Darren Stewart is one of those athletes who is a couple different bounces away from being a fixture in the Top 15 and a fighter people are steering clear of in the UFC middleweight division.

Heading into his bout with Eryk Anders this weekend, the 30-year-old from East London is 5-3 over his last eight fights, but each of those setbacks is worthy of closer inspection. The first was a split decision loss to rising star Edmen Shahbazyan, whom Stewart fought closer than anyone else “The Golden Boy” faced before he ran into Top 10 fixture Derek Brunson last summer. The second came in a short notice fight with Bartosz Fabinski under the Cage Warriors banner after UFC was forced to cancel its annual March trip to London, and the third came in his most recent outing, when he again landed on the unhappy side of a split decision verdict against streaking contender Kevin Holland, who headlines against Brunson next weekend.

A different result in any one of those contests — not to mention two or even all three of them — and the hard-nosed Stewart is knocking at the door of the Top 15 or higher and not simply viewed as a tough out in the middle of the pack in the 185-pound weight class.

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At the same time, those efforts — even the narrow defeats — show how far Stewart has come since beginning his UFC tenure with a no contest and three consecutive losses before finally defeating Eric Spicely to collect his first UFC win. Progress is rarely a straight line, and making a run in any division usually comes down to timing and a couple key choices in each fight, and while those things haven’t lined up quite yet for the London native, he’s clearly getting closer.

This weekend’s pairing with Anders is another chance to get things moving in the right direction against another tough competitor who has thus far failed to put it all together consistently inside the Octagon. Since starting his career with 10 straight victories, Anders has gone 3-5 while splitting time between middleweight and light heavyweight and, like Stewart, he enters looking to get back into the win column.

Middleweight remains wide open at the moment and while it will take more than a victory on Saturday for Stewart to break into the rankings, dispatching Anders would be a step in the right direction, and potentially the victory “The Dentist” needs in order to start making a real run towards the Top 15.

Matheus Nicolau