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MORAES VS SANDHAGEN: FIGHT BY FIGHT PREVIEW

We Run Down Your Entire #UFCFightIsland5 Card, Top To Bottom

MARLON MORAES VS. CORY SANDHAGEN

Top 5 bantamweights looking to solidify their place in the pecking order clash in this highly anticipated main event as former title challenger Marlon Moraes squares off with Cory Sandhagen.

It’s been a strange year for the talented Moraes, who watched the man he beat last December (Jose Aldo) and the person he was tracking to fight (Petr Yan) battle it out for the vacant bantamweight title earlier this summer. The talented former World Series of Fighting champion has already beaten No. 2-ranked contender Aljamain Sterling, and is now operating in “stay busy and state my case” mode in hopes that the timing of things can eventually shake out in his favor.

The 28-year-old Sandhagen arrives off his first UFC setback and just the second loss of his career, an 88-second submission defeat at the hands of Sterling at UFC 250. The Elevation Fight Team member never had a chance to do anything, as Sterling went into “Human Jansport” mode immediately and found the choke. While it was a disappointing result for Sandhagen, it did nothing to diminish his standing in the division or change the fact that he’s a legitimate Top 5 talent who had earned five consecutive quality victories before that fight.

With Sterling expected to get the next crack at Yan, this one has the potential to determine who is up next following that fight, should it come together. Regardless of any potential championship implications, it’s a terrific matchup between two well rounded talents looking to make a statement on Saturday and one that has a wide range of potential outcomes.

Both men have exhibited keen finishing instincts throughout their careers with the ability to get things done quickly, but they’ve each also shown the sandpaper and tenacity it takes to battle through a grueling fight and emerge victorious, so no matter how it shakes out this weekend, it should be all kinds of fun.

Free Fight: Marlon Moraes vs Raphael Assuncao 2
Free Fight: Marlon Moraes vs Raphael Assuncao 2
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EDSON BARBOZA VS. MAKWAN AMIRKHANI

Edson Barboza makes his second appearance in the featherweight division in Saturday night’s co-main event, facing off with dangerous short-notice replacement Makwan Amirkhani in what promises to be an entertaining scrap in the 145-pound weight class.

A Top 10 fixture in the lightweight ranks for a number of years, Barboza relocated to featherweight earlier this year, dropping a debated split decision to Dan Ige in May, the second time in as many fights that he’s come away on the wrong side of a 2-1 judges decision.

The veteran is in a strange spot right now, as he’s officially 1-5 over his last six starts and lost three straight, but his last two defeats have come by split decision, while the other three were to Justin Gaethje, Kevin Lee (in a fight where he had Lee on roller skates), and Khabib Nurmagomedov, with a third-round stoppage win over Dan Hooker sandwiched in between the losses to Gaethje and Lee. He’s undeniably talented and showed no lack of speed or conditioning in his featherweight debut, but he needs to get back in the win column in a big way here.

Amirkhani tags in on short notice for Sodiq Yusuff and gets an unexpected chance to register the biggest win of his career in a low-risk, high-reward engagement. The mercurial “Mr. Finland” enters off a first-round submission win over Danny Henry and has won three of his last four, but has yet to show the consistency and cardiovascular endurance needed to make a real run towards the top of the division.

Fighting alongside his childhood friend Moraes and in dire need of a victory to re-affirm his standing, expect Barboza to come out firing from the get-go. Combined with Amirkhani’s penchant for starting quickly, that means the opening moments of this weekend’s penultimate clash should be electric and set the tone for an entertaining table-setter to the main event.

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BEN ROTHWELL VS. MARCIN TYBURA

Veterans that have quietly earned consecutive victories lock horns here as Ben Rothwell and Marcin Tybura share the Octagon in a main card clash designed to move one of them further up the heavyweight rankings as 2020 winds to a close.

Rothwell snapped a three-fight skid in early December with a technical knockout win over Stefan Struve in Washington, D.C. and then extended his run of success to two with a split decision nod against Ovince Saint Preux earlier this spring in his 50th professional appearance. The Kenosha, Wisconsin native has faced a who’s who in the heavyweight ranks over the years and is more dangerous than fans and observers often recognize, especially in the grappling department, where his 10-finger guillotine choke is vice-like.

After a 2019 campaign that featured a pair of stoppage losses, Tybura has rebounded with back-to-back decision wins over Serghei Spivac and Maxim Grishin to re-establish himself as a dangerous veteran on the fringes of the Top 15. Tybura can beat just about anyone and act as a spoiler when paired off against promising newcomers and unproven prospects, but this time, however, he’s sharing the cage with one of the most experienced fighters in the division in Rothwell. Saturday’s contest will move one of these divisional stalwarts closer to the Top 15 and should provide a little clarity on what 2021 could have in store for them, as well.

Free Fight: Cory Sandhagen vs Iuri Alcantara
Free Fight: Cory Sandhagen vs Iuri Alcantara
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MARKUS PEREZ VS. DRICUS DU PLESSIS

An interesting middleweight affair lands on the main card as Brazilian Markus Perez welcomes South African newcomer Dricus du Plessis to the Octagon for the first time.

The 30-year-old Perez, who likes to cosplay as Heath Ledger’s Joker at weigh-ins and whose nickname “Maluko” means “crazy,” has gone 2-3 in five UFC starts after arriving in the promotion with a 10-0 mark and coming off an LFA middleweight title win over Ian Heinisch. He’s prioritized entertaining over fighting safely and earning wins at times, but his submission finishes of James Bochnovic and Anthony Hernandez highlight the dangerous potential he carries with him to the cage.

Originally scheduled to fight countryman Rodolfo Vieira, Perez will instead look to get back into the win column against the 26-year-old du Plessis, who arrives in the Octagon sporting a 14-2 record.

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In addition to claiming championship gold in both the welterweight and middleweight divisions under the EFC banner, “Stillknocks” also claimed the welterweight strap in Poland’s KSW promotion by registering a second-round stoppage win over fellow standout Roberto Soldic. He dropped a rematch against “Robocop” six months later in Wembley Arena, but has since picked up consecutive stoppage wins heading into this one.

Du Plessis was one of the top unsigned talents in the world and is a tremendous addition to the UFC roster, but it will be interesting to see how he does making his debut on short notice against an unorthodox opponent like Perez.

The middleweight division remains wide open, especially outside of the Top 10, which means there is an opportunity for either one of these men (or both) to string together a collection of strong performances and make a move towards the rankings in quick succession. Unfortunately, only one of them can emerge victorious on Saturday night, but the process of determining who that is should be all kinds of fun to take in.

TOM ASPINALL vs. ALAN BAUDOT

Tom Aspinall looks to build on a blistering debut performance earlier this summer when he steps back into the Octagon this weekend against promotional newcomer Alan Baudot.

After pressing pause on his cage-fighting career to try his hands, literally, as a boxer, Team Kaobon’s Aspinall returned to MMA last year with a pair of first-round stoppage wins under the Cage Warriors banner before making his UFC debut this summer. He needed just 45 seconds to dispatch Jake Collier in his first foray into the Octagon, showcasing his sharp, powerful hands boxing and establishing himself as one to watch in the heavyweight ranks.

Baudot gets the call to make the walk to the Octagon for the first time after Aspinall’s original opponent, Serghei Spivac, was forced off the card. The 32-year-old Frenchman trains alongside rising star Ciryl Gane at the MMA Factory in Paris and carries an 8-1 record into this contest, having scored back-to-back stoppage victories since incurring the only loss of his career to UFC light heavyweight Dalcha Lungiambula a number of years ago.

Even on short notice, this is a huge opportunity for Baudot, who enters with the chance to upend a major prospect while catapulting himself into the heavyweight conversation with a victory. While this has become more of a high-risk fight for Aspinall with the late change, the British slugger can still make a serious statement by handling his business swiftly for a second time in as many UFC starts.

Bonus Résumé: Edson Barboza
Bonus Résumé: Edson Barboza
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YOUSSEF ZALAL VS. ILIA TOPURIA

Emerging featherweight Youssef Zalal looks to build on his already impressive rookie campaign in the UFC cage as he steps into the Octagon on Saturday night in search of his fourth win of the year in a showdown against unbeaten newcomer Ilia Topuria.

Zalal is already a cinch to make the year-end list of the top newcomers of 2020 after wrapping up decision wins over Austin Lingo, Jordan Griffin, and Peter Barrett, but he can position himself for at least “Honorable Mention” status in the Fighter of the Year chase if he collects a fourth victory this weekend. The Factory X Muay Thai representative is an intriguing prospect in the talent-rich featherweight division, brandishing good size and a long reach for the weight class, while having exhibited keen finishing instincts on the regional circuit.

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Fighting out of Alicante, Spain, the 23-year-old Topuria is of Georgian descent and arrives in the UFC with a perfect 8-0 record, having earned a pair of wins each year since 2015, with the exception of 2017, when he did not compete. Topuria, who tags in for SeungWoo Choi on Saturday, earned a pair of stoppage victories under the Brave CF banner last year, and has earned finishes in all eight of his fights.

This is a really intriguing matchup and a tough assignment for Zalal on short notice, as Topuria profiles as a strong addition to the division, and having limited time to prepare for what he brings to the cage may prove challenging. The newcomer Topuria arrives with no pressure and an opportunity to establish himself as someone to watch going forward, and it will be interesting to see how things play out between the two skilled, action fighters on Saturday night.

TOM BREESE VS. KB BHULLAR

Tom Breese looks to right the ship as he takes on undefeated Canadian newcomer KB Bhullar in this clash of middleweights.

Breese returned to action for the first time in nearly two years in February, landing on the wrong side of things in a clash with promising up-and-comer Brendan Allen. After battling injury issues in the past, Breese stands as an intriguing figure in the middleweight ranks as he’s still south of 30 and boasts an 11-2 record overall.

The 28-year-old Bhullar was expected to compete on the Contender Series earlier this fall, but instead, the 8-0 prospect from Edmonton will march right into the Octagon instead. After rattling off six first-round stoppages in his first seven appearances, Bhullar scored a unanimous decision win over UFC veteran Matt Dwyer last time out to claim the Unified MMA middleweight strap.

This is a tremendous matchup that should answer some of the lingering questions that hover around each fighter. For Breese, it’s a stiff test against another talented upstart where a victory would cement his place in the division and re-affirm his status as one to keep tabs on going forward, while Bhullar gets a chance to make an instant impression and propel himself into the thick of the chase in the 185-pound ranks by taking on an established competitor once tabbed for title contention.

UFC 254: Khabib vs Gaethje – Unbreakable
UFC 254: Khabib vs Gaethje – Unbreakable
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CHRIS DAUKAUS VS. RODRIGO NASCIMENTO

Heavyweights coming off finishes in their respective debuts earlier this year meet on Fight Island, as Chris Daukaus squares off with Rodrigo Nascimento.

Daukaus, the older brother of UFC middleweight Kyle Daukaus, impressed at UFC 252, registering a first-round stoppage win over Parker Porter to push his record to 9-3. The 31-year-old showed a diverse arsenal of offensive weaponry and keen finishing instincts in his debut, and has won seven of his last eight, making him an intriguing new addition to a division always in need of fresh talent.

Three months earlier, Nascimento also made waves in his first trip into the Octagon, submitting fellow Contender Series graduate Don’Tale Mayes two minutes into the second round of their clash in Jacksonville, Florida. Now a perfect 8-0 in his pro career, the 27-year-old Brazilian also stands out as one to watch in the big boy ranks, which is a big part of what makes this such a compelling fight.

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Everyone talks about how the heavyweight division can get stale in a hurry, but often pay little attention when promising newcomers first grace the Octagon. Daukaus and Nascimento each turned in debut performances that were too good to overlook and the winner of this clash has the potential to get an expedited trip up the divisional ladder going forward.

This is a “get in on the ground floor” opportunity with a couple of talented heavyweights and it should be an action-packed bout on Saturday night to boot.

IMPA KASANGANAY VS. JOAQUIN BUCKLEY

The “busiest man in MMA” fights for the third time in two months as Impa Kasanganay looks to remain undefeated as he jumps into a short-notice fight against 26-year-old prospect Joaquin Buckley on “Fight Island.”

A two-time Contender Series winner, Kasanganay earned a victory, a contract, and his first UFC assignment on August 11 by beating Anthony Adams, then turned around 18 days later and outworked fellow Contender Series alum Maki Pitolo to collect his first UFC victory. Now 8-0 after turning pro at the start of 2019, the promising North Carolina native aims to keep things rolling as he makes another quick return to take on Buckley this weekend in Abu Dhabi.

It’s been a challenging start to life in the UFC for Buckley, who debuted on short notice against streaking middleweight upstart Kevin Holland, and now faces an unbeaten up-and-comer on short notice here after his original opponent, Abu Azaitar, was forced to withdraw. The St. Louis resident won four of five prior to his fight with Holland and has flashed solid power and finishing instincts in the past, which makes him an interesting dance partner for Kasanganay here.

Can the recent Contender Series graduate remain red hot and pick up his third victory in eight weeks or will Buckley hand him his first career defeat?

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ALI AL-QAISI VS. TONY KELLEY

After coming up short in their respective debuts in August, Ali Al-Qaisi and Tony Kelley face off on Saturday night in Abu Dhabi in a matchup between talented fighters looking to make an even better second impression with the UFC audience.

The first fighter from Jordan signed by the UFC, Al-Qaisi landed on the wrong side of a split decision verdict against Irwin Rivera. The loss snapped a five-fight winning streak for “The Royal Fighter,” but now the 30-year-old Wushu stylist gets the opportunity to compete closer to home as he goes in search of his first UFC victory.

Kelley made his first trip into the Octagon a week after Al-Qaisi, losing a short-notice pairing against Kai Kamaka III where he showed flashes of potential before his gas tank failed him. He fought solid competition before taking an extended hiatus from MMA and looked good at times in Las Vegas, so it will be interesting to see what a lengthier training camp and 15 minutes of UFC experience does for him this time around.

No one wants to start their UFC career with consecutive defeats. With their maiden journeys into the Octagon behind them and a sour taste in their mouths after coming away with losses, it wouldn’t surprise me if Al-Qaisi and Kelley come out hot to start this one and combine to deliver one of the more entertaining scraps on Saturday’s preliminary card.

GIGA CHIKADZE VS. OMAR MORALES

Former kickboxer Giga Chikadze looks to remain unbeaten inside the Octagon and extend his winning streak to six as he welcomes unbeaten Contender Series graduate Omar Morales to the featherweight division for the first time.

Chikadze competed on the second season of the Contender Series, losing by submission in the third round. Since then, the 32-year-old had rattled off five straight wins, including a trio of decision victories under the UFC banner. Last time out, he outworked short-notice replacement Irwin Rivera, and after being forced out of a matchup with Alex Caceres earlier this summer, he looks to continue his winning ways against Morales this weekend.

Morales punched his ticket to the UFC when he felled Harvey Park with a right cross 66 seconds into the second round of their fight last summer at the UFC Apex. Since then, the 34-year-old Venezuelan has added victories over Dong Hyun Ma and Gabriel Benitez to extend his record to 10-0.

This is a tremendously interesting fight, as Morales is the most skilled and experienced competitor Chikadze has faced to date, but this is also his maiden voyage in the featherweight division, so there are key variables to consider on each side when trying to determine whose winning streak will come to an end and who will leave Fight Island with another victory in hand.

Tracy Cortez punches Vanessa Melo of Brazil in their bantamweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at Ibirapuera Gymnasium on November 16, 2019 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Schneider/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Tracy Cortez punches Vanessa Melo on November 16, 2019 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Schneider/Zuffa LLC)

TRACY CORTEZ VS. STEPHANIE EGGER

Contender Series alum Tracy Cortez goes searching for her second straight UFC victory as she makes the trip to Abu Dhabi, where she’ll take on Swiss veteran Stephanie Egger in an intriguing bantamweight pairing.

It’s odd that more people don’t talk about Cortez as a name to watch in the bantamweight division, as the Fight Ready representative has won seven consecutive contests heading into this one, including victories over Erin Blanchfield and Mariya Agapova. After outworking Vanessa Melo to earn a unanimous decision win in her UFC debut last November, the 26-year-old was expected to face Bea Malecki here, but will share the cage with the newcomer Egger instead.

The 32-year-old from Switzerland began her career all the way back in 2015, registering a win over Mara Romero Borella in her second fight. Egger lost to Alexa Conners in her lone appearance under the Invicta FC banner in 2016, then fought just once over a 32-month stretch, registering a first-round stoppage win before scoring a unanimous decision win over Reina Miura last summer. She added another first-round submission win to her resume in September, pushing her winning streak to three as she heads into this short-notice opportunity against Cortez.

This is an interesting pairing that should answer some questions about where Cortez is at in her development and how far she could climb in the bantamweight ranks over the next year. Egger is a tough veteran to face at any time, and an even more difficult assignment on short notice, making this a must-watch matchup carrying a bundle of potential significance in the 135-pound weight class.

BRUNO SILVA VS. TAGIR ULANBEKOV

Flyweights are front and center here as Bruno Silva looks to halt his two-fight skid as he welcomes promising newcomer Tagir Ulanbekov into the Octagon for the first time.

A long-time training partner of former two-division world champion Henry Cejudo, Silva has run into a pair of tough assignments to begin his UFC adventure, suffering a third-round submission loss at bantamweight in his promotional debut (a bout later overturned to a no contest when opponent Khalid Taha failed a post-fight drug test) before dropping to flyweight and dropping a decision to David Dvorak last time out. He was 7-1-1 in his nine fights prior to arriving in the UFC but has struggled to put it all together thus far inside the Octagon, sending him into this one with his back against the wall.

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Originally slated to debut this summer, Ulanbekov’s first foray into the Octagon was delayed following the passing of Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, his coach and the father of his close friend and training partner, UFC lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov. He’s 12-1 in his career with his lone setback being a majority decision loss to fellow UFC fighter Zhalgas Zhumagulov, and he has earned finishes in eight of his dozen victories.

There is a good deal of hype surrounding Ulanbekov, which ratchets up the anticipation and expectations heading into this one. Silva is a good fighter from an excellent team who just hasn’t been able to find his footing in the UFC quite yet, but his prior experience works to his advantage here and could help him spring the upset on Saturday.

 

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