The UFC returns this Saturday with one of the biggest cards of the decade to date, and these fighters are worth keeping an eye on.
With all eyes firmly glued to this weekend's main event as Israel Adesanya looks to make history at 205lbs, a pair of light heavyweights opening up UFC 259's main card are looking to make a statement and propel themselves into title contention.
In a division that has become energised with potential contenders ever since long-reigning champion Jon Jones relinquished his crown to move up to heavyweight, Thiago Santos must feel like he has a legitimate claim to being one of the best fighters in the division.
Back in 2019, Santos shocked the MMA world when he came in as a massive betting underdog in his first attempt at UFC gold, bringing the fight to the incumbent champion Jones in a way few expected. Ultimately, Santos would find himself on the wrong end of a unanimous decision against Jones, but, even in defeat, established himself as a contender.
The Brazilian returned from a long layoff in November and suffered a shock defeat against veteran compatriot Glover Teixeira. However, a comprehensive victory over Alexander Rakic on Saturday offers the Hammer a way to get right back into the title picture in a time when the division is more wide-open than ever.
Saturday's event will mark the first time since UFC 178 back in 2014 that former UFC Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz has made a trip to the Octagon without a belt on the line.
Cruz last fought at UFC 259, stepping in as a short-notice replacement to take on champion Henry Cejudo. However, the former champion was unable to reclaim his title and was ultimately defeated by way of a second-round knockout.
With this in mind, newer fans of the sport who have seen Cruz/s excellent work as an analyst may not be aware of just how dominant the American was during his time atop the 135lbs division. From 2008 to 2016 Cruz went undefeated, besting some of the most recognisable names in the sport such as Urijah Faber, TJ Dillashaw, and Demetrious \Mighty Mouse\ Johnson.
Never afraid to take on the best the sport has to offer, Cruz will have his hands full with surging contender Casey Kenney on Saturday night. Though the 29-year-old prospect will come into the preliminary card headliner as a betting underdog, he has demonstrated a diverse skill set in his 5 trips to the Octagon thus far, and a win over Cruz could propel him into title contention.
With the violent reign of current UFC Flyweight Champion Davison Figueredo seemingly breathing new life into the sport at 125lbs, accomplished freestyle wrestler Askar Askarov will be looking to make a statement in his bout with former title challenger Joseph Benavidez on Saturday's card.
While Askarov/s accomplishments prior to entering the UFC automatically made him one to watch for fans, his impressive debut performance against fellow top ten flyweight, and upcoming title challenger, Brandon Moreno has only further cemented the Daeghestanis status as one of the elites in the UFCs lightest male weight class.
However, despite failing to finally capture UFC gold with a pair of losses against Figueredo in 2020, it would be foolish to count out the Team Alpha Male veteran on Saturday Night. Benevidez is one of the most experienced fighters in the UFC and comes into the fight carrying decent power for the weight class and one of the best guillotine chokes in the sport.
With the ongoing will-he won't-he retirement saga surrounding UFC Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov showing no signs of offering a definitive conclusion anytime soon, it could finally be time for Islam Makhachev to step out of his training partner/s shadow and make a serious impact in the world\s leading mixed martial arts promotion.
With a decorated background in Combat Sambo much like Nurmagomedov, the Daeghstani came into the UFC with serious fanfare. However, his early momentum in the Octagon was curtailed by a devastating knockout loss in his sophomore outing with the promotion in 2015.
Since then though, Makhachev has consistently put in performances that are worthy of the lofty comparisons with his countryman. A six-fight win streak with victories over the likes of Nik Lentz, Gleison Tabu, and Davi Ramos has put Mackachev on the fringe of the top ten in arguably the most stacked weight class in the sport.
Looking to spoil the coming-out party on Saturday night, American lightweight Drew Dober is no stranger to the bright lights of the Octagon, having made his UFC debut back in 2013. Riding a three-fight win streak, Dober will likely need to negate the wrestling game of his opponent and keep the fight on the feet if he is to get his hand raised.
With UFC Women's Flyweight Champion Weili Zhang making waves as one of the leading lights of China/s burgeoning MMA scene, Song Yadong is looking to follow his compatriot/s lead and make a similar impact in the men's bantamweight division.
Yadong came to the spot a background in the Chinese martial art of Sanda and has demonstrated a varied skill set in his six trips to the Octagon to date. The most recent of these being a decision win over top contender Marlon Vera back at UFC on ESPN 8 last year.
His opponent, TUF 27 alum Kyler Phillips, will be looking to utilise his knockout power to score a big upset when the two meet in the Octagon on Saturday.
More than half of Yadong/s fights have been bestowed post-fight honours by the UFC, so don't be surprised if this bout proves to be an early Fight of The Night contender.
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