DOMINICK REYES VS. JIRI PROCHAZKA
Light heavyweights in the thick of the title chase clash in the first main event of May, as two-time title challenger Dominick Reyes squares off with surging sophomore Jiri Prochazka.
Reyes entered 2020 with an unbeaten 12-0 record and a date to face Jon Jones for the belt at UFC 247 in Houston, Texas. That night, the California native raced out to a quick start, but faded down the stretch, ultimately landing on the wrong side of a widely debated unanimous decision result.
Seven months later, with Jones having vacated the title, Reyes faced off with Jan Blachowicz in a bout to crown a new champion, getting stopped in the second round by the streaking Polish veteran. Now on a two-fight skid after consecutive championship opportunities, the 31-year-old looks to get back to the form that produced a dozen straight wins and nine finishes to begin his professional career.
Long considered one of the top light heavyweights competing outside the Octagon, Prochazka justified his advanced billing and propelled himself into the championship conversation with a second-round stoppage win over Volkan Oezdemir in his promotional debut last July. The 28-year-old deploys an unorthodox striking approach and brandishes plenty of power, having earned nine straight victories inside the distance and all but one of his 27 career wins by stoppage.
This is a critical matchup for both men as they look to cement their position in the competitive light heavyweight division.
With the champion already having successfully defended his title once this year, these next several months will be flush with challengers trying to raise their profile, improve their position in the rankings, and lock down a spot on the short list of names that could potentially fight for championship gold in the not too distant future. A victory for either man would accomplish that feat, while a loss would make the path to achieving that goal that much more difficult, so expect a lively, competitive affair for as long as this one lasts.
CUB SWANSON VS. GIGA CHIKADZE
Last year was an important and impactful year for Cub Swanson and Giga Chikadze, for different reasons, and now the featherweight standouts will share the Octagon in Saturday night’s co-main event.
After suffering a torn ACL in a grappling event towards the end of 2019, the 37-year-old Swanson returned to action in mid-December, registering a second-round knockout win over Daniel Pineda at UFC 256. While it was his second consecutive victory after outworking Kron Gracie in the fall of 2019, the win served as a reminder that “Killer Cub” still has plenty left in the tank and remains a dangerous, experienced force in the featherweight division.
Where last year marked Swanson’s return to prominence, 2020 was Chikadze’s coming out party, as the Georgian kickboxer registered four victories in nine months, pushing his UFC record to 5-0 and his overall winning streak to seven. What stood out most about the Kings MMA product’s productive campaign was that his efforts and results improved with each appearance, beginning with a split decision win over Jamall Emmers, followed by unanimous decision triumphs over Irwin Rivera and Omar Morales, and capped by a first-round finish of Jamey Simmons.
Swanson was a fixture in the Top 15 for a number of years and remains a stern test for any up and comer looking to break into the rankings. He’s a major step up in competition for Chikadze and the exact type of savvy, fully formed veteran that can halt his win streak in a hurry.
Conversely, this is precisely the type of fight the 32-year-old striker has been seeking — a high profile pairing against an established foe that could carry him into the Top 15, while truly establishing him as one to keep a close eye on going forward in the crowded 145-pound ranks.
ION CUTELABA VS. DUSTIN JACOBY
Light heavyweights currently moving in opposite directions clash in Las Vegas as Ion Cutelaba looks to halt a two-fight skid against Dustin Jacoby, who has gone 2-0 since punching his ticket back to the UFC last summer on Dana White’s Contender Series.
Cutelaba spent 2020 locked in a protracted battle with Magomed Ankalaev. After their first encounter in February was stopped prematurely while the Moldovan powerhouse was pantomiming being hurt, the pair was booked to run it back on three different occasions, finally sharing the Octagon for a second time at UFC 254.
That night, Ankalaev earned a clear first-round knockout victory, defeating Cutelaba for a second time, and handing the 27-year-old his third loss in his last four fights.
Jacoby pressed pause on his MMA career in 2015, three years after his second UFC appearance, and shifted his focus to kickboxing. He transitioned back to MMA in the spring of 2019 and last summer, he landed a return invite to the Octagon by outlasting Ty Flores on the Contender Series.
Less than three months later, the 33-year-old Factory X Muay Thai representative registered his first UFC win with a first-round stoppage victory over Justin Ledet. Earlier this year, Jacoby made it two-for-two since returning to the UFC with a unanimous decision win over Maxim Grishin.
There is plenty of opportunity for advancement in the light heavyweight ranks at the moment, so a victory here is vital if either man hopes to make a run at the Top 15 before the year is out.
SEAN STRICKLAND VS. KRZYSZTOF JOTKO
Middleweights on tandem three-fight winning streak clash in this main card contest as Sean Strickland locks up with Krzysztof Jotko.
Strickland returned to action following a two-year hiatus resulting from a horrific motorcycle accident to instantly claim a place in the Top 15. On Halloween, he pieced up Welsh veteran Jack Marshman and talked to him about it mid-fight, and then two weeks later, he stopped streaking prospect Brendan Allen.
Now 30, Strickland was considered one of the top prospects in the sport when he first arrived in the UFC sporting a 13-0 record in early 2014, and remains an intriguing figure in the division now, as his two victories last year pushed his record at middleweight to 17-0.
An eight-year UFC vet, the only thing that has kept Jotko from reclaiming a place in the rankings already is inactivity, as injuries forced him to the sidelines late last year as he readied to build on his May victory over Eryk Anders. A fixture at American Top Team and fueled by the success of fellow Polish competitors Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Jan Blachowicz, and Mateusz Gamrot, the 31-year-old envisions a victory over Strickland being the catalyst for a return to the Top 15 and making a run in the middleweight division.
MERAB DVALISHVILI VS. CODY STAMANN
Ranked bantamweights Merab Dvalishvili and Cody Stamann meet in this main card pairing that has the potential to propel the victor into the Top 10 in the talent-rich 135-pound weight class.
“The Machine” was one of the quiet breakout stars of 2020, building on his previous wins over Terrion Ware and Brad Katona with unanimous decision triumphs over Casey Kenney, Gustavo Lopez, and John Dodson. A relentless wrestler who has been piling up takedowns by the bushel over the course of his five-fight winning streak, Dvalishvili is a key training partner for current bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling and has the look of someone that could be joining his teammate in the upper echelon of the division some time soon.
Last year was a difficult one for Stamann, who lost his younger brother Jacob just a couple weeks before stepping into the Octagon opposite Brian Kelleher in June. After winning that contest, he hustled back into action just over a month later, dropping a decision to tenured contender Jimmie Rivera before initially signing to face Dvalishvili in December.
In late October, Stamann was forced out and the bout was rescheduled for February, only for Dvalishvili to have to withdraw. Dvalishvili was initially replaced by Andre Ewell, who tested positive for COVID and was then replaced by Askar Askar, only for the newcomer to be forced out on the day of the event, leaving Stamann still champing at the bit to make his 2021 debut.
Needless to say, the delays in making this one happen has upped the ante for both men, as each has designs on matriculating into the Top 10 in the division this year and sees this weekend’s pairing as a chance to get that process started.
POLIANA BOTELHO VS. LUANA CAROLINA
Brazilian flyweights clash in the main card opener as Poliana Botelho welcomes Luana Carolina back to the Octagon.
Botelho started her UFC career in the strawweight division with tandem victories over Pearl Gonzalez and Syuri Kondo, but has stumbled with just one win in her last three outings. After returning to flyweight in 2019 with a win over Lauren Mueller, the 33-year-old landed on the wrong side of a unanimous decision result last October against Gillian Robertson in her lone appearance of 2020.
Following a unanimous decision win over Priscila Cachoeira in her promotional debut, Carolina suffered a nasty submission loss against Ariane Lipski last July, getting caught in a grizzly-looking kneebar just 88 seconds into their bout on UFC Fight Island. Miraculously, “Dread” avoided any major ligament damage and is now ready to return, hoping to build on her 6-2 record on Saturday night.
RANDA MARKOS VS. LUANA PINHEIRO
Recent Contender Series grad Luana Pinheiro gets a chance to make an instant impression in the 115-pound weight class as she squares off with tenured divisional veteran Randa Markos.
Saturday’s contest will be the 17th trip into the Octagon for Markos, who has shared the cage with a who’s who of the 115-pound weight class since entering the promotion following a semifinal run on Season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter. Though she enters on a three-fight slide, the 35-year-old is by far the most seasoned, experienced fighter Pinheiro has faced to date, and will look to rely on those advantages in order to snap out of her funk and hand the newcomer a loss in her promotional debut.
The 27-year-old Pinheiro, who garnered a shout-out from the broadcast team when she cornered her partner Matheus Nicolau earlier this year, looked dominant while registering a first-round stoppage win over Stephanie Frausto in November to secure a UFC contract. Since suffering a loss in her third professional appearance, the judo black belt and Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt has rattled off six consecutive first-round stoppage wins to arrive at her UFC debut with a ton of momentum and plenty of buzz.
GABRIEL BENITEZ VS. JONATHAN PEARCE
Veteran Gabriel Benitez looks to build on a December victory as he returns to featherweight to square off with promising Contender Series graduate Jonathan Pearce on Saturday’s preliminary card.
Now in his seventh year on the UFC roster, Benitez was an all-action stalwart in the 145-pound weight class before moonlighting at lightweight in 2020. Following a loss to Omar Morales in May, “Moggly” made a late bid for Knockout of the Year consideration by stopping Justin Jaynes with a vicious knee to the body in early December.
Pearce landed a UFC contract with an impressive third-round finish of Jacob Rosales on Season 3 of the Contender Series, but struggled in his promotional debut, getting finished in 93 seconds by lightweight veteran Joe Lauzon. After more than a year on the sidelines, he dropped to featherweight for his sophomore appearance in the Octagon and looked outstanding, registering a second-round stoppage win over Kai Kamaka III at the end of November.
This is an intriguing clash between a divisional mainstay and a promising hopeful, both of whom are established exciting fighters that don’t like to get the judges involved, so don’t be surprised if this one starts quickly and runs hot the whole way through.
KAI KAMAKA III VS. TJ BROWN
Kai Kamaka III and TJ Brown meet here in a battle of featherweights looking to get back into the win column.
Kamaka started 2020 with a victory on the regional circuit, and then pushed his winning streak to six with a win over Tony Kelley in his UFC debut two weeks later. He returned to action three months later, landing on the wrong side of things against Pearce, and aims to rebound when he makes the walk to the Octagon for a third time this weekend against Brown.
A member of the Contender Series Class of ’19, Brown has come up short in each of his first two trips into the UFC cage. After getting submitted by fellow Contender Series alum Jordan Griffin in his debut, he got out-struck by newcomer Danny Chavez in mid-August, marking just the second time in his career that he’s lost two straight.
LOMA LOOKBOONMEE VS. SAM HUGHES
Loma Lookboonmee and Sam Hughes collide in this battle of strawweight hopefuls with matching 5-2 records.
Fighting out of Tiger Muay Thai, Lookboonmee had her two-fight winning streak snapped last February when she landed opposite Angela Hill in Auckland, New Zealand after “Overkill” subbed in for the injured Hannah Goldy. Not to be deterred or dismayed, the 25-year-old from Thailand bounced back with a unanimous decision win over former Invicta FC titleholder Jinh Yu Frey in October and looks to earn a second consecutive victory when she makes her 2021 debut on Saturday.
Hughes’ promotional debut last December was as challenging as they come, as the LFA veteran accepted a short-notice opportunity against Top 15 mainstay Tecia Torres, and then was rendered unable to continue following the first round after suffering an eye poke somewhere during the opening five minutes. Now with a full camp behind her and a less experienced foe across from her, the former Division I athlete aims to give a much better accounting of herself as she makes the walk for the second time.
Both Lookboonmee and Hughes have shown promise to this point in their respective careers, so it will be interesting to see which of these two emerging competitors will take a step forward this weekend and which will be forced to regroup.
ANDREAS MICHAILIDIS VS. KB BHULLAR
Middleweights searching for their first UFC victory, Andreas Michailidis and KB Bhullar meet here in their joint sophomore appearances inside the Octagon.
Michailidis moved up to light heavyweight for his promotional debut last July, suffering a stoppage loss to Modestas Bukauskas when he was unable to continue at the close of the opening stanza. The 32-year-old Greek veteran is 12-4 overall and now returns to his more natural surroundings at middleweight, looking to recapture the form that produced seven wins in eight starts to land him a place on the UFC roster.
Long viewed as one of the top prospects in Canada, Bhullar was originally slated to compete on the Contender Series in 2020 but graduated straight to the Octagon instead. Unfortunately for the 29-year-old, he landed on the business end of a heavy jab from Tom Breese less than two minutes into their October encounter, and was handed his first career loss.
Will a return to middleweight result in a return to the win column for Michailidis or will Bhullar bounce back from his first setback with his first UFC triumph?
LUKE SANDERS VS. FELIPE COLARES
Luke Sanders and Felipe Colares each had their original opponent forced off this weekend’s fight card, resulting in the eager to compete featherweights now being paired off together on Saturday night.
The 35-year-old Sanders ended a nearly two-year absence last November when he took on Nate Maness, starting quickly and having the UFC sophomore hurt before getting a little loose with his hands, eating a counter strike and succumbing to a rear-naked choke midway through the second round. Injuries and inconsistency have been the unfortunate hallmarks of Sanders’ UFC career, but he’s making a relatively quick return to action here with designs on returning to the win column as well.
Colares has alternated results through his first three UFC appearances and makes his 2021 debut more than a year after landing on the wrong side of a unanimous decision result against Montel Jackson. A member of Team Nogueira and the former Jungle Fight featherweight champion, the 27-year-old is 9-2 overall, earning his first seven victories by stoppage.