UFC Utica: Murphy and Eubanks Lost in the Shuffle?

UFC Utica Lauren Murphy Sijara Eubanks
Credit: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

Sijara Eubanks and Lauren Murphy should be fighting for a shot at the flyweight championship at UFC Utica. But with the division in flux, is a title shot still in the cards for the winner?

Last December, Lauren Murphy and Sijara Eubanks were set to participate in the biggest night in women’s flyweight history as the UFC crowned their inaugural champion. The card concluded their season of The Ultimate Fighter and no less than six flyweight fights were on the card. Several months later, however, both women are on the outside looking in at the title picture.

Lauren Murphy, unwillingly, became the breakout star of Season 27 of TUF. Her feud with coach Eddie Alvarez became a weekly storyline on the show. She was heavily criticized for having looked ahead of her opponent, future champion Nicco Montaño, during her run. To add insult to injury, both Alvarez and commentator Daniel Cormier incorrectly addressed her as fellow castmate Barb Honchak in moments that went viral on social media.

But lost in her notoriety was the fact that she entered the show as one of the most experienced fighters in the cast and the only one with previous experience fighting for the UFC. She earned redemption at the finale in December, stepping in on 24 hours notice to defeat former Invicta FC champion Honchak. The victory put her in third place in the rankings and the opportunity to knock off another top contender from her season.

If Murphy’s storyline on the show culminated in redemption, then Sijara Eubanks was one left disappointedly unfinished. Eubanks made the final with an impressive run in the house, defeating number-one ranked Roxanne Modafferi. But, her success was marred by struggles to make weight. Twice, she needed up to the eleventh hour to make the 125-pound limit. At the finale with a chance to become the inaugural women’s flyweight champion of the UFC, Eubanks would end up pulling out of the fight stemming from health complications during her weight cut.

Nicco Montaño would go on to win the championship, and this will now be Eubanks’ first official fight since January of 2017. Just months ago, she was on the cusp of completing an incredible underdog story to become UFC champion. While the fight with Murphy will keep her at the top of the rankings, it is not lost on anyone that the situation at flyweight has changed drastically since the weekend she could have competed for gold.  For one, the division is still awaiting Montaño’s return to action where it is unanimously acknowledged that Valentina Shevchenko will get the first shot at the belt.

Outside of those two, Andrea “KGB” Lee made her UFC debut earlier this month in a performance that was widely praised. The number-one ranked flyweight in the world, Jennifer Maia, is also set to make her debut this July. While a victory over Murphy would go a long way in rebuilding confidence in the fans and organization, the fact remains that it does not figure to put her back in the title fight she earned last year on the show.

Stylistically, the bout pits two fighters who do their best work coming forward. For Murphy, she does her best when attacking with high volume and has proven she isn’t afraid to eat a few shots in order to close the distance and keep applying forward pressure. Eubanks tends to come forward winging large power shots and displayed her fight ending power while on the show. For Murphy, the key will be to wear down Eubanks over time and keep her guard high as she looks to walk down “Sarj.” For Eubanks, Murphy has struggled when opponents stand their ground so it’s imperative that she stays away from the fence and gives herself the best chance to impose her will against “Lucky.”

Depending on how impressive they are, the winner of Saturday’s contest would be considered as high as the third in line for the belt. The division is waiting for the business to be settled with Nicco Montaño, after which the title picture will be clearer. Jennifer Maia, should she win her UFC debut in July, figures to be next for the belt after Valentina Shevchenko. That would leave the winner of Murphy and Eubanks looking for a top contender like Andrea Lee or Alexis Davis to put themselves over the top to secure a fight for the belt. While the route is more convoluted than it was six months ago, the end goal is the same as it was last year when the two embarked on The Ultimate Fighter: to win the world championship.