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Julia Avila reacts after her submission victory over Julija Stoliarenko of Lithuania in a bantamweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on June 26, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Athletes

Fighters on the Rise | UFC Austin

Spotlighting A Trio Of Athletes Looking To Shine Bright And Take A Big Step Forward In The Texas Capital On Saturday

Over the years, Austin has become a hotbed for creatives, innovators, and those seeking out amazing food, drink, experiences, and atmosphere.

It has also been the site of some quality breakout performances inside the Octagon over the years.

UFC Austin Fight Card Preview

The four previous UFC stops in the Texas capital have seen debut stoppage wins from Dooho Choi, Paige VanZant, and Geoff Neal, the arrival of rising star Natalia Silva, a sophomore submission victory for future champ Charles Oliveira, and impressive efforts from ascending talents like Roman Dolidze and Adrian Yanez.

This week, the three competitors below aim to add their names to the list of promising competitors that delivered memorable performances deep in the heart of Texas.

Julia Avila

Julia Avila exits the octagon after her bantamweight fight during the UFC 239 event at T-Mobile Arena on July 6, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Zuffa LLC)
Julia Avila exits the octagon after her bantamweight fight during the UFC 239 event at T-Mobile Arena on July 6, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Zuffa LLC)

The last time we saw Avila, the “Raging Panda” got herself back into the win column after her first true loss to Sijara Eubanks with a dominant, third-round submission win over Julija Stoliarenko in the summer of 2021.

Pregnancy and the arrival of her daughter prompted the ranked bantamweight to press pause on her fighting career, but after more than two years away, the 35-year-old is slated to make her return this weekend in a critical clash against former champion Miesha Tate.

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Avila is 9-2 overall in her career, having posted quality wins over Marion Reneau and Nicco Montano before touching down in the UFC, and Pannie Kianzad, Gina Mazany, and Stoliarenko since. She’s always exhibited good power for the division and sharp finishing instincts, with two-thirds of her victories coming inside the distance, and profiled as someone capable of ascending to contender status prior to her hiatus.

Julia Avila Submits Stoliarenko In The Final Minute | UFC Fight Night: Gane vs Volkov
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Julia Avila Submits Stoliarenko In The Final Minute | UFC Fight Night: Gane vs Volkov
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That’s why a fight like this in her return is so crucial.

Tate returned to action following a nearly five-year retirement with a finish of Reneau, but has since dropped consecutive contests against contenders Ketlen Vieira and Lauren Murphy. She’s back up at bantamweight following a one-off visit to flyweight, but hasn’t fought in more than a year herself, yet remains stationed one spot ahead of Avila in the divisional rankings.

A return to action with a victory over a former champion is always going to have an impact, and if Avila can post a second consecutive finish to push her record to 4-1 inside the UFC Octagon, she’ll have an opportunity to make a rapid rise in the wide open 135-pound weight class.

Veronica Hardy

Veronica Hardy of Venezuela punches Juliana Miller in a flyweight fight during the UFC 286 event at The O2 Arena on March 18, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Veronica Hardy of Venezuela punches Juliana Miller in a flyweight fight during the UFC 286 event at The O2 Arena on March 18, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

If Avila wants a little inspiration when it comes to fighters returning from an extended hiatus, she need not look any further than her fellow UFC Austin competitor Hardy, who marched into the Octagon after three years and four days on the sidelines and dominated recent TUF winner Juliana Miller in March at UFC 286.

UFC Monthly Report | November 2023

Hardy reached the UFC with an unblemished record back in 2016, but went 1-4 over her first five outings, bouncing between bantamweight and flyweight and never really finding a rhythm. She was 20 years old when she made her short-notice promotional debut, and as we’ve talked about time and again in this space and others, it’s exceptionally difficult to excel at this level in your early 20s.

Hardy is only now in the early stages of her athletic prime at 28, and it was clear in her win over Miller in London that she levelled up her skills in her time away. Having settled in at flyweight and utilizing quality footwork, she thoroughly out-worked Miller in all three rounds to get back into the win column, showcasing quality fundamentals in the striking game and more overall comfort inside the Octagon than she had in the past.

Veronica Hardy of Venezuela kicks Juliana Miller in a flyweight fight during the UFC 286 event at The O2 Arena on March 18, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Veronica Hardy of Venezuela kicks Juliana Miller in a flyweight fight during the UFC 286 event at The O2 Arena on March 18, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Saturday night, Hardy is again slated to open the show, this time opposite undefeated Canadian Jamey-Lyn Horth.

The 33-year-old from Squamish, British Columbia debuted up a division with a decision win over Hailey Cowan, pushing her record to 6-0 in the process. She claimed championship gold in both LFA and Battlefield Fight League prior to ascending to the biggest stage in the sport, and should serve as a quality measuring stick opponent for Hardy this weekend in Austin.

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It’s going to be fascinating to see what the Venezuelan-born flyweight is able to do as an encore following her impressive return to action earlier this year. She is a quality athlete, benefits tremendously from working alongside her husband, former welterweight title challenger Dan Hardy, and is the kind of “post-hype sleeper” that could put together a couple wins and start making a little noise in the 125-pound ranks over the next couple years.

Melquizael Costa

Melquizael Costa of Brazil punches Austin Lingo in their featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night at UFC APEX on July 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Melquizael Costa of Brazil punches Austin Lingo in their featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night at UFC APEX on July 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Costa returns for his third start of 2023 and second consecutive appearance in his natural featherweight surroundings, stepping in with Dana White's Contender Series alum Steve Garcia on Saturday's prelims.

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Selected to replace Guram Kutateladze on short notice up a division opposite Thiago Moises at UFC 283 in January, the 27-year-old Brazilian held his own initially with his more experienced compatriot before succumbing to a second-round rear-naked choke. But six months later, Costa returned to the Octagon and the 145-pound weight class, registering a dominant, decisive victory over Austin Lingo to collect his first UFC victory.

What makes the Chute Boxe Joao Emilio representative such an interesting addition to the featherweight ranks is that he's tall and long for the division, standing at five-foot-ten and sporting a 71-inch reach. He's shown a sharp understanding of how to utilize both already, and should only continue to develop those skills further as he works in with top-end competition going forward. Being a part of an ascending team doesn't hurt either, as Costa need look no further than his teammate and fellow emerging featherweight Joanderson Brito to see what kind of success he's capable of achieving inside the Octagon.

Melquizael Costa of Brazil kicks Austin Lingo in their featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night at UFC APEX on July 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Melquizael Costa of Brazil kicks Austin Lingo in their featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night at UFC APEX on July 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Like Costa, Garcia has spent time up at lightweight, as well, but similarly sees greater benefits to being the taller, rangier fighter at featherweight. After dropping his first appearance of 2022, the Albuquerque native rebounded with a resounding effort against Chase Hooper to close out the year, and then orchestrated one of the gutsiest scome-from-behind wins of the year in April, rallying from getting rocked early in his fight with Shayilan Nuerdanbieke to finish the Chinese veteran early in the second.

This is a quality measuring stick opportunity for Costa — a date with someone that has slightly more experience at this level and the size to theoretically neutralize his long-range weapons, so it will be interesting to see how he adjusts on Saturday. If he can close out his rookie campaign with a second straight quality effort, big things could be in store in 2024 and beyond.

UFC Fight Night: Dariush vs Tsarukyan took place live from Moody Center in Austin, Texas on December 2, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass