Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Claudia Gadelha have separated themselves from the pack at 115 pounds and are free to settle their differences inside the cage.
Jedrzejczyk will put her Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s strawweight crown on the line against Gadelha in “The Ultimate Fighter 23” Finale headliner on Friday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Their long-awaited rematch -- Jedrzejczyk defeated Gadelha by split decision in 2014 -- highlights a six-fight main card that includes a featherweight scrap pitting Doo Ho Choi against Thiago Tavares, the two tournament finals for “The Ultimate Fighter 23” and a pair of lightweight clashes, as former Bellator MMA champion Will Brooks meets Ross Pearson and Jake Matthews faces Xtreme Couture’s Kevin Lee.
The undefeated Jedrzejczyk, 28, has emerged as one of MMA’s bright young stars. She last appeared at UFC 193 on Nov. 15, when she captured a five-round unanimous decision over Valerie Letourneau in Melbourne, Australia, her successful title defense largely overshadowed by Holly Holm’s upset of Ronda Rousey in the main event. According to FightMetric data, Jedrzejczyk has outstruck her five UFC opponents -- Letourneau, Gadelha, Jessica Penne, Carla Esparza and Juliana Lima -- by a staggering 546-251 margin. Only Gadelha managed to outland her.
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Nova Uniao frontman Andre Pederneiras, Gadelha has not fought since she took a unanimous verdict from former World Series of Fighting champion Jessica Aguilar at UFC 190 nearly a year ago. The 27-year-old started her MMA career 12-0 prior to her first encounter with Jedrzejczyk, a run that included victories over Letourneau, Herica Tiburcio and Ayaka Hamasaki.
With the Jedrzejczyk-Gadelha rematch on the marquee and women’s strawweight supremacy hanging in the balance, here is what to watch for at “The Ultimate Fighter 23” Finale:
Expectations are understandably high for Brooks.
The American Top Team standout will make his organizational debut opposite Pearson following a remarkable run through Bellator that saw him defeat Michael Chandler twice and establish himself as one of the world’s premier lightweights. Brooks arrives in the UFC on the strength of an eight-fight winning streak, further deepening what most view as the most talent-rich division in the company. The 29-year-old last fought at Bellator 145 on Nov. 6, when he outpointed Polish leg lock savant Marcin Held at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
Pearson will be no pushover. “The Ultimate Fighter 9” winner owns an 11-7 record in the UFC, including wins over Chad Laprise, Paul Felder, Sam Stout and Ryan Couture.
Raising the Bar
Choi could not have scripted a better start to his UFC career.
The South Korean prospect has needed less than two minutes combined to dispose of Sam Sicilia and Juan Manuel Puig with punches. Choi, 25, has won 11 straight fights, finishing nine of them, and has all the makings of a future title contender at 145 pounds. Among his victims: former Shooto Pacific Rim champion Mitsuhiro Ishida and onetime Pancrase titleholder Shoji Maruyama.
Tavares figures to test the hype surrounding Choi. The seasoned Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt is a four-time “Fight of the Night” winner in the UFC and has posted five wins across his past seven bouts, losing only to Khabib Nurmagomedov and Brian Ortega -- two men with a combined record of 34-0. The 31-year-old Tavares last competed at a UFC Fight Night event on Nov. 7, when he submitted Clay Guida with a guillotine choke in just 39 seconds.
Glimpse of the Future
The future of the lightweight division could be on display when Lee locks horns with Matthews in a showdown between two of the UFC’s most promising young talents.
Lee has compiled a respectable 5-2 record since touching down in the Octagon in 2014. Still just 23 years of age, “The Motown Phenom” cruised to a three-round unanimous decision over “The Ultimate Fighter 8” winner Efrain Escudero at UFC 197 on April 23, as he bounced back from a technical knockout defeat to Leonardo Santos four months earlier. Lee suffered his only other loss to Al Iaquinta at UFC 169.
Matthews, 21, registered the most significant win of his career in March, when he tapped Johnny Case with a third-round rear-naked choke and ended the Power MMA Team rep’s run of 12 consecutive victories. A Melbourne, Australia native, Matthews has gone the distance just once in his 11-fight career.
Time has not been kind to Maynard.
The former lightweight title contender will downshift to 145 pounds, as he returns from a 15-month absence to confront Nova Uniao’s Fernando Bruno. Maynard, 36, climbs back into the cage amid a whirlwind of uncertainty, on a four-fight losing streak and with no clear direction for his career. A three-time NCAA All-American wrestler at Michigan State University, “The Bully” last appeared at UFC Fight Night “Mendes vs. Lamas” in April 2015, when he dropped a unanimous decision to Alexander Yakovlev. Maynard has not visited the winner’s circle since besting Guida more than four years ago.
The 34-year-old Bruno on Aug. 1 saw his organizational debut spoiled at UFC 190, where he yielded to a third-round rear-naked choke from Glaico Franca at the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “Acougueiro” has secured eight of his 15 professional victories by submission.