Are you ready?
After taking a one-week pause following an action-packed 10-week run of terrific events, the UFC is back to complete its 2021 schedule with a sprint to the finish line with three events in as many Saturdays, beginning with this weekend’s offering at the UFC APEX.
This is a fantastic card featuring a tantalizing blend of veterans and prospects, established names and emerging contenders, with graduates from Dana White’s Contender Series and The Ultimate Fighter competing alongside current and future Hall of Famers, all capped by a gem of a fight in the bantamweight division carrying legitimate championship ramifications.
Here’s a closer look at what’s on tap this weekend.
ROB FONT VS JOSÉ ALDO
Rob Font takes on Brazilian legend José Aldo in a matchup of bantamweight contenders with designs on fighting for the title in 2022.
One of the more unheralded Top 5 talents on the UFC roster, Font has steadily been working his way into contention in the 135-pound weight class over the last three years. After being limited to just a single appearance in both 2019 and 2020, the New England Cartel member showed out in his first appearance of this year, conducting a master class in working behind the jab while outboxing former champ Cody Garbrandt in May to push his winning streak to four.
Since coming up short in his bid to claim the vacant bantamweight title last summer on Fight Island, Aldo has rebounded with a pair of impressive victories, showing veteran savvy in out-grappling Marlon Vera down the stretch before turning in a vintage effort against Pedro Munhoz at UFC 265. The 35-year-old first ballot Hall of Famer once again has that look of a championship contender, and a win over Font on Saturday will bring him one step closer to potentially challenging for the bantamweight strap again.
This is a perfectly timed matchup between a pair of proven contenders that still need one more big win to enter the crowded chase for championship gold. Stylistically, it should be electric, as both are dynamic boxers with a willingness to stand in the pocket and trade, trusting in their weapons, and regardless of who emerges victorious, it should add another layer of intrigue to the already compelling bantamweight title picture.
BRAD RIDDELL VS RAFAEL FIZIEV
Top 15 lightweights Brad Riddell and Rafael Fiziev clash in the co-main event of the evening, each looking to earn another victory and take another step towards the top of the division to cap the biggest year of their respective careers.
Riddell climbed into the rankings after pushing his record to 4-0 inside the Octagon and extending his overall winning streak to seven with a unanimous decision win over Drew Dober that earned Fight of the Night honors at UFC 263. The City Kickboxing representative is a jack-of-all-trades type who is strong in every area of the fight and experienced beyond his 11 professional mixed martial arts appearances, making him an intriguing dark horse in the 155-pound weight class.
Fiziev’s UFC run got off to a rough start as the flamboyant and entertaining 28-year-old was stopped just 86 seconds into his debut. He’s rattled off four straight victories since then, earning post-fight bonuses in each of his last three outings while climbing to No. 12 in the rankings.
These two have trained together in the past and that familiarity with one another only serves to make this fight more interesting. They have divergent styles, but shared ambitions, and in a division as deep and talented as lightweight, they each know how impactful a victory in a pairing like this could be to furthering their championship hopes.
CLAY GUIDA VS LEONARDO SANTOS
Before the up-and-coming lightweights hit the Octagon, a pair of veteran stalwarts in the talent-rich division will throw down, as fan favorite Clay “The Carpenter” Guida locks horns with former TUF Brazil winner Leonardo Santos.
Guida, who turns 40 four days after this fight, has split a pair of appearances already this year, earning a unanimous decision victory over Michael Johnson in February before landing on the unhappy side of a split decision verdict in a fight with Mark O. Madsen in August. One of eight fighters in UFC history with 30 or more appearances, Guida will be looking to ensure his record stays above .500 inside the Octagon and propel himself into the new year on the strength of his 17th UFC win.
The 41-year-old Santos entered this year with one of the most unique UFC resumes of anyone on the roster, sporting a 7-0-1 record with those eight fights spread out across eight years. His unbeaten run inside the Octagon was finally brought to a halt in March courtesy of Grant Dawson, and now he fights for the second time in a calendar year for the first time since 2015.
Which of these two veterans will avoid a second straight setback to close out 2021?
JIMMY CRUTE VS JAMAHAL HILL
Jimmy Crute and Jamahal Hill meet in this battle of promising light heavyweights looking to bounce back from defeats that left them with compromised limbs earlier this year.
Last time out, Crute has his modest two-fight winning streak snapped by Anthony “Lionheart” Smith when the veteran contender connected on a calf kick that left Crute with “drop foot” and the doctor no choice but to halt the action. Still just 25 years old, the Australian is 4-2 inside the Octagon with three first-round stoppage wins, and profiles as a long-term fixture in the Top 10 going forward.
Hill suffered the first loss of his career in his clash with Paul Craig at UFC 263 in June, leaving with a dislocated elbow that thankfully looked worse than it ended up being. The Michigan-based graduate of Dana White’s Contenders Series believes he’s the best boxer on the roster and aims to back up those claims on Saturday when he steps in with Crute.
/athlete/cheyanne-vlisma=sIn a division with a 42-year-old champion, it’s easy to see why both of these men hold such long-term promise, as they’ve each shown flashes of brilliant finishing instincts and abilities along with plenty of room to grow. One will solidify their position in the Top 15 with a victory here, while the other will be forced to regroup and start fresh in 2022.
BRENDAN ALLEN VS CHRIS CURTIS
Brendan Allen looks for his third win of the year, while Chris Curtis looks for his second victory in five weeks in this short notice pairing of promising middleweight hopefuls.
The 25-year-old Allen bounced back from his loss to Sean Strickland towards the end of last year with a first-round submission finish of Karl Roberson at UFC 261 in April. Three months later, “All In” turned in his most complete performance to date, bouncing Punahele Soriano from the ranks of the unbeaten with a technical and tactical approach on the feet, pushing his record to 5-1 in the UFC in the process.
A pro since 2009, Curtis finally touched down in the Octagon for the first time at UFC 268 and made the most of his MSG opportunity, scoring a first-round stoppage win over Phil Hawes. The 34-year-old “Action-Man” has won six straight overall and will look to go from “outside the promotion” to “in the Top 15” in the span of a couple months with a victory over Allen on Saturday evening.
This is such an interesting matchup, as each of these men looked impressive in their most recent outings and is on the cusp of breaking into the rankings in the middleweight division. Allen is looking to navigate a pair of opponent changes in order to keep things moving in a positive direction, while Curtis is once again aiming to capitalize on a short-notice opportunity and expedite his ascend in the 185-pound weight class.
How this one plays out is anyone’s guess, but the one thing I do know is that it should be thoroughly entertaining for as long as it lasts.
MAKI PITOLO VS DUŠKO TODOROVIĆ
Graduates of Dana White’s Contender Series looking to get back into the win column meet here as Hawaii’s Maki Pitolo takes on Serbia’s Duško Todorović.
Arriving in the UFC with a 12-4 record after earning his contract with a first-round stoppage win on Season 3 of the annual talent search series, Pitolo has struggled to a 1-4 mark inside the Octagon, entering this one on a three-fight slide. He’s had positive moments, but made critical mistakes at times, resulting in a pair of submission losses in contests where he was looking strong before getting finished.
Todorović earned his contract with a unanimous decision win over Canadian veteran Teddy Ash on the final event of Season 4 of the Contender Series and followed it up with a second-round stoppage win over Dequan Townsend in his promotional debut a little more than 13 months later on Fight Island. Since then, however, the 27-year-old has suffered back-to-back losses to Punahele Soriano and Gregory Rodrigues, leaving him in dire need of a bounce-back effort this weekend.
MANEL KAPE VS ZHALGAS ZHUMAGULOV
Flyweights Manel Kape and Zhalgas Zhumagulov meet in this matchup of unranked competitors looking to close out their respective 2021 campaigns with a second straight victory.
After arriving in the UFC amidst much fanfare, Kape stumbled out of the gate, dropping decisions to Alexandre Pantoja and Matheus Nicolau in his first two Octagon appearances. Last time out, however, “StarBoy” showed why so many were hyped about his joining the 125-pound ranks as he knocked out Ode’ Osbourne with a beautiful flying knee late in the opening round of their UFC 265 clash.
Zhumagulov arrived with no fanfare, but similarly dropped a pair of decisions to begin his UFC run. A month before Kape halted Osbourne in Houston, Zhumagulov collected his first UFC victory as well, submitting Jerome Rivera with a modified guillotine choke two minutes into their encounter at UFC 264.
Things are wide open in the flyweight division at the moment and a standout effort from either of these men has the potential to carry them into the rankings to close out the year. Each looked outstanding in their last appearance and will look to build on that at the other’s expense this weekend in Las Vegas.
CHEYANNE VLISMAS VS MALLORY MARTIN
Cheyanne Vlismas looks for her second straight win, while Mallory Martin looks to rebounded from a frustrating loss in this clash of strawweight hopefuls.
Vlismas got thoroughly outgrappled in her promotional debut in March by Montserrat Conejo, prompting her to severe ties with the crew at Fortis MMA, return to Las Vegas and resume training with Dennis Davis and Ray Sefo at Xtreme Couture. In July, she returned to the Octagon and collected her first victory (and a post-fight bonus), landing a perfectly timed kick on Gloria de Paula a minute into the opening round.
After registering five straight victories and earning a short-notice call-up to the UFC, Martin has gone loss, win, loss in her first three appearances inside the Octagon. The Colorado-based Contender Series alum was submitted by Polyana Viana last time out, showing solid defensive grappling before finally getting trapped in an armbar by the resurgent Brazilian finisher.
Will Vlismas earn her second straight victory or will Martin maintain her pattern and get back into the win column?
ALONZO MENIFIELD VS WILLIAM KNIGHT
Alonzo Menifield and William Knight square off in a matchup of light heavyweight powerhouses looking to build on impressive efforts in their most recent appearances.
Menifield entered the year on a two-fight slide, but promptly got back into the win column in March with a first-round submission win over Fabio Cherant in March. Less than five months later, the Fortis MMA representative registered easily his most important victory to date, going three hard rounds with veteran Ed Herman at UFC 265 in Houston to push his record to 11-2 overall.
MORE FIGHT NIGHT: Jose Aldo Reviews His Fight vs Munhoz
Knight collected a unanimous decision win over Aleksa Camur in his promotional debut last fall, but then dropped a decision to surging South Korean Da-un Jung in April, slowing his momentum. The 33-year-old bounced back in a big way with his own first-round stoppage win over Cherant in August, setting the stage for this showdown between Contender Series alums on Saturday.
Neither of these men is particularly fond of leaving things in the hands of the judges, so expect heavy shots and home run swings from the outset as each man looks to further establish himself as one to watch in the 205-pound ranks heading into next year.
CLAUDIO PUELLES VS CHRIS GRUETZEMACHER
Lightweights that ended lengthy hiatuses with impressive efforts meet here as Peru’s Claudio Puelles takes on American veteran Chris Gruetzemacher.
A graduate of The Ultimate Fighter Latin America, Puelles competed for the first time 21 months in June, handing Jordan Leavitt the first loss of his career while extending his winning streak to three in the process. Having reached the UFC as a 20-year-old with a 7-1 record, Puelles, now 25, remains an intriguing prospect in the loaded lightweight division.
Fighting for just the second time in three years at the end of July, Gruetzemacher collected a unanimous decision victory over Rafa Garcia to bring his record to 3-3 inside the Octagon and 15-4 overall. A member of Team Faber on Season 22 of The Ultimate Fighter, this is the quickest turnaround in a number of years for the 35-year-old, who looks to earn consecutive victories for the first time since pushing his winning streak to a dozen with a victory over Abner Lloveras at the TUF 22 Finale six years ago.
Can Puelles keep things rolling and secure the biggest victory of his career or will Gruetzemacher turn in another savvy veteran effort a collect his second win of 2021?
ALEX MORONO VS MICKEY GALL
Alex Morono and Mickey Gall are talented veterans coming off impressive recent efforts looking to keep their momentum rolling as they clash here.
Morono kicked off his year by stepping up on short notice to face Donald Cerrone, earning a first-round stoppage victory and a performance bonus against “Cowboy” in May. Four months later, “The Great White” made it two-in-a-row with a hard-fought decision win over David Zawada, moving his record to 6-2 over his last eight and once again carrying him to the cusp of cracking the Top 15 in the 170-pound weight class.
Gall turned in his best effort in years in July, rebounding from his lackluster showing against Mike Perry a year early to collect a first-round submission victory over Jordan Williams. Six years and nine fights into his UFC adventure, the 29-year-old Gall just may finally be putting it all together and is poised to make a little run in the welterweight division.
This is another standout piece of matchmaking on this card as Morono gets the opportunity to keep things moving, while Gall is afforded the opportunity to take a major step forward by sharing the Octagon against someone with far more seasoning than him.
No matter how it shakes out, it should be fun.
LOUIS SMOLKA VS VINCE MORALES
Bantamweights Louis Smolka and Vince Morales look to close out 2021 by building some consistency as they square off in Saturday’s opener.
Having alternated wins and losses since returning to the UFC a little more than three years ago, Smolka enters this weekend’s contest off a second-round stoppage win over Jose Quinonez one year ago. He was slated to face Sean O’Malley in June, but was forced to withdraw due to an injury, and looks to earn a comparable opportunity with a second straight victory here.
Sporting a 1-3 record inside the Octagon heading into the year, Morales drew one fight closer to .500 in August with a unanimous decision win over Drako Rodriguez at UFC 265. The 31-year-old Syndicate MMA representative is 0-2 over his first two appearances in Las Vegas and looks to snap that streak by toppling Smolka to begin the show on Saturday.