As the weather gets colder, the fights have begun to heat up. After three UFC championships were up for grabs during December — technically four, if you count the interim featherweight title — two more are on the docket for January.
First up, welterweight champion Robbie Lawler takes on former interim champ Carlos Condit during the first weekend of the new year. Two weeks later, Dominick Cruz looks to regain the title he never lost in the cage from current bantamweight kingpin T.J. Dillashaw.
These headliners, plus a Fox-broadcast card emanating from Newark’s Prudential Center on Jan. 30, make for a balanced month of mixed martial arts. Scroll down for more on these bouts, plus more of the pivotal contests set for January. All rankings in parentheses come from my personal rankings, which are available to view in full at www.ufc.com/rankings.
Jan. 2: UFC 195 (Las Vegas)
- Welterweight Title: Robbie Lawler (C, 6 pound-for-pound) vs. Carlos Condit (5)
- Heavyweight: Andrei Arlovski (2) vs. Stipe Miocic (6)
- Bantamweight: Michael McDonald vs. Masanori Kanehara
The event is not the deepest in terms of ranked fighters, but the title fight is poised to be an early Fight of the Year candidate. Both champ and challenger are action fighters who’ve been in their fair share of bloody wars. Condit is highly durable and often improves during rounds 4 and 5. Although Lawler has reached deep in previous fights to gut out victories, look for Condit to steal away the title with a late submission.
The co-main event could produce the next heavyweight title challenger, especially if free agent Alistair Overeem signs elsewhere. Former champion Arlovski’s career resurgence has been a terrific story, but he’s not blowing away his opponents. The dangerous game he plays will leave him vulnerable to the younger, more athletic Miocic. This should be Miocic’s biggest win to date, and he’ll do it via knockout.
McDonald isn’t in my rankings, but that’s only due to inactivity. The 24-year-old former top contender has been battling injuries since his last fight in December 2013. As long as his talent hasn’t weathered away, he should run through the capable Kanehara and rejoin the top 10.
Jan. 17: UFC Fight Night: Dillashaw vs. Cruz (Boston)
- Bantamweight Title: T.J. Dillashaw (C, 8 P4P) vs. Dominick Cruz (1, 7 P4P)
- Lightweight: Anthony Pettis (1) vs. Eddie Alvarez (4)
- Heavyweight: Travis Browne (7) vs. Matt Mitrione
- Light Heavyweight: Tim Boetsch (14 MW) vs. Ed Herman
Cruz was stripped of his title during an injury-ravaged four-year period in which he competed just once — a 1-minute thrashing of top-10 bantamweight Takeya Mizugaki. Dillashaw has looked stellar during his championship reign, but the biggest obstacle in Cruz’s way is cage rust. That alone shouldn’t hinder the former champ, his division’s most accomplished fighter ever, from reclaiming his belt in an active fight that should go the distance.
In a potential title eliminator at 155 pounds, former champion Pettis will be tested by Alvarez in his first bout since dropping the belt. Pettis has so many paths to victory given his finish-oriented striking and submission arsenal, but Alvarez is a tough out. Still, Pettis will do more over three rounds to earn the decision.
This likely represents the last chance for Mitrione, 37, to rise above gatekeeper status and become a contender. It doesn’t bode well for him, even against an opponent who hasn’t been as sharp over the last two years. Browne is more disciplined and, likely, a better striker who will score a ninth UFC victory.
Aging middleweights Boetsch and Herman are moving up to 205 pounds, where the weight cuts will be easier and competition not as deep. Boetsch’s strength should be the great equalizer against Herman as “The Barbarian” takes a decision.
Jan. 30: UFC on Fox: Johnson vs. Bader (Newark)
- Light Heavyweight: Anthony Johnson (2) vs. Ryan Bader (3)
- Heavyweight: Ben Rothwell (3) vs. Josh Barnett (8)
- Welterweight: Jake Ellenberger (13) vs. Tarec Saffiedine (14)
- Bantamweight: Iuri Alcantara (12) vs. Jimmie Rivera
- Flyweight: Dustin Ortiz (11) vs. Wilson Reis
Although no belts are up for grabs, Johnson and Bader are the two finest 205ers who’ve yet to wear UFC gold. Both pack fight-ending power and can wrestle, although Johnson’s striking is more powerful and Bader is the better grappler. This fight is Bader’s to lose, though. He’ll need to weather the early storm, but Johnson’s gas tank shouldn’t take him past the first seven minutes. Look for Bader to fight smart and take over late to get the nod from the judges.
Rothwell can throw a monkey wrench into the complicated heavyweight title picture with an impressive showing against Barnett. He may find that harder than he hopes, as Barnett is a capable striker with excellent submission wrestling skills. An early finish for Barnett via choke wouldn’t be a surprise.
Ellenberger’s star has fallen since a 2011 upset of Jake Shields. All of his wins since are against fading fighters, which wouldn’t seem to describe Saffiedine. A predictable striking game won’t be enough for Ellenberger as the Belgian picks him apart standing en route to a decision.
This is Rivera’s big chance to break into the rankings. The crowd will be on the fighter with ties to both Brooklyn and New Jersey against one of the division’s better gatekeepers. Look for Rivera to rise to the occasion and outstrike his Brazilian foe for his 18th consecutive victory.
Ortiz flies just under the radar at 125 pounds, but might be a win or two from a title fight given champion Demetrious Johnson has beaten almost everyone else. He should be able to steer clear of Reis’ grappling and outpoint the Brazilian.
Outside the octagon...
Jan. 16: Invicta FC 15 (Costa Mesa, California)
- Women’s Featherweight Title: Cristiane Justino (C) vs. Daria Ibragimova
- Women’s Strawweight Title: Livia Renata Souza (C) vs. DeAnna Bennett
“Cyborg” won’t be fighting Ronda Rousey any time soon, but the top 145-pound woman in the world will be headlining Invicta’s first event of 2016. Expect her to crush Ibragimova, as she does everyone else in her division.
The co-main slot should be more competitive. Either woman could find herself in the UFC sooner rather than later, but Bennett has faced tougher competition with aplomb. She deserves to be the favorite over the champion.