The time has come for Sean Strickland to prove himself. Now, the validation process truly begins.
“Tarzan” is set to defend his undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight crown. His first defense will be against Dricus Du Plessis in the UFC 297 headliner on Jan. 20. The location? The Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. Strickland, 32, is entering the Octagon on a three-fight winning streak.
The Xtreme Couture rep last appeared at UFC 293, where he dethroned Israel Adesanya in a stunning five-round unanimous decision on Sept. 9. Du Plessis, on the other hand, has been on a tear, rattling off eight consecutive victories. The 29-year-old Team CIT export last fought on July 8. He put away Robert Whittaker with second-round punches and staked his claim as the No. 1 contender at 185 pounds in a featured UFC 290 attraction.
But the Strickland-Du Plessis showdown is just one of the can’t-miss fights in January. There are nine more to look forward to.
Kwon Won Il is one of the contenders lined up behind incumbent One Championship bantamweight titleholder Fabricio Andrade. With a 62-second knockout loss to the Brazilian already on his resume, Il can ill afford any setbacks at this critical stage of his career. “Pretty Boy” steps back into the spotlight for his latest assignment on the heels of back-to-back finishes of Mark Abelardo and Artem Belakh. Il holds an 8-4 record under the ONE banner, having linked arms with the organization in 2019.
On the other side of the equation, Zoltsetseg has won five of his past seven bouts. The 27-year-old last competed at ONE Friday Fights 34, where he eked out a split decision over Rui Chen on Sept. 22.
The fate of the Legacy Fighting Alliance lightweight championship will hang in the balance when Jones kicks off his 2024 campaign with his first title defense at 155 pounds. Spawned by the Marc Montoya-led Factory X camp, he has posted three victories across his past four outings. However, the 27-year-old Jones finds himself on the rebound following a unanimous decision defeat to Daniel James Allen on Week 7 of Dana White’s Contender Series in September.
On the other side of the ledger, Gennrich marches into the cage with the wind of a five-fight winning streak at his back. The 6-foot-2 Wisconsin native last suited up on Sept. 22, when he subdued Donald Bush with a second-round arm-triangle choke at LFA 168.
Some three months after their first encounter concluded prematurely due to an illegal knee strike, the light heavyweight contenders get to settle their score in the Octagon. Ankalaev, 31, owns a 9-0-1 record with one no contest across his past 11 outings and could put himself on a short list of potential title contenders at 205 pounds with a decisive performance against the Brazilian. He already has wins over Anthony Smith, Thiago Santos, Volkan Oezdemir, and Nikita Krylov in his back pocket.
Walker, meanwhile, remains a mercurial piece of the UFC’s puzzle. The 31-year-old Brazilian boasts 17 first-round finishes among his 21 professional victories, six of the sub-minute variety.
The unbeaten Basharat draws perhaps his most compelling test to date against the former German MMA Championship, TKO Major League MMA, and Ares Fighting Championship titleholder. Lapilus, 31, returned to the UFC after a seven-year absence in September and proved he belonged with a three-round unanimous decision over Caolan Loughran at UFC Fight Night 226. The MMA Factory standout answers his latest call to arms on the strength of a six-fight winning streak.
On the other side of the docket, Basharat sits at a perfect 11-0 after nailing down back-to-back victories over Da’Mon Blackshear and Kleydson Rodrigues to kick off his tenure in the UFC. The 26-year-old London Shootfighters product punched his ticket to the promotion on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2022.
Allen continues to stay afloat near the top of the UFC’s featherweight division with his well-honed all-terrain skills. However, the Tristar Gym rep must answer the bell after his first setback in almost nine years—a five-round unanimous decision defeat to former champion Max Holloway in the UFC on ESPN 44 headliner on April 15.
Matchmakers decided against anything resembling a soft landing for the 29-year-old Allen. American Top Team’s Evloev enters the Octagon with a perfect 17-0 record in tow. The methodical onetime M-1 Global titleholder last suited up on May 6, when he outpointed Diego Lopes to a unanimous verdict at UFC 288. Evloev, 29, has gone the distance in all seven of his UFC appearances.
All has gone according to plan for Wrzosek in his transition from kickboxing to mixed martial arts. The imposing 6-foot-7 Polish heavyweight puts his 3-0 record on the line against Vitasovic when he headlines the first KSW show of 2024. Wrzosek—who made waves with his sensational head kick knockout of Badr Hari under the Glory banner in 2021—last competed at KSW 83, where he tapped Bogdan Stoica with a forearm choke a little more than two minutes into their June 3 pairing.
Vitasovic, meanwhile, has notched six wins in a row, his run highlighted by a June 2022 stoppage of Oli Thompson in his native Croatia. The 31-year-old Fight Nation Championship titleholder has secured 11 of his 12 professional victories by knockout, technical knockout, or submission.
Borisov shows no signs of backing down, even as Father Time bangs on his front door. The 38-year-old Krepost Fight Club star risks his Absolute Championship Akhmat bantamweight crown when he rematches Bibulatov—he unseated the former World Series of Fighting champion with a five-round unanimous decision in March 2022—in the semifinals of the ACA grand prix.
Bibulatov has won six of his past seven bouts. He advanced in the tournament on Aug. 11, when he swept the scorecards from Vazha Tsiptauri in their five-round confrontation at ACA 161. Bibulatov had a three-fight run in the UFC between April 8, 2017, and Feb. 2, 2019, though consecutive losses John Moraga and Rogerio Bontorin resulted in his release.
Lopes gets back on his horse after a failed bid to join the UFC gravy train when he defends his Legacy Fighting Alliance light heavyweight title against a fellow Brazilian on home soil. The 30-year-old won his first 11 bouts as a pro, finishing nine of them. However, Lopes received something of a reality check on Week 5 of Dana White’s Contender Series in September, as he fell from the ranks of the unbeaten in a first-round knockout loss to Brendson Ribeiro.
Brigagao, meanwhile, has delivered 15 of his 17 career victories by knockout, technical knockout, or submission, nine of them inside one round. The 6-foot-4 Parana Vale Tudo product last competed at a Tuff-N-Uff show on Sept. 15, when he took a unanimous decision from Bellator and UFC alum Jonathan Wilson.
Outside of one notable hiccup, Tonon’s moved to mixed martial arts has gone swimmingly. The multiple-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion and Danaher Death Squad member heads into 2024 with an impressive 8-1 record that features five victories via submission. Tonon, 32, has rebounded from his 56-second knockout loss to Thanh Le in March 2022 with back-to-back finishes of Jonathan Nunez and Shamil Gasanov.
In Nguyen, he faces a former two-division ONE titleholder. The 34-year-old Kill Cliff Fight Club rep has not fought since February, when he was awarded a unanimous verdict over Leonardo Casotti at ONE on Prime Video 7. Nguyen held the ONE featherweight championship from Aug. 18, 2017, to Oct. 30, 2020, and the ONE lightweight crown from Nov. 10, 2017, to Sept. 28, 2018.