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Montel Jackson punches Julio Arce in a bantamweight bout during the UFC 281 event at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Fighters On The Rise | UFC Fight Night: Pavlovich vs Blaydes

Three Can't-Miss Combatants To Watch For On Saturday's Las Vegas Event

For the first time since the end of February, the action returns to the UFC APEX this weekend for a card headlined by heavyweight contenders Sergei Pavlovich and Curtis Blaydes.

While the big boys will battle it out in the main event, squaring off in a battle for position in the championship chase now that Jon Jones has ascended to the throne and things are wide open once more, Saturday’s undercard features a number of compelling matchups and intriguing talents making their way into the Octagon.

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Included in that collection are an emerging bantamweight, a welterweight finisher, and a promising featherweight making his sophomore appearance inside the UFC cage.

Here’s a closer look at those three athletes in this week’s edition of Fighter of the Rise.

Montel Jackson

Montel Jackson Scores A 1st-Round TKO | UFC Fight Night: Brunson vs Holland
Montel Jackson Scores A 1st-Round TKO | UFC Fight Night: Brunson vs Holland

Jackson competed on the first episode of Season 2 of Dana White’s Contender Series (DWCS), defeating Rico DiSciullo by third-round technical knockout, then graduated to the UFC less than one year after making his professional debut.

“Quik” lost his first start in the promotion in a “thrown into the deep end” pairing with Ricky Simon before rattling off three straight victories, and then repeated the same pattern with a setback against tough Welshman Brett Johns and another tetra-pack of wins. Now 12-2 overall and closing in on the five-year anniversary of that DWCS triumph, the 30-year-old feels poised to show he’s capable of competing with the next tier of talent in the bantamweight ranks.

FREE FIGHTS: Pavlovich vs Tuivasa | Blaydes vs Daukaus 

Jackson is long and tall for the division, standing five-foot-10 with a 75-inch reach, and has giant mitts that come in handy when he’s looking to clasp his hands and work for takedowns. He was on the Olympic wrestling track before pursuing MMA, and his grappling has been his calling card thus far, but he’s shown steady improvements in his striking, most notably in his first-round finish of Jesse Strader.

Saturday night, the Milwaukee native squares off with Rani Yahya in a contest that is going to test his defensive grappling skills and show just how well he’s able to use his length to his advantage. The 38-year-old Brazilian is crafty, but limited, as his striking has never been more than a means to end in terms of closing the distance, and he hasn’t competed since posting a unanimous decision win over Kyung Ho Kang in November 2021.

In order to extend his winning streak to four and get by Yahya, Jackson will need to maintain space, dominate the striking, and be mindful of every interaction on the ground with the slick submission ace. If he’s able to successfully navigate this tricky assignment, another step up in competition and date with someone further up the divisional ladder should come next.

Jeremiah Wells

Jeremiah Wells Finishes McGee With Vicious Left Hook | UFC Fight Night: Kattar vs Emmett
Jeremiah Wells Finishes McGee With Vicious Left Hook | UFC Fight Night: Kattar vs Emmett

Wells is someone that gets very little attention in the UFC welterweight division and thus far, when he tripped himself up along the fence at the outset of his UFC 271 clash with Blood Diamond last February is probably the thing people remember him for the most.

That’s a mistake because the 36-year-old Pennsylvania native should be known for detonating a pair of bombs on the jaws of divisional mainstays Warlley Alves (on short notice) and Court McGee on either side of his first-round submission win over the aforementioned Mr. Diamond.

An absolute powerhouse of an athlete, Wells is 3-0 in the UFC, riding a five-fight winning streak overall, and sports an 11-2-1 record heading into his main card clash with fellow big hitter Matthew Semelsberger on Saturday. It’s been a real slow burn for Wells to this point, but he fought good competition in quality East Coast promotions on the way up, is part of the emerging Philly crew that trains with John Marquez and Daniel Gracie, and has been lights out through his first three trips into the Octagon.

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With another blistering effort Saturday, far more people will be talking about Wells as someone to watch in the 170-pound weight class.

Semelsberger has gone 5-2 over his seven UFC starts thus far, bouncing back from a unanimous decision loss to Alex Morono last summer at UFC 277 with a terrific decision victory over Jake Matthews on the final card of the year. A former collegiate defensive back whose football aspirations gave way to MMA, “Semi” has posted two of his five victories in 17 seconds or less, so he should give Wells opportunities to land as he pursues his own finish this weekend.

It’s somewhat understandable that Wells is hovering under the radar at the moment, but his win over McGee was the first time the former Ultimate Fighter winner was knocked out in his lengthy career. A similar result against Semelsberger to lift his record to 4-0 in the UFC would force people to sit up and take notice and put Wells in line for a significant step up in competition next time out.

Francis Marshall

Francis Marshall Delivers A Big KO In His UFC Debut | UFC Fight Night: Thompson vs Holland
Francis Marshall Delivers A Big KO In His UFC Debut | UFC Fight Night: Thompson vs Holland

Heading into his UFC debut last December, I wondered if Marshall was maybe getting stuck in a little too tough right out of the gate being paired off with Argentinian veteran Marcelo Rojo.

Midway through the first round, it was clear that the 24-year-old was certainly capable of holding his own against the more experienced “Pitbull” and 74 seconds into the middle stanza, he was 1-0 in the UFC, having stopped Rojo cold with a beautiful right hand as the two traded in the pocket. Saturday night, Marshall returns to the UFC APEX, where he earned his contract with a win on Dana White’s Contender Series, for a clash with fellow sophomore William Gomis.

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Unbeaten in seven pro fights after a 5-0 amateur career, the 24-year-old Marshall has clearly been developed well by former UFC competitor Kurt Pellegrino, who serves as his head coach. He’s quick with his hands, sound with his fundamentals, and gritty enough to stand in there and trade with Rojo right out of the chute, even when things weren’t necessarily going his way. His contract-winning effort against Connor Matthews last summer showed his ability to go the distance while working at a good pace, as well as stay focused when he could have been discouraged by Matthews’ resilience, and both should come in handy as he continues to work forward in the featherweight division.

Gomis carried an eight-fight winning streak into his promotional debut last fall in Paris, where he earned a majority decision win over Jarno Errens. It was a slightly uneven effort from the MMA Factory representative, but between fighting on the big stage and fighting at home in front of a massive audience, it’s reasonable to cut the 25-year-old “Jaguar” some slack and expect him to be even better this time around.

This is a great opportunity for Marshall to test himself against a talented contemporary with a little more experience and who also comes from a quality team. It’s the kind of early matchup that will help clarify where he stands in his development, as well as the division, for the time being, and allow his team and fight observers to better chart a course for his future.

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UFC Fight Night: Pavlovich vs Blaydes took place live from the UFC APEX in Las Vegas on April 22, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass