By Adam Martin
With three UFC cards this week, it’s easy to see why tomorrow night’s UFC Fight Night 80 card is flying under the radar, but that doesn’t mean you should be ignoring this card. Although there are very few “name” fighters on this card, there are a number of top-shelf prospects you should be keeping an eye on, because some of them might factor into the title pictures of their respective divisions sooner than you think.
Starting with the preliminary card, one of the first bouts features top bantamweight prospect Aljamain Sterling taking on veteran Johnny Eduardo. Sterling has been on the proverbial UFC bench for six months now, having not competed since an impressive submission finish of Takeya Mizugaki at UFC on FOX 16.
Sterling is 3-0 in the UFC and clearly has all the skills to be a future champion, but after speaking out against fighter pay and the Reebok deal, the promotion decided to sit him out for a while so he could cool off.
Although Sterling has been vocal against the UFC and the way they pay their fighters, matchmaker Sean Shelby knows this guy has all the tools necessary to fight for a belt, and he is giving “The Funkmaster” a really good matchup here against Eduardo, one that would push Sterling closer to the elite of 135 lbs should he win it.
Another really good prospect fighting on the prelims is Danny “Hot Chocolate” Roberts; the young Brit makes his UFC debut against veteran Nathan Coy. Roberts, a former champion in Cage Warriors FC, has been inactive since that promotion shut down, but now that he’s in the UFC, expect him to fight a lot more. 11-1 in his MMA career with nine finishes, “Hot Chocolate” has the personality (along with a great nickname) and the skills to really make a run in this sport. He’s stuck in the ultra-competitive welterweight division, which isn’t an easy proposition, but the UFC has given him a winnable fight here against Coy, and a finish of the vet would really put Roberts on the fast track at 170 lbs.
In addition to Sterling and Roberts, Zubaira Tukhugov, Carlos Antonio Junior, Kailin Curran, and Omari Akhmedov – who are all on the right side of 30 – also fight on the prelims, and all are worth keeping an eye on for the future.
Also on the main card, TUF Nations winner Elias Theodorou takes on Thiago Santos in a highly-anticipated middleweight bout. Santos is coming off of two straight KO wins in the UFC and appears to be a late bloomer, but Theodorou is a top-shelf prospect and the MMA world still hasn’t seen his full potential just yet. The Greek-Canadian, who is only 27 years old, is 3-0 in the UFC and quickly making a name for himself in the social media universe. A win over the underrated Santos, especially if it’s by finish, would go a long way to proving Theodorou’s doubters wrong, as there are many who look at him solely as a “grinder” and not the skilled mixed martial artist he truly is.
And finally, the main event of UFC Fight Night 80 sees 19-year-old Paige VanZant take on TUF runner-up Rose Namajunas in what should be a terrific fight between two talented strawweights. VanZant is 3-0 in the UFC, and with her look combined with her fighting style, she is someone the UFC is banking on to be a superstar as the company moves forward in the future. But while VanZant has had a relatively easy road to start her UFC career thus far, this fight against Namajunas isn’t an easy one by any means. “Thug” is 1-1 in the UFC officially, but if you add her record from TUF 20 to her resume, she’s 4-1, and with all of her wins in the UFC/TUF coming via tap out, you start to see just how good she really is. And at only 23, she is likely to keep getting better. You don’t often see UFC matchmakers pair up two prospects like they have done here, but I like the move a lot, and I’m excited to see who comes away with the win.
UFC Fight Night 80
• Paige VanZant vs. Rose Namajunas
UFC Fight Night 80 might not have the big names of UFC 194, but it’s still a very solid card on paper and one well worth watching if you are looking for future UFC title prospects. I’m expecting big performances from these talented youngsters, but also some stinkers, making this Thursday-night fight card an intriguing watch even if it’s not getting much love from the general MMA fanbase.
UFC Fight Night 80: Namajunas vs. VanZant (formerly UFC Fight Night 80: VanZant vs. Calderwood) takes place on December 10, 2015 at Chelsea at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, Nevada.