With the five-year anniversary of this series on the horizon, now feels like a good time to make a couple slight adjustments and refresh who we’re shouting out in this space.
While we’ll still make a point of highlighting the new arrivals and UFC sophomores set to enter the Octagon regularly, there will also be a greater focus on those athletes who are making steady progress up the divisional ladder and poised to potentially break into the rankings or championship conversation, as well.
So here is a look at three such competitors who will be slinging hands on Saturday night at the Santa Ana Star Center.
This is the UFC Rio Rancho edition of On the Rise.
Weaver was scheduled to make his promotional debut last fall in Tampa, Florida, but just a handful of days before the event, the Contender Series graduate was forced to withdraw from the card. Now four months later, Weaver is hoping his second attempt at making the walk to the Octagon for the first time continues to follow a similar trajectory as his time on the Contender Series did, as his initial appearance at the UFC Apex was scuttled before he returned a few weeks later and earned himself a contract.
The 28-year-old turned heads last summer, securing a unanimous decision victory by outworking Devin Smyth in a fight where Weaver talked to his opponent the entire time. The victory pushed his winning streak to seven, a run that includes wins over fellow Contender Series alums Max Mustaki and Tyler Hill, as well as veteran Charles Bennett.
Saturday night, Weaver is slated to face off with Kazula Vargas, a 34-year-old veteran who landed on the wrong side of the results in his first UFC appearance last summer in Uruguay. He’d won seven of his previous eight appearances ahead of that fight, so it’s possible the combination of competing in South America and Octagon jitters hampered his performance.
Of the 25 athletes to earn UFC contracts last summer in Las Vegas, Weaver was one of the most talked about of the bunch, so the expectations are high and the spotlight will be on him, especially with a main card assignment. The late withdraw last time out has only heightened the anticipation for his appearance this weekend, so it will be interesting to see how the debuting lightweight makes out on Saturday night.
Where Weaver is a newcomer just beginning his UFC journey, Wood is one of those competitors I was talking about off the top — someone who has been making steady progress up the divisional ladder and has the potential to make some real noise in his division.
The 26-year-old Brit is already 3-0 in the UFC with submission wins over Johnny Eduardo, Andre Ewell, and Jose Quinonez, and carries an eight-fight winning streak overall into his showdown with bantamweight stalwart John Dodson this weekend. While “The Magician” has struggled to consistently get his hand raised since relocating to the 135-pound weight class, his four losses have all come against elite competition and his vast experience makes him a perfect measuring stick to determine where the emerging Wood fits within the division at the moment.
Aptly named “The Prospect,” Wood won the Cage Warriors bantamweight title and defended it twice before migrating to the UFC, and he is one of those up-and-coming threats who has slid under the radar thus far because (a) the bantamweight division is loaded, and… well, I’m not sure why else, really, but it doesn’t matter.
This weekend is a chance for those who haven’t seen Wood do his thing yet to start tracking the rising star and for those who believe he’s destined to join the cast of contenders in the ultra-competitive 135-pound ranks to see how he does against a Top 15 fixture.
Either way, it should be fun and Wood is most definitely a fighter on the rise.
You have to tip your cap to Kenney, who returns this weekend to take on Merab Dvalishvili in a “more important than you think” bantamweight matchup early in the evening.
Back on Season 1 of the Contender Series, he won a fight on Week 2, but didn’t earn a contract, only to come back and drop a split decision to former TUF contestant Adam Antolin on the eighth and final week of the season. From there, he went out and won four fights in 14 months, including capturing interim gold at both flyweight and bantamweight under the LFA banner.
He made his UFC debut eight days later, where he picked up a unanimous decision win over former flyweight title challenger Ray Borg. Five months later, he handed Manny Bermudez the first loss of his professional career.
It’s been an impressive run for the Arizona-based grappler, and while the depth of the division and the wildly entertaining jockeying for positioning that is taking place in the Top 15 has limited the amount of shine the emerging class has received thus far, make no mistake about it — Kenney has been lights out for the last two years and is someone to pay close attention to as he kicks off his 2020 fight campaign against Dvalishvili this weekend.
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