Written by Kieran Green (@kierlfc12)
With a sense of normality appearing to be in touching distance amidst the ongoing pandemic, the UFC are ramping things up in preparation for the imminent return of fans to events.
The matchmaking staff have been hard at work, recently unveiling a series of star studded bouts that will take place over the coming months, with a World Heavyweight Championship bout between Stipe Miocic and Francis Ngannou kicking things off for the promotion this Saturday.
However the recent announcements have seen notable fighters across the divisions left in the dark, with rumours over their future activity put to bed as a result, and fans left speculating over their potential 2021 matchups.
These are some of the biggest and most exciting UFC fights that we could see during the remainder of this year, involving fighters who are yet to have any bookings announced by the company.
Dan Ige (15-3) vs The Korean Zombie (16-6)
Dan Ige will be looking to establish himself as a top contender in the Featherweight division, as he emerges off the back of an empathic first round victory over Gavin Tucker earlier this month. It took him less than half a minute to dispatch his opponent with no damage sustained, and a quick turnaround will be needed in order to ensure he continues to climb up the 145lb ladder.
Ige was quick to call out the number five-ranked Zombie during his post fight interview, knowing that a win over such a big name is his chance to capture the attention of the division. The potential to see this happen is incredibly realistic, with Zombie emerging from a heavy loss to title-contender Brian Ortega towards the back end of last year.
Stylistically the two are very similar, with the prospect of a meeting in 2021 certain to get the fans talking. Nobody currently makes more sense for Zombie to fight than Ige, with a victory over a lesser ranked opponent pivotal to his own chances of contention.
This fight seems a realistic option for both men, and it will definitely be interesting to see whether the matchmakers catch wind of the excitement surrounding this one.
Justin Gaethje (23-2) vs Nate Diaz (21-12)
The UFC lightweight division has been shaken up in the midst of Khabib Nurmagomedov announcing his retirement, with the activity within it a huge talking point throughout the MMA community.
It was announced recently that newcomer Michael Chandler will fight Charles Olivera for the vacant title on the May 15th card, whilst number one contender Dustin Poirier has chosen to seek a trilogy bout with Conor McGregor for a rumoured date in July.
This news has left the former interim-champion Gaethje in nomansland, with very few in the top 10 a viable option if he is to stake a claim for another title shot.
With speculation that Tony Ferguson is booked to fight Beneil Dariush in May, and a rebooking of Makhachev vs Dos Anjos looking likely, there is nobody in the picture for ‘The Highlight’ – who claims he was originally supposed to fight Chandler for the belt instead of Olivera.
Dana White announced earlier this year that they were working on an ‘exciting fight’ for Diaz at lightweight, with the Stockton native having been inactive since his infamous ‘BMF’ bout in 2019. With the top end of the division all gradually receiving their bookings, circulating rumours regarding a fight between Diaz and Gaethje have intensified as a result.
Whilst Diaz is not a ranked opponent, his overall popularity within the sport could prove enough to leapfrog Gaethje to contention status once more with a victory. The same goes for Diaz, who would find himself in and amongst the top names if he were to dispatch his 155lb counterpart.
Could we be treated to an all-out war between Diaz and Gaethje this year? Only time will tell.
Leon Edwards (18-3-1NC) vs Stephen Thompson (16-4-1)
The UFC welterweight division has been an incredibly hot topic within MMA as of late, with numerous heads within the rankings pushing for a title opportunity.
The champion Kamaru Usman looks to be incredibly active this year, with an illustrious second meeting with Jorge Masvial pencilled in for UFC 261 on April 24th, and a successful defence against Gilbert Burns last month already added to his resume.
One man who feels as if he should have been next in line is Leon Edwards, who seems to have been plagued with horrendous luck over the past 12 months.
The number-three ranked Englishman had several bookings cancelled amidst the pandemic, before his two-year absence from the cage was recently ended with a disappointing no contest with Belal Muhammed.
‘Rocky’ Edwards has been incredibly vocal in airing his thoughts on the current state of the division, believing it should be him fighting for the belt next. However with just over five minutes in the cage under his belt since 2019, Edwards needs a proper contest to rid himself of the ring rust before he is to enter the title equation.
With Colby Covington seemingly refusing to face off against anybody but Usman or Masvidal, who better for Edwards to fight than Thompson?
‘Wonderboy’ has been calling out Edwards for a while, and deserves a higher ranked opponent after picking up wins in his last two outings. His unique karate style could prove difficult for Edwards, with a fight between the two certain to provide fireworks if it were to ever happen.
Whilst I do think Edwards deserves to fight for UFC gold, he still needs one more fight to realise this dream. Despite being adamant that he will be avoiding Thompson, the champion booked up anyway – he cannot afford to waste more time on the sidelines.
Edwards has to take the chance to fully get back to business against a phenomenal Welterweight in Wonderboy – with victory certain to make him next to challenge for UFC gold.
Petr Yan (15-2) vs Aljamain Sterling (20-3) 2
This is one that hardly needs explaining.
Reigning champion Petr Yan lost his Bantamweight world championship at UFC 259, after the Russian was disqualified by throwing an illegal knee to the head of his opponent.
Yan was dictating the pace and arguably winning the fight as they headed into the fourth round, but his actions from then onwards that night resulted in the first time a belt has ever changed hands due to disqualification in UFC history.
The fans want to see the rematch, the fighters want the rematch, and Dana White wants the rematch. Running this one back seems to be an absolute no-brainer, especially after a potential ‘fight of the night’ contender was ended in such controversial circumstances.
Despite what happened, both men emerged from the first meeting unharmed, ensuring that they should be able to get back in there relatively soon. I would expect to see this fight around July or August of this year, but it would be unsurprising to see it happen sooner given how keen everybody is for the rematch.
Whilst he technically holds the belt, Aljamain Sterling knows that it will never truly belong to him unless he overcomes Yan. The potential to see an explosive rematch between the two is a matter of ‘when’ as opposed to ‘if’, and fans should expect to see this fight announced very soon.
Derrick Lewis (25-7-1NC) vs Ciryl Gane (8-0)
The undefeated Ciryl Gane has made a name for himself as one of the most dangerous heavyweights on the UFC roster, with his incredible hand speed and fight IQ catapulting him to number 4 in the rankings.
Whilst a recent points victory over Jairzinho Rozenstruik was not the most eye-catching showcase of his skills, Gane was still able to intelligently finish the job inside the UFC Apex that night.
It seemed fairly obvious to UFC fans that the winner would be facing off against Derrick Lewis, who has already added to his winning column this year following a devastating knock-out of Curtis Blaydes.
Whilst Gane is technically the superior fighter, Lewis boasts superb punching-power, and spectators will be treated to some fantastic boxing should this fight be made any time soon.
In a slugfest of a division where one punch can change the tide of a fight, nobody can confidently predict the outcome of a bout involving Gane and Lewis, which is something that can only add hype to such an intriguing matchup.
Who do you want to see face off inside the UFC octagon in 2021? Let us know!