If the UFC’s cards in 2018 haven’t been quite exciting enough for you to pay attention to an entire six-hour show, this is the place to start.
UFC 225 in Chicago next Saturday is the deepest card the promotion has put on this year with top-ranked talent gracing the card from start to finish. With two belts on the line and a slew of up-and-comers ready to build their names, we count down the night’s 10 most anticipated bouts.
10. Ricardo Lamas vs. Mirsad Bektic
According to Dana White last month, Yair Rodriguez was so unwilling to fight Lamas that he was ready to get kicked out of the UFC over it. While Rodriguez’s side of the story may not be as dramatic, Lamas (18-6) has proven to be a tough customer in the featherweight division and looked to be on his way toward a first title shot since 2014 before getting knocked out last December. He returns to the Octagon against Bektic (12-1), who is nine years younger than the 36-year-old.
9. Rashad Evans vs. Anthony Smith
Once the ruler over a legendary UFC light heavyweight division, Evans (19-7-1) has now taken four of his seven career losses in his last four bouts. Making his return to 205 pounds after a 0-2 stint at middleweight, the 38-year-old future Hall of Famer will look to avoid furthering his skid against Anthony “Lionheart” Smith (28-13). Another loss for “Suga” would seemingly spell the end, though many said the same about his last three fights.
8. Claudia Gadelha vs. Carla Esparza
Who Rose Namajunas will face in her second defense of the strawweight championship is a wide-open discussion at the moment. Jessica Andrade and Karolina Kowalkiewicz both have a claim to it and Joanna Jedrzejczyk believes she deserves another crack, but either Gadelha (15-3) or Esparza (13-4) could jump the line with an impressive performance in Chicago.
7. Joseph Benavidez vs. Sergio Pettis
As the No. 1 ranked flyweight contender, Benavidez (25-4) is rightfully upset about being booked for the early Fight Pass prelims in his first bout since December 2016. The two-time title challenger is on a six-fight win streak but suffered a torn ACL in his last action. He’ll square off with Pettis (16-3) in hopes of earning a third championship bout with Demetrious Johnson, though he’ll have to do more than just edge out a win to get his wish.
6. Andrei Arlovski vs. Tai Tuivasa
The UFC heavyweight division saw a few new faces rise through the ranks in 2017 and early 2018. One of those was 25-year-old Tuivasa, who stole the show in his native Australia in February by drinking beer out of a shoe (which he later described as a “shoey“) after his TKO win. Tuivasa (7-0) faces a big step up in competition after just two UFC contests, taking on 43-fight veteran and former heavyweight champ Andrei Arlovski (27-15) on the main card. Arlovski, 39, has rejuvenated his career with wins in his last two bouts after losing five straight in 2016-2017.
5. Alistair Overeem vs. Curtis Blaydes
Initially billed to be part of the main card, Overeem-Blaydes was bumped to the featured preliminary bout in place of Holly Holm and Megan Anderson’s featherweight bout. While Blaydes (9-1) and Overeem (43-16) – who won’t be on the main card for the first time in his UFC career – agreed they’re OK with the decision, White somewhat insulted the Dutch heavyweight’s drawing power afterward.
The squabbling over who fights when has become a distraction from the fight itself, which pits a proven veteran in Overeem against a fast-rising prospect in Blaydes, who will be fighting in his hometown for the first time with the UFC.
4. Holly Holm vs. Megan Andreson
Anderson (8-2) could give Cyborg her toughest fight yet as the Australian UFC newcomer is a natural featherweight who would actually have a four-inch height advantage over the champ. But first, she has to prove herself against Holm (11-4), who fought five hard rounds against Cyborg in her most recent bout and remains the top-ranked contender at 135 pounds.
3. CM Punk vs. Mike Jackson
Say what you will about his talent level, but White isn’t wrong when he says the former WWE superstar attracts a large audience. With an estimated 450,000 buys, Punk’s debut card was the highest-selling UFC pay-per-view of 2016 that didn’t feature megastars Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, or Brock Lesnar.
After losing that debut in embarrassing fashion to Mickey Gall at UFC 203, Punk (0-1) returns to face the other welterweight on the UFC roster with an 0-1 record and a loss to Gall. Jackson (0-1), an ex-kickboxer, has been campaigning to fight Punk since before his pro debut in February 2016 and is essentially the only opponent that makes any sense. Anyone upset with an 0-1 fighter getting a main-card spot can take solace in recognizing that a second loss for Punk will likely spell the end of his UFC stint.
2. Rafael dos Anjos vs. Colby Covington
Putting an interim title on the line with the welterweight champion set to return in two months’ time wasn’t the most popular opinion, but most fans will agree on one thing about the co-main event: Covington needs to get his comeuppance.
The fourth-ranked contender piled on top of his crowd-antagonizing style during a Thursday conference call, reaching a new low as he referenced one of the U.S. President’s crudest quotes. You have to give him credit for getting under people’s skin and forcing them to tune in, but you don’t have to like him.
Covington (13-1) hasn’t been able to make any headway with his trash talk toward dos Anjos (28-9), who’s been on an impressive 3-0 tear since moving up to welterweight last June. With a victory, RDA would join B.J. Penn as the second UFC fighter to win belts at lightweight and welterweight.
1. Robert Whittaker vs. Yoel Romero 2
UFC 225’s main event will feature a rematch of a 2017 Fight of the Year candidate that saw Whittaker (19-4) become the UFC’s first Australian champ with a unanimous decision win to gain the interim middleweight title.
Eleven months later, Whittaker is returning to the Octagon for the first time due to a slew of health issues, but his strap has been upgraded to undisputed status after Georges St-Pierre vacated the title last December.
After suffering his first UFC defeat to Whittaker, Romero (13-2) made it clear that he is still middleweight’s top challenger, knocking out Luke Rockhold in February. His latest win came with some controversy as the 41-year-old Cuban weighed in 2.7 pounds over the limit and was still awarded another shot at the belt.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)