The Ultimate Fighter
YAIR RODRIGUEZ VS. JEREMY STEPHENS
Returning to fight in Mexico City for the first time in four years, Rodriguez looks to build on his 2018 Knockout of the Year effort against Chan Sung Jung as he takes on Stephens, one of the stalwarts of the featherweight division, in this weekend’s main event.
Rodriguez ended an 18-month layoff last November, stepping in to replace Frankie Edgar, who dominated him in his previous appearance at UFC 211, opposite “The Korean Zombie” in what turned into one of the best fights of the year. Though it was a close contest, most had Rodriguez down on the cards heading into the final round, but with literally one second remaining, the inventive, exciting rising star knocked out Jung with an upwards elbow out of nowhere.
In order to turn that victory into the start of a winning streak, he’ll need to get through Stephens, one of the most senior fighters on the roster in terms of appearances and the kind of tough, dangerous opponent who is more than capable of spoiling a homecoming like this for Rodriguez.
The 33-year-old veteran is one of those fighters whose record doesn’t tell the whole story of his career, as Stephens is 15-15 in his 30 Octagon appearances, but has made a living facing top competition and being a difficult out at all times. The San Diego-based featherweight has shown greater patience over his last several outings, and while he enters on a two-fight slide, Stephens remains a formidable threat in the middle of the divisional hierarchy.
Is Rodriguez ready to embark on a run towards the top of the division by adding a victory over a second consecutive veteran to his resume or will Stephens play spoiler and end the night with his hand raised?
CARLA ESPARZA VS. ALEXA GRASSO
Saturday’s penultimate pairing has a very similar feel to the headlining act as it features the strawweight division’s first champion looking to halt the ascension of one of the weight class’s brightest young stars, who enters off the most impressive showing of her career.
The more times the strawweight title changes hands, the further removed Esparza gets from the conversation about past champions, though “The Cookie Monster” was the first to carry the title. Because of how lopsided her loss to Joanna Jedrzejczyk was at UFC 185, many have hurried to dismiss Esparza, but the Team Oyama representative has remained a competitive, capable member of the Top 10 throughout and she’s become a measuring stick of sorts for upstarts looking to advance in the title chase.
After arriving in the UFC with a ton of hype and winning her debut, Grasso stumbled, losing two of three and dealing with a couple longer than normal layoffs due to injuries. Surrounded by question marks, she returned in June against former title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz and turned in her best performance to date, beating the Polish veteran to the punch at every turn en route to a unanimous decision victory.
Grasso has long been tabbed as a future contender and this is another opportunity for her to validate that designation and continue moving in that direction. She’ll need her takedown defense to be sharp and her jab to be working, otherwise Esparza will close the distance and deploy her top game in hopes of grinding out another good win over a promising young fighter.
ASKAR ASKAROV VS. BRANDON MORENO
With the flyweight division enjoying a renaissance of sorts, these two young talents will look to establish themselves as legitimate contenders as they take to the cage in Mexico City.
Moreno was an unexpected success story after getting bounced in the opening round of TUF 24’s Tournament of Champions by Alexandre Pantoja, stepping in on short notice to score a first-round submission win over Louis Smolka. Two more victories followed, landing the entertaining, but raw Mexican in a main event showdown against Sergio Pettis on the last event the UFC brought to Mexico City Arena.
After falling to Pettis, Moreno came up short in his attempt to earn a measure of revenge against Pantoja and was released from the promotion. He promptly signed with LFA and won the organization’s vacant flyweight title in June before securing a call back to the UFC Octagonwhere he belongs.
Askarov is an undefeated newcomer who also wore gold prior to matriculating to the UFC. He won the ACB flyweight belt with a submission victory over Jose Maria Tome, then successfully defended it twice, finishing both Anthony Leone and Rasul Albaskhanov by submission as well. He’s yet to see the scorecards in 10 professional fights, but has also proven he has a quality gas tank and legitimate upside as well, making this a truly compelling main card matchup.
The divisional picture is wide open right now in the 125-pound ranks and the winner of this one should find himself in the thick of the title chase as 2019 winds to a close.
IRENE ALDANA VS. VANESSA MELO
Two months after having her three-fight winning streak snapped, Aldana is back, looking to begin another run of success in a showdown with Melo, a Brazilian veteran and promotional newcomer filling in on short notice.
Similar to her teammate Grasso, Aldana arrived in the UFC following a good run under the Invicta FC banner, but stumbled out of the gate, dropping her first two appearances in the Octagon. The 31-year-old rebounded by stringing together three straight wins, culminating with a third-round submission of Bethe Correia in May, but had her winning streak interrupted by Raquel Pennington earlier this summer.
Tabbed to replace Marion Reneau on 10 days’ notice, Melo arrives in the UFC on a five-fight winning streak and having won seven of her last eight starts, including a victory over surging UFC fan favorite Molly McCann. Melo isn’t much of a finisher, nor is she easy to put away, having never been stopped while going the distance in eight of her 10 career wins, which means Aldana will have to work hard if she wants to keep this one out of the judges’ hands.
MARTIN BRAVO VS. STEVEN PETERSON
Two fighters with their backs against the wall and coming off losses to Alex Cacares meet in this one as Bravo ends a 14-month absence to lock horns with Fortis MMA’s Peterson.
After pushing his record to 11-0 with a second-round stoppage win over Claudio Puelles in his UFC debut, Bravo has dropped back-to-back contests, first getting knocked out by Humberto Bandenay before having his comeback attempt fall short against Caceres last summer at the TUF 27 Finale in Las Vegas. Conversely, “Ocho” impressed enough in his Contender Series loss to Benito Lopez that the UFC called on him for a short-notice opportunity six months later. Though he’s 1-3 in his first four trips into the Octagon, Peterson has established himself as a battler who never quits, pushing through to the final horn in all four outings while delivering an entertaining effort every time he steps into the cage.
If you’re looking for a sneaky Fight of the Night pick, this would be the one.
JOSE QUINONEZ VS. CARLOS HUACHIN
Limited opportunities kept Quinonez flying under the radar heading into his last outing, where his four-fight winning streak was snapped. Now the former TUF Latin America finalist looks to get back in the win column by welcoming Huachin to the Octagon for the second time.
After losing to Alejandro Perez in the bantamweight finals in the inaugural season of the international offshoot of the UFC’s long-running reality TV competition, the 29-year-old Quinonez posted victories over Leonardo Morales, Joey Gomez, Diego Rivas and Teruto Ishihara to elevate himself to the cusp of contention in the bantamweight division. His hopes of cracking the Top 15 were dashed in March when he fell to emerging prospect Nathaniel Wood, but now he gets a home game in Mexico City, with designs on picking up his fifth win in six starts.
Huachin made his promotional debut earlier this year in Rio de Janeiro, stepping in on short notice to square off with streaking Brazilian Raoni Barcelos. Though he landed on the wrong side of the results, the 23-year-old Peruvian bantamweight proved he belongs in the Octagon and now he gets to show what he can do with a full training camp to prepare. Barcelos is an underrated talent and Huachin made him work in May, which should mean this matchup with Quinonez will be an entertaining affair from start to finish.
MARCO POLO REYES VS. KYLE NELSON
Featherweights looking to halt matching two-fight slides meet in this one as Canada’s Nelson ventures to Mexico City to face another TUF Latin America alum in Reyes.
Nelson was on a six-fight winning streak that included victories over former TUF winner Jonathan Brookins and recent UFC victor Khama Worthy when he nabbed an opportunity to face Diego Ferreira on short notice at UFC 213 last winter. Though he had some good moments early, Nelson ultimately took a loss, and then was submitted in his return to the featherweight ranks in Ottawa earlier this spring.
Reyes’ UFC tenure began with three straight victories, but he’s just 1-3 since and has been stopped in each of those outings. Last time out, the veteran lasted just 67 seconds with Drew Dober and he hasn’t made it to the midway point of the second round in any of his last four outings, which means the potential is high for this one to end inside the distance.
But the question is which one of these two will finally get a victory and who will have to endure a third straight defeat?
ANGELA HILL VS. ARIANE CARNELOSSI
Originally slated to face Istela Nunes, Hill instead returns for her fourth appearance of the year against another newcomer, the 26-year-old Carnelossi.
One of the most active fighters on the roster over the last three years, Hill’s frequent trips into the Octagon haven’t led to many favorable results, as the TUF 20 contestant has managed just three wins in eight starts since her four-fight sabbatical with Invicta FC. She’s consistently faced tough competition and continues to get better, but with just a single victory in her last four appearances, Saturday’s showdown with Carnelossi could very well be a must-win fight for the popular 33-year-old.
The 26-year-old Carnelossi dropped her professional debut (to UFC competitor Amanda Ribas) in September 2014 and hasn’t looked back since, rattling off a dozen consecutive victories. What makes it tough to gauge how she’ll fit in the strawweight division is that many of those bouts came against opponents with minimal experience or limited records, so it’s difficult to know if she’s a one-woman wrecking machine, a regional superstar or something in between.
We’ll find out on Saturday night.
SERGIO PETTIS VS. TYSON NAM
The first of two compelling flyweight bouts to hit the cage on Saturday, this one is an opportunity for a former contender to right the ship and a long-time veteran to get his first taste of action inside the UFC Octagon.
Pettis has suffered from a little bit of bad timing during his current two-fight slide, following up his impressive victory over Joseph Benavidez with a loss to Jussier Formiga in a bout that didn’t end up producing a title challenger as anticipated. Then, with the division’s future in limbo, he ventured to bantamweight and landed on the wrong side of the scorecards against Top 15 fixture Rob Font, leaving him with three losses in four starts and in dire need of a bounce back performance.
It’s been seven years since Nam’s breakthrough win over Eduardo Dantas, but a 6-1-1 record over his last eight fights coupled with a short-notice opening opposite Pettis have created a lane for the 35-year-old Hawaiian to finally make his first walk to the Octagon. During his current run of good form, Nam has picked up a win over Ali Bagautinov and battled TUF alum Yoni Sherbatov to a draw, further showing he’s skilled enough to compete at this level.
Will the veteran newcomer earn a victory in his promotional debut or can Pettis break out of his recent funk and find his way back into the win column?
VINICIUS MOREIRA VS. PAUL CRAIG
After spending his first seven appearances in the Octagon battling emerging talents, Craig looks to level his UFC record in a bout against Brazil’s Moreira, who aims to avoid an 0-3 start to his UFC career.
The Scottish submission ace has literally faced nothing but tough outs on his way to a 3-4 start in the UFC, including consecutive fights against Fortis MMA prospects Kennedy Nzechukwu, whom he submitted, and Alonzo Menified, whom he did not. Craig’s standup remains a work in progress, but his grappling acumen is outstanding and there is no quit in him, as evidenced by his third-round, come from behind wins over Nzechukwu and Magomed Ankalaev.
Moreira carried a four-fight winning streak into his appearance on the Contender Series last summer, where he submitted John Allan to earn a UFC contract, but since then, “Mamute” has struggled, landing on the business end of first-round finishes against Menifield and Eryk Anders. Like Craig, he prefers working for submissions, so there is a very real possibility this turns into a scramble-heavy grappling match.
SIJARA EUBANKS VS. BETHE CORREIA
Bantamweights looking to get back into the win column meet in the second bout of the evening as former title challenger Correia squares off with the divisional sophomore Eubanks.
Correia has managed just a single victory since pushing her record to 9-0 with three straight victories to start her UFC career, going 1-4-1 in a stretch that began with her title fight loss to Ronda Rousey and is currently capped by her May submission loss to Aldana. Her last victory came at UFC 203 in Cleveland, where she edged out Jessica Eye by split decision, and she’s dealt with some serious injuries in the past, so it will be interesting to see if Correia is fired up and fully invested when she steps into the cage on Saturday night.
Eubanks is one of those athletes who is far more accomplished and talented than her 5-3 record portrays. Last time out, “SarJ” went shot-for-shot with Aspen Ladd in a Fight of the Night-winning clash that served as her first UFC appearance in the bantamweight ranks. Now a full two years into working with coach Mark Henry and the crew up in Jersey, Eubanks has the potential to be a dark horse contender in the division if she’s able to fight to her potential and string together a couple strong outings, starting this weekend in Mexico City.
CLAUDIO PUELLES VS. MARCOS MARIANO
The opening bout of the evening takes place in the lightweight division, where Peru’s Puelles looks to build on his comeback win over Felipe Silva when he takes on the Brazilian Mariano, who is making his second UFC start.
Puelles dropped his Octagon debut in November 2016, then spent the next 18 months on the sidelines dealing with various injuries and missed opportunities. When he returned last May in Chile, he was on the wrong end of things for two full rounds before catching Felipe Silva in a kneebar midway through the third. It’s been another 16 months since that outing, with another injury having forced him from a bout last November, but the 23-year-old has proven his toughness and resolve and if he can skip right to the part where he shines on Saturday, Puelles will head towards the end of the year on a two-fight winning streak.
Mariano made his UFC debut earlier this year, losing to Lando Vannata via submission in the first round of their clash at UFC 234. The 32-year-old has alternated wins and losses over his last four and is only one fight to the good overall for his career, but a strong showing against Puelles that earns him a victory in the Octagon can put all of that behind him in a hurry and set him on a different path heading into 2020.