The UFC kicks off 2018 with several fan friendly bouts in what is a warm-up to marquee action in the coming weeks.
With a new year comes new optimism. The same is true in mixed martial arts. Regardless of the success (or lack thereof) that one had last year, the calendar turns and fighters across the board look to embark on new campaigns. Just two weeks after a climatic ending to 2017, UFC St. Louis kicks off the new year in the Octagon with several exciting bouts.
Headlining the action will be perennial featherweight contender Jeremy Stephens who will be facing young upstart Doo Ho Choi. In September, Stephens rebounded from back-to-back losses to notch one of the biggest victories of his career with a three-round mauling of former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez. The bout was one of the more gruesome fights of the year, with Stephens chopping away at Melendez’s leg to the point that “El Niño” vocalized possibly forfeiting in between rounds.
A veteran of the UFC since 2007, Stephens hard-hitting style has always made him an exciting addition to any fight card. At 31 years old, however, he has had 26 fights in the UFC and you have to wonder if he has already reached the ceiling for his career. He has never competed for a world championship and with the evolving state of MMA, one questions if his brawling style can get him to the upper echelon of the division.
On Saturday, he faces a young dynamo in Doo Ho Choi. “The Korean Superboy” quickly became a cult favorite for his youthful appearance and his show-stopping skills. 11 of his 14 victories have come via knockout or TKO and he has already earned three performance bonuses in the UFC. No fight stands out more than his last, the Fight of the Year with Cub Swanson. The back-and-forth battle remains one of the most popular fights in recent memory and put Choi in the conversation of best up-and-comers in the sport.
Notably, Choi also has the clock running on his current UFC run. Like his countryman Chan Sung Jung, or as he’s better known “The Korean Zombie,” Choi is required to serve a minimum of three years in the South Korean army. While service of his country is not a punishment – it is seriously frowned upon in the country to find loopholes to avoid enlisting – there is no question that it would slow down what is a promising UFC career. Take into account, injury also kept him out of the cage in 2017 and this bout with Stephens is his first in more than a year.
While the featherweights will take center stage, there is plenty of fanfare to be had on other marquee match-ups. Paige VanZant will be returning after more than a year’s absence to make her flyweight debut against UFC newcomer Jessica “Jessy Jess” Rose-Clark. To say “12 Gauge” has made changes is an understatement. She opened the year with an appearance on Food Network’s Chopped where she was victorious against several other celebrities. In terms of mixed martial arts, she left Sacramento’s Team Alpha Male to return home to Oregon where she now trains out of Portland. She was supposed to make her flyweight debut in October before a litany of ailments forced her out of the bout.
When it rains it pours. Herniated disc, double ear infection, sinus infection, pink eye and ringworm all right now! 😡 send me good vibes.
— Paige VanZant (@PaigeVanzantUFC) September 26, 2017
Jessica Rose-Clark stepped in as a late replacement for Joanne Calderwood to face fellow Aussie Bec Rawlings in their native country. “Jessy Jess” missed weight by three pounds but out-worked the more well-known Rawlings for to take a decision. With both women now healthy and with a full-camp, the bout figures to be a possible show-stealer.
The co-main event is the most intriguing. Vitor Belfort snapped a three fight skid to defeat the recently retired Nate Marquardt in June. At the time, Belfort had seriously mulled retirement before back-tracking on his statements leading up to the fight. The move drew criticism as the nature of his losses had many feeling he had set up as perfect a career finale as he would ever be able to in his home country. Belfort made the decision to continue fighting and his bout in St. Louis will be against middleweight stand-out Uriah Hall.
Hall is coming off a Comeback of the Year candidate against Krzysztof Jotko. Jotko controlled the first round handily before Hall rallied and delivered a crushing strike to close the show in Pittsburgh that September night. Hall snapped a three-fight losing streak, and now faces the biggest name of his career in former champion Belfort.
The bout now has more at stake as Belfort has stated that his bout on Saturday is likely his last. He told Brazilian reporters that he was looking to rest his body and focus on his business endeavors such as his Belfort Fitness and Lifestyle franchises. He did tease that $10 million was his price to begin negotiations to return to action for the UFC or anywhere else. If it is truly the curtain call for “The Phenom” it concludes a Hall-of-Fame career that spans two decades.
While it will be difficult to top what could be an emotional co-main event, the featherweight headliners have the potential to put on a Fight of the Year. Stephens and Choi will be the last fighters to make the walk on a night that is featured with several fan favorites that will kick off MMA action in 2018.