UFC Orlando will feature high stakes as fighters look to break into the title picture and ranked contenders continue their climb up the ladder.
The main criticism of UFC Orlando has been that the headliner felt hastily put together. If that is the case, then credit has to be given to the UFC for finding a near-guaranteed barn-burner in the featherweight collision between Jeremy Stephens and Josh Emmett. Both men are vying to be on the short list for a shot at the title and the winner would arguably be next when the current title picture gets sorted out.
For Jeremy Stephens, “Lil’ Heathen” is in the best stretch of his career after several years of putting on exciting battles in the UFC. His hard-hitting style has brought him several performance bonuses during his run, but he has consistently fallen short of getting into the title picture. In 26 fights in the Octagon since 2007, he has won three fights in a row only once. In fact, this year marks his first time putting together back-to-back wins since 2013.
That’s not to say Stephens hasn’t come through in big moments. He has had career defining knockouts over the likes of Rafael dos Anjos, and Doo Ho Choi just a month ago, over the years. While he’s embraced his journeyman status in the past, 2018 could be his greatest opportunity to get into the title picture.
Champion Max Holloway has won a dozen fights in a row and is close to having swept the field at 145. After falling out of his bout with Frankie Edgar in March, “The Answer” is now facing fellow surging featherweight, Brian Ortega. This means that while one of them will move on to fight for the title, the loser may well fall out of contention. The winner of Stephens and Emmett this Saturday would then become the next logical contender for the belt after Edgar or Ortega. This would be a huge jump for Stephens who was on a two-fight losing skid just last year.
Josh Emmett had not yet started professional MMA when Stephens began brawling his way through the ranks. Even with three victories in the UFC since his debut in 2016, he was still operating in anonymity when he took a short notice bout against Ricardo Lamas last December. The bout was supposed to be an obvious mismatch, Lamas was a former title challenger preparing for a rematch with the most dominant featherweight of all-time in José Aldo. Instead, Lamas struggled with the larger and more explosive Emmett and the “The Grim Reaper” was able to score a first-round KO that catapulted him into the rankings. Currently, Emmett is ranked fourth in the division while Stephens is ranked seventh. Should the title picture play out without any more setbacks, Emmett could go from unknown to title contender within the next twelve months.
In the co-main event, the strawweight division will have a critical bout as former title challenger Jessica Andrade takes on top contender Tecia Torres. While champion Rose Namajunas will rematch Joanna Jędrzejczyk in April, the UFC Orlando co-main event winner would be the clear top contender in the division.
Andrade ran through the division after moving down from bantamweight, losing only to Jędrzejczyk in May of last year. She rebounded from the loss by throttling top contender Claudia Gadelha in stunning fashion, dominating the woman who many argued was the second best in the world. Because the loss to Jędrzejczyk is still recent and was one-sided, a title shot may not be imminent if the Polish striker regains her title. However, a Namajunas victory would set Andrade up for another shot at the belt as she has never faced “Thug Rose.”
Torres is 10-1 in her career with victories over Namajunas, Felice Herrig, and Paige VanZant. Her only loss came in a razor-close decision to Namajunas in 2016. Injury kept her out of action for nine months, but she returned in February of 2017 to rattle off three straight victories. Most recently, she outworked fan-favorite Michelle Waterson at UFC 218. The fight was expected to be a number one contender fight for “The Tiny Tornado” as she was the highest ranked fighter yet to face former champion Jędrzejczyk and a rubber match with Namajunas was expected to provide fireworks after their first two bouts were electrifying. With the Namajunas-Jędrzejczyk rematch now set, Torres elected to challenge Andrade for the guarantee of the next title shot regardless of who walks away with the belt in April.
While the night’s headliners will be in critical bouts in their respective divisions, the entire main card is stacked with decent action as Ovince Saint Preux looks for his fourth straight victory and the always exciting Mike Perry returns against Max Griffin. In one of the final cards as the winter winds down, the UFC is expected to heat up the Florida night with a stacked night of action.