RAFAEL DOS ANJOS VS. PAUL FELDER
Reshaped at the outset of fight week, this weekend’s main event now pits former lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos against “The Irish Dragon,” Paul Felder, who steps out of the broadcast booth and into the Octagon for a five-round main event clash on Saturday.
Dos Anjos returns to the lightweight ranks for the first time since dropping a unanimous decision to Tony Ferguson a little over four years ago in Mexico City, looking to snap a two-fight slide. While the Brazilian had early success in his move to welterweight, facing the division’s elite and coming in slightly undersized resulted in a string of tough results and a trip back to the 155-pound ranks.
Felder was non-committal about continuing his fighting career after a narrow lost to Dan Hooker in February, ultimately deciding to press forward, but only to pursue fights that excite and intrigue him. When Dos Anjos’ original opponent, Islam Makhachev, withdrew, the 35-year-old snapped up the opportunity to fill in and face the returning former champion, believing that a victory over the Brazilian would put him right back in the thick of the chase in the suddenly unsettled lightweight division.
The results of this one are bound to have an impact on how things are booked in the 155-pound weight class in the opening months of 2021, while the early-week shift from Makhachev to Felder has injected some additional intrigue into Saturday night’s main event.
ABDUL RAZAK ALHASSAN VS. KHAOS WILLIAMS
Rather than have individual walkout songs, Abdul Razak Alhassan and Khaos Williams should both make the trek to the Octagon with “Mama Said Knock You Out” blaring throughout the UFC Apex on Saturday night because that is the mission each time these welterweights step into the cage.
Alhassan returned from a near two-year absence in July, starting quickly, but fading hard in a losing effort against Mounir Lassez on Fight Island. It was his second career loss and just the second time he’d ventured beyond the first round, as the 35-year-old has collected all 10 of his victories in destructive fashion in under five minutes.
The 26-year-old Williams burst on the scene in February when he marched into the Octagon and knocked out Alex Morono in 27 seconds, but now it’s time for the encore. The Michigan native has now won seven straight overall, showing a more diverse skill set and deeper gas tank than Alhassan, but it will be interesting to see how he responds when his opponent brings the smoke right out of the chute.
There is a very high probability of someone getting dispatched to a different astral plane in this one given the way both Alhassan and Williams can crack, so buckle up and enjoy it for as long as it lasts; my guess is less than a round.
JULIAN MARQUEZ VS. SAPARBEG SAFAROV
One of the breakout stars from the first season of the Contender Series, Julian Marquez, returns to action for the first time in more than two years as he faces off with Russian veteran Saparbeg Safarov in this main card pairing.
Marquez earned his UFC contract by blasting out Phil Hawes in their meeting on the Contender Series in 2017. After choking out Darren Stewart in the second-round of his promotional debut, the 30-year-old Vegas-based middleweight dropped a split decision to Alessio Di Chirico in his sophomore outing and hasn’t competed since due to a fully torn latissimus dorsi suffered during that fight.
Waiting to welcome him back to the Octagon is the 34-year-old Safarov, who arrived in the UFC with an 8-0 record, but enters Saturday’s contest with one victory in four UFC appearances. He moved down to middleweight for the first time in his UFC career earlier this year, but ran into unbeaten Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Rodolfo Vieira, leaving him desperate to have his hand raised this weekend in Las Vegas.
Marquez looked like an interesting prospect after earning his contract in emphatic fashion and finishing Stewart in his debut, but two years on the sidelines is a lot for anyone to overcome. Meanwhile, Safarov needs to regain the form that produced those eight straight finishes that earned him the opportunity to compete in the Octagon in the first place.
ERYK ANDERS VS. ANTONIO ARROYO
Eryk Anders steps up to face Antonio Arroyo in a clash of middleweights angling to end this year on a high note inside the Octagon.
After bouncing between divisions for a couple years with limited success, Anders returned to middleweight last October and earned a hard-fought split decision win over Gerald Meerschaert. Seven months later, he landed on the wrong side of the results against divisional stalwart Krzysztof Jotko, dropping is record to 5-5 inside the Octagon and just 3-5 since beginning his UFC tenure with tandem victories.
A member of the 2019 graduating class from the Contender Series, Arroyo’s promotional debut last November saw him cycle through three different opponents. He ultimately shared the cage with fellow Contender Series alum Andre Muniz, losing a decision that snapped his five-fight winning streak. Initially scheduled to face Andreas Michailidis, the 31-year-old Brazilian now faces Anders instead.
This is an important fight for both men for different reasons.
It seems like forever ago that Anders was rising through the middleweight ranks and battling Lyoto Machida in Brazil, where he dropped a debated split decision to the former light heavyweight champion. He’s below .500 since that contest and could really use a strong performance to give himself some momentum heading into next year. As for Arroyo, starting your UFC career with consecutive setbacks is never a good look, so a victory would afford him a little breathing room as he wraps up his first full year as an active UFC competitor.
BRENDAN ALLEN VS. SEAN STRICKLAND
Consider this the surprise curly fry in an order of regular fries, as rising middleweights Brendan Allen and Sean Strickland square off in a late addition to Saturday night's lineup.
Allen was scheduled to compete last weekend, but his bout was pulled at the 11th hour when his opponent, Ian Heinisch, tested positive for COVID-19. But the streaking Louisiana native, who went 3-0 in his rookie campaign in the UFC, will now get the chance to put his first training camp with the Sanford MMA crew to use this weekend instead. Just 24 years old, Allen already holds victories over Kyle Daukaus, Tom Breese, and Kevin Holland and is one of the top "Under 25" talents on the UFC roster.
Strickland ended a two-year absence following a horrific motorcycle accident late last month, returning to the Octagon and registering a unanimous decision win over Jack Marshman. Once a highly touted prospect, the 29-year-old Californian remains unbeaten in middleweight competition at 16-0, with his three career losses coming during his venture down to welterweight. Technical on the feet and talkative in the cage, Strickland is a dark horse to pay close attention to going forward in the 185-pound weight class.
This is an outstanding fight to have dropped into the mix this weekend as both have shown flashes of Top 10 talent. It will be interesting to see if Strickland will be able to coax Allen into a brawl or if "All In" will stay technical and tactical on Saturday night. Regardless of how this one plays out, the winner has to be viewed as a legitimate threat in the middleweight division in 2021.
KAY HANSEN VS. CORY MCKENNA
Impressive 21-year-old prospects Kay Hansen and Cory McKenna clash in this strawweight matchup that could be a glimpse at the future of the division.
Hansen made her pro debut at the end of December 2017 as an 18-year-old and went 4-3 over her first seven starts, six of which came under the Invicta FC banner. She closed out 2019 with a third-round submission win over Nicole Caliari, defeated Liana Pirosin in her 2020 debut, and then snatched up a third-round submission win over former Invicta FC atomweight champ Jinh Yu Frey in June to extend her winning streak to three.
Fighting under the Cage Warriors banner, McKenna went 3-1 in her first four pro appearances, with her lone setback being a split decision loss to Contender Series alum Micol di Segni. In August, “The Hobbit” made the trek to Las Vegas and outworked LFA champ Vanessa Demopoulos to earn a unanimous decision win and a UFC contract.
This shapes up as a wildly entertaining scrap between a pair of tough young talents with solid ground games. Hansen generated a bunch of buzz during her Invicta FC days and with her debut win over Frey, while McKenna is a compact powerhouse who has continued training with Team Alpha Male since her victory this summer, making this arguably the most intriguing matchup on Saturday night’s fight card.
ASHLEY YODER VS. MIRANDA GRANGER
Strawweights Ashley Yoder and Miranda Granger look to get back into the win column as they clash in preliminary card action this weekend in Las Vegas.
Yoder is similar to Cortney Casey in that she’s significantly better than the 2-5 record she’s managed through her first seven trips into the Octagon. The “SpiderMonkey” has never been finished, landing on the wrong side of the cards in competitive matchups against Justine Kish, Angela Hill, Mackenzie Dern, Randa Markos, and Livinha Souza, and enters this one looking to snap out of a two-fight skid.
Granger made her promotional debut last August, picking up a unanimous decision win over Hannah Goldy to push her record to 7-0. She returned to the Octagon in December and suffered her first career setback, losing to Amanda Lemos by rear-naked choke in the first round.
Both women do their best work on the canvas, so expect a scramble-heavy, attack-and-defend, advance-and-adjust type of battle once they go live on Saturday night.
ALEX MORONO VS. RHYS MCKEE
Welterweights looking to have a more representative showing of what they’re capable of inside the cage meet here as Alex Morono and Rhys McKee face off in this clash of fighters aiming to rebound from losses in their most recent outings.
Entering the year on a three-fight winning streak, Morono got an assignment in his home state of Texas to begin 2020, but landed on the wrong side of things at UFC 247 when late replacement newcomer Khaos Williams knocked him out in 27 seconds. Prior to that fight, “The Great White” had won four of his previous fight outings and appeared to be rounding into form as another quality contender from the Fortis MMA camp.
A quality prospect on the British circuit, McKee signed on to be Khamzat Chimaev’s second Fight Island dance partner in July and didn’t land a single blow while getting mauled by this year’s top breakout talent. The promising 25-year-old enters Saturday’s contest hoping to show the skills that produced a 10-2-1 record with only two trips to the scorecards prior to his promotional debut.
Which one of these two will get back into the win column following a disappointing first outing of the year and which one will have to head into 2021 on a two-fight slide?
JOSE QUINONEZ VS. LOUIS SMOLKA
Bantamweight veterans coming off disappointing outings earlier in the year meet in this potential barnburner as Jose Quinonez locks up with Louis Smolka.
A graduate of The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, Quinonez is 5-3 in the UFC, but has lost two of his last three outings following an impressive four-fight winning streak. Back in March, he welcomed Sean O’Malley back to the Octagon for the first time in two years and landed in a highlight as “Sugar Sean” stopped him two minutes and two ticks into the opening round.
Smolka arrives in Las Vegas on the exact same kind of run as Quinonez, though not all of last eight fights have come inside the Octagon. “Da Last Samurai” earned his way back to the UFC with a three-fight winning streak on the regional circuit and scored an impressive submission win in his return to the UFC cage, but is just 1-2 since. Last time out, Smolka got caught in a one-arm guillotine choke by Casey Kenney.
Quinonez and Smolka are the kind of consistently entertaining, action fighters every division needs, and if you’re looking for a dark horse Fight of the Night candidate, this would be a smart choice.
RANDA MARKOS VS. KANAKO MURATA
Strawweight veteran Randa Markos makes her third appearance since the restart and 16th trip into the Octagon as she welcomes Japanese standout and promotional newcomer Kanako Murata to the UFC.
Through her first 14 UFC appearances, Markos had never had similar results in consecutive fights, alternating losses and wins over her first nine outings before battling Marina Rodriguez to a draw, then alternating wins and losses over her next four. The streak came to an end in September, however, when she was submitted by Mackenzie Dern in the first round, sending the 35-year-old Windsor, Ontario native into this one looking to break the first two-fight skid of her career.
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Murata is one of the most intriguing additions to the 115-pound weight class in some time, carrying an 11-1 record and seven-fight winning streak into her UFC debut this weekend. The 27-year-old earned a pair of wins under the Invicta FC banner last year and holds victories over former UFC fighters Maia Stevenson and Angela Magana, establishing her as someone to pay close attention to in the strawweight division going forward.
This is a critical contest for both women, as Markos looks to avoid a three-fight slide, while Murata tries to make an instant impact in her new surrounds by knocking off one of the division’s longest tenured fighters.
GERALDO DE FREITAS VS. TONY GRAVELY
In the bantamweight division, Geraldo de Freitas squares off with Tony Gravely.
The 29-year-old de Freitas pushed his winning streak to seven with a victory over Felipe Colares in his promotional debut in February 2019, but had his run of success halted six months later when he came out on the wrong side of a split decision verdict in a bout with Chris Gutierrez.
A standout on the regional circuit for a number of years, Gravely earned a ticket to the UFC roster with a third-round stoppage win over Ray Rodriguez last August on the Contender Series. He was thrown into the deep end in his debut, ultimately getting submitted by Welsh standout Brett Johns in the third-round of an entertaining back-and-forth at the end of January.
Both men enter off setbacks that snapped extended periods of success, so it will be interesting to see how each one responds when they return to the Octagon this weekend.
DON’TALE MAYES VS. ROQUE MARTINEZ
Big boys go to battle in search of their first UFC victories as Don’Tale Mayes makes the walk to the Octagon for the third time against promotional sophomore Roque Martinez.
“Lord Kong” made three appearances on the Contender Series, winning his final two as part of a four-fight winning streak and securing a contract with his first-round stoppage win over Ricardo Prasel last summer. But the 28-year-old has struggled through his first two UFC appearances, losing to both Ciryl Gane and Rodrigo Nascimento by submission, sending him into Saturday’s contest hoping that the third time is once again the charm.
Martinez made his promotional debut on short notice back in September, landing on the business end of a loss to Alexandr Romanov. Now the 34-year-old fighter representing Guam looks to make the most of his second chance and exhibit the skills that have produced stoppages in each of his last five victories.
There is a good chance this will resemble those dust clouds with arms and legs occasionally jutting out they used to use to represent fights on the Saturday morning Looney Tunes cartoons, so make sure your drink is filled and your snacks are ready to go because you’re not going to want to get up once these two heavyweights start slinging leather.