Saturday night, the UFC returns with a dozen pairs of athletes ready to step into the Octagon to compete at UFC 249.
Headlined by an interim lightweight title fight between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje that has “Fight of the Year” written all over it, and featuring a bantamweight title clash between reigning champ Henry Cejudo and long-time titleholder Dominick Cruz as the co-main event, plus a collection of must-see matchups including a heavyweight showdown between Francis Ngannou and Jairzinho Rozenstruik, this weekend’s return to the cage is sure to provide a jolt of electricity and excitement for all those who have been jonesing for some live sports.
Joining the established names and championship talent scheduled to compete on Saturday are a trio of fighters looking to get one step close to making their dreams of fighting for UFC gold a reality.
Here’s a closer look at those athletes.
This is the UFC 249 edition of On the Rise.
For the second time in as many Octagon appearances, the 32-year-old heavyweight from Cape Verde is slated to kick off the main card as De Castro puts his undefeated record on the line against Greg Hardy in the pay-per-view opener.
Fighting out of Fall River, Massachusetts, De Castro won four fights in 14 months to begin his professional career and it set him up for an appearance on Season 3 of the Contender Series. Positioned as the underdog in a matchup with fellow unbeaten Alton Meeks, the compact and powerful De Castro beat up his opponent’s lead leg before bringing the bout to a close in the waning seconds of the opening round with a series of hammerfists.
The effort earned De Castro a UFC contract and a trip to Melbourne, Australia a little less than four months later where he shared the cage with fellow promotional newcomer and local favorite Justin Tafa. Just over two minutes into the contest, Tafa pressed forward a little too aggressively and De Castro made him pay, connecting with a counter right hand that put Tafa on the canvas.
The walk-off win was enough to make De Castro a “file that name away for later” type in the heavyweight division, and between Tafa’s impressive bounce-back effort against Juan Adams and the opportunity before him this weekend, De Castro has a chance to establish himself as arguably the top newcomer in the division with a strong showing in his sophomore effort against Hardy.
If people weren’t already checking for Mitchell heading into his December bout against Matt Sayles, they sure were talking about and taking stock of the Arkansas native afterwards as the 25-year-old featherweight wrapped up just the second twister submission in UFC history.
A member of Team Cormier on Season 27 of The Ultimate Fighter, “Thug Nasty” got bounced in the semifinals by eventual winner Brad Katona, but rebounded to win the “bronze medal matchup” against fellow orange-and-black alum Tyler Diamond at the finale. A unanimous decision victory over the durable Bobby Moffett followed and established the young grappler as someone to keep an eye on going forward, and when he locked Sayles up in the twister, Mitchell ensured he was going to be near the top of the list of emerging talents to watch in the ultra-competitive 145-pound weight class heading into 2020.
Expectations are now elevated for Mitchell, who trains at Westside MMA alongside fellow UFC competitor T.J. Brown, and this weekend’s matchup with Charles Rosa will be a good measuring stick for where Mitchell fits in the division at the moment.
Though he’s been limited by injuries throughout his UFC career, Rosa is an established competitor who has proven to be a tough out for veterans and upstarts alike, earning Fight of the Night efforts in each of his three losses, all of which came against ranked opponents. The 33-year-old is skilled on the ground and faced significantly tougher competition than Mitchell over the course of his six fights inside the Octagon, so it will be interesting to see how the rising star acquits himself now that the competition is a little tougher and the spotlight is a little brighter.
Saturday night’s festivities begin in the light heavyweight division, where one of the rising stars of the 205-pound weight class looks to add another veteran name to his list of vanquished foes while securing his eighth straight victory as Fortis MMA’s Spann squares off with Sam Alvey.
Spann’s place on the fringes of contention in the light heavyweight ranks is a story of perseverance, as he was quickly knocked out by Karl Roberson in his first attempt to crack the UFC roster during the first season of the Contender Series. Since then, the lanky “Superman” has strung together seven straight victories, including a first-round submission win over Emiliano Sordi in his return to the Contender Series and three wins in as many appearances inside the Octagon.
After edging out Luis Henrique on the cards in his promotional debut, the 28-year-old Spann has posted consecutive stoppage wins over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Devin Clark to establish himself as a one of the top emerging talents in the division. Despite recent struggles, Alvey remains one of the most experienced fighters on the roster and the kind of seasoned veteran who is always capable of halting a hopeful’s ascent if they’re not careful.
While 2020 got off to a rocky start for the Fortis MMA crew, Spann has looked lights out in his last two outings, as well as in his four fights prior to debuting in the UFC, and you can be sure head coach Sayif Saud will have him locked in and ready to roll when he makes the walk this weekend.
In a division where new contenders are always welcome, a fourth straight victory could be enough to catapult Spann into the Top 10 and set him up for a more high-profile pairing later this year.
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