The UFC is set to #GOBIG over the final four months of the 2015 fight calendar, with a massive kickoff event featuring numerous champions and several of the top names on the roster scheduled to take place prior to the UFC 191 weigh-ins on Friday, September 4 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
But who can wait a week to start getting excited about the outstanding collection of contests penciled in to take place between now and the end of the year?
Here’s a look at 10 of the best tilts heading into the Octagon before 2016 kicks off.
Demetrious Johnson vs. John Dodson II – UFC 191 (September 5 – Las Vegas, Nevada)
Their initial encounter was highly anticipated and lived up to the hype, with Dodson dropping the flyweight champion on a couple different occasions before “Mighty Mouse” rallied in the championship rounds to successfully defend his title for the first time.
Dodson hasn’t stopped talking about getting another crack at the champion since then, and after returning from an injury and picking up a win over Zach Makovsky at UFC 187, “The Magician” will get his chance next week in Las Vegas. Johnson has posted five more victories since then – four of them by stoppage – to not only cement himself as the champion, but establish himself as one of the top pound-for-pound talents in the sport.
These two don’t like each other – Dodson says Johnson is doing the division a disservice, while the champion isn’t a fan of the challenger’s constant chatter – so given how great their first fight was and the tension between them, this is a perfect fight to kickstart the final four months of action inside the Octagon.
Daniel Cormier vs. Alexander Gustafsson – UFC 192 (October 3 – Houston, Texas)
Cormier claimed the vacant light heavyweight title with an impressive third-round submission win over Anthony Johnson back in May, eating a massive right hand early, but steadying himself quickly before getting his grind on and tapping out “Rumble.”
The announcement of Gustafsson as the new champion’s first challenger caught plenty of people off guard since Cormier and Ryan Bader were previously booked to fight and got into a heated exchange at the UFC 187 post-fight press conference, while Gustafsson hasn’t fought since losing to Johnson back in January.
Stylistically, however, “The Mauler” is a much more daunting matchup for Cormier – a rangy striker who took former champion Jon Jones to the limit at UFC 165 and enters with a lot to prove here.
Will Cormier defend his title and retain the top spot in the division or will the Swedish standout get back into the win column in a major way?
Stipe Miocic vs. Ben Rothwell – UFC Fight Night: Poirier vs. Duffy (October 24 – Dublin, Ireland)
The main event of the UFC’s return to Dublin between Dustin Poirier and Joe Duffy is awesome and will likely establish the winner as a legitimate threat in the lightweight division, but the winner of this tussle could very well be next in line to challenge for the heavyweight title and those greater stakes earn this fight a place on this list.
After proving he was capable of hanging with the best in the division last December when he went five rounds with Junior Dos Santos, Miocic established himself as one of the top contenders with a one-sided stoppage win over Mark Hunt back in May. Meanwhile, the 33-year-old Rothwell has collected three straight victories, including back-to-back first-round finishes of Alistair Overeem and Matt Mitrione.
Former champions Andrei Arlovski and Frank Mir get the first shot at making a case for a title shot when they meet at UFC 191, which should up the sense of urgency for these two when they collide in Ireland. Expect fireworks and perhaps a maniacal cackle or two from Rothwell between now and then.
Ronda Rousey vs. Holly Holm – UFC 193 (November 15 – Melbourne, Australia)
Ronda Rousey has become the biggest star in the sport and has left a trail of battered opponents in her wake over the last two years, needing a combined 130 seconds to dispatch Sara McMann, Alexis Davis, Cat Zingano and Bethe Correia. She is a force of nature inside and outside of the Octagon and her fights have become must-see events for fans and non-fans alike.
In Holm, Rousey will face an unbeaten fighter with a tremendous understanding of space and distance, two elements that will likely be key in determining the outcome of this fight. The former multiple-time world champion boxer showed flashes of brilliance on the regional circuit and continues to gain confidence with each appearance in the UFC cage. While some believe Holm is not ready for the reigning champion at this stage, the Team Jackson-Winkeljohn standout has the pedigree and team around her to make giant strides between fights and could end up being Rousey’s toughest opponent to date.
Frankie Edgar vs. Chad Mendes - TUF 22 Finale (December 11 - Las Vegas, Nevada)
This is perfect on so many levels. It’s an outstanding fight - a clash between two former featherweight title challengers that sit at the top of the rankings and have yet to meet inside the Octagon. Stylistically, it’s a terrific chess match between two guys whose base skills - wrestling and boxing - are the same in name, but significantly different in application, as Mendes comes from the power side of things, while Edgar is more about movement, timing and keeping his opponents guessing. Putting it the night before the featherweight title unification bout between Jose Aldo and Conor McGregor makes it even better.
Tony Ferguson vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov – TUF 22 Finale (December 11 – Las Vegas)
This is a great fight for both competitors and an amazing fight for the fans. It’s pretty much perfect and stands out as one of the best fights on the schedule between now and the end of the year.
Ferguson has rattled off six consecutive victories following a 17-month hiatus following his loss to Michael Johnson. During that span, “El Cucuy” has earned four stoppages and three Performance of the Night bonuses while showcasing one of the most aggressive and inventive offensive arsenals in the division.
If not for a couple of knee injuries, Nurmagomedov might have already fought for the lightweight title. Sidelined since beating current champion Rafael Dos Anjos in April of 2014 in Orlando, Florida, the unbeaten standout from Dagestan missed out on a potential fight with Donald Cerrone last September and has to get through Ferguson first in order to challenge for the lightweight strap and that’s no easy task.
This one should be electric and could very well establish the winner as the No. 1 contender in the talent-rich 155-pound ranks.
Chris Weidman vs. Luke Rockhold – UFC 194 (December 12 – Las Vegas)
These two have been taking playful shots at each other over social media and various broadcast segments for quite some time, but they’ll finally trade blows with the middleweight title hanging in the balance in a couple months.
Rockhold has looked outstanding over his last four, earning stoppage victories over Costas Philippou, Tim Boetsch, Michael Bisping and Lyoto Machida to put himself in the blue corner for this championship contest. The American Kickboxing Academy product is dangerous anywhere the fight goes and is no stranger to five-round championship fights, so don’t expect any jitters from the Santa Cruz native in this one.
As for Weidman, he’s silenced all the critics that questioned his place atop the division with dominant performances against Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort since his consecutive wins over Anderson Silva. A perfect 13-0 for his career with nine of those wins coming inside the Octagon, this might be the last chance for people to still find space on the Weidman bandwagon.
Jose Aldo vs. Conor McGregor – UFC 194
This one needs no explanation.
If you think the anticipation for their initially scheduled meeting at UFC 189 was bonkers and the atmosphere inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena when McGregor beat Chad Mendes was amazing, wait until the loud and proud Irish fans are countered by a wave of equally vocal, equally passionate Brazilians.
It’s going to be deafening and this fight just might be the most highly anticipated bout in UFC history.
Junior Dos Santos vs. Alistair Overeem – UFC on FOX: dos Anjos vs. Cerrone II (December 19 – Orlando, Florida)
Just announced on Tuesday, these two heavyweights have been on a collision course since Overeem arrived in the UFC and now they’re finally going to share the Octagon in Orlando.
“Cigano” has gone 11-2 in the UFC, with his only setbacks coming in his second and third meetings with Cain Velasquez. Last December, the former champion reminded everyone that he’s still one of the top heavyweights in the sport by collecting an unanimous decision win over Stipe Miocic in a close, brutal battle on FOX.
Overeem enters on a two-fight winning streak, having knocked out Stefan Struve the same night Dos Santos bested Miocic before earning a clear decision win over Roy Nelson back in March. Now working with Team Jackson-Winkeljohn, “The Reem” has shown a more patient, calculating approach in his last couple appearances and it will be interesting to see if that carries over into this grudge match with Dos Santos.
Rafael Dos Anjos vs. Donald Cerrone II – UFC on FOX: Dos Anjos vs. Cerrone II
The titular fight of the final event of 2015 pits two fighters that have each shown significant improvement since their first encounter against one another for a second time, this time with the winner walking away as the lightweight champion.
“Cowboy” has won eight straight since losing to Dos Anjos in August 2013, working his way through a who’s who in the treacherous 155-pound weight class to arrive at his first UFC title shot. Cerrone has always had a ton of talent and the right amount of nastiness to be a threat, but now that he’s fighting with confidence, the ornery owner of the BMF Ranch has looked even more dangerous.
Much like TJ Dillashaw last year, Dos Anjos turned in a breathtaking performance to pull off his championship upset of Anthony Pettis back in March, taking the fight to “Showtime” from Jump Street and never allowing him a chance to find his footing. The Kings MMA product has looked outstanding since his loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov and should be bolstered by his previous victory over “Cowboy” heading into his first title defense.