The final pay-per-view event of the summer (crazy!) touches down at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah on Saturday, headlined by a welterweight championship clash between reigning titleholder Kamaru Usman (20-1 MMA, 15-0 UFC) and standout British challenger Leon Edwards (19-3 MMA, 11-2 UFC).
It’s a fight that is a long time in the making, and a rematch of when these two crossed paths in their early days in the UFC, on one of the most insane cards in UFC history, in terms of pure assembled talent. Usman won that night in Orlando and will look to do so again at UFC 278 in hopes of matching Anderson Silva's record for the most consecutive victories in UFC history.
But in addition to the main event title fight, Saturday’s fight card also features the return of former middleweight champ Luke Rockhold (16-5 MMA, 6-4 UFC) against Paulo Costa (13-2 MMA, 5-2 UFC), former featherweight champ Jose Aldo (31-7 MMA, 13-6 UFC) taking on Merab Dvalishvili (14-4 MMA, 7-2 UFC), and a host of ascending talents looking to take another step forward in their respective divisions as they step into the octagon for the biggest tests of their careers.
Here’s a closer look at three of those athletes.
This is the UFC 278 edition of Fighters on the Rise.
Alexandr Romanov (16-0 MMA, 5-0 UFC) has been in the UFC for a touch under two years, and in that time, the 31-year-old has gone 5-0 with four stoppage wins to push his record to 16-0 overall.
When he first touched down in the octagon, the grappler from Moldova was a giant question mark – an unbeaten fighter that had faced limited competition, ran through everyone, but was hard to forecast in terms of how high he could climb in the heavyweight ranks. But as he readies to face Marcin Tybura (22-7 MMA, 9-6 UFC) this weekend, Romanov has clearly established himself as an emerging threat in the division, entering his last fight looking more trim and toned than in previous appearances, illustrating a further commitment to his craft and making the most of the opportunity in front of him.
Saturday’s matchup with Tybura is a proper step up in competition for Romanov; a pairing with an experienced hand that has shared the octagon with a host of top heavyweights and had won five straight prior to losing last time out. Tybura can grapple, has shown a solid gas tank, and has a little pop in his hands, too, making him the most complete and dangerous opponent Romanov has faced thus far.
As good as Romanov has been – and on the whole, he's been terrific – this is the one that will provide the clearest insights about how much further up the rankings he may climb. Beating Tybura unlocks a new tier of potential opponents for “King Kong” and if he does it with style points, Romanov could very well find himself opposite an elite contender next time out.
After well over three years on the sidelines spent dealing with myriad injuries and obstacles, Tyson Pedro (8-3 MMA, 4-3 UFC) finally made his return to the ooctagon in April, collecting a first-round stoppage win over Ike Villanueva. It was his first victory since he defeated Saparbeg Safarov at UFC 221 more than four years earlier, and was a clearly emotional moment for the Australian light heavyweight.
This weekend, Pedro looks to make it two straight when he takes on Harry Hunsucker (7-5 MMA, 0-2 UFC), who is relocating to the 205-pound weight division after a pair of losses at heavyweight.
What makes Pedro someone to keep close tabs on heading into this weekend and beyond is that he's still only 30 years old (he'll be 31 on September 17) and he's already got stoppage wins over Khalil Rountree Jr. and Paul Craig, while having shared the octagon with Ilir Latifi, Ovince Saint Preux and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, as well. That’s a wealth of experience and a couple wins that have aged fairly well to build upon now that he’s (knock on wood) healthy again and competing regularly.
Prior to his injury hiatus, Pedro profiled as a talented prospect who simply got dropped into the deep end of the talent pool a little too quickly a couple of different times, which tends to happen in the shallower weight classes from time-to-time. But those are good learning experiences and he’s undeniably continued to work and train and build and develop throughout his time away, and should now get the opportunity to build a little momentum, get a few fights under his belt before jumping back in against a ranked opponent.
We've seen Pedro's brother-in-law Tai Tuivasa come along after him, start hot, stumble, and come back even stronger, and there is no reason the affable light heavyweight can’t do the same going forward.
Just two fights into his UFC tenure, Amir Albazi (14-1 MMA, 2-0 UFC) stands at No. 11 in the flyweight rankings, which tells you exactly how good “The Prince” has looked to this point. The 28-year-old debuted with a first-round submission win over Malcolm Gordon, followed that up with a unanimous decision win over Zhalgas Zhumagulov, and steps into the octagon this weekend against Francisco Figueiredo (13-4-1 MMA, 2-1 UFC), eager to take another step forward in the divisional rankings.
Sporting a 14-1 record for his career, Albazi is one of those emerging talents that is difficult to peg at the moment simply because he’s only been in there twice and has yet to face top-end competition. He could be a contender in waiting, but he could also be someone that hovers in this space for the next couple years as he continues honing his skills before potentially making a run towards the top of the division. Saturday’s meeting with Figueiredo should help clarify some of that, not because the younger brother of the reigning champion is amongst the flyweight elite, but because it’s the kind of pairing a bona fide top-10 talent and someone with championship aspirations of their own should win.
What Albazi has shown thus far has been impressive, and the Iraqi flyweight, who trains alongside the talented Basharat brothers, Javid and Farid, looks like the real deal. All that is missing is the opportunity to prove that, and if he emerges victorious this weekend, that opportunity should come quickly.
This story first published at UFC.com.