If you’ve been reading this first of the month feature routinely throughout its run, then you’ve heard me say a number of times that I wish I could expand to The 15 or The 20 from time-to-time because the slate of fights scheduled to take place is just too great to whittle down.
This is one of those months.
When I set about to form my list each month, I pull up each card and scribble down any fight that piques my interest and could end up being included because it’s easier to rule out fights than it is to go back and search for two more matchups to round of the group. Most months with three or four shows, I’ll start from a preliminary list of between 12 and 15 fights, maybe a little more, depending on how deep the lineups are for those events.
This month’s initial list featured 22 fights, including all of the main card and televised prelims at UFC 239.
Narrowing this list down has been a chore and one that has forced me to leave off fights I’m really looking forward to over the next month, like Arnold Allen taking on Gilbert Melendez, Song Yadong getting a step up in competition against Alejandro Perez and Mirsad Bektic returning to take on Josh Emmett in Sacramento, but it had to be done.
After all, this series is called The 10.
Here are the fights that excite me the most in the month of July.
Jan Blachowicz vs. Luke Rockhold
After well over a year away and having only fought twice in the last three years, Rockhold is finally set to return to the Octagon and he’ll do so in a new weight class. The former middleweight champ makes his light heavyweight debut at UFC 239 against Polish veteran Jan Blachowicz, a divisional stalwart who will serve as an immediate measuring stick for where the 34-year-old Rockhold fits in the 205-pound ranks.
From a talent perspective, Rockhold is as gifted as they come — he’s a phenomenal athlete who is outstanding on the ground and dangerous in the striking department, but injuries and nasty weight cuts have limited his effectiveness and ability to compete in recent years, making him a giant question mark heading into his first fight in his new division. While he’s always brimming with confidence, this is his opportunity to prove he deserves to immediately enter the title conversation at light heavyweight.
Blachowicz is as sturdy as they come — a 31-fight veteran who had rattled off four straight wins before running into Thiago Santos earlier this year and he’s more than capable of spoiling Rockhold’s divisional debut.
Regardless of who wins, this one will have an impact on the title picture in the light heavyweight division and if Rockhold wins, it could end up producing the next title challenger.
Jorge Masvidal vs. Ben Askren
Three months after being “traded” to the UFC, Askren made his promotional debut at UFC 235, surviving a hellacious early barrage from former champ Robbie Lawler before clamping onto a bulldog choke and securing the first-round stoppage win.
The fact that Askren not only weathered the heavy leather Lawler was doling out, but also had the wherewithal to lock onto a choke, should tell you all you need to know about the heart and tenacity of the undefeated welterweight contender.
Two weeks later, Masvidal ended his own 16-month hiatus by knocking out recent title challenger Darren Till in a double-bonus-winning effort in London to re-enter the title conversation.
Expect the chirping between these two to be thoroughly entertaining throughout fight week and the action inside the cage to be even better as the veterans vie for position in the welterweight title chase.
Amanda Nunes vs. Holly Holm for the women’s bantamweight title
Fighting for the first time since becoming a “Double Champ,” Nunes will look to make history at UFC 239 as she defends her belt against the former champion Holm.
“The Preacher’s Daughter” is the only remaining former bantamweight titleholder that “The Lioness” has yet to dispatch and if she’s able to turn aside Holm in a manner comparable to her victories over Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate, it will leave little room to debate Nunes’ standing as the greatest female fighter of all-time.
Of course, Holm has no intention of going quickly or quietly. In fact, she plans on making history herself by becoming the first two-time champ in the division’s history, and after a knockout win in her last bantamweight appearance and a dominant victory at featherweight last time out, few would be shocked if the 37-year-old combat sports veteran turned in another stunning effort to win the title.
Jon Jones vs. Thiago Santos for the light heavyweight title
Heading into his fight with Alexander Gustafsson last December, Jones said he wanted to repay his fans for sticking with him through his troubles outside of the cage by competing as frequently as possible and delivering impressive performances each time out.
After dispatching Gustafsson in the third round, he quickly returned to out-work Anthony Smith and successfully defend the light heavyweight title he never lost in competition three nine weeks later. Now, 18 weeks after that fight, “Bones” is back to defend his title again, stepping in with the surging powerhouse Santos for his third appearance in just over six months.
Even Donald Cerrone thinks that’s a busy schedule.
The challenger has been keeping busy of late as well, as “Marreta” made five appearances in 2018, including stoppage wins over Eryk Anders and Jimi Manuwa in his first two fights at light heavyweight, and then kept his torrid pace going with a third-round finish of Blachowicz in February.
Since the start of 2017, Santos is 8-1 with seven finishes and while Jones carries a near-perfect record into the Octagon and has never lost a championship fight, you can count on the Brazilian veteran to march across the cage and take the fight to the defending champion as soon as the fight starts.
Will Jones earn his 10th successful title defense or will there be a new man sitting atop the light heavyweight division when the smoke clears and the dust settles following UFC 239?
Nicco Montano vs. Julianna Pena
This is probably a first for this series — a fight where neither competitor has fought in well over a year, yet it still cracks the list because it’s just that intriguing.
The last time we saw Montano inside the Octagon was the first time we officially saw her inside the Octagon — December 1, 2017, when she earned a unanimous decision victory over Roxanne Modafferi to become the inaugural UFC women’s flyweight champion. She’s dealt with injuries, illnesses and a suspension since then, along with relocating to the bantamweight ranks, where she looks to re-start her career with a second straight win.
As for Pena, the former Ultimate Fighter winner hasn’t fought since January 2017 when she lost to current flyweight titleholder Valentina Shevchenko. Several months after the bout, Pena announced she was pregnant and in January 2018, she gave birth to a baby girl. Now ready to return, “The Venezuelan Vixen” jumped at the chance to replace the injured Sara McMann and she can instantly insert herself back in the championship chase with a dominant return to the cage in Sacramento.
There is no way of knowing what to expect from these two women once the cage door closes and that’s what makes this matchup so compelling.
Livinha Souza vs. Brianna van Buren
Former Invicta FC strawweight champions collide in this sneaky-good bout stationed on the preliminary portion of this month’s fight card at Golden 1 Center.
Souza is 2-0 since arriving in the UFC, earning victories over Alex Chambers and Sarah Frota to push her overall winning streak to four. The 28-year-old has shown improved strength and Fight IQ in her first two Octagon appearances and will look to maintain her place in the pecking order with a third straight victory.
Tabbed to replace the injured Cynthia Calvillo, van Buren gets the call to the biggest stage in the sport just 10 weeks after collecting three wins in one night to claim the vacant Invicta FC strawweight title.
The 25-year-old was undeniably the breakout star of the Shannon Knapp-helmed promotion’s first Phoenix Rising event in May, beating UFC veterans Juliana Lima and Kailin Curran in the semis and finals to give her a five-fight winning streak since returning from a three-and-a-half-year hiatus.
Strawweight has been in a state of flux for almost two years now, with contenders jostling for position and the title changing hands twice in the last three championship fights, creating an opportunity for the winner of this one to potential vault into the Top 15 as the second half the year kicks off in earnest.
Germaine de Randamie vs. Aspen Ladd
This main event booking received a lot of criticism online when it was announced, but it immediately made sense to me.
Regardless of what anyone thinks of how de Randamie handled things after winning the featherweight title in February 2018, the fact remains that “The Iron Lady” has won four straight and five of six in the UFC, including a win over Holly Holm and recent title challenger Raquel Pennington, with her only loss coming to the current “Double Champ” Amanda Nunes.
As for Ladd, all she’s done since arriving in the UFC is justify all the buzz she garnered under the Invicta FC banner with three straight wins, including a brutal mauling of Tonya Evinger and a gutsy, Fight of the Night winning turn against Sijara Eubanks in May. Now the undefeated 24-year-old from Northern California gets to take on a former UFC champion as close to home as possible in a main event assignment that should produce the next title challenger.
When the partisan crowd blows the roof off the Golden 1 Center when Ladd makes the march to the cage, feel free to look me up on Twitter and tell me once more how this shouldn’t have been the main event.
Rafael Dos Anjos vs. Leon Edwards
When you’ve got a stacked card like UFC 239 to contend with, events like this one end up being represented by only a single matchup, which sucks, because the lightweight fight between Dan Hooker and James Vick should be fire and I’m real curious to see how things play out between Greg Hardy and Juan Adams.
But with seven fights down and two more to talk about from the month’s second pay-per-view, only the welterweight headliners get a mention here.
After suffering back-to-back losses to Colby Covington and Kamaru Usman, Dos Anjos rebounded with a fourth-round submission win over Kevin Lee at the end of May to solidify his place in the welterweight hierarchy. The former lightweight champion remains an outstanding pressure fighter and has shown an improved ability to hang back and let the fight come to him as well, which will come in handy here.
Edwards is the most underrated fighter on the roster right now and it’s not even close. The 27-year-old has won seven straight, including victories over Albert Tumenov, Vicente Luque, Bryan Barberena, Donald Cerrone and Gunnar Nelson, and all people want to talk about is his backstage scuffle with Jorge Masvidal. “Rocky” has been chomping at the bit for a big time fight like this and it would further cement his standing as a contender with an eighth straight victory.
It’s going to be an interesting few months in the 170-pound weight class and the way this one shakes out will definitely factor in to how things line up in the division down the stretch.
Cris Cyborg vs. Felicia Spencer
Hey Felicia Spencer — you won your UFC debut in less than four minutes to push your record to 7-0 overall. What do are you going to do now?
The answer is fight one of the most frightening female talents to ever grace the cage and I have to admit I’m pretty damn impressed with the newcomer’s moxie in taking the fight so quickly.
Just a few short days after dispatching Megan Anderson, Spencer signed up to square off with Cyborg in the UFC 240 co-main event, which likely serves as a title eliminator in the featherweight division. The 28-year-old is clearly a standout grappler and a phenomenal (Fenom-enal?) new addition to the roster, but is she biting off more than she can chew by making the quick turnaround to take on the former champion in Edmonton?
Returning for the first time since losing the featherweight title at the close of 2018, this will be the first time Cyborg entered the cage coming off a defeat since the second fight of her career. She went unbeaten over the next 21 appearances and now looks to secure a rematch with Amanda Nunes by halting Spencer’s unbeaten run.
There are a lot of truly compelling matchups on the slate for July, but this might be the one that I’m most unsure about how it plays out because we simply haven’t seen Spencer in there with someone of Cyborg’s caliber yet and there is no way to know where her ceiling sits until that happens.
Max Holloway vs. Frankie Edgar for the featherweight title
After coming up short in his bid to claim the interim lightweight title, Holloway returns to featherweight — and the 10th Island — to defend his belt against Edgar. The duo has been scheduled to fight twice before, with each man pulling out due to injury once, so hopefully the third time is the charm and we finally get to see these two standouts in the cage together to close out the month.
Although Holloway is coming off a loss, he still enters the cage on a 13-fight winning streak at 145 pounds. The last time he put the featherweight strap on the line, he battered Brian Ortega to the point that the doctor stopped the fight before the start of the fifth round.
As for Edgar, he rebounded from his loss to Ortega at UFC 222 with a dominant decision win over Cub Swanson seven weeks later in Atlantic City, proving that he remains a formidable threat in the featherweight ranks. He was scheduled to face Chan Sung Jung back in November, but was forced out with an injury, which paved the way for “The Korean Zombie” and Yair Rodriguez to engage in their epic encounter.
Featherweight is brimming with talent and in the midst of a changing of the guard, with new contenders and emerging threats rising up to challenge the established veterans in the rankings. In many ways, this feels like the final fight of one era in the 145-pound ranks before the next chapter in the division’s history starts being written.