UFC continues its run of events in Las Vegas with a compelling welterweight matchup as the third-ranked Leon Edwards makes his return to the Octagon after a number of delays over nearly two years to take on 13th-ranked Belal Muhammad in the main event. The co-main event features two ranked light heavyweights, aiming to steal the show as tenth-ranked Misha Cirkunov takes on 13th-ranked Ryan Spann.
Here’s a closer look at the card, from top to bottom, hitting the Octagon this weekend at UFC Fight Night: Edwards vs Muhammad.
LEON EDWARDS VS. BELAL MUHAMMAD
After a number of false starts and unavoidable delays, surging welterweight Leon Edwards finally makes his return to the Octagon this weekend in hopes of re-affirming his standing as one of the top contenders in the division. Standing in his way and looking to usurp his place in the pecking order will be Belal Muhammad, who jumped at the short-notice opportunity and aims to get his second win of 2021 on Saturday night.
Edwards arrives for his first fight since July 2019 on an eight-fight winning streak that includes triumphs over Vicente Luque, Donald Cerrone, and Rafael Dos Anjos, and having won 10 of his last 11 overall, with his lone setback coming against current champ Kamaru Usman. The low-key 29-year-old from England is excellent everywhere, making him a nightmare matchup for just about everyone in the division.
Muhammad pushed his winning streak to four with a unanimous decision victory over Dhiego Lima last month at UFC 258. Heading into that bout, the Chicago native said he wanted to stay active and use this year as his breakout campaign, so it wasn’t at all surprising to see him step up to face Edwards when Khamzat Chimaev was once again forced out of the pairing due to ongoing health issues.
The 32-year-old is one of the most relentless competitors in the division, using his torrid pace and bottomless gas tank to exhaust opponents and turn competitive scraps into lopsided affairs in the later rounds.
This is one of the most intriguing matchups on the slate for March, as Edwards has been on the sidelines for well over a year and returning to face an opponent that is sure to test his conditioning from the outset. The winner will land in the thick of the wide-open title chase in the welterweight division and put himself in tremendous position to face another elite contender the next time out, if not battle for championship gold.
MISHA CIRKUNOV VS. RYAN SPANN
Light heavyweights looking to take a step towards the top of the division a week after the title was on the line clash in the co-main event as Misha Cirkunov returns to take on Fortis MMA product Ryan Spann.
After amassing four straight victories to begin his UFC tenure, Cirkunov stumbled upon arriving in the deep end of the 205-pound talent pool, losing three of four before rebounding with a first-round submission win — by Peruvian necktie — over Jimmy Crute last time out. That bout took place in September 2019 and the 34-year-old Latvian-Canadian has been out of action since.
Spann has competed three times since Cirkunov last stepped into the Octagon, earning victories over Devin Clark and Sam Alvey before landing on the wrong side of a first-round stoppage in a wild back-and-forth with Johnny Walker last September. The Contender Series alum had the charismatic and unorthodox Brazilian hurt early, but couldn’t seal the deal, only for Walker to sting Spann in return and secure the finish.
Each of these men currently reside in the lower third of the rankings in the light heavyweight division, harboring obvious desires to move forward, with Saturday’s contest standing as the exact type of difficult test they each need to pass in order to move in that direction.
DAN IGE VS. GAVIN TUCKER
Dan Ige was originally slated to welcome Ryan Hall back to the Octagon this weekend, but when the former TUF winner was forced out with an injury, streaking Canadian Gavin Tucker raised his hand and filled the vacancy, setting the stage for a compelling featherweight clash this weekend.
Entering 2020 on a four-fight winning streak, Ige extended that run to six with split decision victories over Mirsad Bektic and Edson Barboza in February and May, respectively, to earn a main event assignment opposite Calvin Kattar in July. Though he came out on the unhappy side of the verdict, the tough-nosed Hawaiian showed he’s a legitimate Top 15 talent in the 145-pound weight class and now looks to recapture some of the momentum he lost by taking out Tucker on Saturday.
Born and raised in St. Anthony, Newfoundland and Labrador, and fighting out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Tucker collected a pair of victories in 2020 to push his winning streak to three. In August, he out-hustled and ultimately submitted Justin Jaynes, and at UFC 256 in December, the tattooed Canadian martial artist out-boxed and outfoxed Billy Quarantillo, pushing his record to 13-1 with the victory.
Featherweight is one of the most competitive and consistently entertaining divisions in the UFC and this fight should highlight that on Saturday evening. Ige has proven himself against more established foes and staked his claim to a place in the Top 15, but Tucker has shown the skill and drive to be deserving of a spot in the rankings as well, so it will be interesting to see which man emerges victorious when dust settles.
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ANGELA HILL VS. ASHLEY YODER
Strawweights looking to make headway in the talent-rich division to start the year square off in this contest rescheduled from last month, as former Ultimate Fighter contestants Angela Hill and Ashley Yoder make their 2021 debuts against one another.
Hill started last year like she was shot out of a cannon, registering two wins in four weeks to grab a place in the Top 15. A pair of debated split decision losses to Claudia Gadelha and Michelle Waterson followed, leaving Hill with a sour taste in her mouth. Now “Overkill” aims to get back into the win column and make another first half run up the rankings by toppling Yoder in this short-notice assignment.
A contestant on Season 23 of The Ultimate Fighter, Yoder snapped a two-fight skid with a unanimous decision triumph over Miranda Granger in November, giving her three wins in her last five trips into the Octagon. A skilled grappler with continually improving striking, Yoder has never been finished and aims to secure the biggest win of her career this weekend.
These two met several years ago on The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale, with Hill earning a unanimous decision victory, but each has made considerable improvements and noteworthy adjustments since then.
MANEL KAPE VS. MATHEUS NICOLAU
Manel Kape envisioned making a fast, unstoppable run to the top of the UFC flyweight division, but after stumbling in his promotional debut, the talented newcomer makes a quick return as he squares off with Matheus Nicolau in the first bout of the Brazilian’s second run inside the Octagon.
A standout in Japan prior to signing with the UFC, Kape faced Alexandre Pantoja early last month in his highly anticipated debut. He looked a tad bit hesitant early and couldn’t do enough to close the gap between the two late, dropping a unanimous decision to the Brazilian contender. Now, “StarBoy” subs in for Tagir Ulanbekov on short notice, eager to get his first UFC victory and get things moving in the right direction once again.
Nicolau earned three straight victories to begin his career, but was released following a first-round stoppage loss to Dustin Ortiz in the summer of 2018. Undeterred, he earned a pair of victories on the regional circuit in 2019 and now the 28-year-old is back in the UFC, ready to make the walk to the Octagon again on Saturday night and reclaim a place in the flyweight rankings.
Can Kape make the most of his expedient return to action or will Nicolau hand the highly regarded newcomer a second straight defeat while establishing himself as someone to watch going forward in the 125-pound weight class?
ERYK ANDERS VS. DARREN STEWART
After earning twin victories to close out his 2019 campaign, Anders made only one trip into the Octagon in 2020, dropping a unanimous decision to Krzysztof Jotko in May. The 33-year-old former Alabama linebacker began his career with 10 consecutive victories, earning a main event assignment opposite Lyoto Machida in his third UFC appearance, but he’s just 3-5 since then while bouncing between divisions, and needs to recapture his earlier form if he wants to make any headway in the dangerous 185-pound weight class in 2021.
A native of East London, Stewart has gone 5-3 over his last eight fights after beginning his UFC tenure with a no contest and three straight setbacks. The 30-year-old powerhouse picked up a submission win over Maki Pitolo in August to earn a Performance of the Night bonus, but then landed on the salty side of a split decision verdict against Kevin Holland six weeks later to cool his momentum.
The middleweight division has undergone some serious renovations over the last 18 months with a number of new names rising through the ranks. If either of these veterans have designs on making a push towards the Top 15, an impressive performance this weekend in Las Vegas would be an excellent place to start.
CORTNEY CASEY VS. JJ ALDRICH
Following a frustrating end to her 2020 campaign, Cortney Casey looks to start this year off with victory as she steps into the Octagon against equally motivated Colorado dynamo JJ Aldrich in this highly competitive flyweight affair.
Things started out great for Casey last year, as the 33-year-old returned to the 125-pound weight class and scored a first-round submission win over Mara Romero Borella in May, but five weeks later, she was on the business end of submission finish courtesy of Gillian Robertson. After taking a little time off, she was ready to return in October, but her opponent, Priscila Cachoeira was scratched from the card the day before the bout due to issues with her weight cut.
Now having sat with a loss atop her resume for the last eight months and not getting to enjoy the fruits of her training camp labors last fall, you can be certain that Casey is chomping at the bit to get back into the Octagon and throw down this weekend.
Like her opponent on Saturday night, Aldrich is likely raring to go after being limited to just a single appearance in 2020, where she landed on the wrong side of a split decision verdict that some felt should have gone in her favor. The Ultimate Fighter alum busted her left hand in that January clash with Sabina Mazo and required surgery to repair the damage, leading to this extended hiatus.
NASRAT HAQPARAST VS. DON MADGE
A highly regarded prospect, the 25-year-old Haqparast had his three-fight winning streak snapped in sudden fashion last January when Drew Dober knocked him out at UFC 246. He rebounded with a unanimous decision win over Alexander Munoz in August, and was supposed to face Arman Tsarukyan in a clash of upstarts at UFC 257, but was forced off the card the morning prior to the bout.Stepping in for Guram Kutateladze, Madge competes for the first time since registering a unanimous decision win over Fares Ziam in the opening bout of UFC 242 in September 2019. That victory pushed the South African lightweight’s record to 2-0 inside the Octagon and extended his winning streak to six straight overall, but his inactivity has relegated him to the background in the crowded 155-pound ranks.
*Due to visa issues, Don Madge has been removed from this bout. Nasrat Haqparast will now face Rafa Garcia
RANI YAHYA VS. RAY RODRIGUEZ
A decorated grappler and 38-fight veteran, Yahya makes his 2021 debut searching for his first victory since the summer of 2018 after losing to Ricky Simon in his lone appearance of 2019 before battling Enrique Barzola to a majority draw last spring in Brasilia. The 36-year-old Brazilian has earned 20 of his 26 career victories by submission and, despite his recent two-fight winless skid, is still 7-2-1 over his last 10 starts.
The 33-year-old Rodriguez finally made it to the Octagon last summer after grinding on the regional circuit for 21 fights, but his debut was short-lived as Brian Kelleher snatched up a guillotine choke to secure the tap just 39 seconds into the opening round. “The Judge” has shared the cage with a host of familiar names including Jimmy Flick, Chris Gutierrez, and Steven “Ocho” Peterson, and will look to pick up his first UFC victory as he takes on Yahya on Saturday evening.
CHARLES JOURDAIN VS. MARCELO ROJO
A two-division champion under the TKO banner before graduating to the UFC, the 25-year-old Jourdain closed out 2019 with a bang, registering a second-round stoppage win over Dooho Choi in his hometown of Busan, South Korea. But a split decision loss to Andre Fili and a split draw result against Josh Culibao in October have left the talented French-Canadian eager to get back in there and rebuild the momentum he lost last year.
Rojo was scheduled to make his UFC debut as a late replacement opponent for Raoni Barcelos at the end of last month, only for the Brazilian was forced off the card a few days later. The Argentinian, who replaces Steve Garcia, is 8-2 in his last 10 fights and trains with the crew at the Entram Gym in Tijuana, Mexico. An all-action fighter who hasn’t been to the scorecards since the early days of his career, Rojo is a powerful striker who enters Saturday’s contest with nothing to lose and the opportunity to make a massive impact in his short-notice debut.
JONATHAN MARTINEZ VS. DAVEY GRANT
The 26-year-old Martinez has won four of his last five after dropping his promotional debut, and most would argue he should be on a five-fight winning streak given that his split decision loss to Andre Ewell last February was one of the most debated decisions of the year. Undeterred by that verdict, the Factory X Muay Thai representative returned to action in August, scoring a third-round stoppage win over Frankie Saenz before finishing out the year with a unanimous decision win over Thomas Almeida at featherweight.
This is a really intriguing clash between an emerging youngster and a dangerous, gritty veteran in a highly competitive division, one you don’t want to miss this weekend. Do not be surprised if these two set the Fight of the Night bar relatively high early in the evening Saturday night in Las Vegas.
A finalist on Season 18 of The Ultimate Fighter, Grant is one of the most star-crossed talents on the UFC roster, as injuries have limited the 35-year-old Brit to just five appearances since his debut in November 2013. Last time out, the man from Bishop Auckland, County Durham, England secured a third-round knockout win over Martin Day to earn his second consecutive win, but has been sidelined ever since.
GLORIA DE PAULA VS. JINH YU FREY
Two weeks after watching her partner Mayra Bueno Silva battle Montana De La Rosa to a draw inside the UFC Octagon, Gloria de Paula returns to the site of her Contender Series win in search of a victory in her promotional debut as she takes on former Invicta FC champ Jinh Yu Frey.
De Paula dominated Pauline Macias back in November, out-hustling the former Olympic judo hopeful at every turn to earn a unanimous decision victory and a UFC contract. Now 5-2 in her pro career, the Brazilian newcomer trains with an excellent camp at Chute Boxe Diego Lima alongside Silva, Thomas Almeida, and lightweight contender Charles Oliveira.
Frey put together a 9-4 record largely competing under the Invicta FC banner prior to arriving in the UFC, winning and defending the promotion’s atomweight title while sharing the cage with a host of the top talents in the 105-pound weight class. But it’s been tough sledding for the 35-year-old veteran since moving up to strawweight and joining the UFC roster, as she lost her short-notice debut by submission at the end of June before getting beaten on the cards by Loma Lookboonmee in October.
MATTHEW SEMELSBERGER VS. JASON WITT
Originally scheduled to face Contender Series alum Philip Rowe in their joint debuts in August, “Semi the Jedi” instead scored a unanimous decision win over Carlton Minus after “The Fresh Prince” was forced from the contest. He’s now won four straight overall and appears to have settled back into competing at welterweight after bouncing between the 170- and 185-pound ranks for a few fights prior to arriving in the UFC.
Witt made his first trip into the Octagon on tremendously short notice in June and was quickly stopped by Takashi Sato, but he returned four months later to register a second-round submission win over Cole Williams in a performance that was much more indicative of what he brings to the table. Training with James Krause and the Glory MMA team in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, the 34-year-old has earned 10 victories in his last 12 outings heading into this weekend’s contest.