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Fighters On The Rise | UFC Fight Night: Holloway vs Rodriguez

See Which Three Athletes Are On The Rise Heading Into UFC Fight Night: Holloway vs Rodriguez

After back-to-back weekends with massive fight cards in jam-packed arenas, the action returns to the UFC APEX on Saturday for a Fight Night event headlined by a featherweight clash between former champion Max Holloway and talented contender Yair Rodriguez.

Originally scheduled to take place in July but delayed after Holloway suffered an injury in training camp, this has been, and remains, one of the most intriguing non-title affairs on the UFC schedule this year — a clash between a pair of all-action fighters with championship ambitions, indelible spirits, and bottomless gas tanks that has Fight of the Year candidate written all over it.

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Before “Blessed” and “El Pantera” hit the Octagon, a whole host of athletes looking to one day ascend to the same level as the main event standouts will make the walk to the Octagon and battle it out inside the cage.

Here’s a closer look at three of those athletes.

This is the November 13 edition of Fighters on the Rise.

Kyle Daukaus

Kyle Daukaus prepares to fight Phil Hawes in a middleweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 08, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Kyle Daukaus prepares to fight Phil Hawes in a middleweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 08, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Daukaus is a perfect example of why you have to look beyond just the results of a fight in order to garner a more complete perspective on an athlete, as he enters this weekend’s clash with Roman Dolidze with a 1-2 record with one no contest through his first four UFC appearances, yet still feels like someone capable of making a whole lot of noise in the middleweight division in the not too distant future.

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The former CFFC middleweight titleholder has alternated outcomes throughout his UFC run thus far, losing to Brendan Allen on short notice in his debut after giving the Sanford MMA representative a helluva fight before registering a unanimous decision win over Dustin Stoltzfus in his sophomore appearance just under a year ago. This year, he had a fight with Aliaskhab Khizriev fall through before landing in the Octagon opposite Phil Hawes, and then submitted Kevin Holland in less than four minutes before the fight was declared a no contest due to an accidental clash of heads earlier in the bout.

Looking at all that, the main takeaway (at least for me) is that Daukaus has shared the cage with a trio of emerging names in the middleweight division, which is a reflection of where the UFC matchmakers believe he fits. Despite the inconsistent results, there have been positive moments in each of those contests and clear signs of a fighter with legitimate Top 15 upside in the 185-pound weight class.

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Saturday’s contest was supposed to be an immediate rematch with Holland, but last year’s breakout star was forced out of the bout with an undisclosed injury and replaced by Dolidze, who enters off a unanimous decision win over Laureano Staropoli in May. Besting the big Georgian isn’t the kind of win that will catapult Daukaus into the Top 15 right away, but it would get him moving in the right direction again and serve as a reminder that despite his not-so-shiny UFC record, he still has heaps of talent and is someone to keep tabs on going forward.

Joel Alvarez

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JULY 19: Joel Alvarez of Spain celebrates after his submission victory over Joe Duffy in their lightweight bout

Making headway in the lightweight division is difficult at the best of times, and becomes even more challenging when faced with the complications of being an international fighter during the COVID era.

View The Entire UFC Fight Night: Holloway vs Rodroguiez

Alvarez made a pair of appearances last year on Fight Island, pushing his winning streak to three and his record to 18-2 overall with first-round submission wins over established, respected veterans Joe Duffy and Alexander Yakovlev. He was scheduled to return in May, but was forced out of a proposed pairing with Christos Giagos, meaning that he’s now gone more than a year since last stepping into the Octagon, which is like a lifetime in the 155-pound weight class.

The 28-year-old Spaniard can make up for much of that time spent on the sidelines with a victory on Saturday, though, as he squares off with Thiago Moises, who was last seen headlining opposite Islam Makhachev and making the streaking submission machine work into the fourth round before the Russian secured a finish. Prior to that, the Brazilian had earned three straight victories of his own to claw his way into the Top 15.

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Alvarez has tremendous size for the division, standing six-feet tall with long limbs, which he makes excellent use of when hunting down various submission opportunities. Beating Moises helped further validate Makhachev’s upside in the division before he dominated Dan Hooker a couple weekends ago at UFC 267, so if “El Fenomeno” can improve on the surging contender’s effort, it should earn him a good, long look as an emerging threat and potentially another step up in competition next time out.

Kennedy Nzechukwu

Kennedy Nzechukwu of Nigeria poses for a portrait after his victory during the UFC 259 event at UFC APEX on March 06, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)
Kennedy Nzechukwu of Nigeria poses for a portrait after his victory during the UFC 259 event at UFC APEX on March 06, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

After missing the whole of 2020 due to a knee injury, Nzechukwu has used his first two appearances of 2021 to establish himself as a dangerous up-and-coming threat in the light heavyweight division.

In his first start of the year, the Fortis MMA product was viewed by many as “the guy facing impressive newcomer Carlos Ulberg,” but the Contender Series graduate used that opportunity to introduce himself to a wider audience by knocking out the City Kickboxing representative in one of the most action-packed eight-minute fights you’re ever going to see. A little more than three months later, he spent the opening two rounds of his fight with Danilo Marques playing defense and fending off submission attempts, only to march across the cage to start the third and lay out the Brazilian veteran in 20 seconds, securing a second straight bonus and third consecutive victory overall.

Now 3-1 in the UFC and 9-1 overall, Nzechukwu, like surging contender Magomed Ankalaev, is a late third-round submission loss to Paul Craig away from being undefeated, and closing ground on joining each of those men in the Top 15.

Saturday night, the towering light heavyweight with cinder blocks for hands squares off with Da-un Jung in a clash of emerging talents looking to climb the light heavyweight ranks. It’s a fight between a pair of streaking prospects, and the kind of contest we could look back on in a couple years as a pivotal moment for either of them, or maybe even both, depending on how things shake out.

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If Nzechukwu can secure a third win this year and a fourth straight victory overall, he’ll put himself in prime position to head into 2022 with a great deal of momentum.