This week is a perfect example of why I adore putting this series together each and every week, and just taking a wider-angle view of these events and competitors in general.
I think sometimes we work too hard to narrow our focus when it comes to how we talk about these competitors, and being able to deliver a series called Fighters on the Rise that spotlights a fighter ranked in the Top 5, another ranked in the Top 15, and one that is unranked in succession under that umbrella is meaningful to me.
We tend to think about ascending fighters and emerging fighters primarily as prospects — those in the early days of their UFC careers — but the reality is that you can be making your 10th trip into the Octagon and still be on the rise, as is the case with the first of this week’s athletes.
You can be matched up with a fellow Top 5 fighter in a bout that could determine the next title challenger in a division that has been front-and-center all year and still be on the rise, which is the situation the second of these competitors is in this weekend.
Or you could be just a couple bouts into your UFC tenure, nine fights into your professional career, and sporting an undefeated record as you take a real step up in competition for the first time, as our third athlete does on Saturday.
Prospects, contenders, and everyone in between can be Fighters on the Rise, and I hope this series reminds you of that this week, and every week.
A week after Gutierrez steps in with Pedro Munhoz in Kansas City, “El Guapo” will turn 32, and by the time his birthday rolls around, we’ll have a better sense of whether he’s a legitimate threat in the bantamweight class or a talented fighter that is more likely to reside in the lower third of the divisional rankings going forward.
It’s weird to say about a fighter on a four-fight winning streak and who is unbeaten over his last eight starts, but I honestly don’t know where Gutierrez fits in the treacherous 135-pound weight class at the minute.
On one hand, the results speak for themselves — winning four straight is never easy, it’s more difficult in this division, and few people have managed eight-fight unbeaten streaks in the UFC. On the other hand, the Factory X representative has yet to face an opponent ranked in the Top 15, and lost to the best opponent he’s faced during his UFC run when he dropped his debut against Raoni Barcelos.
But that’s why Gutierrez is the right fighter to kick off this week’s troika and why this pairing with Munhoz is perfect, as it’s the kind of matchup the 31-year-old desperately needs at this point in time, and when the dust settles, we’ll know where he fits in this ultra-competitive weight class.
Munhoz enters with just a single win over his last six, and without a victory in his last three, but he’s faced a non-stop barrage of ranked opponents, and remains the ideal litmus test for a guy like Gutierrez at this point in time. If the surging late bloomer can push his winning streak to five and his unbeaten run to nine, he could be looking at a date with a Top 10 dance partner next time out.
Nicolau is the guy that gets left out of the conversation at flyweight, despite the fact that he’s 7-1 across two stints with the promotion, currently 4-0 since returning to the Octagon, and riding a six-fight winning streak overall.
Oh, he’s also stationed at No. 5 in the rankings, as well, and set to face off with No. 4 man Brandon Royval on Saturday evening in Kansas City.
The quiet Brazilian has yet to ascend into the small pack of title challengers at the absolute top of the division, and has been around long enough that he doesn’t generate the same kind of buzz as relative newcomers like Amir Albazi and Manel Kape (who he beat in his return to the UFC) or hyped prospects like Muhammad Mokaev or Tatsuro Taira. He just goes about his business, wins fights, climbs the ranks, and stays under the radar.
What makes Nicolau an ideal name for this series this week is that he might be the best flyweight in the world, and yet there are scores of people that are likely unfamiliar with his handiwork. But the Nova Uniao product has posted four straight Top 15 wins since returning to the UFC fold just over two years ago, is coming off his most emphatic performance to date against Matt Schnell at the end of the year, and is 19-3-1 overall, and he just turned 30 at the start of the year.
I know it sounds blasphemous to some to suggest anyone other than Brandon Moreno is the best flyweight in the world at the moment, but Nicolau has that “undefined ceiling” thing working for him the way Islam Makhachev did when he was carving a path to the top of the lightweight division, and fighters like that always deserve our attention.
Saturday’s clash with Royval should be a coming out party for Nicolau because the fourth-ranked American is a bundle of energy and excitement every time he steps into the Octagon, which means we should be treated to a frenetic fight that sets the winner up for a huge matchup later in the year.
And if Nicolau happens to be the one to emerge victorious, you’re going to hear far more people wondering aloud about whether he’s the best flyweight in the world and want to have that hypothesis tested, so just remember where you heard it first.
Rodriguez is more of your classic Fighter on the Rise type — a Dana White’s Contender Series graduate making her third appearance in the Octagon after earning a pair of good wins during her rookie campaign in 2022 to push her record to 9-0 heading into this weekend’s showdown with Gillian Robertson.
The 30-year-old from Venezuela has trained in numerous different places over the years, most recently setting up shop in California, where she’s gotten work in at Blackhouse and the RVCA Training Center. She’s one of those fighters that is solid everywhere, but not a standout anywhere, and thrives, in part, because of her tenacity and grit. She’s a marauder and her approach has a way of putting her opponents on their heels, unsure of how to avoid her relentless pressure.
After posting unanimous decision wins over Kay Hansen and Sam Hughes in her first two UFC assignments, Rodriguez takes a step up in competition this weekend when she steps in against Robertson, who is one of the most experienced competitors in the division and an absolute menace if the fight goes to the ground.
While a victory wouldn’t necessarily elevate Rodriguez into the Top 15 — flyweight is deep and continues to get deeper with each passing month — it would bring her closer to cracking the rankings and should position her to face someone with a number next to their name in the second half of the year.
UFC Fight Night: Holloway vs Allen took place live from T-Mobile Center in Kansas City on April 15, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!