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Fighters On The Rise | UFC Fight Night: Reyes vs. Prochazka

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

Saturday’s event at the UFC APEX is one of those exciting collections that just kind of sneaks up on you.

Fighters You Should Know | UFC Fight Night: Reyes Vs Prochazka
Fighters You Should Know | UFC Fight Night: Reyes Vs Prochazka
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Following a massive UFC 261 pay-per-view event that also signaled the return of fans to the arena, this weekend’s card offers an intoxicating blend of critical divisional matchups, tough assignments for promising upstarts, and more than a couple “Oh, that’s bound to be fun” pairings that combine to make this a sleeper event you don’t want to sleep on.

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Here’s a closer look at three competitors set to hit the Octagon this weekend that you’re definitely going to want to keep an eye on going forward.

This is the May 1 edition of Fighters on the Rise.

JIRI PROCHAZKA

Free Fight: Jiri Prochazka vs Volkan Oezdemir
Free Fight: Jiri Prochazka vs Volkan Oezdemir
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The second appearance of Jiri Prochazka’s UFC career is a main event assignment with championship ramifications in the light heavyweight division, so just in case it wasn’t already clear that you should be paying attention to the 28-year-old Czech standout, consider this your final notice.

“Denisa” debuted last summer with a second-round stoppage win over former title challenger Volkan Oezdemir, felling the Swiss contender with an overhand right just 49 seconds into the middle stanza. The victory was his ninth consecutive stoppage win and extended his winning streak to 11, establishing the tall, rangy powerhouse as an immediate contender in the 205-pound weight class.

Now sporting a 27-3-1 record overall, Prochazka has the opportunity to put himself on the very short list of possible challengers for current light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz with a victory this weekend over the man the Polish titleholder beat to claim the title last year, Dominick Reyes.

Preview The Entire Card Fight By Fight

After entering last year with a perfect 12-0 record, the 31-year-old Reyes suffered a heartbreaking decision loss to Jon Jones at UFC 247, where many believed he’d done enough to wrest the title away from the longtime champion. Seven months later, he tasted Blachowicz’ “legendary Polish power” late in the second round, sending him into this weekend’s main event on a two-fight slide.

Prochazka fought a host of familiar names on his way to the UFC and showed why he was considered an intriguing, high-impact addition to the light heavyweight ranks with his thunderous finish of Oezdemir last summer on UFC Fight Island.

Should he be able to replicate that performance or produce a reasonable facsimile against Reyes on Saturday, the electrifying newcomer will validate the high praise he received upon signing with the UFC and establish himself as one of the most dangerous threats in the suddenly exceedingly interesting 205-pound ranks.

LUANA PINHEIRO

Luana Pinheiro punches Stephanie Frausto in their strawweight fight during Dana White's Contender Series season four, week nine at UFC APEX on November 10, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/DWCS LLC/Zuffa LLC)
Luana Pinheiro punches Stephanie Frausto in their strawweight fight during Dana White's Contender Series season four, week nine at UFC APEX on November 10, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/DWCS LLC/Zuffa LLC)

The strawweight division already has a number of very talented Brazilian women climbing the ranks, including Amanda Lemos, Virna Jandiroba, Amanda Ribas, and Marina Rodriguez. Luana Pinheiro has the potential to join that group rather quickly as she makes her promotional debut this weekend against divisional mainstay Randa Markos.

The 27-year-old Pinheiro impressed last fall on Dana White’s Contender Series, dominating Stephanie Frausto to earn a first-round stoppage win and a UFC contract. The victory pushed her winning streak and first-round-finish streak to six and her record to 8-1 overall, setting up this step up in competition on Saturday evening.

A judo black belt and Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, Pinheiro got a taste of fight week earlier this year when she cornered her boyfriend, flyweight Matheus Nicolau, in his return to the UFC, and that experience, coupled with her Contender Series appearance, should send her into this one more at ease and comfortable in her new surroundings.

RELATED: Luana Pinheiro Sharpens Her Weapons For UFC Debut

Markos has been a part of the strawweight division since its inception and has faced a who’s who of talent to pass through the 115-pound ranks over the years. She’s a scrappy veteran currently on a three-fight slide but has considerably more experience than anyone Pinheiro has faced to date, making her a perfect litmus test for the newcomer.

There is a lot of attention on Pinheiro heading into this one, so it will be interesting to see how she responds. She has a ton of upside and the kind of finishing skills and instincts that make her an intriguing addition to the weight class, regardless of how her debut plays out on Saturday.

Loma Lookboonmee

Loma Lookboonmee Thai Clinch Demonstration | UFC Intro to MMA
Loma Lookboonmee Thai Clinch Demonstration | UFC Intro to MMA
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The first Thai fighter to sign with the UFC, Loma Lookboonmee has quickly established herself as one to watch in the strawweight division.

A standout Muay Thai stylist before transitioning to mixed martial arts in 2018, the 25-year-old Lookboonmee earned a split decision win over Aleksandra Albu in her promotional debut, pushing her record to 4-1 in the process before dropping a unanimous decision to late-replacement Angela Hill early last year, winning a round on two of the three judges’ scorecards in a competitive performance against a far more experienced foe.

RELATED: Sam Hughes Has Some Tricks Up Her Sleeve

Logging 15 minutes in the Octagon with Hill likely served her well, as just over seven months later, she returned to the cage and registered a unanimous decision win of her own over former Invicta FC champ Jinh Yu Frey. This weekend, the Tiger Muay Thai representative looks to make it two straight as she squares off with American Sam Hughes, whose short-notice debut in December was cut short due to an eye injury.

The transition to MMA is always challenging and can be even more difficult when being done at the highest level in the sport, but thus far, Lookboonmee has shown a ton of progress and development. With another six months of training under her belt and a tremendous performance to build upon, don’t be surprised if the talented Thai upstart takes another big step forward this weekend in her North American debut.