The Ultimate Fighter
There are some times when a main event is so intriguing that it doesn’t matter what else is on the fight card, you just have to tune in, and there are times when a robust undercard acts like a rising tide and raises the entire event.
This weekend’s event at the UFC APEX is both, as the main event clash between Derek Brunson and Kevin Holland is a must-see attraction in the middleweight division, and the undercard is so flush with compelling and impactful fights that the event feels like a mid-March sleeper hit waiting to happen.
Let’s take a closer look at the matchups headed to the Octagon this weekend.
DEREK BRUNSON VS. KEVIN HOLLAND
A fixture in the Top 15 since arriving from Strikeforce, Derek Brunson continues filling his role as the “title contender entrance exam” upstarts need to pass on Saturday night as the takes on surging rising star Kevin Holland.
This is a familiar position for Brunson, who has earned three straight victories against fighters that were in a comparable position to Holland this weekend. Last time out, the 37-year-old Sanford MMA representative dispatched the previously unbeaten Edmen Shahbazyan, halting his rapid rise up the 185-pound ranks, pushing his record to 21-7 overall ahead of his fifth main event assignment.
Holland was the breakout fighter of 2020, posting five wins in seven months to catapult himself into the Top 15 and onto the fringes of title contention in the middleweight division, and he saved his best effort for last. Though he’d earned stoppages in three of his first four victories of the year, it was Holland’s first-round knockout win over divisional mainstay “Jacare” Souza at UFC 256 that really made audiences sit up and take notice of the former Contender Series competitor.
With Israel Adesanya thwarted in his bid to claim the light heavyweight title and looking for fresh challenges in the middleweight division, this is a prime opportunity for Holland to put himself on the champion’s radar by passing the same test he had to take at UFC 230. But Brunson has dialed things in since then and shown in his last three outings — and throughout his entire UFC career, really — that getting by him is no easy task, which makes Saturday night’s main event one of the most compelling contests remaining on this month’s fight calendar.
SONG KENAN VS. MAX GRIFFIN
Welterweights looking to maintain their momentum following stoppage victories in 2020 collide here as Song Kenan goes searching for a third straight win when he takes on durable veteran Max “Pain” Griffin.
The 30-year-old Song has gone 4-1 in five Octagon appearances, securing tandem victories on either side of a decision loss to Alex Morono in a contest that earned Fight of the Night honors. In his lone appearance of last year, the Chinese finisher dispatched Callan Potter in less than half a round, and aims to continue his climb up the divisional ladder here.
After landing on the wrong side of a split decision verdict to start the year, Griffin returned to collect a third-round stoppage victory over Ramiz Brahimaj in November, halting a little two-fight slide. The proud new father has always been a tough out and has faced a quality slate throughout his UFC run, making him a constant candidate to string together a handful of victories and make substantial headway in the welterweight ranks.
This is the kind of crucial “building block” fight each of these athletes needs to win in order to turn the morsel of momentum they each carry into this contest into something more substantial. Both can crack, both are gritty and durable, so expect a competitive, back-and-forth affair from the outset.
MORE UFC VEGAS 22: Free Fight: Brunson vs Shahbazyan | Free Fight: Holland vs Jacare | Fight Card | Max Griffin Translating Potential Into Performance
CHEYANNE BUYS VS. MONTSERRAT CONEJO
Trust me when I tell you that you’re going to want to pay close attention to this fight, as Cheyanne Buys and Montserrat Ruiz are not only two of the top prospects in the strawweight division, but also two wildly entertaining talents that love to throw down.
Buys earned her place on the UFC roster with a three-round mauling of Hilarie Rose last summer on the Contender Series, where she happily spent 15 minutes showcasing the nasty edge she carries with her into the Octagon. Now on a four-fight winning streak, the Fortis MMA representative, who competes alongside her husband, JP Buys, this weekend, has been viewed as a quality prospect since her amateur days and finally gets to show why to a larger audience as she makes the walk in the UFC for the first time.
Conejo steps in for Kay Hansen on short notice, but shouldn’t be overlooked. The 28-year-old owns a 9-1 record and rebounded from her first professional loss by submitting perennial contender Janaisa Morandin in the first round of their clash at Invicta FC 41 last summer. The tattooed talent, who was on hand in Abu Dhabi earlier this year for teammate Joselyne Edwards’ debut victory, trains with an excellent crew and should be up to the task of filling in for Hansen and bringing the heat this weekend.
As intriguing as the initial pairing was, this one remains a must-see attraction on Saturday night. The strawweight division is flush with talent and a host of promising newcomers looking to work their way up the ranks, including these two women, and that should result in an entertaining, competitive scrap once the Octagon door closes.
Adrian Yanez Vs Gustavo Lopez
Yanez delivered one of the signature performances on season four of the Contender Series, dropping Brady Huang with a clean, sharp combination of punches just 39 seconds in to secure his ticket to the UFC. Upon arrival, the former LFA standout continued to flash his finishing skills as he registered a first-round stoppage victory over Victor Rodriguez two months later to push his record to 12-3 overall.
While Lopez landed on the wrong side of the results in his short-notice debut against takedown machine Merab Dvalishvili, the Las Vegas-based veteran showed his true talents in his sophomore outing, submitting veteran Anthony Birchak midway through the opening round. Now 12-5 overall, the 31-year-old looks to build on that performance and continue to work his way up the divisional ladder by turning back Yanez here.
Given the high rate of finishes each of these men have managed individually, there is a very good chance that putting them together inside the smaller Octagon at the UFC APEX will result in the kind of explosive affair that will not require the judges to weigh in. And if it does happen to go the distance, it will most likely be a Fight of the Night contender.
TAI TUIVASA VS. HARRY HUNSUCKER
*Due to injury, Don’Tale Mayes has been removed from his heavyweight bout with Tai Tuivasa. Replacing him will be Dana White’s Contender Series veteran Harry Hunsucker, who makes his UFC debut having finished all of his seven wins by first-round stoppage, including six in under a minute and a half.
One of the low-key heavyweight tilts scheduled in this two-month run of action in the big boy ranks is Saturday’s clash between Tai Tuivasa and Don’Tale Mayes, two fighters coming off victories and looking to get in on the action in the Top 15.
After rocketing out of the gate with three straight wins to begin his UFC career, Tuivasa dropped three consecutive appearances to slip from the rankings and lose all the momentum he’d built in his initial run. But last October, after a little more than a year on the sidelines, the 27-year-old Australian returned to action, registering a first-round knockout win over Stefan Struve to spark a second wave of intrigue heading into this year.
Mayes finally landed a UFC contract following his third appearance and second victory on the Contender Series, but then ran into Ciryl Gane in his promotional debut. Following a submission loss to Rodrigo Nascimento to start last year, “Lord Kong” finally collected his first UFC win, out-hustling Roque Martinez in November, and now he looks to start a winning streak as he takes on Tuivasa this weekend.
February and March have featured a ton of action in the heavyweight division and it will be interesting to see what the landscape looks like once the dust settles after next weekend’s championship clash. Either way, the winner of this one should be in the mix for a place in the Top 15 or a date with someone who is, and from there, all it takes is another win or two for them to be in the thick of the chase.
MARION RENEAU VS. MACY CHIASSON
Bantamweights aiming to make headway in the 135-pound rankings hope the third attempt to make this one happen pays off, as veteran Marion Reneau and recent Ultimate Fighter winner Macy Chiasson once again look to share the Octagon together after a pair of late-stage postponements earlier this year.
It’s been a frustrating couple of years for the 43-year-old Reneau, who touches down in Las Vegas on a three-fight skid, searching for her first victory since February 2018. That being said, the tough-as-nails teacher has never been finished and has the veteran savvy and all-around grit needed to make Saturday’s pairing a long night for Chiasson.
After claiming victory in the featherweight competition on Season 28 of the long-running reality TV competition, the 29-year-old Chiasson kicked off her rookie campaign in the Octagon with consecutive wins over Gina Mazany and Sarah Moras before dropping a decision to Lina Lansberg. She rebounded with a good win over late replacement Shanna Young last February, and now the Fortis MMA product looks to build a winning streak at Reneau’s expense.
Each woman remains entrenched in the Top 15 and would likely land opposite someone higher up in the rankings next time out with an impressive outing this weekend, so you should expect to see both Reneau and Chiasson come out guns blazing, looking to start their respective 2021 campaigns off with a win.
LEONARDO SANTOS VS. GRANT DAWSON
The first of two intriguing lightweight scraps slated to hit the Octagon on Saturday night features streaking veteran Leonardo Santos making a quicker than normal turnaround for him while welcoming Grant Dawson to the division for the first time.
Santos’ UFC run has been both impressive and odd, as the 41-year-old Brazilian won the welterweight competition on Season 2 of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil, battled TUF Smashes winner Norman Parke to a draw, and has since rattled off six straight victories to push his overall unbeaten streak to 13 fights. What makes his UFC tenure odd is that Santos didn’t compete for nearly three years following his UFC 204 win over Adriano Martins and his first-round knockout of Stevie Ray, and then spent another 13 months on the sidelines before returning to outlast Roman Bogatov last summer on UFC Fight Island.
Now, he is fighting for the second time in eight months as he looks to continue his incredible run and spoil Dawson’s first UFC appearance in the 155-pound weight class.
A member of the Glory MMA & Fitness crew, Dawson earned his place on the UFC roster with an impressive stoppage win over Adrian Diaz on Season 1 of the Contender Series and proved he was someone to watch by earning four victories in as many starts since. An excellent grappler long ticketed to be a contender at the highest level, it will be interesting to see if the 27-year-old can maintain his success now that he makes the shift up to the treacherous waters of the UFC lightweight division.
TREVIN GILES VS. ROMAN DOLIDZE
Giles started his career 9-0, including victories over Brendan Allen, Ike Villanueva, and Ryan Spann, before extending his unbeaten streak to 11 with victories in each of his first two UFC appearances. After taking time off to compete his training as a police officer, he suffered back-to-back submission losses in 2019, but rebounded with consecutive victories in 2020, capped by a third-round stoppage win over Bevon Lewis.
Dolidze tags in for Dricus du Plessis and looks to build on a pair of victories in 2020 that pushed his record to 8-0 as he makes his first start of the year. A trio of cancelled bouts over the span of 14 months didn’t seem to slow the 32-year-old Dolidze when he finally reached the Octagon, as he dispatched Khadis Ibragimov late in the first round to win his debut before holding on down the stretch against durable Brazilian John Allan to move to 2-0 in the UFC.
There is a ton of room for advancement in the 185-pound weight class at the moment and each of these men are currently moving in the right direction, but only one will continue that climb after the dust settles in Las Vegas this weekend.
MONTEL JACKSON VS. JESSE STRADER
A graduate of the Contender Series (Class of '18), Jackson pushed his winning streak to three with a victory over Felipe Colares to start last year, but then ran into talented Welshman Brett Johns in his second outing of 2020 to leave him looking to rebound as he begins his 2021 campaign. "Quik" only made his pro debut in the summer of 2017 and has already amassed a 9-2 record overall, including a 3-2 mark inside the Octagon, where his losses have come against Johns and surging wrestler Ricky Simon.
Strader arrives in the Octagon with a 5-1 record overall, having earned consecutive victories since suffering the lone loss of his career in a clash with Marcelo Rojo, who gave a very good accounting of himself in his own debut last weekend opposite Charles Jourdain. The 28-year-old Californian has only been the distance once in his career and, like Jackson, he's still in the early stages of his development, so as solid as he's been thus far, the best is yet to come.
This should be an intriguing stylistic clash as Jackson is primarily a grappler, while Strader likes to throw hands and push a good pace. Whoever is able to impose their will on the other and dictate the terms of engagement will be in a good position to start the year with a victory.
BRUNO SILVA VS. JP BUYS
It’s an intriguing clash in the flyweight division as Bruno Silva, a long-time training partner of “Triple C,” Henry Cejudo, once again goes in search of his first UFC victory, while newcomer JP Buys looks to secure a victory of his own before rooting on his wife Cheyanne later in the evening.
A contestant on Season 4 of The Ultimate Fighter Brazil, Silva parlayed a three-fight unbeaten streak that began with a draw with Casey Kenney into a chance to compete inside the Octagon, but thus far, it’s been tough sledding for the Brazilian. After his 2019 fight with Khalid Taha was ruled a no contest, the 30-year-old “Bulldog” dropped consecutive unanimous decisions to David Dvorak and Tagir Ulanbekov in 2020 to push his run without a victory to three.
Buys landed on the wrong side of the results in his first appearance on the Contender Series, but like his Fortis MMA teammate Ryan Spann, he regrouped, rattled off a collection of victories on the regional circuit, and made the most of his second chance, punching his ticket to the UFC with a first-round submission win over Jacob Silva last summer. The 25-year-old South African is now 9-2 overall and, like his wife, is another member of the outstanding Dallas fight camp to keep close tabs on going forward.
Can Silva halt his slide and finally secure his first UFC win or will Buys get the family off to a good start with a victory of his own early in the evening?