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The UFC’s Divisional Dark Horses

Derek Bowe

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An underdog, wild card, or dark horse is someone, or something which has an outside chance of accomplishing a certain feat based on likelihood or odds given to or placed against that entity. In the UFC, there are fighters with a high level of skill which may be on the outside looking in on their ultimate goal. This special bunch has the ability to knock on the door of the top of the heap and potentially burst into the scene in a big way should their next two to three upcoming bouts go their way. A couple of these fighters can be viewed as top prospects with bright futures. A couple can also be viewed as veterans of the sport who have put together a nice string of victories to place themselves within striking distance. Nonetheless, the list of each fighter deemed as a dark horse to their respective division.

Flyweight (125 pounds)

It can possibly be difficult to imagine a fighter who just fought for a title, and lost as a participant on this list. However, the case can be made for Kyoji Horiguchi. Though he showed an impressive array of talents in his bout with champion, Demetrious Johnson, he still finds himself slotted at the seven spot on the UFC’s official rankings behind fighters who have fared less favorably or do not look to be in contention for a title shot. Despite being submitted in the very last second of the fight against Johnson, Horiguchi looked impressive throughout the fight. His ability to manage distance was apparent, as well as his technical execution of his strikes. In a division which does not have many defined challengers to the belt, it would be difficult to say he cannot be right back in the top challenger spot with a victory versus other top-five opponents. With his unique set of skills, that chance is highly likely.

Bantamweight (135 pounds)

Thomas Almeida is 18-0 in bid professional mixed martial arts career, and personalities close to the sport are raving over this young prospect’s talent. At 23 years of age, the young Almeida has everything going his way at the moment. It was revealed this week that he would be opposite Brad Pickett at UFC 189 in Las Vegas. A good test for the Brazilian bantamweight. Almeida is a vicious striker on the feet with power and speed. He recently finished Yves Jabouin via technical knockout which showed just the kind of talent the Muay Thai striker possesses. Should Almeida pass the test in July with flying colors, expect to see a rapid rise through the ranks, with a booking against a top five opponent at year’s end not out of the question.

Featherweight (145 pounds)

Conor McGregor is the name synonymous with this division at the moment, the Irishman burst onto the scene and has ascended more rapidly than any before him. There is another Irishman which made his debut back in March at UFC 185, a man who once defeated McGregor in the promotion Cage Warriors in 2010. Joseph Duffy is a force to be a reckoned with as he took Jake Lindsey apart just a minute and forty-seven seconds into the first round. Duffy is enormous as the featherweight division, standing at 5’10, his size makes his one of the largest fighters in the division. His Taekwondo black belt was shown in the precision of his kicks and his Japanese Jiu Jitsu black belt in his dominant grappling victories throughout his career. Duffy was just announced to be facing off against Brazilian Ivan Jorge on July 18th on a Fight Night card taking place in Glasgow, Scotland. If Duffy continues to finish fighters in this way, he may very well find himself against his fellow countryman in the near future for a rematch.

Lightweight (155 pounds)

Iranian star Beneil Dariush, is on a four fight winning streak, all four victories have come within the past calendar year, as his string of wins began in August 2014. Each time out Dariush has faced stiffer competition and has looked increasingly more impressive in his dominance. His most recent victory over Jim Miller, a perennial stalwart of the top fifteen and a tough test for any fighter at lightweight. Jim Miller had absolutely nothing for Dariush on the feet or the ground, the kind of performance against Miller which few have been able to replicate as Miller is a tough draw for anyone. Dariush has brilliant grappling and executes transitions with flawless ease, and quickness. His striking game is potentially the surprise as the growth has been exponential under the tutelage of Master Rafael Cordeiro training out of Kings MMA in Southern California, the same stable current lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos calls home. Training with the champion is never a bad idea, and Dariush has been a benefactor of such a competitive environment. Expect Dariush to be ranked near the top of the division by year’s end should be continue his winning ways.

Welterweight (170 pounds)

Neil Magny has essentially flown under the radar like a stealth bomber, unable to be detected, yet no less effective in execution. Magny is on an impressive six-fight winning streak and recently tied UFC alum Roger Huerta for most wins in a calendar year at five in 2014. The Ultimate Fighter television series veteran will be attempting to continue his string of victories on the UFC Fight Night 66 card, May 16th in Manila, Philippines opposite Hyun Gyu Lim. Magny is a striker who relies on his range, attacking with his long limbs, using primarily a boxing attack on the feet. On the ground, Magny has displayed slick submissions as he most recently finished Kiichi Kunimoto by rear naked choke in the third round after being dominant throughout the fight. Magny continues to win move into contention with each victory. He will be mentioned amongst the top welterweights in the division as long as his performances keep with the trend of getting his hand raised upon conclusion.

Middleweight (185 pounds)

A long way removed is Thales Leites from his title challenging bout against former champion Anderson Silva. However, based on how that fight played out that is a great thing. Leites has looked like a reborn fighter ever since reappearing back in the Octagon. Five of his long streak of eight consecutive victories have come under the UFC’s banner since his return, and they have come by variety, two decisions, two knockouts, and a submission his last time out in a win over Tim Boetsch. Fighters having a reemergence in their careers is not uncommon, and Leites seems to be enjoying such a run at the moment.
The Brazilian can grapple with anyone in the division, and has enough tools and power on the feet to pose a threat. It will be interesting to see where Leites stands at the close to 2015.

Light Heavyweight (205 pounds)

Ryan Bader can be seen as a puzzling selection to this list, due to the fact he is currently in contention, more than ever since the legal troubles of Jon Jones have left the division up for grabs. The case to be made for Bader is simply, he poses the most unknown factor out of any others in striking distance of the belt. Bader is also the furthest removed from a loss, and has three of the better wins in the division coming over Phil Davis, who recently departed to Bellator, yet is a top ten talent, Ovince Saint Preux, the number seven ranked fighter, and Rampage Jackson, the eleventh ranked fighter in the UFC respectively. Bader has gone back to his roots of imposing his strength in the wrestling department and not falling into the trap of a fire fight against dangerous strikers. With careful game planning, and execution of such, Bader is riding a four fight win streak and looking at a potential title shot versus the winner of Anthony Johnson and Daniel Cormier for the vacant light heavyweight strap.

Heavyweight (206-265 pounds)

Todd Duffee is another fighter who spent some time away from the UFC, only to return and look quite refreshed and ready to challenge anyone in the division. Duffee rode much hype when he debuted under the promotional banner knocking out Tim Hague in seven seconds. His muscular physical imposing stature aided that backing as well. He suffered a knockout loss to Mike Russow in his second outing and seemingly began a spiral downward, medical troubles factored in to a rough few years for the talented heavyweight. After Duffee knocked out Phil De Fries in 2012. After recovering from Parsonage Turner Syndrome, Duffy returned to knock out Anthony Hamilton at UFC 181 in December of 2014, looking as explosive, and impressive as ever. The performance earned him a shot at former champion, and UFC veteran Frank Miller who is coming off his own finish of Bigfoot Silva. The two square off at UFC Fight Night on July 15th in San Diego, California. Should Duffee secure a victory over Mir, he would likely find himself awarded a contender relevant fight in a rather shallow heavyweight division.

Women’s Strawweight (115 pounds)

A fighter that wasn’t thrown around as others in the division, Maryna Moroz thrust herself into the discussion as well as into the top ten, ranked at number eight with her victory over Joanne Calderwood, an Ultimate Fighter alum, and a fighter who was seen by many as one of top strawweights. Moroz snatched up an arm and cranked an armbar over Calderwood who was forced to submit. The victory was the fifth such victory by submission out of an unblemished six total for the young strawweight. Upon completion of the fight Moroz showed her bold promotional ability, calling out newly minted champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk who was sitting cageside. Should Moroz show more of what was seen in Poland, the UFC may be looking at its next challenger to the new division’s champion.

Women’s Bantamweight (135 pounds)

With a dominant champion such as Ronda Rousey sitting atop the pile, every fighter throughout the top fifteen is seemingly contesting for the chance to be Rousey’s next victim. Rousey has essentially nearly cleared the division. Enter Marion Reneau. Reneau was denied competing on the Ultimate Fighter because she was seen as too old, something Dana White personally has taken the opportunity to publicly apologize for after her victory over Alexis Dufuesne at UFC 182. Reneau has solid striking as anyone in a division largely containing grapplers, yet her grappling has shown to be very impressive in her two outings in the UFC. She is very physically strong as well, it showed in her submission win over Jessica Andrade her last time out. Reneau is talented, and she will have the opportunity to continue to rise in a division which in wide open at the moment.

It’s possible every single one of the aforementioned names ascends into divisional prominence in the very near future, it is also possible that none of them do, that is why they are the dark horses, the wild cards. The fighters that could possibly spark into a blazing fire or simply fizzle out before achieving their potential. The next six months, to a year will go a long way to determining such.

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Exclusive: Mike Ekundayo, “He could come with anything, I don’t care”

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In a little less than a week, Rise of Champions crowns its inaugural bantamweight champion. The crowning of the first 135 lb. champion marks the young promotions first champion. It makes sense why the promotion owned and operated by UK MMA star, Brad Pickett, and Team Titan head coach, Mickey Papas plan to crown the promotions first champion in the bantamweight division. Pickett competed in the division throughout his tenure with the WEC, and ultimately the entity which absorbed the light weight promotion, the UFC. Even more-so, two young and rising prospects of the division. One undefeated in his professional and amateur career, the other riding a seven consecutive victories, five by submission. The two meet February 17th, Mike Ekundayo puts his career unbeaten streak up against Jonas Magard’s at ROC 5, for the aforementioned, inaugural bantamweight championship.

Speaking to the undefeated Ekundayo before his fight, he believes this opportunity to be inevitable. Born in Hackney, (a borough of London) early in life, Ekundayo was no stranger to cramming his belongings into large cardboard boxes. At the age of 7, he moved from Hackney to Herne Hill, a district located in South London. Two years later he found himself in similar situation, moving from his vaguely new home in Herne Hill to Brixton. A road trip in the car to his new home, took approximately 5 minutes.

It is admittedly, not an easy life. In a harrowing article describing the horrors of gang life in London by the metro.uk, former gang member turned community activist, made the claim, “When you are from Brixton, from Peckham, west London, anywhere in London, you are seeing hardship where a lot of communities can’t reach their full potential”.

In his own words, Ekundayo describes his home as, “not the best start to have in your life. It’s not the best upbringing”. But that couldn’t matter any less for him. Not only does the London resident consistently work to grow his potential, he gets to see it every day. His coaches Brad Pickett and Mickey Papas hold the knowledge as well as first-hand experience, increasing his limits with every session. “We’re all close”, speaking of his coaches and team. “My head coach is Mickey Papas, he’s very knowable in the game. He’s been around for a very long time. He teaches me a lot, I can learn a lot of stuff from Mickey Papas. Sometimes I just think, how does he know all of this? Where did he get this information from?”

He continued, “While I was coming up through amateur, Brad (Pickett) was still an active fighter, but nowadays he’s taken a coaching approach. So he’s coaching us prospects getting us to where he got to and further… He’s been through it all, gotten to the top, and stayed at the top”.

Further discussing his coach, “For UK MMA, you could definitely call Brad a legend. He’s done a lot in his career, and someone who I rate highly as an MMA fighter is Demetrious Johnson, and of course Brad has got a win over (him). I feel like just being surrounded by someone like Brad, you’re working towards the right things. When he passes information onto you, you respect it that bit more because of far he got in his career. He’s definitely given me the right guidance, I trust his guidance”.

When it comes to the upcoming title fight, confidence poured out from where praise and respect had once been. “I just think it’s my time, to be honest. I really do believe it’s my time for all of this. The work I put in, certain things become inevitable”, he said. “I actually called this after I won my third fight, I called for belts and big shows. I spoke it to existence”. He continued, “It’s my time to finally to get a strap of some sort. All the straps is what we’re going for, all of them. We’re going for every one”.

“Rise of Champions is my show… That’s how I feel when I’m performing on ROC, it’s just my show, it’s my time to shine. Everyone knows who there here to see, there not really there to see the other guys. It’s my time, it’s my show and I’m going to put on a show on February 17th and I’m going to win that belt”.

The infectious nature of his positive attitude was palpable. Although we only spoke through small rectangular devices, I could feel his energy in the room. His attitude shined brightest when talking about what it would mean to be the first ever ROC Bantamweight champion. Ekundayo claimed, “It just means a lot to have my first belt in anything to be honest… Within myself, I call myself a champion, every day. But now, other people would have to call me a champion because I’ve got a belt… And one thing I really want to do is, which sounds a bit weird, I just want to take the belt home to my area, to Brixton.”

“I just want to take it to my area, and just show the people of that area what hard work can achieve… I want to just take it to my people and show them that not for nothing, we are from Brixton, it’s not the best start to have in your life. It’s not the best upbringing but you can rise above it and you can achieve your goals and that’s what the belt will mean”.

When the conversation shifted to the topic of his opponent, Ekundayo had less encouraging words rolling off his tongue. Jonas Magard, the second half of the ROC 5 main event, holds a record of 7-4. Currently he owns a seven fight win streak after starting his career 1-3. Ekundayo thought, “He did fight quite decent guys in his three loses… but in the seven fight win streak, none of his opponents have been of caliber”.

He elaborated further, “What’s in my thoughts is more me, then it is of him. So, he could come with anything, I don’t care. I’m just focused on how I’m going to be picture perfect. How I’m going to paint a masterpiece, how I’m going to make it a beautifully perfect performance. That’s what my primary focus is on, so what he does to me is irrelevant, I’m just going to focus on how I’m going to be perfect on the night of February 17th”.

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UFC 222 Re-Worked with Cris Cyborg vs. Yana Kunitskaya, and Frankie Edgar vs. Brian Ortega

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UFC 222 has been saved, and it didn’t take a superhero to lift the burning boulder which was Max Holloway’s injury and withdrawal. All it took was a female named Cyborg and a man with a demeanor so smooth, he could be mistaken for an alter-ego. Cris Cyborg now serves as the UFC 222 main event when she defends her featherweight belt against Yana Kunitskaya. Frankie Edgar bumped down to the co-main event to face Brian Ortega in what is likely a title eliminator. The news of the UFC 222 revival originally stemmed from a report by MMAFighting.com and confirmed later in the evening by the UFC.

Over the course of the week, reports surrounded the Las Vegas card and whether it would survive. Multiple options were reportedly being mulled over; cancelling the card outright, changing the pay-per-view (PPV) to a ‘Fight Night’ with an Edgar vs. Ortega main event, Dillashaw vs. Garbrandt 2 main event, among others. Ultimately, the promotion landed on Cyborg vs. Kunitskaya as the new main event, while also booking Brian Ortega.

This adjustment of the card places their women’s Featherweight champion in the second PPV main event in three months. Cris Cyborg recently put her undisputed Featherweight title on the line against Holly Holm at the year ending card, UFC 219. She successfully defended her belt by unanimous decision, in what was an amazing technical display from the Brazilian. In her octagon career, Cyborg is undefeated in her four appearances with three KO/TKO stoppages.

The second half of the new main event, Yana Kunitskaya, makes her UFC debut against the scariest women on the roster. If the 145 lb. champion was not enough of a challenge, Kunitskaya also makes her first appearance in the division since defeating Cindy Dandois in December of 2010. Of Russia descent, her most recent performances came inside the Invicta FC cage. At the female-only promotion, she posted a record of 1-1, with 1 No Contest. Her loss and no contest, both came at the hands of former UFC Featherweight title challenger, Tonya Evinger.

Turning to the co-main event, both fighters have been relatively inactive but, for good reason. Brian Ortega amazingly forced perennial men’s Featherweight contender, Cub Swanson, to tap in the second round of their ‘Fight Night: Fresno’ contest. Ortega fought twice in 2017, but more-so stayed inactive following his stoppage victory over Swanson. The Californian contender announced his desire to wait in line for the next title shot following the recent victory.

For Frankie Edgar, his last fight took place at UFC 211 when he absolutely demolished young and rising star, Yair Rodriguez. A card which took place last May. While Ortega holds an undefeated record, Edgar is undefeated in his previous 9 fights, excluding people named Jose Aldo.

UFC 222 takes place at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 3rd.

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UFC Middleweight Champion, Robert Whittaker Announces Birth of Third Child

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Times seem dull and dreary for the UFC’s Middleweight Champion, Robert Whittaker. The New Zealand born fighter withdrew from the promotions event debut in the eastern region of his residence, Australia. UFC 221, which takes place this Saturday, booked Whittaker to defend his title for the first time against former division champion, Luke Rockhold. His withdrawal was due to mistreatment of a serious staph infection inside of the Australians stomach.

It couldn’t get much worse, having to disappoint fans, and missing the first UFC event in eastern Australia. As it turns out, it could not get worse for Whittaker. Life only got better, as he had the pleasure of announcing the birth of his third child.

His new child is the champions third and first girl. Information regarding his child is limited as this moment is a tender and special time for the Whittaker family.

UFC 221 takes place in Perth, Australia at Perth Arena on February 11th. The cards main event features Whittakers short notice replacement, Yoel Romero taking on Luke Rockhold. Much to the satiety of fans, an interim belt is not in the equation in this instance.

Thank God. Excuse me, thank Dana White.

UFC 221 also features the ‘Super Samoan’ Mark Hunt vs. Curtis Blaydes, Tai Tuivasa faces Cyril Asker, Alexander Volkanovski vs. Jeremy Kennedy and more.

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