone that by the end of 2016, he would be a Top 5 lightweight and a victory over Dariush would certainly bring him closer to accomplishing that goal. The TUF 15 winner is lightning quick at lacing up chokes and has shown an increased sense of urgency and ferocity since losing to Joe Lauzon by doctor stoppage in September 2014.
With things at the top of the division currently unsettled, the winner of this one could find themselves with a marquee matchup carrying serious stakes the next time out.
Rose Namajunas vs. Tecia Torres
A pairing of Top 5 strawweights that also happens to be a rematch? This is one you’re not going to want to miss.
After making a submission-filled surprise run to the championship finals on Season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter, Namajunas has bounced back from her loss to Carla Esparza with back-to-back dominant efforts against Angela Hill and Paige VanZant. Overshadowed by “12 Gauge” heading into their December encounter, the Trevor Wittman protégé made her case for being the young upstart in the 115-pound division everyone should be keeping their eye on.
That probably doesn’t sit too well with Torres, who picked up a unanimous decision win over Namajunas when the pair were competing under the Invicta FC banner. After losing to Esparza in the quarterfinals on TUF, the American Top Team product has maintained her unbeaten professional record with decision wins over Angela Magana, Hill, and Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger.
With champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk set to defend her title against No. 1 contender Claudia Gadelha in July, the winner of this one could emerge as next in line to challenge for the strawweight title later in the year.
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson
Returning to action for the first time in two years, Nurmagomedov dives right back into the deep end of things in the lightweight division by facing the hottest man in the 155-pound ranks, Ferguson, who has rattled off seven consecutive victories heading into this one.
Many believe that if not for the series of injuries that have kept him sidelined for the last 24 months, Nurmagomedov might already be the UFC lightweight champion. He holds a convincing win over the reigning champ Rafael dos Anjos and has one of the most suffocating grappling games in the sport. Add in striking that has continually gotten better since his UFC debut and it’s easy to see why people feel that way.
Of course, Ferguson has other thoughts. “El Cucuy” has been one of the most impressive fighters in the UFC over the last two-plus years, collecting wins over Danny Castillo, Abel Trujillo and, most recently, a slick submission finish of Edson Barboza back in December. With his rangy striking and devil may care approach to hunting out entries and submission opportunities, Ferguson has become one of the most dangerous fighters in a division filled with elite competitors.
UFC 197: Jones vs. Saint Preux (April 23 – Las Vegas, Nevada)
Yair Rodriguez vs. Andre Fili
The main card of this month’s Pay-Per-View kicks off with a battle of prospects in the featherweight division, with TUF Latin America winner Rodriguez locking up with Team Alpha Male’s Fili in what should be an entertaining scrap.
With five straight victories, the 23-year-old Rodriguez is near the top of prospect lists throughout the MMA community because of his creative striking and incredible upside. Working with coaches Izzy Martinez and Mike Valle in Chicago, the Mexican up-and-comer can take another step forward in his development with a victory over Fili in his Las Vegas debut.
Through his first five UFC appearances, Fili has alternated wins and losses, most recently picking up a first-round stoppage over Gabriel Benitez that earned him a Performance of the Night bonus back in November. The 25-year-old has been earning rave reviews from the coaching staff at Team Alpha Male as the make-up of that group shifts, and this is a prime opportunity for the man who reps for the outcasts and underdogs to propel himself up the rankings with a second straight impressive outing.
Anthony Pettis vs. Edson Barboza
Thinking about this matchup conjures thoughts of rapid-fire kicks, spinning attacks and your favorite fighting game coming to life inside the Octagon.
Pettis enters having lost back-to-back fights for the first time in his career. The first cost him the lightweight title and the second, to Eddie Alvarez in January, knocked him out of position to potentially challenge for the title in the immediate future. At his best when he’s moving forward and initiating the action, “Showtime” hasn’t lived up to his moniker in his last two efforts and needs to get back to being an electric offensive fighter or else he’s going to get swallowed up by the crush of competitors working their way up the 155-pound ranks.
Always entertaining, Barboza comes in off a Fight of the Night loss to Tony Ferguson in December that earned him a ton of positive reviews despite the less than desired result. Owner of perhaps the most lethal leg kicks in the game, the Brazilian striker has the speed and flash to go shot-for-shot with Pettis, and a victory over the former champion will further solidify his place in the Top 10 and position him for another massive fight later in the year.
If you’re looking for potential Fight of the Night winners from UFC 197, this might be your best bet.
Demetrious Johnson vs. Henry Cejudo for the UFC flyweight title
Overlooked in all the hype surrounding the grudge match main event for this show is Johnson’s return to the cage in search of his eighth straight successful title defense when he takes on the unbeaten Olympic gold medalist Cejudo in the co-main event.
“Mighty Mouse” might be the most complete, technically sound fighter in the sport today. It’s the result of focused, intense training under “The Wizard,” Matt Hume, and Johnson’s work ethic and natural athletic abilities. He’s successfully turned back every challenger he’s faced in the flyweight ranks in a series of near-flawless performances that cement the one and only champion the division has known as one of the elite talents in the sport today.
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Cejudo has made steady progress up the rankings with wins over Chris Cariaso, Chico Camus and Jussier Formiga carrying him to this championship opportunity. The youngest American wrestler to ever claim Olympic gold, “The Messenger” believes he’ll be the one to unseat Johnson from the flyweight throne and add “UFC champion” to his long list of career combat sports accomplishments.
This should be an entertaining chess match from the outset, with Johnson cutting angles and attacking with speed as Cejudo looks to corral him and land hands. Will a new champion be crowned or will Johnson’s reign continue?
Jon Jones vs. Ovince Saint Preux for the interim UFC light heavyweight title
In the wake of Daniel Cormier going down with a knee injury, the UFC quickly pivoted to fill the void atop this month's Pay-Per-View event in Las Vegas, putting together an interim title fight between Jones and emerging contender Ovince Saint Preux.
Jones made it clear right away that he wanted to remain on this card, wishing his rival Cormier a speedy recovery before informing the organization that whether it was another light heavyweight or a first-time venture into the heavyweight ranks, "Bones" wanted to bring his lengthy absence from the Octagon to a close. The former champion hasn't competed since besting Cormier in their first encounter at UFC 182 last January, but with the majority of his camp for this April 23 date already complete, the 28-year-old standout didn't want to have to go back to sitting on the sidelines.
For Saint Preux, this is his opportunity to prove he is one of the best fighters in the 205-pound ranks, jumping into a championship clash with roughly two weeks to prepare before shipping off to Sin City. The Knoxville-based competitor's awkward style and all-around skill set is troublesome to prepare for on a full camp and could serve him well in this short notice setting. Fresh off a one-sided decision win over former Strikeforce champ Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante in February, "OSP" quickly threw his hat into the ring when Cormier fell out and in a couple weeks time, he gets the chance to cash a lottery ticket.
With Cormier's recovery timeline currently unknown, adding an interim title into the mix and setting up a title unification scrap somewhere down the line makes sense; it keeps the bout in the spotlight, keeps the division moving forward and ups the ante on Cormier's eventual return.