The Ultimate Fighter
There are a few points every year where someone mentions what month it is and I look at them puzzled and wonder, “How is that possible?” This is one of those times, except for once, I know how it is that April sailed by and delivered us into May.
Even though there were only three events that took place last month, April was a non-stop thrill ride inside the Octagon, as it featured a bunch of outstanding performances, a couple major breakthrough moments and delivered the clubhouse leader for Fight of the Year. Entering the month buzzing from Justin Gaethje ending the UFC’s return to Philadelphia as only he can and with the anticipation for UFC 236 occupying the lone off week on the calendar, from there it was one entertaining event after another.
And this month works in the inverse order.
Rather than having a chance to catch your breath at the start of the month, the slate of events scheduled to hit the Octagon in May hits the ground running with a return to Ottawa, followed by a crucial pay-per-view event in Rio de Janeiro, the first event in Rochester, New York, which just might be the best card of the bunch from top to bottom, and a weekend off at the end of the to reset, spend time with friends and family and get fired up for what it sure to be an incredible summer.
April was awesome, but now it’s time to move into May.
Here’s a look at the fights that excite me the most in the month ahead.
This is The 10.
UFC Fight Night: Iaquinta vs. Cowboy — Saturday, May 4 (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada)
Cub Swanson vs. Shane Burgos
The last time Swanson fought a younger featherweight looking to make a move up the rankings at his expense in Canada, something special happened. Matched up with Dooho Choi at UFC 206, “Killer Cub” earned a unanimous decision win over “The Korean Superboy” in a fight that was immediately heralded as Fight of the Year and still stands as one of the most entertaining and exhilarating three-round affairs in UFC history.
After earning a follow-up win over Artem Lobov, Swanson has run into three of the top talents in the division — Brian Ortega, Frankie Edgar, and Renato Moicano — landing on the wrong side of the result in all three contests. Despite the uninspiring results, there is no denying Swanson’s skills or heart, as he remains one of the most well-rounded, tough outs in the featherweight ranks.
Burgos began his 2018 campaign with an entertaining back-and-forth against Calvin Kattar at UFC 220 in Boston that earned Fight of the Night honors, but saddled him with his first professional defeat. He returned in November to score a first-round submission win over Kurt Holobaugh in another thrilling affair, which is why anticipation for this one is so high.
Neither of these men is ever in a boring fight and when they get in the cage together on Saturday in Ottawa, the potential for something special to happen is quite high.
Al Iaquinta vs. Donald Cerrone
Cerrone surprised many following his win over Mike Perry in November by declaring that he was returning to lightweight with designs on making a run at the title. UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby didn’t do him any favors in his first bout back at 155 pounds either, pairing the ornery old veteran against aggressive upstart Alexander Hernandez.
In true “Cowboy” style, Cerrone broke the young colt, signaling his return to contention in the lightweight division while giving him a record-extending 22nd UFC victory.
Last year was a whirlwind for Iaquinta, who jumped into a championship fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov on one day’s notice at UFC 223 in Brooklyn and promptly held his own against the unbeaten juggernaut. Eight months later, he finally ran it back with Kevin Lee, beating “The Motown Phenom” for a second time to wrap up the UFC’s return to Milwaukee.
Now the two collide in a clash between Top 10 fixtures looking to further their respective cases for contention as business in the lightweight division really starts to pick up. Can Cerrone continue blazing a trail towards the title or will “Raging Al” score the biggest win of his career and strengthen his position in the championship chase?
UFC 237: Namajunas vs. Andrade — Saturday, May 11 (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
Jose Aldo vs. Alexander Volkanovski
Swanson-Burgos might be the first great featherweight fight on the calendar this month, but this one is certainly the biggest.
Many people entered 2018 wondering what Aldo had left in the tank after the long-time champion suffered back-to-back stoppage losses to Max Holloway in 2018. Well, the Brazilian legend answered those questions with a resounding “Plenty!” by posting consecutive stoppage wins over Jeremy Stephens and Renato Moicano, earning a Performance of the Night bonus each time.
Although Israel Adesanya commanded a great deal of attention last year, “The Last Stylebender” wasn’t the only fighter representing the Oceanic region to turn in a memorable 2018 campaign, as Volkanovski posted a 3-0 mark consisting of handing Jeremy Kennedy his first loss, brutalizing Darren Elkins and battering Chad Mendes.
Now the former rugby standout gets a chance to prove he should be first in line to challenge Holloway for the featherweight title whenever “Blessed” is ready to get back down to business by becoming only the third fighter to defeat Aldo inside the Octagon. But as the long-time titleholder proved last year, that’s far easier said than done.
This one should be fireworks from the word “GO!”
Jared Cannonier vs. Anderson Silva
Cannonier’s transformation from undersized heavyweight to intriguing middleweight dark horse has been nothing short of incredible, as he arrived in the 185-pound weight class last November and promptly knocked out David Branch. As an encore, he’s venturing to Rio to take on the greatest fighter in the history of the division.
Silva returned from a two-year hiatus in February, dropping a unanimous decision to Adesanya in a tense, close fight where the long-time champion showed he’s still capable of hanging with the division’s elite. Though he’s registered just a single victory in the last five years, would anyone really be surprised if “The Spider” returned to Rio and delivered a gem against the dangerous Cannonier?
The top of the middleweight division is currently undergoing renovations and this is a prime opportunity for the 35-year-old divisional newcomer to make his case for title contention by collecting an emphatic win. At the same time, fighting in Brazil for the first time in more than five years, this just might be the moment Silva turns back the clock and delivers a virtuoso performance in front of what is sure to be a vocal, partisan crowd in Rio.
Rose Namajunas vs. Jessica Andrade for the UFC strawweight title
This fight has the potential to go in so many different directions and every one of them is intriguing, which is why this fight is easily the bout I’m most looking forward to this month. Even without the strawweight title hanging in the balance, the dynamics of Namajunas and Andrade facing off against one another are incredible and this one could be an absolute classic.
Strange as this may sound to some, I don’t think we’ve made a big enough deal about what Namajunas has done over her last three fights. She absolutely demolished Michelle Waterson to earn a title shot and then shocked just about everyone by dethroning Joanna Jedrzejczyk with a masterful effort at UFC 217. Five months later, she rallied in the fifth round of her rematch with the Polish standout to successfully defend her title.
The 26-year-old titleholder has blossomed into the all-around dynamo everyone envisioned when she first ventured into the professional ranks and could very well be in the early stages of an incredible run atop the 115-pound ranks.
When these two hit the cage in Rio, it will have been 103 weeks since Andrade unsuccessfully challenged Jedrzejczyk for the strawweight title at UFC 211 in Dallas, Texas. Though she was aggressive throughout, Andrade was never able to truly threaten the champion and was saddled with her first loss since relocating to the division following her seven-fight stint at bantamweight.
Since then, the powerful Parana Vale Tudo representative has laid the blueprint for how to go about earning another title shot in a relatively short amount of time. First she trucked Claudia Gadelha in Japan before venturing to Florida and outworking Tecia Torres and wrapping up her 2018 campaign by returning to the scene of her loss to Jedrzejczyk and knocking out Karolina Kowalkiewicz.
This is an incredibly compelling matchup that has the potential to be as thrilling as last month’s twin interim title fights.
UFC Fight Night: Dos Anjos vs. Lee — Saturday, May 18 (Rochester, New York)
Antonio Carlos Junior vs. Ian Heinisch
Remember when I said earlier that the top of the middleweight division is undergoing renovations? The truth is that the whole division is under construction and this one will factor into how everything gets laid out heading into the second half of the year as well.
Since suffering a third-round TKO loss to Dan Kelly in March 2016, Carlos Junior has rattled off five straight victories and enters this one having earned three straight submission wins. The world champion grappling ace has finally figured out that his best path to victory (and potentially championship success) is by doing a Demian Maia impression and I mean that in the most reverential way possible.
When you have world-class grappling skills, as both Maia and “ACJ” do, everything is about getting inside and getting your hands on people and since the former TUF winner has committed to grappling almost exclusively, his results have been amazing.
Heinisch is another one of the 2018 newcomers whose immediate success in the Octagon kind of flew under the radar because of the big years turned in by several other first-year fighters.
Following an impressive showing on the Contender Series, “The Hurricane” ventured to Argentina on short notice and picked up a unanimous decision win over Cezar Ferreira in his first Octagon appearance. Now riding a four-fight winning streak, the Factory X representative looks to make it five straight by turning back another talented Brazilian middleweight in a contest that should propel the winner further up the Top 15.
Megan Anderson vs. Felicia Spencer
This clash between the last two women to wear the Invicta FC featherweight title could very well carry title implications as Anderson welcomes the undefeated Spencer to the Octagon for the very first time.
After dropping her long-awaited debut at UFC 225 in June to Holly Holm, Anderson rebounded with a first-round stoppage win over Cat Zingano in December. Unfortunately for the talented Aussie, the conclusion of the bout was somewhat anticlimactic as Zingano suffered an eye injury and was unable to continue.
Now, the injury occurred because Anderson kicked Zingano in the face, with her toe catching the former bantamweight title challenger in the eye, but it still left many, including Anderson in all likelihood, feeling a little unsatisfied.
Spencer arrives in the UFC on a six-fight winning streak and fresh off a championship win over Pam Sorenson at Invicta FC 32 last November. The Montreal-born, Orlando-based math teacher is a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and has earned three of her last four victories by way of submission. Like Anderson, the unbeaten “Feenom” is a true featherweight and now she gets the opportunity to challenge herself against one of the top 145-pound fighters on the planet.
Regardless of whether it’s a title eliminator or not, this one should answer the myriad questions that remain about Anderson and provide a clear picture about where Spencer fits within the featherweight division.
Aspen Ladd vs. Sijara Eubanks
Ladd might have had the most low-key eye-opening performance of the year in 2018 as she waltzed into UFC 229 and completely dismantled former Invicta FC bantamweight titleholder Tonya Evinger. It was the kind of lopsided beatdown that traditionally would have been talked about for days on end coming out of the October pay-per-view event, but unfortunately, a couple much bigger stories developed later in the evening and the 24-year-old’s breakout victory kind of got forgotten.
Now, after having a fight with Holly Holm come apart at the seams just a month before it was supposed to take place, the undefeated rising star is scheduled to face Eubanks for a second time as the former TUF finalist makes her debut in the 135-pound weight class.
Eubanks’ UFC career has thus far consisted of strong performances and struggles on the scale, as she missed out on the opportunity to fight for the flyweight title after being hospitalized with kidney issues the night before her bout with Nicco Montano. After registering a victory over Lauren Murphy in her promotional debut without any issues, “SarJ” came in above the flyweight limit for her bout with Roxanne Modafferi at UFC 230.
Although she won the fight rather handily, her days of fighting at 125 pounds are now officially behind her as the Mark Henry trainee now bumps up to bantamweight looking to avenge her January 2017 loss to Ladd. If she manages to knock off the unbeaten rising star, Eubanks will usurp her place in the rankings and immediately insert herself in the title conversation at 135 pounds.
Neil Magny vs. Vicente Luque
Look, if you’re not fully onboard the Luque bandwagon after what he and Bryan Barberena delivered earlier this year in the Phoenix desert, I don’t know what to tell you. Prior to last month’s interim middleweight title fight, it was the runaway leader in the Fight of the Year conversation and the fact that Luque closed it out by putting away “Bam Bam” in the closing seconds only made it that much more awesome.
The Brazilian has now won four straight and eight of his last nine, all by stoppage, with his only loss coming against divisional rising star Leon Edwards. He’s as dangerous on the ground as he is on the feet and showed his toughness and tenacity last time out against Barberena, so it really would surprise me if anyone who considers themselves a fight fan wasn’t absolutely geeked about getting to see him return to action later this month.
What adds to the excitement is that he’s returning against Magny, a Top 15 fixture who has settled into a role as the welterweight division’s version of the guy holding the clipboard out front of the VIP. In order to be considered a true contender, you’ve got to get through Magny, who has gone 13-4 since beginning his UFC career with a 1-2 record.
The Elevation Fight Team member landed on the wrong side of a fourth-round knockout last time out against Santiago Ponzinibbio in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but he hasn’t lost consecutive contests since those early UFC setbacks against Sergio Moraes and Seth Baczynski and has a wealth of top-end experience to draw upon as he welcomes Luque to the next level of competition in the 170-pound weight class
Rafael Dos Anjos vs. Kevin Lee
Even though both of these men enter their main event matchup in Rochester coming off losses, there is a ton of stuff about this fight that intrigues me.
It has been a tale of two streaks for Dos Anjos since moving to welterweight: first, he rattled off three straight wins and looked like a potentially dominant new addition, but since then, he’s dropped back-to-back outings where he’s been manhandled by powerhouse wrestlers. Of course, those wrestlers are Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington, so it’s not like he’s gotten beaten by scrubs.
In addition to wanting to find out if he can dial it up again and return to his 2017 form, it will be interesting to see how Lee handles the move to welterweight as the long-time lightweight and vocal advocate for a 165-pound weight class ventures to the 170-pound ranks after dropping a unanimous decision to Al Iaquinta at the end of last year.
How much have his struggles to make the 155-pound limit impacted his performances? Will competing at welterweight unlock a new gear for the talented Detroit native? Can he make an immediate splash by scoring a win over a Top 10 staple like Dos Anjos or will the Brazilian veteran put Lee on the first two-fight losing streak of his career?
So many questions and so many days to wait until I can get any answers; at least there are a ton of entertaining fights between now and then to tide me over.