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Christian Rodriguez reacts after his victory over Isaac Dulgarian in their featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on March 16, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
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Fighters on the Rise | UFC Denver

Identifying Three Emerging Talents To Keep Close Eyes On This Weekend In Denver

Not only was Denver the starting locale for the UFC itself, playing host to the first two Ultimate Fighting Championship events in November 1993 and March 1994, respectively, but “The Mile High City” has also been a place where promising careers got underway, as well.

Tony Ferguson’s first appearance after winning Season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter took place in Denver, with “El Cucuy” busting up durable veteran Aaron Riley at UFC 135. The next time the Octagon touched down in Denver, a promising, young Hawaiian named Max Holloway kicked off the UFC 150 main card by stopping Justin Lawrence.

In late January 2018, when the promotion blew back into town for an event on FOX headlined by future titleholders Valentina Shevchenko and Julianna Pena, another future champ, Alexandre Pantoja, picked up a win in his promotional debut, besting fellow TUF alum Eric Shelton in the second fight of the night.

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And the last time the UFC ran a show at Ball Arena, local prospect Maycee Barber, who was initially slated to headline this weekend before being forced to withdraw, collected a victory in her first UFC appearance, blowing through Hannah Cifers in seven minutes and a tick.

Will any of this week’s highlighted athletes on the rise climb to the levels of the champions and contenders mentioned above? Only time will tell, but, for now, tune in Saturday to see if these three can keep pushing forward in their respective divisions.

Jean Silva

Jean Silva of Brazil reacts after knocking out Charles Jourdain of Canada in a featherweight fight during the UFC 303 event at T-Mobile Arena on June 29, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Jean Silva of Brazil reacts after knocking out Charles Jourdain of Canada in a featherweight fight during the UFC 303 event at T-Mobile Arena on June 29, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Just two weeks after settling Charles Jourdain in the second round of their clash at UFC 303, Dana White’s Contender Series (DWCS) Class of ’23 representative Jean Silva moves up a division to face off with all-action fan favorite Drew Dober in what can only be described as the MMA equivalent of a heat check for the Fighting Nerds representative.

Silva earned a unanimous decision win in his DWCS appearance last season against previously unbeaten Argentine Kevin Vallejos, who has since rebounded with consecutive stoppage wins. Thus far, neither of his UFC appearances have proven as difficult, as the 27-year-old blew through Westin Wilson in his promotional debut on the opening event of the year and showed out during International Fight Week, becoming the first person to stop Jourdain in his 23-fight career.

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The only knock against Silva at this point is that he missed weight for the bout with Jourdain by a pound-and-a-half, which shouldn’t be an issue here, as he ventures up to lightweight to take on Dober.

Jean Silva of Brazil punches Westin Wilson in a featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on January 13, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Jean Silva of Brazil punches Westin Wilson in a featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on January 13, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

This is a massive step up in competition for Silva, who has competed at lightweight once before in his 15-fight career. Dober has been a fixture in the “Second 15” in the 155-pound ranks for quite some time, briefly relocating to the Top 15 during a solid run that saw him finish Terrance McKinney, Rafael Alves, and Bobby Green in succession in 2022, and carries both an experience and conditioning edge, as the Nebraska native trains year-round in Denver.

You have to appreciate the willingness shown by Silva to jump right back into the fray against such a dangerous opponent, while also acknowledging that this is a tremendous no-lose situation for the promising Brazilian.

If he wins, it’s a massive feather in his cap and creates options for him, regardless of whether he stays at lightweight or returns to the 145-pound weight class. If he falters, it’s no big deal, as he took the bout on short notice, up a division, and lost to a more experienced, tenured talent.

Christian Rodriguez

Christian Rodriguez punches Cameron Saaiman of South Africa in a bantamweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on October 14, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Christian Rodriguez punches Cameron Saaiman of South Africa in a bantamweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on October 14, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Speaking of ascending featherweights…

Christian Rodriguez is someone whose name doesn’t get mentioned when discussing the top emerging names in the lighter weight classes because he’s low-key and largely stays off social media. But his name should come up more frequently because the 26-year-old arrives in Denver on a four-fight winning streak inside the Octagon and sporting an 11-1 record overall.

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Rodriguez competed on Season 5 of Dana White’s Contender Series, handily defeating Reyes Cortez in a bantamweight contest where he missed the contracted weight, which contributed to his not being awarded a contract. But the Roufusport product got a call to the Octagon four months later, dropping a competitive short-notice bout at featherweight to Jonathan Pearce to get his foot in the door.

Christian Rodriguez punches Joshua Weems in a bantamweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on October 29, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Christian Rodriguez punches Joshua Weems in a bantamweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on October 29, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

He returned to bantamweight and posted three consecutive wins, besting Joshua Weems, Raul Rosas Jr., and Cameron Saaiman, but missed weight for the final two of those three contests, lessening the impact of those victories. He bumped up to featherweight last time out and handed a loss to a third straight unbeaten opponent, nudging out Isaac Dulgarian on the scorecards in March.

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Now Rodriguez gets an opportunity to garner a little more attention as he steps in with Julian Erosa, a divisional stalwart with an allergy to boring fights.

This is the kind of matchup where Rodriguez should, in theory, have an opportunity to showcase more of his dynamic abilities, especially in the grappling department, where he’s done well to neutralize the offense of his last three opponents. Erosa is someone that fights with his hands down, chases opportunities, and invites chaos, which could present “CeeRod” with some chances to attack and potentially impress.

Joshua Van

Joshua Van of Myanmar punches Felipe Bunes of Brazil in a flyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on January 13, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Joshua Van of Myanmar punches Felipe Bunes of Brazil in a flyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on January 13, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

A late addition to this weekend’s fight card in Denver, Van sure has had an interesting first 13 months on the UFC roster.

Debuting on short notice last summer, the 22-year-old upset veteran Zhalgas Zhumagulov before earning a unanimous decision win over Kevin Borjas in the opening bout of UFC 295 at Madison Square Garden in November. He continued improving his results with a second-round stoppage win over Felipe Bunes on the opening card of the year to move to 3-0 inside the Octagon, and has since been linked to four fights that didn’t come to fruition.

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A matchup with Lucas Rocha in April was scuttled when the Brazilian was forced out due to injury, and three separate pairings for June went by the boards, all through no fault of Van’s.

His initial matchup with Sumudaerji was scrapped when “The Tibetan Eagle” was forced to withdraw, resulting in Van getting paired with fellow prospect Tatsuro Taira. He and Taira were each then swapped into different assignments on June 15, with Van landing opposite ranked Russian Tagir Ulanbekov, who missed weight by a considerable margin, resulting in the fight being cancelled.

Joshua Van of Myanmar kicks Kevin Borjas of Peru in a flyweight fight during the UFC 295 event at Madison Square Garden on November 11, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Joshua Van of Myanmar kicks Kevin Borjas of Peru in a flyweight fight during the UFC 295 event at Madison Square Garden on November 11, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Now Van faces off with Charles Johnson, the ultra-active veteran already making his third start of the year and aiming to build on a pair of decision wins over prospects Azat Maksum and Jake Hadley.

All signs point to Van developing into a contender in the flyweight division somewhere in the future, as he reached the UFC after less than two years as a pro and shows both the athleticism and technical acumen in the striking game to become a potential force at flyweight. Missing out on the fights with Taira and Ulanbekov actually feel like net positives now, as it ensured that Van didn’t get pushed too far, too quickly as a result of his early success.

With time to continue learning, developing, and growing as a fighter, the UFC’s first fighter from Myanmar could morph into another member of the young class poised to lead the 125-pound ranks in the future, alongside the likes of Taira and Muhammad Mokaev.

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UFC Fight Night: Namajunas vs Cortez took place live from Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado on July 13, 2024. See the Final Prelim & Main Card Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!