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To a certain way of thinking, a win is a win and a loss is a loss. But while it is true that every fight matters, some feel as if they matter more, for any number of reasons. In some cases, the elevated stakes are easy to quantify. Picture the fighter on a losing streak who knows he or she is likely fighting for their job; or conversely, any matchup on Dana White's Contender Series, where two hopefuls know that the brass ring is within their reach if they can win impressively. In other cases, the sense of heightened drama comes from factors that are harder to quantify, but no less real. Whether it’s the symbolic heft of being the first title challenger from one’s country, or the simple added spice of two fighters who really hate each other’s guts, that fight means just a little more.
This Saturday, UFC Fight Night 187 features several fights that carry that kind of tension for one or both participants. Here are the fighters from “UFC Vegas 21” who are under just a little extra pressure to stand and deliver.
You Can Still Do This, Manel Kape
Over the years, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has signed many champions or former champions from other promotions who entered the UFC with championship-level expectations, only to lose their Octagon debut. Some of those ex-champs dusted themselves off and ended up doing just fine: Mauricio Rua, Anthony Pettis, Eddie Alvarez and Luke Rockhold, just to name a few who went on to win UFC gold as well.
In contrast, here’s the list of champions and ex-champions from other promotions who lost their first two UFC bouts, then went on to experience success with the promotion: [NO RESULTS FOUND]
I’m inclined to give former Rizin Fighting Federation flyweight champion Kape a do-over on his debut at UFC Fight Night 184 last month, during which he appeared fairly flat in a unanimous decision loss to Alexandre Pantoja. There were numerous factors working against the 27-year-old Angolan. First-time Octagon jitters are a real thing. So is ring rust. Kape had not fought in over a year leading up to his debut, and speaking of rings, that was Kape’s first fight in a cage since his pre-Rizin days. Also, Pantoja happens to be a Top 5 fighter, the toughest opponent Kape has faced outside of Kyoji Horiguchi.
Kape certainly wants to get rid of the taste of his UFC debut, and stepping in for Tagir Ulanbekov on just six weeks’ turnaround sounds like a perfect palate cleanser. However, he has another tall task ahead of him in the form of Ulanbekov’s originally scheduled opponent, the returning Matheus Nicolau Pereira. The 28-year-old Pereira (15-2-1), already the owner of a 3-1 UFC record, has not fought since August of 2019, but looked at that time like a future contender. If Kape can turn things around against Pereira, that will be an impressive win and a measure of redemption. If not, the weight of historical precedent is very much against him, in terms of making an impact in the UFC.
We All Must’ve Forgot, Leon Edwards
“Rocky” has been the most egregiously ignored title contender in the UFC for so long that it’s a little shocking that he’s still only 29 years old. Detractors will point out that Edwards’s fights are not always riveting viewing, which is another parallel between him and the only other man to string together eight consecutive wins in the UFC welterweight division without a title fight, Jon Fitch. Like Fitch, Edwards’ streak features some quietly impressive wins. Albert Tumenov has won five straight in Absolute Championship Akhmat since his loss to Edwards, and is absolutely better than at least half the welterweights in the UFC right now. The supposedly washed-up Donald Cerrone won his next three fights after being dominated by Edwards, and Rafael dos Anjos also appears to have more tread left on the tires than his lopsided loss to the Brit made it appear.
All of this is simply to say that Edwards is not smoke and mirrors; every time out, he handles business like the Top 5 fighter he is. Yet even now, on the cusp of breaking Fitch’s record, we have to ask, “If Edwards beats Belal Muhammad on Saturday, now will he get a title shot?” Part of the problem is his long layoff; it will have been 21 months since the dos Anjos win. By way of illustration, Muhammad has gone 3-0 since Edwards’ last fight, elevating himself from fringe contender to just plain contender in the process. The UFC often seems bent on forgetting Edwards and sweeping him under the rug, and his nearly two-year layoff allowed the promotion to do just that. The UFC already tried matching him with red-hot prospect Khamzat Chimaev, a man whose UFC welterweight résumé consists of two dazzling wins over horribly overmatched opponents. Only COVID-19 prevented the organization from making one of its most laughably unbalanced matchups in years, in terms of risk and reward for the fighters involved.
Now Edwards has the chance to remind his bosses — and the fans, whether they love or hate him — just how good he is, how hard he has worked and how much he has accomplished. If he wins on Saturday, ending Muhammad’s four-fight win streak while extending his own streak to nine, expect public outcry for his long-delayed title shot to be granted. (Among those already calling for it are the last man to beat Edwards, welterweight champ Kamaru Usman.) On the other hand, the welterweight division is the most unforgiving in the sport, a true shark tank, and a loss to Muhammad would give the UFC the only excuse it needs to do exactly what it wants to do with Edwards: nothing.
Back Against the Wall: Jinh Yu Frey
In December 2018, just over two years ago, Frey was on top of the world, or pretty damned close. She had just defended her Invicta FC atomweight title successfully against Minna Grusander, and was one of the four or five best women in the world at 105 pounds.
What a difference a few years make. Since then, Frey has gone 1-3, and in the lone win during that stretch, she missed weight, causing her Invicta title to be vacated despite beating Ashley Cummins for a second time. More worryingly, Frey has now lost two straight since joining the UFC as a strawweight. In that time, she has given a boost to two women more than a decade her junior in Kay Hansen and Konklak Suphisara. This weekend, the 35-year-old Texan will take on yet another young up-and-comer in debuting Dana White's Contender Series alumna Gloria de Paula. “Glorinha” is promising, but less heralded than Hansen or “Loma Lookboonmee.” Is this matchup a chance for Frey to bounce back, or is it one last setup for a younger fighter to use the veteran as a stepping stone? The answer to that lies with Frey, but she must be aware that she is probably fighting for her job on Saturday.
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