UFC Fight Night 86 takes place Sunday in Zagreb as the UFC makes its debut in Croatia. The promotion has put together a nice card mixed with popular veterans and a number of up-and-coming prospects, and while there are only a few big names on the card, it should still be a lot of fun. There are a number of storylines embedded in this card, so let’s take a look at the top five things to watch for this weekend.
Ben Rothwell’s rise to the top of the heavyweight division has been nothing short of remarkable, and he can potentially earn a title shot with a victory over former champion Junior Dos Santos in the main event of UFC Fight Night 86. Rothwell has won four-straight fights via stoppage and a win over JDS would give him a strong argument to fight the winner of Fabricio Werdum vs. Stipe Miocic for the belt later this year. Rothwell may be 34-years old, but he has never looked as good in his entire 15-year career than as he does now. A win over JDS, especially if he can stop him, should give him a leg up over the other heavyweight contenders in the mix for a title shot. The UFC has given Rothwell the opportunity, now it’s up to him to run with it.
It doesn’t seem that long ago when Junior Dos Santos was on top of the world, knocking out everyone in his path on the way to the UFC heavyweight championship with his career-defining win over Cain Velasquez at UFC on FOX 1. It’s hard to believe that was nearly five years ago, but it was, and since then, JDS has been extremely inconsistent. Since that knockout over Velasquez, JDS has alternated wins and losses in his last six fights and in his last fight, he was shockingly knocked out by Alistair Overeem. Presumably, JDS still has big-time power, but he hasn’t won a fight by knockout in nearly three years and has taken a ton of damage in his last few fights. JDS is only 32 so theoretically he’s still in his prime, but he hasn’t looked like himself in a very long time. This fight against the surging Ben Rothwell is a tough matchup for JDS, but if he can pull off the win, he’ll show the MMA world he still has something left in the tank. Another knockout loss, though, and you’ll have fans questioning how many fights he has left in his career. This is a huge fight for JDS and it will be interesting to see how he looks.
Another rising heavyweight on the UFC roster is Derrick Lewis, who fights veteran Gabriel Gonzaga in the co-main event. At 31, Lewis is in the prime of his MMA career. He is already 5-2 in the UFC with all five wins coming via knockout but he still lacks a marquee win over a big-name opponent. Gonzaga, who has been in the UFC for years, is the perfect opponent for Lewis to look good against. The Brazilian is coming off of a win, but prior to that had lost three-straight fights. His chin is a huge question mark and Lewis has huge power. It’s a good matchup for Lewis to shine in, and now it’s up to the big Texan to get the job done inside the Octagon.
One of the peculiar things about this card is the five heavyweight bouts that are on it. Usually there is one heavyweight fight on a card, maybe two, but five is very rare. We already know the main and co-main event feature some of the UFC’s best heavyweights in Rothwell, JDS, Lewis and Gonzaga, but there are six heavyweight prospects who will also get a chance to show off their skills. Francis Ngannou vs. Curtis Blaydes is an interesting clash between up-and-coming heavyweights, as is Timothy Johnson vs. Marcin Tybura, both of which take place on the main card. Featuring on the prelims, Jared Cannonier vs. Cyril Asker is also a fight to watch. Between these six fighters, there is a lot of talent and a lot of knockout power, and the UFC is giving these big guys a massive opportunity to break through and make a name for themselves in the sport, so let’s see who emerges.
One of the more underrated lightweights in the UFC is Mairbeck Taisumov, who meets promotional newcomer Damir Hadzović on the preliminary card. Although Hadzović is a solid prospect, it’s strange that the UFC isn’t giving Taisumov a matchup against a more established veteran considering he is 4-1 in the UFC and has won his last three fights by knockout. Taisumov is an exciting fighter to watch, and every time he steps into the cage he shows off major improvements. A win over Hadzović might not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but if Taisumov can get another finish, it will be hard to deny the UFC from giving him a step up in competition.