On Saturday night the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada hosts the headlining event of International Fight Week, UFC 239.
The card has been crafted admirably. The best male and female mixed martial artists the sport has ever seen sit at the top with their respective UFC championships on the line. The in-cage prowess of Jon Jones and Amanda Nunes has been the promotional focus leading into the event.
The texture of the 12-fight-lineup sees plenty on the line elsewhere too. Not least for a number of women whose appearances see them desperately clinging on to top-level relevance.
At UFC 239 the Last Chance Saloon will be open for business. Seats at the bar have been reserved for four fighters whose windows of opportunity are on the verge of being blacked out.
Third Time Lucky for Kianzad?
Four years ago Pannie Kianzad was considered one of the bantamweight division’s most exciting prospects. The Iranian-born Swedish fighter held an unblemished professional record that included wins over Lina Lansberg, Milana Dudieva and Jessy Jess.
With a Cage Warriors title on the resume, a step up in competition was inevitable. Invicta Fighting Championships duly obliged, pitting Kianzad against their bantamweight champion Tonya Evinger.
Kianzad failed to make weight before being dominated for the eight and a half minutes the bout lasted. Defeats to Raquel Pa’aluhi and Sarah Kaufman followed.
After winning her first eight professional contests, Kianzad has now lost four of her last seven. On Saturday “Banzai” hopes to defeat Julia Avila to improve that record.
For Kianzad, winning impressively is more important than ever. The fighter’s awkward relationship with the UFC has the 27-year-old in a perilous position before she has even made her return.
In 2013 Kianzad had been lined up for a spot on The Ultimate Fighter 18. It was a major opportunity for a fighter so early in their career. The UFC had only recently introduced the women’s bantamweight division, and TUF 18 would be the first time that women had competed on the reality show.
More than that, the head coach rivalry between emerging megastar Ronda Rousey, and former Strikeforce champion Miesha Tate, ensured the show was gaining plenty of media attention.
Kianzad never appeared on TUF 18, with issues surrounding her weight opening the door for Valerie Letourneau to take her place.
When the fighter had developed further, building a 7-0 professional record and winning the Cage Warriors title the UFC weren’t interested. Kianzad instead wound up in Invicta.
Then in 2018, with the promotion desperate to fill slots for The Ultimate Fighter 28 in a featherweight division bereft of talent, Kianzad was given a second chance.
The lineup for that season was one of the worst in the show’s history, but Kianzad worked her way to the final before being defeated by Macy Chiasson. Her contract was not extended beyond the show.
It says plenty that despite getting that far in the competition, the UFC still chose not to sign Kianzad. Even more so when you consider how desperate for numbers both the women’s bantamweight and featherweight divisions were at the time, and remain to this day.
Even this most recent assignment has been presented by default. Julia Avila was supposed to make her UFC debut against Melissa Gatto. Kianzad was shoehorned in as a late replacement after Gatto was removed from the card on June 24.
If Kianzad loses in the UFC 239 opener on Saturday night, don’t be surprised to see the UFC bail on her again.
Now or Never for TUF 20’s Surprise Package
In 2014, Randa Markos left The Ultimate Fighter 20 house as one of the season’s surprise packages. Wins over Tecia Torres and Felice Herrig earned Markos the prospect tag in a quickly developing division.
That level of future expectation was quickly tempered. Since her semi-final defeat to Rose Namajunas, the 33-year-old has lost as often as she has won, and rarely displayed top-five potential even in victory.
Four of Markos’ five UFC wins have been followed by a defeat. Her most recent, submitting former Invicta FC champion Angela Hill in March, gives Markos one more chance at developing a win streak and climbing up the 115 pound ladder.
This might be Markos’ last chance to make a real impact. Thus far, all but one of the elite fighters the Iraqi-born Canadian has faced handed her a defeat.
The exception was a poorly judged decision victory against Carla Esparza in Markos’ Canada, Markos’ adopted homeland.
Now as the once daunting prospect of facing Claudia Gadelha at UFC 239 approaches, Markos may never have a better chance of adding a championship calibre win to her resume.
The win against Hill was Markos’ most decisive victory since 2013. The signs were there that finally it might all be coming together for a fighter who now has 16 professional fights under her belt and should have reached her peak.
Combine that with the possibility that Gadelha is not the same formidable force she once was, and this becomes a winnable fight. Something few would have expected a couple of years ago.
The reality is that if it doesn’t happen for Markos now, it probably never will.
Top Fighters Beat Randa Markos – What if Gadelha Can’t?
Once considered the best strawweight on the planet, Claudia Gadelha was signed by the UFC as the uncrowned champion of their newest division.
The Brazilian was a fighter with a legitimate claim to world-number-one status. The emergence of Joanna Jedrzejczyk provided Gadelha with her only equal in the division.
Through eight rounds, spanning two fights, the two pushed each other harder than any of their previous opponents had. The judging was at times questionable, but the fighter’s performances were not.
It seemed Jedrzejczyk was the only fighter capable of defeating Gadelha, as the two sat head and shoulders above the rest of their division.
That was until Gadelha met Jessica Andrade in September 2017. Having displayed the best offensive wrestling the strawweight division had to offer in all of her previous UFC bouts, Gadelha was womanhandled in the second and third rounds of her bout with Andrade en route to a decision defeat.
Then came Carla Esparza, a fighter Gadelha should have been able to beat comfortably, both based on their respective styles and levels of ability. The Brazilian did win, but it was much closer than would have been expected a year or two prior.
UFC 231 in Toronto represented a chance for Gadelha to beat another top contender in Nina Ansaroff. The Brazilian was unable to, losing by decision and moving further away from the title picture than she had been at any point in her UFC career to date.
The division has moved at pace in recent years with a number of new contenders emerging. Where Gadelha was once solidified as a top-two talent, a defeat against Randa Markos on Saturday would call into question whether the 30-year-old remains even a top 10 fighter.
Changes in camp have not produced results. Since leaving Nova Uniao Gadelha has trained at Jackson-Wink, as well as the UFC’s Performance Institute and Xtreme Couture. All the while the fighter has looked visibly less impressive inside the cage.
On Saturday night, “Claudinha” needs to find more of what got her to the dance. That aggressive, tenacious, smash-mouth style and fight-altering offensive wrestling that secured her win after win.
Defeating an opponent whose entire UFC tenure has been based upon losing to top tier talent is imperative if Gadelha is to retain her status as an elite strawweight.
Amanda Nunes Ends Careers – Tate.. Rousey.. Holm?
When Holly Holm defeated Ronda Rousey for the UFC bantamweight title in 2015 she looked set to become the promotion’s next big star.
With dual-sport pedigree and a career packed with championships, Holm appeared to be the perfect palate cleanser following Rousey’s mean reign of brilliance and brash delusion.
Humble and seemingly exceptional, Holm was everything Rousey’s detractors said they wanted in the superstars place.
The problem was, just as Rousey had been in back to back defeats to Holm and then Amanda Nunes, “the Preacher’s Daughter” was about to be exposed too. It wasn’t as easily apparent as Rousey’s had been, not at first anyway. It couldn’t be as Holm had not dominated on top in the same way. Her championship reign was over before it had begun.
Yet it was there. Fans tried to deny it, to pretend that what they have seen since that night has been Holly Holm in competitive fights that only just went against her.
But they did, more often than not, go against her. In Holm’s first defence against Miesha Tate, the champion had to do nothing more than run and survive for the final five minutes against a fighter with no real finishing pedigree, to retain her title. Holm could not manage that, choked out with less than two minutes left in the fight.
Then came Valentina Shevchenko, an outstanding striker who was quickly emerging as a brilliant mixed martial artist too. Holm won the first round, then was completely outclassed in the remaining four.
Shevchenko was the more well rounded fighter and it showed. More than that, she was simply better at everything Holm was supposed to be good at. Holm plodded forward throwing the same combinations time and time again, eating counters and losing the fight.
If the Shevchenko bout taught us that Holly Holm was not only a one dimensional fighter, but a one dimensional striker when faced with legitimate kickboxing talent, Holm’s next scrap doubled down on that lesson in a big way.
Holm fought Germaine de Randamie for the inaugural UFC featherweight championship on February 11, 2017. For the third fight in a row, Holm lost. Unable to match de Randamie in the striking exchanges, Holm did her best Randy Couture impression, looking to clinch and dirty box her way to a win.
Excuses were made, some incorrectly thought the judging was questionable. Others pointed to the fact that de Randamie landed strikes after the bell on two separate occasions. The point most seemingly forgot was that de Randamie was a step down in competition. One that a true world class competitor should have been able to beat without leaving any room for doubt.
Inexplicably Holm would fight again for the UFC featherweight title in 2017 against long-time 145 pound number one Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino. The judges made it closer than it ever should have been, as Cyborg was given the nod 49-46, 48-47, 48-47. In truth, Holm had little claim to having won a single round.
In the past four years Holly Holm has only won two fights. Two middle of the pack wins that did nothing to improve Holm’s stock. Bethe Correia and Megan Anderson.
Holm was even losing the action-less fight against Correia before connecting with a head kick in the third round.
It should not be forgotten either that Holm is 37-years-old with a long combat sports career behind her before she even took up MMA. Time is at a premium, and top level competition should not be available if Holm loses again.
Enter Amanda Nunes. The best female fighter the sport has ever seen. Both Ronda Rousey and Cyborg were at times considered the greatest on the planet. Nunes took little more than a minute and a half to batter both of them.
That’s what Nunes does to opponents. A loss against Amanda Nunes isn’t just a number on a record. The Brazilian retired Ronda Rousey, and effectively did the same thing to Miesha Tate.
Nunes broke the defending champion’s face, taking away Tate’s title, and crushing her desire to compete at the highest level, all in three ferocious minutes. It might have taken Tate another four months, and half a bout with Raquel Pennington, to give up and call it a day but the real damage was done by Nunes on the grotesque yellow canvas at UFC 200.
Cris Cyborg’s unbreakable aura was obliterated in 51 wild seconds in California. Valentina Shevchenko is the only fighter who has been able to hang with Nunes in recent years, and she is a good level above Holm, and everyone else not named Nunes, as a fighter.
If Nunes wins on Saturday night — and she should given how seldom Holm has found MMA success on the biggest stages against the best opponents — it is likely that it will be a crushing physical and mental demolition job.
The sort that is capable of ending careers.