For the first time in 2017, the Octagon will be set up in Las Vegas as UFC 209 descends upon T-Mobile Arena this Saturday with a standout fight card capped by a pair of compelling championship tilts as Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson battle for the interim lightweight title before Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson resolve their unfinished business from UFC 205 with the welterweight title hanging in the balance.
In addition to the two title fights, this weekend’s fight card also boasts familiar names like Alistair Overeem, Mark Hunt and Rashad Evans, as well as a host of competitors who can be considered graduates of this series, including Mirsad Bektic and “Groovy” Lando Vannata.
And the festivities wouldn’t be complete without a few emerging fighters looking to follow in the footsteps of Bektic and Vannata by propelling themselves to bigger and better after impressing inside the Octagon this weekend.
Here’s a look at three to keep your eye on.
This is On the Rise: UFC 209 Edition.
Last January, Sanders made his promotional debut on two weeks’ notice, stepping into the Octagon fighting up in weight against Maximo Blanco in Boston. After surviving an early scare thanks to a Blanco submission attempt, “Cool Hand” returned the favor and secured the finish, getting a submission victory over the mercurial Venezuelan.
The win pushed the former Resurrection Fighting Alliance champion’s record to 11-0 and put him on the radar with prospect watchers, but an injury sidelined him for the remainder of 2016, stifling the momentum he built in his debut.
Saturday night, Sanders returns, moving back down to his natural bantamweight division to take on Brazilian veteran Iuri Alcantara in a bout that will instantly establish where the 31-year-old MMA Lab product falls in the deep and talented 135-pound weight class. If he can pick up where he left off against Blanco and turn back Alcantara in this one, Sanders could find himself breaking into the Top 15 when the updated rankings are released after the fight.
The Matchups: Sanders vs Iuri Alcantara | Pedro vs Craig
The two light heavyweights coming off Performance of the Night-winning submission victories in their respective promotional debuts clash in Saturday’s opener and it should be a good one.
Pedro was the first one into the Octagon, debuting on home soil in Melbourne with a first-round finish over recent TUF runner-up Khalil Rountree at the end of November. Having quickly finished a collection of unassuming opponents in his first four professional fights, it was hard to know what to expect from the Australian newcomer, but putting Rountree away in four minutes and some change made it clear that he was an intriguing addition to the light heavyweight ranks.
Three weeks later, Craig climbed on stage in Sacramento for the weigh-ins decked out like William Wallace before striding into the Octagon and handing Henrique da Silva the first loss of his career the following night. The victory pushed the Scottish Hit Squad member’s record to 9-0 and established the submission ace as one of the top emerging threats in the 205-pound weight class.
With the division currently in a state of upheaval, the timing couldn’t be better for Pedro and Craig to make their case as future contenders and put themselves in a position to earn greater opportunities later in the year. Newcomer Volkan Oezdemir vaulted into the Top 10 with his win over Ovince Saint Preux and Jared Cannonier cracked the Top 15 by hanging with Glover Teixeira for 15 minutes.
If one of these two sophomores steps into the cage and comes away with a spectacular finish, don’t be surprised if they land next to an established name next time out.