What has always made this series — and talking about emerging talents in general — so appealing to me is the uncertainty of it all.
With champions and established contenders, we know who they are, what they bring to the table; the highlights and lowlights and every point in between, and though they certainly continue to put forth incredible performances, there aren’t nearly as many surprise moments as there are with younger, less proven competitors.
There is something about seeing a fighter enter the UFC and begin working their way forward, watching them develop, improve, take a step back, and then regroup that piques my interest and captures my attention in a different way, because the ceilings of those men and women are undefined. Until they’ve had those defining moments — key fights against tenured veterans, entrenched contenders, maybe even reigning champs — no one can say with certainty where that fighter is going to end up, and watching that journey is as compelling to me as anything in this sport.
Saturday night in Miami, three fighters that have previously been featured in this series return to the Octagon, looking to take another step forward in their respective careers. Two are facing ranked opponents for the first time, while the other is making his sophomore appearance, eager to build on a tremendous debut showing.
If they’re successful, they’ll likely show up here again later this year, days before what will be the next biggest fight of their career, and they’ll keep turning up here time and again until they reach contender status or hit a point in the division where they’ve clearly plateaued.
Thus far, all three have been on a steady ascent, which is why you should be paying close attention to them this weekend and beyond.
The standout fighter to emerge from Season 4 of Dana White’s Contender Series (DWCS), Yanez arrives in Miami with a 5-0 mark inside the Octagon and riding a nine-fight winning streak as he squares off with Rob Font in the middle of Saturday’s UFC 287 pay-per-view main card.
In four of his five appearances, the 29-year-old Texan has dispatched his opponents inside the distance, most recently collecting a first-round finish over Tony Kelley, and in the one instance where the judges were needed, Yanez showed his grit and tenacity in a Fight of the Night-winning battle with British veteran Davey Grant. He’s garnered a post-fight bonus in each of his first five UFC starts and has worked his way into the Top 15 in the ultra-competitive 135-pound weight class, but things only get more difficult from here, starting this weekend.
Font touches down in Miami looking to snap a two-fight skid and re-affirm his standing as a Top 10 fighter in the division after dropping consecutive decisions to Jose Aldo and Marlon Vera. He’s only lost to ranked fighters, has one of the best jabs and overall boxing repertoires in the sport, and is fighting for the first time as a proud new parent, which is sure to up his intensity and sense of urgency.
While this might be a case of Yanez skipping a step — going from Kelley to a Top 10 opponent without stopping off to face another veteran in the “Second 15” first — it’s also an outstanding opportunity for the emerging bantamweight. Beating Font would likely elevate him into the Top 10 and position Yanez for another marquee assignment in the second half of the year, while a setback would simply indicate that he’s not quite ready to run with the big dogs just yet.
Yanez is very much a part of the up-and-coming set rising through the ranks at the moment, and has a chance to move to the head of that pack with a victory this weekend.
Raul Rosas, Jr.
Here’s a perfect indicator of why each and every fight fan should be watching each and every step Rosas Jr. takes in his UFC career:
Yanez is 29 years old, five fights into his UFC career, 19 fights into his professional career, and had a very solid resume on the regional circuit before matriculating to the Octagon, and he is still considered a prospect… and he’s 11 years older than his fellow bantamweight, who returns to action Saturday in a clash with another promising youngster, 25-year-old Christian Rodriguez.
While it has become de rigueur for fighters under the age of 23 (and 242 days) to declare they want to break Jon Jones’ record for being the youngest UFC champion in history, very few that have mentioned it genuinely had the opportunity to do so because as good as they were on the regional circuit and as much promise as they showed in the early days of their UFC runs, competing at this level is insanely difficult, and progressing to the point of challenging for championship gold usually takes three, four, five years, if not longer.
Rosas Jr. has stated his desire to break Jones’ record, but he’s the first that feels like he may have a chance, as he turned 18 just a couple months prior to his promotional debut at UFC 282 and has five years to accomplish the feat. There are absolutely no guarantees when it comes to his development and progression, but he made an excellent first impression in quickly finishing Jay Perrin back in December, and has a chance to build on that with a second win on Saturday over Rodriguez.
Rosas Jr. is the most fascinating fighter in the sport to me right now, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Like Yanez, Pinheiro graduated to the UFC with a victory on Season 4 of Dana White’s Contender Series, but she has been limited to just two appearances since then, and returns this weekend against veteran contender Michelle Waterson-Gomez after spending the whole of 2022 on the sidelines.
The 29-year-old Brazilian looked good in the opening stages of her promotional debut against Randa Markos before taking an illegal upkick in the face and being unable to continue, then earned a unanimous decision win over Sam Hughes in her sophomore showing to advance to 10-1 for her career. She spent the majority of the last year recovering from a knee injury, but can make a splash and generate a ton of momentum if she collects a win over Waterson-Gomez on Saturday.
A fixture in the Top 10 since debuting in the summer of 2015, Waterson-Gomez has lived on the fringes of title contention for the majority of her UFC run and represents a significant step up in competition for Pinheiro, despite entering on a two-fight slide and having dropped four of her last five.
Again, similar to Yanez, this might be a case of Pinheiro skipping a step, but it’s a risk worth taking for the clearly talented judoka, who has won eight straight overall. With the top of the division in flux at the moment, this is an opportunity for her to topple a tenured veteran, catapult herself into the Top 10, and set herself up for something even bigger later in the year.
And if things don’t work out in her favor, there is plenty of time to take a half-step back, reset, and start trying to move forward again next time out.
UFC 287: Pereira vs Adesanya 2 took place live from Kayesa Center in Miami, Florida on April 8, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!