Following a pair of international pay-per-view events to start the year, the UFC delivers its first domestic numbered card of 2023, returning home to T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas with a loaded card headlined by a pair of fascinating championship fights.
In the co-main event, Valentina Shevchenko defends her flyweight title against streaking challenger Alexa Grasso, while the main event features the long-awaited return of Jon Jones, who faces off with Ciryl Gane for the vacant heavyweight title.
Prior to the tandem championship contests that close out the show, an assortment of emerging names and talented contenders will hit the cage, looking to use this weekend’s fight card as an opportunity to get one step closer to landing in a championship bout themselves.
From those undercard matchups, we’ve selected three up-and-coming fighters that appear poised to really stand out and potentially make a splash.
Here’s a closer look at those athletes in the latest edition of Fighters on the Rise.
One of the most decorated collegiate wrestling talents to ever grace the Octagon, Nickal makes his highly anticipated UFC debut on Saturday in a main card pairing with fellow Dana White’s Contender Series (DWCS) alum Jamie Pickett.
A three-time National Champion and four-time All-American at Penn State, the 27-year-old Nickal has made a quick and seamless transition to mixed martial arts. After winning his professional debut in June in 33 seconds, he made a pair of appearances at the UFC APEX last fall, needing less than two full minutes to dispatch both Zachary Borrego and Donovan Beard, showcasing his outstanding wrestling, as well as promising transition and submission skills to move to 3-0 and secure a place on the UFC roster.
UFC 285 EMBEDDED: All Episodes
In Pickett, he faces a 34-year-old veteran that arrives in Las Vegas on a two-fight slide, but sporting significantly more experience inside the Octagon.
Nickal’s wrestling skills are off the charts and this debut appearance against Pickett carries a great deal of interest amongst fans and observers that are eager to see if the former Nittany Lion standout and Hodge Trophy winner is capable of making an expedited run up the middleweight ranks.
Turner was originally scheduled to face off with Dan Hooker, but the veteran from New Zealand suffered a broken hand in training camp, resulting in Polish standout Mateusz Gamrot stepping in on short notice, creating an even more compelling fight.
Though he’s been around the scene for quite some time, Turner is still just 27 and only now really starting to come into his own. If you toss out his short-notice debut loss to Vicente Luque up a division (and you should), the California native is 6-1 inside the Octagon and riding a five-fight winning streak, with his last win over Brad Riddell showing that he was ready for another step up in competition.
Standing six-foot-three with a dangerous 77-inch reach, Turner’s length is a serious problem for fellow lightweights, and as he continues to learn how to fully weaponize that advantage and combine it with his natural power and keen finishing instincts, he could continue climbing the lightweight ranks.
Gamrot is a formidable test for Turner on Saturday — a 32-year-old veteran with a stellar 21-2 record (with on no contest) who is stationed ahead of him in the rankings and coming off a hard-fought loss to Beneil Dariush last fall at UFC 280. He’s the most experienced foe “The Tarantula” has faced to date, and how this contest plays out will provide a lot of insights regarding where Turner stands in the division at the moment.
While certainly a considerable challenge, this weekend’s pairing with Gamrot is a tremendous opportunity for Turner, as he either collects the biggest victory of his career and pushes towards the Top 5 in the 155-pound weight class or he gains a bunch of additional experience against a world-class talent and learns more about what he needs to work on in order to get there.
He’s looked outstanding over his last five wins, registering five finishes without reaching the third round, and if he adds another stoppage over Gamrot at UFC 285, Turner could find himself battling another top contender in the summer.
Although there are four members of the DWCS Class of ’22 on Saturday’s fight card, South Africa’s Saaiman is the only one to already compete inside the Octagon.
The undefeated bantamweight made his successful promotional debut at UFC 282 in December, earning a third-round stoppage win over short-notice opponent Steven Koslow in a competitive battle where he not only showed his sound fundamentals and technical skills, but also his poise and focus.
Docked a point for an unintentional illegal knee and facing an opponent that gave him all he could handle, Saaiman could have wilted but, instead, he remained calm and chased down the finish in the final minute of the fight. It was a comparable showing to the effort that earned him a place on the roster less than four months earlier, when he stopped Joshua Wang-Kim in the third round of their clash at the UFC APEX.
Fighting alongside his teammate Dricus Du Plessis for the second time, Saaiman squares off with Texas battler Mana Martinez on Saturday.
Though he landed on the wrong side of the finish in his own Contender Series appearance, Martinez still found his way to the Octagon three fights later. He’s gone the distance in all three of his UFC starts, earning split decision wins over Guido Cannetti and Brandon Davis on either side of a loss to Ronnie Lawrence at UFC 271 where he had “The Heat” in trouble down the stretch.
This should be an all-action affair right out of the chute and a terrific chance to get another read on where Saaiman stands in his development. Bantamweight is loaded with talent at the moment, so the 22-year-old should have plenty of time to build experience, sharpen his skills, and keep working forward without getting tossed into the deep end of the talent pool too soon.
UFC 285: Jones vs Gane took place live from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 4, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!