Across the country (and up north in Canada where a certain FOX Sports contributor resides), a polar vortex is making life miserable. Even the most avid winter sports enthusiast will admit that the current combination of frigid temperatures and copious amounts of snow, sleet, and frozen everything has been too much.
Want to know a good way to combat the rotten winter weather? Cuddle up on the couch with some quality mid-week UFC action!
The first Wednesday night fight card of the New Year is a 12-bout assortment from Duluth, Georgia, featuring a six-fight main card and a number of fighters capable of making a push towards title contention in 2014.
Still not convinced? You’ve come to the right place.
Here are 5 Reasons to Watch UFC Fight Night: Rockhold vs. Philippou.
After finishing his Strikeforce career on a nine-fight winning streak and wearing championship gold around his waist, Luke Rockhold was expected to be an immediate contender once he set foot into the Octagon and joined the rank and file in the UFC’s middleweight division.
A marquee matchup with former title challenger (and one-time UFC champion) Vitor Belfort seemed like the perfect jump-off point for the well-rounded American Kickboxing Academy product, but it could not have gone worse.
Rockhold became the middle member of Belfort’s 2013 Headkick Knockout Club, following Michael Bisping and preceding Dan Henderson, falling to ‘The Phenom’ just two seconds beyond the midway point of the first round in his highly anticipated UFC debut. Scheduled to come back against veteran Tim Boetsch five months later at UFC 166, a knee injury forced the Santa Cruz native from the contest.
Now Rockhold is finally set to make his return, stepping into the cage with durable veteran Costas Philippou, intent on making an impact on the 185-pound weight class in 2014.
Despite the setback against Belfort, there are clear reasons to be excited about Rockhold’s prospects going forward — the 29-year-old boasts a 10-2 record overall including wins over Tim Kennedy and Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza, is a proven finisher (80-percent finishing rate), and is equally skilled standing and on the ground.
Wednesday night’s matchup with Philippou is a much better pairing for the former Strikeforce champion, and presents a greater opportunity for the gifted middleweight to showcase his skills. No one was stopping Vitor Belfort in 2013, and losing to him doesn’t diminish Rockhold’s stock.
All he needs to do now is remind people why it was so high in the first place, and he will get a good chance to do that here.
Between Chris Weidman winning the title from and successfully defending the title against Anderson Silva and the host of new, intriguing challengers to emerge over the last 12 months, middleweight is easily the most interesting division in the UFC.
While the main event matchup between Rockhold and Philippou will have the most immediate impact on the 185-pound ranks, there are two additional middleweight bouts slated for the main card that will also help dictate how things play out in the division in the months ahead.
A former Ultimate Fighter contestant, Brad Tavares has quietly put together a four-fight winning streak and a 7-1 record inside the Octagon, showcasing a polished striking attack and improved takedown defense along the way. After beginning his career as a light heavyweight, Lorenz Larkin has looked even better since moving to middleweight, bringing the same flashy, kick-heavy, Kung-Fu approach that has always made him fun to watch to the cage alongside improved conditioning.
The tandem has a combined 9-2 record in the UFC (25-2 overall) and will battle for a place on the fringes of contention in the co-main event.
Yoel Romero might be the most intriguing fighter in the entire division. The 36-year-old claimed the silver medal in freestyle wrestling at the 2000 Olympics, and has exhibited explosive power while earning a pair of knockout wins inside the Octagon in 2013.
Wednesday night, he’ll take on Team Jackson-Winkeljohn product Derek Brunson, a three-time Division II All-American wrestler who also posted a pair of victories under the UFC banner after transitioning from Strikeforce last year.
All four men are in the second cut of contenders right now in the suddenly loaded middleweight ranks, but the two that emerge victorious will take another step up the ladder, and by year’s end, at least one member of this group is likely to find themselves battle for a place in the upper echelon of the division.
Something to Prove
In the wake of Dominick Cruz’s latest injury and Urijah Faber’s ascension into the UFC 169 main event opposite champion Renan Barao, there is a clear opportunity for new names to insert themselves into the title conversation in the 135-pound weight class this year.
T.J. Dillashaw and Mike Easton are a pair of Top 10 talents that could find themselves fighting for the title if they’re able to string together a couple of quality wins. The two face off Wednesday night, with the winner getting an early start down the road towards contention.
Previously scheduled to meet in December 2012, an injury to Dillashaw scuttled the bout. Now they meet with both fighters looking to get back into the win column — Dillashaw most recently losing a close (and somewhat questionable) decision to Raphael Assuncao, while Easton has dropped two straight.
With Barao having already dispatched a number of challengers and no one immediately in line behind Faber, an impressive performance here could carry the winner into a match-up with the division’s elite contenders, and that should prompt these occasionally tentative talents to open things up a little more when they share the cage Wednesday night in Duluth, Georgia.
Back Under the Radar
Many people were surprised when John Moraga earned a flyweight title shot last year, as the 29-year-old Arizona Combat Sports product had only fought on the Facebook prelims up to that point.
While he had scored a pair of impressive finishes in his first two UFC appearances, he was a complete unknown to most before being thrust into the spotlight of a championship main event opposite Demetrious ‘Mighty Mouse’ Johnson last summer.
Now Moraga returns, six months after losing to Johnson and back under the radar, squaring off with Dustin Ortiz in a flyweight bout that has garnered little attention, which is precisely why it earns mention here.
Having spoken with Moraga in advance of this contest, the former title challenger admitted to being thrown off by the attention that accompanied his bout with Johnson, and promised a return to the aggressive, looking-to-finish approach that earned him a pair of wins to start his UFC career.
Ortiz is coming off a dominant performance in his organizational debut, venturing into hostile territory to earn a third-round stoppage win over Jose Maria Tome in Brazil back in November.
These two should pair off for a fast-paced, back-and-forth contest that could very well steal the show Wednesday night. Consider this your advanced notice to not miss this fight.
Prospect Watch: Alp Ozkilic
On Wednesday night, Ozkilic will step into the Octagon for the second time in his career, and the second time in 32 days, taking on unbeaten newcomer Louis Smolka in the final bout of the preliminary card.
The 9-1 flyweight impressed in his debut win over Darren Uyenoyama, and looks to make it two wins in just over one month by jumping right back into the cage here. That kind of ballsy move, along with the strong showing he turned in his debut, make Ozkilic a fighter to watch in 2014, and he has the chance to solidify that standing right away.
Because the 125-pound weight class is still relatively new — and because Demetrious Johnson has been turning aside challengers every 3-4 months since the division was introduced — emerging talents have the chance to make a quick climb up the rankings and into contention, and with a couple more quality wins, Ozkilic could find himself ‘in the mix’ in the flyweight division.
All of those things combine to make ‘The Turkish Delight’ a fighter to keep tabs on going forward, and this fight one of the myriad reasons to tune in to UFC Fight Night: Rockhold vs. Philippou on Wednesday night.
UFC Fight Night: Rockhold vs. Philippou hits FOX Sports 1 Wednesday at 5 p.m. ET.