CORY SANDHAGEN VS. TJ DILLASHAW
Top contender Cory Sandhagen welcomes two-time champion TJ Dillashaw back to the Octagon this weekend in a bantamweight main event that has instant classic written all over it.
Sandhagen has cemented his standing as a serious title threat and showcased his championship mettle in his last two outings, rebounding from a quick submission loss to current titleholder Aljamain Sterling with highlight reel wins over Marlon Moraes and Frankie Edgar. The latter, a beautifully timed jumping knee that caught “The Answer” on the button, came in February, and with the championship chase momentarily on pause, the Elevation Fight Team member set his sights on being the one to face Dillashaw in his return to action.
Dillashaw entered 2019 at an all-time high, having successfully defended the bantamweight title in August in a rematch with Cody Garbrandt, and poised to challenge Henry Cejudo for the flyweight title in the first main event of the year. He lost that fight by technical knockout in 32 seconds, but it wasn’t the worst blow stemming from the contest to hit the now 35-year-old Ultimate Fighter alum, as two months after the bout, Dillashaw relinquished the bantamweight strap and accepted a two-year suspension after testing positive for EPO.
This is a massive fight for numerous reasons, including having serious championship implications and the myriad questions surrounding Dillashaw and how his fighting future will play out.
From a stylistic standpoint, it’s an electric pairing between two proven finishers with something to prove and should make for an exciting way to close out this weekend’s outstanding fight card at the UFC APEX.
KYLER PHILLIPS VS. RAULIAN PAIVA
The first of three straight matchups at bantamweight scheduled to close out the show on Saturday, emerging prospect Kyler Phillips squares off with rangy Brazilian Raulian Paiva, who replaces veteran contender Raphael Assuncao in his first UFC appearance in the 135-pound weight class.
A Dana White’s Contender Series and Ultimate Fighter alum training out of The MMA Lab in Glendale, Arizona, Phillips opened a lot of eyes earlier this year with his unanimous decision victory over Song Yadong at UFC 259. The victory pushed the talented 26-year-old’s winning streak to four and gave him a third straight UFC triumph, elevating him into the Top 15 and establishing him as one of the top up-and-comers on the roster.
After missing weight for his last appearance and being forced out of a May assignment against David Dvorak late due to complications from his cut, Paiva brings his two-fight run of success to the bantamweight ranks. He dropped his first two UFC assignments — the first to Kai Kara-France by split decision, and the second due to a cut three minutes into his fight with Rogerio Bontorin — and responded by turning in strong performances against Mark De La Rosa and Zhalgas Zhumagulov, so it will be interesting to see what Paiva looks like now that he’s no longer brandishing a considerable height and reach advantage.
Bantamweight is host to arguably the most compelling collection of talent in the UFC at the moment and the result of every fight has a ripple effect on the rankings, as well as potential future matchups. Phillips is riding a major wave of momentum now, while Paiva has a chance to claim it for himself this weekend, and no matter how it plays out, the winner should be in line to face another Top 15 opponent next time out.
DARREN ELKINS VS. DARRICK MINNER
It’s a battle of relentless featherweights here as Darren “The Damage” Elkins squares off with Darrick Minner in what should be a main card melee on Saturday night.
Elkins halted a four-fight slide last time out, securing a third-round submission finish of Eduardo Garagorri to get back into the win column for the first time since the start of 2018. One of the most battle-tested veterans on the roster, Elkins remains an indefatigable presence in the 145-pound weight class and a perfect litmus test for anyone looking to work their way closer to the Top 15.
Minner finally got the call to the Octagon last winter after logging 34 appearances across an alphabet soup of organizations to start his career, losing to Midwest rival Grant Dawson. But he bounced back with a quick submission finish of Canadian prospect TJ Laramie in his sophomore appearance and kicked off his 2021 campaign with a hard-fought win over Charles Rosa in February, setting him up for this clash with Elkins on Saturday night.
I can’t remember the last Elkins fight that wasn’t entertaining and with Minner’s aggressive attacking style, you can bet this one won’t be either.
MAYCEE BARBER VS. MIRANDA MAVERICK
Talented flyweights meet in the Octagon this weekend as Maycee Barber looks to snap a two-fight skid against streaking divisional hopeful Miranda Maverick.
Nicknamed “The Future” and once touted as a potential title challenger, Barber has hit a rough patch since opening her career with eight consecutive victories, including stoppage wins in each of her first three UFC assignments. First she lost to Roxanne Modafferi at UFC 246, suffering a serious knee injury during the contest, and then after more than a year on the sidelines, the 23-year-old dropped a decision to Alexa Grasso.
Recognized as a solid prospect during her first six fights under the Invicta FC banner, Maverick really took a step forward in the eyes of observers with her Phoenix Series tournament win in September 2019, following it up with a victory over UFC vet Pearl Gonzalez, which earned her a call to the Octagon. In her first two outings, the Virginia-based rising star collected victories over Liana Jojua and Gillian Robertson, sending her into Saturday’s meeting with Barber on a seven-fight winning streak.
Which of these young fighters will have her hand raised on Saturday night, resulting in a step forward in the talent-rich 125-pound weight class?
MICKEY GALL VS. JORDAN WILLIAMS
Five years into his UFC career, Mickey Gall looks to get back into the win column and start building consistent results as he takes on three-time Dana White’s Contender Series competitor Jordan Williams this weekend in Las Vegas.
Since beginning his career with four straight victories, the now 29-year-old Gall has alternated losses and wins, most recently landing on the wrong side of a unanimous decision verdict against Mike Perry. The New Jersey native has battled injuries and has been nomadic in his training over the course of his career, and needs to start stringing together victories if he wants to carve out a lane for himself in the welterweight division.
Williams finally earned a UFC contract with a first-round stoppage win over Gregory Rodrigues last summer in his third Contender Series appearance, but then dropped a unanimous decision to Nassourdine Imavov less than a month later in his promotional debut. Now shifting down a division, the 30-year-old moved to Colorado to work with the crew at Factory X at the start of the year and will look to get moving in the right direction again this weekend.
PUNAHELE SORIANO VS. BRENDAN ALLEN
Ultra-talented middleweight hopefuls collide here as undefeated Hawaiian Punahele Soriano takes on Brendan Allen in a battle of Dana White’s Contender Series graduates.
Fighting out of Xtreme Couture, Soriano landed his UFC deal with a decision win over Jamie Pickett in the summer of 2019, following it up with a first-round stoppage win over Oskar Piechota in his promotional debut. Sidelined for all of 2020 due to a hip injury, he returned to work earlier this year and didn’t miss a beat, finishing fellow unbeaten Contender Series product Dusko Todorovic late in the opening frame of their January encounter.
Allen also garnered a UFC deal with a strong Summer 2019 showing in Las Vegas, finishing current CFFC middleweight champ Aaron Jeffery in the first. Victories in each of his first three UFC appearances followed, including stoppage wins over Kevin Holland and Tom Breese, and after getting finished by Sean Strickland on short notice last November, the Louisiana native got back in the win column in April with a first-round submission victory over Karl Roberson.
Each of these men has exhibited Top 15 upside, making this a critical moment in their respective quests to climb the divisional ladder. Will Soriano continue exhibiting his punishing power or will Allen turn this into a grappling match and look to secure another finish on the ground?
NASSOURDINE IMAVOV VS. IAN HEINISCH
Middleweights coming off tough losses against quality opponents meet, as Nassourdine Imavov squares off with Ian Heinisch.
After winning his promotional debut last October against Jordan Williams, the Russian-born, Paris-based Imavov dropped a narrow decision to Phil Hawes in his sophomore outing in February. Still just 25, the talented Imavov has good size for the division and trains with a quality camp, working alongside Ciryl Gane and Alan Baudot under Fernand Lopez at the MMA Factory, so a return to the win column and eventual climb up the rankings would not be unexpected.
Heinisch has experienced mixed results since landing on the roster following a Contender Series win over Justin Sumter in July 2017, winning his first two fights, losing his next two fights, and then splitting his next two assignments. Last time out, “The Hurricane” dropped a decision to Top 10 fixture Kelvin Gastelum, leaving him with a single win in his last four outings, and eager to get back to the form that made him a dark horse contender right out of the chute.
This is a really intriguing clash between two solid fighters looking to find consistency inside the UFC cage and build some momentum in the middleweight division. Imavov will have a considerable height and reach advantage, so it will be interesting to see if Heinisch can get inside, get this to the canvas, and muck this up or if Imavov will pick him apart at range.
ADRIAN YANEZ VS. RANDY COSTA
One of MMA Twitter’s most anticipated bouts of the summer takes place in the bantamweight division, and emerging prospects, proven finishers, and genuinely good dudes Adrian Yanez and Randy Costa go head-to-head in what promises to be an entertaining clash for as long as it lasts.
All Yanez has done since earning a spot on the UFC roster is collect a pair of beautiful stoppage wins, starting with a first-round finish against Victor Rodriguez, and following it up with a third-round technical knockout win over Gustavo Lopez in mid-March. The former LFA standout has won six straight overall and eight of his last nine, flashing sharp, quick hands and an advanced understanding of range and timing for a relatively young fighter.
Costa dropped his promotional debut on short notice a couple years back but has since established himself as one to watch in the 135-pound weight class, registering consecutive first-round stoppage wins over Boston Salmon and Journey Newson in less than three minutes combined. The self-described “professional bad decision maker” and “good time haver” now trains out of Sanford MMA, so you can be sure his striking will be on point when he steps into the Octagon on Saturday.
These two seemed to cordially put this fight together themselves on social media, becoming Twitter darlings in the process, but don’t think for a minute that their being friendly will stop them from trying to put the other on their highlight reel this weekend.
JULIO ARCE VS. ANDRE EWELL
The bantamweight action isn’t reserved for only the end of the night on Saturday, as all-action ‘35ers Julio Arce and Andre Ewell will lock horns on the prelims.
Out of action since dropping a split decision to Hakeem Dawodu at UFC 244 following surgery on each elbow, the Team Tiger Schulmann representative had some success fighting up at featherweight, posting a 3-2 record inside the Octagon, but opted to move back down to bantamweight, where he earned seven straight wins to start his career before dropping back-to-back fights to Brian Kelleher. Healthy and eager to see what he can do in a division where he’s not going to be outsized, this will be a good initial test to see where Arce fits going forward.
The 33-year-old Ewell has been an entertaining addition to the division since his arrival in the fall of 2018, posting four wins, three losses, and zero fights where he wasn’t having the best time ever. After landing on the happy side of a pair of split decision verdicts in 2020, “Mr. Highlight” fell on the wrong side of the cards in his 2021 debut against Chris Gutierrez and will look to get back into the win column here.
SIJARA EUBANKS VS. ELISE REED
Sijara Eubanks and Elise Reed each shift a division, with the UFC veteran dropping down and the unbeaten newcomer moving up for their flyweight engagement on Saturday night.
Attempting a return to the 125-pound weight class makes sense for Eubanks, who is 2-0 with wins over Roxanne Modafferi and Lauren Murphy when competing at flyweight, and 2-4 when fighting up a division at bantamweight. “SarJ” fought four times in 2020, earning victories over Sarah Moras and Julia Avila before dropping decisions to Ketlen Vieira and Pannie Kianzad.
Reed turned pro at the tail end of 2019 following a 7-1 amateur career and has been instantly impressive, collecting four wins in four starts, winning the CFFC strawweight title in her second bout before successfully defending her title against Jillian DeCoursey and Hilarie Rose. Now the 28-year-old moves up to the UFC with a chance to make an instant impression by taking out a former TUF finalist and tenured veteran.
DIANA BELBITA VS. HANNAH GOLDY
Business gets underway Saturday evening in the strawweight division, as Diana Belbita and Hannah Goldy face off in a clash of fighters searching for their first UFC victory.
Belbita arrived in the UFC on a four-fight winning streak and with 17 fights under her belt, but thus far, the Stoney Creek, Ontario-based athlete has failed to find success in the Octagon. After dropping a decision to Molly McCann in her debut, the 25-year-old started quickly but made the mistake of trying to grapple with Liana Jojua, who forced her to tap to an armbar midway through the opening round of their clash last summer on UFC Fight Island.
Goldy pushed her professional record to 5-0 with a win over Kali Robbins on Dana White’s Contender Series, but failed to land a contract, only to get called up to face Miranda Granger on short notice less than two months later. She dropped that fight and has withdrawn or been forced out of three other prospective matchups since, putting on her at nearly two full years away from the Octagon by the time she steps into the cage on Saturday night.