UFC 244 fight week has arrived. This Saturday, UFC returns to the historic Madison Square Garden with a card stacked from top to bottom.
In the lead-up, everyone is discussing Nate Diaz vs. Jorge Masvidal in the main event. For good reason, of course. It’s great matchmaking between a pair of “gangsters” who are going to leave it all in the Octagon.
But besides the top of the card, what else is going on at UFC 244?
2019 has been good to Edmen Shahbazyan (10-0). At UFC 235 he TKO’d Charles Byrd in 38 seconds. Four months later, Shahbazyan ran through the durable Jack Marshman in just over a minute at UFC 239.
At only 21-years-old, Edmen Shahbazyan should be on your radar if he isn’t already. The Glendale Fighting Club standout spent his teenage years on the mats with Ronda Rousey. Shahbazyan has trained in MMA since he was 12 years old and been making a name for himself over the last year.
Shahbazyan meets Brad Tavares (17-5) this weekend. Tavares is a longtime veteran who has faced the likes of Yoel Romero, Robert Whittaker, and Lorenz Larkin. The Hawaiian is the type of fighter with all the tools to put a spoil a surging prospect. It’s a good fight to see where Shahbazyan currently is in his development.
Clash of the light heavyweights
Our featured prelim of the evening is a stylistic clash between Corey Anderson (13-4) and Johnny Walker (17-3).
Anderson is a gritty collegiate wrestler who may not be known for wowing audiences, but he’s quietly put together a three-fight win streak over some solid names.
We know Walker for his flash and pizazz. Not only are his walkouts a production in their own right, but the 27-year-old has spent less than three minutes in the cage during his UFC tenure. His latest victory was a 36-second flying knee KO of Misha Cirkunov.
And that’s what makes this fight so interesting. Will Walker be able to stop the takedowns of Anderson and put his hands and knees on him like he has everyone else thus far? Or is he in for a tough fifteen minutes on his back? The winner here will be on a four-fight win streak in the promotion, and it’ll be hard to deny either man a top-five ranked opponent after Saturday.
A New Division
The UFC thrust Darren Till (17-2-1) into the spotlight. With Michael Bisping retiring, the promotion needed a new brash Brit. Till fit the bill.
Till would be rushed into a bout with then-champ, Tyron Woodley who dominated the bout. The fight was such a shellacking that Till only landed one strike throughout. Woodley landed 74.
In his next outing, Till was blasted into the nether realm by Jorge Masvidal in front of a hometown crowd in London, England.
A knock against Till was always been his insane weight cut. Till has missed weight twice since joining the UFC and with a massive frame, it’s honestly a miracle he made 170 ever. This weekend, at UFC 244, Till will head back to middleweight and face Kelvin Gastelum — another man who was once a struggling welterweight that has found new life in a higher division.
Gastelum is coming off a “Fight of the Year” contender with the now undisputed champion, Israel Adesanya. So saying this is a tough middleweight debut for Till is a bit of an understatement. Till requested this fight and seems ready to jump into the fire. Will Till prove that his biggest nemesis was his grueling weight cut all along? Or will Gastelum once again to be too much too soon for the Brit?
How good is Gregor Gillespie?
Gregor Gillespie (13-0) won two state titles in high school and was a four-time NCAA Division 1 All-American who won the nationals in college. Gillespie is very good at wrestling, but we still don’t know a ton about him as a high-level mixed martial artist. He just hasn’t faced top competition yet.
This weekend, Gillespie will square off against Kevin Lee (17-5), a former NCAA Division II wrestler who left the sport to focus on MMA. “The Motown Phenom” was a top-ten ranked lightweight and even fought Tony Ferguson for the interim title back in October of 2017. Lee eventually moved up to welterweight to test the waters and was submitted by Rafael dos Anjos back in May.
Despite having some setbacks, Lee is undoubtedly a step up in competition for the former national champion. Gillespie’s wrestling pedigree alone has had some wondering if he could be a stern test for lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0). While a win over Lee wouldn’t catapult Gillespie above the murder’s row that is the top ten of that division, it would definitely be a step in the right direction.
Jairzhino Rozenstruik (8-0) may not have much MMA experience, but the heavyweight has been fighting all his life. Rozenstruik holds a 76-6 kickboxing record and has won 64 of those fights via knockout. In his last outing, “Bigi Boy” needed only nine seconds to finish Allen Crowder at UFC Greenville. The performance earned him an extra $50k and the second-fastest KO in UFC heavyweight history.
His opponent at UFC 244 will be Andrei Arlovski (28-18), a former UFC champion who has six times the amount of MMA fights as Rozenstruik. Arlovski is 40 years of age and 3-3 in his last six, but “The Pitbull” still has the tools to play spoiler in this one.
The Belarussian has been knocked out in 10 of his 18 losses, but he’s also seemed more durable in the last couple of years and eaten some big shots from some heavy hitters. Arlovski isn’t going to stand and bang in this one, though. He’ll likely try to use his clinch work to put the Rozenstruick against the cage and on his back while Rozenstruik is going to be looking to separate the veteran’s head from his shoulders.
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Brandon is a long-time combat sports fan who has covered fights since 2017. His work can be found at The Scrap News and The Body Lock. Follow Brandon on Twitter (@B_S_Sibcy).