DOMINICK CRUZ VS. CASEY KENNEY
The “middle child” of this week’s trio of bantamweight battles features former champion Dominick Cruz returning to action and competing in first three-round, non-title fight since September 2014 as he takes on the steadily improving and quietly surging Casey Kenney.
Cruz fought for the first time since losing the bantamweight title to Cody Garbrandt at UFC 207 last spring, stepping in against Henry Cejudo in the co-main event of UFC 249. Late in the second round, he caught a knee to the head that put him on the deck and Cejudo pounced, pounding out the finish.
The former champion voiced his displeasure with the stoppage and now arrives in Las Vegas looking to snap a two-fight skid while hoping to register his first victory since UFC 199.
Kenney was one of the more active fighters of 2020, beginning the year with a unanimous decision loss to Merab Dvalishvili before rattling off three straight wins over Louis Smolka, AlatengHeili, and Nathaniel Wood, with the last two coming 20 days apart. A black belt in judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Kenney is 9-1 in 10 appearances since losing to Adam Antolin in his second appearance on Season 1 of the Contender Series, and can establish himself as yet another emerging name to watch in the bustling bantamweight division by taking out the former champ.
This is a perfect piece of matchmaking as this is a massive fight for each man, for very different reasons: Cruz because he needs to show he’s still got plenty left in the tank and remains a Top 15 fighter just a few days ahead of his 36th birthday, and Kenney because it’s the type of marquee victory he needs to catapult himself into the crowded field trying to climb to the top of the division.
It should be fun to see how this one shakes out and which one of them will take a step forward to start 2021.
SONG YADONG VS. KYLER PHILLIPS
Saturday’s action in the bantamweight division gets underway with this clash of young hopefuls looking to begin the year with a major victory, as Song Yadong squares off against Kyler Phillips in this exciting preliminary card pairing.
Song arrives in Las Vegas unbeaten inside the Octagon, but also in need of a quality showing after each of his last two outings ended in debated verdicts. Regardless of whether you agree with those results or not, there is no denying that the 23-year-old Chinese fighter has exhibited elite potential in amassing a 5-0-1 record in the UFC to this point and is at the vanguard of the ever-expanding group of emerging young fighters making waves in the bantamweight division.
A veteran of The Ultimate Fighter and the Contender Series, Phillips earned his first two UFC victories in 2020, collecting a unanimous decision win over Gabriel Silva in February before stoppage Cameron Else in the second round of their clash in October. A Nikidokai practitioner and long-time fixture at The MMA Lab, the 25-year-old Phillips has won three straight overall and can add his name to the aforementioned growing list of upstarts making waves in the division with a decisive win over Song on Saturday night.
Once again, this is excellent matchmaking in a weight class that is brimming with talent, but also features a Top 10 consisting of a host of experienced, veteran names. No matter how this one plays out, the victor further cements their standing as one of the best young fighters in the division, while the vanquished competitor shouldn’t tumble too far down the hierarchy as a result of the loss, especially if this one is as close and competitive as many expect it will be.