In the shadows of an entertaining and submission filled UFC 216, the MMA leader announced another killer slate of fights this week, as they began to fill the rest of their 2017 schedule, playing particular attention to the December 19 card in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, which will be shown on live and exclusively on FOX. This week we saw the announcements of some truly killer fights, including several that will have an impact on the title pictures of several divisions.
Gokhan Saki (1-1, 1-0 UFC) vs. Khalil Rountree Jr. (6-2, 2-2 UFC)
UFC 219 (December 30, 2017) T-Mobile Arena—Las Vegas, Nevada
When this fight was announced my first thought was “DAAYYUUMM” and my second that this may too big of a step-up for Saki, who is coming off a successful UFC debut several weeks ago in Japan.
Saki was the first Glory Kickboxing Light Heavyweight Champion and has an insane kickboxing record of 83-12, with 59 knockouts, but only had one unsuccessful foray into MMA in 2004 before signing with the UFC in May. But coming off a two-year fighting layoff, Saki was matched with credible UFC veteran Henrique da Silva and despite being hurt early, Saki managed to storm back to win by first round TKO and earn Performance of the Night. But Khalil Rountree Jr is no joke.
The Las Vegas native and TUF 23 finalist lost his first two fights in the UFC, but came into 2017 in better shape and with a much more serious attitude in the cage. He needed only fifty-two seconds and one knee to send Daniel Jolly out of the UFC, and then went to Scotland and wiped out top prospect Paul Craig in his home country in one round in July, then stood over him as he lay semi-conscious on the canvas. Rountree will not be afraid to stand in front of the kickboxing legend come December, but a hunch says that he tries to take this to the mat eventually. It is a tremendous test for Saki and a huge opportunity for Rountree, but chances are that the fans will be the real winners of this one.
Bryan Caraway (21-7, 6-2 UFC) vs. Luke Sanders (11-1, 1-1 UFC)
UFC Fight Night Fresno (December 9, 2017) Save Mart Center—Fresno, California
In a battle of fighters best known for the women they date, number sixth ranked bantamweight Caraway will end an eighteen month layoff against a fighter eager for redemption in Tennessee’s Sanders. The ex-boyfriend of former UFC bantamweight champ Miesha Tate, Caraway scored the biggest victory of his career, upsetting the red-hot Aljamain Sterling in May 2016. He pulled out of a fight with Jimmie Rivera in January and lost the hottest woman in MMA somewhere along the way, along with his growing career momentum.
Meanwhile, Sanders, the boyfriend of WWE Superstar Becky Lynch, had Iuri Alcantra dead to rites in a fight many refs would have stopped at UFC 209, but threw an errant knee to the head while Alcantra was down, giving the crafty Brazilian enough time to recover and catch Sanders in a kneebar and tap him out. But Sanders gets a chance to reestablish his momentum against the most well-known opponent of his career, who may very well be right for the picking. Time off is the greatest enemy of any fighter, so Caraway may be in trouble come December.
Chase Sherman (11-3, 2-2 UFC) vs. Shamil Abdurakhimov (17-4, 2-2 UFC)
UFC Fight Night Shanghai (November 26, 2017) Mercedes Benz Arena—Shanghai, China
MMA Twitter’s GIF King returns to action on the UFC’s first card in mainland China, looking to build on the momentum from his wars in the cage and the fun he creates behind a keyboard. After losing his first two UFC fights, Sherman stopped Rashad Colter in a Fight of the Year candidate at UFC 211 in Dallas, then won every minute of a fight against Damian Grabowski in July.
He draws Abdurakhimov (whom Sherman jokingly coined “The Alphabet”) one of the Dagestan crew, who extended Derrick Lewis to the fourth round in his first UFC main event last November. He has a difficult style to solve, but Sherman is now training in the best place to do so-the Jackson Wink Camp in Albuquerque. He will look to use his solid movement and good Muay Thai and continue making a name for himself come November.
Fabrico Werdum (22-7-1, 10-4 UFC) vs. Marcin Tybura (16-2, 3-1 UFC)
UFC Fight Night Sydney (November 19, 2017) Acer Arena—Sydney, Australia.
It has been an interesting month for Werdum, the former UFC heavyweight champion.
First came his confrontation with current UFC interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson, where he called him a name in Spanish they might have got him released if he said it in English. Then his UFC 216 opponent, Derrick Lewis, pulled out the day of the fight. Instead of taking the night off with pay, Werdum fought up and comer Walt Harris, and submitted him with an armbar in the first round. And when signs of potential brain injury surfaced in Mark Hunt, Werdum was asked to step in against Tybura, a rising Polish heavyweight on a three-fight winning streak.
Coming off the biggest win of his career against Andrei Arlovski, Tybura faces an even better fighter than Hunt, who was scheduled to be the best opponent of his career. It’s a good chance for another highlight reel win for Werdum, who needs as many as he can get in his campaign for a rematch with UFC heavyweight Champion Stipe Miocic.
Robbie Lawler (28-11, 13-6 UFC) vs. Rafael Dos Anjos (27-9, 16-7 UFC)
UFC Fight Night Winnipeg (December 16, 2017) Bell MTS Place—Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
WARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR! Sorry, I got excited, just like most hardcore MMA fans when this battle of former UFC Champions was announced as the main event for the UFC’s return to the Land of Jericho. Lawler, the former UFC welterweight champion, will look to cement his case for a rematch with Tyron Woodley against Dos Anjos, the former UFC lightweight champion, who is 2-0 since moving up to welterweight.
Lawler was thought to be the UFC’s Mike Tyson when he made his debut at just nineteen years old, but instead became the UFC’s Arturo Gatti, fighting war after war. Lawler finally came acropper in the first round versus Woodley last July and smartly took a year off, returning with a razor-thin decision against Donald Cowboy Cerrone at UFC 214. Now he gets Dos Anjos, who after making his welterweight debut against Tarec Saffadine in June, ran through Neil Magny last month in Calgary, submitting him the first round.
Dos Anjos looks to have maintained his strength and power at 170 and seems faster than ever. Can Lawler make it the kind of five round war that he has thrived in, and does he have any of those left? If he can’t impose that kind of war on Dos Anjos, the more technical fighter may run through him like he did Magny. But it’s an incredible fight and the winner looks to be the next in line for a shot at Woodley. It’s the biggest fight of both men’s careers for sure.
Jose Aldo (26-3, 8-2 UFC) vs. Ricardo Lamas (18-5, 9-3 UFC)
UFC Fight Night Winnipeg (December 19, 2017) Bell MTS Place—Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
The most surprising fight announcement of the week is this rematch between the former UFC featherweight champ Aldo and the long-time contender Lamas. In 2014, Lamas challenged Aldo for the title, but fought Aldo’s pace for most of the fight, allowing Aldo to hammer him with leg kicks and peck him away with punches when he wanted. But Aldo gassed late, and Lamas ended the fight in top position, pounding the champion,who by this time had done more than enough to win a five-round decision. But that was before Conor McGregor took Aldo’s soul and before Max Holloway beat the crap out of him in his hometown.
Who can say where Aldo’s head is after these losses? Meanwhile, Lamas had been top form in last two fights, submitting an overweight Charles Oliveira and knocking out the red-hot Jason Knight. Aldo will need to be in top form to halt Lamas, who could put himself in position for a title shot with a win, but in a twist, this will be the first three fight for Aldo since he came to the UFC six years ago. This could be just what the doctor ordered for the former champion.
Al Iaquinta (13-3-1, 8-2 UFC) vs. Paul Felder (14-3, 6-3 UFC)
UFC 218 (December 2, 2017) Little Caesars Arena—Las Vegas, Nevada
This is an excellent matchup between surging lightweights who both come from excellent camps. Iaquinta, of the Serra Longo Fight Team, ended a two-year retirement in May and needed less than round to blow away Diego Sanchez. Meanwhile, Felder, of the Rofusport Camp, rebounded from a loss on cuts to Francisco Trinaldo last September with back to back first round finishes of Alessandro Ricci and Stevie Ray, both of which earned him Performance of The Night. Both are also mainly strikers, so this has all the ingredients needed for an excellent fight. The pressure to me though, is Iaquinta, who has been of the most vocal fighters in the UFC over he and many see as the mistreatment of fighters in regard to pay and benefits. Iaquinta will need to prove the money he is worth come December and he has an excellent guy to do that against in Felder.
Mike Perry (11-1, 4-1 UFC) vs. Santiago Ponzinibbio (25-3, 7-2 UFC)
UFC Fight Night Winnipeg (December 19, 2017) Bell MTS Place—Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Ah, Mike Perry. Despite being in the UFC for less than eighteen months, Mike Perry has become a cult hero with MMA fans, with a vicious fighting style, facial tattoos, and his willingness to say absolutely anything. Even though he got out kickboxed by Alan Joubin last December, he has won the rest of his other fights by knockout, including a one elbow knockout of Jake Ellenberger in April and a one knee knockout of late replacement Alex Reyes last month. Now he draws the biggest challenge of his career in the ninth ranked welterweight Ponzinibbio.
The Argentinian had quietly built up a five-fight winning streak going into his fight with the streaking Gunnar Nelson, yet it was a surprise to most when Ponzinibbio knocked out Nelson in July (Nelson blames a well-placed eye poke, but I don’t buy it.) Now, two streaking fighters meet in what should be a bang-up contest. Both men can punch, both men like to come forward, and both have a lot to gain. Logic tells you that Ponzinibbio is the more versatile fighter, but it’s hard to pick against Perry, who gets better in every single fight. The biggest upset here won’t be for either fighter, but rather if this one goes the distance. I certainly wouldn’t bet on it.
What I will bet on is there are plenty of crowd pleasers to be found in this slate of fights. Some of these have all the ingredients to be Fight of the Night, while you can argue that Lawler and Dos Anjos is a Fight of the Year candidate on paper alone. Seeing Jose Aldo on free TV will certainly feel weird, and Mike Perry’s interviews should be as much-anticipated as his fight. In any case, the rest of the year certainly looks bright, in least in the cage, for the UFC.
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