Let’s be honest with each other: when you’re the new kids in town on a fight card stacked with as many established stars, former champions and compelling matchups, it’s going to be difficult to stand out on fight night.
Not that it’s impossible, but it’s more difficult to make an impression and get noticed when you’re competing alongside Jon Jones, Amanda Nunes, Luke Rockhold, Ben Askren and the rest of the outstanding collection of fighters set to take part in UFC 239 this weekend in Las Vegas than it is when if you’re throwing down on any event other than the main attraction of International Fight Week.
That being said, the opportunity before this week’s trio of up-and-coming talents is also far greater than it is for their contemporaries who fought last weekend in Minneapolis or those set to hit the cage in Sacramento the following Saturday night because all eyes will be on T-Mobile Arena this weekend and the right kind of performance could get people talking about you alongside those champions at the top of the card.
Here’s a look at three upstarts who will be trying to force their way into the spotlight this weekend.
This is the UFC 239 edition of On the Rise.
When your nickname is “The Golden Boy” and you’re repped by Ronda Rousey, you’re guaranteed to garner some attention. Add in a nine-fight winning streak with eight first-round stoppages and you’re going to end up under the microscope as skeptics and naysayers look to pick holes in your game and sort out where your ceiling rests.
Thus far, the 21-year-old Shahbazyan has handled everything that has come his way with aplomb, graduating from the Contender Series to the Octagon and continuing to stack victories.
After being forced to dig deep in order to gut out a split decision win over Darren Stewart in his promotional debut, the Glendale Fighting Club representative returned to his finishing ways in his sophomore outing, stopping Charles Byrd in 38 seconds at UFC 235.
This weekend, Shahbazyan gets another step up in competition as he squares off with Welsh veteran Jack Marshman, who is eight years his senior and brandishes more than three times as many appearances as the young middleweight. Last time out, the 29-year-old “Hammer” edged out fellow Welshman John Phillips in an entertaining back-and-forth scrap to bring his record in the Octagon level at three up and three down.
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If Shahbazyan can stride into the cage and continue his winning ways by beating a durable, dangerous veteran like Marshman, don’t be surprised to see him enter the conversation as one of the top young talents on the roster, especially if he earns another quick finish.
His full potential is yet to be determined, but the early returns have been nothing but positive and another strong showing amongst this decorated collection of talent could put Shahbazyan on the fast track to stardom in the UFC.
I love me a good nickname and when you’re a 22-year-old fighting out of Salzburg, Austria, calling yourself “The Austrian Wonderboy” is pretty strong. What’s even stronger is the impression Naurdiev made in his promotional debut in February in Prague.
Stepping in on short notice to face off with Michel Prazeres, Naurdiev outworked the 37-year-old Brazilian, sweeping the scorecards and earning a 10-8 round from two officials on the way to halting Prazeres’ eight-fight winning streak. Did I mention that he had fought three weeks earlier too?
This weekend in Las Vegas, Naurdiev makes his second trip into the cage against Chance Rencountre, who claimed his first UFC win last time out with a first-round submission win over Kyle Stewart in January.
Welterweight is always flushed with talent and finding a way to break through when you’re just getting started is challenging, but Naurdiev’s win over Prazeres opened some eyes and improving on that performance at UFC 239 will force even more people to sit up and take notice of the talented newcomer.
Despite having just seven professional appearances, the 31-year-old “Raging Panda” has already had a pretty interesting career.
Avila defeated UFC stalwart Marion Reneau in her debut all the way back in January 2012, went four-and-a-half years without a fight and then beat inaugural UFC women’s flyweight champ Nicco Montano in her second fight back. Last year, the Oklahoma-based newcomer went 2-1, suffering the lone loss of her career due to a hand injury in her Invicta FC debut against Marciea Allen before rebounding with a pair of stoppage wins over Ashley Deen and Alexa Conners.
Originally scheduled to face Melissa Gatto, Avila will instead face recent TUF finalist and former Invicta title contender Pannie Kianzad, who subbed in for the injured Gatto late last month.
The Arte Suave representative is more seasoned and experienced than Gatto, which makes this an even tougher assignment for Avila in her debut, but it’s also a greater opportunity, as Kianzad has only lost to established veterans and top prospects throughout her seven-year career.
Considered one of the top fighters in the division competing outside the UFC when the year began, Avila is a strong addition to the always competitive bantamweight ranks and she could hit the ground running with a strong performance against Kianzad to kick off UFC 239 on Saturday.