Generally speaking, the most exciting part of a horse race is when the pack comes out of the final bend and reaches the top of the stretch — the long straightaway leading to the finish line, where leaders can falter, looming hopefuls can get boxed in, and unexpected closers can make sweeping charges from well behind, producing a thrilling, electric race to the finish.
If the end of the year is the finish line, the UFC has reached the top of the stretch — the final four-month run where championships will be defended, “of the Year” award winners will be cemented, and the course each division will take in 2022 will really begin to crystalize. While the summer months often play host to the biggest events of the year, the fall schedule is where some of the biggest moments in UFC history have transpired, and the potential is there for the same to occur this year.
Kicking off the 17-week run to the close of 2021 is this weekend’s fight card at the UFC APEX headlined by a pair of middleweights with championship aspirations, Derek Brunson and Darren Till.
Before the ranked middleweights take the stage, a band of aspiring talents will make the short walk from the dressing rooms to the dance floor, focused on securing another victory, taking another step forward in their respective divisions, and making an impression as the field comes barreling down the track towards the finish line.
Here’s a closer look at three of those competitors.
The British heavyweight has been as good as advertised since moving to the UFC, perhaps even better, registering three stoppage victories in as many starts to push his overall winning streak to six.
Last time out, the Team Kaobon representative submitted divisional stalwart and former world champion Andrei Arlovski, toppling him into the fence before snatching up a rear-naked choke a minute and change into the middle stanza of their February encounter in Las Vegas. Saturday night, Aspinall squares off with late replacement Serghei Spivac, who steps in for Sergei Pavlovich while sporting a three-fight winning streak.
While he doesn’t have the same fluidity and ease of motion as new interim champion Ciryl Gane, there is something uncommon about the way Aspinall moves inside the cage, especially for a man of his stature. He’s light on his feet and crisp in his movements, never quite looking like the six-foot-five, 250-odd-pound heavyweight he is, if that makes sense. He’s smooth, fundamentally sound, and a much more complete fighter than many realize, brandishing a black belt in jiu jitsu along with some of the most educated hands in the division.
His three straight victories have elevated Aspinall into the Top 15 and another impressive showing against the returning Russian would further establish the surging 28-year-old as one of, if not the top emerging names in the heavyweight ranks going forward.
Bantamweight has become the most competitive, talent-rich division in the UFC over the last couple of years and that abundance of talent is the only reason I can accept for why more people aren’t talking more about the undefeated Shore.
The 26-year-old from Wales is 14-0 as a professional and 3-0 in the UFC. He’s finished a dozen of those bouts and two of three inside the Octagon, won and defended the Cage Warriors bantamweight strap before matriculating to the biggest stage in the sport, and also won a dozen fights without a defeat as an amateur, capped by an IMMAF European Championship win.
Shore has made the walk to the cage 26 times in his life and each and every time he’s emerged with his hand raised in victory, and he’s still just 26. If you’re looking for someone to back as a future contender and potential champion, you couldn’t do much better than “Tank,” who returns on Saturday to face TUF 29 semifinalist Liudvik Sholinian in a dangerous short-notice pairing.
There is nothing flashy about Shore’s approach, nor is he the type of grab the mic and talk trash or flex his Twitter muscles; he’s just a hard-working, nose-to-the-grindstone type who is extremely talented and quietly working his way up the ladder in the most competitive division in the UFC right now.
A victory over the Team Ortega representative on Saturday isn’t going to vault him into the rankings or land him a marquee assignment next time around, but putting together 15 consecutive victories at any level is exceptionally difficult and if Shore can get there with a fourth straight UFC triumph this weekend, he really should vault to the top of the list of up-and-coming fighters to watch in the lighter ranks in the year to come.
Saturday night in Las Vegas, “Paddy the Baddy” will make his first march to the Octagon to square off with Luigi Vendramini in one of the most anticipated UFC debuts of the year.
The charismatic and talented Scouser rebounded from his decision loss to Soren Bak three years ago with consecutive first-round stoppage victories over Decky Dalton and Davide Martinez literally one year apart to push his record to 16-3 overall and earn the call to the UFC. One of the most beloved fighters on the UK regional circuit, the former Cage Warriors featherweight champion and lightweight title challenger is a bundle of swagger and skill topped with a classic Liverpool mop of hair, and now it’s time to see where Pimblett fits in the loaded lightweight class.
His pairing with Vendramini is a good measuring stick assignment against a solid young fighter who has flashed potential, but struggled to build consistency inside the Octagon. Things have gotten a little contentious between the two in the build to this fight — at least on Pimblett’s side of things — and it will be interesting to see how that added emotion factors in when the cage door closes this weekend.
Pimblett is the most hyped British arrival in a number of years and his overall success to this point in his career justifies the interest and attention his debut has thus far commanded. Many have long believed the 26-year-old deserved to be competing at this level and had the skills to thrive amongst the best in the sport, and now it’s time for Pimblett to take the first step towards validating those beliefs.