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It was his first turn as a headline attraction, and Marlon Vera
made the most of the spotlight.

In the main event of UFC
on ESPN 35
at the UFC Apex on Saturday, “Chito” used power to
overcome the superior striking volume of Rob Font,
knocking down the Boston native three times on his way to a
unanimous decision victory. The breakthrough win was sweetened
further by a six-figure bonus, as Font missed weight for their
bout, meaning that Vera pocketed his opponent’s $50,000 “Fight of
the Night” check as well as his own.

The 29-year-old Ecuadorian is becoming increasingly difficult to
ignore as a contender in the Ultimate Fighting Championship bantamweight
division. In the last four years he is 9-2, with the only losses
coming in competitive decisions against Jose Aldo —
possibly the division’s next title challenger — and against
Yadong
Song
in a one-off featherweight matchup. While the title
picture is complicated somewhat by the fleet of former champs
circling like hijacked jets over an airport, Vera has clearly
earned some sort of step up. In the wake of “UFC Vegas 53,” here
are matches that ought to be made for Vera and some of the other
main card winners.

The UFC men’s bantamweight division is in a strange limbo at the
moment. Aljamain
Sterling
and Yan finally had their long-delayed rematch on
April 9, with Sterling earning an uncontroversial win to validate —
or vindicate — the disqualification that ended their first meeting.
Aldo seems the logical next challenger for Sterling’s title, given
that he is on a three-fight win streak that includes both Vera and
Font, not to mention his cachet as perhaps the greatest
featherweight of all time. Beyond that, however, it gets weird,
because of the above-mentioned glut of former bantamweight title
holders: Dominick
Cruz
, T.J.
Dillashaw
and Henry
Cejudo
, who claims to have re-entered the USADA testing pool,
presumably as a prelude to ending his self-imposed exile. All three
won their last fight, and any one of them might jump the line ahead
of an up-and comer like Vera, especially Dillashaw or Cejudo,
neither of whom lost the belt in the Octagon. Given that the title
might well be tied up through the end up 2022, matching up Vera
with a former interim champ in Yan gives him another logical step
up from Font, as well as removing the temptation for the UFC to
make an immediate trilogy fight between Yan and Sterling.

It was questionable, to say the
least
, but in the eyes of two of the people whose opinions
truly mattered on Saturday, Arlovski did enough to get his hand
raised against Jake
Collier
. That extends the Belarusian’s win streak to four
straight, something that I never expected to find myself typing in
2022. Not all win streaks are created equal, of course. Of
Arlovski’s last four wins, two were against sub-UFC-level
competition in Chase
Sherman
and Jared
Vanderaa
, while the Collier fight will probably end up on
Sherdog’s “Robbery of the Year” list this December. The UFC sees
the smoke and mirrors just as clearly as you or I do, which is why
in a heavyweight division where any fighter is four wins away from
the title picture — let alone a former champion — no such noises
are being made about the 43-year-old “Pitbull.” In fact, in terms
of matchmaking it is probably more sensible, and definitely kinder,
to treat Arlovski as if he’d lost on Saturday. Rather than march
him off to be slaughtered by someone like the winner (or even the
loser) of next month’s Tom
Aspinall
Curtis
Blaydes
matchup, give Arlovski a fringe contender coming off a
loss. Daukaus, who was pounded out by Blaydes last month, has now
lost two straight against Top 5 opposition. For Daukaus, a matchup
with Arlovski is a winnable fight against a name opponent, while an
Arlovski win would take his feel-good late-career surge to a whole
other level.

After one fight on Dana White’s Contender Series and two in the
UFC, Brito is now a known quantity. About as furiously aggressive a
fighter as you’re ever likely to see in a modern top-level
promotion, “Tubarao” charges forward and throws everything but the
kitchen sink at his opponent with little regard for defense and
even less for his gas tank. Every punch is a haymaker, every
takedown a slam and every submission attempt a vein-popping death
squeeze. When it works, as it did as he thrashed Andre Fili in
just 41 seconds on Saturday, it works big. When it doesn’t work, as
in his UFC debut against Bill Algeo in
January, it leaves him sucking wind, with little to offer after the
middle of the second round. When he gets extra reckless, as he did
on the Contender Series, it can leave him at the mercy of the
officials; his third-round eye poke of Diego Lopes
ended in a technical decision victory in a fight he was clearly
winning, but could easily have resulted in a draw or even a
disqualification loss, depending on who happened to be the referee
that night. In other words, the Brito Show is going to be a whole
lot of fun while it lasts, but it will end either with his inner
wild man being tamed to the point that he doesn’t throw away wins —
think Michel
Pereira
— or hitting a hard ceiling against the top 25 or so
featherweights in the promotion. For now, at 1-1 in the UFC but
with visible upside, all he needs is a matchup with another young
fighter meeting that same description. Hooper and Dias Colares, who
fight on May 21, are both coming off losses. Afterward, one will be
coming off a win. He’s your man.

“KGD” put on one of the more impressive performances at “UFC Vegas
53,” outwrestling and outgrappling Jared
Gordon
for most of three rounds before cinching up a rear-naked
choke with under a minute left. In becoming the first man to tap
out Gordon, Dawson seems to have vindicated his move to American
Top Team as well as to the lightweight division, as he continues to
show that he has the physicality to make his ground assault work
against 155-pounders. While lightweight is normally one of the
hardest divisions in which to break into the Top 15, Dawson gets
just a bit of a boost thanks to his 10-fight unbeaten streak and
status as a former fast riser in the equally unforgiving
featherweight division. Dawson could use another solid win against
a fellow lightweight prospect in the same situation, and as mentioned last week, Puelles,
who made things look easy in running through Clay Guida at
UFC Fight Night 205, fits the bill perfectly. Book that fight, and
consider the winner officially promoted from prospect to
contender.

Elkins put on a typically gritty performance Saturday, keeping
Tristan
Connelly
reeling and in frequent peril for the duration of
their main card bout and sweeping all three rounds on all three
judges’ scorecards. The only element missing from the prototypical
Elkins fight was the lack of a comeback — or any need for one — as
“The Damage” was in control throughout. With the one-sided victory,
the Indiana native gets back in the win column after his disastrous
loss to Cub Swanson
in December, and is now 3-1 since the four-fight skid that had him
in apparent danger of losing his job in 2020. It is a frankly
remarkable resurgence from a 37-year-old in a lighter weight
division — let alone one whose customary fight style involves
absorbing tons of punishment. Elkins’ recent run indicates he is
still a cut above the featherweight rank-and-file, and he deserves
a fight that gives him a chance to prove he is still among the
elite. Jourdain, who was mentioned in this column last
week
in connection with the Elkins-Connelly fight, is in a
similar place, though he approaches it as a young prospect rather
than a surging veteran.


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