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Mariya Agapova of Kazakhstan punches Sabina Mazo of Colombia in their bantamweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on October 09, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
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Fighters On The Rise | UFC 272: Covington vs Masvidal

This fight card is stacked with emerging talent, which you would think makes my task of selecting three competitors to highlight in this weekly series easier, but you would be mistaken.

See, when you’ve got a card as flush with ascending fighters as this one, it’s impossible to figure out whether you should tap the main card talent that people are aware of, but still fit the bill, like Bryce Mitchell or if you should focus on someone on the prelims in a comparable position, like streaking strawweight contender Marina Rodriguez?

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There is also always the option to go old school and take it back to the days when I focused almost exclusively on folks the masses might not know, but should be paying attention to this weekend, like Australian lightweight Jamie Mullarkey, who has earned two straight stoppage wins.

Or what about somebody like Tagir Ulanbekov, who is 13-1 overall, has won each of his first two UFC appearances and is taking on former flyweight title challenger Tim Elliott? Or veteran Dustin Jacoby, who has posted a 4-0-1 record since returning to the Octagon in the fall of 2020 to quietly become a person of interest in the light heavyweight division?

With a card this strong, it’s impossible to mention everybody, so here’s a closer look at the three athletes competing this weekend that I ended up settling on.

This is the UFC 272 edition of Fighters on the Rise.

Mariya Agapova

Agapova first popped up on my radar in the summer of 2019 when she squared off with Tracy Cortez on Season 3 of Dana White’s Contender Series. She was undefeated, brash, and brimming with upside, and despite landing on the wrong side of the results, it was clear she was someone that we would be hearing from in the not-too-distant future.

 

 

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Eleven months later, the flyweight from Kazakhstan strutted into the Octagon for her UFC debut, submitting Hannah Cifers in just over two-and-a-half minutes to secure her third straight victory and establish herself as someone to watch in the 125-pound weight class. Two months later, Agapova was back in action, positioned as a massive favorite against Shana Dobson, but after controlling things in the opening stanza, the fight got away from her in the second.

Dobson put her away 98 seconds into the middle frame and all kinds of people jumped off the Agapova bandwagon. Her name popped up in MMA gossip columns when she switched gyms and remained on the sidelines, and even when she booked her return to the cage last October against Sabina Mazo, few seemed all that bothered.

It took less than a round for seats on the bandwagon to start filling up again.

Agapova picked Mazo apart in a dynamic performance that highlighted the considerable skill she’d always brought to the table, but also showed greater maturity and poise. Instead of going all out right out of the chute as she had in the past, the 24-year-old picked her spots, content to snipe at Mazo from the outside, lighting her up with sharp boxing before stunning her with a nasty lead left to the body, overhand right combination that sent her to the canvas, allowing Agapova to snatch up a rear-naked choke and secure the tap.

Now 10-2 for her career and working with Roger Krahl at ATT Sunrise, Agapova is once again part of the collection of young talents viewed as the future of the flyweight division. Saturday night, she takes on Maryna Moroz in an absolute grudge match that should be electric from the outset.

She has exceptional boxing and very good movement, combined with sharp finishing instincts and all kinds of confidence. While she was maybe a little too high on her own talents prior to the Dobson fight, the 24-year-old seems to have struck a nice balance between being playfully cocky and proving herself in the cage, and if she takes out Moroz in the same way she took out Mazo, seats on the Agapova Express will be going for premium prices.

Jalin Turner

There are a number of interesting names working their way up the lightweight ladder at the moment, but one to keep a close eye on this weekend is Turner, who enters his bout with Mullarkey on a three-fight winning streak and with four wins (all finishes) in his last five UFC appearances.

The 26-year-old made his debut on short notice, venturing to welterweight to face Vicente Luque just a couple months after securing a stoppage victory, but not a contract, during his appearance on the second season of Dana White’s Contender Series. While the fight with Luque didn’t go his way, it was a foot in the door for the towering California native, who moved back down to the 155-pound ranks and promptly knocked out Callan Potter at UFC 234.

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A decision loss to Matt Frevola followed two months later, but since then, Turner has been doing clean work.

In February 2020, he ventured to Auckland and stopped Joshua Culibao in the second, following it up with a submission win over Brok Weaver six months and change later. In his lone appearance of 2021, “The Tarantula” took it to Uros Medic, forcing him to tap to a rear-naked choke four minutes into their clash at UFC 266.

Saturday’s date with Mullarkey is another solid measuring stick opportunity, as the Australian is a “hard hat and lunch bucket” sort that will make Turner work for everything he gets that is coming off consecutive stoppage wins of his own.

Turner’s length makes him an interesting threat in the division and the fact that he’s been able to maintain a perfect finishing percentage since graduating to the Octagon shows that he has a solid array of weapons at his disposal and is adept at using them all.

If he can add another stoppage win to his run this weekend, Turner should be in line for a step up in competition later in the year, and will further strengthen his position as someone to pay close attention to going forward in the talent-rich lightweight ranks.

Umar Nurmagomedov

There was a great deal of excitement surrounding Nurmagomedov’s debut in January 2021, and Khabib’s cousin did not disappoint. Paired off with veteran Sergey Morozov, the unbeaten bantamweight secured a second-round submission victory, sinking in a rear-naked choke with a little over a minute remaining in the frame.

Nurmagomedov is a much more dynamic striker than his now-retired cousin — his first offering against Morozov was a lightning-fast question mark kick and he fights with far more bounce and lightness in his stance, prompting commentary lead John Gooden to accurately liken him to former featherweight standout Zabit Magomedsharipov.

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But don’t get it twisted: the 25-year-old is an excellent grappler, as well, which is why he’s considered such a highly regarded prospect.

Nurmagomedov was briefly linked to a clash with Jack Shore but will instead make the walk to face Brian Kelleher on Saturday, getting a veteran step-up in competition rather than a date with a fellow hopeful. This is the right kind of progression for Nurmagomedov following his win over Morozov, as Kelleher has far more UFC experience, a solid all-around skill set, and enters brimming with confidence.

Expectations are high for Nurmagomedov and will only increase should he pass this test on Saturday.

UFC 272: Covington vs Masvidal took place on Saturday, March 5, 2022, live from a sold out T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. See the Final ResultsOfficial Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses — and relive all of the action on UFC Fight Pass.