The UFC returns to pay-per-view on Saturday night with an action-packed card headlined by twin championship fights, as Dominick Reyes and Jan Blachowicz battle for the vacant light heavyweight title before undefeated, undisputed middleweight champion Israel Adesanya puts his title on the line against unbeaten top contender Paulo Costa.
Both are crucial bouts in divisions where the contender ranks are currently shifting, meaning the outcome of each contest will chart the direction each weight class will take as 2020 rounds to a close and we move into another new year.
But before the fights where championship gold will hang in the balance head into the Octagon, a host of competitive and intriguing matchups featuring an assortment of hopefuls, veterans, upstarts, and potential contenders will hit the UFC cage on Saturday night.
Amongst that group, a trio of fighters looking to build off recent successes and use this weekend’s massive event as an opportunity to catapult themselves further up the standings in their respective divisions will make the walk, each seeking to extend their winning streaks and reach new levels of recognition.
Here’s a closer look at those athletes.
This is the UFC 253 edition of On the Rise.
Long before he arrived in the UFC, Canadian MMA fans were familiar with Hakeem Dawodu, the Calgary-born striker who carried the “best prospect in the country” label as he made the transition from Muay Thai to mixed martial arts. Following a 6-0-1 run under the World Series of Fighting banner, “Mean Hakeem” signed with the UFC and matriculated to the Octagon, where his highly anticipated debut ended in a 39-second loss.
But as Alfred has explained to Bruce Wayne in countless comic books and film adaptations, we fall so that we learn to get back up, and since Dawodu stumbled out of the gate, the 29-year-old has found his stride, stringing together four consecutive victories heading into his Saturday night showdown with Zubaira Tukhugov.
Dawodu does his best work behind punishing kicks and crisp punches at range, wearing the opposition down over time, rather than landing singular blows that shift the momentum of a fight on a dime. He’s technically sharp and builds confidence steadily as the fight progresses, as evidenced by his third-round stoppage win over Yoshinori Horie at UFC 240. Though he could stand to offer a little more volume at times, Dawodu lands with such impact and obvious force that it often makes up for his efficient offensive approach.
This bout with Tukhugov is a solid step-up in competition for the Calgary resident, who enters off a split decision victory over durable veteran Julio Arce last November in New York City. Tukhugov is a well-rounded, battle-tested competitor who has gone 4-1-1 in six UFC starts and arrives at UFC 253 following a first-round stoppage win over former LFA champ Kevin Aguilar.
The featherweight division is loaded with talent and breaking into the rankings is a chore at the moment, but a five-fight winning streak capped by a triumphant performance against a talented foe like Tukhugov could be just what Dawodu needs to force his way into the Top 15 or, at the very least, a date with one of its residents next time out.
Flyweight Brandon Royval looks to make it 2-for-2 against ranked opponents as he squares off with New Zealand’s Kai Kara-France on Saturday night in Abu Dhabi.
The 28-year-old Royval, who trains out of Factory X Muay Thai in Englewood, Colorado, made his promotional debut at the end of May, registering a second-round submission win over former title challenger Tim Elliott in a Fight of the Night-winning battle in Jacksonville, Florida. After landing on the wrong side of many of the grappling and striking exchanges in the opening frame, Royval rallied in the second, taking the fight to Elliott and eventually locking up an arm triangle choke midway through the round to secure the finish.
Royval’s triumphant debut was his third consecutive submission win and sixth victory in his last seven fights, a run that includes wins over UFC vets Joby Sanchez and Jerome Rivera. Stopping the awkward former title challenger instantly put Royval on the map in the 125-pound weight class and now he has the opportunity to take another big step towards contention as he takes on Kara-France this weekend.
A contestant on Season 24 of The Ultimate Fighter, Kara-France didn’t latch on with the UFC until two years after his season aired, but since touching down in the Octagon, the City Kickboxing standout has posted a 4-1 record to climb to No. 7 in the rankings, three spots ahead of Royval.
If the Marc Montoya-trained upstart can continue his winning streak and add another finish to his resume this weekend, he’ll make a push towards the Top 5 and put himself in exceptional position to be included in the title chase as 2020 winds to a close.
For all the attention City Kickboxing has rightfully received over the last couple of years, Brad Riddell has still somehow managed to fly under the radar, though that will change if “Quake” continues his winning ways this weekend.
The 28-year-old lightweight heads into his bout with Alex da Silva on Saturday riding a five-fight winning streak, with his last two victories coming inside the Octagon. After outworking fellow Oceanic veteran Jamie Mullarkey in their joint debuts at UFC 243 last October, Riddell landed on the happy side of a split decision verdict in a bout against Magomed Mustafaev in February to push his record to 8-1 overall.
Mustafaev entered off a first-round knockout win over Rafael Fiziev and was 12-1 in his previous 13 appearances, with his lone setback coming against former lightweight title contender Kevin Lee, which puts Riddell’s last victory into greater context as he prepares to return.
The 24-year-old da Silva has split his first two trips into the Octagon, losing to Alexander Yakovlev in his debut before bouncing back with a unanimous decision victory over Kazula Vargas last time out.
Moving forward in the lightweight division takes a little longer than in other weight classes because of the sheer volume of talented fighters competing for opportunities and eyeballs, but if Riddell can extend his UFC record to 3-0 and push his winning streak to six on Saturday, it will be difficult to deny him the next time he’s ready to march into battle.
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