Coming off an exhilarating night in Phoenix where Charles Oliveira cemented his standing as the top lightweight in the world and Carla Esparza returned to the top of the strawweight division, action shifts back to the UFC Apex for an outstanding fight card that promises to be non-stop excitement.
Headlined by a light heavyweight bout between former champ Jan Blachowicz and surging contender Aleksandar Rakic and laced with loads of compelling matchups, Saturday's event should be electric from the word, "Go!"
Here's a closer look at what's on tap this weekend, starting with the prelims.
Virna Jandiroba vs. Angela Hill
Former Invicta FC titleholders Virna Jandiroba (17-3 MMA, 3-3 UFC) and Angela Hill (13-11 MMA, 8-11 UFC) share the octagon on Saturday in a clash of top-15 strawweights looking to get things moving in the right direction to start their respective 2022 fight campaigns.
Jandiroba split her two appearances in 2021, earning a second-round stoppage win over Kanako Murata in June before dropping a decision to Amanda Ribas at UFC 267. The 33-year-old has settled into life in the octagon and a place in the rankings following her first three years on the roster, and now she looks to find the consistency needed to climb into the top 10 and push towards contention in the talent-rich 115-pound weight class.
Officially, Hill is 1-4 in her last five fights, but she could very easily be 4-1, as three of her four losses have come by split decision. The most recent of those narrow defeats came on last year’s final fight card, where the "The Ultimate Fighter 20" alum again fell on the wrong side of the verdict in a competitive, entertaining clash with Amanda Lemos.
This profiles as a classic "grappler vs. striker" matchup, but Jandiroba has improved her hands and Hill's takedown defense has always been solid, so this could play out any number of ways. All we know for sure is that it is going to be fast-paced, competitive, and exciting, so make sure not to miss it.
Davey Grant vs. Louis Smolka
After coming away from 2021 without a win between them, veteran bantamweights Davey Grant (11-6 MMA, 4-5 UFC) and Louis Smolka (17-8 MMA, 8-8 UFC) share the octagon together this weekend in a "Fight of the Night" candidate that will most likely result in one of them finally tasting sweet victory again.
The affable and ever-positive Grant fell on the wrong side of the results in a pair of bouts that earned "Fight of the Night honors last year" – one against surging contender Marlon "Chito" Vera, and the other opposite rising star Adrian Yanez. The Bishop Auckland man has scored bonuses in four straight appearances and developed into a textbook tough out on the fringes of the top 15 in the bantamweight ranks since returning to full health and a regular schedule a couple years back.
Inconsistency has been the only constant for Smolka throughout his tandem UFC stints, as the Hawaiian veteran has alternated wins and losses in his six fights since returning to the octagon after going 5-5 in his first 10 appearances earlier in his career. Last time out, "Da Last Samurai" got dropped and finished by Vince Morales, so it will be interesting to see if Smolka can maintain his "win one, lose one" pattern this weekend.
Because of their respective styles and willingness to wade into the fire, don't be shocked if this one sets the "Fight of the Night" bar good and high early in the evening on Saturday.
Viviane Araujo vs. Andrea Lee
Talented flyweight contenders Viviane Araujo (10-3 MMA, 4-2 UFC) and Andrea Lee (13-5 MMA, 5-3 UFC) face off on Saturday's prelims as they continue to jockey for position in the always-competitive 125-pound weight class.
Araujo fights for the first time since dropping a unanimous decision to Katlyn Chookagian at UFC 262 last May. She had earned consecutive victories over Montana De La Rosa and Roxanne Modafferi prior to that to establish herself as a top-10 talent in the division, and now she looks to start another winning streak by getting the better of Lee this weekend.
With her life outside the cage finally settled down and structured to her liking, Lee turned in the best year of her UFC career in 2021, earning consecutive stoppage wins over Antonina Shevchenko and Cynthia Calvillo to rekindle talk of her being a title contender in the flyweight ranks. It’s never been a question of talent with Lee, but rather application and earning the necessary results, and if the intensity and aggressiveness she showed in her drubbing of Calvillo is her new normal, the 33-year-old could very well work her way into position to potentially challenge for the title before the year is out.
Can Araujo bounce back and halt Lee’s ascent or will "KGB" keep earning finishes and moving forward in the rankings?
Frank Camacho vs. Manuel Torres
Fan favorite Frank Camacho (22-9 MMA, 2-5 UFC) makes his return to the octagon this weekend, squaring off with Dana White's Contender Series alum Manuel Torres (12-2 MMA, 0-0 UFC) in an intriguing lightweight contest.
The 32-year-old Camacho has been sidelined since the middle of 2021 after suffering back and neck injuries in a car accident ahead of his UFC 263 fight with Matt Frevola. Finally able to return, "Frank the Crank" will look to get back to the form that produced three straight "Fight of the Night" bonuses at the outset of his UFC run and secure his first victory in nearly three years.
One of several fighters representing the Entram Gym to earn UFC contracts last summer on Dana White's Contender Series, Torres looks to have success where his teammates have previously failed when he steps into the octagon for the first time this weekend. "El Loco" laid out Kolton Englund with strikes in just over two minutes last fall, pushing his winning streak to three and his record to 12-2 overall, and should get the chance to throw hands this weekend.
Camacho has a considerable edge in experience, but Torres has obviously been the more active of the two as of late, so it's hard to know how things will shake out when they step in opposite one another on Saturday evening.
Tatsuro Taira vs. Carlos Candelario
After originally being scheduled to compete late last month only for the fight to be scratched at the last minute, Shooto champion Tatsuro Taira (10-0 MMA, 0-0 UFC) and Dana White's Contender Series grad Carlos Candelario (8-1 MMA, 0-0 UFC) will once again attempt to make their joint promotional debuts this weekend.
Unbeaten in 10 professional appearances after a 9-0 run as an amateur, the 22-year-old Taira is arguably the best Japanese prospect to matriculate to the UFC since Kyoji Horiguchi. With good size for the division, a solid strength of schedule, and finishes in eight of his 10 wins, Taira is definitely one to watch going forward in the 125-pound weight class.
Candelario didn't earn a contract following his victory on the first season of Dana White's Contender Series, but he made history in Season 5, becoming the first fighter to lose, but still be called to compete in the UFC following his debated split decision loss to Victor Altamarino on last year's opening week. The 30-year-old New England native is 8-1 overall and should serve as a tremendous test for the promising Japanese prospect on Saturday night.
The flyweight division is flush with talent at the moment, but each of these men is worth keeping tabs on long term. This weekend’s victor should take a solid step forward, but whomever is vanquished will likely still be heard from in the future as well.
This story first published at UFC.com.