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Themba Gorimbo of Zimbabwe punches Takashi Sato of Japan in a welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 20, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
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Fighters On The Rise | UFC Fight Night: Barboza vs Murphy

Identifying Three Emerging Names To Pay Close Attention To This Weekend In Las Vegas

Saturday’s return to the UFC APEX lays out to me like an indie film that garnered some positive word of mouth at the Telluride or Austin Film Festivals in that there are some recognizable names in the cast, but also a number of ascending performers looking to use this as their breakout opportunity.

Here’s a closer look at this weekend’s potential breakout stars in the latest edition of Fighters on the Rise.

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Lerone Murphy

For the third time this year, one half of the headlining duo lands in the collection of ascending talents you need to know more about as Murphy joins Joe Pyfer and Shamil Gaziev in getting the “Fighters on the Rise” treatment.

Lerone Murphy of England celebrates after his knockout victory over Makwan Amirkhani of Finland in a featherweight fight during the UFC 267 event at Etihad Arena on October 30, 2021 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Lerone Murphy of England celebrates after his knockout victory over Makwan Amirkhani in a featherweight fight during the UFC 267 event at Etihad Arena on October 30, 2021 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Murphy is one of those rare undefeated fighters whose profile and buzz isn’t quite commensurate with what he’s been able to produce inside the Octagon so far and the position he maintains within the featherweight ranks. Unbeaten in six UFC starts and 14 bouts overall, the 32-year-old from Manchester has rattled off five consecutive victories since debuting with a split draw against Zubaira Tukhugov at UFC 242 in September 2019, good enough to earn him a spot in the Top 15 at various times over the last two years.

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The fact that he’s slipped back out of the rankings speaks to the challenges Murphy has faced as he’s worked to ascend the divisional ranks and really make a name for himself, as he’s encountered long periods of inactivity at times that slow his momentum. And in a division like featherweight, where fresh talent is constantly making a push for a place in the rankings, even unbeaten competitors can get shuffled to the background from time-to-time.

After missing all of 2022, Murphy posted a pair of victories in 2023, besting newcomer Gabriel Santos in March in London before out-working Joshua Culibao when the promotion returned to the British capital in July. He was slated to compete against Dan Ige earlier this year in what would have been his highest profile assignment to date, but was forced to withdraw.

Lerone Murphy of England punches Josh Culibao of Australia in their featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night at The O2 Arena on July 22, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Lerone Murphy of England punches Josh Culibao of Australia in their featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night at The O2 Arena on July 22, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Now he finally makes his first start of 2024 opposite Barboza in a classic “litmus test” type of fight, positioned against one of the most experienced and dangerous veterans the division has to offer. The 38-year-old Brazilian was in a similar position back in October when he was paired off with Sodiq Yusuff, and after getting rocked early, Barboza was able to steady himself and rally to earn a clean sweep of the scorecards.

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This is the type of opportunity and moment Murphy needs in order to try and really break through in the talent-rich 145-pound ranks, and if he’s able to maintain his unbeaten record through the weekend, an even greater opportunity should await him in the second half of the year.

Carlston Harris

Folks need to stop sleeping on Carlston Harris; let’s just start there.

Carlston Harris of Guyana punches Impa Kasanganay in a welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on September 18, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Carlston Harris of Guyana punches Impa Kasanganay in a welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on September 18, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

The 36-year-old from Guyana is 4-1 in the UFC, with tandem wins on either side of his lone setback in the Octagon, which came against undefeated welterweight contender Shavkat Rakhmonov. He’s 11-2 over his last 13 appearances, with his only other loss coming against former Brace CF Jarrah Hussein Al-Silawi, who was one of the better unsigned welterweights on the planet at that time, and back in the day, Harris picked up a unanimous decision win over Michel Pereira.

Yes, that Michel Pereira — the guy that has won his last three middleweight fights in a combined 3:01 and has won eight straight overall in the UFC.

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What’s weird, perhaps only to me, is that Harris profiles as the kind of fighter fans should be high on, even if he’s currently not a contender, as he’s earned finishes in three of his four UFC wins, was willing to risk engaging with Rakhmonov and has finished eight of his last 11 wins, which further underscores that he’s an all-action fighter.

So what gives?

Carlston Harris of Guyana secures a choke submission against Jeremiah Wells in a welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at Bridgestone Arena on August 05, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Carlston Harris of Guyana secures a choke submission against Jeremiah Wells in a welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at Bridgestone Arena on August 05, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Part of it comes down to fight card placement, as only his fight with Rakhmonov made the main card and it’s the one time people saw him get beaten, but that shouldn’t be reason to stop paying attention to someone, especially given that we all believe the 29-year-old “Nomad” is destined for championship greatness.

Saturday’s co-main event pairing with Khaos Williams is an opportunity for Harris to grab some of the spotlight and really establish himself as a fun, competitive talent on the fringes of the Top 15 in the loaded welterweight division.

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Williams had a little buzz at the outset of his UFC tenure after consecutive rapid knockout wins, and has put together a 5-2 record to land alongside Harris in the “Second 15” in the 170-pound weight class. He got things moving in the right direction last time out and has always been someone that garners a little more attention because of his explosive start, which means there should be more eyes on this one than any of Harris’ previous fights, excluding his bout with the rising star from Kazakhstan.

Last time out, Harris laced up a slick anaconda choke on Jeremiah Wells, further reiterating that he’s an anytime threat, as the Philadelphia native had been controlling the contest up to that point but paid for his one serious miscue.

If he can pick up a third straight victory to extend his record to 5-1 in the UFC, folks will be forced to pay attention to him as an interesting dark horse pushing forward in the competitive welterweight ranks.

Themba Gorimbo

Themba Gorimbo of Zimbabwe kicks AJ Fletcher in a welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on February 18, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Themba Gorimbo of Zimbabwe kicks AJ Fletcher in a welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on February 18, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Back-to-back wins and Dwyane "The Rock" Johnson as your new BFF? Things are going pretty well for Themba Gorimbo right now.

After dropping his promotional debut, the 33-year-old native of Zimbabwe has registered consecutive victories inside the Octagon heading into his clash with Ramiz Brahimaj on Saturday evening in Las Vegas. The first of those wins came last year by unanimous decision over Takeshi Sato, and the second came in February, when he knocked out Pete Rodriguez in just 32 seconds.

In between, the welterweight's personal story went viral. Gorimbo recounted venturing to Florida with a few dollars in his pocket, eager to chase his UFC dreams in hopes of making his family's life better. It caught the attention of Johnson, who named his production company Seven Bucks Productions in reference to the time he had seven dollars in his pocket and no idea what to do after his football career didn't pan out.

Themba Gorimbo of Zimbabwe poses for a post fight portrait backstage during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 20, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Themba Gorimbo of Zimbabwe poses for a post fight portrait backstage during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 20, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

The WWE superstar and Hollywood megastar connected with the humble welterweight, hooked him up with a place to live in Miami, where he trains at MMA Masters, and if his performance against Rodriguez — his first since their friendship was started — is any indication of what's to come, Gorimbo could be at the start of a quality run in the 170-pound ranks.

Saturday's matchup with Brahimaj is another solid test for the ascending Gorimbo — a clash with a fellow grappler returning for the first time in two years, eager to build off a strong performance in his last outing, but potentially in need of getting a fight under his belt in order to shake off the rust before really getting rolling.

Gorimbo has looked progressively sharper in each of his three UFC appearances to date, and if that trend continues this weekend, he'll find himself taking another step up the competitive ladder in the second half of the year.

UFC Fight Night: Barboza vs Murphy took place live from UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada on May 18, 2024. See the final Prelim and Main Card Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!