Fresh off a thrilling debut in Mexico City at UFC 180 on Saturday, the UFC is rolling out the red carpet today in Las Vegas for a collection of elite talent that will step into the Octagon over the next three months to kick off its The Time is Now campaign.
Though there are several tremendous events and pivotal fights that will take place in the next four weeks, it’s difficult to not look ahead to the headlining acts that close 2014 and kick off 2015 and not get fired up.
From the return of an icon and series of pivotal divisional matchups to three of the biggest championship fights in UFC history, the next three months and change feature an outstanding collection of contests that can’t be missed.
Get excited – the next three months are going to be electric.
Coming off a Fight of the Year-caliber performance opposite Chris Weidman at UFC 175 in July, Machida returns to the Octagon looking to maintain his place in the deep and talented 185-pound weight class. The former light heavyweight champion has been nothing short of outstanding since joining the middleweight ranks and will be focused on putting forth another strong performance in order to fend off the talented collective climbing working its way up the rankings.
That group includes Dollaway, the former Ultimate Fighter finalist who enters the biggest fight of his career on a two-fight winning streak. The Power MMA product has found his groove inside the Octagon, winning four of his last five, including a stunning 39-second knockout victory over Cezar Ferreira and Performance of the Night-winning turn opposite Francis Carmont back in May.
The middleweight division has never been as deep and competitive which makes this contest crucial for both fighters. A victory for “The Doberman” puts him in the title conversation and sets the table for another marquee matchup in 2015, while a return to the win column keeps Machida near the top of the list of contenders and within arm’s reach of another title opportunity.
Originally scheduled to take place in September, an injury to Jones may have postponed the bout to January, but expect the anticipation to reach a fever pitch once again as the tension between these two bitter rivals ramps back up as UFC 182 draws closer.
Jones and Cormier have been on a collision course since “DC” arrived in the UFC as a heavyweight. The two-time former Olympian set his sights on the UFC light heavyweight champion from the outset and has worked his way into position to challenge the 27-year-old Jones with dominant victories over Frank Mir, Roy Nelson, Patrick Cummins and Dan Henderson. A perfect 15-0 since transitioning to mixed martial arts, Cormier has quickly become of the most dangerous fighters in the sport and has all the tools to unseat the champion in early January.
But beating Jones is easier said than done.
“Bones” is in the midst of arguably the greatest run of success in UFC history – 11 consecutive victories and seven straight successful title defenses against a Murderer’s Row of talent. Last time out, Jones pitched a shutout against Glover Teixeira, beating the Brazilian at his own game, operating in close and battering the knockout artist with a barrage of strikes that left him broken.
Jones and Cormier are two of the best in the sport today and when you factor in the animosity between the two, don’t be surprised if this one sets the Fight of the Year bar pretty high to kick off 2015 in the Octagon.
“The Notorious” one is a force of nature. In less than two years, the brash Irish featherweight has gone from making his debut to headlining in front of a packed house in Dublin, calling his shot against Dustin Poirier and making a strong case for being the No. 1 contender in the featherweight division.
And he’s not resting on his laurels either, accepting a main event assignment opposite Siver when the organization makes its return to Boston in January.
Siver has looked sharp since moving to featherweight after posting a 7-2 mark during his second run at lightweight. Outside of a third-round stoppage loss to top contender Cub Swanson, the compact kickboxer has maintained his high output approach in picking up wins over Diego Nunes, Nam Phan and Charles Rosa.
Can the well-dressed, venom-spitting Irishman continue his march to the top of the division or will the underrated spinning back kick specialist derail his title hopes?
Just three weeks after Jones and Cormier battle over the light heavyweight strap, the next challenger will be decided when the UFC ventures to Stockholm for its second-ever stadium show with “The Mauler” and “Rumble” locking horns in the main event.
Gustafsson maintained his place atop the list of contenders in the 205-pound weight class with a dominant second-round stoppage victory over previously unbeaten knockout artist Jimi Manuwa in March. The victory set up a rematch of his 2013 Fight of the Year with Jones, but it wasn’t meant to be, as the 27-year-old suffered a knee injury in training and was replaced by Cormier. Healthy and ready to reaffirm his standing as the No. 1 contender, the Allstars Training Center product is poised to welcome Johnson to Sweden for this tasty pairing to determine the next title challenger.
It’s scary to think that Johnson used to compete at welterweight given how natural he looks wrecking shop in the light heavyweight division. With the weight-cutting issues that marred his initial run in the UFC long behind him, the humble 30-year-old Georgia native is now showing why he was long considered an elite prospect, bringing scary power and natural athleticism to the 205-pound ranks while picking up dominant victories over Phil Davis and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
The winner of this one has got next in the light heavyweight division, and seeing which of these two standouts claims that spot is going to be fun to watch.
Has there been a more highly anticipated non-title fight in UFC history?
Both fighters are returning off extended layoffs – Diaz a self-imposed break following his UFC 158 loss to Georges St-Pierre, Silva following a year spent recovering from the broken leg he suffered at UFC 168 – and enter the Octagon riding uncharacteristic two-fight losing streaks.
As much as those elements factor into the anticipation for this bout, the truth is that this is a dream matchup for fight fans – a hypothetical that has been floated for years yet seemed destined to remain that way. But the stars have aligned and now these two mercurial talents will share the Octagon on Super Bowl Saturday.
Can “The Spider” return to championship form and work his way to another title shot? Is Diaz poised to make a run of his own, starting with a victory over the greatest of all-time? January 31 can’t get here soon enough.
Rousey won’t get the consideration she deserves for Fighter of the Year, largely because she spent a grand total of 82 seconds inside the Octagon in 2014, but that’s all the time the women’s bantamweight champion needed to pick up victories over Sara McMann and Alexis Davis to run her record to 10-0 and retain her title.
Her 2015 fight calendar kicks off with a bout that was originally scheduled to take place at UFC 168, as the champion will defend against No. 1 contender Cat Zingano in the co-main event of UFC 184.
After earning a title shot and a place opposite coaching opposite Rousey on Season 18 of The Ultimate Fighter, Zingano was forced out of both after tearing her ACL. Following 18 months on the sidelines, “Alpha” returned to the Octagon in September, picking up a come-from-behind, third-round stoppage win over Amanda Nunes to once again position herself opposite the Olympic bronze medalist.
A combined 19-0, this is unquestionably a matchup of the two top talents in the women’s bantamweight ranks and a fight that has the potential to blow the roof off the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
CHRIS WEIDMAN VS. VITOR BELFORT – UFC 184 (FEBRUARY 28)
One of the most anticipated fights of 2014, this middleweight title scrap may have been pushed back to 2015, but that hasn’t lessened how eager fans are to see Weidman and Belfort finally step into the Octagon together.
“The Phenom” has been phenomenal since returning to the UFC in September 2009, posting a 6-2 record with six stoppage victories against championship losses to Anderson Silva and Jon Jones. Belfort picked up three of those knockout victories in 2013, dropping Michael Bisping, Luke Rockhold and Dan Henderson in succession to return to the top of the list of contenders in the middleweight division.
All Weidman has done thus far is post eight straight victories in the Octagon to push his record to a perfect 12-0, becoming the first man to defeat Anderson Silva in the UFC before defeating “The Spider” in a championship rematch and successfully defending his title against Lyoto Machida in one of the best fights of 2014.
An injury to Weidman pushed this bout from UFC 181 to UFC 184 at the end of February, but it remains a must-see matchup that will bring a close to a spectacular three-month stretch of action inside the Octagon.