DEREK BRUNSON VS. EDMEN SHAHBAZYAN
Elevated to the main event midway through last week, this middleweight clash remains a three-round affair, but given the track records of the two men set to close out the show on Saturday night, they might not even need that much time to settle things.
Brunson has been a fixture in the Top 15 for the vast majority of his UFC run, which began two days prior to the end of 2012 with a unanimous decision win over Chris Leben. The North Carolina native is 11-5 inside the Octagon (20-7 overall) and enters this weekend’s contest on a two-fight winning streak, having earned unanimous decision wins over Elias Theodorou and Ian Heinisch in 2019.
Currently stationed at No. 8 in the middleweight rankings, the 36-year-old Brunson has only ever lost to elite competition inside the Octagon, dropping bouts to current champ Israel Adesanya, former champs Anderson Silva (by controversial decision) and Robert Whittaker, and perennial contenders Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Yoel Romero. He is the middleweight version of the veteran presence in the middle of the rankings that upstarts and hopefuls need to deal with before graduating to being full-fledged contenders and, thus far, only the absolute best of the best have been able to get past him.
Through his first four UFC appearances, Shahbazyan has given fans plenty of reasons to believe he will be in the title conversation or holding championship gold in the middleweight division in the not too distant future.
A graduate of the Contender Series, the 22-year-old “Golden Boy” has pushed his record to 11-0 with four very impressive outings since matriculating to the Octagon. He showed toughness, grit, and heart in edging out Darren Stewart in his promotional debut, and has since needed a combined 257 seconds to dispatch Charles Byrd, Jack Marshman, and Brad Tavares, doing so by displaying an array of offensive weapons and finishing instincts that you don’t often see from someone so young and so early in their professional career.
This pair was originally scheduled to meet at UFC 248 before being shuffled to one of the fight cards canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic and keeping it intact was the correct call.
Shahbazyan has earned another step up in competition and Brunson is easily his toughest assignment to date, making this a high risk, high reward opportunity for the Glendale Fighting Club product. For the 27-fight veteran Brunson, it’s a chance to further cement his standing as one of the best middleweights in the world, while potentially handing a rising star the first loss of his career, both of which could potentially set him up with a greater opportunity later this year.
Brunson has only been the distance five times in 16 UFC starts and seven times in his career, while Shahbazyan has only seen the scorecards once, which means there is a very strong likelihood that the judges won’t be needed in this one.
JOANNE CALDERWOOD VS. JENNIFER MAIA
Another Top 10 matchup slated to take place on Saturday, this flyweight clash of contenders came together when Calderwood stepped in for Viviane Araujo to face Maia.
Initially announced as the next title challenger for reigning champ Valentina Shevchenko, Calderwood’s proposed bout with “Bullet” came apart towards the end of March when Shevchenko was forced to withdraw due to injury. When the champion announced her return date had been pushed back, the ambitious contender opted to take a fight rather than continue waiting in the wings.
Viewed as a future title threat when the strawweight division was first introduced, the soft-spoken Scottish striker had an increasingly challenging time making the 115-pound limit and delivering the kind of consistent performances needed to capitalize on her abundant potential and considerable talent. Since relocating to flyweight, the 33-year-old gone 3-1 with victories over Kalindra Faria, Ariane Lipski and Andrea Lee, while dropping a competitive decision to recent title challenger Katlyn Chookagian.
Maia arrived in the UFC on a six-fight winning streak that included a trio of championship victories under the Invicta FC banner. The 31-year-old Brazilian has subsequently gone 2-2 in her first four appearances in the Octagon, bookending victories over Alexis Davis and Roxanne Modafferi between losses to title challengers Liz Carmouche and Chookagian.
The former Invicta FC champ has missed weight in each of her last two outings, which adds another wrinkle of intrigue to this already compelling clash.
Will Calderwood’s willingness to step in and compete cost her to lose her championship opportunity or bolster her odds of unseating the current flyweight queen? Or will Maia send a shockwave through the division by dispatching the top contender and claim the position for herself?
VICENTE LUQUE VS. RANDY BROWN
It goes without saying that any fight involving Luque is a must-watch because it is more than likely to end inside the distance and be wildly entertaining for as long as it lasts, but when you couple “The Silent Assassin” with the unrated Lookin’ for a Fight graduate Brown, you have the recipe for a Fight of the Night contender.
Luque got back into the win column earlier this year after having his extended winning streak snapped by Stephen Thompson at UFC 244 with a third-round stoppage victory over Niko Price. It was a vintage effort from the humble fighter with a penchant for finishes as he and Price went toe-to-toe without much concern for their own well-being, with Luque once again getting the better of things.
Still only 28 years old, the former Ultimate Fighter contestant is now firmly entrenched in the welterweight rankings, yet still feels like someone who could take another step forward and emerge as a legitimate title threat in the next couple of years, as well.
Through his first nine Octagon appearances, Brown has yet to string together more than two consecutive victories, though he heads into this one on his best run to date, having earned back-to-back stoppage wins over Bryan Barberena and Warlley Alves. The 30-year-old “Rude Boy” has made appreciable improvements since earning his promotion to the UFC, and like Luque, is the type of talent who could still have one more major developmental stretch in his future.
This is a massive opportunity for Brown as he faces a ranked opponent for the first time, while Luque has made a living over the last several years being in dangerous matchups like this, so don’t expect anything more than maximum effort from both men on Saturday night.
LANDO VANNATA VS. BOBBY GREEN
Veteran lightweights who shared the cage together nearly four years ago will run it back for a second time hoping for a different result as Vannata and Green meet for rounds four through six in their personal series after battling to a draw the first time around.
Vannata has had one of the strangest UFC runs in recent years, entering Saturday's fight with a 3-4-2 record inside the Octagon while owning a reputation as one of the most consistently entertaining competitors in the lightweight division. He's never earned the same result twice in a row over the course of his first nine UFC appearances, but aims to buck that trend this weekend by following up his unanimous decision win over Yancy Medeiros in February with a victory over Green in Las Vegas.
After beginning his UFC run with four straight wins, the California native Green has gone 2-5-1 over his last eight fights, but like Vannata, he too got back into the win column last time out, registering a unanimous decision victory over Clay Guida in June. The 33-year-old divisional stalwart is one of the more seasoned competitors in the lightweight division, having shared the cage with contenders, prospects, and everyone in between over the course of his 13-year career, with Saturday being the first time he's fought the same opponent twice.
Their initial clash at UFC 216 ended in a draw after Vannata incurred a point deduction in round one for an illegal knee and took home Fight of the Night honors. Four years later, with both men hoping to turn their positive starts to 2020 into a two-fight winning streak, chances
are high that they'll be in the running for a bonus again this weekend.
KEVIN HOLLAND VS. TREVIN GILES
Another clash of middleweights, this one features a pair of promising upstarts based in Texas in the midst of their athletic primes looking to secure a second straight UFC win.
Giles returned to action after an 18-month hiatus in 2019 and promptly suffered back-to-back submission losses against veterans Zak Cummings and Gerald Meerschaert. The former prospect rebounded with a gutsy win over late replacement James Krause earlier this year at UFC 247 at home in Houston, and will look to get back to the dominant ways that made him a force on the regional scene and a highly regarded addition to the UFC roster when he debuted in 2017.
Holland earned a victory early in the second season of the Contender Series and showed promise in a losing effort on short notice against Thiago Santos in his promotional debut. He then rattled off three straight victories before ending his 2019 campaign with a loss to Brendan Allen. Back in May, the 27-year-old “Trailblazer” got back into the win column with his most impressive performance to date, registering a 39-second stoppage win over Anthony Hernandez in Jacksonville, Florida.
Both of these middleweight hopefuls shared the cage with solid competition on the way to the Octagon, with Giles beating Allen and Ryan Spann, while Holland defeated ranked welterweight Geoff Neal. Now, they’ll face one another in a battle to determine who takes another step forward in the 185-pound weight class and who is once again forced to regroup.
FRANKIE SAENZ VS. JONATHAN MARTINEZ
Sticking in the bantamweight division, the next matchup features a potentially interesting clash of styles as the former Arizona State wrestler Saenz squares off with the patient striker Martinez.
Competing less than two weeks before his 40th birthday, Saenz enters this one looking for his first win in over two years. He had a tidy two-fight winning streak snapped last time out by Marlon Vera, and is now 5-4 in his UFC career, making a victory in this one imperative if he aims to continue plowing forward in the increasingly deep and competitive 135-pound ranks.
Martinez bounced back from a loss in his promotional debut with victories over Wuliji Buren and Liu Pingyuan in 2019, and many believe his run of success should have been extended to three when he landed on the wrong side of a split decision verdict against Andre Ewell earlier this year at UFC 247.
The bantamweight division has become one of the most talent-rich collections in the UFC over the last 18 months, which means every appearance carries greater significance for athletes looking to build momentum and climb the divisional ranks. With both Saenz and Martinez entering this one off setbacks, a victory on Saturday night is key if they don’t want to get swept under by the wave of talent currently gathering in the 135-pound weight class.
ED HERMAN VS. GERALD MEERSCHAERT
Veterans with a combined 84 professional appearances under their belts meet in this one as Meerschaert steps in and steps up to light heavyweight to square off with the grizzled Ultimate Fighter Season 3 finalist Herman in this intriguing matchup.
A pro since 2007, the 32-year-old Meerschaert will be making his second appearance at the UFC Apex this summer but hopes for a much different outcome after lasting just 74 seconds in his bout with Ian Heinisch at the start of June. The Roufusport product is gifted on the ground and gritty as can be, but has yet to be able to find consistency inside the Octagon, having never won or lost more than two consecutive fights over the course of his first 11 UFC appearances.
Herman was already two fights into his UFC career by the time Meerschaert made his professional debut, which tells how long the veteran from the Pacific Northwest has been plying his trade inside the Octagon. The 39-year-old veteran has low key been one of the best stories on the roster over the last year as he halted a three-fight slide with back-to-back victories in 2019; it was the first time he’d won consecutive outings inside the Octagon since carrying a three-fight winning streak into his bout with Jake Shields at UFC 150 in August 2012.
Traditionally a middleweight, the short notice nature of this bout sees Meerschaert move up to battle Herman in the 205-pound weight class, where the two should combine for an entertaining clash between two of the more experienced fighters on the UFC roster.
RAY BORG VS. NATHAN MANESS
Bantamweights at different stages of their respective careers cross paths in this one as Borg looks to get back into the win column in his third appearance of 2020, while Maness hopes to make his UFC debut a winning one this weekend.
Still just 26 years old, Borg loved every minute of his split decision loss to Ricky Simon earlier this year in his return to the 135-pound ranks, and was scheduled to make a quick turnaround against Merab Dvalishvili a month later before having to hustle home due to a medical emergency with his young son. Now once again ready to compete, the Albuquerque native looks to rediscover the consistency that carried him to a flyweight title shot earlier in his career and show that he’s still one to watch in the bantamweight division.
A pro since 2013, Maness really started to garner attention with consecutive wins over Caio Machado and Jesse Arnett under the TKO banner in 2018, the latter of which earned him the Quebec-based promotion’s bantamweight title. He dropped the belt in his next appearance against former UFC competitor Taylor Lapilus but has since rebounded with a first-round stoppage win in February to push his record to 11-1 overall.
This is an intriguing matchup on both sides, as Maness has the chance to topple an established competitor who has fought for UFC gold in the past, while Borg faces a promotional newcomer in a bout that isn’t quite must-win, but feels pretty crucial. With a great deal at stake for both men, expect a high energy clash when they hit the cage in Las Vegas.
ERIC SPICELY VS. MARKUS PEREZ
Veteran middleweights that aren’t particularly fond of going to decisions meet here as Perez and Spicely look to get back into the win column after ending 2019 on a sour note.
After winning 10 consecutive fights to begin his career, Perez has alternated results since arriving in the UFC and heads into this one following a decision loss to Wellington Turman. The 30-year-old has earned finishes in each of his two UFC victories and lost decisions in his three other appearances, so you can be sure that “Maluko” will be looking to make sure this one doesn’t go the distance.
Spicely was released from the UFC after going 2-4 over a six-fight run between July 2016 and May 2018, but was called back to the big leagues for a short-notice showdown with Deron Winn after scoring a pair of impressive stoppage wins under the CES banner. Though he landed on the wrong side of the cards, the talented grappler impressed in defeat, while he and Winn took home Fight of the Night honors.
He was forced out of a follow-up date last October and then lost an opportunity when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the March 28 event in Columbus, Ohio, leaving Spicely more than a year removed from his last fight.
Both of these men like to get after it and are capable of battling it out on the feet or on the canvas, so the likelihood that they combine to deliver an exciting scrap this weekend is high.
JAMALL EMMERS VS. TIMUR VALIEV
Former regional standouts meet in this one as Valiev makes his promotional debut against the UFC sophomore Emmers.
Valiev’s arrival in the UFC feels like it was a long time coming as the 30-year-old has been one of the key members of the New Jersey “Iron Army” and a top competitor across two divisions for the last several years. He arrives in the UFC on a six-fight winning streak that includes victories over Bekbulat Magomedov, Max Coga, and Chris Gutierrez, and has the potential to instantly become an intriguing addition to the 145-pound weight class.
Emmers holds victories over current UFC talents Alexander Hernandez and Cory Sandhagen from their days on the regional scene, but has come up short both times he’s competed in front of the UFC cameras, losing to Julian Erosa on the Contender Series and dropping a split decision to Giga Chikadze in his UFC debut earlier this year. If the 30-year-old “Pretty Boy” can tap into the skills that earned him 17 victories in his first 21 appearances, Emmers could spoil Valiev’s debut on the big stage this weekend in Las Vegas.
CHRIS GUTIERREZ VS. CODY DURDEN
A bantamweight newcomer looks to halt the momentum of an emerging talent returning to the weight class after an impressive showing at featherweight earlier this summer as Cody Durden makes his UFC debut against Chris Gutierrez.
The 29-year-old Durden arrives in the UFC on a seven-fight winning streak, replacing Luke Sanders opposite Gutierrez in a bout that has the potential to immediately stamp him as someone to watch in the 135-pound weight division. Based in Atlanta, where he trains alongside the Lima brothers and UFC veterans Roan Carneiro and Raphael Assuncao, the talented newcomer has only been the distance twice in his career, once in a victory and once in defeat.
Combined with the short notice nature of this weekend’s assignment, don’t be surprised if Durden comes out guns blazing, looking to get Gutierrez out of there early.
A member of the Factory X Muay Thai team helmed by Marc Montoya, Gutierrez lost his promotional debut to Brazilian dark horse Raoni Barcelos, but has since bounced back with three consecutive victories. Last time out, “El Guapo” ventured to featherweight and turned in his best performance to date, battering Vince Morales’ legs until the Contender Series alum was no longer able to stand.
The 29-year-old Gutierrez fought a quality collection of opponents on his way to the UFC and appears to have found his footing as a member of the bantamweight ranks. Now he needs to maintain that same focus and ferocity as he squares off with the newcomer Durden in a high risk, low reward matchup on Saturday night.