The first of four February events takes place this weekend at the UFC APEX, headlined by a battle between Top 10 middleweights Jack Hermansson and Sean Strickland, with a host of emerging talents joining them on the card.
You’re going to hear this a lot from me over the next 11 months of this series, but Saturday’s event is the type of card you need to be paying attention to if you want to familiarize yourself with some of the top up-and-coming talents in a couple key divisions.
While Hermansson and Strickland are already in the mix in the 185-pound weight class — and the winner will be in even greater position heading into next weekend’s championship fight — there are more than a couple athletes poised to make the walk this weekend with real promise and Top 15 tenures in their future.
Here’s a closer look at all the pairings slated to touch down inside the Octagon on Saturday.
Jack Hermansson vs Sean Strickland
Jack Hermansson looks for a second straight victory, while Sean Strickland looks to extend his winning streak to six in this clash of middleweight contenders.
A fixture in the Top 10 for the last couple years, Hermansson has stumbled in previous opportunities to add his name to the short list of fresh title contenders in the 185-pound weight class. He rallied to collect a unanimous decision win over Edmen Shahbazyan in his lone appearance of 2021 and hopes an early start to his 2022 campaign and a win over Strickland can propel him to greater and more frequent opportunities later in the year.
Strickland spent two years on the sidelines following an ugly motorcycle accident that required him to have major knee surgery. Since coming back, the 30-year-old has posted four straight victories, moving his middleweight record to 19-0 while establishing himself as a dark horse contender in the division.
This should be an interesting clash of styles, as Hermansson brings a more complete skill set with more of a grappling focus, where Strickland prefers standup engagements where he’s able to dictate the pace and suffocate opponents with volume. This is a massive fight for each man as they look to earn a statement victory just a week prior to Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker running it back, so expect both Hermansson and Strickland to come out sharp and Saturday’s finale to be outstanding, no matter how it plays out.
Punahele Soriano vs Nick Maximov
While the main event features ranked fighters looking to make a push towards title contention, the penultimate fight on the card pits middleweight hopefuls who first gained exposure on Dana White’s Contender Series facing off in a critical spotlight opportunity, as Punahele Soriano takes on Nick Maximov.
A member of the DWCS Class of ’19, Soriano earned first-round stoppage wins in each of his first two UFC appearances to run his record to 8-0. The Xtreme Couture representative suffered the first loss of his career last July in a showdown with fellow DWCS alum Brendan Allen, and will look to get things moving in the right direction again when he makes his 2022 debut on Saturday.
Maximov appeared on Season 4 of Dana White’s Contender Series, registering a unanimous decision win over Oscar Cota in a bout contested at heavyweight. While he didn’t earn a contract, the Nick Diaz Academy representative made an impression, and was brought into the fold last fall, where he outlasted Cody Brundage in a grueling battle at UFC 266 at T-Mobile Arena.
Fights like this are always intriguing, as each man has flashed promise, while also still having plenty of room to improve, giving this a “who will have improved more since their last appearance?” kind of vibe, leading many to wonder who will win this battle of promising talents from respected teams?
Shavkat Rakhmonov vs Carlston Harris
Surging welterweights meet in this highly competitive, tremendously intriguing clash between Shavkat Rakhmonov and Carlston Harris.
The 27-year-old Rakhmonov is one of the top prospects in the sport. Unbeaten in 14 appearances, “Nomad” has earned submission wins over Brazilian veterans Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira and Michel Prazeres in his first two UFC appearances, and has the size, reach, skills, and intangibles to be a force in the division in the not too distant future.
Harris quietly enjoyed an impressive rookie season in 2021, earning first-round stoppage wins over Christian Aguilera and Impa Kasanganay to push his overall winning streak to five. A native of Guyana and fighting out of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the 34-year-old has won nine of his last 10 appearances, and profiles as the kind of experienced, dangerous veteran that could be a problematic matchup for anyone looking to scale the welterweight ranks at his expense.
Can Rakhmonov continue making quick work of quality veterans or will Harris hand the streaking prospect the first loss of his career?
Sam Alvey vs Brendan Allen
This middleweight-turned-light heavyweight matchups sees veteran Sam Alvey square off with Brendan Allen.
Alvey is one of the last of a dying breed — a 51-fight veteran who cut his teeth competing wherever he could book a fight before finally landing in the UFC midway through 2014. Since then, the 35-year-old former Ultimate Fighter contestant has logged 22 appearances inside the Octagon, facing every challenge head-on and serving as a tough out for just about everyone he’s stood opposite over the years.
Allen had won six of his seven total UFC appearances heading into his final showing of 2021, boasting finishes over Tom Breese, Kevin Holland and Karl Roberson and decision wins over Kyle Daukaus and Punahele Soriano. A second-round knockout loss to Chris Curtis in December might've halted Allen's momentum, but "All In" is clearly ready to right that wrong, as he steps in on less than a week's notice to replace Phil Hawes in what will now be a light heavyweight bout.
Allen, looking to bounce back from a his second UFC loss in a fight which would've made a strong case for him cracking the Top 15, will be looking to show that he's able to deal with adversity in the Octagon. Alvey may be without a victory in his last seven appearances, but he’s someone that is going to be in Allen’s face from the outset and has exhibited the kind of resiliency and pop needed to pull the upset this weekend.
Tresean Gore vs Bryan Battle
A knee injury forced Tresean Gore out of the middleweight finals on Season 29 of The Ultimate Fighter, but this weekend, he’ll square off with the man he was supposed to face last August, Team Volkanovski standout and tournament winner Bryan Battle.
Gore stood out as one of the more intriguing prospects on The Return of The Ultimate Fighter, showing a well-rounded skill set and the kind of humble, coachable approach you like to see from competitors early in their careers. This is a solid step up in competition for him and debuting on the big stage can always be tricky, but the fact that this is not a featured bout might make things easier for the UFC newcomer.
Battle completed his Kelvin Gastelum-esque march through the middleweight competition in August, turning back teammate Gilbert Urbina by rear-naked choke in the second round add his name to the list of Ultimate Fighter winners. The 27-year-old looked like a diamond in the rough during the season, fought through a rough start against Urbina, and has a chance to really establish himself as a person of interest in the 185-pound weight class with a quality effort against Gore on Saturday.
It’s always unfortunate when injuries alter TUF finals and change the complexion of the competition, but these two were looking forward to throwing down and asserting their dominance before Gore was forced out and it shouldn’t be any different this weekend.
Julian Erosa vs Steven Peterson
Veteran featherweights get the main card started as Julian Erosa squares off with Steven Peterson in what should be an all-action affair for as long as it lasts.
Erosa has been a model of perseverance throughout his career, finally finding success inside the Octagon during his third stint on the roster. The former Ultimate Fighter contestant fought three times in 2021, knocking out Nate Landwehr in 56 seconds before getting knocked out in less than two minutes by SeungWoo Choi and then closing out his campaign with a third-round submission win over Charles Jourdain, giving him three wins his last four UFC appearances and stoppages in 23 of his 26 career victories.
A member of the Fortis MMA team, Peterson also struggled upon first arriving in the UFC, landing on the wrong side of the results in three of his first four outings. But after collecting a second-round knockout win over Martin Bravo in September 2019, “Ocho” returned to action last June and added a second consecutive win to his resume, out-hustling Chase Hooper at UFC 263.
Miles Johns vs John Castaneda
Bantamweights do battle in the final preliminary card fight of the evening as Miles “Chapo” Johns goes searching for his third straight victory against 30-year-old “Sexi Mexi” John Castaneda.
A teammate of Peterson’s at Fortis MMA in Dallas, Johns has rebounded from the first loss of his career with consecutive third-round finishes, most recently stopping Anderson dos Santos at UFC 265 in August. The 27-year-old was a standout on the regional circuit on the way to the UFC, earning a split decision win over Adrian Yanez in a five-round championship fight under the LFA banner, and appears to be settling into the same form now that he’s a few fights into his UFC tenure.
Castaneda appeared on the first season of Dana White’s Contender Series, registering a unanimous decision win over Cheyden Leialoha, but walking away without a contract. The win put him on the UFC’s radar and resulted in a call to the Octagon a couple years later. After losing his debut opposite Nathaniel Wood, Castaneda entered the win column with a first-round stoppage victory over Eddie Wineland last time out.
Both of these bantamweights like to get after it, and with the division at a point where it has never been deeper or more competitive, each heads towards Saturday’s contest knowing the kind of quality effort it’s going to take in order to keep making headway in the loaded 135-pound weight class.
Hakeem Dawodu vs Michael Trizano
Featherweights stationed just outside the Top 15 meet here as Hakeem Dawodu looks to get back into the win column, while Michael Trizano aims to post a second straight victory when the two meet on Saturday.
Dawodu rattled off five straight victories following his inauspicious promotional debut, establishing himself as an intriguing emerging name in the 145-pound weight class. He ran into Russian buzzsaw Movsar Evloev last time out, but gets the opportunity to address any questions there may be about his takedown defense and ability to contend with grapplers this weekend as he hustles in opposite Trizano.
The winner of the lightweight competition on Season 27 of The Ultimate Fighter, Trizano returned following nearly two years on the sidelines last May, registering a unanimous decision win over Ludovit Klein. A member of the Team Tiger Schulmann crew, the 30-year-old “Lone Wolf” is a relentless grinder who has steadily worked to improve his striking, and the kind of solid all-around competitor that will be a test for Dawodu and anyone else looking to move passed him in the division.
This one profiles as a classic “Striker vs. Grappler” battle as Dawodu comes from a Muay Thai background and Trizano prefers to wrestle, so it should come down to who can force the other out of their comfort zone and dictate the terms of engagement more on Saturday.
Chidi Njokuani vs Marc-André Barriault
The first of five middleweight bouts on Saturday’s fight card sees Chidi Njokuani make his promotional debut against surging French-Canadian Marc-Andre Barriault.
A 33-year-old, 28-fight veteran, Njokuani landed a contract with a third-round stoppage win over Mario Sousa last season on Dana White’s Contender Series. The well-travelled middleweight is an electric striker, just like his older brother Anthony, and has a wealth of experience, making him an intriguing new addition to the 185-pound weight class.
Barriault struggled out of the gate in the UFC, dropping three decisions in eight months after arriving on an eight-fight winning streak as a two-division champion at home under the TKO banner. But the French-Canadian got things moving in the right direction last March with a win over Abu Azaitar, moved to South Florida to train full-time at Sanford MMA, and record a second straight victory in September, sending him into this one primed to keep things moving forward.
This is a terrific matchup for each man, as Njokuani gets the chance to show right out of the chute where he fits in the UFC middleweight ranks, while Barriault has the opportunity to face the kind of battle-tested veteran he struggled with to start his UFC career. Whoever emerges victorious will take a solid step forward in the 185-pound weight class and set themselves up for an even greater opportunity later this year.
Alexis Davis vs Julija Stoliarenko
Alexis Davis makes the walk for the 32nd time in her career, aiming to get back into the win column when she takes on gritty Ultimate Fighter alum Julija Stoliarenko.
The Canadian veteran Davis made an impressive return to the bantamweight ranks last February, registering a unanimous decision win over Sabina Mazo to snap a three-fight slide. Unfortunately, her run of success was more of a jog, as she landed on the opposite side of a similar verdict against Pannie Kianzad less than four months later.
The 28-year-old Stoliarenko, who competed on Season 28 of the long-running reality TV competition, dropped her second straight UFC bout last summer, battling hard before ultimately tapping out in a clash with Julia Avila. She has the kind of “in your face” style that should pair well with Davis, who has never shied away from getting into a dust-up, and will look to secure her first UFC triumph this weekend.
Can the Canadian secure a February victory for the second straight year or will the third time be the charm for Stoliarenko?
Jailton Almeida vs Danilo Marques
It’s an all-Brazilian affair in the light heavyweight division as Jailton Almeida makes his UFC debut opposite Danilo Marques on Saturday’s prelims.
A member of the DWCS Class of ’21, Almeida impressed last fall with his second-round stoppage win over Nasrudin Nasrudinov, handing the Russian his first career loss while pushing his own winning streak to nine. The 30-year-old has earned finishes in all 14 of his victories and was one of the more intriguing new additions to the roster coming off the last season of the Contender Series, so it will be interesting to see how he performs in his debut this weekend.
The 36-year-old Marques earned victories in each of his first two UFC appearances, grinding out Khadis Ibragimov in his debut before starting last year with a submission win over Mike Rodriguez. Though he controlled the first two rounds of his fight with Kennedy Nzechukwu last June, the veteran ended up on the wrong side of the results, getting stopped just 20 seconds into the third.
This is the perfect type of matchup for the newcomer Almeida — a competitive pairing against a seasoned specialist where he’ll have to mind his Ps and Qs in order to earn a victory in his debut. For Marques, it’s a chance to quickly get back into the win column by turning back a new arrival, and to put his loss to Nzechukwu behind him in a timely fashion.
Jason Witt vs Philip Rowe
It’s a clash of approaches and body types in the welterweight division as compact powerhouse Jason Witt squares off with long and rangy Philip Rowe.
Witt’s UFC career has thus far followed a unique pattern, as each of his losses came in less than a minute, but were followed by solid victories. After getting stopped by Matthew Semelsberger in March of last year, the Glory MMA & Fitness representative rebounded with a grimy majority decision win over Bryan Barberena at the end of July, bringing his record level at two wins and two losses inside the Octagon.
Rowe earned the chance to compete in the UFC with a third-round stoppage win over Leon Shahbazyan on the third season of Dana White’s Contender Series, but then was out of action for all of 2020. He made his promotional debut last February, dropping a unanimous decision to Gabe Green, but returned in July and delivered a dominant performance against Orion Cosce, handing the newcomer his first career loss.
Witt will surely be out to make sure his current pattern doesn’t continue, while Rowe will be looking to replicate the effort he turned in against Cosce in the summer, which means this should be a spirited affair from the get-go.
Malcolm Gordon vs Denys Bondar
Flyweights get the party started this weekend as Canadian veteran Malcolm Gordon welcomes Ukraine’s Denys Bondar to the Octagon for the first time in Saturday’s opener.
A champion in multiple promotions on the regional scene before arriving in the UFC, Gordon finally secured his first victory in his third attempt last summer, collecting a unanimous decision win over Francisco Figueiredo in July. A proud representative of the Team Tompkins lineage, the 31-year-old looked far more settled and comfortable in his bout with Figueiredo than he did each of his first two appearances and will look to carry that over into this weekend’s clash with Bondar.
Arriving on a 10-fight winning streak with a host of finishes, the 29-year-old Bondar is an intriguing new addition to the flyweight ranks. He was scheduled to compete three different times in 2021, withdrawing from the first two before this bout with Gordon was pushed back, and he is taking a step up in competition here, but can propel himself into the deep end of the talent pool in the 125-pound weight class with a victory over Gordon on Saturday.
UFC Fight Night: Hermansson vs Strickland took place on Saturday, January 15, 2022, live from the UFC APEX in Las Vegas. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses — and relive all of the action on UFC Fight Pass.