Before UFC 200 and International Fight Week arrives, the UFC makes its first voyage north of the border in 2016 to deliver its inaugural event in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, Ontario.
The fight card emanating from the TD Place Arena on Saturday is arguably the best Canadian in recent memory; a collection of bouts with real divisional significance combined with fights that showcase some of the top emerging competitors from not only the Great White North, but in the UFC overall.
Here’s a look at a trio of up-and-coming talents set to hit the Octagon this weekend.
The 29-year-old Latvian-Canadian has made a quick and noticeable impression on the light heavyweight division in just two fights, collecting a pair of stoppage victories to establish himself as one of the few fighters under 30 boasting serious upside in the 205-pound ranks.
A four-fight winning streak on the regional circuit that included a first-round knockout win over UFC vet Rodney Wallace earned Cirkunov the call to the Octagon, and the Toronto-based talent has continued that roll since arriving on the biggest stage in the sport. Following a first-round technical knockout victory over Daniel Jolly in his promotional debut last August in Saskatoon, Cirkunov spoiled Alex Nicholson’s engagement weekend by cracking his opponent’s jaw with a second-round neck crank that stopped the fight.
Athletic and powerful, Cirkunov is still developing his striking arsenal, but his grappling acumen is at such a high level – especially in a division lacking in elite grapplers – that he’s still able to dictate the terms of the fight every time he steps into the Octagon. Should he do that again Saturday when he welcomes Ion Cutelaba to the UFC, the surging light heavyweight should find himself breaking into the Top 15 and poised to square off with some more established talent in the second half of 2016.
The journey to the top isn’t just a straight line in this sport. Instead, there are twists and turns, points where athletes have to double back and regroup, gathering their footing in order to take that next step that tripped them up in the past. That’s where Theodorou finds himself heading into this weekend’s UFC FIGHT PASS Featured Prelim against Sam Alvey.
As charismatic and gregarious as they come, the 28-year-old Theodorou stumbled last time out, dropping a unanimous decision to Thiago Santos in December. It was the first loss of his professional career and prompted “The Spartan” to change up his approach. He decamped for Montreal, joining the renowned fight team at the Tristar Gym, settling into the dorms and tapping into the energy he enjoyed while in a similar position as a cast member on The Ultimate Fighter Nations, where he won the middleweight competition.
Rather than traversing Toronto’s greater metropolitan area to find the right training partners and coaches, Theodorou is now getting all that under one roof in Montreal. We’ll see how well it pays off when he returns to the Octagon on Saturday night in Ottawa.
In a division that is constantly in need of fresh talent, Herrera is definitely a fighter to watch.
The 26-year-old flyweight has gone 1-1 through his first two Octagon appearances, dropping a close decision to talented upstart Ray Borg last summer before rebounding with a crushing knockout win over Joby Sanchez in December. That sophomore effort showed the upside and potential Herrera carries, as the Tampa-based fighter matched Sanchez’ speed while landing with serious power en route to earning the finish with a swift, clean left to the chin.
Now Herrera gets a golden opportunity to make a serious impression in the 125-pound ranks as he steps into the cage with former title challenger Ali Bagautinov in this weekend’s opening bout. Two fights ago, the Dagestani fighter faced Demetrious Johnson and last time out, he lost to undisputed No. 1 contender Joseph Benavidez, so a victory for Herrera would put him in exclusive, elite company.
With “Mighty Mouse” continuing to turn back would-be threats with relative ease without ever missing a beat, adding a stoppage win over a recent contender to his resume should propel Herrera up the rankings and into a position where a title shot is within reach with another strong performance or two.