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Fight by Fight Preview: July 25 Edition

Dive deep into the entire Fight Island card with this edition of Fight by Fight, featuring Robert Whittaker vs Darren Till
ROBERT WHITTAKER VS. DARREN TILL

This is the kind of matchup that feels like it ought to have a name in the MMA lexicon.

It’s not a No. 1 contender fight because Paulo Costa is next in line in the middleweight division, and it’s not necessarily a title eliminator either because a narrow victory for either man might not be enough to secure top spot on the list of contenders, but it is an ultra-important, incredibly competitive matchup that is surely going to answer a bunch of the questions everyone has about Whittaker and Till heading into this clash on Saturday night, and a fight like that should have a name.

I kind of want to call it a “polygraph fight” because we’re going to find out the truth about where each of these men fit in the middleweight hierarchy, but that feels a little clunky, so for now, I’m going to keep work-shopping it and tell you this is an amazing fight that you better not miss.

Whittaker hasn’t fought since losing the middleweight title to Israel Adesanya last fall. He was scheduled to face Jared Cannonier earlier this year but withdrew from the bout and ultimately disclosed that he was dealing with burnout, something just about everyone can understand. The 29-year-old didn’t look like his usual sharp self in the bout with Adesanya, which was his first fight in 15 months following his second grueling war with Yoel Romero the previous summer at UFC 225.

So now he’s hit the reset button, taken the time away he needed, and is back to share the cage with a promising new addition to the division who has designs on getting to where Whittaker once was, and there are a bunch of people wondering if we’re going to see the old “Bobby Knuckles” again or if those twin battles with Romero and the litany of injuries he’s dealt with over the years have taken a toll on the talented Australian.

Back-to-back losses and a daunting cut to 170-pounds prompted Till to reconsider his options last spring, leading to the Liverpudlian moving up in weight and challenging Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 244. The confident Scouser landed on the happy side of a split decision verdict that night in New York City, showing right out of the gate that he’s deserving of a place in the Top 10.

But is he good enough to hang with the absolute elite in the middleweight ranks and does the move up a division strip Till of some of the advantages that made him such an imposing threat at welterweight, namely his size and physicality? 

All of those questions will be answered this weekend, in theory, and it should be clear whether one of or both of these men are primed to spend the next several years as permanent fixtures in the title conversation in the 185-pound weight division.

It’s also going to be a really, really entertaining fight, too.

Fight Island 3 Free Fight: Darren Till vs Kelvin Gastelum
Fight Island 3 Free Fight: Darren Till vs Kelvin Gastelum
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MAURICIO RUA VS. ANTONIO ROGERIO NOGUEIRA

From a fight carrying legitimate championship ramifications to one that tugs on the old nostalgia strings, this light heavyweight affair between long-time Brazilian standouts is also the final bout of Nogueira’s lengthy career.

Rua has been a difficult guy to peg over the last five-plus years, dating back to his first UFC meeting with the man he’ll take on this weekend on Fight Island. The former champion is 4-1-1 during that span, with wins over Nogueira, Corey Anderson, Gian Villante, and Tyson Pedro, a loss to former title challenger Anthony Smith, and a draw with Paul Craig last time out.

It’s the best six-fight run of his UFC career in terms of wins and losses (and draws), but at the same time, some wonder if Rua is a title contender at this point in his career. Even if you flip the split decision win over Anderson in the other direction, Rua is still 2-1-1 with a pair of stoppages in his last four, which, given his pedigree, seems like it would at least put him in line for a date with another Top 10 opponent if he’s able to secure a victory with a strong performance here.

Nogueira has alternated wins and losses over his last four appearances and has been considering retirement for some time, finally deciding that this is the right moment to step aside. The outcome of this one will determine whether he leaves the UFC one fight above .500 or one fight below .500 (he’s 6-6 inside the Octagon right now), but his impact isn’t really one that is measured in his results.

“Little Nog” made an immediate splash when he arrived in the UFC by knocking out Luiz Cane at UFC 106 and remained a fixture in the Top 15 pretty much from that point forward. If he ever fell out of the rankings, it was due to injuries, because he spent the first eight years of his UFC run taking on nothing but contenders.

While he’s shifted to facing fellow veterans and emerging names over his last couple fights, the Brazilian remains one of the most respected fighters on the roster and a third battle with his countryman on Saturday is a fitting way for him to close out a 20-year MMA career.

Obrigado Minotouro!

FABRICIO WERDUM VS. ALEXANDER GUSTAFSSON

I had never really considered how Gustafsson would fit in the heavyweight division, but as soon as Saturday’s pairing with Werdum was announced, it immediately jumped to near the top of my list of July questions that will be answered in the Octagon.

Werdum returned from a two-year suspension earlier this year, dropping a split decision to Aleksei Oleinik at UFC 249 where he started slow and found his rhythm a little too late. The former heavyweight champion is just 3-3 since losing the title to Stipe Miocic at UFC 198, but remains one of the more well-rounded, technically skilled competitors in the heavyweight division.

Gustafsson announced he was hanging up his four-ounce gloves following his submission loss to Anthony Smith last June in Stockholm; it was his second consecutive loss overall and the second time he’d lost at home, and in the moment, “The Mauler” seemed ready to walk away. But clearly the fire still burns inside the three-time light heavyweight title challenger and now, he’s primed to test himself up a division in the kind of matchup that will either signal that he’s an intriguing new addition to the heavyweight ranks or not quite cut out to mix it up with the big boys.

This is such an intriguing fight because in terms of his stature, Gustafsson profiles as a good fit in the heavyweight division, and if he can bring a speed and quickness advantage with him, the opportunity is there for him to become an immediate factor. At the same time, Werdum isn’t that far removed from his championship run and if he can rediscover the fire that carried him to the title the first time around, an encore run isn’t out of the question.

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CARLA ESPARZA VS. MARINA RODRIGUEZ

This is a clash of strawweights looking to strengthen their case for title contention that comes just a few weeks after former champs Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade cemented their positions in the Top 5.

Esparza was the division’s inaugural champion, having rolled through the competition, including Namajunas, on Season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter before running into Joanna Jedrzejczyk in her first title defense. It took her a couple years and a couple fights to build back to a point where she’s within range of a title shot in the 115-pound weight class, and extending her winning streak to four while handing Rodriguez her first career defeat would likely get her there.

Brazil’s Rodriguez has gone 2-0-2 in her first four UFC starts after earning a contract through the Contender Series, including a victory over Top 15 fixture Tecia Torres. Most recently, the Muay Thai stylist battled to a draw with Cynthia Calvillo, who missed weight and has subsequently moved up to be a contender at flyweight.

Both of these women are stationed inside the Top 10 at the moment, with Esparza at No. 7 and Rodriguez at No. 9, but with Tatiana Suarez sidelined by injury and Nina Ansaroff expecting her first child with two-weight champ Amanda Nunes, the opportunity is there for the winner of this one to rocket up the rankings. 

PAUL CRAIG VS. GADZHIMURAD ANTIGULOV

Both Craig and Antigulov have shown flashes of potential at different points in their respective UFC careers, but as of right now, inconsistency has been an issue and they’re each looking to put that behind them as they face off in their joint 2020 debuts this weekend.

Every time Craig gets a win, his next assignment is tougher, which is kind of what you’d expect, but also a much more challenging ask in the 205-pound ranks. Last time out, the Scotsman went the distance for the first time in his career when he battled “Shogun” Rua to a draw, giving him the first two-fight unbeaten streak of his UFC career.

Antigulov enters on the opposite side of that coin, as the Dagestani veteran has dropped consecutive outings, both by first-round stoppage. After winning his first two UFC appearances by submission, Antigulov has been forced to stand over his last two bouts, resulting in Ion Cutelaba and Michel Oleksiejczuk putting him away with powerful strikes.

On paper, this one shapes up as a potential ground duel between two high-level grapplers representing different disciplines, and I look forward to the attack-and-defend, move-and-counter mat exchanges between these two on Saturday night.

ALEX OLIVEIRA VS. PETER SOBOTTA

If you watch a lot of movies, you’ll know that very often, there is one character, one actor who isn’t really central to the cast or the plot that manages to steal every scene they’re in and make you look forward to seeing more of that person in the future.

Main cards have that too and this weekend, this is that potential scene-stealing fight.

First and foremost, Oliveira is always entertaining, no matter what. This will be his 18th UFC appearance and I can think of one, maybe two bouts that didn’t register as more than seven on a 10-point excitement scale. The Brazilian “Cowboy” just has a way of bringing out the best in his dance partners and always goes out there looking to entertain.

Sobotta is one of those guys who is infinitely better than people remember or understand; a European veteran who has gone 9-2-1 over his last dozen fights and has steadily improved his striking over the years to go along with his outstanding grappling. This will be his first appearance in more than two years and should provide an indication of where he fits in the current welterweight landscape.

KHAMZAT CHIMAEV VS. RHYS MCKEE

Just 10 days after making a splash in his UFC debut, Chimaev gets the quick turnaround he asked for as he hustles back into the cage with the promotional newcomer McKee on Saturday.

Chimaev stole the show last Wednesday by mauling Welsh veteran John Phillips. How dominant was his performance? Well, Chimaev rightfully earned a 10-7 score for his opening round thrashing of Phillips before mercifully finishing the fight with a D'arce choke 72 seconds into the second round. What made the effort all the more impressive is that the unbeaten 26-year-old is a natural welterweight, and now we'll get to see what he looks like in his traditional weight class as he welcomes McKee to the Octagon this weekend.

The 24-year-old McKee has been one of the top prospects competing in Europe for the last several years, amassing a 10-2-1 record over his first 13 fights. He avenged one of those setbacks and holds a victory over fellow UK standout Jai Herbert, as well as having fought to a draw against TUF alum Richie Smullen earlier in his career. Standing six-foot-two, the aptly nicknamed "Skeletor" has tremendous size and length for the division and the potential to be an impact addition to the welterweight ranks going forward.

Despite being added to this weekend's lineup at the 11th hour, Chimaev's eye-opening debut forced people to sit up and take notice and the speculation surrounding this matchup in the days after had observers buzzing with excitement. This is a huge opportunity for McKee to steal the spotlight and a chance for "Borz" to go from newcomer to "next big thing" in the span of 10 days on Fight Island, especially if he's able to replicate his effort against Phillips this weekend against McKee.

FRANCISCO TRINALDO VS. JAI HERBERT

This is your weekly reminder of how deep, talented, and competitive the lightweight division is as Herbert transitions over the Octagon from Cage Warriors and is welcomed to the UFC by Trinaldo, the division’s 40-something truth machine who has made a career out of being involved in exactly this type of fight.

Trinaldo has been in the UFC for nine years now, spending the majority of that time hovering just outside the Top 15 in the treacherous 155-pound weight class. He’s one of those veterans who isn’t world-class at any one thing, but is damn good at everything, and has historically served as the guy you have to beat if you want to make a case for deserving a ranked opponent.

Herbert is the fourth former Cage Warriors lightweight champion to vacate the belt in order to sign with the UFC, joining Conor McGregor, Stevie Ray, and Chris Fishgold. The 32-year-old arrives on a six-fight winning streak with finishes in each of his last four, and boasts the kind of experience where you can certainly forecast him becoming an immediate factor in the talent-rich division with a win on Saturday.

Matchups like this are precisely why guys like Trinaldo are invaluable and people like me shout about every fight mattering all the time. If Herbert delivers an emphatic performance and earns a victory, it’s not inconceivable that he would face a ranked opponent next time out, at which point you’re going to want to be familiar with him.

So why not familiarize yourself with the latest British addition to the roster and enjoy this critical pairing this weekend?

NICOLAS DALBY VS. JESSE RONSON

Speaking of former Cage Warriors champions…

Dalby held a portion of the UK fight promotion’s welterweight strap on two different occasions, dropping the belts both times in order to matriculate to the Octagon. He pushed his unbeaten streak to five with a victory in his return to the UFC last fall at home in Copenhagen with a win over Oliveira, and looks to make it two-in-a-row in this short-notice pairing with the returning Canadian Ronson.

A quick look at Ronson’s record shows he went 0-3 in his first run with the promotion seven years ago, but a closer inspection  reveals that all three setbacks came by split decision and those losses were against Michel Prazeres, Trinaldo, and Kevin Lee. He jumped at the chance to finally return to the Octagon and comes into this one off a very good win over “Pretty Boy” Troy Lamson in February.

Dalby rediscovered the form that made him one of the top international welterweights in the world during his most recent run under the Cage Warriors banner and carried that over into his return last year, while Ronson has been chomping at the bit for a second chance to compete on the biggest stage in the sport. Both men are game competitors who tend not to move backwards too often, so don’t be surprised if this one turns into a firefight on Fight Island.

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TOM ASPINALL VS. JAKE COLLIER

Another former Cage Warriors standout making his UFC debut, Aspinall brings a three-fight winning streak into this meeting with the returning Collier on Saturday night.

One of several members of Team Kaobon competing this weekend, Aspinall ended a two-plus-year sabbatical from the sport last February, scoring a first-round, injury-stoppage victory over Sofiane Boukichou before pounding out Mickael Ben Hamouda seven months later. Initially expected to debut in March, the 7-2 newcomer now gets to make the walk for the first time surrounded by a number of teammates and coaches and facing the man he was first slated to meet in Collier.

The 31-year-old Collier has been on the sidelines since the tail end of 2017 due to injuries and an anti-doping violation brought on by a tainted supplement. Last we saw “The Prototype,” he was putting the finishing touches on his third UFC win and first at light heavyweight, where he’ll most likely return after this heavyweight entanglement against Aspinall on Saturday.

I know I say it all the time, but heavyweight is the one division where a couple quality efforts can put you in the thick of the chase, and both of these guys will certainly hit the Octagon looking to prove a point on Saturday, so don’t be shocked if a new name to pay attention to in the heavyweight division emerges from this one.

MOVSAR EVLOEV VS. MIKE GRUNDY

This is a tremendous fight nestled on the preliminary portion of Saturday’s card, as the unbeaten Evloev returns to face the talented Grundy in a meeting of featherweights with ambitions of climbing the divisional ladder in the next 18 months.

The 26-year-old Evloev posted a pair of decision wins in 2019, outworking SeungWoo Choi in April before doing the same to Enrique Barzola at the end of Octagon to push his record to 12-0. The former M-1 Challenge champ has been training at American Top Team ahead of this one and is part of that generation of emerging talents who are exceptionally well-rounded and steely despite limited professional experience.

Grundy transitioned to mixed martial arts after representing England on the international wrestling stage and has enjoyed a tremendous amount of success, posting a 12-1 record through his first 13 fights. He made his promotional debut last March, scoring a second-round TKO victory over Nad Narimani in London, and is another member of the Team Kaobon stable that will be out in full force on Saturday night.

The featherweight division has been front and center in recent weeks and remains one of the most competitive groups in the UFC. As such, making waves and breaking into the Top 15 is a daunting task, which in turn makes every matchup critical for those with aspirations of ascending into the rankings like Evloev and Grundy.

Both men have the potential to be players in the loaded 145-pound ranks soon, so you’re not going to want to miss this one this weekend.

RAPHAEL PESSOA VS. TANNER BOSER

Looking to build off his first UFC win, Pessoa now squares off with the emerging Canadian Boser, who steps in for Justin Tafa in this heavyweight matchup.

The Brazilian arrived in the UFC with an unbeaten record, but that was quickly spoiled as he was submitted by uber-prospect Ciryl Gane in their joint debuts last August. But Pessoa made the quick turnaround to face Jeff Hughes a couple months later and looked completely different, posting a unanimous decision victory to earn his 10th career win.

Boser also ran into Gane in the Octagon, playing the role of the French standout’s third victim in five months back in December. But just like Pessoa, the Canadian “Bulldozer” bounced back, and he did it in impressive fashion, collecting a first-round knockout win over Phillipe Lins at the end of June.

With both men coming off victories and the division always in dire need of fresh names to climb the competitive ladder, a strong showing for either one this weekend could punch their ticket to a date with a Top 15 opponent later this year.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JUNE 27: (R-L) Tanner Boser punches Philipe Lins of Brazil in their heavyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on June 27, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JUNE 27: (R-L) Tanner Boser punches Philipe Lins of Brazil in their heavyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on June 27, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

MORE UFC FIGHT ISLAND: Fighters on the Rise 

BETHE CORREIA VS. PANNIE KIANZAD

Initially slated to take place at the start of May, this is a clash between veteran bantamweights looking to build on recent successes as they finally get to kick off their 2020 campaigns inside the UFC Octagon.

Correia snapped a three-fight run without a victory last time out, collecting a unanimous decision win over Sijara Eubanks in September. It’s been tough sledding for the former title challenger since her highly publicized clash with Ronda Rousey at UFC 190, as Correia has dealt with various injuries while struggling through a 1-4-1 stretch prior to her win over Eubanks.

A long-time regional standout who advanced to the finals on Season 28 of The Ultimate Fighter, Kianzad came away with her first UFC win back in November, outworking Jessica-Rose Clark in a rematch of their Invicta FC 13 fight from four years earlier. Still only 28 years old, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the 12-5 veteran string together a few victories and make a little run in the 135-pound division over the next 12 months.

Will the Brazilian cult favorite collect another win or will “Banzai” begin her surge toward contention?

RAMAZAN EMEEV VS. NIKLAS STOLZE

After having his seven-fight winning streak snapped last time out, Emeev looks to get right back into the win column in this matchup with German newcomer Stolze.

The 33-year-old Emeev earned unanimous decision wins in each of his first three trips into the Octagon but landed on the other side of that outcome last time out against Anthony Rocco Martin. He’s dealt with injuries and visa issues throughout his UFC run and now has to try and bounce back from his first defeat in more than six years.

Stolze gets the call to make his UFC debut as a substitute for Shavkat Rakhmonov and arrives on the best run of his professional career. The 27-year-old has earned four straight victories, three of them by stoppage, and looks to make the most of this unexpected opportunity to compete on Fight Island this weekend.

NATHANIEL WOOD VS. JOHN CASTANEDA

Originally slated to face Umar Nurmagomedov, Wood now welcomes Castaneda to the UFC for the first time instead.

The protégé of British veteran Brad Pickett, Wood had a “let’s see if he’s ready for prime time” matchup last time out and landed on the wrong side of the results in a bout against Top 15 fixture John Dodson. The loss snapped his eight-fight winning streak but shouldn’t diminish his standing as one of the top young talents in the bantamweight division.

A competitor on the first season of the Contender Series, Castaneda didn’t receive a contract following his decision win over Cheyden Leialoha, which ran his winning streak to nine. He added two more victories to that run of success before suffering back-to-back losses but rebounded last year with a second-round submission win over Marcelo Rojo to move his record to 17-4 overall.

This is a crucial moment for Wood made more challenging due to the shift in opponents, while Castaneda rolls in with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Bantamweight is bubbling with talent at the moment, and despite three impressive wins to begin his UFC tenure, “The Prospect” needs to get back in the win column to avoid sliding too far back in the pack.

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