DERRICK LEWIS VS. ALEKSEI OLEINIK
Business has been picking up in the heavyweight ranks over the last several weeks as we close in on the trilogy fight between Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier, and this week’s main event should further clarify how things will stack up in the division once the dust settles after UFC 252.
Lewis has gone 2-0 since returning from a long-overdue surgical procedure on his knee following his loss to Junior Dos Santos, registering decision wins over Blagoy Ivanov and Ilir Latifi to solidify his place in the Top 5.
Between remedying the knee issues that caused many of his back issues and making a greater commitment to his diet and conditioning than ever before, there is a real possibility that we’ll see the best version of Lewis yet on Saturday night in Las Vegas.
Oleinik seemed to have beaten Lewis to the punch on the conditioning front, showing up to his May engagement with Fabricio Werdum looking trim and tight while moving better and fighting with a greater pace than he’s exhibited over the last couple years. The 43-year-old veteran edged out the former champion on the scorecards for his second consecutive victory and his eighth win in a dozen UFC appearances.
The Russian stalwart is a throwback to the days when specialists were the standard in mixed martial arts, but Oleinik has worked hard to continually improve his striking over the years, though he’s probably not going to be all that interested in “swangin’ and bangin’” with Lewis this weekend.
There is a re-shuffling of the deck underway in the heavyweight ranks and how this one shakes out will certainly factor into that process. For that reason alone, it is a must-watch attraction, but then again, Lewis and Oleinik are always must-see talents when competing separately, and now they’re facing off against one another.
OMARI AKHMEDOV VS. CHRIS WEIDMAN
Listen, I get that it feels weird that Akhmedov is the ranked member of this twosome given that he’s fighting a former middleweight champion, but that fact underscores the importance of this bout for Weidman and how little people have been paying attention to the streaking veteran from Dagestan.
Akhmedov is in the midst of what is arguably the quietest six-fight unbeaten streak in UFC history, as the 32-year-old has gone the full 15 minutes in each of those contests, winning five and battling Marvin Vettori to a draw. He’s gone back-to-back-to-back against Tim Boetsch, Zak Cummings, and Ian Heinisch while eliminating a great deal of the wildness that punctuated his early UFC run.
Since successfully defending the middleweight title against Vitor Belfort at UFC 187, Weidman is 1-5 with each of those five defeats coming by way of stoppage, including his most recent outing where he ventured up to light heavyweight and ran into Dominick Reyes. All of the setbacks have come against elite competition, so it’s hard to hold any individual defeat against Weidman, but the cumulative results are worrisome and make you wonder if “The All-American” can stop his slide?
That’s what makes this fight so crucial for Weidman: he’s returning to middleweight and victory is a must.
This is a tremendously important fight for both men and the middleweight division, which continues to be realigned and renovated, and one that you’re not going to want to miss on Saturday night.
MAKI PITOLO VS. DARREN STEWART
While most people tend to get all geeked out about the fights at the top of the card (for obvious reasons), tasty little middleweight pairings like this one nestled in the middle of Saturday’s event are the extra-crispy, crunchy fries that are extra enjoyable to me.
Pitolo earned his UFC contract with an impressive first-round stoppage win over Justin Sumter last summer on the Contender Series, then dropped down to welterweight and landed on the wrong side of a unanimous decision verdict in his debut. He moved back to middleweight for his sophomore appearance and showcased the hand speed and power that helped him punch his ticket to the Octagon in the first place, pounding out a second-round stoppage win over Charles Byrd at UFC 250.
While he measures out as being undersized for the 185-pound ranks, the advantages the five-foot-ten Hawaiian carries at middleweight were on full display in his victory over Byrd in June and it will be interesting to see if they hold up here against Stewart.
It honestly feels like decades ago that Stewart tearfully fell to his knees after collecting a second-round stoppage win over Eric Spicely to avoid a fourth straight loss, but it was only two years ago. “The Dentist” followed that win up with his own victory over Byrd, a split decision loss to Edmen Shahbazyan, and two more decision wins.
Earlier this year, Stewart’s scheduled fight for the UFC’s annual London event in March against Marvin Vettori was postponed, but he instead stepped into the cage against fellow cancellation victim Bartosz Fabiniski under the Cage Warriors banner, where his two-fight winning streak was snapped.
Stewart has proven himself to be a solid middle-tier middleweight at this point with designs on continuing to climb the divisional ladder, while Pitolo is an intriguing new addition still looking to carve out a place for himself. This pairing should help answer any lingering questions about the two and position the winner for a step up in competition next time out.
JULIJA STOLIARENKO VS. YANA KUNITSKAYA
It’s a battle of Eastern European veterans in the bantamweight division as Stoliarenko returns to the UFC to square off with Kunitskaya in a short notice showdown.
A member of the cast on Season 28 of The Ultimate Fighter, Stoliarenko lost in the semifinals to Pannie Kianzad and then dropped a split decision to Leah Letson at the finale. Since then, however, the 27-year-old has rattled off five consecutive victories, including a split decision win over Lisa Verzosa last time out in March to claim the vacant Invicta FC bantamweight title.
Kunitskaya actually debuted in the UFC in a championship bout, stepping up to face Cris Cyborg on short notice at UFC 222. That fight went south in a hurry, but the former Invicta FC standout promptly returned to her natural bantamweight surrounds and registered consecutive victories over Lina Lansberg and Marion Reneau to establish her place in the division.
That run of success was halted by Aspen Ladd late last year and now, Kunitskaya makes her 2020 debut in hopes of getting back into the win column and steadying herself in the rankings.
After an up-and-down start to her career, Stoliarenko seems to have hit her stride, but will that translate into a victory over the more experienced Kunitskaya in their showdown on Saturday night?
BENEIL DARIUSH VS. SCOTT HOLTZMAN
This week’s reminder that the lightweight division is a hell-scape of daunting challenges and incredible talent comes in the form of this pairing between the resurgent Dariush and the sneaky-good Holtzman.
After suffering his first professional loss in his second trip into the Octagon, Dariush rattled off five consecutive victories and a 7-1 stretch to climb into the rankings. A pair of stoppage losses with a draw against Evan Dunham sandwiched in between caused him to fall out of the Top 15 and off the radar for many observers.
Since then, the 31-year-old California native has gotten healthy and gotten back down to business, collecting four consecutive victories, including three straight finishes, capped by a second-round knockout win over Drakkar Klose at UFC 248. Dariush is a phenomenal grappler who has continued improving his striking under the tutelage of Master Rafael Cordeiro and is definitely one to keep an eye on as a potential dark horse contender in the lightweight ranks, provided he gets through Holtzman on Saturday.
But beating “Hot Sauce” is no easy task, as the 36-year-old enters on a two-fight winning streak and having won five of his last six starts.
A late convert to mixed martial arts, but a tremendous overall athlete, Holtzman has shown continual growth as a fighter over the course of his 10-fight tour of duty in the UFC. He has become a more fluid fighter during that time, blending techniques better while continuing to up his Fight IQ and progress to a point where he’s capable of going toe-to-toe with divisional stalwart Jim Miller and outwork the long-tenured veteran over the course of 15 minutes.
This is an opportunity for Holtzman to take a considerable step forward in his quest to break into the rankings, and a chance for Dariush to further prove that he’s one of the top talents in the division. The to-and-fro of this matchup should be compelling to watch and how things shake out could have a serious impact on the lower third of the Top 15.
TIM MEANS VS. LAUREANO STAROPOLI
It’s an all-action matchup in the welterweight division between two athletes looking to get back into the win column as Means and Staropoli square off on Saturday night.
The Albuquerque native Means has logged 42 fights over the course of his career, with the last 17 of those contests coming inside the Octagon. He’s amassed an 11-9 record with one no contest over the entirety of his two UFC stints and has struggled to string together consecutive victories over the last several years, but none of that matters with a guy like Means because you know that every time he steps into the cage, you’re going to get one helluva fight.
Staropoli’s UFC career began with a Fight of the Night performance in a victory over Hector Aldana, which he followed up with a win over veteran Thiago Alves. He had his seven-fight winning streak snapped last time out against the Muslim Salikhov, who has since run his own winning streak to four, but remains an intriguing young talent finding his place in the welterweight division.
This should be a fun fight because every Tim Means fight is fun and Staropoli is a game competitor who will happily meet “The Dirty Bird” in the center of the Octagon for a good old fashioned donnybrook.
KEVIN HOLLAND VS. JOAQUIN BUCKLEY
A week after stepping up on short notice only to have his fight canceled at literally the last minute, Holland gets an immediate opportunity to compete in this middleweight pairing with the newcomer Buckley.
Texas' "Trailblazer" stepped up to face Trevin Giles last week in Las Vegas after Junyong Park was unable to compete, only to have Giles faint backstage as he was readying to make the walk to the Octagon. In shape and chomping at the bit to compete, Holland hustles back into the cage on Saturday, looking to build off his impressive first-round defeat of Anthony Hernandez and move another step closer to furthering his goal of being a middleweight version of Donald Cerrone.
The 26-year-old Buckley arrives in the UFC on the heels of back-to-back stoppage victories under the LFA banner, including a second-round finish of Jackie Gosh last Friday night. The promotional newcomer has faced quality competition throughout his career, including former UFC competitor Chris Heatherly and standout wrestler Logan Storley, and will be looking to make it three straight since moving up to middleweight this weekend.
This is an intriguing matchup for both men, as Holland gets the chance to compete after failing to make the walk last weekend and Buckley gets the opportunity to square off with an emerging talent and potentially establish himself as one to watch in the middleweight ranks right out of the gate. The former Contender Series competitor Holland has always shown potential, but his focus and ferocity haven't always been at the same level. However, he showed an improved killer instinct and intensity against Hernandez and this is a chance to prove that wasn't a one-time thing, while Buckley enters withlimitless upside as he makes his first foray into the UFC cage.
NASRAT HAQPARAST VS. ALEX MUNOZ
Odd as this may sound to some, this weekend’s bout with the debuting Munoz is arguably the most important fight in Haqparast’s young career.
Seven months after entering the Octagon on a three-fight winning streak and getting stopped in 70 seconds by Drew Dober, the promising 24-year-old returns to squares off with the undefeated Team Alpha Male member. While Haqparast has lost in the UFC before, his debut loss to Marcin Held came on short notice and before everyone started paying a great deal of attention.
This time, however, he’s stepping back into the cage after a pivotal loss, and fair or not, many fans and critics will judge his future potential on how he performs here. It will be interesting to see how he responds.
Munoz makes the walk to the Octagon for the first time this weekend, having originally been scheduled to debut against Luis Pena back in February before being forced out with an injury. Fans of the Contender Series will remember the 6-0 wrestler for his unanimous decision victory over Nick Newell, which wasn’t enough to earn him a contract, but put him on the UFC’s radar.
A subsequent win over streaking regional standout “Pretty Boy” Troy Lamson earned the 30-year-old a call to the Octagon and now he gets the opportunity to make an instant impression in a pairing with the highly regarded Haqparast.
ANDREW SANCHEZ VS. WELLINGTON TURMAN
This is another interesting matchup in the middleweight division slated for Saturday night as the former TUF winner Sanchez squares off with the emerging Brazilian Turman in what is an important fight for both men.
Sanchez is a prototypical grinder, and I mean that as compliment. The 32-year-old is a very good grappler who plays to his strengths and knows how to make his opponents uncomfortable inside the Octagon. He’s the type of fighter who is going to push the pace, chase takedowns and mat returns, and generally make life as miserable as possible for the guy standing across from him and if you don’t want to get suffocated and dragged around the cage for 15 minutes, you’re going to need to have quality takedown defense and the ability to disengage along the fence or else you’re going to be in for a very long night at the office.
The 24-year-old Turman made his promotional debut on short notice last summer, dropping a debated split decision to Karl Roberson. He rebounded by securing a unanimous decision win over Markus Perez in November and stands as an intriguing name to track in the division because of his youth and quality experience prior to arriving in the UFC.
This is the right kind of test for the young Brazilian at this time — a seasoned, savvy gamer who is going to make him work from bell-to-bell — and if he’s able to get by Sanchez, ‘The Prodigy” will put himself on the ever-expanding list of emerging fighters to track in the shifting 185-pound weight class.
GAVIN TUCKER VS. JUSTIN JAYNES
Featherweights who are short on appearances, but high on intrigue meet here as Tucker and Jaynes lock horns in a battle of fighters searching for a second consecutive victory inside the Octagon.
Tucker’s UFC run has gone high-low-high through three fights as the 34-year-old Canadian looked terrific in his debut win, lost in his sophomore outing, and bounced back with a quality victory in his third trip into the UFC cage last summer in Edmonton. With 11 victories in a dozen career starts and a fluid, sharp striking style that makes him a handful to deal with on the feet, Tucker has the potential to be a high-output, perpetually entertaining addition to the highly competitive 145-pound weight class.
While there is deep field of entrants in this year’s “Rookie of the Year” race in the UFC, Jaynes has to merit consideration following his incredible debut effort earlier this summer, as the 30-year-old Las Vegas resident turned a short-notice opportunity into a 40-second technical knockout win over Frank Camacho. He’s now won five straight — all by first-round stoppage — and 10 of his last 11 overall (eight finishes) while having the kind of debut that makes you want to ensure that you see him compete the next time out.
Featherweight has never been more flush with talent than it is right now, which makes every fight crucial as competitors like Tucker and Jaynes look to build some momentum and work their way up the divisional ladder. A strong effort from either man here should earn them a step up in competition and a greater following in subsequent appearances.
YOUSSEF ZALAL VS. PETER BARRETT
It’s a clash between a surging youngster and a Contender Series alum in the featherweight division as Zalal makes his third start of the year against promotional newcomer Barrett.
After getting back into the win column at the end of 2019, the 23-year-old Zalal made the jump to the UFC in February, collecting a unanimous decision victory over fellow LFA veteran Austin Lingo. Earlier this summer, the Factory X Muay Thai representative returned to the cage and scored his second straight UFC win, outworking Jordan Griffin over 15 minutes to push his record to 8-2 overall.
New England’s Barrett earned a UFC contract with a unanimous decision win over Sanghoon Yoo last August, and makes his Octagon debut a little older than most newcomers. The 33-year-old battled depression brought on by his first professional loss and a number of personal tragedies, but has rebounded to win three of his last four heading into his maiden voyage into the UFC cage.
This is an interesting spot for both men, as Zalal has the chance to become the first UFC fighter to earn three victories this year while further establishing himself as one of the top emerging talents in the division, while Barrett can steal his thunder and announce his presence in the 145-pound ranks by halting Zalal’s run and adding to his own winning streak.
IRWIN RIVERA VS. ALI QAISI
A late addition to this week’s fight card, this is a bantamweight clash as Qaisi makes his promotional debut against the UFC sophomore Rivera.
The first Jordanian fighter signed to the UFC roster, the 29-year-old Qaisi arrives with an 8-3 record and riding a five-fight winning streak, with his last three victories coming under the Brave CF banner. Like many fighters representing regions that are still in the developmental phase of their MMA expansion, Qaisi’s opponents have largely been short on experience or lacking any marquee victories, but “The Royal Fighter” has made the best of it by finding a groove and rattling off enough wins to earn a chance to compete inside the Octagon.
Rivera stepped up on short notice earlier this summer, moving up in weight and making a quality first impression in a unanimous decision loss to Giga Chikadze. Now back down in his usual stomping grounds at bantamweight, the 31-year-old has the opportunity to get back into the win column and give an event better accounting for himself in his natural weight class.