Here’s a look at the most interesting bouts on deck for the rest of the month.
UFC 221: Rockhold vs. Romero – Saturday, February 10 (Perth, Australia)
Luke Rockhold vs. Yoel Romero for the interim UFC middleweight title
On the night Rockhold won the middleweight title from Chris Weidman at UFC 194, Romero collected a split decision victory over Jacare Souza, making a matchup between the two standouts seated on opposite sides of the podium at the post-fight press conference seem destined to happen. Even Rockhold knew it would come to pass, telling reporters “our time will come” when asked about the potential of facing the enigmatic Cuban standout.
More than two years later, the duo will finally do battle in the UFC cage with the interim middleweight title hanging in the balance.
For Romero, it is his first appearance since coming up short in a similar contest opposite Robert Whittaker last summer. Before that, the seemingly ageless former Olympian had posted eight straight victories, including a number of thrilling come-from-behind finishes, to establish himself as one of the most dangerous men in the division.
Following more than a year off after losing the belt to Michael Bisping, Rockhold got back in the win column with a second-round finish of David Branch back in September. It was the kind of performance that reminded you of how talented the former champion is when he’s firing on all cylinders.
This one should be outstanding and will set the stage for a title unification clash of epic proportions later this year when Whittaker is ready to return to action.
UFC Fight Night: Cowboy vs. Medeiros – Sunday, February 18 (Austin, Texas)
Jessica Aguilar vs. Livia Renata Souza
Much like the first fight in listed in this collection, this contest is a battle between a former world No. 1 and an upstart looking to prove she’s the real deal going forward.
Injuries have limited Aguilar to just two appearances in the Octagon thus far, but there was a time not too long ago when “JAG” was considered the top strawweight in the sport and the 35-year-old is eager to remind people why that is. Tough as nails and skilled in every facet of the sport, the longtime American Top Team product has the pedigree and past experience to halt her two-fight losing streak and kick off another run at the title here.
Don’t expect Souza to be on board with those plans though.
The swaggering Brazilian won the Invicta FC strawweight title in her promotional debut and successfully defended the belt against recent TUF contestant DeAnna Bennett before dropping the title to Angela Hill by split decision. Since then, she’s rebounded with back-to-back wins over Ayaka Hamasaki and Janaisa Morandin to set up her UFC debut.
If her first impression in the Octagon is anything like the one she turned in under the Invicta FC banner, it won’t take long for the 26-year-old Souza to become your new favorite fighter and a contender in the 115-pound ranks.
James Vick vs. Francisco Trinaldo
Here’s how stacked the lightweight division is at the moment: both these guys have gone 8-1 over their last nine appearances in the Octagon and yet neither of them have been able to crack the Top 10 in the packed 155-pound weight class.
Trinaldo was on the cusp of breaking into the upper tier in the talent-rich division early last year, but a loss to Kevin Lee halted his climb. He returned to the win column in October with a polished and measured performance against veteran Jim Miller and remains the kind of skilled, experienced veteran every division needs hovering around the edges of contention.
Vick used 2017 to rebound from his first (and only) professional loss and establish himself as someone to watch in the lightweight division, collecting a trio of stoppage wins to land just outside the Top 10. He’s been making steady progress and looks more adept at using his long reach and massive height for the division to his advantage each time out and if he can run through Trinaldo as he did Abel Trujillo, Polo Reyes and Joseph Duffy last year, the 30-year-old just might get the Top 10 opponent he’s been chasing.
Derrick Lewis vs. Marcin Tybura
Originally scheduled to meet in October 2016, these two heavyweight hopefuls now meet in the co-main event of this card closer to contention than they were the first time they were paired off together.
Lewis had his six-fight winning streak snapped last time out against Mark Hunt and then was scratched from a showdown with Fabricio Werdum at the 11th hour due to a back injury. Healed up and ready to get back in win column, the aggressive and punishing Houston native will be looking for his second UFC win in his home state and eager to get the year started off right.
After putting together a tidy three-fight run of success with victories over Viktor Pesta, Luis Henrique and Andrei Arlovski, Tybura came out on the wrong side of a unanimous decision verdict against Fabricio Werdum last time out. The Polish heavyweight has proven himself to be a legitimate Top 10 talent, and with another training camp spent working with the team at Jackson-Wink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico, it wouldn’t be surprising to see “Tybur” make a run at title contention in 2018.
Jussier Formiga vs. Ben Nguyen
Stationed as the opening bout of the televised prelims, this flyweight contest has title picture implications, as the last man to get the best of the veteran Formiga went on to challenge for the flyweight title and Nguyen is hoping to do the same.
Once considered the best 125-pound fighter in the world, Formiga has settled into position as the bouncer at the door of the VIP in the flyweight ranks. In order to mingle amongst the division’s elite, you’ve got to beat him and, thus far, only a handful of men have been able to do it. Stickier than Super Glue when he gets your back, the 32-year-old Brazilian is capable of dashing championship dreams in a heartbeat.
Originally scheduled to face perennial contender Joseph Benavidez last June, Nguyen stayed focused when Benavidez was forced out with a knee injury and ran through his replacement, Tim Elliott, submitting the former title challenger in 49 seconds. Having collected four wins from five trips into the Octagon, “Ben 10” has been hovering on the fringes of contention for a little over a year now and a win over Formiga would surely help him take that next step forward in the division.
Jeremy Kennedy vs. Alexander Volkanovski
For my money, there is no more compelling division in the UFC right now than featherweight, where Max Holloway eagerly wants to take on all comers and there is a diverse blend of proven contenders and talented upstarts jockeying for position.
While Kennedy and Volkanovski remain on the outside of the Top 15 looking in, both are close to cracking the rankings and a dominant performance for either here would do wonders for their candidacy. Both men are 3-0 in the UFC and have been keen on this clash since it was initially booked for last November before the Canadian Kennedy was forced out with an injury.
Now back on the ledger, the winner of this one will remain unbeaten inside the Octagon and could end up being the next emerging contender in the division to make some noise against a more established foe later in the year. We saw a ton of turnover near the top of the division last year and 2018 could bring more of the same.
Mark Hunt vs. Curtis Blaydes
A classic “veteran vs. upstart” clash in the heavyweight division, this one is all about seeing where Blaydes is at in his development and how close the Colorado-based big man is to being considered a contender.
After losing his promotional debut to Francis Ngannou, Blaydes has gone unbeaten in his last four fights, showcasing solid athleticism and a developing striking game to go along with the wrestling chops that made him a JUCO National Champion before transitioning to mixed martial arts. Last time out, the 26-year-old American dominated Russian veteran Aleksei Oleinik to pick up his second straight win and if he’s able to do something comparable against Hunt, he’ll find himself in the thick of the title chase as the year progresses.
But beating “The Super Samoan” is a tall order as despite his advancing age, Hunt remains a durable and dangerous threat in the middle of the Top 10. In his last appearance, the 43-year-old ventured into the fourth round with Derrick Lewis and emerged victorious, stopping the surging Texan in a contest that garnered Fight of the Night honors.
Will the promising prospect continue his climb up the rankings and collect the biggest win of his career or will the grizzled veteran get another victory on home soil.