Curtis Blaydes vs Junior Dos Santos
The UFC’s first appearance in Raleigh closes out with a heavyweight contest that carries championship implications as the first month of 2020 inside the Octagon comes to a close.
Blaydes enters on a two-fight winning streak, having bounced back from his second loss to Francis Ngannou at the close of 2018 with a unanimous decision win over Justin Willis and a second-round finish of Shamil Abdurakhimov at UFC 242 in September. The 28-year-old talent continues to show improvement each time out, which is a testament to his work ethic, his willingness to learn and the high level coaching he receives with the Elevation Fight Team in Colorado.
The end of Dos Santos’ 2019 campaign ended the same way Blaydes’ 2018 did — with a first-round stoppage loss at the massive, explosive hands of Ngannou. Prior to their June meeting in Minneapolis, the former heavyweight champion had collected three straight wins, including back-to-back finishes of Tai Tuivasa and Derrick Lewis to re-establish himself as a title threat in the big boy ranks.
While things at the very top of the division are still being sorted out, this is a crucial battle to maintain position in the ever-shifting heavyweight landscape. Both men like to stay active and envision themselves fighting for championship gold in the not too distant future, so expect a spirited affair to close out the night at PNC Arena on Saturday.
Rafael Dos Anjos vs Michael Chiesa
Former lightweights who have found a second life in the welterweight division clash in this weekend’s penultimate pairing as Dos Anjos offers Chiesa his toughest test yet since relocating to the 170-pound weight division.
The Brazilian veteran is just 1-3 in his last four fights, but judging Dos Anjos on his record alone would be foolhardy, as those three setbacks came against current champ Kamaru Usman, recent title challenger Colby Covington, and streaking British standout Leon Edwards, who will look to cement his standing as next in line for a title shot in London when he faces Tyron Woodley.
Dos Anjos has been a Top 10 fixture since arriving in the division, and despite his spotty record of late, remains a durable, dangerous opponent for anyone with designs on reaching the top of the division. Though he hasn’t been able to get there himself, he’s turned back several hopefuls and will look to do the same to Chiesa this weekend.
Failing to make the 155-pound limit for his UFC 226 fight with Anthony Pettis prompted Chiesa to set a course for welterweight and through his first two appearances, the former TUF winner has established himself as an intriguing new addition to the 170-pound weight class. After submitting Carlos Condit in his welterweight debut, Chiesa followed it up with a one-sided mauling of “The Original Ultimate Fighter,” Diego Sanchez, in July, grinding out a clean sweep of the scorecards while showcasing outstanding control on the canvas.
With all due respect to the veterans he’s already vanquished, this will be the most serious test for Chiesa at this weight, as Dos Anjos is that guy you have to beat if you hope to move forward in the division. If he can maintain his winning ways, the already crowded title picture will get even more snug.
Jordan Espinosa vs Alex Perez
The flyweight division is coming back into focus and for the second straight event, the 125-pound ranks are represented with a quality pairing that carries divisional significance.
Perez graduated to the UFC on the first season of Contender Series, turning a first-round submission win into a chance to compete in the Octagon. He went 3-0 with two stoppages to begin his UFC journey before running into flyweight OG Joseph Benavidez, who halted his eight-fight winning streak in less than five minutes. Last March, Perez got back in the win column with a bantamweight victory over Mark De La Rosa and now he’s returning home to flyweight in hopes of putting together another extended winning streak.
It took Espinosa two appearances on the Contender Series to earn a contract, but the second time was the charm, as he parlayed a late finish against Riley Dutro into a call-up to the major leagues. After outworking Eric Shelton in his debut, the Albuquerque native got stuck in a triangle choke submission in his sophomore appearance, and heads into 2020 eager to get back to his winning ways.
Hannah Cifers vs Angela Hill
Strawweights make their first appearance of the year on Saturday as North Carolina’s Cifers goes searching for her third straight victory in a showdown against Hill, who makes her fifth appearance in 11 months after fighting four times in 2019.
Cifers may not have much to say when you stick a microphone in her face, but inside the Octagon, the 27-year-old’s efforts to date have spoken volumes. After dropping her debut to rising star Maycee Barber, Cifers has picked up consecutive victories over Polyana Viana and Jodie Esquibel to push her record to 10-3 overall. Tough as nails and having shown a good deal of pop on the regional circuit before matriculating to the UFC, “Shockwave” has the potential to open some eyes with a strong effort here.
A member of the cast on Season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter, Hill has made a dozen trips into the Octagon in her career, including logging nine appearances in the three years since returning from a four-fight, championship-winning sabbatical with Invicta FC. The 33-year-old enters off the best effort of her career — a third-round stoppage win over Ariane Carnelossi in September — and appears poised to finally take the next step towards being a consistent factor in the 115-pound weight class.
Top Finishes From UFC Raleigh Fighters
Top Finishes From UFC Raleigh Fighters
Jamahal Hill vs Darko Stosic
The card features several Contender Series alums making their first trek to the Octagon, and in this matchup, Season 3’s Hill lands opposite the Serbian judoka Stosic.
Undefeated in six pro fights, Hill punched his ticket to the biggest stage in the sport with a second-round finish of Alexander Poppeck last summer at the UFC Apex. Prior to showing out in Las Vegas, the 28-year-old Michigan native earned five wins in 20 months, including a unanimous decision win over fellow UFC Raleigh competitor Dequan Townsend.
Stosic made his promotional debut in the summer of 2018, collecting a first-round stoppage win over Jeremy Kimball. Since then, the Mirko Cro Cop protégé has dropped back-to-back appearances, most recently landing on the wrong side of the cards against Kennedy Nzechukwu.
There is always room for fresh names and promising newcomers in the light heavyweight ranks and this one profiles as a chance for both Hill and Stosic to make their respective cases for bigger opportunities later this year in the 205-pound weight division.
Bevon Lewis vs Dequan Townsend
Middleweights searching for their first victory inside the Octagon meet up in this one as Lewis and Townsend get an early start on their 2020 campaigns in the cage.
The first fighter to receive a developmental deal on the Contender Series, Lewis scored a decision win under the LFA banner and a first-round knockout in his return to Las Vegas in Season 2 to secure a UFC contract. Unfortunately for the rangy 28-year-old, he got tossed into the fray against Uriah Hall and Darren Stewart in his first two outings and the veteran competitors got the best of things.
Townsend made his debut last spring on short notice, moving up a division to square off with hulking EFC worldwide two-weight champ Dalcha Lungiambula. After hanging tough through the first two rounds, Townsend was felled in the third, but with the benefit of a full camp and back down to his usual weight class, the experienced Michigan native will look to extend Lewis’ skid while scoring his first UFC win.
Arnold Allen vs Nik Lentz
Two fighters whose original opponents couldn’t make it to fight night remain on the card in a matchup against one another as Lentz steps up to meet the British upstart Allen in this important featherweight affair.
Allen was initially slated to face Josh Emmett in a bout that not only carried a great deal of divisional significance, but represented a significant step up in competition for the promising 25-year-old. Despite a 6-0 record inside the Octagon and eight consecutive victories overall, Allen remains an under-the-radar rising star in the ultra-competitive featherweight ranks, but this late January matchup creates the potential for a breakout year in 2020.
Lentz had been penciled in to face Nad Narimani, but now looks to get back in the win column by halting Allen’s upward climb. “The Carny” had won back-to-back outings prior to dropping a third meeting with Charles Oliveira in May, and brings an off-rhythm, southpaw striking style and relentless grappling abilities into the Octagon on Saturday.
Fans of stick-and-ball sports would call this a “trap game” for Allen — a matchup he’s “supposed to win” where there is the chance he enters feeling a little deflated after the matchup with Emmett fell apart. It will be interesting to see if the streaking emerging talent from England falls prey to such a performance or instead kicks off his year with a big effort, positioning him for something even greater next time out.
Justine Kish vs Lucie Pudilova
If you’re looking for a low key Fight of the Night contender, look no further than this one as Kish and Pudilova have the potential to blow the roof off the building on Saturday night.
Returning following a fourth major knee surgery and nearly two full years on the sidelines, Kish looks to snap a two-fight losing streak and get back to the form that allowed her to go 6-0 to start her career. Fighting in her home state for the second straight time, the 33-year-old former Ultimate Fighter contestant owns victories over Randa Markos and Nina Ansaroff and has been champing at the bit to get back in the Octagon and get into a fistfight.
Pudilova should prove to be a willing dance partner, as the 25-year-old from the Czech Republic has taken home Fight of the Night honors in two of her last three outings. While she’s landed on the wrong side of the result in each of those contests, the first came by split decision at bantamweight against streaking contender Irene Aldana, followed by a decision loss to recent title challenger Liz Carmouche and a submission defeat in a spirited battle against Antonina Shevchenko last summer in New Jersey.
This one should be fireworks from the word “go” and close out the preliminary card with a bang on Saturday night.
Montel Jackson vs Felipe Colares
This one is a battle of emerging talents in the loaded bantamweight division as Jackson searches for his third straight victory and Corales enters looking to pick up a second consecutive win to kick off 2020 the right way.
Jackson is one of the most intriguing long-term prospects in the division — a former Olympic wrestling hopeful who picked up six wins and a UFC contract in his first year as a professional fighter. After losing his promotional debut to Ricky Simon, “Quik” bounced back with a submission win over Brian Kelleher and a unanimous decision nod against Andre Soukhamthath where he showcased his abundant upside.
After beginning his career with eight consecutive victories, Corales spent all of 2018 on the sidelines before losing his return to action against Geraldo de Freitas last February in Fortaleza, Brazil. Five months later, the 25-year-old got back in the win column with a split decision victory over Domingo Pilarte and on Saturday night, he looks to make it two in a row while usurping Jackson’s position as one to watch in the 135-pound weight class.
Sara McMann vs Lina Lansberg
Veteran bantamweights lock horns in this one as McMann returns from a nearly two-year absence to square off against Sweden’s “Elbow Queen” in a bout that has the potential to have a significant impact on the rankings.
Following back-to-back losses to Ketlen Vieira and Marion Reneau, McMann announced she was pregnant and pressing pause on her career. Initially scheduled to return last summer against Nicco Montano, the former Olympic silver medalist was sidelined with an injury, pushing back her return to active duty until this weekend.
After alternating losses and wins over her first five Octagon appearances, Lansberg heads into Saturday’s contest on a two-fight winning streak, having earned back-to-back decision wins over Tonya Evinger and Macy Chiasson. The durable, dangerous Swedish veteran seems to have finally found her footing and goes searching for the next “biggest win of her career” in Raleigh when she welcomes McMann back to the cage.
This is a really interesting fight that should clarify where each of these veteran competitors fit within the ultra-competitive 135-pound weight division. McMann has long been presented as a potential title threat, but has thus far failed to find the consistency to get back into the championship picture, while Lansberg has quickly regained the form that made her a quality addition to the division in the first place.
Brett Johns vs Tony Gravely
This one is the male equivalent of the fight between McMann and Lansberg, at least from a potential impact standpoint, as the returning Johns looks to spoil the debut of Gravely, an East Coast regional standout and recent Contender Series grad.
Sidelined throughout all of 2019 after suffering a knee injury early in the year, Wales’ Johns looks to get back in the win column after dropping back-to-back decisions to Aljamain Sterling and Pedro Munhoz. Prior to those 2018 setbacks, “The Pikey” had put together a 15-fight winning streak, including title wins in Cage Warriors and Titan FC, as well as three straight wins to begin his UFC run.
Gravely impressed Dana White with his relentless pursuit of a finish — which he ultimately secured — this summer on the Contender Series. Before outworking and finishing Ray Rodriguez in Las Vegas, the Virginia-based standout had rattled off six straight victories, all finishes, and established himself as one of the top bantamweight prospects in the sport.
Both of these bantamweights have the potential to be fixtures in the Top 15 and that’s saying something because the 135-pound weight class has never been deeper. This is an outstanding fight that should not be overlooked simply because it’s positioned early on the fight card.
Herbert Burns vs Nate Landwehr
Featherweight newcomers get the opening assignment of the evening as Burns, the first of seven Contender Series graduates competing on Saturday, squares off with former M-1 Challenge champ Landwehr in a quality curtain-jerker in Raleigh.
Burns ran through Darrick Minner in early August, earning his contract just a handful of days before his older brother, UFC welterweight Gilbert Burns, picked up a short-notice win over Aleksei Kunchenko. Like his big brother, “The Blaze” is slick on the ground and more than capable on the feet, carrying a 9-2 record that includes wins over Edward Kelly and Timofey Nastyukhin into his first Octagon appearance this weekend.
The 31-year-old Landwehr lost the third fight of his professional career and has gone 11-1 over his last dozen fights, entering Saturday’s opener against Burns on an eight-fight winning streak. He debuted under the M-1 Challenge banner in September 2017, won the featherweight title less than a year later and successfully defended the belt twice before earning the call to compete in the UFC.
Burns and Landwehr are both more seasoned and skilled than traditional newcomers, which means a strong performance for either one (or both) could result in an expedited opportunity to climb the divisional ladder in 2020.