STIPE MIOCIC VS. FRANCIS NGANNOU
A little over three years after their first meeting, Stipe Miocic will defend the UFC heavyweight title against Francis Ngannou for the second time in the main event of this weekend’s outstanding UFC 260 pay-per-view card.
Both men lost their next fight following their first encounter — Miocic dropping the title to Daniel Cormier, while Ngannou engaged in a three-rounder with Derrick Lewis, admittedly still shook by what transpired when he shared the Octagon with the heavyweight champion at UFC 220.
Since then, both have solidified their positions as champion and challenger. Miocic regained the title with a fourth-round stoppage win over Cormier in the rematch and handily defeated “DC” on the scorecards in the trilogy bout, while Ngannou has embarked on a four-fight run of destruction that has seen him stop Curtis Blaydes, Cain Velasquez, Junior Dos Santos, and Jairzinho Rozenstruik in a combined 162 seconds.
You read that right: Ngannou has laid out four dangerous, talented heavyweight contenders — including two former champions — in a combined two minutes and 42 seconds heading into Saturday’s rematch.
What makes this contest so intriguing is that the question that dominated their first encounter still hasn’t officially been answered: can Ngannou avoid getting outwrestled again?
At UFC 220, Miocic played to his strengths, wisely putting the challenger on the canvas and forcing him to wrestle, which taxed Ngannou’s conditioning, sapped him of much of his fight-altering and fight-ending power, and grinded out a unanimous decision victory. Don’t get it twisted — he took a few good shots along the way and wore those blows better than anyone did before or since, but the champion knew his smartest path to victory and took it, authoring a masterful performance in Boston.
Many believe that Ngannou has to have shored up his takedown defense in the three years since and given his work ethic, proven ability to synthesize information and implement it into his arsenal quickly, and the coaches he’s surrounded himself with, he most likely has, but the Cameroon native hasn’t had to show it because he’s blown through the last four men he’s faced.
As such, it remains the big unanswered question at the center of this captivating championship clash.
TYRON WOODLEY VS. VICENTE LUQUE
It’s a pivotal clash in the welterweight division as former champion Tyron Woodley looks to halt a three-fight slide against surging Brazilian Vicente Luque, who enters on a two-fight winning streak with designs on taking another step forward in the 170-pound ranks.
Woodley is in such a strange spot at the moment, as he stood atop the division just over two years ago, carrying a seven-fight unbeaten streak into his UFC 235 showdown with Karamu Usman. Since then, however, “The Chosen One” has seemingly been stuck in neutral, failing to pull the trigger while getting beaten by Usman, Gilbert Burns, and Colby Covington.
Losing to a trio of elite talents isn’t the end of the world, but it’s the manner in which those fights played out that have many wondering about where Woodley is at in his career and if the former champion is pressed to deliver the kind of performance he knows he’s capable of when he steps into the Octagon on Saturday night.
As for Luque, this is a second opportunity to really break into the title picture for the ultra-talented Brazilian finisher, who has won eight of his last nine, seven by stoppage, and two straight since dropping a decision to Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson at UFC 244. “The Silent Assassin” is another highly skilled welterweight talent that knows a win over Woodley could potentially open the door to a step forward in the division in the second half of 2021.
SEAN O’MALLEY VS. THOMAS ALMEIDA
It’s a meeting of bantamweights projected to be potential champions seeking to get things moving in that direction again as “Sugar” Sean O’Malley looks to rebound from his first professional loss in a clash with former rising star Thomas Almeida.
O’Malley returned from a two-year absence last March and instantly rekindled all the excitement about his upside in the bantamweight division, earning a first-round stoppage win over “Teco” Quinonez before following it up with a similar effort against veteran Eddie Wineland three months later. But he stumbled, literally and figuratively, at UFC 252 against Marlon “Chito” Vera, as one of his legs quickly became compromised before the confident Ecuadorian secured the stoppage late in the opening stanza.
Now the flamboyant 26-year-old is staring down a different kind of comeback fight — one where he’s returning from defeat for the first time, and still facing the same “How good is he?” questions that have followed him throughout his meteoric rise in the UFC.
Heading into his main event showdown with Cody Garbrandt in May 2016, Almeida was 21-0 overall, 4-0 in the UFC, and primed to establish himself as the top young contender in the 135-pound weight class. That night, he was knocked out in less than three minutes and it’s been a rough road ever since, as the Brazilian dropped two of his next three fights before an eye injury nearly cost him his career.
Almeida returned to action last fall, facing Jonathan Martinez in a featherweight contest, and once again landed on the wrong side of the results, dropping a unanimous decision to “The Dragon,” leaving many to wonder what the now 29-year-old former rising star has left in the tank.
This is a critical moment for the highly regarded and highly scrutinized O’Malley, as an impressive return to the win column quiets much of the lingering chatter that remains following his loss to Vera and puts him back in a position to potentially face a Top 15 opponent later this year. Almeida was one of the most dangerous and explosive fighters in the division prior to his recent run of bad results, and channeling that again here would certainly shift perceptions of where he’s at in his career heading into the second quarter of the 2021 schedule.
GILLIAN ROBERTSON VS. MIRANDA MAVERICK
UFC Vegas 3: Gillian Robertson Submits Casey
UFC Vegas 3: Gillian Robertson Submits Casey
Originally slated to take place at UFC 258, an illness pushed this absolute banger in the flyweight division back to this weekend’s fight card, where Gillian Robertson looks to rebound from a loss on the last card of 2020 with a victory in her 2021 debut against hard-charging, highly regarded prospect Miranda Maverick.
Through her first three years on the UFC roster, Robertson has fallen into a pattern of results, earning two wins before ending the year with a loss. Last year, she rebounded from a first-round stoppage defeat at the hands of Barber with victories over Cortney Casey and Poliana Botelho before getting outworked on the ground by Taila Santos in December.
The 25-year-old Din Thomas protégé has flashed potential, but still hasn’t been able to put it all together consistently enough to make real progress up the divisional ladder.
Maverick carried her momentum from 2019 into last year, beginning 2020 with a unanimous decision victory over Pearl Gonzalez before registering a stoppage win over Liana Jojua in her promotional debut at UFC 254 in October. The 23-year-old is a fluid athlete with solid striking, a strong grappling background, and a ton of upside, so it will be interesting to see how she matches up against the more experienced Robertson on Saturday.
KHAMA WORTHY VS. JAMIE MULLARKEY
Worthy logged 20 appearances on the regional circuit before finally getting an opportunity to compete inside the Octagon, but he made the most of it once he did, registering one of the biggest upsets of 2019 when he collected a first-round stoppage win over Devonte Smith at UFC 241. Ten months later, “The Death Star” was at it again, rallying to submit Ultimate Fighter grad Luis Pena at the end of June.
But Worthy’s run of success came to a screeching halt in September, when he was on the wrong side of a 93-second finish against unbeaten Ottman Azaitar. After having his seven-fight winning streak snapped last time out, the Pittsburgh native looks to start another string of victories on Saturday when he makes his first appearance of the year.
Australia’s Mullarkey arrives in Las Vegas still searching for his first UFC victory after dropping decisions to Brad Riddell and Fares Ziam in his first two trips into the Octagon. The 26-year-old went 12-2 on the regional circuit before getting called to the UFC cage, with one of those setbacks coming against Volkanovski, and he’d earned four consecutive stoppages prior to his UFC debut, so now it’s just a matter of trying to carry that form and those skills with him into this weekend’s clash with Worthy at the APEX.
These two have 23 stoppage victories in 28 career wins and Mullarkey’s two UFC setbacks are the only instances where they’ve gone the distance in losing efforts as well, so there is a strong likelihood that the judges won’t be needed in this one.
ALONZO MENIFIELD VS. WILLIAM KNIGHT
Knight earned a developmental deal after his victory over Herdem Alacabek in 2019 and returned to punch his ticket to the UFC roster last summer with a first-round finish of Cody Brundage. Just 25 days later, he was in the Octagon for his debut, posting a unanimous decision win over Aleksa Camur to push his record to 9-1 overall and his winning streak to three.
Menifield also made tandem appearances on the Contender Series, defeating Daniel Jolly in the summer of 2017, and then smashing Dashawn Boatright in eight seconds to earn a contract the following year. After registering a pair of first-round stoppage wins to begin his UFC tenure, the Fortis MMA product stumbled in 2020, dropping consecutive contests to divisional stalwarts Devin Clark and Ovince Saint Preux.
Knight has all the momentum and the buzz at the moment, but Menifield was once the highly intriguing Contender Series grad looking to make waves in the light heavyweight division, so it should be interesting to see which of these finishers prevails when the leather starts flying this weekend.
JESSICA PENNE VS. HANNAH GOLDY
It’s been a long road back to the Octagon for Penne, who has been sidelined by injuries and suspensions since suffering a unanimous decision loss to Danielle Taylor in April 2017. The former TUF semifinalist has dropped three straight heading into this one, but has a wealth of experience and trains with a great team, so it will be interesting to see how she looks after this much time away.
Goldy earned a unanimous decision win over Kali Robbins on Season Three of the Contender Series, but didn’t earn a contract, only to get called up to face Miranda Granger six weeks later. She lost that fight by decision and has been out of action since, as a shoulder injury forced her out of a February 2020 assignment, sending the Floridian into this one in search of her first UFC triumph.
JARED GOODEN VS. ABUBAKAR NURMAGOMEDOV
Gooden made his debut last November in a competitive, entertaining scrap with veteran Alan Jouban, dropping a decision that halted his modest three-fight winning streak. The 27-year-old “NiteTrain” acquitted himself well against Jouban, showing poise, toughness, and more than a little explosive offense, which makes him an intriguing name to track as he readies to make his sophomore sojourn into the UFC cage.
Nurmagomedov arrived in the UFC with a 15-2-1 record and tons of buzz as the cousin of lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov, but German veteran David Zawada spoiled his debut, locking up a triangle choke less than three minutes into the opening round. With his debut out of the way and the buzz having died down, Saturday’s meeting with Gooden is an opportunity for the 31-year-old from Dagestan to get back to the form that made him a hyped prospect to begin with as he collected seven wins in nine starts ahead of his bout with Zawada.
MODESTAS BUKAUSKAS VS. MICHAL OLEKSIEJCZUK
Bukauskas parlayed a six-fight winning streak capped by winning and defending the Cage Warriors light heavyweight title into an opportunity to compete on the biggest stage in the sport. He impressed in his debut, earning a stoppage victory over Andreas Michailidis at the end of the first round of their UFC Fight Island engagement in mid-July, only to get thrown in with and defeated by the surging Crute three months later.
Oleksiejczuk landed on the wrong side of an appointment with the 25-year-old Australian eight months earlier, falling prey to a first-round submission finish. It was his second straight submission loss following back-to-back impressive first-round finishes, so it will be interesting to see if the 26-year-old Polish fighter can return to that form here.
The landscape in the light heavyweight division is currently shifting, with new names climbing the ranks and veterans starting to cede some ground, creating an opportunity for fighters like Bukauskas and Oleksiejczuk to potentially make some headway if they can string together a couple quality wins.
SHANE YOUNG VS. OMAR MORALES
After dropping a unanimous decision to Volkanovski in his promotional debut, the 27-year-old New Zealander earned back-to-back wins over Rolando Dy and Austin Arnett to establish himself as a tough out in the middle of the 145-pound weight class. Last September, he returned following an extended absence and landed on the wrong side of a first-round stoppage against late-replacement newcomer Ludovit Klein, who missed weight for their battle on UFC Fight Island by four pounds.
A member of the Contender Series Class of ’19, Morales pushed his record to 10-0 with victories over Dong Hyun Ma and Gabriel Benitez in his first two trips into the Octagon. Last fall, he dropped to featherweight for the first time and tasted defeat for the first time, dropping a unanimous decision to streaking kickboxing crossover Giga Chikadze.
Both of these men have shown promise during their initial appearances and their recent setbacks should send them into the Octagon hungry to get back to their winning ways this weekend. There are a ton of potentially explosive clashes on this weekend’s fight card, but this one has the potential to set the Fight of the Night bar pretty high right out of the chute.
MARC-ANDRE BARRIAULT VS. ABU AZAITAR
A two-division champion under the TKO banner in his native Quebec before signing with the UFC, Barriault struggled in his first three trips into the Octagon, losing all three by decision. Last summer, he collected a second-round stoppage win over Oskar Piechota, but the bout was ruled a no contest after the 31-year-old from Quebec City failed a post-fight drug test.
The positive test was deemed to be a result of contamination, not intentional use, and now “Powerbar” returns in hopes of replicating his performance from June and earning his first UFC victory for a second time.
The 35-year-old Azaitar competes for the first time since registering a unanimous decision win over Vitor Miranda in his promotional debut in July 2018. That victory pushed his record to 14-2-1 overall and his unbeaten streak to double digits, but after being scratched from a pair of 2020 assignments, it’ll be interesting to see how the returning middleweight looks following such a long absence.