TONY FERGUSON VS. JUSTIN GAETHJE
With an interim title hanging in the balance, Tony Ferguson will put his 12-fight winning streak and place as the top contender in the lightweight division on the line as he squares off with Justin Gaethje in this must-see main event.
The 36-year-old Ferguson hasn’t lost a bout in nearly eight years, posting victories over the likes of Danny Castillo, Edson Barboza, Rafael Dos Anjos and Anthony Pettis during that time, earning stoppages in all but three of those 12 contests. A staggering 15-1 inside the Octagon, Ferguson long ago cemented his standing as one of the most consistently entertaining and dangerous fighters to grace the UFC cage and Saturday’s contest provides him with the opportunity to claim the interim lightweight title for the second time, having first accomplished the feat two and a half years ago with a third-round submission win over Kevin Lee at UFC 216.
In his six appearances since signing with the UFC, Gaethje has proven why he might have the most apt nickname in the business as “The Highlight” has collected seven post-fight bonuses, including four Fight of the Night awards. He was involved in the two best fights of 2017, followed that up with an absolute slobberknocker against Dustin Poirier, and has since rattled off three straight first-round stoppage victories, most recently dominating Donald Cerrone last fall in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
This is one of those fights that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck as soon as you start thinking about what could — and likely will — happen once the cage door is closed. Neither man is capable of being in a boring fight and this weekend should be no different.
HENRY CEJUDO VS. DOMINICK CRUZ
Bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo is on a mission to substantiate his claim to being the greatest combat sports athlete of all-time and has set his sights on taking out the legends that preceded him as a means of making his case. The COVID-19 pandemic and its travel restrictions knocked former featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo out of their scheduled bout, however, another ex-titleholder has stepped in, eager to face “Triple C” in hopes of making a little history of his own.
Competing for the first time in since losing the bantamweight strap at UFC 207, Dominick Cruz will enter the cage and stand opposite Cejudo with designs on claiming the title for a third time. While Cruz is one of a handful of athletes to win UFC gold twice in the same division, only Hall of Famer Randy Couture has managed to accomplish the feat on three separate occasions, and if Cruz can replicate the efforts of “The Natural,” he could very well join him in the pantheon of all-time greats, if he’s not already there.
What makes this matchup so compelling is the same thing that made many people question the pairing when it was first announced.
Cruz hasn’t fought since December 2016 when he was beaten by Cody Garbrandt in the co-main event of the UFC’s final show of that year. While he’s remained ever-present in the community as a result of his role as an analyst on UFC broadcasts, injuries have resulted in a few false starts and ultimately kept him sidelined for the last three-plus years.
But this isn’t anything new for the San Diego-based standout. He missed nearly three full years and was stripped of his title in the time following his victory over Demetrious Johnson, came back, and absolutely trucked divisional stalwart Takeya Mizugaki. He then went another 16 months between appearances, only to return and dethrone TJ Dillashaw, who many believed was poised to rule the division for years.
For Cejudo, who enters on a five-fight winning streak and coming off back-to-back stoppage victories in championship fights last year, it’s another opportunity to defeat another former champion — one whose sterling record (22-2) is unfortunately overshadowed by the injuries that have prevented him from building any real momentum since matriculating to the UFC nine years ago with the rest of his WEC colleagues.
The bantamweight division is flush with talent and there will be a non-stop cavalcade of worthy challengers ready to face whoever emerges victorious in this one. It feels like the 135-pound weight class is on the precipice of having its real breakthrough moment in the UFC and this is the starting point, so buckle up and enjoy.
FRANCIS NGANNOU VS. JAIRZINHO ROZENSTRUIK
Normally, if a fight was originally slated to be a five-round main event and was then shifted to a three-round contest, there would be some blow back, but let’s be honest: these gentlemen probably won’t even need five minutes to handle their business, let alone 15, and certainly not 25.
Francis Ngannou and Jairzinho Rozenstruik are the top two contenders in the heavyweight division behind former champ Daniel Cormier. Initially scheduled to face off in Columbus in March, they’ve been repositioned on this card, and there is a very high likelihood that this bout will produce a moment worthy of the SportsCenter Top 10.
Ngannou has rebounded from his loss to Derrick Lewis at UFC 226 by reminding everyone that he is one of the most terrifying talents in the sport today, registering stoppage wins over Curtis Blaydes, Cain Velasquez, and Junior Dos Santos in a combined 142 seconds.
That’s less than three minutes to ice two of the best heavyweights of the last decade and the guy currently stationed at No. 3 in the rankings, who is unbeaten in bouts against anyone other than Ngannou.
Not to be outdone, Rozenstruik used to 2019 to go from UFC newcomer to heavyweight contender, registering four stoppage wins in 11 months to push his record to 10-0 overall before actively calling for this bout against Ngannou!
Who does that? Who rockets into contention on the strength of four straight victories and then says, “I’d really like to fight the scariest dude in the division please” less than a year after stepping into the Octagon for the first time?
Ngannou and Rozenstruik have 24 career victories between them and 23 of them have come inside the distance, meaning there is a very high probability of someone getting knocked out in this one and every second until it happens will be filled with the kind of nervous tension only a clash of heavyweight titans can bring.
JEREMY STEPHENS VS. CALVIN KATTAR
Over a dozen years into his UFC journey, Stephens has settled into a Donald Cerrone-esque role in the featherweight division, standing as the durable and dangerous veteran in the lower half of the Top 10 who is ready to take on all comers and capable of beating just about anyone on any given night. Though he enters this one in the longest drought of his career, the 33-year-old has continued to face a steady diet of elite talent and only needs to land one clean blow to put himself right back into the win column.
Kattar is one of those dudes who has quietly handled is business and proven himself to be a dark horse contender in the 145-pound weight class. Last time out, he ventured to Moscow and dropped a unanimous decision to Zabit Magomedsharipov in a three-round main event where the momentum had clearly shifted into Kattar’s favor in the third round.
Stephens won’t be looking to stick-and-move as much as Magomedsharipov did in Russia and Kattar should come out with a little more aggression and a focus on cutting off the cage, all of which should combine to make this bout an action-packed affair.
GREG HARDY VS. YORGAN DE CASTRO
Heavyweights with something to prove collide on the pay-per-view main card as Contender Series graduates Greg Hardy and Yorgan De Castro meet in a bout that has the potential to end in sudden fashion.
Has anyone had a more scrutinized, stranger start to his or her professional career than Hardy? After a pair of wins on Season 2 of the Contender Series and a quick win on the regional circuit, Hardy went 2-2 with one no contest during his five-fight rookie season in the UFC. He lost his debut by disqualification after landing an illegal knee, mauled Dmitry Smoliakov and Juan Adams, had a decision win overturned after using an inhaler between rounds against Ben Sosoli, then hustled back into the cage against Russian contender Alexander Volkov on short notice, dropping a unanimous decision while gaining valuable experience.
Now, he starts his sophomore year on the UFC roster with a bout against De Castro, who chopped down Alton Meeks on Season 3 of the Contender Series than scored a walk-off knockout win over Junior Tafa at UFC 243 in his promotional debut. The native of Cape Verde who resides in Fall River, Massachusetts is a perfect 6-0 in his professional career and a second straight blistering stoppage would force people to sit up and take notice of him going forward.
DONALD CERRONE VS. ANTHONY PETTIS
Veteran all-action combatants and crowd favorites Donald Cerrone and Anthony Pettis will renew acquaintances inside the Octagon in the final preliminary card bout on Saturday’s 12-fight lineup.
Both came up through the WEC and first met in the UFC in January 2013, with Pettis scoring a first-round stoppage victory. At that time, Pettis was on his march towards the top of the division, while Cerrone was already seven fights deep into his UFC journey, establishing himself as the hyper-active, ultra-reliable Top 10 fixture he has been throughout his career.
Both are at a very different stage of their careers heading into this one.
“Cowboy” has dropped three in a row following a hot streak that carried him back into lightweight contention. Pettis has also split time between lightweight and welterweight, arriving in Jacksonville having dropped two straight. But you can still have an absolute firecracker of a fight outside of contention and locking these two long-time standouts in the cage together once again is a pretty solid recipe for making that happen. This is one of those bouts where recent results and where each man is at in their respective careers doesn’t really matter — it’s two fighters who like to bring the ruckus and have never shied away from a fight stepping into the Octagon to share that experience once again and it should be all kinds of fun.
ALEKSEI OLEINIK VS. FABRICIO WERDUM
You don’t always get what you ask for in life, but you definitely miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.
Aleksei Oleinik asked to welcome Fabricio Werdum back to the Octagon following his January submission win over Maurice Greene and everyone watching immediately nodded in approval, as the pairing made perfect sense. Turns out, the UFC matchmakers and Werdum himself thought so too as the veteran heavyweights will square off on the prelims this weekend.
In many cases, Oleinik’s fights come down to whether or not he can drag you to the canvas. If he does, you’re getting submitted. If he doesn’t, your chances of winning are much improved. However, this pairing with Werdum presents a more balanced playing field than the Russian veteran is used to as the returning former titleholder is also a decorated grappler and one of the few heavyweights on the roster who could potentially hold his own on the ground with “The Boa Constrictor.”
Will Oleinik secure another submission and one of the biggest wins of his lengthy career or can Werdum shake off the rust and get right back into the thick of the title chase in the division he once ruled? We’ll find out on Saturday night.
CARLA ESPARZA VS. MICHELLE WATERSON
Former Invicta FC champions Carla Esparza and Michelle Waterson clash in what is a crucial fight for both competitors and the strawweight division alike.
Waterson has been on the fringes of contention since arriving in the UFC in the summer of 2015. She clearly has the “it factor” we often talk about when describing what it takes to be a superstar in this sport (or any entertainment field for that matter), but unfortunately for the 34-year-old veteran, she hasn’t been able to secure that one signature victory that would carry her to the next level and land her a title shot.
On the other side of the Octagon, Esparza, the inaugural UFC strawweight champion, has seen her abilities and accomplishments often overlooked by those fixating on her more hyped contemporaries, even though few in the division can match her achievements.
Both are currently stationed inside the Top 10 — Esparza at No. 7, Waterson at No. 8 — and this sets up as a battle to determine which of these two women will move into contention in the 115-pound weight class.
Given their styles and experience, we should get an entertaining, scrambly battle.
RONALDO SOUZA VS. URIAH HALL
Middleweight veterans looking to take another step towards the top of the division meet in this one as Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza returns to the 185-pound ranks following a one-fight absence to face former TUF standout Uriah Hall.
A Top 5 fixture since matriculating to the UFC from Strikeforce, Souza ventured to light heavyweight last time out, dropping a split decision to current No. 1 contender Jan Blachowicz. Before that, the Brazilian veteran had struggled to find consistency, alternating wins and losses through his previous six fights and sporting a 4-4 mark over his last eight appearances.
Hall has similarly had difficulty stringing together wins since his standout turn on Season 17 of the long-running reality TV competition. A rough 1-4 stretch left many wondering how much the Jamaican-born veteran had left in the tank, but Hall has since rebounded with consecutive victories, knocking out Jackson-Wink prospect Bevon Lewis before landing on the happy side of a split decision verdict against Antonio Carlos Junior last time out.
Middleweight is in the midst of some serious changes, creating an opportunity for the winner of this one to hustle further up the divisional ladder and potentially secure a marquee assignment later in the year. It’s just a question of which veteran will make the most of the opportunity.
VICENTE LUQUE VS. NIKO PRICE
Welterweights Vicente Luque and Niko Price fought once before, engaging in a frantic back-and-forth scrap that produced nine minutes of excitement before Luque wrapped up a submission finish. Two-and-a-half years later, they’re set to run it back in another UFC 249 contest that is guaranteed to be entertaining.
Luque enjoyed a breakout year in 2019, engaging in an early Fight of the Year nominee against Bryan Barberena and pushing his winning streak to six before ultimately landing on the wrong side of the results in a fun fight against Stephen Thompson at UFC 244. The Brazilian is 10-3 inside the Octagon with all but one of his victories coming by way of stoppage, and his bouts with Barberena, Thompson, and Mike Perry showed he has toughness and heart for days, making him a must-see attraction every time he steps into the cage, regardless of whom he’s facing.
It just so happens that this weekend, he’s facing off against a fellow high percentage finisher with an allergy to being in boring fights, as the 30-year-old Price has emerged as an all-action fan favorite over the course of his first 10 UFC appearances.
Though he’s struggled to string together victories throughout much of his UFC run, Price is one of those guys where you’re coming for the show, not the results, as all of his fights have been wildly entertaining and left you wanting to see him compete again, regardless of the outcome. Last time out, he knocked out James Vick with one of the nastiest upkicks in quite some time, adding to his well-earned reputation for being dangerous in any position.
Their initial encounter was tremendous, and the sequel shouldn’t be any different.
BRYCE MITCHELL VS. CHARLES ROSA
One of the most exciting featherweight prospects on the roster faces a step up in competition in this one as Bryce Mitchell looks to secure his fourth straight UFC victory when he takes on veteran Charles Rosa on Saturday night.
The 25-year-old Mitchell earned the “bronze medal” on Season 27 of The Ultimate Fighter by edging out fellow Team Cormier member Tyler Diamond at the show’s finale, but really started to make his presence known with back-to-back wins in 2019, culminating with just the second “twister” submission in the UFC in early December. The Arkansas-based upstart has shown consistent improvement in each successive venture into the Octagon and if he maintains that pattern while adding a win over Rosa on Saturday night, “Thug Nasty” could find himself creeping into position to make a run at the Top 15 before the year is out.
Injuries have limited Rosa to just six appearances in as many years on the UFC roster, but the Peabody, Massachusetts native has made each of them count. While just 3-3 inside the Octagon, Rosa has established himself as a hard-nosed competitor and tough out in the middle of the featherweight division, having pushed contenders Dennis Siver, Yair Rodriguez, and Shane Burgos in his three setbacks, while securing quality wins over Sean Soriano, Kyle Bochniak, and Manny Bermudez in his three victories.
Though they have roughly the same number of fights in their respective careers, Rosa has faced significantly greater competition after spending nearly half his time competing in the UFC. This is Mitchell’s first opportunity to show that he’s ready to take a big step forward in the talent-rich 145-pound weight class and a chance for Rosa to prove he remains a difficult test for anyone hoping to make headway in the division, and it should be an action-packed thrill ride for as long as it lasts.
RYAN SPANN VS. SAM ALVEY
Light heavyweights get the party started on Saturday night as Ryan Spann goes in search of his fourth consecutive UFC victory when he takes on veteran Sam Alvey in the opener.
A member of the Fortis MMA crew, Spann has won seven straight overall and each of his first three appearances under the UFC banner. While his debut produced a decision win, the tall Texan has gotten back to his finishing ways in his last two outings, knocking out Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 237 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil before submitting Devin Clark five months later.
Closing in on 50 professional fights, Alvey heads into this one looking to snap the first three-fight losing streak of his career after suffering a pair of defeats in 2019. The former Ultimate Fighter contestant remains one of the more consistently active competitors on the roster, having logged 18 appearances over the last six years, and has the kind of “make it ugly” style that can frustrate anyone and potentially halt Spann’s rapid climb up the light heavyweight ranks.
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