Writing this series over the years, I always got a little more excited when I could easily find the 10 fights I was going to spotlight even though there were only three events on tap, because it meant those three cards were flush with intriguing, exciting matchups.
And that's the situation as we head into May, with three consecutive weekends with events, beginning with a packed pay-per-view card, and a nice, little open Saturday palate cleanser at the end of the month before we head into June.
Here's a look at the goodness ahead.
UFC 274: Saturday, May 7 – Phoenix
Charles Oliveira vs. Justin Gaethje
Oliveira is in the midst of one of the best unbeaten runs in UFC history – a 10-fight winning streak that stretches back to 2018 and has produced nine finishes, including one last May against Michael Chandler to claim the title and another in December against Dustin Poirier to successfully defend the title for the first time.
The Brazilian titleholder has already logged 29 appearances inside the octagon – this will be No. 30 – and is one of only 10 men to register 20 or more victories, both of which are already impressive accomplishments. But Oliveira is still only 32 years old and showing no signs of slowing down, which puts him in a good position to challenge for top spot on the all-time wins list, and perhaps the record for the most appearances as well.
And given that he has the potential to do so while standing atop the lightweight division only further reinforces how special what Oliveira is doing right now truly is.
Gaethje will be looking to bring all that fawning over Oliveira to an end and make good on his second chance to claim UFC gold in this one, and he gets the opportunity to do it on home soil. While his first title fight came in Abu Dhabi, this one takes place less than 200 miles from where he grew up in Safford, Arizona, which means the Footprint Center will be filled with vocal Gaethje supporters.
The Trevor Wittman-trained standout got back into the win column following his loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 254 with a victory over Chandler last November in a back-and-forth slobberknocker that landed high on the Fight of the Year charts. It was the first time in his nine-fight UFC tenure that "The Highlight" went the distance – and just the third time in his 26-fight career – and you can be sure he'll once again be doing everything in his power to avoid getting the judges involved in this one.
Given the ridiculous finishing rates each of these men possess and the myriad ways this fight could play out, there is a real high probability that this one either closes out the night as the new clubhouse leader in the Fight of the Year race or whomever gets the victory claims top spot in the Fighter of the Year chase because there is just no way this isn't going to be a wild, electric affair for as long as it lasts.
Rose Namajunas vs. Carla Esparza
More than seven years after meeting in the first UFC strawweight title fight, Rose Namajunas (11-4 MMA, 9-3 UFC) and Carla Esparza (18-6 MMA, 9-4 UFC) clash for a second time with the championship belt hanging in the balance.
Namajunas became the first two-time champ in the division's history last April when she knocked out Zhang Weili with a head kick just 78 seconds into their bout at UFC 261. A little more than six months later, she affirmed his position as the top strawweight in the sport with a second straight victory over the Chinese former champion, edging out Zhang on the scorecards.
"Thug Rose" is 9-2 since her first encounter with Esparza, with a pair of championship wins and pair of successful title defenses, plus she has successfully navigated rematches against Zhang, Jessica Andrade and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, so facing a familiar foe is entirely familiar to her at this point.
After dominating Namajunas to emerge as the inaugural UFC strawweight champion at the end of season 20 of "The Ultimate Fighter, Esparza" has been forced to take the long road back to title contention. She dropped the belt in her first title defense and had a couple other stumbles along the way, but "The Cookie Monster" is unbeaten in her last five and coming off her most emphatic performance since that initial win over Namajunas.
The 34-year-old veteran has always been a smothering grappler, but she shown increased ferocity and aggression last time out against Yan Xiaonan, pummeling the Chinese contender with elbows and punches from top position to earn a second-round stoppage win and cement her standing as the No. 1 contender.
Rematches are always intriguing and this one has been a long time coming, with plenty having changed since their first encounter.
Will Namajunas remain queen of the division and unbeaten in rematches or can Esparza become the second two-time champion in strawweight history?
Michael Chandler vs. Tony Ferguson
If Oliveira and Gaethje aren't your clubhouse leaders in the "Fight of the Year" race following UFC 274, it might be because these two lads blew the roof off the Footprint Center a couple of bouts before them.
Michael Chandler (22-7 MMA, 1-2 UFC) had quite the eventful rookie season on the UFC roster in 2021, debuting with a first-round knockout win over Dan Hooker in January before facing Oliveira for the vacant lightweight strap in May. After appearing on the cusp of claiming the belt in the first round, he was stopped early in the second, and then he returned in November to pair with Gaethje in a hellacious brawl at Madison Square Garden that frankly I still haven't fully processed.
Tony Ferguson (25-6 MMA, 15-4 UFC) made only a single appearance last year, dropping a unanimous decision to Beneil Dariush that extended his losing streak to three and made all his loyal supporters and advocates sad. It was the second consecutive fight where "El Cucuy" didn't quite look like himself, and those loyalists – and everyone, really – hopes this 12-month break brings with it a return to form for the perennial contender and former interim champion.
The month of May hasn't been particularly good to either of these men over the years, with Chandler having dropped his last three May appearances and Ferguson being 1-3 inside the octagon in the fifth month of the year, so not only will one of them snap their little slide, but they'll also break from recent trends in order to get things moving in the right direction heading into the second half of the year.
Brandon Royval vs. Matt Schnell
I love this battle between top-10 flyweights tucked on the preliminary card portion of the UFC 274 fight card.
Brandon Royval (13-6 MMA, 3-2 UFC)has been a steady presence in the division for two years now, posting a 3-2 record while exclusively facing elite competition, including having a win over current top contender Kai Kara-France. He snapped a two-fight skid last time out with a split decision victory over Rogerio Bontorin and jumps right back into the deep waters of the division with another dangerous pairing here.
Matt Schnell (15-6 MMA, 5-4 UFC) has been dealing with his opponents having weight management issues for the last year.
He faced Bontorin at UFC 262, where the Brazilian missed weight by a pound, won the fight by unanimous decision, and then tested positive for a banned diuretic, resulting in the bout being declared a no contest. He got re-booked against Alex Perez in August, had the fight pushed back a week to the first weekend in September, and then fell ill on the day before the fight, after Perez came in a quarter pound over the flyweight limit.
The UFC once again rescheduled the pair, and when Perez missed weight – this time by two pounds – at UFC 271 in February, Schnell declined to take the fight.
Royval has never missed weight in his 19-fight career, so this one should so off as planned (knocks on wood) and will help clarify not only where each man stands in the divisional hierarchy, but how the queue of contenders in the flyweight division lines up as we move into the summer.
Tracy Cortez vs. Melissa Gatto
Flyweight hopefuls on lengthy unbeaten streaks clash in this one as Tracy Cortez (9-1 MMA, 3-0 UFC) looks for her fourth straight UFC victory and tenth consecutive win overall, while Melissa Gatto (8-0-2 MMA, 2-0 UFC) aims to push her unbeaten streak to 11 by picking up her third UFC win in 10 months.
This is a homecoming for Cortez, who grew up in Maryvale and represents the Fight Ready MMA team. She earned her way onto the UFC roster with a dominant decision win over Mariya Agapova on Season Three of Dana White's Contender Series, scored a pair of unanimous decision victories after moving up to bantamweight for a minute, and edged out Justine Kish by split decision after returning the flyweight ranks last time out, though she did miss weight by half a pound for that one.
Gatto has looked like an intriguing addition to the division over her first two outings, collecting a second-round stoppage win over Victoria Leonardo in her debut before felling Sijara Eubanks with a third-round body kick in her sophomore showing in December. The 26-year-old Brazilian is 8-0-2 for her career, which includes a win over top-15 bantamweight Karol Rosa, and a victory here would clearly propel her forward in the 125-pound ranks.
Flyweight is flush with talent at the moment and the winner of this one will have to be included in the collection of emerging fighters working their way up the divisional ladder. A spot in the rankings might not await the winner, but an opponent who occupies one of those places certainly could.
UFC on ESPN 36: Saturday, May 14 – Las Vegas
Jan Blachowicz vs. Aleksandar Rakic
Originally scheduled to take place at the end of March, we finally get the All-European battle between top contenders Jan Blachowicz (28-9 MMA, 11-6 UFC) and Aleksandar Rakic (14-2 MMA, 6-1 UFC) midway through the month.
This is Blachowicz's first appearance since dropping the light heavyweight title to Glover Teixeira last October. The Polish veteran had solidified his place atop the division with a unanimous decision win over Israel Adesanya earlier in the year, but admittedly came out flat against Teixeira and got submitted. Now, after dealing with some injury issues, the former champion is ready to start making another march to the top of the division.
Rakic has been steadily and patiently working his way up the rankings since debuting with a unanimous decision win over Francimar Barroso in September 2017. His lone setback inside the octagon is a questionable split-decision loss to Volkan Oezdemir, and since then, he has collected workmanlike wins over Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos to establish himself as one of the top contenders in the division.
This is a perfect bit of matchmaking as it affords Blachowicz the chance to get right back into the thick of the title chase should he win, while providing Rakic with the opportunity to collect the truly marquee victory that is still missing from his resume.
With the title on the line next month at UFC 275 in Singapore, the winner of this one could very well be in line to face whoever emerges with the belt later this year.
Katlyn Chookagian vs. Amanda Ribas
I adore fights like this where two competitors that just want to stay busy and keep posting quality wins agree to meet.
A permanent fixture in the flyweight title picture, Katlyn Chookagian (17-4 MMA, 10-4 UFC) has earned three straight victories since her October 2020 loss to Jessica Andrade, turning back top-10 talents Cynthia Calvillo, Viviane Araujo and Jennifer Maia to solidify her place on the podium in the 125-pound weight class. There is nothing flashy about what the veteran brings to the table – it's just clean technique, good volume, and a complete, unwavering understanding of who she is as a fighter and how to play to her strengths, and it's made her extremely difficult to beat throughout her entire career.
After a matchup with Michelle Waterson at strawweight fell through a couple different times, Amanda Ribas (11-2 MMA, 5-1 UFC) opted to jump up a division in order to make her first appearance of the year. She did it before at UFC 251, where she submitted Paige VanZant in the first round, and got back into the win column following her UFC 257 loss to Marina Rodriguez with a quality effort against Virna Jandiroba, putting the ebullient Brazilian in a position where she has plenty of options to consider and directions she could go in the future.
What's cool about this one is that this is essentially a “nothing to lose” fight for each woman. Chookagian is so entrenched at flyweight that a loss doesn't diminish her standing in the division, while a setback up a division has no real impact on Ribas' upside in the 115-pound ranks. Conversely, a win for either would simply raise their stock and increases their profile, making this a tremendous matchup with little downside.
Jake Hadley vs. Allan Nascimento
Debuting fighters don't often make this list, but when they do, it should signal that they're tremendously intriguing, and that is the case with Jake Hadley (8-0 MMA, 0-0 UFC).
The undefeated British flyweight won the Cage Warriors belt at the end of 2020, then dominated Mitch Raposo 10 months later on Dana White's Contender Series to earn his UFC contract. He missed weight for that contest and prompted the UFC President to break his own rule about rewarding fighters that don't make weight, but that should tell you how impressive Hadley looked and the upside he brings to the octagon.
Allan Nascimento (18-6 MMA, 0-1 UFC) lost to Raulian Paiva on one of the all-Brazilian episodes of Dana White's Contender Series in the summer of 2018 but found his way to the octagon nonetheless last October, dropping a debated split decision to Tagir Ulanbekov. The 30-year-old grappler has a wealth of experience and showed in his debut that he's more than capable of hanging with highly regarded prospects, making him a perfect dance partner for the debuting Hadley.
These two were supposed to face off on the UFC London card in March, but Hadley was forced out with an injury. London's loss is Las Vegas' gain and getting shuffled back to this card in the middle of May should mean there are more eyes on this compelling flyweight clash.
UFC Fight Night 206: Saturday, May 21 – Las Vegas
Holly Holm vs. Ketlan Vieira
It's a battle of top contenders in the bantamweight division as former champion Holly Holm (14-5 MMA, 7-5 UFC) returns to action for the first time in well over a year to face off with surging Brazilian Ketlan Vieira (12-2 MMA, 6-2 UFC) in the final UFC bout of the month.
After coming up short in her bid to reclaim the bantamweight strap in 2019, Holm earned a pair of victories in 2020 to cement her standing as one of the top contenders in the 135-pound weight class, posting a second win over Raquel Pennington before halting Irene Aldana's ascent in a main event assignment quite similar to this one. The 40-year-old was forced to withdraw from a pair of bouts last year – one against Julianna Peña, the other opposite Norma Dumont – and will once again be looking to affirm her position as a title threat in this one.
Vieira opened 2021 on the wrong side of a debated decision loss in a bout where she missed weight against Yana Kunitskaya. She was scheduled to face Sara McMann in August, but the Olympian was forced to withdraw, resulting in Vieira getting paired off with former champ Miesha Tate in a main event pairing two months later.
The two eventually met in late November, with the Brazilian pulling away as the fight progressed, giving Vieira the biggest win of her career and setting up this showdown with Holm.
With Peña and Amanda Nunes slated to coach the upcoming season of "The Ultimate Fighter" before running it back in a championship rematch, the winner of this one could potentially position themselves for a title opportunity towards the end of the year depending on how things shake out. At the very least, the winner will be the clear top contender in the division, and the one everyone with championship ambitions will be gunning for in the second half of the year.
Santiago Ponzinibbio vs. Michel Pereira
This pairing of South American welterweights has the potential to be a Pier 6 brawl and could propel the winner deeper into the top 15 in the 170-pound weight class.
Argentina's Santiago Ponzinibbio (28-5 MMA, 10-4 UFC) returned after more than two years on the sidelines in 2021, sandwiching a hard-earned win over Miguel Baeza between losses to Li Jingliang and Geoff Neal. With a year of live action under his belt and now several years removed from the maladies and illnesses that made his future in the octagon uncertain, it wouldn't be surprising to see “The Argentine Dagger” look a little sharper and a little more dangerous in his second year back.
Michel Pereira (27-11 MMA, 5-2 UFC) has dialed back the wildness since suffering consecutive losses to Tristan Connelly and Diego Sanchez early in his UFC run, and the result has been four straight victories. While the Brazilian still mixes in Superman punches off the fence and the odd wild rush, the welterweight has also shown sound technical skills and an improved gas tank in recent wins over Khaos Williams, Niko Price and Andre Fialho.
If anyone can draw Pereira into a brawl, it'll be Ponzinibbio, who has never been afraid to step into the fire and take one in order to land one. No matter how it plays out, this one should be exciting and shake things up in the bottom half of the top 15 heading into the summer months.