After two weeks without a UFC fight, the wait is over. Another weekend is closing in, and another exciting card is almost upon us. Once again, this week’s card is set for the UFC APEX in Las Vegas, in what looks to be one of the final cards to be held at the facility without fans.
The UFC is set to welcome back a full crowd at UFC 261 next month. A 15,000 strong audience will enjoy live action at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. The event will mark the first to be held in front of a full crowd in over a year. The word ‘excited’ has never meant more.
Understandably, fans are looking ahead to the return of a crowd and three title fights this month. But it’s worth remembering the APEX isn’t finished providing us with great matchups just yet.
UFC Vegas 23
Headlining this weekend's UFC Vegas 23 card, Marvin Vettori was set to face Darren Till. In a disappointing development for Till and the UFC's passionate European fanbase, the Englishman suffered a broken collarbone in training, forcing him to withdraw from the card. It might be a while before we see 'The Gorilla' return to action.
On just 10 day's notice, Kevin Holland will face "The Italian Dream," three weeks after he went a full 25 minutes with Derek Brunson at UFC Vegas 22.
Nevertheless, we're still treated to a solid card with some promising contenders and rising stars. With that said, here are five names to look out for this Saturday at UFC Vegas 23.
#5 Sasha Palatnikov
There isn’t a better way to start a card than the fight Sasha Palatnikov and Louis Cosce gave us at UFC 255. Nothing even comes close.
Opening the event in style, the two debutants left everything in the Octagon. It was a slugfest. Palatnikov, 32, looked finished early. He was downed multiple times and appeared to be dazed and rocked. The recovery he produced was quite incredible.
Representing Hong Kong, Palatnikov put the region on the map with one of the rounds of the year and perhaps the best prelim bout of 2020. The 32-year-old completed one of the great UFC comebacks, forcing a TKO stoppage in the final round. Not a bad way to make your promotional debut.
Palatnikov makes his second walk to the octagon this weekend, and it’s set to be another exciting one. Impa Kasanganay will be standing opposite him in the cage, as ‘Tshilobo’ makes his first appearance since being brutally knocked out by Joaquin Buckley’s spinning kick last October.
After recording an 8-0 record before his trip to Abu Dhabi, Kasanganay will be looking to turn attention away from the highlight reel KO and back to his own impressive performances.
With Kasanganay's need to win and Palatnikov sporting his pink and green ankle tape and looking to thrill fans for a second consecutive fight, this could be a classic prelim encounter.
#4 Erin Blanchfield
After UFC 260, I said that Miranda Maverick was the clear top future star on the UFC's women's roster. She might be about to have some competition. Becoming one of the youngest fighters in the promotion, Erin Blanchfield is set to debut at UFC Vegas 23.
Last week, we broke the news of Blanchfield's exciting arrival, which came after Bea Malecki was ruled out. Looking to live up to her moniker, 'Cold Blooded' Blanchfield will step into the octagon for the first time against Norma 'The Immortal' Dumont.
At just 21-years-old, Blanchfield's potential is off the charts. After suffering her one and only loss against Tracy Cortez at Invicta FC 34, the New Jersey-born fighter is on a three-fight winning streak. With submission, KO and unanimous decision wins across the period, Blanchfield's recent form has shown her vast array of skills.
Blanchfield will be looking to extend her streak to four with a win over Dumont this Saturday night. The Brazilian has also only lost one professional bout.
Erin Blanchfield is one to watch at UFC Vegas 23, and one to watch for the future.
#3 Jack Shore
Jack Shore is one of the main faces of the developing MMA scene in Wales. Not many prospects have impressed as much as the 26-year-old has, both prior to his promotional debut and in his UFC career so far. ‘Tank’ is now set for his first UFC fight on US soil.
Before making his promotional debut two years ago, Shore had amassed a perfect 11-0 record. As if that wasn’t promising enough, he'd remarkably finished 10 of his opponents. There aren’t many names coming out of the United Kingdom as promising as Shore. He has been seriously impressive.
After fighting under the promotional banner of Cage Warriors, Shore made his much-anticipated first walk to the UFC octagon in 2019. A rear-naked choke marked his first step onto the sport’s biggest stage. He delivered the same finish to Aaron Phillips in Abu Dhabi last summer.
Unbeaten in 13 professional fights and 2-0 in the UFC, Shore will look to climb further up the bantamweight division this Saturday when he faces Hunter Azure.
As he looks to complete a hat-trick of UFC wins, Shore's fight at UFC Vegas 23 is set to be his toughest yet. Opposite the Welshman will be Hunter Azure. Alongside an intimidating name, Azure possesses all-round great MMA skills.
The former FFL featherweight champion is unbeaten, aside from a KO loss to Brian Kelleher last May. A unanimous decision victory over Cole Smith later in the year brought the American back into the win column. Both men are coming into this fight in some form. Speaking ahead of the fight, Abertillery's Shore said:
"It's a good chance to showcase some of the UK's talent for the Americans watching...It's a good chance for me to open some eyes in America and hopefully gain some American fans and I'm looking forward to using this platform to propel my name over there."
Jack Shore vs. Hunter Azure could be wild. This is certainly not one to miss.
#2 Mackenzie Dern
Mackenzie Dern is a laughing, smiling, dancing and all-round positive character outside of the octagon. But when the cage door is closed, she is a submission phenom.
Nearly eight months after recording her first MMA defeat against Amanda Ribas, Dern entered the octagon for the first time in 2020 last May. In the months that followed, she was to establish herself as a top contender in the division.
First-round submission wins over Hannah Cifers and Randa Markos were followed by a unanimous decision win over the dangerous Virna Jandiroba. ‘Carcara’ was 16-1 until she met Mackenzie Dern.
As one of the card’s bigger names, Dern’s return to action is highly anticipated. At UFC Vegas 23, she’ll take on fifth-ranked women’s strawweight Nina Ansaroff. The Brazilian is already tipped by many to be the greatest threat to Zhang Weili’s reign. A win on Saturday will take her a step closer to the champion.
Watch our exclusive interview with Mackenzie Dern below, as the Brazilian-American strawweight discussed her upcoming fight with Sportskeeda's Andrew Whitelaw:
#1 Arnold Allen
Arnold Allen boasts just about every attribute you’d look for in a prospect. At just 27-years-old, age is on his side. He has hunger, drive, determination, submission skills and power. With 17 professional MMA fights, he has experience. Lastly, although irrelevant for his MMA abilities, Arnold ‘Almighty’ Allen has a top-class alliterative name. If there’s anything I love more than a great MMA fighter, it’s a great MMA fighter with a great name…
Since debuting for the UFC in 2015 as a 22-year-old future star, Allen has racked up wins. Victories over Makwan Amirkhani, Gilbert Melendez and Nik Lentz have contributed to a perfect 7-0 UFC record.
In this weekend’s co-main, Allen will go toe-to-toe with another one of the UFC’s top prospects, the man they call ‘Super’ Sodiq Yusuff.
Yusuff, 27, broke onto the scene during series 14 of Dana White’s Contender Series. Four wins from four fights in the UFC since, the most recent of which was over Andre Fili in 2020, has brought the Nigerian to the brink of a top-10 featherweight ranking.
The connotations of this fight really are huge. It will see two highly touted prospects fight for the chance to secure a big name fight later in the year. It stands to reason that the man with his arm raised come Saturday night could be on his way to the top of the division.