As the 76ers gear up for the playoffs and the Flyers continue to be beloved by the Internet for giving the world Gritty, the UFC returns to Philadelphia with a 13-fight card destined to blow the roof off Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night.
This week’s return to “The City of Brotherly Love” could feature only the main event pairing between Edson Barboza and Justin Gaethje and still be worth the price of admission, as the Top 10 lightweights are two of the most consistently entertaining all-action fighters on the planet and there is no conceivable way their fight will not instantly enter the Fight of the Year conversation.
However, there are a dozen other bouts that will hit the cage before that and several of them involve UFC newcomers with a wealth of potential who are making their debuts on Saturday, but will likely be around for a very long time.
Here’s a closer look at three of those competitors.
This is the UFC Philadelphia edition of On the Rise.
The Contender Series has been a pipeline sending quality prospects to the UFC for two seasons and, this weekend, another member of the graduating class from Season Two will step into the Octagon for the first time.
Nzechukwu actually fought on each of the first two seasons of the prospect-finding series, but after edging out former TUF contestant Anton Berzin in Season One, he was inked to a developmental deal and told to garner a little more experience before coming back to try again in Season Two. The 26-year-old took the instructions to heart, posting a pair of stoppage wins on the regional circuit to push his record to 5-0 and he then put Dennis Bryant down in less than two minutes this past summer to punch his ticket to the UFC.
This weekend, the Fortis MMA representative gets an immediate test as he ventures into the Octagon for the first time when he takes on Scottish veteran Paul Craig. The submission specialist is just 2-3 through his first five UFC outings, but has proven himself to be a tough out with the ability to make opponents pay for the smallest mistakes.
Standing six-foot-five with a ridiculous 82-inch reach, the Nigerian-born Nzechukwu has similar measurements to reigning light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, and has already shown a steadily improving understanding of how to maximize those advantages in the cage. As he continues to develop and sharpen his skills, the “African Savage” has the potential to blossom into an impact addition to the 205-pound weight class.
The Contender Series has graduated a number of talented new fighters to the UFC roster over the last two seasons and that includes the 26-year-old Texan Holland. While he didn’t earn a contract following his season two victory over Will Santiago, the talkative middleweight impressed enough to land at the top of the UFC matchmakers’ call list when someone fell out in the 185-pound ranks, and not even two months later, he found himself standing across the cage from Thiago “Marreta” Santos at UFC 227.
While things didn’t go his way against the Brazilian striker, who has since moved up to light heavyweight and established himself as a title contender, Holland acquitted himself well, showing that he is more than capable of competing on the biggest stage in the sport. A little under four months later, the “Trail Blazer” was back in the cage, collecting a third-round finish of John Phillips to register his first UFC victory.
Saturday night in “The City of Brotherly Love,” Holland takes a step up in competition as he squares off with Roufusport product Gerald Meerschaert, a 31-year-old veteran who will be making the walk to the cage for the 40th time this weekend. While “GM3” enters off a first-round submission loss to co-main event combatant Jack Hermansson, he’s gone 4-2 over his first six Octagon appearances and has an opportunistic submission game along with the toughness and tenacity that comes with logging plenty of rounds on the Midwest regional circuit.
Talented and sure of himself, Holland has shown flashes of Top 15 potential thus far and can take a big step towards making that a reality by logging a second straight win on Saturday night.
After racking up six wins in as many starts on the regional circuit, Mazo got the call to the Octagon and her debut this weekend offers the “Colombian Queen” a chance to make an immediate impression in her new surroundings.
The 22-year-old striker made waves on the regional circuit with consecutive first-round head-kick knockout wins under the LFA banner before defeating Invicta FC veteran Shannon Sinn to claim the promotion’s vacant flyweight title a little less than a year ago. She successfully defended the belt with a main event win over Carol Yariwaki seven months later and carries a ton of hype and momentum into her promotional debut on Saturday, where she squares off with the “Iron Lady,” Maryna Moroz.
Mazo has an aggressive, attacking style and the success she’s enjoyed at such a young age has many people projecting her to be a potential contender down the line. Working with Master Rafael Cordeiro and the team at Kings MMA will certainly help her in that pursuit, and a victory over the tough, durable, six-fight UFC veteran Moroz would be a great way to start her career inside the Octagon.
There are a number of promising young talents starting to make strides on the women’s side of the sport and Mazo has to be considered amongst the best of the bunch. We’ll see if that holds true after her first foray into the UFC cage.