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Pannie Kianzad of Iran prepares to fight Sijara Eubanks in a bantamweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on December 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)

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Three Can't-Miss Combatants To Watch For On Saturday's Las Vegas Event

The action returns to the UFC APEX this weekend after a one-week pause with a 15-fight card capped by twin battles in the light heavyweight division.

In the penultimate bout of the evening, Ion Cutelaba and Devin Clark go head-to-head in a clash of two powerhouses looking to get things moving in the right direction in hopes of making some real noise in the 205-pound weight class in 2022 and beyond, while the main event is occupied by resurgent former title challenger Anthony Smith squaring off with Dana White’s Contender Series graduate Ryan Spann, who has gone 5-1 through his first six UFC appearances.

Along with the tandem light heavyweight contests closing out the show, Saturday’s event also includes a host of compelling and competitive matchups featuring a number of promising talents looking to take another step up the divisional ladder in their respective weight classes, including bantamweight Montel Jackson, welterweight Impa Kasanganay, and debuting flyweight Erin Blanchfield.

There are three additional competitors that have already started making noise in their respective weight classes set to make the walk to the Octagon again this weekend with designs on turning up the volume and increasing their profiles a little more on Saturday night as well.

Here’s a closer look at those competitors.

Arman Tsarukyan

Arman Tsarukyan of Armenia poses for a portrait after his victory during the UFC 257 event inside Etihad Arena on UFC Fight Island on January 23, 2021 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)
Arman Tsarukyan, January 23, 2021 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

Tsarukyan probably should have been on everyone’s radar as soon as he pushed Islam Makhachev for 15 hard minutes in his promotional debut when the surging lightweight contender was already riding a four-fight winning streak.

Since his impressive debut, the 24-year-old has collected solid decision wins over Olivier Aubin-Mercier, Davi Ramos, and Matt Frevola to push his record to 16-2 heading into Saturday’s clash with veteran Christos Giagos, climbing into the Top 15 in the lightweight rankings in the process.

In many ways, Tsarukyan feels like the successor to Makhachev in terms of emerging talents in the 155-pound weight class — a highly skilled grappler whose dominant, wrestling-heavy wins don’t necessarily generate highlight reel moments, but captivate hardcore fans and grappling aficionados, prompting both sets to speak highly of his upside and forecast him to be a perennial contender going forward. He’s sharp in scrambles, solid in his striking, and still developing as a competitor, but all the initial signs point to him being a tremendous talent who could potentially topple some more established names in the division if given the opportunity.

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Understandably, people aren’t exactly racing to sign up and fight Tsarukyan, leaving him, like Makhachev before him, to keep taking whatever opportunities he is afforded in hopes of stringing together enough victories to where facing another ranked fighter is the only option.

Giagos enters on a tidy two-fight winning streak, having rallied from a rough first round to finish returning veteran Sean Soriano last time out, and he’s won four of his last five to bring his UFC record to 5-4 overall. He’s a solid veteran with a wealth of experience, and another hurdle for Tsarukyan to clear as he looks to continue moving forward in the talent-rich lightweight ranks.

Pannie Kianzad

Pannie Kianzad during the UFC 263 event at Gila River Arena on June 12, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)
Pannie Kianzad, June 12, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

Kianzad had an uneven start to her UFC tenure, reaching the finals of the featherweight competition on Season 28 of The Ultimate Fighter, where she suffered a second-round submission loss to Macy Chiasson. Following a return to the 135-pound weight class and the win column on the regional circuit, she returned to the UFC, dropping a unanimous decision to Julia Avila.

Since then, the 29-year-old has rattled off four straight victories, turning back challenges from Jessica-Rose Clark, Bethe Correia, Sijara Eubanks, and Alexis Davis.

A pro for nearly a decade, Kianzad has developed one of the best jabs in the division, building her success off sharp, crisp boxing led by that piercing lead strike. A natural athlete with good footwork and scrambling ability, “Banzai” has been steadily putting things together more and more with each successive victory in her current winning streak, climbing to No. 12 in the rankings.

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Saturday night in Las Vegas, Kianzad squares off with former title challenger Raquel Pennington, who fights for the first time in 15 months, looking to build off her win over Marion Reneau last summer. While “Rocky” has fallen out of the rankings for the time being, she’s as battle tested as anyone in the division, having shared the Octagon with current champ Amanda Nunes, former champs Miesha Tate and Holly Holm (twice), ex-featherweight titleholder Germaine de Randamie, and pretty much everyone else that has been in contention at one time or another over the course of her career.

If Kianzad can keep her momentum going with a fifth consecutive victory this weekend, she could very well leapfrog a couple of the women currently ahead of her in the rankings and land in the Top 10, putting her in position for another step up in competition next time out.

Nate Maness

It’s been a weird, albeit successful, start to Nate Maness’ UFC career.

Initially slated to face Ray Borg in his debut last summer, the former flyweight title challenger withdrew from the contest the day before the fight, resulting in Maness facing Johnny Munoz Jr. on 24-hours’ notice up a division.

After securing that victory, the Kentucky product faced off with veteran Luke Sanders, who came out of the gate like a man possessed and had Maness in trouble early, before the 30-year-old collected himself and capitalized on Sanders’ aggression, stinging him and securing a second-round submission win to push his winning streak to three and his record to 13-1 overall.

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This weekend, Maness squares off with fellow emerging bantamweight Tony Gravely in a classic “only one of these guys can move forward right now” pairing that is bound to be ultra-competitive from start to finish.

Admittedly, Maness is someone that has been on my radar for quite some time, as he fought three times under the TKO banner and claimed the Montreal-based promotion’s bantamweight title, dropping it to Taylor Lapilus in the lone loss of his career. But through his first two appearances inside the Octagon, “Mayhem” has shown more than enough to get those that are just learning about him now to be excited about his prospects, particularly in the fight with Sanders, where he weathered the storm, rallied back, and secured the finish.

Saturday’s pairing with Gravely is another stern test and a chance to pick up a third straight win in the UFC, and while quickly ascending the ladder in the loaded bantamweight ranks is challenging, collecting three straight wins in such a talent-rich division should definitely turn a few heads and result in another move forward for Maness heading towards next year.