UFC 259 is capital L Loaded with exciting fights and an all-star kickoff to an outstanding month of action scheduled to hit the Octagon in March, with three championship fights featuring four current UFC titleholders slated to close out the festivities this weekend at the APEX in Las Vegas.
In addition to title clashes in the bantamweight, featherweight, and light heavyweight divisions, Saturday’s star-studded lineup also features one former champ looking to get back into the win column (Dominick Cruz), three former title challengers (Thiago Santos, Joseph Benavidez, Tim Elliott) aiming to kick of 2021 with quality wins, and a host of young talents with designs on venturing the same roads those four and the four current champions poised to do battle for UFC gold in the final three bouts of the evening have already traveled to reach the top of their respective divisions.
Here’s a closer look at three of those promising, emerging fighters.
This is the UFC 259 edition of Fighters on the Rise.
Islam Makhachev stands as another reminder of how intensely competitive things are in the UFC lightweight division.
Entering 2020 on a six-fight winning streak and sporting an 18-1 record overall, the longtime teammate and training partner of Khabib Nurmagomedov was coming off a year where he earned a pair of quality victories over Arman Tsarukyan and Davi Ramos and was expected to make a push towards the Top 10 in the 155-pound ranks. But between COVID restrictions, an opponent testing positive for COVID, and a staph infection, Makhachev missed out on fights against Alexander Hernandez and Rafael Dos Anjos and went the entire year without stepping into the Octagon.
While he was relegated to the sidelines, business continued as usual in the talent-rich weight class, causing the 29-year-old to slip in the rankings and lose a great deal of the momentum and buzz he had built up during the course of his six-fight run of success.
This weekend, Makhachev finally returns to action, taking on Drew Dober in an outstanding main card pairing.
Because of their close relationship, Makhachev often gets compared to Nurmagomedov, but it’s an unfair comparison, both because the unbeaten lightweight superstar is a one-of-a-kind talent, but also because his protégé is a different type of fighter with his own impressive array of skills and abilities.
Makhachev is more athletic and more fluid than Nurmagomedov, who is more of a bully in terms of the way he grapples. His approach is more about timing, quickness, and flowing through scrambles when they occur, and he’s shown a little more sudden finishing ability as well, having earned first-round stoppages of Gleison Tibau and Kajan Johnson during his current string of victories. He’s a special talent who has yet to get a chance to show it against the upper echelon of the division, but this fight with Dober could be the opportunity he needs to break into that group in the second half of the year.
The 32-year-old Nebraska native earned a pair of impressive stoppage victories in 2020 to push his winning streak (and finishing streak) to three and give him six wins in his last seven starts. Now in his eighth year on the UFC roster, Dober profiles as a classic late bloomer — someone that showed flashes of potential but could never quite put it all together until he found the right team (Colorado’s Elevation Fight Team) and the right approach (pressure-based kickboxing), and now he’s on a nice little run.
Missing an entire year is rough and last year was such an impressive 12-month stretch in the lightweight division that it created even more ground for Makhachev to make up as he returns to the Octagon this weekend.
But you don’t win six straight in one of the deepest, most competitive divisions in the sport by accident, and if he can pick up where he left off in 2019 and halt Dober’s three-fight winning streak on Saturday, Makhachev should find himself moving forward in the lightweight rankings and back in position to secure the quality assignments that escaped his clutches in 2020 later this year.
Though he made his promotional debut in the fall of 2019, Askar Askarov really announced his presence on the UFC stage last year, registering unanimous decision victories over Tim Elliott and Alexandre Pantoja to cement his standing as one of the top contenders in the flyweight division.
The 28-year-old from Dagestan is now 12-0-1 overall and steps into the Octagon on Saturday night to face off against Joseph Benavidez, who twice challenged for flyweight gold in 2020 and has been entrenched as one of the top contenders in the 125-pound weight class since it was introduced nearly nine years ago.
Prior to arriving in the UFC, Askarov had never been to the scorecards, collecting three technical knockout victories and seven submission wins in his first 10 appearances, including a fifth-round submission win over UFC vet Jose Maria Tome to claim the ACB flyweight title, and a third-round submission win by twister over WEC alum Anthony Leone in his first defense of that title. While the finishes haven’t been there since matriculating to the UFC, Askarov’s performances have still been impressive.
Regardless of how you scored his debut draw with Brandon Moreno in Mexico City on September 21, 2019, the fact that the promotional newcomer went toe-to-toe with a top contender right out of the chute was an immediate indication of the caliber of fighter Askarov is. Against Elliott and Pantoja, he affirmed his standing as one of the absolute best in the flyweight ranks, blending crisp boxing with strong wrestling to earn clear victories over each man.
This weekend’s bout with Benavidez feels like a potential title eliminator for Askarov, who is currently stationed at No. 3 in the rankings, behind the man he faced in his debut and the man he’s facing this weekend. Despite his tandem losses to champion Deiveson Figueiredo in 2020, Benavidez has thrived in this position throughout his career, delaying the dreams of many a hopeful looking to take the next step towards title contention at his expense.
Should Askarov emerge victorious and push his unbeaten streak to 14, he’ll head into the second half of 2021 as the unquestioned No. 1 contender in the flyweight division and someone who could very well fight for UFC gold before 2021 comes to a close.
Unlike the first two men on this list, Mario Bautista does not currently have a number next to his name, but that doesn’t mean the MMA Lab representative doesn’t have the potential to earn that designation before the year is out.
The 27-year-old Bautista is 8-1 overall and heads into his UFC 259 assignment opposite Trevin Jones on a two-fight winning streak, having earned Fight of the Night honors for his unanimous decision triumph over Jin Soo Son in July 2019 and a Performance of the Night bonus for his second-round stoppage win over Miles Johns last February at UFC 247.
Bautista rocketed out of the gates on the regional circuit, amassing six consecutive victories with five finishes in 17 months before making his UFC debut on short notice at the start of 2019 when he filled in for John Lineker against Cory Sandhagen. The fight didn’t go his way, but it takes a lot of moxie to agree to face a streaking contender like Sandhagen seven days out, and his efforts since then are a much better indication of what he’s capable of inside the Octagon than the result that night in Brooklyn.
Bautista faces the 30-year-old Jones, who made waves with a second-round comeback win over Timur Valiev on short-notice last summer before the result was overturned when the newcomer tested positive for marijuana in his post-fight drug screening. It’s a quality assignment and another chance for Bautista to show he’s someone to pay close attention to in the bantamweight ranks going forward.
The 135-pound weight class is arguably the most competitive field in the UFC at the moment, boasting an incredible mix of seasoned veterans, emerging young talents, and a pack of ranked fighters in their primes that should lead to more exciting years of action like the division produced in 2020.
Breaking into the Top 15 is a difficult task, but a third-straight victory on Saturday would keep Bautista moving forward, bringing him closer to achieving that goal and earning him another step up in competition next time out.