Summer has come and gone, the kiddos are headed back to school and the UFC is at the top of the stretch, ready to begin the sprint to the finish with the first of 14 events over a 17-week stretch to wrap up 2018 in the Octagon.
Just as last year’s stop at American Airlines Arena in Dallas featured a loaded fight card capped by twin title championship contests, UFC 228 has a similar construction, with flyweight champion Nicco Montano defending her title against Valentina Shevchenko in the co-main event and Tyron Woodley taking on Darren Till in a battle for the welterweight strap in this weekend’s finale.
In addition to a host of crucial bouts between contenders and a compelling clash between former champ Carla Esparza and surging Ultimate Fighter winner Tatiana Suarez, there are a trio of up-and-coming talents making their return to the Octagon who deserve your attention.
Here’s a close look at that triumvirate.
This is On the Rise: UFC 228 Edition.
One of several fighters representing Fortis MMA who has enjoyed success on the biggest stage in the sport already this year, Byrd earned his way onto the UFC roster with a pair of victories on Season 1 of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series.
Following finishes of Jamie Pickett and Randall Wallace in front of the UFC brass, “Kid Dynamite” made his promotional debut in London back in March and made quick work of fellow newcomer John Phillips, submitting the Welsh middleweight in the opening round.
Now boasting a four-fight winning streak and having won six of his last seven, Byrd gets a home game in Dallas against Londoner Darren Stewart on Saturday. After going without a victory in his first four Octagon appearances, Stewart notched his first UFC victory last time out in Liverpool, finishing Eric Spicely less than two minutes into the middle stanza.
The 27-year-old Stewart is a more complete fighter than Byrd has faced of late and a stern test for Byrd, but the 34-year-old American has been on a roll and his team has been firing on all cylinders of late. So if he can keep that going into this weekend, the veteran middleweight will take another step forward in the division and position himself for bigger and better heading into 2019.
They say you only get one chance to make a first impression, but the reality in this sport is that many times, those initial appearances need to be thrown out because they come on short notice.
White made his first foray into the UFC cage back in May, stepping in on short notice to face Top 10 fixture Neil Magny in a bout that ended up going how you would expect a bout between a late replacement and a perennial contender would go. Now, “The Thundercat” is back for his sophomore appearance with the benefit of a full training camp, poised to square off against Diego Sanchez.
The loss to Magny snapped White’s four-fight winning streak and if you look back on his resume over the last several years, you’ll see the tough 28-year-old from Exmouth has only fallen to solid competition, including current Top 10 welterweight Leon Edwards, UFC middleweight Oskar Piechota and surging London Shootfighters representative Mike Shipman.
Despite his recent struggles, Sanchez remains a major name and a dangerous veteran who can be counted on to push the UFC neophyte to his limits this weekend in Dallas. Should White emerge with his hand raised, it will reset his position in the division and give him a fresh start on climbing the welterweight ladder next year.
Another member of the Fortis MMA crew who turned an opportunity on the Contender Series into a UFC contract and a triumphant debut in the Octagon, Neal looks to make it a Texas double in 2018 this weekend when he squares off with Frank Camacho in the UFC 228 opener on Saturday.
The heavy-handed welterweight stopped Chase Waldon in under two minutes at middleweight last summer in Las Vegas and then returned to his natural weight class in February, choking out Brian Camozzi in the opening round of their clash in Austin. His only loss over the last five years came against fellow Contender Series graduate Kevin Holland at the start of 2017 and he’s earned finishes in seven of his nine career wins.
This pairing with Camacho is an explosive way to get the night started in Dallas. While he’s just 1-2 through his first three trips into the Octagon, “The Crank” has collected a Fight of the Night bonus in all three outings, pushing Li Jingliang, Damien Brown and Drew Dober to the limit while electrifying the audience, and this one should be no different.
Neal has serious power for the 170-pound weight class, coupled with excellent finishing instincts, and an impressive performance against a proven tough out like Camacho will go a long way to establishing him as someone to keep an eye on in the welterweight division as the 2018 campaign comes to a close.