After a four-week gap between shows, the UFC is set to return to action next weekend, kicking off its 2021 schedule with a bang. Naturally, all the hype is on the big UFC fights involving the likes of Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier. But even on January’s UFC cards, some great fights are flying under the radar.
So with that in mind, forget about the UFC’s biggest superstars. Here are five underrated UFC fights that you absolutely need to watch in January 2021.
#1 Santiago Ponzinibbio vs. Li Jingliang – UFC Fight Island 7
UFC Fight Island 7 has Max Holloway vs. Calvin Kattar as its main event. And if that wasn’t enough, the co-main event sees a Welterweight clash between action heroes Carlos Condit and Matt Brown – a dream match back in 2013-14.
However, the truth is that both Brown and Condit are past their primes these days. That means that the most intriguing Welterweight bout by a mile on this card sees Santiago Ponzinibbio taking on Li Jingliang.
Ponzinibbio was once considered a high-level UFC Welterweight title contender, but over two years on the shelf have left him as the division’s forgotten man. However, the native of Argentina is still on a massive seven-fight win streak in the UFC, and a victory here would throw him right back into contention.
Meanwhile, Li was on quite the streak of his own – seven wins in eight fights – before Neil Magny halted his momentum at UFC 248 last March. But The Leech is still a tricky match for anyone, with high-end skills in all areas.
Add in the fact that both men bring an aggression-heavy style into the Octagon, particularly in their striking, and will definitely hunt for a finish. This is a UFC Welterweight clash that you won’t want to miss.
#2 Joaquin Buckley vs. Alessio Di Chirico – UFC Fight Island 7
Outside of Khamzat Chimaev, perhaps no other new UFC fighter made a mark in 2020 as big as that of Joaquin Buckley. New Mansa debuted in the UFC in August to practically zero fanfare in a loss to Kevin Holland. But his second fight went a little differently.
Buckley knocked out Impa Kasanganay with a spectacular spinning back kick, a knockout that instantly went viral across the internet. Suddenly, millions of people knew who Buckley was, if only for a handful of weeks.
The knockout may well prove to be Buckley’s high watermark in the UFC, but a follow-up KO win over Jordan Wright suggested that he may well have more potential than anyone expected. That’s why his upcoming clash with Alessio Di Chirico is so intriguing.
Di Chirico is not a UFC title contender by any means. In fact, the Italian is on a three-fight losing streak in the UFC. But he’s tough, has skills in all areas, and is more than capable of grinding a hype train to a halt – just ask Julian Marquez, who fell to him in 2018.
If Buckley can get past the Italian and bring his UFC record to 3-1 – particularly if he can become the first man to KO him – then it’d be hard not to see New Mansa as one of the UFC’s fastest rising stars. If he fails, though, it’ll prove that his viral KO was probably as good as it’s going to get for him.
#3 Phil Hawes vs. Nassourdine Imavov – UFC Fight Island 7
It’s fair to say that even the most hardcore UFC fans probably won’t have heard of Nassourdine Imavov. The native of France isn’t a UFC debutant, as he first appeared in the Octagon back in October. Imavov defeated Jordan Williams on the prelim card of the UFC Fight Island 4 event – a show in itself that flew under the radar.
Imavov didn’t really display any stand-out skills in that fight either. He simply showed that he was a slightly sharper striker than Williams and had the defensive grappling to survive his opponent’s submission attempts.
So why is this fight even on this list? Because simply put, Phil Hawes is one of the very best prospects in the UFC Middleweight division right now, meaning any fight involving him is a must-see.
A phenomenal natural athlete who was an outstanding collegiate wrestler out of Iowa State, Hawes earned a UFC contract by destroying his opponent on Dana White’s Contender Series last September. He then made good on his UFC debut by taking out Jacob Malkoun in just 18 seconds, in what was one of the UFC’s fastest finishes of 2020.
Basically, if everything follows the script, this should be another showcase fight for Hawes, who is a far better athlete and overall fighter than Imavov. If Megatron can destroy the Frenchman and go 2-0 in the UFC, expect the hype train to really leave the station.
#4 Matt Schnell vs. Tyson Nam – UFC Fight Island 8
The UFC’s Flyweight division is in an interesting position right now for the first time in what feels like an age. Free from the yoke of an unmarketable champion in Demetrious Johnson and a champion who wasn’t interested in the division in Henry Cejudo, 125lbs has never been more exciting.
Not only does the division have a new champion – Deiveson Figueiredo – who’s already defended his title twice in entertaining fashion, but there are plenty of fresh contenders moving up the ranks too.
Two of those contenders are Matt Schnell and Tyson Nam. On paper, neither man should really be a contender. But in this new era at Flyweight, one more win could put either into that zone.
Nam actually lost his first two UFC fights, but came back well last year and finished both of his opponents, albeit in late-notice fights at Bantamweight. Schnell, meanwhile, was last seen in a wild loss to high-ranked contender Alexandre Pantoja. But before that, he’d reeled off five straight wins.
Add in the fact that both men have a high octane, exciting fighting style, and a win for either would almost certainly propel them into the upper echelon of the UFC’s Flyweight division. And with the extra attention that the division is being given right now, this one is definitely worth watching.
#5 Shane Burgos vs. Hakeem Dawodu – UFC 257
Neither of these two Featherweights are truly close to UFC title contention right now. But there aren’t many cooler-sounding fights than this scheduled for January.
Simply put, Shane Burgos and Hakeem Dawodu are two of the best strikers in the UFC Featherweight division right now. And they seem tailor-made to bring the best out of one another.
Burgos looked like he was heading directly for the elite level at 145lbs when he defeated Cub Swanson in 2019 and followed that with a KO win over Makwan Amirkhani. A tight decision loss to Josh Emmett last year derailed him a little, but the fight itself was one of the best of 2020.
Dawodu, meanwhile, has won his last two fights via split decision, But considering his last win came over the highly-rated Zubaira Tukhugov, he still seems on the fast track to stardom.
More to the point, Dawodu has been criticized in the past for a style that relies too heavily on counter-striking, but that shouldn’t be an issue here. Burgos is a straight-ahead, aggressive stalker – meaning Dawodu will have plenty of opportunity to engage him.
Basically, this sounds like the kind of fight that UFC President Dana White loves – two guys going toe-to-toe until one man can’t take any more. It’s an absolutely unmissable fight, even on a mega-card like UFC 257.
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