Over the last five years, Houston’s Toyota Center has played host to a trio of UFC events, beginning with the Super Bowl weekend festivities capped by Chan Sung Jung’s return knockout of Dennis Bermudez, followed by UFC 247 last February, and UFC 262 earlier this year.
Each of those two pay-per-view events featured championship bouts at the top of the fight card, with Jon Jones and Valentina Shevchenko successfully retaining their titles 18 months ago, and Charles Oliveira claiming the vacant lightweight strap back in May with a second-round stoppage win over Michael Chandler.
In addition to those high-profile contests and championship offerings, the three most recent fight cards to blow through “Hustle-Town” have also served as a jumping off point for a number of exciting new arrivals and ambitious competitors taking a further step towards divisional domination, including Curtis Blaydes, Volkan Oezdemir, and Khaos Williams in the early stages of their UFC journeys, and emerging contenders Jessica Andrade, Dan Ige, and Edson Barboza.
This weekend’s return for UFC 265 is the same, as a championship bout headlines the event, while a trio of competitors at different stages of their careers all look to leave Houston with another win on their resumes and taking another step up the divisional ladder.
Here’s a closer look at those athletes.
This is the UFC 265 edition of Fighters on the Rise.
Nine years after winning Season 15 of The Ultimate Fighter, Michael Chiesa is on the cusp of title contention in the welterweight division, brandishing a four-fight winning streak as he heads into his main card matchup with Vicente Luque this weekend in Houston.
Chiesa announced his intention to move the 170-pound ranks while standing on the scale ahead of his bout with Anthony Pettis at UFC 226 three summers ago as he missed weight for the first and only time in his professional career. He debuted at welterweight five months later with a second-round submission win over Carlos Condit and hasn’t looked back since, following up his win over the former interim titleholder with unanimous decision victories over Diego Sanchez and Rafael Dos Anjos.
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Earlier this year, “Maverick” pushed his winning streak to four with a five-round, unanimous decision victory over Neil Magny where he earned 49-46 scores across the board. That win cemented his standing as a legitimate contender in the division, with this weekend’s clash with Luque designed to narrow the field of contenders in the 170-pound weight class by one.
The fighting embodiment of the blue-collar ethos that permeates his hometown of Spokane, Washington, Chiesa has doubled down on his strengths inside the Octagon during this run, believing he’s the best grappler in the division and walking into the cage every time out bent on proving his point. Thus far, no one has been able to rebuff his attacks and disprove his thesis, and if he gets past the crafty Brazilian this weekend, Chiesa will get a chance to continue showcasing his skills against the absolute top competitors in the division.
It may have taken longer than some expected following his compelling run to the TUF 15 title and required a move up to the welterweight division, but Chiesa has undeniably found his groove and is closer than ever to completing his personal vision quest.
Highly touted upon arrival, Rafael Fiziev lost his UFC debut in April 2019, lasting a tad under 90 seconds against returning veteran Magomed Mustafaev. Caught with a spinning back kick and a string of follow-up punches, the 28-year-old instantly garnered some “What was the all the fuss about?” blowback from the online MMA community.
In his three fights since, “Ataman” has showed precisely why everyone was so high on his potential coming into the UFC, as he’s collected three straight victories, following up his Fight of the Night-winning effort against Marc Diakiese with a first-round knockout win over Renato Moicano at UFC 256.
But it’s not just that he’s winning that is winning people over — it’s how he fights, how he moves, and how much fun he appears to be having while wading into the fire and trading blows on the biggest stage of the sport. A swift, sharp striker, Fiziev’s “signature move” or most familiar highlight reel moment is actually a defensive tactic: his Matrix-esque lean to avoid incoming blows, which is usually accompanied by a collection of “Oohs and Aahs” from the audience or broadcast team and followed up by a barrage of strikes.
This weekend, the Sanford MMA representative squares off with Bobby Green in another veteran test intended to gauge where Fiziev fits in the 155-pound hierarchy. Heading into his 40th professional fight, the 34-year-old Green remains a stern test for ambitious lightweights, having earned three wins in four months between June and September last year before coming up short in his bid to make it four victories in five months when he landed on the wrong side of the scorecards in a close fight with Thiago Moises on Halloween.
Lightweight is always rich with aspiring names and challenging matchups, but if Fiziev can successfully navigate his first appearance of 2021 and push his winning streak to four, the buzz surrounding the entertaining hopeful will continue to grow and the names on the other side of the ledger will only continue to get bigger.
A member of the all-star cast of emerging talents coming out of Fortis MMA in Dallas, Miles Johns parlayed an unbeaten record on the regional circuit into an opportunity to compete on Season 2 of Dana White’s Contender Series, collecting a unanimous decision victory over Richie Santiago and a contract alongside Miguel Baeza on the second event of the summer.
After edging out fellow unbeaten bantamweight prospect Cole Smith in the Canadian’s own backyard in his promotional debut, “Chapo” suffered his first career setback in his sophomore outing opposite Mario Bautista at UFC 247 before rebounding with a third-round stoppage win over Kevin Natividad on Halloween to close out his 2020 campaign. Initially slated to take place last month, Johns makes his first start of the year on Saturday, taking on Brazilian veteran Anderson Dos Santos in a highly combustible matchup that has the potential to catapult the 27-year-old Dallas-based bantamweight further up the divisional rankings.
Well-rounded, strong, and battle-tested on the regional ranks, another piece of what makes Johns stand out as a person of interest in the 135-pound weight class is his final appearance on the regional circuit — a split decision victory over future Contender Series graduate and current rising star Adrian Yanez, who picked up his third-straight stoppage victory in as many UFC appearances last month.
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With an impressive 11-1 mark through the first dozen fights of his career, an outstanding team and coaching staff in his corner, and a Performance of the Night bonus in his bounce-back effort last fall, Johns enters Saturday’s clash in a position to establish himself as another in the ever-growing list of talented up-and-comers in the ultra-competitive bantamweight ranks who merits watching long term.
And if he finishes “Berinja” in similar manner to how he ended his last fight, don’t be surprised if Johns finds himself thrust into the fast lane towards contention going forward.