This weekend’s fight card in Las Vegas is an intriguing one primed to showcase a collection of fighters that are either new to the promotion, competing for a chance to join the roster, or looking to build on recent successes.
It should be a tremendously entertaining event, and here are three athletes worth keeping close tabs on this weekend.
Just 22 years old, Kinoshita makes his first official foray into the Octagon this weekend against Adam Fugitt, looking to build on the momentum he amassed while earning a UFC contract in Las Vegas back in August.
The Japanese welterweight did an exceptional job navigating the massive reach advantage of Jose Henrique in his Dana White’s Contender Series (DWCS) win, constantly pressing forward and getting into range while avoiding much of the return fire coming back his way. Fundamentally sound and extremely comfortable in the cage, Kinoshita’s confidence grew with each passing minute, and the left hook that put Henrique down, kicking off the finishing flurry, was a thing of beauty.
Fugitt represents a solid test to Kinoshita at this point in his development and for his first UFC appearance. The Oregon-based fighter gave a good accounting of himself in a short-notice assignment against Michael Morales at UFC 277 and has been in there with solid regional competition throughout his career, carrying an 8-3 record into this one.
Time is certainly on Kinoshita’s side, and the depth of the welterweight division means there is no reason to expect him to be hurried along in the next couple years, but he showed legitimate upside in earning his way to the biggest stage in the sport and is definitely someone to pay attention to going forward.
Saturday’s contest will set a baseline for where he’s at in his development and help map out what to expect over the next 12-18 months. If he shows out the way he did the last time he competed at the UFC APEX, expect there to be a few more people talking about him heading into his sophomore appearance.
Arguably the top prospect to compete in the Road to UFC series, the 27-year-old Nakamura is a former Under-23 World Champion in freestyle wrestling who has made a seamless transition into mixed martial arts.
Entering the bantamweight tournament with a 4-0 mark, Nakamura scored first-round stoppage wins over Gugun Gusman and Shohei Nose to advance to the finals, where he faces off with fellow Japanese prospect Toshiomi Kazama. While others in the tournament have scored more dramatic victories, there is a different kind of feel to Nakamura’s dominant efforts thus far — something almost inevitable to the way he’s been able to control his opponents, get to his spots, and then quickly secure finishes.
And now here’s the crazy part: he only made his pro MMA debut in May 2021.
In less than two years, Nakamura has gone from neophyte to promising ascending prospect on the brink of joining the UFC roster, and while the bantamweight ranks are flush with talent, he could make for an intriguing addition to the fold if he’s able to get through Kazama.
After posting an upset win over veteran Maimaitituoheti Keremuaili in the quarterfinals of the 135-pound competition, Kazama earned a walk-over into the last pairing when his semifinal opponent, Min Woo Kim, missed weight, prompting the bout to be canceled. A Brazilian jiu jitsu stylist, the 25-year-old is 10-2 overall, and could prompt Nakamura to be a little more careful when looking to take this fight to the canvas on Saturday.
Featherweight finalist JeongYeong Lee has carved the most destructive path thus far in the Road to UFC tournaments, earning a pair of rapid first-round wins, but Nakamura stands out as the top prospect of the crop of finalists, and someone that could make an easy transition into competing at the highest level.
There has been a great deal of talk in the last couple weeks when it comes to the future of the flyweight division, with Brandon Moreno ascending to the throne for a second time and former champion Deiveson Figueiredo announcing his plans to relocate to the bantamweight ranks.
While there are obvious names at the fore when it comes to immediate title challengers and potential contenders, Taira is someone to keep in mind long-term, though he could make a push towards the Top 15 as soon as this year.
The 23-year-old Japanese prospect is 12-0 as a professional following a 9-0 run as an amateur, with his last two victories coming inside the Octagon. He showed a solid collection of weapons in his unanimous decision win over Carlos Candelario in May, and then took things up a notch with a second-round submission victory over CJ Vergara in his sophomore outing in mid-October.
Saturday night, the Okinawa resident looks to earn a third straight UFC victory and third consecutive win over a Dana White’s Contender Series graduate as he welcomes Jesus Aguilar to the UFC fold.
Aguilar is built like a fire hydrant, compact and stout for the division with solid power and striking and a nasty guillotine choke. He’s won eight straight since losing his professional debut more than seven years ago, and has finished four of his last five with his signature choke, including his DWCS victory of Erisson Ferreira in July.
Some may be surprised to see Taira face a third straight DWCS grad, but it feels like a sound matchup — a chance to see how he handles being the heavy favorite and the competitor with more UFC experience for the first time. It’s a solid little test for the promising flyweight, and if he passes this one with flying colors like he has each of his first two assignments, a step up will likely follow in the second half of 2023.
UFC Fight Night: Lewis vs Spivac took place live from the UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada on February 4, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!