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The 10: The Best of February Inside the Octagon

 
One month down, 11 to go.

The first month of 2015 delivered a ton of exciting action inside the Octagon. From Paul Felder’s spinning back fist knockout of Danny Castillo and all things Conor McGregor to Anthony Johnson silencing the Tele2 Arena in Stockholm and a compelling UFC 183 card, January has been jam packed and there is no real slowing down in February.

This is The 10, our regular look at the best action headed to the Octagon in the month ahead.

UFC Fight Night: Henderson vs. Thatch (February 14 in Broomfield, Colorado)

Ray Borg vs. Chris Kelades

The main card of this month’s initial event kicks off with a pair of flyweights that are operating under the radar, but have the potential to be factors by year’s end.

Kelades made his UFC debut on five days’ notice, turning in a gusty effort in a victory over Paddy Holohan in his home province of Nova Scotia back in October. Not only did the 33-year-old pick up an impressive win, but he collected a bonus check for Fight of the Night as well. Now poised for his sophomore appearance, a similar effort here will have “The Greek Assassin” entering the rankings in the 125-pound division.

Like Kelades, Borg made his UFC debut on short notice, jumping from a win on the regional circuit into the Octagon two weeks later, pushing Roufusport product Dustin Ortiz to the limit in April. While he came away on the wrong side of a split decision, the Fit NHB product impressed and showed he was definitely someone to watch in the division with a quick first-round submission win over Shane Howell in his return two months later.

The flyweight division is wide open right now and the winner of this one should earn themselves a step up in competition next time out. If either man can string together a couple strong outings, they could find themselves in contention before 2015 comes to a close.

Neil Magny vs. Kiichi Kunimoto

When you rattle off five consecutive wins in the span of a single calendar year, your sixth fight automatically makes this list.

Magny has gone from being a raw prospect coming off Season 16 of The Ultimate Fighter to an intriguing figure lurking on the fringes of contention in the welterweight ranks. The 27-year-old Grudge Training Center product started playing to his strengths, using his length and conditioning to frustrate opponents with his stick-and-move striking and overall durability as he scored victories in February, May, June, August and October.

Meanwhile, Kunimoto had one of the strangest 3-0 years around, scoring his first UFC win by disqualification before upsetting Daniel Sarafian at UFC 174 and coming out on the happy side of a split decision against Richard Walsh in September. With his three victories in 2014, the Japanese veteran has run his winning streak to seven overall.

Someone’s run of success is going to come to an end, and given their shared ability to find ways to win, the process of figuring out who keeps rolling and who takes a step back should be fun.

Max Holloway vs. Cole Miller

2014 had to be a frustrating year for Cole Miller.

After picking up a second-round submission win over Sam Sicillia in his home state of Georgia to start the year, the Ultimate Fighter alum spent the rest of the year on the sidelines trying to get healthy. A thumb injury scuttled a highly-anticipated showdown with Conor McGregor in Dublin and the constant movement of the featherweight ranks shuffled “Magrinho” to the background for the time being.

But the 30-year-old American Top Team representative can quickly put himself back in the mix with a win over the surging Holloway.

The young Hawaiian rebounded from consecutive losses to Dennis Bermudez and the aforementioned McGregor to collect a four-pack of finishes and a pair of performance bonuses last year. A high volume striker with clean technique and tremendous upside, “Blessed” has already amassed a 7-3 record in the Octagon, rising to No. 13 in the featherweight rankings.

Benson Henderson vs. Brandon Thatch

Announced following the conclusion of UFC 183, the new main event of February’s first event came out of left field, but was instantly recognized as a compelling contest that can change the course of the careers of both men involved.

Former lightweight champion Henderson has talked about moving to welterweight for a while, but no one expected it to come just a handful of weeks after losing a questionable decision to Donald Cerrone and with only a few weeks to prep. “Smooth” has the size to fit in the 170-pound ranks and fighting up in weight should allow him to crank up the volume on his high intensity, pressure-based attack.

Thatch burst on the scene in the second half of 2013, notching first-round stoppage wins over Justin Edwards and Paulo Thiago to emerge as one of the most promising newcomers in the welterweight division. After losing all of 2014 to injury, “Rukus” gets a chance to start 2015 in style with a headlining assignment close to home and the opportunity to run his winning streak to 11 by beating a former UFC champion.

UFC Fight Night: Bigfoot vs. Mir (February 22 in Porto Alegre, Brazil)

Jessica Andrade vs. Marion Reneau

Pint-sized powerhouse Andrade might be the most undervalued fighter in the women’s bantamweight division right now. “Bate Estaca” has scored three straight wins since dropping her short notice debut to Liz Carmouche, picking up decision wins over Rosi Sexton and Raquel “Rocky” Pennington before choking out Larissa Pacheco in her latest appearance.

Reneau made a splash in her UFC debut, battering Alexis Dufresne at UFC 182 to earn her fourth consecutive win overall. The 37-year-old “Belizean Bruiser” makes the rapid turnaround, looking to make an equally quick climb up the rankings by getting the best of Andrade and turning in another dominant performance in Porto Alegre.

Edson Barboza vs. Michael Johnson

A finalist on Season 11 of The Ultimate Fighter, Johnson was making a steady climb up the divisional ladder to begin 2014.

After dominating Joe Lauzon in his own backyard and becoming the first man since Joe Stevenson at UFC 86 to stop Gleison Tibau, “The Menace” picked up a unanimous decision win over his former teammate Melvin Guillard to push his winning streak to three. Sidelined since then following a suspension, the 28-year-old looks to make up for lost time with a dominant performance against Barboza in the co-main event of the UFC’s debut event in Porto Alegre.

A dangerous striker with some of the nastiest kicks in the UFC, Barboza has picked up consecutive wins over Evan Dunham and Bobby Green to ascend to No. 6 in the lightweight rankings. Sporting a 9-2 record in the UFC and standing at 15-2 overall, a victory over Johnson will put the Brazilian Muay Thai specialist on the brink of title contention and in position to face one of the division’s elite next time out.

Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva vs. Frank Mir

First and foremost, heavyweights are always fun to watch and despite their recent struggles, Silva and Mir have been two of the best in the business over the last handful of years.

That being said, this is a critical fight for both men.

Silva is coming off a first-round knockout loss to Andrei Arlovski back in September and hasn’t had his hand raised in victory since his comeback win over Alistair Overeem at UFC 156. The 35-year-old Silva, who has shuffled camps since arriving in the UFC, has settled in at American Top Team and will be eager to ensure he doesn’t lose a second consecutive main event contest in his home country.

Following his UFC 169 loss, Mir took the remainder of 2014 off to re-evaluate and recharge. The former heavyweight champion has lost four straight against an impressive collection of opponents – Junior dos Santos, Daniel Cormier, Josh Barnett and Overeem – but having given his body a chance to heal and enjoyed some time away, Mir is intent on showing he can still compete at the UFC level.

UFC 184: Rousey vs. Zingano (February 28 in Los Angeles, California)

Tony Ferguson vs. Gleison Tibau

Here’s how deep the UFC lightweight division is: Ferguson has won four straight, most recently picking up a second-round submission win over Abel Trujillo, and he’s still not ranked. The former Ultimate Fighter winner is 7-1 in the UFC, holds down a spot on the short list of most consistently entertaining fighters to watch and could crack the Top 15 with a win here.

Tibau is no slouch either. In fact, the Brazilian veteran has the most wins in the history of the UFC lightweight division and steps up to replace Yancy Medeiros riding a three-fight winning streak. A fixture at American Top Team, the 31-year is 5-1 over his last six fights, with his lone setback coming against 12th-ranked Michael Johnson back in December 2013 at UFC 168.

Holly Holm vs. Raquel Pennington

Originally scheduled to take place in December, Holm and Pennington will finally collide in the co-main event of UFC 184.

The scrappy Pennington made a name for herself on Season 18 of The Ultimate Fighter and has gone 2-1 in the Octagon since coming off the show. After dropping a razor-thin split decision to Jessica Andrade in March, “Rocky” rebounded with a first-round submission win at UFC 181, putting Ashlee Evans-Smith to sleep with a bulldog choke as the horn sounded to end the frame.

A world champion across multiple divisions as a boxer, Holm is one of the most intriguing additions to the UFC roster in recent years. She walked away from the boxing ring for good in May 2013 to focus exclusively on MMA, rattling off four wins since that time to raise her record to a perfect 7-0.

A long-time student of Mike Winkeljohn, “The Preacher’s Daughter” was tabbed as a potential title contender long before she signed with the UFC and now the 33-year-old Holm gets her first opportunity to show the UFC fans why all that hype is justified.

Ronda Rousey vs. Cat Zingano – for the UFC women’s bantamweight title

UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey has been a force of nature for her entire career and was able to take it to a new level in 2014, picking up victories over Sara McMann and Alexis Davis in a combined 82 seconds. You read that correctly: 82 seconds.

Now 10-0 and continuing to develop her striking, the Olympic bronze medalist has yet to go the distance in any of her fights and has no plans on spending any more time in the Octagon than is needed. Just two years after her debut and arrival of the women’s bantamweight division – and only four years into her professional career – Rousey has turned back all comers and stands on the precipice of cleaning out the women’s 135-pound ranks.

After enduring two knee surgeries and the death of her husband, Zingano returned to action in September and punched her ticket to a title shot for a second time with what is quickly becoming a typical Cat Zingano performance. She struggled early as Amanda Nunes pressed forward, but after weathering the initial storm, the 32-year-old “Alpha” fought back to dominate the second round and put Nunes away with a barrage of elbows early in the third.

Her resilience and wrestling abilities are two things that have long had Zingano considered Rousey’s toughest possible test in the Octagon and now everyone is going to finally see if that’s true.


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