THE UFC will be looking to kick off 2018 in style with a visit to St Louis’ Scottrade Center on January 14. It will be the first time they have put on a card in “The Gateway City” and headlining the action is a featherweight contest between Jeremy Stephens and Doo Ho Choi.
It is a welcome return to action for Choi, who sat out the whole of 2017 after his bruising encounter with Cub Swanson, a fight that earned fight of the year honours for many outlets in 2016. It was “The Korean Superboy’s” first loss in the Octagon, after he had previously dispatched three opponents in a combined time of less than a round.
He has already set his sights on a title shot in a red-hot 145lbs division and he doesn’t have much time to secure that, as he will soon be called back to South Korea for mandatory military service, similar to his compatriot and fellow ranked featherweight Chan Sung Jung, “The Korean Zombie”, who only returned this year after his losing effort against Jose Aldo in 2013.
Choi will have learned plenty from his loss to Swanson, a fight he specifically asked for and his stock rose even in defeat, and now he will find himself across the Octagon from another veteran in the division in Jeremy Stephens, who will be fighting in the UFC for the 27th time.
The 31-year-old is probably most famous for being on the receiving end of Conor McGregor’s “Who the f*** is that guy” line, but is an underrated fighter in the Octagon. He picked up a win in his last performance, where he shredded Gilbert Melendez’s legs with some nasty leg kicks in his last fight and a win over Choi sees the 145lbs gatekeeper back on the outskirts for his own potential shot at the belt.
Both carry power, Choi in particular, however “The Korean Superboy” will do well to get rid of Stephens, who has gone the distance with the likes Swanson, current champion Max Holloway and Anthony Pettis. As for Choi we will see if rust becomes a factor after a year on the sidelines. It’s an intriguing and potentially exciting way to start 2018.
In the chief support Uriah Hall has an opportunity to add a huge name to his ledger when he faces the legendary Vitor Belfort in a middleweight clash, who could well be making his final appearance in the Octagon.
Hall recently admitted that he considered quitting mid-fight last time out against Krzysztof Jotko, before having an epiphany in the corner and stopping the Pole in spectacular fashion to add to his considerable highlight reel. A similar stoppage of Belfort, albeit a diminished and less enhanced version, secures him another big fight.
Whether it is going to be Belfort’s last appearance in the Octagon, remains to be seen and he enters the fight off the back of a closely matched clash with the recently retired Nate Marquardt. Many have been calling for Belfort to call time on his career and another big loss to Hall will only intensify those calls.
The women’s flyweight division has now kicked off in earnest, following Nicco Montano’s crowning as champion at the end of the latest series of the Ultimate Fighter and two more will now look to their names into the hat to be the opponent in her first title defence.
Paige VanZant will return to the Octagon for the first time since December 2016, where she lost to Michelle Waterson, and will move up from strawweight after a year full of injury misery. She originally announced she would receive an immediate title shot, which was quickly shot down and she now has the chance to earn that title fight with Montano.
In the opposite corner will be Australian Jessica Rose Clark. She edged out Bec Rawlings, who was previously stopped by VanZant in 2016, by split decision in November to earn her current #10 ranking in the new division, although she did also miss weight after being called in as a late replacement.
VanZant has become more memorable for her achievements outside the Octagon and Saturday provides her with a chance to show us the talent that she possesses, although she will not have it all her own way against a durable and strong opponent in Clark.
Rounding out the main card will be a welterweight clash between two exciting prospects in Kamaru Usman and Emil Weber Meek. The fight was originally scheduled for UFC 219 in December, however a visa issue for Meek caused it to be re-scheduled to UFC 220 next week, before it was shifted to a higher spot on this card.
Usman won the 21st series of the Ultimate Fighter and has since embarked on a five fight winning streak to find himself ranked in the 170lb division. He sparked Sergio Moraes in stunning fashion last September after winning his previous four all by one-sided decisions.
Meek has found himself out of action since December 2016, after injury forced him to pull out of a scheduled fight Nordine Taleb last May. The win on his UFC debut over Jordan Mein was only the second time he had ever gone the distance in his career, with his 45 second win over former UFC and World Series of Fighting veteran Rousimar Palhares the definite standout moment.
His clash with Usman could well steal the show, although it could face stiff competition from Michael Johnson’s debut at featherweight, which will headline the preliminary card, when he comes up against Darren Elkins, who is currently on a five fight winning streak.
Johnson was half of a pulsating encounter with Justin Gaethje last year, however he has made the decision to drop down in weight and face Elkins, who enjoyed a breakthrough year in 2017. “The Damage” appeared seemingly indestructible in his comeback win over highly touted Mirsad Bektic last March and then earned a tight win over Dennis Bermudez in July. A win over Johnson earns him more name recognition.
Also on the preliminary card sees James Krause return at lightweight, whilst former welterweight title challenger Thiago Alves is also in action. Headlining the Fight Pass portion of the card is Jessica Eye. She was scheduled to fight VanZant last year and makes her flyweight bow against Kalindra Faria. No doubt she will look to finally get her hands on VanZant, who she claims avoided her, providing both win.