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Fighters on the Rise, 'UFC 282: Blachowicz vs. Ankalaev'

Three can't-miss combatants to watch for on Saturday's Las Vegas pay-per-view.

Saturday's final pay-per-view event of 2022 is an opportunity for a handful of emerging talents to close out the year by making a statement.

Some will get the opportunity to do so in their maiden voyage into the octagon, while others will be stepping into their most difficult UFC assignments to date, aiming to show that those early returns were simply a harbinger of things to come.

These are the matchups that fascinate me most in this sport – crucial tests and critical pairings that are sure to be entertaining, but likely to be instructive, as well, clarifying which path a prospect or rising star is likely to venture down in the immediate future and shedding a little more light on just how high they may or may not climb in their respective divisions.

Here's a closer look at three ascending competitors slated to make the walk this weekend.

This is the UFC 282 edition of "Fighters on the Rise."

Dricus Du Plessis


"Stillknocks" had been on the radar of hardcore fans for the previous couple years after he split a two-fight series with Roberto Soldic, scoring a stoppage win over the former KSW superstar in Poland before suffering a similar fate in the rematch six months later. As Soldic's stock continued to rise, so too did Dricus Du Plessis' and it's only continued to climb since he's touched down in the UFC.

The South African middleweight debuted in the UFC in the autumn of 2020, earning a first-round knockout win over Markus Perez that pushed his overall record to 15-2 and extended his winning streak to three. The following summer at UFC 264, he knocked out Trevin Giles, and after being stuck on the sidelines for 51 weeks, he returned this summer to collect a unanimous decision win over Brad Tavares at UFC 276.

Beating the Hawaiian divisional stalwart in a grimy, challenging fight showed that Du Plessis (17-2 MMA, 3-0 UFC) is more than just a knockout artist reliant on finding the big shot. He was able to battle through rough patches and exhaustion and still come out victorious, which will be crucial should he take another step forward in the middleweight queue this weekend by defeating the returning Darren Till (18-4-1 MMA, 6-4-1 UFC).

The 29-year-old Scouser has been out of action since suffering a submission loss to Derek Brunson last September, but remains a prominent figure in the middleweight hierarchy. Till enters with just a single victory in his last five fights – a split decision nod over Kelvin Gastelum sandwiched between stoppage losses in marquee welterweight bouts and setbacks against middleweight standouts – but everyone agrees that when he's healthy and locked in, "The Gorilla" is a formidable threat, which is why this pairing makes so much sense for Du Plessis.

While there was a change at the top of the middleweight division last month, the pack of contenders circling the championship have remained fairly consistent for the last couple years, and this is a chance for the 28-year-old to inject himself into that mix. A four-fight run of success to begin his UFC tenure, against increasingly established competition, capped by a victory over Till, would certainly elevate Du Plessis' stock even more heading into next year.

Ilia Topuria


Ilia Topuria (12-0 MMA, 4-0 UFC) burst on the scene at the tail end of 2020, debuting with a unanimous decision win over Youssef Zalal in October before making the quick turnaround to face and finish Damon Jackson in December, bringing his unbeaten run to begin his career to double digits.

The talented Georgian, who lives and trains in Spain, has only fought twice since, though his success has continued. In 2021, he avoided Ryan Hall's unusual entries and stopped the jiu jitsu wizard at UFC 264, and earlier this year, Topuria ventured up to lightweight, survived an early scare, and scored a second-round knockout win over Jai Herbert in London to extend his record to 12-0 overall.

Now the undefeated 25-year-old returns to featherweight for his most difficult and compelling assignment yet: a UFC 282 clash with fellow emerging contender Bryce Mitchell (15-0 MMA, 6-0 UFC).

"Thug Nasty" has been on a tear since appearing on "The Ultimate Fighter: Undefeated" in 2018. He won the "bronze medal matchup" with Tyler Diamond at the finale and has just kept winning since, tacking on five more victories, including only the second submission win by twister in UFC history and a dominant decision over Edson Barboza in March at UFC 272.

The featherweight division is in an interesting position at the moment, with champ Alexander Volkanovski slated to challenge for the lightweight belt in early 2023 and an interim title to be doled out the same evening, but that creates opportunities further down the line for fighters to elevate their standing and continue climbing the ladder.

Saturday's contest with Mitchell offers Topuria a chance to face, and perhaps beat, a Top 10 talent, adding another win to his resume while cranking the excitement around him back up to a fever pitch after it cooled a little over the course of the year. This is a massive opportunity for the gifted, young talent, and it shouldn't surprise anyone if he rises to the occasion and shines this weekend in Las Vegas.

Raul Rosas Jr.


The youngest fighter ever signed by the UFC makes his promotional debut on Saturday, as Raul Rosas Jr. (6-0 MMA, 0-0 UFC) steps in opposite Jay Perrin (10-6 MMA, 0-2 UFC) on the televised prelims.

Inked to a deal following a hard-fought win on Dana White's Contender Series this fall, the 18-year-old Mexican bantamweight is 6-0 for his career and doesn't look out of place inside the cage by any stretch. He's massive for the division at 5-foot-9, with a wide frame and solid reach, all of which help make up for the fact that he's still three years away from being allowed to legally drink in the United States.

Like several young talents to hit the octagon at an early age, Rosas Jr. has expressed his desire to break Jon Jones' record for being the youngest champion in UFC history, and he'll have plenty of time to work in order to accomplish that task. He turned 18 at the start of October, meaning he's got more than five years to claim gold in order to get in under the record set by Jones of 23 years, 242 days.

For those wanting to keep track at home, the official deadline date is June 6, 2028; it's a Tuesday.

Before he can break Jones' record, he needs to break into the UFC win column, and Perrin stands in the way of that this weekend.

"The Joker" has dropped consecutive decisions in his first two UFC appearances, but looked much better in his second start against Aoriqileng than he did his short-notice debut opposite Mario Bautista, where he still had some positive moments. Perrin is the most experienced fighter Rosas Jr. has faced to date, and will surely look to leverage that against the new arrival.

Thus far, Rosas Jr. has handled everything that has been thrown at him with aplomb, and it will be interesting to see if that carries over to this weekend, when he makes the walk to the octagon for the first time. Should he keep navigating these waters calmly and successfully while improving as a fighter each time out, he just might be the first competitor with designs on breaking Jones' record that could have a shot at accomplishing the feat.

With more than five years to get the job done, it's certainly worth watching.

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