After taking a week to digest and recover from the first pay-per-view of the year, it’s time to get back to watching the action unfold inside the Octagon this weekend, as the first of four February fight cards touches down at the UFC APEX in Las Vegas.
Headlined by a matchup between Top 10 middleweights Jack Hermansson and Sean Strickland, Saturday’s third event of 2022 is another one of those instances where fans can get an extended look at some emerging talents that have a chance to make some noise in their respective divisions this year and in the future.
Along with the three athletes highlighted below, this weekend’s fight card also features Bryan Battle and Tresean Gore squaring off in what was originally slated to be the final bout of the middleweight competition on Season 29 of The Ultimate Fighter, former TUF winner Michael Trizano going in search of a second straight victory in a clash with dangerous Canadian Hakeem Dawodu, and a host of graduates and alums from Dana White’s Contender Series hitting the cage.
It’s going to be an entertaining night of action inside the Octagon on Saturday, and here are three up-and-coming talents to pay close attention to once things get going.
An undefeated representative of the Nick Diaz Academy, Maximov appeared on the final episode in Season 4 of Dana White’s Contender Series, competing at heavyweight and earning a unanimous decision victory, but not a contract. The young grappler bided his time and got the call to the Octagon last year, and after initially being paired off with Karl Roberson, ended up making his debut opposite Cody Brundage at UFC 266.
Maximov picked up a unanimous decision win over his fellow DWCS alum, pushing his record to 7-0 in the process, setting up this weekend’s co-main event showdown with Punahele Soriano, a member of the DWCS Class of ’19 who has gone 2-1 through his first three UFC appearances.
There is a lot to like about what the 24-year-old Oregon native brings to the table, as Maximov went unbeaten in his six-fight amateur career and scored finishes in each of his first four professional outings. He’s been active in the grappling world throughout his fighting career, making repeated appearances on Submission Underground shows, and learning from Nick and Nathan Diaz is sure to have infused Maximov with a fair amount of toughness and resolve that should serve him well inside the UFC cage.
He’ll need to be sharp and stay active if he wants to get by Soriano, who earned first-round finishes in each of his first two appearances before dropping a unanimous decision to Brendan Allen last July, but if he can do it, expect to hear plenty more about Maximov and his upside in the 185-pound ranks later in the year.
If you take nothing else away from this article, please let it be this: Rakhmonov is one of the top up-and-coming talents on the UFC roster. Not just in the welterweight division, but on the entire roster.
The 27-year-old has maintained his undefeated professional record since transitioning into the Octagon, securing submission victories over Brazilian veterans Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira and Michel Prazeres to push his record to 14-0 heading into his clash with Carlston Harris this weekend.
Currently training at Sanford MMA in Deerfield Beach, Florida, the unbeaten “Nomad” is big for the welterweight division, standing six-foot-one and brandishing a 77-inch reach, which he uses well. The former M-1 Challenger welterweight titleholder has a complete arsenal of weapons at his disposal and has yet to go the distance in his professional career, which includes a catchweight victory over current UFC middleweight Junyong Park.
Saturday’s clash with Harris is another stern test for the promising Rakhmonov, as the 34-year-old from Guyana has also earned finishes in each of his first two trips into the Octagon, having submitted Christian Aguilera last May before earning a technical knockout victory over Impa Kasanganay in September. Currently riding a five-fight winning streak with nine victories in his last 10 appearances, “Moçambique” should serve as another good measuring stick for where Rakhmonov currently fits in the division.
When you see the collection of finishes the fighter from Kazakhstan accrued before arriving in the UFC and then recognize that next to no one has dominated and finished Oliveira and Prazeres with the ease and swiftness exhibited by Rakhmonov, it’s difficult not to get too excited about his upside. But those victories clearly show that he has the look of someone that is going to be a factor in the 170-pound ranks for the next several years, and if he maintains his current form through this weekend, it’s going to be even harder to temper the excitement surrounding this emerging star.
Fortis MMA has been one of the top teams in the sport for the last couple of years, and Johns is one member of the crew to pay close attention to in 2022, as the 27-year-old bantamweight arrives in Las Vegas this week having earned back-to-back third-round stoppage victories to push his record to 12-1.
Johns first flashed as a prospect during his time competing under the LFA banner, where he earned victories over Levi Mowles and Eric Ellington before out-dueling Adrian Yanez in a tight battle for the promotion’s vacant bantamweight title. He parlayed that win into an appearance on the third season of Dana White’s Contender Series, where a dominant win earned him a contract, and he’s subsequently posted three wins in four starts inside the Octagon.
After suffering the first loss of his professional career at UFC 247 in Houston, Johns exorcised those demons last time out, returning to the Toyota Center and collecting a blistering finish of Anderson dos Santos to secure his second straight Performance of the Night bonus. This weekend, “Chapo” squares off with fellow DWCS alum John Castaneda in what should turn out to be an all-action affair.
Making headway in the bantamweight division is more difficult than ever before right now, as the 135-pound weight class has never been deeper or more flush with talent. That being said, it’s difficult to overlook Johns’ most recent efforts and his impressive track record before he arrived in the UFC, so if he’s able to keep things moving in the right direction through this weekend, the Sayif Saud-coached hopeful should earn himself a step up in competition next time out and a place amongst the growing list of emerging talents looking to make their mark in the bantamweight ranks.