Saturday’s return to pay-per-view for UFC 277 presents a card with an impressive collection of fights that are bound to have considerable impact on a number of key divisional title pictures.
First and foremost, Julianna Pena defends her bantamweight title against Amanda Nunes, looking to prove her victory last December wasn’t a one-off, while “The Lioness” looks to reclaim “Double Champ” status.
Secondly, an interim champion in the flyweight division will be crowned, as former titleholder Brandon Moreno squares off with hard-charging, harder-hitting New Zealander Kai Kara-France in a matchup that has Fight of the Night written all over it.
In addition to those championship pairings, there are critical matchups at heavyweight and light heavyweight, welterweight, lightweight, and one more at flyweight all set to hit the Octagon on Saturday.
Competitors in three of those contests are spotlighted below, as this weekend could be when they take another step forward into the limelight in their respective divisions.
This is the UFC 277 edition of Fighters on the Rise.
The Russian heavyweight arrived in the UFC with a perfect 12-0 record and was promptly trounced by Alistair Overeem in his promotional debut. It was a nightmare assignment for a then 26-year-old fighter, went as terribly as anticipated for Pavlovich, and put an end to his unbeaten run.
Five months later, Pavlovich returned to action and got back into the win column, running through Marcelo Golm in just over a minute in St. Petersburg, Russia before having similar quick success in a bout against Maurice Greene six months after that. In the span of his first year on the roster, the heavyweight from Rostov-on-Don went from unbeaten to battered to boasting a pair of impressive first-round finishes, establishing himself as a person of interest in the division.
More than two years would pass before Pavlovich returned to action, turning up in London earlier this year for a matchup against Shamil Abdurakhimov that carried a number of questions about how the returning Russian would look after such a long absence and facing a seasoned veteran. Pavlovich made it clear that nothing had changed and he was still someone to pay close attention to in the heavyweight ranks as he dispatched Abdurakhimov in the first round, pushing his winning streak to three and his record to 15-1 overall.
This weekend, the now 30-year-old has the chance to thrust himself into the title conversation as he squares off with perennial contender and celebrated knockout artist Derrick Lewis.
While “The Black Beast” carries power that can shut off anyone’s lights in an instant, this is a good matchup and tremendous test for the more athletic, more nimble Russian who has obvious power of his own.
A win over Lewis would elevate Pavlovich to the fringes of contention and mandate that his name be considered in any and all discussions about how to book things at the top of the division going forward. It’s a tough assignment, but it carries big rewards if he can pass this test.
This might sound strange to some, but I honestly think the best thing that has happened for Ankalaev over the last 18 months is that he’s had to struggle through a few tough fights.
When the Russian light heavyweight was piling up finishes to begin what is now an eight-fight winning streak, it seemed like he might get fast-tracked into the championship chase. While he’s skilled enough to have acquitted himself well, wins over Marcin Prachnio, Dalcha Lungiambula, and Ion Cutelaba aren’t exactly the kind of dynamic challenges you’re looking from potential title challengers.
But over his last three fights, Ankalaev has tactically and methodically dragged out victories over Nikita Krylov, Volkan Oezdemir, and Thiago Santos — a Top 15 fixture and two former title challengers — setting up this weekend’s showdown with Anthony Smith at UFC 277.
He used the full 55 minutes allotted to him over the course of those contests (the Santos fight was a five-round main event) in order to get a better handle on how it feels being in there with a legitimate contender and move closer to earning that designation himself, and now feels poised to take that next step forward into another dangerous pairing on Saturday.
Ankalaev has all the tools — tremendous wrestling and grappling skills, a diverse arsenal of kicks, good size and conditioning — and has simply needed the time to figure out how to best deploy all of those weapons inside the Octagon. His ascent feels similar to that of Islam Makhachev in that the upside was obvious from the jump, but the timing of when they would put it all together and become the title threats everyone envisioned was unknown.
Makhachev has gotten there over the last year and change, and will fight for the lightweight title in October. Should Ankalaev extend his winning streak to nine by out-hustling a third straight former title challenger, he’ll be one step closer to joining his countryman in competing for UFC gold.
While Pavlovich and Ankalaev have certainly been on folks’ radars over these last couple years, Semelsberger has real “sneak up on you” potential in the welterweight division.
The former Marist College defensive back made his promotional debut in the summer of 2020 and enters Saturday’s preliminary card clash with Alex Morono sporting a 4-1 record inside the Octagon and a 10-3 mark overall.
“Semi the Jedi” fought three times last year, sandwiching a unanimous decision loss to Khaos Williams between a 16-second knockout win over Jason Witt and a 15-second clobbering of Martin Sano Jr. at UFC 266. Earlier this year, the Maryland native added a unanimous decision win over Dana White’s Contender Series grad AJ Fletcher to give him two victories on either side of his lone UFC setback and show that the football transplant is continuing to make strides in his game.
It’s honestly a little strange to me that more people aren’t whispering about Semelsberger as someone to watch in the 170-pound ranks because he’s clearly an excellent athlete, has shown he’s got some serious pop in his hands, reached the UFC just three years after making his pro debut, and has shown promise since touching down in the Octagon.
Saturday’s fight with Morono feels like a potential coming out party for the 29-year-old, as the Texan enters on a three-fight winning streak and a much more established track record than anyone Semelsberger has faced to date. He’s 7-2 over his last nine appearances, with his losses coming against Williams and former lightweight champ Anthony Pettis, so joining that exclusive group would be a big step forward for the quiet, ascending welterweight.
Semelsberger has been candid about his lack of experience and need to continue figuring out how to put all the pieces together inside the Octagon, but he’s clearly been making strides, and it’ll be interesting to see if that translates into the biggest win of his career this weekend.
UFC 277: Peña vs Nunes, took place on Saturday, July 30, 2022 live from the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards, and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!