UFC 281 is a great card from top-to-bottom, and while the names on the poster are understandably going to draw the lion's share of the attention, there are intriguing prospects set to compete on each portion of this weekend's fight card.
Here's a closer look at those athletes in the latest edition of Fighters on the Rise.
Claudio Puelles (12-2 MMA, 5-1 UFC) made his UFC debut six years ago as a baby faced 20-year-old, having navigated his way to "The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America 3" finale, where he suffered a second-round stoppage loss to Martin Bravo to close out the lightweight tournament. This weekend, the talented fighter from Peru steps in opposite Dan Hooker (21-12 MMA, 11-8 UFC) on the UFC 281 main card, looking to secure his sixth straight victory and force his way into the top 15 in the treacherous 155-pound weight class.
Visa issues limited the early years of Puelles' UFC run, as he went 18 months before competing again following his loss to Bravo. When he did step in the octagon, he scored a third-round submission win over Felipe Silva via kneebar, showing back then that he had a special affinity for the rarely seen finishing move. More than a year passed before his fight with Marcos Mariano, and then another 21 months between his win over Mariano and his June 2021 triumph opposite Jordan Leavitt.
That bout was the start of his coming out party, as Puelles had morphed into an impressive physical specimen, and moved to South Florida to train at what is now Kill Cliff FC full-time. In his next two outings, the now 26-year-old “Prince of Peru” forced lightweight veterans Chris Gruetzemacher and Clay Guida to tap to kneebars, attacking the holds quickly and efficiently to where neither man saw it coming and neither could do anything to avoid its application.
Five straight wins in the lightweight division is not something to ever take lightly, regardless of who those wins came against or how many years it took to accumulate them, and three victories since last June show Puelles is on a solid upward trajectory, which is why this fight with Hooker comes at the exact right time.
The City Kickboxing representative returns to the lightweight ranks following a one-fight return to featherweight, where he was run over by rising British contender Arnold Allen. Though his last five fights have produced just a single victory, Hooker has been competing against a different tier of talent than Puelles has ever stepped in with, and he represents a big jump in competition for the Peruvian prospect.
Battle-tested and surely chomping at the bit to show he's still got plenty to offer the division, this should be a massive test for Puelles, which is what makes it such an important fight for the young standout.
If he's able to turn back “The Hangman,” Puelles could crack the top 15. At the very least, he'll put himself in a position to face someone with a number next to their name in his next showing and start garnering the kind of buzz that someone on a six-fight winning streak in the lightweight ranks commands.
The 23-year-old Erin Blanchfield (9-1 MMA, 3-0 UFC) might be the best overall prospect in the UFC at the moment, and I don't say that lightly.
A dangerous Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who has shown a willingness and ability to bang it out on the feet if need be, Blanchfield enters her clash with Molly McCann (13-4 MMA, 6-3 UFC) on Saturday sporting a 9-1 record with wins in all three of her UFC appearances and six straight victories overall. She beat future UFC competitors Kay Hansen and Victoria Leonardo, as well as "TUF 30" finalist Brogan Walker on her way to the octagon, and her lone setback came by debated split decision against ascending fellow flyweight Tracy Cortez.
In her sophomore appearance in the UFC, Blanchfield dominated Miranda Maverick, and last time out in June, she shifted the tenor of her fight with J.J. Aldrich on a dime midway through the second round. One second, she's getting out-struck by the more savvy, more experienced veteran, and the next, she's capitalizing on Aldrich's lone mistake and wrapping up her neck.
Those are the kinds of little moments that differentiate great prospects from good prospects, and for Blanchfield to recognize the opportunity, attack, and finish speaks to just how high-level of a talent she is already.
Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, the New Jersey native gets a home game opposite the surging McCann, who parlayed a tremendous knockout win over Luana Carolina in March into a new level of recognition and celebrity, joining with her teammate Paddy Pimblett to become massive fan favorites in North America through their affiliation with Barstool Sports. McCann followed up her breakthrough win in March with a comparable effort in July, finishing Hannah Goldy in similar fashion, but sealing the deal in the opening stanza.
This is a great test for Blanchfield, as “Meatball” rolls in brimming with confidence, riding a three-fight winning streak, with six victories in her last eight appearances, and sporting a number next to her name. She's the most established name Blanchfield has faced to date, and it will be interesting to see how the New York-based emerging talent deals with a fighter with the confidence and swagger McCann is sure to carry to the octagon on Saturday.
She's stationed ahead of McCann in the rankings and enters as the favorite, but this is the highest profile bout of her young career, and it comes on the biggest stage of them all at Madison Square Garden. A big showing here and the “future contender” buzz already surrounding Blanchfield could turn into a full-blown conversation.
It's been a slow burn for Montel Jackson (11-2 MMA, 5-2 UFC) since competing on the opening week of Season 2 of Dana White's Contender Series in the summer of 2018.
That fight – the sixth of his career – came a touch under one year after his professional debut, and over the last four years, the former Olympic wrestling hopeful has steadily put together a 5-2 record inside the octagon. His losses have come against top talents Ricky Simon and Brett Johns, and in his five victories, “Quik” has shown why many – including yours truly – are very high on his upside.
While he's finished just two of those fights, he's been dominant in the others, controlling the likes of Andre Soukhamthath and J.P. Buys, demonstrating that he understands how to play to his strengths and stay within himself. In that fight with Buys, Jackson set a record for the most knockdowns in UFC bantamweight history (four) which illustrates that his striking is starting to catch up to his grappling, which only makes him more of a potential threat and more intriguing as an emerging talent.
This weekend, the Milwaukee-based bantamweight takes on veteran Julio Arce (18-5 MMA, 5-3 UFC) in a matchup that should further clarify where Jackson is in his development and what to expect from him in 2023 and beyond.
Arce has alternated wins and losses over his last seven fights, but is 18-5 overall, and 2-1 since returning to the 135-pound weight class, with his loss coming against Song Yadong. He's a technically sound fighter with great fundamentals and the ability to outwork the less experienced, less seasoned Jackson, but also not too stiff a test that the 30-year-old up-and-comer is in too deep.
These are the types of matchups every ascending hopeful has to pass at some point in their journey, and how Jackson does this weekend will go a long way in clarifying whether he's primed to make a push for the rankings or still a couple of fights away.
This story first published at UFC.com.