2018 serves up a few tasty treats in its very first month. In the next few weeks fight fans will be treated tot he return of ‘The Korean Superboy’ Dooho Choi, the huge welterweight scrap between Emil Meek and Kamaru Usman. Oh, and the small matter of the most anticipated UFC title fight in years.
Let’s see below for what the UFC has in store for us this month.
Jeremy Stephens vs. Dooho Choi – UFC Fight Night Stephens vs Choi, January 14th.
It has been more than a year since The Korean Superboy’s star-making performance in his Fight of the Year contender loss to Cub Swanson at UFC 206 in December 2016, a back and forth thriller (you can watch in its entirety here) which, while a loss exists on his record, his gutsy performance ensured that there was no real loser that night in terms of the effort, courage and skill displayed. Prior to the decision loss to Swanson, Choi had earned three first round finishes in his first three assignments.
In Jeremy Stephens, Choi has a tantalizing welcoming party awaiting him in the octagon. The self-proclaimed “hardest hitter at 145-pounds” comes into the bout following a September win against Gilbert Melendez which returned him to winning ways following a duo of losses to Renato Moicano and Frankie Edgar. More pertinently, Stephens will present the type of challenge which will surely lure the South Korean into another crowd-pleasing slugfest. Great matchmaking.
Kamaru Usman vs. Emil Meek – UFC Fight Night Stephens vs Choi, January 14th.
The welterweight match-up between two of the most talked about fighters at 170-pounds was initially slated to take place at last month’s UFC 219 in Las Vegas but Visa issues experienced by Norways’ Meek put paid to that. No matter though, as that event’s loss is very much to the benefits of the St. Louis crowd who will witness this clash on in a couple of weeks’ time.
In a 170-pound division which seems to be undergoing a changing of the guard lately, familiar names like Robbie Lawler, Demian Maia and Carlos Condit appear to have been replaced by the likes of Usman, Darren Till, Colby Covington and, if he wins this top prospect match-up, Emil Meek. The fighter they call ‘Valhalla’ exploded into the MMA spotlight in May 2016 after a 45-second destruction of feared submission expert Rousimar Palhares in Italy. He parlayed that into a three round decision against Jordan Mein in his UFC debut at UFC 206. Another win in a little under two weeks time will signpost Meek as one of the UFC’s blue chip prospects.
This will be easier said than done, however. Kamaru Usman is a perfect 6-0 at 170-pounds in the UFC and possesses the type of grinding wrestling game which can cause fits for the majority of the welterweight frame. Usman’s last bout, a first round knockout of Sergio Moraes in September, also shows that the Nigerian Nightmare is beginning to put all of his tools together — a seriously worrying thought everyone else at 170-pounds.
Stipe Miocic vs. Francis Ngannou – UFC 220, January 20th.
The big one, literally and figuratively. Not since the 2011 meeting of Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos has there been a more anticipated match-up in the UFC’s heavyweight division. Miocic, champion since dethroning Fabricio Werdum in Brazil in May 2016, stands on the edge of setting a UFC record for consecutive title defenses in the UFC’s heavyweight frame (3). His road to the title was borne from his outstanding boxing coupled with a wrestling base which allows him to determine where the bout takes place. He has underrated power, too, with his last six UFC victories coming via strikes inside the distance.
As for his opponent, where do you start with Francis Ngannou? He’s the type of fighter that you would create in the new UFC video game if you maxed out all of his striking stats and spent hours perfecting his ultra-intimidating physique. Ngannou is just four years removed from his professional mixed martial arts debut and the only thing more remarkable than the brevity of his journey to the top of the sport. In his 11 professional wins, each of them has come by stoppage and it’s a reasonable wager that this fight won’t be requiring the championship rounds.
This is the fight to watch in the first quarter of 2018.
Daniel Cormier vs. Volkan Oezdemir – UFC 220, January 20th.
UFC 220’s other world title bout. Daniel Cormier will attempt to defend the 205-pound title against Switzerland’s Volkan Oezdemir — a fighter who this time last year was yet to make his UFC debut. Oezdemir catapulted to title contention since, with his last two stoppage wins against Misha Cirkunov and Jimi Manuwa being particularly impressive.
In Cormier, Oezdemir faces a much more experienced fighter who has won honors in two different weight classes and has experience in numerous five-round battles. The Swiss is about as unheralded a title challenger as 205-pounds has seen in some time but comparisons can be drawn from the time that another less-fancied European fighter, Alexander Gustafsson, gave then-champion Jon Jones the toughest but of his career a few years ago. Oezdemir will be hoping for the same this time around, just with a slightly modified result.
Ronaldo ‘Jacaré’ Souza vs. Derek Brunson – UFC On Fox Jacaré vs Brunson 2, January 27th.
The rematch you never quite knew you wanted to see but now that it’s almost here, it’s worth acknowledging that the second pairing of Ronaldo Souza and Derek Brunson is an interesting one. The bout, which headlines the UFC’s trip to Brazil later this month, is a rematch from a 2012 Strikeforce bout which was won inside a minute by Souza by way of strikes, something of a rarity of the submission savvy Brazilian. Jacaré will be looking to reignite his ascent to the top of the middleweight division with a win after suffering a defeat to new champion Robert Whittaker in his last UFC outing in April.
Brunson, meanwhile, has won two straight after suffering losses to Anderson Silva and Whittaker in recent times, and both of those were first round finishes (Lyoto Machida and Dan Kelly) and will have revenge on his mind when he steps in to the cage for a second time with Jacaré.