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Fighters on the Rise, 'UFC Fight Night 210: Sandhagen vs. Song'

Three can't-miss combatants to watch for at Saturday's event at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas.

This is a fun piece to be writing for this fight card – not because of the names that will follow, but because the names in the main event appeared in this space at least once as they worked their way to where they are now in their division.

Cory Sandhagen and Song Yadong, the bantamweight headliners, were heralded in advance of reaching the top 15, before they became two of the best fighters in the world in the 135-pound weight class. They were spotlighted early, held out as examples of emerging competitors you should pay close attention to going forward, and now here we are – the duo facing off against one another, a place in the bantamweight title conversation hanging in the balance.

This weekend, those two alums close out what should be an outstanding night of fights at the UFC APEX. Before they do, these three athletes will look to take another step towards following in their footsteps.

This is the UFC Fight Night 210 edition of Fighters on the Rise.

Chidi Njokuani


When Chidi Njokuani earned a UFC contract with a third-round stoppage win over Mario Sousa on Dana White's Contender Series last season, you knew the seasoned veteran was going to be a quality addition to the middleweight division. After all, this wasn't some inexperienced youngster getting added into the 185-pound mix – Njokuani arrived with 28 fights and 20 wins under his belt – yet what he's done thus far has already been eye-opening.

In his February debut, "Chidi Bang Bang" needed just 16 seconds to dispatch Marc-Andre Barriault, a former two-division champion under the TKO banner in Quebec who entered on a two-fight winning streak and unbeaten in his last three. One shot put him on the mat and from there it was academic.

Three-and-a-half months later, the 33-year-old veteran collected a second straight knockout and a second consecutive "Performance of the Night bonus" for his late first-round finish of Dusko Todorovic. His veteran savvy and sharpness was on display throughout and he ended the bout by showing why coaches and analysts frequently shout about striking out of the clinch, leveling the Serbian hopeful with a vicious elbow that he never saw coming as the two disengaged in space.

Saturday night, Njokuani (22-7 MMA, 2-0 UFC) looks to go 3-for-3 in the UFC in a clash with fellow finisher Gregory Rodrigues (12-4 MMA, 3-1 UFC) that is dripping with post-fight bonus potential.

Since failing in his bid to land a UFC contract on Season 4 of Dana White's Contender Series, "Robocop" is 5-1 with four finishes, including three wins in four octagon appearances. Last time out, the Brazilian collected some extra pocket change after putting it on Julian Marquez, and there is a real strong likelihood that one or both of these men will leave Las Vegas with extra cash in hand when the weekend is out.

If that happens to be Njokuani – and it very well could be – he'll put himself in the mix not only Newcomer of the Year honors, but also Fighter of the Year honors, as not many others have managed three wins so far this year.

A third straight finish would make his case even more compelling.

Pat Sabatini


Of all the emerging talents coming out of Philadelphia at the moment – and primarily out of the Daniel Gracie crew – Pat Sabatini (17-3 MMA, 4-0 UFC) is the most low profile of the bunch, but don't let his lack of an online hype team fool you.

The 31-year-old is a perfect 4-0 inside the octagon and carries a six-fight winning streak overall into his clash with Damon Jackson (21-4-1 MMA, 4-1-1 UFC) on Saturday. There is absolutely nothing flashy about his game, nor is he going to spend time selling himself or convincing you to follow his exploits on social media – all he's going to do is step in the cage, dominate the opposition, and retreat back to the gym, where he can resume working and grinding on his quest to crack the top 15.

Some may suggest that Sabatini needs to do more than take his opponents down and prevent them from getting back to their feet, but if it ain't broke, don't fix it … and maybe instead of criticizing the successful fighter, ask a little more of the guys that can't get themselves back to an upright position once Sabatini has a hold of them.

This weekend's bout with Jackson is another good assignment for Sabatini, who trains alongside surging welterweights Sean Brady and Jeremiah Wells, and middleweight Andre Petroski. The Fortis MMA representative has earned three straight wins and victories in four of his last five UFC assignments, and has the grappling skills to force Sabatini to work.

If he's able to do to Jackson what he's done to the four others that have stood across from him to this point in his tenure, it will be another signal that the quiet, but ultra-talented, grappler is ready for a step up in competition and a chance to challenge for a place in the rankings next time out.

Javid Basharat


After a dominant effort last season on Dana White's Contender Series and a quality win in his promotional debut, Javid Basharat gets a step up in competition for his sophomore appearance in the octagon this weekend as he squares off with Tony Gravely.

Born in Afghanistan, raised in England, and now based in Las Vegas, Basharat trains primarily with his brother, fellow unbeaten bantamweight Farid Basharat, and ascending flyweight standout Amir Albazi, and the triumvirate has the potential to have a considerable impact on their respective divisions going forward. The 26-year-old "Snow Leopard" is 12-0 as a professional and went the distance for the first time in his unanimous decision win over Trevin Jones in March, and gets an immediate "show me how good you are" assignment in his second appearance this weekend.

Gravely is one of those fighters that really underscores just how deep and talented the 135-pound weight class is at the moment, as he's gone 4-1 in his last five since dropping his promotional debut to Welsh standout Brett Johns. Despite his overall success and a gnarly knockout win over Johnny Munoz last time out, Gravely is nowhere close to the cracking the top 15 because the queue to get a number next to your name at bantamweight is incredibly long and difficult to navigate.

This is a big test for Basharat – easily the biggest test of his career – but that's also what makes it a key moment to pay close attention to this weekend.

We know the quality of Gravely, the caliber of fighter it takes to beat him, and if Basharat does so, it will confirm that the division has yet another impressive talent to keep tabs on.

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