Four weeks, four UFC events, let’s get down to business. This is The 10 for March 2020.
UFC 248: Adesanya vs. Romero — Saturday, March 7 (Las Vegas, Nevada)
Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the UFC strawweight title
These are the type of fights I live for — high-stakes contests that will answer questions about both athletes and have immediate, meaningful ramifications for their division.
Entering on an incredible 20-fight winning streak and coming off her championship win over Jessica Andrade, this is Zhang’s opportunity to silence those who wonder if her victory at the end of August was the start of something lasting or a continuation of the continuous change that has taken place at the top of the division since Jedrzejczyk was dethroned.
Zhang swarmed Andrade and once again showed her impressive finishing instincts, recognizing the Brazilian was in a bad spot and stepping on the gas to secure the finish in under a minute. While the skepticism is understandable, nothing Zhang has done thus far in the UFC suggests she’s anything but an elite talent, and if it takes out-working the longest tenured champion in the division’s history to cement that fact, the current titleholder seems more than happy to do just that.
As for the former “Joanna Champion,” she bounced back from her failed attempt to claim the flyweight title with a vintage showing opposite Michelle Waterson last fall, sweeping the scorecards and coming within one round on one card of pitching a shutout. After the bout, Jedrzejczyk opened up about myriad personal and professional issues that had been weighing on her over the previous two years and promised a return to the top; now she gets her chance to make good on that promise.
Stylistically, this is a delicious matchup, pitting Zhang’s aggression, power, and strength against Jedrzejczyk’s highly technical marksmanship, and the winner could find herself in line for a long reign atop the 115-pound weight division.
Israel Adesanya vs. Yoel Romero for the UFC middleweight title
It surprised some when Israel Adesanya called for a bout with Yoel Romero, and as much as champions calling their shots is a slippery slope to go down, taking aim at one of the most dangerous guys in the sport because you feel required to beat him in order to truly solidify your standing atop the division is far different than some of the other championship call-outs we’ve seen in recent years.
And let’s be real here: the dynamics of this fight are incredible.
Adesanya made sure to note that while Romero couldn’t put Robert Whittaker away over two five-round fights, he felled “The Reaper” inside of two frames, and similarly icing the challenger in a way that neither the former champion nor Paulo Costa could do would only bolster his standing as the top dog in the middleweight yard. It will take the same sharp striking, crafty footwork, and calm toughness that he’s exhibited throughout his climb to the throne to maintain his unbeaten run, but if he can do it, we’ll have to start having longer, more detailed conversations about where “The Last Stylebender” fits amongst the pantheon of all-time greats.
As for Romero, this is another chance to get it right — to finish what he started in his twin classics with Whittaker and make those little changes that can swing the results in his favor. He’s been painfully close to capturing gold on multiple occasions and has everything you need to be champion; he’s just failed to fully capitalize on his previous opportunities, and if history repeats itself here, the former Olympic silver medalist might not get another chance to fight for middleweight gold, making this the must win of must wins.
UFC Fight Night: Lee vs. Oliveira — Saturday, March 14 (Brasilia, Brasil)
Randa Markos vs. Amanda Ribas
This is one of those cases where an injury to one of the originally scheduled combatants actually produced a more intriguing, more important matchup as Markos steps in for the injured Paige VanZant to give Ribas her toughest test to date.
Since beginning her professional career with three consecutive victories, the 34-year-old Markos has gone six years without registering back-to-back wins or losses, producing a perfectly symmetrical 7-7-1 record over that time. She has established herself as a consistent presence on the edges of the Top 15 in the strawweight division and holds wins over the likes of Carla Esparza and Angela Hill, and is the kind of resilient and relentless veteran every up-and-coming talent needs to face in order to determine if they’re ready to take the next step forward in their careers.
Ribas was one of the low-key breakout talents in the UFC last year, returning from a prolonged absence to register a second-round submission win over Emily Whitmire in her debut before thoroughly outworking Mackenzie Dern in her sophomore appearance just over three months later. Now 8-1 overall, the 26-year-old is poised to potentially make 2020 the year she breaks into the rankings and takes aim at the top of the division.
Demian Maia vs. Gilbert Burns
Prior to his bout with Ben Askren last October in Singapore, I asked Maia if he would be willing to make a gentlemen’s agreement with Askren to start the fight on the ground. He laughed, and then acknowledged it would hinge on who got to start on top. The same question could be posed ahead of this matchup with Burns as well, as the countrymen are amongst the very best grapplers on the UFC roster.
Maia used 2019 to shake off questions about retirement and a run of tough results against the division’s elite, posting a trio of victories, capped by his third-round finish of Askren. Even at 42, he remains a dangerous matchup for anyone looking to move up the rankings in the welterweight division, and though he entered last year on a three-fight slide, those setbacks came against the former champ, the current champ, and the guy who just fought for the title; a tetra-pack of talented fighters who have gone 25-3-1 combined over the last five years, with two of those losses coming within the group.
Where Maia had a bounce-back year in 2019, Burns had a breakout one, beginning with a submission win over Mike Davis before moving up to welterweight and posting back-to-back victories over the previously unbeaten Aleksei Kunchenko and Icelandic grappler Gunnar Nelson to push his winning streak to four. The multi-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion has quietly amassed a 17-3 record overall and a 6-1 mark over his last seven, with his lone setback coming against UFC Auckland main event winner Dan Hooker.
There is the potential for this to be a “passing of the torch” fight of sorts, with Burns taking over for Maia as the feared grappler in the middle of the Top 15 should he secure a victory, but if last year proved anything, it’s that it’s still too early to send Maia packing and write him off as a threat just yet.
Kevin Lee vs. Charles Oliveira
This is such a tasty dish.
Seriously, how can you not look at this matchup and not get excited?
Lee entered last year off a unanimous decision loss to Al Iaquinta in a rematch he’d been chasing for five years since they met in his promotional debut. He followed that up with a move up to welterweight, where he started fast, faded quickly, and ultimately got tapped by Rafael Dos Anjos. He seemed a little lost and, quite honestly, on the precipice of becoming one of those guys who never quite lived up to his full potential.
But then he moved his training camp to Montreal, started working with Firas Zahabi and the team at Tristar, and returned at UFC 244 in New York City, where he laid out Gregor Gillespie, bouncing him from the ranks of the unbeaten with one swift kick upside the head.
All Oliveira has done for the last two years is finish people, as he followed up a three-win campaign in 2018 with three more stoppages in 2019, sending him into this one on a six-fight winning streak and 7-1 overall since returning to the lightweight division.
He burst on the scene as a wunderkind with elite potential all the way back in the summer of 2010, but struggled whenever he was paired off with top of the food chain competition at both lightweight and featherweight. But since returning to the 155-pound ranks and suffering a second-round stoppage loss to Paul Felder at the close of 2017, “Do Bronx” has done work, tightening up his attack while being more aggressive and effective at the same time.
The top tier of the lightweight division is already dealing with a traffic jam, but the winner of this one will have earned a seat at the table when it comes time to figure out how to pair everyone off and get things moving in the right direction again in a couple months.
UFC Fight Night: Woodley vs. Edwards — Saturday, March 21 (London, England)
Paul Craig vs. Ryan Spann
Light heavyweights looking to take another step forward in the 205-pound weight class meet at The O2 Arena as Craig faces Spann in his personal rubber match against the Fortis MMA team.
The Scottish submission ace began his 2019 campaign with back-to-back fights against members of the Dallas-based collective led by Sayif Saud, securing a third-round submission win over Kennedy Nzechukwa and then getting stopped in the first by Alonzo Menifield. Now, after a first-round finish of Vinicius Moreira and a split draw against Mauricio Rua last time out, Craig looks to push his unbeaten streak to three, claim victory in his three-game series with the Fortis MMA crew, and move his overall UFC record above .500 as he makes his tenth appearance inside the Octagon.
If you’re ever looking for examples of how to respond in the face of disappointment and adversity, seek out Spann’s story.
The 28-year-old has spoken about the depression he endured following his 20-second loss to Karl Roberson on the inaugural season of the Contender Series, which was his fourth loss in six fights and third setback in 11 months. Since then, however, “Superman” is 7-0, having won three straight under the LFA banner before making good on his second chance on the Contender Series and beginning his UFC tenure with a three more victories.
After finishing Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Devin Clark in back-to-back outings, the surging Texan is closing in on a place in the Top 15 and beating Craig could be just what he needs to break into the rankings.
Tyron Woodley vs. Leon Edwards
This is like the non-title version of the fight between Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk that kicked off this piece, as it’s an opportunity for Edwards to dispel any doubts about his standing as a serious contender in the welterweight division, while also affording Woodley the opportunity to prove he’s still very much a factor in the championship chase in the 170-pound ranks.
Edwards has used the UFC’s annual visit to London in March as a yearly opportunity to take another step forward in his career, having fought on the card each of the last three years, collecting wins over Vicente Luque, Peter Sobotta, and Gunnar Nelson.
Those are just three of his eight consecutive victories inside the Octagon, the last of which came against perennial contender Rafael Dos Anjos last summer. The quiet contender from Birmingham has steadily improved his grappling, always brandished good, quick hands, and has proven he can go 25 minutes at a good clip, leaving him a signature win over a former titleholder shy of being primed to challenge for championship gold.
When he steps into the cage in London, it will have been 385 days since Woodley last competed. That night, he entered the Octagon as the defending welterweight champion and this time around, he’ll be looking to prove that he’s still one of the top talents in the 170-pound ranks. “The Chosen One” turns 38 next month and while he hasn’t been in too many major wars during his 10-year, 24-fight career, Father Time eventually catches up to everyone and that’s just one more question Woodley is going to have to answer when he returns to action against the streaking Edwards.
Much like the lightweight division, things are kind of unsettled and uncertain at the top of the welterweight division for the moment, so while the victor here will have a very good case for a title shot in the second half of 2020, this is more of a “seat at the table” fight similar to the Lee-Oliveira clash the week before than a true title eliminator.
UFC Fight Night: Ngannou vs. Rozenstruik — Saturday, March 28 (Columbus, Ohio)
Aspen Ladd vs. Julianna Pena
This one could determine who is next in line to challenge Amanda Nunes for the bantamweight title, but even if it doesn’t, it’s still a genuinely competing, highly competitive fight.
Ladd rebounded from her sudden loss to Germaine de Randamie last summer with a third-round stoppage win over Yana Kunitskaya in early December. The Northern California-based upstart turns 25 at the start of the month and is just 10 fights into her professional career, yet she’s already on the cusp of championship contention.
As Ladd continues to add depth to her game and become more confident inside the cage, she has the potential to develop into a serious force in the bantamweight division.
Pena, the first female Ultimate Fighter winner in the show’s history, was kind of a proto-Ladd at the outset of her UFC career, using a strong top game, toughness, grit, and tenacity to amass four straight wins and establish herself as the top young talent in the division. Following a submission loss to former title challenger and current flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko at the start of 2017, Pena put her career on hold to start a family.
She returned to the cage last summer on the same card where Ladd headlined against de Randamie, registering a unanimous decision win over Nicco Montano in her first fight in 30 months. Having shaken off the rust and returned to a full-time training schedule, it will be interesting to see if the 30-year-old can topple her younger adversary and return to title contention or if Ladd will use this opportunity to show that she is ready to face the division’s elite.
Raphael Assuncao vs. Cody Garbrandt
With all due respect to my guy Raphael Assuncao, this one is all about the returning Garbrandt.
Assuncao is a pro’s pro — a 34-fight veteran who has fought an insanely tough slate throughout his career without much fanfare, while often being victimized by bad timing. He entered last year with a 10-1 record at bantamweight and riding a four-fight winning streak, but back-to-back losses to Marlon Moraes (whom he’d previously beaten) and Cory Sandhagen have knocked the Georgia-based veteran out of the championship chase in the freakishly deep 135-pound weight division for the time being.
Despite his stellar resume and standing as one of the most experienced, professional guys in the division, all eyes in Columbus are going to be on Garbrandt, who once looked primed to be a superstar champion, but enters on a three-fight slide facing questions about his place in the division he briefly ruled.
Fighting in his home state of Ohio for the first time in a number of years, Garbrandt hasn’t earned a victory since styling on Dominick Cruz and claiming the bantamweight title all the way back at UFC 207. Consecutive losses to TJ Dillashaw will permanently be accompanied by “yeah, but…” explanations given the former champion’s doping suspension, but Garbrandt exhibited the same bad traits in his UFC 235 knockout loss to Pedro Munhoz as well, which changes the discussion.
When he stays focused and fights within himself, the 28-year-old is an undeniable talent, blessed with sharp, powerful hands, good footwork, and wrestling chops tucked away in his back pocket just in case he needs them. Garbrandt has shifted his training to New Jersey ahead of this fight, joining Lance Palmer under the watchful eye of Mark Henry, Ricardo Almedia, and the rest of that crew, so it will be interesting to see if new voices can help bring out the old “No Love” this time around.
Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik
Folks at the Nationwide Arena will have paid for a full seat, but they’re only going to need the edge of it once this one gets underway, if they’re somehow seated in the first place.
Rozenstruik was the unanimous “Rookie of the Year” in the UFC in 2019, debuting in February with a second-round technical knockout win over Junior Albini and closing out his campaign with a last-second finish of Alistair Overeem in Washington. Four fights, four wins, four finishes, and he followed it up by actively pursuing a fight with the scariest human being in the heavyweight division.
After putting a disastrous start to 2018 behind him with a second win over Curtis Blaydes at the end of the year, Ngannou continued his reign of terror in 2019, posting rapid finishes of former champions Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos to re-establish himself as the consciousness-snatching menace he was during his initial climb into contention. Soft-spoken with an eye for fashion away from the cage, Ngannou is terrifying once he steps into the Octagon, brandishing elite quickness and athleticism, along with one-of-a-kind power.
These two are going to stand toe-to-toe in the center of the Octagon and swing sledgehammers at one another until someone falls down and I cannot wait to see it.
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