You know a tremendous month is on tap when there are only three events and yet coming up with the 10 bouts to include in this column means having to leave some genuinely intriguing contests on the cutting room floor.
In all honesty, there are elements of every single fight set to take place at Madison Square Garden that pique my interest and the shows in Moscow and Sao Paulo that follow each feature a host of newcomers with upside that I’m genuinely keen on seeing compete inside the Octagon.
But there can only be 10 and these are the ones that truly stand out to me was the most compelling bouts for the month ahead.
These are The 10.
UFC 244: Masvidal vs. Diaz — Saturday, November 2 (New York, New York)
Brad Tavares vs. Edmen Shahbazyan
This one has slipped under the radar a little because there is a much bigger middleweight matchup on the card, but make no mistake about it — this is an outstanding fight that is going to tell us a lot about where Shahbazyan fits within the 185-pound ranks.
The 21-year-old has already accumulated three wins in as many starts during his first year on the roster and now he looks to move to 4-0 with a win over Tavares, a Top 15 fixture whose only losses in the last four years have come against Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker.
Shahbazyan, who trains out of the Glendale Fighting Club and earned his contract with a 40-second finish on Season 2 of the Contender Series, struggled in his promotional debut, edging out Darren Stewart by split decision. Since then, the unbeaten prospect has made quick work of Charles Byrd and Jack Marshman to break into the Top 15 and emerge as one of the most promising young talents on the UFC roster.
Tavares is the perfect litmus test for Shahbazyan at this time; a veteran who has been in there with many of the division’s best and is notoriously tough to put away. He’s the guy you have to beat in order to be taken seriously as a potential contender in the middleweight division and if Shahbazyan can close out his rookie campaign by adding a victory over the Hawaiian veteran to his resume, he’ll head into his sophomore year in the UFC with a ton of momentum and a place in the Top 10 in his sights.
Corey Anderson vs. Johnny Walker
It’s super-easy to get excited about Walker, the 27-year-old ball of energy who has used three straight explosive first-round stoppage wins and an electric personality to skyrocket up the rankings and into the title conversation in the light heavyweight division.
He’s won nine straight overall and has won each of his first three UFC appearances in more dramatic fashion than the last, starting with a standing elbow knockout of Khalil Rountree Jr., followed by a wild spinning backfist finish of Justin Ledet and closed out by catching Misha Cirkunov with a flying knee at UFC 235. Each effort earned Walker a Performance of the Night bonus (rightfully so), and coupled with his over-the-top personality, he’s become the darling of the division and the latest surging upstart to be pegged as a championship contender.
Anderson is the opposite; he’s the stalwart who has been steadily working his way up the divisional ladder since beating Matt Van Buren to win the light heavyweight competition on Season 19 of The Ultimate Fighter. There have been bumps in the road, but there was also an early dominant decision win over Jan Blachowicz and recently, the longtime member of the Iron Army has earned consecutive victories over Patrick Cummins, Glover Teixeira and Ilir Latifi to solidify his place as a Top 10 talent.
Will the streaking Walker continue his rapid ascent up the rankings or will Anderson halt his rise and finally garner the respect his current form deserves?
Kevin Lee vs. Gregor Gillespie
Not only is this the precise kind of fight that everyone has been wanting for Gillespie, but it’s also a stern test for Lee, who returns to the lightweight ranks following a quick and unsuccessful trip to welterweight earlier this year.
Unbeaten in 13 starts, including each of his six Octagon appearances, the 32-year-old Gillespie is another of those promising talents who has morphed into a boogeyman of sorts as pundits project his upside and fans thirst to see him square off against the best the division has to offer. A four-time All-American and 2007 National Champion wrestler at Edinboro University, “The Gift” has finished each of his last five fights and looked every bit the part of a guy capable of making an impact in the upper echelon of the lightweight division.
Lee looked like that guy once too, having gone 9-1 including a five-fight winning streak that featured four finishes after beginning his UFC tenure with a loss to Al Iaquinta. Unfortunately for Lee, who turned 27 in September, he’s struggled to a 1-3 record over his last four fights, including a second loss to Iaquinta and a fourth-round submission defeat in his welterweight debut against Rafael dos Anjos.
What makes this one so compelling is that it should answer a number of questions about each fighter, including, but not limited to, how Gillespie will look against a top-end lightweight and what kind of impact Lee’s shift to training at Montreal’s Tristar Gym will have on his performance?
We shall see on Saturday night.
Stephen Thompson vs. Vicente Luque
Last month in Boston, Dominick Reyes took on Chris Weidman in a light heavyweight contest that had the potential to tell us a great deal about where both men were at in their respective careers and what the future may hold. This month, Weidman’s brother-in-law Thompson returns to the cage in a bout with Luque featuring many of the same elements.
Thompson hasn’t fought since getting knocked out by Anthony Pettis in March and arrives in NYC with just a single victory in his last five fights. He’s only lost to elite competition and his win came against Jorge Masvidal at MSG, so there’s that, but after a lifetime of competing and a devastating knockout loss, it’s not unreasonable to wonder how much the two-time title challenger has left in the tank.
Luque, like Reyes, is white-hot at the moment, entering this contest on a six-fight winning streak and brandishing a 10-1 mark since dropping his promotional debut four years ago. “The Silent Assassin” is an equal opportunity finisher who has proven he’s capable of getting grimy too and now he finally gets the chance to share the Octagon with a ranked, established veteran who can serve as a true measuring stick for where the talented Brazilian stands within the division.
Kelvin Gastelum vs. Darren Till
There is no way to identify as a fight fan and not be deeply intrigued by this matchup.
Gastelum arrives at Madison Square Garden following his epic Fight of the Year clash with Israel Adesanya in April, a performance that elevated his stock despite his landing on the wrong side of the results. The former TUF winner has long projected as a championship-caliber competitor, and he showed he’s there earlier this year, pushing Adesanya to his limits while putting his own toughness, heart and moxie on full display as well.
After suffering the first two losses of his professional career, Till makes the move up to middleweight and dives right into the deep end of the talent pool. The confident Scouser was christened “The Next Big Thing” in the 170-pound ranks following his breakthrough win over Donald Cerrone two years ago and he looked like a rockstar while edging out Thompson at home in Liverpool, but he was thoroughly outclassed against Tyron Woodley in his bid to claim the welterweight strap at UFC 228 and got knocked stiff by Masvidal in March.
Shifting to middleweight always seemed like the right move for Till, who has a massive frame and struggled to make the 170-pound limit, but after consecutive losses, stepping in against the recent interim title challenger is a high risk, high reward proposition to start his 185-pound adventure.
Jorge Masvidal vs. Nate Diaz
You don’t need me to tell you why this one is a must-see, but I’m going to give you my little take on what makes this such a great fight anyway.
Masvidal’s emergence as a main event attraction and pay-per-view headliner is the kind of thing diehard fans love to see and this sport needs more of if I’m being honest. He’s 16 years deep into his career, has long been underrated, and while he’s shown a little more of his personality of late, he has been a colorful, entertaining fixture on the UFC roster for a number of years now.
It’s unfortunate that it took this long for some people to recognize and understand that “Gamebred” is a real one, but we’re here now and that’s what counts.
The fact that he’s facing Diaz, the long-time cult hero whose popularity out-paced his performance at points during his career, is fitting as the two are cut from a similar cloth, as the Stockton, California native suggested when calling out Masvidal following his win over Anthony Pettis in August.
Despite a three-year layoff, Diaz was locked in from the outset of that one, giving Pettis little room to breathe and drowning him with volume. It was a vintage Diaz effort and if he can replicate that showing on Saturday, he’ll earn the title he always assumed he and his brother already carried as the baddest MF’er in the sport today.
UFC Fight Night: Zabit vs. Kattar — Saturday, November 9 (Moscow, Russia)
Alexander Volkov vs. Greg Hardy
Volkov was initially set to headline this event opposite former champion Junior Dos Santos, however “Cigano” was sidelined with a bacterial infection in his leg and Hardy quickly volunteered to step in opposite the towering Russian.
While the bout was shifted from the main event due to the change, it might actually be a more compelling contest now because after four UFC starts, Hardy is rushing head-first into a showdown with a legitimate heavyweight contender.
Since his debut in January, fans and pundits have been clamoring to see the controversial former NFL defensive end share the cage with an experienced, battle-tested opponent. Not only is Hardy doing that, but he’s skipping a few steps in the traditional developmental track in the process, eschewing a handful of fights against the heavyweight middle class to step in against a 31-year-old standout with a 30-7 record.
For Volkov, this is a chance to get back on track after being roughly 15 seconds away from potentially earning a title shot last October, only to have Derrick Lewis land a Hail Mary that halted his six-fight winning streak. With things at the top of the division still getting organized, this is a prime opportunity for “Drago” to get back into the win column and position himself for another marquee assignment in early 2020, provided he can get his hand raised in Moscow.
Zabit Magomedsharipov vs. Calvin Kattar
Originally slated as a home game for Kattar on last month’s event in Boston, this crucial featherweight contest was bumped back a month, with home field advantage reverting to Magomedsharipov. Now, with Dos Santos’ removal, it claims top billing on this month’s return to Russia, though the late change means it will remain a three-round affair.
This is the most intriguing matchup of the month to me, as Magomedsharipov has been expected to emerge as a title contender since his arrival in the UFC, while Kattar is one of those “far better than most people seem to understand” type of dudes that runs with the New England Cartel and is quite capable of getting his hand raised here.
So far, Magomedsharipov has been as good as advertised, posting five straight victories to push his winning streak to a baker’s dozen, most recently scoring a unanimous decision win over Jeremy Stephens. If there has been on knock on the mop-topped prospect, it’s been that his dynamic style leads to him slowing down late in bouts, but if that’s the only quibble, clearly the 28-year-old is doing something right.
Kattar has quietly put together a 4-1 record in the UFC (and a 20-3 record overall) with wins over Andre Fili, Shane Burgos, Chris Fishgold and Ricardo Lamas, while his lone setback came against Top 10 fixture Renato Moicano. The 31-year-old from Methuen, Massachusetts is one of those guys who isn’t going to wow you with flashy moves or blow you away in any one area, but he’s fundamentally sound and fights within himself, which means he’s always in the fight and capable of beating literally anyone the UFC puts in front of him on any given night.
UFC Fight Night: Blachowicz vs. Jacare — Saturday, November 16 (Sao Paulo, Brazil)
Charles Oliveira vs. Jared Gordon
This one is all about Oliveira for me and I say that with all due respect to Gordon, who is tough as nails and doing important, meaningful work sharing his story of addiction, recovery and sobriety to the masses.
In the three years since Oliveira returned to lightweight, the Brazilian has gone 6-1 with six finishes and his only loss coming against Paul Felder. He’s won five straight heading into this one, all by stoppage, and he now holds the record for the most submission wins in UFC history, with 13. He’s 27-8 with one no contest overall and has been competing inside the Octagon for over nine years, and yet Oliveira just turned 29 midway through October.
Lightweight is loaded with talent and Oliveira has been mercurial throughout his UFC tenure, but would anyone be surprised if his current run of success represents the gifted former prospect finally putting it all together and emerging as a championship contender in the 155-pound ranks? He’s only lost to elite competition, including three former UFC champions, and has outstanding finishing instincts, with long limbs designed for locking up chokes.
If Oliveira can extend his winning streak to six, he’ll enter next year as one of the most interesting names in the lightweight division, at least for me.
Jan Blachowicz vs. Jacare Souza
This is one of those fights where the announcement caught me off guard, but quickly gave way to excitement.
Blachowicz is amongst the top contenders in the light heavyweight division, having gone 5-1 over his last six fights and rebounding from his February stoppage loss to Thiago Santos with a blistering effort against Luke Rockhold at UFC 239 in July. The Polish veteran struggled during the first few years of his transition to the Octagon, but he’s regrouped and found his rhythm as of late and can cement his place near the top of the division with another strong showing here.
Souza is the latest longtime middleweight standout to make the move to the 205-pound ranks, joining recent title challengers Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos, as well as former 185-pound titleholders Rockhold and Chris Weidman. Those four have had very different results since departing the middleweight division, so there is no telling how the Brazilian’s move up will play out.
He’s alternated wins and losses over his last six fights against an assortment of Top 10 talents at middleweight, most recently landing on the wrong side of a unanimous decision result against Jack Hermansson in April. Closing in on his 40th birthday, it will be interesting to see if this move sparks a resurgence for the standout grappler and instantly establishes him as a contender at light heavyweight or lands him next to Rockhold and Weidman, questioning what comes next.