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The Ultimate Fighting Championship will close out its weeklong resumption of activities with UFC Fight Night 172 on Saturday at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. The heavyweight main event sees former Strikeforce, Dream and K-1 World Grand Prix champion Alistair Overeem pitted against Walt Harris. Stakes are high across the board.
WHO HAS THE MOST TO GAIN?
Walt Harris: After finishing three of his last four opponents, the heavyweight slugger has finally earned a shot against elite competition. What does Harris have going for him? Speed and punching power, along with his penchant for quick starts. Expect “The Big Ticket” to storm out of the gate like a bat out of hell and come out swinging against Overeem—a man who has gotten caught by power punchers on a number of occasions. For all that Harris offers on the feet, his grappling game leaves a bit to be desired. That makes it imperative that he guards against Overeem’s sneaky takedown attempts and accompanying submission game, skills that often get overlooked with an athlete known for his brutal knockouts. A win for Harris makes him a major player in a heavyweight division that always seems to be in need of new blood.
Angela Hill: Coming out of “The Ultimate Fighter” with little MMA experience, Hill needed some time to find her footing in a constantly evolving strawweight division. However, nearly six years after her UFC debut, Hill is finally starting to look the part of a potential contender. After three straight wins, the former Invicta Fighting Championships titleholder has earned her biggest opportunity to date against Claudia Gadelha. While Hill has kept herself on the radar with her whoever-whenever willingness, she has a legitimate shot at transforming into a dangerous contender with a decisive win over the Brazilian. Her key to victory: Maintain distance with Gadelha so she can use her sharp, measured striking skills to score from the outside and steer clear of her opponent’s grappling attack. Gadelha has gassed in past fights, so if Hill stays patient, finishing opportunities could present themselves late in the match.
Dan Ige: The Hawaiian bounced back nicely from a rough UFC debut to rattle off five straight victories. For his efforts, the UFC has given Ige his highest-profile fight to date against Edson Barboza—a longtime top lightweight moving down to 145 pounds. A win here likely lands Ige in the Top 15, and he has the kind of skill set that gives Barboza fits. Barboza’s weakness has always been a pressure-filled boxing attack, and Ige excels in fast, furious exchanges from inside the pocket. With Ige’s sharp boxing and cardio, he has a good shot of outlasting Barboza’s early muay Thai onslaught before turning up the volume in the latter frames on his way to a potential finish. Should Ige come out on top, he will likely find himself in a new competitive stratosphere in the featherweight division.
WHO HAS THE MOST TO LOSE?
Edson Barboza: After years of battling against some of the top lightweights MMA has to offer, Barboza finds himself dropping to the featherweight division for the first time in his career on the heels of a two-fight losing streak. The former Ring of Combat champion has won just one fight in his last five outings, and with in-cage mileage starting to pile up, he must quickly establish himself as a top player if he wants to remain relevant as a contender at either featherweight or in an eventual return to lightweight. The UFC did Barboza no favors by matching him with a young and dangerous up-and-comer in Ige, but if he can establish early superiority with his signature leg kicks, he stands a good chance of stifling the Hawaiian’s boxing attack before he can really get going. After spending much of his career swimming upstream at 155 pounds, Barboza now has the opportunity to catapult himself into the featherweight rankings.
Marlon Vera: Five straight stoppage victories put Vera on the map as a person of interest in the bantamweight division, and many expected to see the Team Oyama representative pitted against a ranked opponent. Instead, Vera draws promising prospect Yadong Song in what feels like more of a lateral move wrought with danger. While Vera should be commended for risking his momentum against an exceptional striker like Song, but one has to wonder how it benefits him in the long run. If he can keep his streak alive against the surging Korean, expect him to draw someone in the Top 15 in his next assignment.
Matt Brown: Fights for Brown have been few and far between, but after taking home stoppage wins in his last two bouts with Ben Saunders and Diego Sanchez, the end of the line may not be as close as some surmised. His latest assignment looks a lot like an opportunity for the UFC to give Miguel Baeza—a new and exciting up-and-comer—a chance to shine against an aging but proven veteran. After fighting some of the best welterweights in the sport, this confrontation offers little in terms of strengthening Brown’s resume, but if he can push his current winning streak to three fights, he could find himself in line for another potential moment in the sun. Baeza may be a talented striker in his own right, but if Brown can stay aggressive from the start and deny him the opportunity to stand on the outside with leg kicks, this could get interesting in a hurry.