The World Series of Fighting has hitched its wagon to fighters like Justin Gaethje, Marlon Moraes and David Branch. So far, its faith has been rewarded.
All three men will appear in five-round title fights at WSOF 34 on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York, as the promotion closes out 2016 with a landmark visit to “The World’s Most Famous Arena” on New Year’s Eve. Gaethje stars in the lead role, with the undefeated Grudge Training Center star defending his lightweight championship against Luiz Firmino in the main event.
Gaethje, 28, sports a perfect 16-0 record with 14 finishes, six of them inside one round. He last appeared at WSOF 29 on March 12, when he needed less than two minutes to cut down Brian Foster with leg kicks at the Bank of Colorado Arena in Greeley, Colorado. Wins over Luis Palomino (twice), Gesias Cavalcante, Melvin Guillard, Dan Lauzon, Nick Newell and Brian Cobb highlight the Gaethje resume. A Safford, Arizona, native, he was an NCAA All-American wrestler at the University of Northern Colorado.
Aligned with the star-studded Blackzilians outfit, Firmino replaces the injured Joao Zeferino on short notice. The 34-year-old Dream, Shooto and Pride Fighting Championships veteran had a six-fight winning streak snapped on Oct. 7, when he submitted to a first-round guillotine choke from the aforementioned Foster at WSOF 33. Firmino captured Championship Fighting Alliance gold in 2012 and later appeared on Season 21 of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series.
With the Gaethje-Firmino title tilt as the centerpiece, here is what to watch for at World Series of Fighting 34:
Never Too Late
It comes as a surprise that Jon Fitch and Jake Shields have not locked horns in the mixed martial arts arena before now.
The two longtime stalwarts will duke it out for the WSOF welterweight championship in the co-headliner. Shields, 37, has not competed since his ill-fated encounter with then-champion Rousimar Palhares more than a year ago. Palhares was stripped of his crown after he repeatedly gouged Shields’ eyes and then clung to a fight-ending kimura well after the tapout. A former Strikeforce, Shooto and EliteXC champion, Shields has gone 2-1 since parting ways with the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2014.
Fitch enters his first title defense on a two-fight winning streak. The 38-year-old Fort Wayne, Indiana, native last fought at WSOF 30 on April 2, when he took a unanimous decision from Zeferino to capture the vacant welterweight championship. One of the sport’s most accomplished competitors at 170 pounds, Fitch won 16 consecutive bouts from July 19, 2003 to March 1, 2008 -- a stretch of sustained success that led to a title shot against Georges St. Pierre at UFC 87.
Viable challengers have become scarce for Moraes.
The Brazilian muay Thai machine will risk a 12-fight winning streak when he puts his bantamweight belt on the line against countryman Josenaldo Silva. Moraes has looked unstoppable since he linked arms with the World Series of Fighting in November 2012, rattling off victories against Miguel Torres, Tyson Nam, Brandon Hempleman, Carson Beebe, Josh Rettinghouse, Cody Bollinger, Sheymon da Silva Moraes, Joseph Barajas and Josh Hill (twice). The 28-year-old Ricardo Almeida protégé has not tasted defeat in more than five years.
Silva sports a gaudy 25-4 record that includes 19 wins by knockout, technical knockout or submission. Though the 30-year-old Jungle Fight champion has largely flown under the radar while dominating the regional scene in Brazil, he will make his WSOF debut on the strength of 17 consecutive victories.
Branch has proven to be a phenomenal find for the WSOF.
The first two-division champion in the organization’s history, he will put his light heavyweight pursuits on hold to return to 185 pounds and defend his middleweight title against Strikeforce veteran Louis Taylor. Branch has won nine fights in a row while bouncing between weight classes, the Renzo Gracie-trained Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt emerging as an unlikely promotional cornerstone. He last appeared at WSOF 33 on Oct. 7, when he claimed a five-round unanimous decision over 2011 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist Vinny Magalhaes.
Taylor has put together a nice late-career surge. The 37-year-old Chicago Fight Team rep has finished his last six opponents, five of them in the first round.
Smealinho Rama has a new home.
The former World Series of Fighting heavyweight champion will downshift to 205 pounds for the first time, as he confronts American Top Team’s Jake Heun on the undercard. Rama, 24, has not fought since he surrendered his title to Blagoy Ivanov in June 2015, when he submitted to a third-round guillotine choke from the Bulgarian sambo practitioner at WSOF 21. He has never suffered back-to-back defeats.
Heun, who played college football at the University of Hawaii, has won three of his past four bouts, a decision loss to Magalhaes the lone misstep. The 29-year-old last competed under the Alaska Fighting Championship banner on Oct. 19, when he disposed of Al Matavao with a second-round kimura.