Before the action shifts back to pay-per-view next weekend with the jam-packed, all-star lineup slated to hit the octagon at UFC 274 in Phoenix, the UFC wraps a three-week run at its home base in Las Vegas with a fight card headlined by bantamweight standouts Rob Font and Marlon Vera.
Saturday's fight card marks the debut of a pair of intriguing talents, and a major step up for one beloved, ascending competitor, and profiles as the kind of event that will provide excitement from start to finish.
Here's a closer look at those three key fighters to play close attention to on Saturday.
This is the UFC on ESPN 35 edition of Fighters on the Rise.
The 29-year-old Vera (20-7-1 MMA, 12-6 UFC) is already a terrific story of development and determination, as he's spent the last seven-plus years transforming from an aggressive but raw prospect into a bona fide top 15 talent in the bantamweight division. Since beginning his UFC adventure with four wins and four losses in his first eight appearances, "Chito" has gone 8-2 since, ascending into the rankings in the ultra-competitive bantamweight ranks.
He arrives at his first main event assignment having earned consecutive victories in 2021. In June, he avenged a previous defeat to Davey Grant with a unanimous decision triumph in a clear, but competitive, bout that earned "Fight of the Night" honors, and in November, Vera marched into Madison Square Garden and collected a third-round knockout win over future Hall of Famer Frankie Edgar at UFC 268.
Now he lines up across from Font, who has been a fixture in the top 15 for a number of years, in a critical matchup with the potential to carry him into title contention.
Despite going the distance with Grant last year, Vera is a finisher, having earned 10 of his 12 UFC victories inside the distance. While that aggressiveness has cost him at times, Vera has mostly reined in his wildness and exuberance in recent years, trusting his weapons and knowing that his sustained pressure and variety of attacks will eventually present a finishing opportunity.
Font is a tough out, having posted a 9-4 record through 13 UFC starts, including wins over Sergio Pettis, Marlon Moraes and Cody Garbrandt. He's only lost to elite competitors over the years, and he works behind one of the best jabs in the business, which means Vera will need to be smart with his movements and sharp defensively if he doesn't want to spend the night getting his head snapped back by Font's piston-like left.
But the popular ascending talent from Ecuador has the skills to win this fight on Saturday, and if he does, it will elevate Vera into the elite tier in the 135-pound weight class. He'd still have more work to do before potentially challenging for championship gold, but he'd be one big step closer to making such a bout happen.
Given that he only turned pro in the second half of 2018, Yohan Lainesse's rise to the UFC stage has been fairly quick, but he's earned his way into the octagon in impressive fashion.
Entering last year with a 5-0 mark, "The White Lion" kicked off his 2021 campaign by handing Troy Green the first loss of his career, and then claimed the CFFC welterweight title a shade under four months later with a second-round stoppage win over Evan Cutts. In November, he sauntered into the cage at the UFC Apex and felled unbeaten Englishman Justin Burlinson in 97 seconds, pushing his record to 8-0 and earning himself a UFC contract in the process.
This weekend, the 28-year-old Lainesse (8-0 MMA, 0-0 UFC) makes his promotional debut opposite Gabe Green in what should be a perfect, immediate litmus test for the French-Canadian new arrival.
Much like Vera, Lainesse isn't particularly interested in having the judges decide his fate, having earned finishes in six of his eight victories inside the distance, with five of those stoppages coming inside the opening round. His transition to competing under the CFFC banner in 2020 when events in Canada were non-existent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic proved tremendously beneficial, as he posted four wins in 12 months to climb to the top of the welterweight division and land a place on Dana White's Contender Series.
Green is a sound first test for the debuting Quebecor. A talented 28-year-old in his own right, the California native had won six straight before accepting a short-notice assignment opposite Daniel Rodriguez in the spring of 2020. While he lost to "D-Rod," Green rebounded last February with a solid all-around effort against Phil Rowe, pushing his record to 10-3 in the process.
Lainesse's win over Burlinson was impressive in the moment and has continued to age well, as the young British fighter recently got back into the win column in impressive fashion and is slated to challenge for the Cage Warriors welterweight title later this year.
If the Canadian newcomer can turn in a comparable effort against Green and maintain his unbeaten streak through his promotional debut on Saturday, he should be looking at a step up in competition and an increased number of eyes on his fight next time out.
The debuting Tatsuro Taira (10-0 MMA, 0-0 UFC) ticks all the boxes when it comes to being a must-see prospect in the mixed martial arts space.
After going 9-0 as an amateur, he transitioned to the pro ranks in the summer of 2018 and has proceeded to earn 10 consecutive victories heading into this weekend's clash with DWCS grad Carlos Candelario. The 22-year-old Japanese flyweight posted a trio of first-round finishes in 2021, beginning with a submission victory over respected veteran Yoshiro Maeda before winning the Shooto flyweight title in July, and boasts good size for the division, standing five-foot-seven.
Now he arrives in the UFC, unbeaten, but already tested to a certain degree, eager to start making headway in the always-exciting 125-pound weight class.
Candelario earned a victory on the first season of Dana White's Contender Series but did not come away with a contract. He returned to the annual talent search last season, dropping a split decision to Victor Altamarino on the first episode, but made history as the first fighter to earn a contract off a loss. The 30-year-old is 8-1 for his career and matches up well with Taira in terms of size, so this should be a solid test for the new arrival from Japan.
Flyweight is brimming with talent at the moment and the action in the division has been consistently entertaining, and the addition of Taira should only add to that in the coming years. He's one of the most intriguing newcomers to make the walk this year, and folks should be paying close attention to his bout with Candelario on Saturday because he appears to have a very bright future.
This story first published at UFC.com.