The Ultimate Fighter
Conor McGregor vs Donald Cerrone
What is Conor going to look like after more than a year away and having fought just once (in MMA) in the last three years? Will the speed and power that made him such a force at featherweight and in his lightweight title win over Eddie Alvarez be as impactful given that this fight is at welterweight? Will “Cowboy” throw McGregor a curveball and look to wrestle rather than contesting this fight on the feet?
Those are just three of the myriad questions that hover around this highly anticipated contest that are expected to be answered on Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena, when McGregor ends his hiatus and goes searching for his first win since UFC 205. Cerrone has never been one to shy away from a fight and though he enters on a two-fight slide, he’s got more experience competing at welterweight and has made 11 trips into the Octagon in the time since the returning Irishman’s last successful foray into the UFC cage.
Everyone should have learned a long time ago that all bets are off when it comes to forecasting how a Conor McGregor fight is going to play out, but the one thing that is guaranteed is that the atmosphere inside the arena on Saturday night is going to be electric.
Holly Holm vs Raquel Pennington
Pennington was the first to welcome Holm to the Octagon back at UFC 184 and while the future bantamweight champion landed on the happy side of a split decision verdict, it was a more competitive fight than many anticipated and is just as much of a coin-flip contest this time around, if not more.
Originally scheduled to take place last October at UFC 243 in Melbourne, Holm was forced out with an injury and the bout was shuffled to this weekend’s co-main event slot.
Holm has spent the last few years bouncing between featherweight and bantamweight, and is just 2-4 in her six appearances since dethroning Ronda Rousey at UFC 193. While she’s continued to compete against elite competition — and has won her last two non-title fights — many people are wondering what the 38-year-old former champion has left in the tank after she was knocked out for the first time in her last outing.
Pennington is one of those fighters whose resume just keeps looking better and better with age as each of her four losses inside the Octagon have come against champions, including a failed bid to wrest the bantamweight title away from Amanda Nunes at UFC 224, and her last appearance was a gutsy split decision win over Irene Aldana, who rebounded with a statement win over Ketlen Vieira at the end of last year.
No one has cemented themselves as the next title challenger in the 135-pound weight class at the moment, so the winner of this one will be able to make a very good case for being at the head of the list and position herself for another marquee assignment later this year.
Aleksei Oleinik vs Maurice Greene
Fun fact: Oleinik fought nearly as many times in 2008 (11) as Greene has in his entire career (12) heading into this meeting this weekend at UFC 246. For the record, Oleinik went 9-2 that year.
This is one of those matchups that is going to tell us exactly where each man stands in the heavyweight division, which is currently dealing with congestion at the top of the rankings, but is wide open beyond that.
Oleinik went 2-0 in 2018 with a pair of submission wins, but was stopped in the first round in each of his 2019 appearances, first in a short-notice date with Alistair Overeem in St. Petersburg, Russia and then in just 12 seconds against Walt Harris in July. The 71-fight veteran is as crafty as they come on the ground, and rebounded from his only other two-fight slide by rattling off 11 consecutive victories, a streak capped by his first two UFC appearances.
A semifinalist on Season 28 of The Ultimate Fighter, Greene earned victories in each of his first three trips into the Octagon, but had that run of success halted in late October by Sergei Pavlovich. The towering 33-year-old, who wrapped up his camp with the crew at Factory X Muay Thai, will only have a two-inch reach advantage on Oleinik, but should be considerably quicker and more agile than his 42-year-old counterpart on Saturday night.
Will that be the difference-maker or will the cagey veteran drag this fight to the ground and secure another submission victory?
Claudia Gadelha vs Alexa Grasso
With things starting to take shape at the very top of the strawweight division, this is a crucial contest for two members of the Top 15 with designs on getting into the title picture in 2020.
Grasso has yet to live up to the lofty expectations that she carried with her from Invicta FC, having alternated wins and losses through her first six Octagon appearances while battling injuries along the way. That being said, she’s still just 26 years old, looked like a million bucks in clearly defeating Karolina Kowalkiewicz last summer in Chicago and has only lost to quality competition, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see her start putting it all together as soon as this weekend.
A former title challenger and Top 10 fixture since the division’s inception, Gadelha earned a unanimous decision win over Randa Markos in her lone appearance of 2019 and looks to build on that success here. She was more tactical and measured during that fight, her first working with striking coach Mark Henry, and promised more impressive efforts in the future as that relationship continues to grow and develop.
Gadelha never feels too far away from title contention and a second straight win would absolutely put her right back in the thick of the chase, while a victory for Grasso would be the biggest of her career and a great way to kick off a potential breakout campaign in 2020.
Anthony Pettis vs Diego Ferreira
The second lightweight matchup of 2020 is the first of what is sure to be countless critical pairings in what is arguably the deepest, most competitive division in the sport.
After spending 2019 competing at welterweight, Pettis returns to the weight class he once ruled searching for a way back into the championship conversation. While last year was about taking interesting, high profile bouts against Stephen Thompson and Nathan Diaz, this is the kind of assignment you accept when you’re focused exclusively on stacking up enough wins to make a case for contention because there aren’t many people actively campaigning to fight the streaking Ferreira at the moment.
The 34-year-old Brazilian enters Saturday’s pay-per-view opener on a five-fight winning streak, sporting a 7-2 record in the UFC and a 16-2 mark overall. Suffocating on the ground and brandishing enough pop in his hands to keep you honest when standing, Ferreira is the kind of nightmare matchup fighters looking to protect their place in the rankings tend to avoid.
Can “Showtime” return to lightweight, collect a victory and start working his way through the crowded queue of contenders or will Ferreira secure the kind of signature win he needs in order to truly announce himself as a threat in the 155-pound weight division?
Roxanne Modafferi vs Maycee Barber
It’s youth versus experience in the final preliminary card fight on Saturday night as the 37-year-old pioneer Modafferi takes on the 21-year-old rising star Barber in a bout that carries a great deal of divisional significance.
Modafferi made her professional MMA debut when Barber was five years old and since then, “The Happy Warrior” has battled her way to a 23-17 record while facing some of the biggest names across multiple eras. She’s 2-2 since coming up short in her short-notice bid to become the inaugural UFC flyweight champion in 2017 and will look to rely on her wealth of experience in this pivotal showdown.
Nicknamed “The Future,” Barber has made no secret about her desire to break Jon Jones’ record for being the youngest fighter to win UFC gold and through three fights, it’s difficult not to like her chances. Barber has earned finishes in each of her three Octagon appearances to date and seems to have really found a home training with the team at Roufusport.
Modafferi represents a significant step up in competition for Barber and this one will go a long way towards identifying just where she’s at in her development as a potential contender. At the same time, it’s a chance for the highly respected veteran to turn back the promising upstart and make her own case for contention in the wide open flyweight division.
Andre Fili vs Sodiq Yusuff
At first blush, this one looks like a “veteran vs. young gun” pairing because Fili is 13 fights into his UFC career and Saturday marks Yusuff’s fourth Octagon appearance to date, but the Team Alpha Male representative is only three years the senior of “Super Sodiq,” which means this is actually just a tremendous fight between two guys trying to scratch and claw their way into the Top 15.
It’s taken a number of years, but Fili seems to finally have put it all together and started truly believing in the talent many around him have seen within him for quite some time. After splitting a pair of split decision results in 2018, Fili turned in the best back-to-back efforts of his career last year, thoroughly outworking Myles Jury in February before scoring a first-round knockout win over Sheymon Moraes at home in Sacramento in the summer.
A graduate from Season 2 of the Contender Series, Yusuff has earned three wins in as many starts since coming off the show, including a unanimous decision triumph over Moraes to start his 2019 campaign last March. The 26-year-old followed up that effort with a dynamite showing at UFC 241 where he starched Gabriel Benitez.
Will Fili continue his current hot streak and turn his edge in experience into the next best effort of his career or can Yusuff take another step towards contention by pushing his overall winning streak to six by turning back his most seasoned opponent to date?
Drew Dober vs Nasrat Haqparast
This is a terrific fight and an example of both the incredible depth of talent that exists within the UFC lightweight division and why that depth is essential.
Dober is 4-1 in his last five and 6-2 in his last eight, establishing himself as a permanent resident in the 16-30 range within the division and a tough night at work for anyone that signs up to share the cage with him. Last time out, the 31-year-old Nebraska native made quick work of Marco Polo Reyes and is the kind of battle-tested, hard-nosed, dangerous fighter to serve as a litmus test for an emerging talent like Haqparast.
After dropping his short-notice debut to veteran Marcin Held in October 2017, the 24-year-old Haqparast has rattled off three straight victories while establishing himself as one to watch in the 155-pound ranks. Training out of the Tristar Gym in Montreal, Haqparast has continued to show different wrinkles to his game each time out and enters Saturday’s showdown with Dober coming off the best performance of his career.
Can the promising Haqparast keep things rolling and validate some of the hype he carries as the 2020 campaign gets underway, or will Dober show that the prospect is not yet ready to swim in the deep end of the lightweight talent pool?
Chas Skelly vs Grant Dawson
This is basically the featherweight version of the fight between Dober and Haqparast, which means it’s just as terrific and every bit as much of a must-see affair.
The 34-year-old Skelly has been limited to just two appearances in the last two years due to injury, but enters this one off a very good win over Jordan Griffin in Vancouver back in September. An All-American wrestler with a slick submission game, the lanky featherweight veteran started competing in the UFC before Dawson turned pro and will look to put that experience and savvy to use on Saturday night.
Another Contender Series alum who enters 2020 with a solid helping of buzz behind him, Dawson pushed his overall winning streak to five with a pair of victories inside the Octagon during his rookie year in 2019. Following a one-sided decision win over Julian Erosa in March, the 25-year-old Glory MMA and Fitness representative submitted TUF winner Michael Trizano in May, handing him the first loss of his career and usurping his place on the list of young featherweights to watch going forward.
Aleksa Camur vs Justin Ledet
The early prelims wrap in the light heavyweight division with former heavyweight Ledet welcoming Camur into the Octagon for the very first time.
The 31-year-old Ledet represents an interesting case study, as he began his career at heavyweight and won each of his first three appearances in the UFC fighting in the big boy ranks. He then decided to move down to the 205-pound division, sacrificing the speed advantage that differentiated him from his heavyweight foes, and has since dropped back-to-back contests against promising contenders Aleksandar Rakic and Johnny Walker.
Although he’s just 24, Camur is a long-time training partner of reigning heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic and a promising new addition to the light heavyweight division. By scoring a second-round stoppage win over Fabio Cherant in July to punch his ticket to the UFC, Camur improved to 5-0 as a pro with five stoppages, all of which has come after he went four-for-four as an amateur.
Can the athletic new arrival keep things rolling or will the more experienced veteran earn his first taste of victory as a light heavyweight?
Tim Elliott vs Askar Askarov
With 2020 seeming like the year the flyweight division gets rolling again, this pairing could have a potential impact on the title picture later on this year.
Elliott, who fought for the title in 2016, has struggled to find consistency during his second run under the UFC banner, alternating wins and losses in his four appearances since that championship matchup. After missing all of 2018 and the first half of 2019 following a serious knee injury, Elliott returned to face Brazilian standout Deiveson Figueiredo, losing to the man slated to fight for the vacant title later this year in the first round.
The 27-year-old Askarov arrived in the UFC with a perfect 10-0 record that included victories over veterans like Jose Maria Tome and Anthony Leone and maintained his unbeaten record by battling Brandon Moreno to a split draw in his promotional debut in September. Many disagreed with the verdict, but the Russian can put that result behind him and cement his position as a title contender by defeating Elliott on Saturday night in Las Vegas.
Brian Kelleher vs Ode’ Osbourne
What should be a busy year in the bantamweight division begins with a pairing between 29-fight veteran Kelleher and promotional newcomer Osbourne.
One of four men to earn a UFC contract on the fourth week of last summer’s Contender Series, Osbourne carries a four-fight finishing streak into his first Octagon appearance. Brandishing a considerable reach for the division and a calmness in the cage that is greater than you would expect from someone with just 11 regional fights under their belt, the 28-year-old is an intriguing new addition to the talent-rich 135-pound weight class.
A fixture on the East Coast regional circuit for years before finally getting the call to the UFC in 2017, Kelleher began his tenure in the Octagon with a “Boom,” submitting Brazilian veteran Iuri Alcantara in less than two minutes. He’s just 2-3 since then and enters Saturday’s contest on a two-fight skid, but packs the experience and all-around skill set to right the ship and spoil Osbourne’s debut this weekend.
Sabina Mazo vs JJ Aldrich
The UFC’s 2020 campaign kicks off in the flyweight division with what should be a spirited scrap between Mazo and Aldrich.
Pegged as a potential future contender after a 6-0 start to her career, Mazo stumbled out of the gate in 2019, dropping her promotional debut to Maryna Moroz in February. But the 22-year-old rebounded with a solid performance against Shana Dobson at the end of July and with a year of experience in the Octagon under her belt, this could be the year that the “Colombian Queen” starts to show what all the fuss was about when she first transitioned to the UFC.
A contestant on Season 23 of The Ultimate Fighter, Aldrich entered 2019 on a tidy three-fight winning streak and got out of the gates quick in her March showdown with Maycee Barber in Nashville, only to have “The Future” find her groove and finish the fight midway through the second. The 27-year-old bounced back with a strong performance against Lauren Mueller in October and will look to keep things rolling in her first start of the year on Saturday.
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