PAUL FELDER VS. DAN HOOKER
There have been fights with greater stakes, but in terms of overall intrigue and explosive potential, this might be the best piece of matchmaking the UFC has delivered thus far in 2020.
Not only is this a crucial bout in the lightweight title chase, but what started as a respectful, professional engagement between two fiery competitors has turned into a fiery rivalry that will be settled inside the Octagon this weekend in Auckland.
Hooker was the first person to publicly challenge the person interviewing him in the cage following a victory, asking Felder if he fancied a go after his win over Jim Miller in April 2018. Felder was impressed, but otherwise engaged, and the two went their separate ways. Since then, the hometown standout and City Kickboxing representative has added three wins in four starts, including back-to-back victories in 2019 to establish himself as a viable threat in the 155-pound weight class.
Felder arrives in New Zealand on a two-fight winning streak of his own, having earned decision wins over James Vick and Edson Barboza last year. He’s 7-2 over his last nine outings, with one of those setbacks coming in an impromptu welterweight bout against Mike Perry, and he is focused on sending the Auckland faithful home unhappy by turning back Hooker on Saturday.
Stylistically, this matchup has Fight of the Night written all over it, as both men come forward relentlessly, focused on finishing, not scoring points. The animosity between the two should spice things up even more and with the crowd roaring, this one is sure to have a truly big fight feel to it this weekend.
JIMMY CRUTE VS. MICHEL OLEKSIEJCZUK
Young light heavyweights looking to rebound from disappointing losses clash in the co-main event as Australia’s Crute welcomes Poland’s Oleksiejczuk to the Octagon in Auckland.
One of the breakout fighters from Season 2 of the Contender Series, the 23-year-old Crute earned finishes in each of his first two UFC appearances, submitting Paul Craig in his debut before securing a stoppage due to strikes against Sam Alvey in his sophomore outing. Last fall, he ventured to Vancouver for a showdown with Top 15 fixture Misha Cirkunov, where despite having some good moments, Crute got stuck in a Peruvian necktie and was forced to tap.
The 24-year-old Oleksiejczuk began 2019 by posting back-to-back first-round finishes two months apart. He started by rib-roasting Gian Villante in Prague and then improved on that effort with a 44-second knockout of Gadzhimurad Antigulov in Saint Petersburg, Russia eight weeks later. But his impressive run of results came to a halt in September, when Oleksiejczuk became the fourth UFC fighter to be ensnarled in the “Von Preux” choke.
Despite their recent setbacks, both Crute and Oleksiejczuk are clearly promising additions to the light heavyweight division and this showdown between the two should be a spirited affair that puts the victor right back on the fast track to a place in the Top 15 and another marquee assignment later this year.
KAROLINA KOWALKIEWICZ VS. YAN XIAONAN
Fighters moving in opposite directions meet in this compelling strawweight affair as former title challenger Kowalkiewicz crosses paths with the streaking Yan in what is easily her toughest test to date.
Since beginning her UFC tenure with three straight victories and pushing her overall record to 10-0, the 34-year-old Kowalkiewicz has struggled to find success inside the Octagon. She dropped her next two fights, including a championship clash with Joanna Jedrzejczyk, rebounded with a pair of decision wins over American veterans Jodie Esquibel and Felice Herrig, but arrives in Auckland on a three-fight losing streak.
Now, after an eight-month layoff, the veteran contender returns to square off with China’s Yan.
A perfect 4-0 in the UFC and unbeaten in her last 10, the 30-year-old most recently posted a unanimous decision win over Angela Hill at UFC 238 last summer in Chicago. Boasting exceptional conditioning and a pressure style, Yan has been able to outwork her opponents and land on the happy side of the scorecards in each of her first four Octagon appearances.
If she can do that again this weekend, she should earn herself a place in the rankings.
BEN SOSOLI VS. MARCOS ROGERIO DE LIMA
For quite some time, Lando Vannata was the proud owner of the oddest start to a UFC career, but Sosoli has since come along and usurped his title. This weekend, the Australian heavyweight looks to avoid anything strange as he squares off with Brazil’s de Lima at Spark Arena.
Though he only has one official UFC appearance, the 30-year-old Sosoli has competed in UFC-branded competitions not once, not twice, but thrice. The first pick of Kelvin Gastelum on Season 28 of The Ultimate Fighter, he was bounced from the competition in the opening round by eventual winner Juan Espino, then his Contender Series appearance opposite Dustin Joynson last summer was cut short due to an accidental eye poke. Less than two months later, Sosoli made his promotional debut, initially losing a unanimous decision to Greg Hardy, only to have the bout ruled a no contest after Hardy used an inhaler between rounds.
As it stands, Sosoli heads into this weekend’s event with back-to-back no contest results, aiming to finally get his hand raised inside the Octagon for the first time.
Standing between the affable Aussie and that outcome is de Lima, a 34-year-old Brazilian veteran who has split time between heavyweight and light heavyweight during his UFC career who has alternated wins and losses over his last eight appearances. For those that are superstitious and put stock in patterns, “Pezao” enters this weekend’s event in Auckland coming off a second-round submission loss to Stefan Struve.
MAGOMED MUSTAFAEV VS. BRAD RIDDELL
Every event, there is at least one lightweight bout that carries some legitimate divisional significance, even if it isn’t immediately obvious to everyone scanning the card. This is that fight this week.
Riddell made his promotional debut last year when the UFC returned to Marvel Stadium, scoring a unanimous decision win over fellow newcomer Jamie Mullarkey in a bout that felt like an unofficial Australian championship clash. The striking coach at City Kickboxing, “Quake” is surrounded by an outstanding team and finally getting the opportunity to show the skills that have made him an integral part of that gym and its fighters’ rise to prominence over the last couple years.
Because Mustafaev was sidelined for two-plus years prior to his last fight, folks seem to have forgotten that he was a rising star in the division heading into his showdown with Kevin Lee in November 2016. He returned to action last April and made quick work of Rafael Fiziev, and a similar effort against Riddell on Saturday will force observers to once again consider him someone to watch in the lightweight ranks.
KEVIN AGUILAR VS. ZUBAIRA TUKHUGOV
Along with having that one impactful lightweight contest, each card also tends to feature at least one matchup no one is really checking for going into fight night, but that everyone comes away from the event talking about.
You see where I’m going with this?
Tukhugov was on the “rising star” track for a while after arriving in the UFC with a 15-3 record and coming out of the gates with a pair of good wins in his first year on the roster. But injuries, suspensions, and a two-fight winless skid have slowed him down, even though the Russian featherweight is still only 29 years old.
Heading into his fight with Mirsad Bektic a couple weeks back, Dan Ige sang the praises of Aguilar, whom he beat last June, stating that as tough as Bektic was, “he’s no Kevin Aguilar.” It’s a hefty, but deserving, compliment for the former LFA standout who is 17-2 overall and had his bid for a 10-fight winning streak snapped in that clash with the streaking Ige.
Featherweight is bubbling over with talent at the moment and that can make it hard for emerging fighters to really stand out and make an impression with both the UFC brass and the audience. If this fight plays out the way it could, neither of these men should have anything to worry about in that department.
JAKE MATTHEWS VS. EMIL MEEK
This is a fantastic bit of matchmaking by the UFC as it affords both men an opportunity to collect a big win, while also presenting a chance to answer some questions about where they each fit in the division.
Meek arrived in the UFC with a great deal of buzz after quickly defeating former UFC fighter Rousimar Palhares in May 2016. He followed up that victory with a quality win over Jordan Mein in his promotional debut, but it’s been a struggle ever since for the Norwegian, as he’s sandwiched back-to-back losses between a full year on the sidelines in 2017 and 2019, making Saturday’s clash with Matthews a crucial moment in Meek’s career.
The Australian Matthews comes at this from the opposite direction, having been an active member of the UFC roster since the middle of 2014 and somehow still being just 25 years old. Though there have been some stumbles along the way, the former TUF Nations competitor has continued to show flashes of potential and is just now starting to reach the beginning of what should be his athletic prime.
Will the returning “Valhalla” get back into the win column and begin a charge towards the top of the division or can Matthews earn a second straight victory to continue his slow, steady progress since shifting to the welterweight division?
CALLAN POTTER VS. SONG KENAN
Fighters looking to build off strong showings in their most recent outings collide in this one as the Aussie veteran Potter squares off with China’s Song.
A 24-fight veteran when he got the call to the Octagon for the first time, Potter dropped his short-notice debut to Jalin Turner at UFC 234, but rebounded last October by thoroughly outworking Maki Pitolo at UFC 243. The 35-year-old was 9-1 in his previous 10 fights ahead of that bout with Turner and is the kind of experienced hand who could carve out a nice little niche for himself battling upstarts and hopefuls in the early days of their UFC adventures.
Song scored victories in each of his first two trips into the Octagon before running into the previously streaking Alex Morono towards the end of 2018. He bounced back with a strong showing opposite Derrick Krantz last summer in Shenzhen, and now heads to Auckland in search of a second consecutive victory against the battle-tested Potter.
KAI KARA-FRANCE VS. TYSON NAM
Flyweights looking to get back in the win column to start 2020 meet in what should be a fast-paced fight in Auckland as local favorite Kai Kara-France shares the cage with American veteran Tyson Nam.
A competitor on Season 24 of The Ultimate Fighter, Kara-France was bounced in the quarterfinals by Alexandre Pantoja, but still found his way to the Octagon a couple years later thanks to a winning streak he pushed to eight with victories in each of his first three UFC appearances. That run of success came to an end last year when he dropped a close, competitive fight to fellow TUF 24 cast member Brandon Moreno, and now he looks to get right back into the win column in front of a partisan crowd at Spark Arena on Saturday.
Nam made his promotional debut last fall on short notice, stepping in to face Sergio Pettis in Mexico City. Prior to that contest, the 35-year-old had gone 6-1-1 in his last eight appearances, including a win over former UFC title challenger Ali Bagautinov and a draw with another member of the TUF 24 cast, Yoni Sherbatov.
Kara-France has long profiled as someone capable of making a run towards the top of the flyweight division and his bout with Moreno showed he might be closer than previously anticipated. Can he turn this homecoming into a major coming out party or will Nam spoil the night by handing him a second straight loss?
MAKI PITOLO VS. TAKASHI SATO
Welterweights looking to start 2020 on a positive note after last year ended on a low meet in this one as Pitolo makes his second straight trip down under to square off with Sato.
After posting 14 wins in 16 starts fighting in his native Japan, Sato got the call to the Octagon and impressed in his debut, rallying from a rough start to score a second-round stoppage win over Ben Saunders in his debut. His sophomore showing didn’t go as well, however, as he ventured to Abu Dhabi for UFC 242 and came home with a third-round submission loss to Belal Muhammad.
Pitolo had one of the best showings of any fighter on Season 3 of the Contender Series last summer, striding into the UFC Apex and blowing out returning competitor Justin Sumter in 97 seconds while competing at middleweight. He landed on the wrong side of things in his promotional debut three months later, but with his first trip into the Octagon behind him, perhaps “Coconut Bombz” will come away from his second trip to Oceania in the last six months a winning one.
PRISCILA CACHOEIRA VS. SHANA DOBSON
There is no way to sugar-coat this one: both Cachoeira and Dobson need a victory and that should make their bout on Saturday in Auckland one you do not want to miss.
A cast member on Season 26 of The Ultimate Fighter, Dobson won her bout against Ariel Beck on the finale by second-round TKO, but has struggled since, dropping back-to-back decisions to Lauren Mueller and Sabrina Mazo. Still just six fights into her professional career, the 30-year-old has been working with the Elevation Fight Team and fellow Denver-area UFC fighters like JJ Aldrich, Mallory Martin, and Rose Namajunas in advance of this one, and is the kind of raw talent who could take a major step forward in her development on Saturday evening.
Cachoeira got a rough introduction to the UFC, walking into current flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko in her promotional debut. Since then, the Parana Vale Tudo product has suffered two more losses, sending her to Auckland on a three-fight skid. She has shown impressive toughness and resolve throughout her UFC run, but Cachoeira needs to find a way to use those traits to earn a victory or else it is going to be an extra long, disappointing flight back to Brazil.
LOMA LOOKBOONMEE VS. ANGELA HILL
Originally slated to face Hannah Goldy, Lookboonmee instead gets a golden opportunity to make a splash in the strawweight division as she squares off with the suddenly surging Hill.
Highly touted based on her Muay Thai career and training with the elite squad at Tiger Muay Thai, Lookboonmee did not disappoint in her first foray into the Octagon, securing a split decision win over Alexandra Albu in late October. Now 4-1 in her brief MMA career, the 24-year-old Thai prospect could propel herself into the thick of things in the 115-pound weight class with a second straight victory this weekend.
Hill wasn’t lying last month when she said she wanted to remain active and not give herself time to over-think her next step, as just a handful of weeks after taking out Hannah Cifers, she jumped at the opportunity to replace Goldy and make the trip to New Zealand. “Overkill” is in the best form of her career at the moment, having earned back-to-back stoppage wins, and should already be considered someone to watch on the fringes of the strawweight title chase.
Will the promising newcomer score the biggest win of her young career or does the veteran keep rolling and pick up her second win of 2020?
JALIN TURNER VS. JOSHUA CULIBAO
An injury to Jamie Mullarkey opens the door for Culibao to make his UFC debut, as the undefeated newcomer steps in to square off with Turner in this lightweight affair.
One of the top featherweight prospects in Australia, Culibao has posted eight wins in as many starts over his four-year pro career, earning five finishes. This is a “nothing to lose, everything to gain” situation for the 25-year-old, which should allow him to fight freely on Saturday, though stepping onto the big stage for the first time has been known to cause people to freeze up in the past.
Three fights into his UFC tenure, it’s difficult to know where Turner fits. He lost his own short-notice debut up a division against Vicente Luque, then rebounded with a win over Potter in his return to lightweight, but subsequently dropped a decision to Matt Frevola two months later. The 24-year-old has incredible size for the division and has shown flashes of being a dangerous finisher in the past; however, consistency has eluded him to this point.
Can he recapture some of the promise he showed when he ventured to the region a year ago or will Culibao make the most of his short-notice opportunity on Saturday night?
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