ROBERT WHITTAKER VS. KELVIN GASTELUM
Former Ultimate Fighter winners and middleweight contenders who were once slated to battle it out for championship gold will finally share the Octagon together this weekend as Robert Whittaker takes on Kelvin Gastelum in Saturday night’s main event.
Whittaker had an impressive bounce-back campaign in 2020, taking the first half of the year off before returning to register unanimous decision victories over Darren Till and Jared Cannonier to re-affirm his standing as one of the top talents in the 185-pound ranks. The former champion remains a technically sound, well-conditioned talent that plays to his strengths, deploying a stick-and-move attack strategy while avoiding the extended striking exchanges that have caused him problems in the past.
Gastelum jumped at the opportunity to replace Paulo Costa when the Brazilian was forced to withdraw, and he will finally get the chance to face the man he coached opposite on Season 28 of The Ultimate Fighter before their championship clash at UFC 234 was scuttled the day of the event after Whittaker was forced to undergo emergency surgery.
The 29-year-old Kings MMA representative finally snapped a two-year, three-fight stretch without a victory earlier this year when he outworked Ian Heinisch to earn a unanimous decision win at UFC 258. It was a solid return to the win column for the former interim title challenger and it will be interesting to see if he can build upon that success and move one step closer to challenging for the title by toppling Whittaker this weekend.
The top of the list of contenders in the middleweight division is currently extremely fluid, so a dynamic effort from either man will further strengthen their position in the pecking order and create intriguing options for the UFC matchmakers heading into the second half of the year.
JEREMY STEPHENS VS. DRAKKAR KLOSE
The co-main event features a battle of lightweights looking to get things moving in the right direction in their 2021 debuts as Jeremy Stephens squares off with Drakkar Klose.
Following an eight-year run at featherweight, the 34-year-old Stephens returns to the 155-pound ranks looking to earn his first victory since February 2018. While the results haven’t been there, Stephens has continued to face elite competition during his prolonged skid, with his four losses coming against Jose Aldo, Zabit Magomedsharipov, Yair Rodriguez, and Calvin Kattar.
The battle-tested “Lil Heathen” has always been a tough out, and fueled by a desire to snap out of his current funk and start fresh at lightweight, no one should be surprised if he turns back the clock this weekend and dials up a dynamite performance against Klose.
The Michigan native is one of those fighters that truly highlights the incredible depth of talent and narrow margins that separate competitors in the 155-pound weight class, as he arrives in Las Vegas this weekend sporting an 11-2-1 record overall and 5-2 mark inside the Octagon. Last time out, Klose had his three-fight winning streak snapped by Beneil Dariush in a wildly entertaining back-and-forth affair where he had the surging contender on roller skates before getting stopped a minute into the second round.
ANDREI ARLOVSKI VS. CHASE SHERMAN
Veteran heavyweight Andrei Arlovski subs in for Parker Porter in this main card matchup with Chase Sherman that has barnburner written all over it.
Arlovski’s UFC career stretches across three decades, and despite having logged more than 50 professional appearances, the former heavyweight champion shows no real signs of slowing down. He posted consecutive victories over Philipe Lins and Tanner Boser in 2020 before running into rising star Tom Aspinall earlier this year, and now takes a second swing at securing UFC victory No. 20 this weekend.
Sherman made his return to the Octagon in 2020, extending his winning streak and finishing streak to four with a second-round stoppage win over Ike Villanueva in May. An all-action fighter who has never been shy about wading into the fray and taking one in order to land one of his own, the 31-year-old has shown improved technique and better utilization of his weapons during his current run of success, and a victory over Arlovski on Saturday would easily be the biggest of his career.
ABDUL RAZAK ALHASSAN VS. JACOB MALKOUN
Abdul Razak Alhassan makes his UFC middleweight debut and seeks to end a two-fight skid as he squares off with Australia’s Jacob Malkoun.
Last year was a tough one for Alhassan, as the judoka from Ghana not only missed weight for each of his two appearances in 2020, but landed on the wrong side of the result each time as well. He started quickly against Mounir Lazzez in July, but faded once the newcomer weathered his patented early salvo en route to dropping a unanimous decision. Four months later, Alhassan was on the business end of one of the best knockouts of the year, getting caught with a quick, sharp right hand in his bout with Khaos Williams that brought the fight to a halt just 30 seconds after it started.
A long-time training partner of Whittaker’s, Malkoun made his promotional debut last fall, but didn’t get to log much time inside the Octagon, as Phillip Hawes quickly closed the distance and dropped the Australian with a barrage of punches along the fence just 18 seconds into the contest. This is another difficult assignment for the 25-year-old “Mamba,” but if he can navigate the early moments of the fight better this time around, he could very well leave Las Vegas with his first UFC victory under his belt.
LUIS PENA VS. ALEXANDER MUNOZ
Lightweights looking to get back into the win column and establish some consistency inside the UFC Octagon clash here as TUF alum Luis Pena squares off with Contender Series veteran Alexander Munoz.
The 27-year-old Pena has shown flashes of significant upside, but moments of inconsistency as well over the course of his first seven UFC appearances, amassing a 4-3 record. Now training at American Top Team, the man affectionately known as “Violent Bob Ross” has unique size for the division and a funky grappling style that makes him difficult to deal with on the canvas, and if he can put everything together, Pena has the potential to be an intriguing name to watch in the 155-pound ranks going forward.
After pushing his record to 6-0 with a unanimous decision win over “Pretty Boy” Troy Lamson in the fall of 2019, Munoz was scheduled to make his UFC debut last February against Pena, only to be forced out prior to the bout. He finally stepped into the Octagon in August but landed on the wrong side of the results against Nasrat Haqparast, sending him into this weekend’s re-booked pairing with Pena looking to rebound from his first professional setback.
TRACY CORTEZ VS. JUSTINE KISH
It’s Contender Series versus The Ultimate Fighter in the 125-pound weight class as Tracy Cortez squares off with Justine Kish on Saturday night.
The 27-year-old Cortez punched her ticket to the Octagon with a victory over Mariya Agapova on Season 3 of the Contender Series, and has since gone on to post consecutive decision wins over Vanessa Melo and Stephanie Egger to extend her overall winning streak to eight. Now the Fight Ready representative drops to flyweight for the first time in her UFC career and could quickly establish herself as an intriguing dark horse in the division with a victory here.
Kish has dealt with myriad injuries throughout her UFC tenure, including a pair of ACL repairs, but she fought twice in the same year for the first time since 2016 last year, defeating Lucie Pudilova in January before getting submitted by Sabina Mazo in September. The 32-year-old Muay Thai stylist is battle-tested and holds wins over Randa Markos, Nina Nunes, and Ashley Yoder, making her a stern test for Cortez this weekend.
ALEXANDR ROMANOV VS. JUAN ESPINO
Intriguing heavyweight grapplers collide here as Alexandr Romanov looks to build on his solid rookie campaign as he takes on TUF 28 winner Juan Espino.
In less than two months last fall, Romanov established himself as someone to track in the big boy ranks by racking up back-to-back submission wins over Roque Martinez and Marcos Rogerio de Lima to give him 13 finishes in 13 career starts. The 30-year-old from Moldova has a little Aleksei Oleinik to his game, attacking with unconventional setups and chokes once the fight hits the canvas, including the forearm choke he used to finish de Lima.
The same can be said of Espino, who rolled through the competition on Season 28 of The Ultimate Fighter, submitting Maurice Greene in the semifinals before tapping Justin Frazier with a straight armlock in the finals. The 40-year-old Spaniard finally returned to action last fall and picked up where he left off, quickly dispatching Jeff Hughes with a scarf hold choke in September.
While neither man is currently positioned inside the Top 15, this should be an entertaining battle between two compelling names in the heavyweight division that could position the winner for another step-up in competition next time out.
JESSICA PENNE VS. LUPITA GODINEZ
After being a late scratch from the UFC 260 lineup, former title challenger Jessica Penne finally returns to action this weekend, fighting for first time in nearly four years, as she takes on undefeated newcomer Lupita Godinez.
It’s been a long road back to the Octagon for Penne, who has been sidelined by injuries and suspensions since suffering a unanimous decision loss to Danielle Taylor in April 2017. The former TUF semifinalist has dropped three straight heading into this one, but she has a wealth of experience and trains with a great team, so it will be interesting to see how she looks after this much time away.
Fighting out of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Godinez went 1-0-1 against current UFC fighter Sam Hughes during her amateur career and is 5-0 since turning pro, earning the biggest victory of her career last time out when she earned a majority decision win over Vanessa Demopoulos to claim the LFA strawweight title. Now the 27-year-old Titan MMA representative looks to make an instant impression in her UFC debut by defeating the former title challenger this weekend.
BARTOSZ FABINSKI VS. GERALD MEERSCHAERT
It’s a meeting of veteran middleweights looking to rebound from quick losses in their final appearances of 2020 meet in this preliminary card pairing between Bartosz Fabinski and Gerald Meerschaert.
A long-time welterweight, Fabinski relocated to the 185-pound ranks last year, debuting in the division with a win over Darren Stewart under the Cage Warriors banner before returning to the Octagon in September and getting submitted by Andre Muniz midway through the opening round. The 34-year-old is a durable grinder and has won eight of his last 10 overall heading into this one.
One of the more experienced members of the middleweight ranks, Meerschaert will be looking to snap a two-fight skid when he makes steps into the Octagon this weekend. After starting 2020 with a third-round submission win over Deron Winn in March, the 45-fight veteran suffered consecutive first-round stoppage losses to Ian Heinisch and Khamzat Chimaev in June and September respectively.
Fabinski has never lost consecutive fights in his career, while Meerschaert has never dropped three straight, so something has got to give this weekend.
TONY GRAVELY VS. ANTHONY BIRCHAK
Action on Saturday gets under way in the bantamweight division as Contender Series grad Tony Gravely squares off with veteran Anthony Birchak.
A long-time regional standout, Gravely graduated to the Octagon following a third-round stoppage win over Ray Rodriguez on Season 3 of the Contender Series. After losing to rugged Welsh standout Brett Johns in his promotional debut, the American Top Team representative bounced back with a split decision victory over Geraldo de Freitas in November to register his first UFC win.
The 34-year-old Birchak returned to the Octagon for the first time in four years last November, filling in on short notice and landing on the wrong side of a first-round stoppage against his friend and former training partner Gustavo Lopez. Now with a full camp behind him and an unfamiliar foe across the cage, “El Toro” looks to pick up his first UFC win since defeating Dileno Lopez in the summer of 2016 when he steps into the Octagon this weekend in Las Vegas.