The first half of the year is officially in the books — or will be when the action hits the Octagon this weekend — and the second half of the 2023 UFC slate is coming in hot!
Saturday’s return to the UFC APEX is one of those cards that is packed with competitive fights and compelling opportunities for a collection of intriguing athletes.
Headlined by a middleweight clash between Top 10 fixture Sean Strickland and seasoned veteran and UFC sophomore Abus Magomedov, who needed all of 19 seconds to earn a victory in his debut, this weekend’s event features a host of up-and-coming talents worth watching, including the trio of Dana White’s Contender Series (DWCS) graduates highlighted below.
A tight card with a bunch of explosive potential — this has the makings of a standout event that sneaks up on a lot of people, and these three competitors should be a big part of that on Saturday.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Dawson is one of those fighters that just quietly goes about their business, stacking positive results and making headway in the divisional ranks. He did that at featherweight upon arriving in the UFC via the first season of the Contender Series and has continued doing so since relocating to the lightweight ranks, as well.
This weekend the 29-year-old with the 19-1-1 record is set to face off with fellow ranked lightweight Damir Ismagulov in Saturday’s co-main event, and a victory there will catapult the American Top Team representative into a matchup with an even more established and dangerous foe in the second half of the year.
There is nothing flashy or dynamic about Dawson — he simply knows who he is as an athlete and a competitor, plays to his strengths, and continually gets his hand raised. Last November, he tagged in for Drakkar Klose against Mark O. Madsen on short notice and became the first person to defeat the multiple-time Danish Olympian, submitting him in the third round. If not for a weight miss, it would have been a perfect performance, but remains the kind of win that should have prompted everyone to put an asterisk beside Dawson’s name as one of the top emerging talents in the lightweight division.
Saturday’s meeting with Ismagulov will serve as a barometer for where the Wisconsin native is at in terms of his development and ascent in the 155-pound ranks. The 32-year-old Russian has more experience, a more dynamic and well-rounded skill set, and the kind of approach and understanding that makes him a miserable matchup for everyone that steps into the Octagon with him.
But it’s also a massive opportunity for Dawson, and the kind of bout where the up-and-comer could potentially open a lot of eyes and announce his presence as a genuine threat in the talent-rich lightweight ranks.
The elder of the UFC’s Fighting Bonfim Brothers, Ismael earned a contract alongside his younger brother Gabriel last fall on Dana White’s Contender Series, and the two took things up a notch by competing, winning, and posting highlight reel finishes alongside one another at UFC 283 earlier this year.
“Marreta” stood in with Terrance McKinney in Rio de Janeiro and immediately established himself as a person of interest in the 155-pound weight class, collecting a second-round stoppage win after putting McKinney down and out with a flying knee. It ran Bonfim’s winning streak to a baker’s dozen, dating back to his 2014 loss to Renato Moicano, and pushed his record to 18-3 overall.
This weekend, the 27-year-old returns for his sophomore appearance under the UFC banner, stepping in against dangerous and durable Frenchman Benoit Saint-Denis in what promises to be an absolute banger for as long as it lasts.
After debuting up a division against Elizeu Zaleski Dos Santos, Saint-Denis has posted consecutive stoppage victories at lightweight, punishing Niklas Stolze and Gabriel Miranda with a diverse collection of attacks before getting each of them out of there in the second round.
Bonfim has answered every question asked of him inside the cage in recent years, beating solid competition under the LFA banner after doing the same in his native Brazil before besting Norman Abbasov to earn his contract and icing McKinney in January. Facing Saint-Denis is more of a lateral move within the division, but it’s the correct matchup at this time. Bonfim has looked good, but it never hurts to just double-check things before moving to the next step.
Should he pass this test with flying colors, just as he has the last several that have been placed in front of him, expect the Brazilian to get a step up in competition and another chance to shine before the year is out.
The third and final member of the DWCS triumvirate to keep tabs on this weekend is Brito, who has bounced back from a debut loss to Bill Algeo in impressive fashion.
Actually, impressive doesn’t even quite cover it.
After dropping a decision to Algeo to begin his UFC tenure, the 28-year-old, who bested Diego Lopes on the annual talent-search series to earn his UFC deal, scored a 41-second stoppage win over Andre Fili and followed that up with a first-round submission win over Lucas Alexander, giving him two victories in a combined two minutes and 42 seconds to close out his rookie campaign inside the Octagon.
For everyone that will have the urge to downplay the win over Alexander, who was a short-notice replacement making his promotional debut, please note: (1) Brito can only face the guy in front of him, and he handled business in dominant fashion, and (2) Alexander thoroughly out-worked veteran Steven “Ocho” Peterson in his follow-up fight, proving he’s worthy of a place in the UFC featherweight division.
Originally scheduled to face Khusein Askhabov on Saturday, Brito will instead face-off with another newcomer tagging in with limited prep time, as 34-year-old Westin Wilson steps in to replace the injured Askhabov. A brown belt under “The Arm Collector,” Giva Santana, Wilson trains alongside Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson at Upstate Karate and enters the contest having won three straight and six of his last seven.
Brito is one of those fighters whose profile and stock is going to continue increasing as more people become familiar with some of the names he faced and beat prior to arriving in the UFC, as he stopped Chepe Mariscal, who made his UFC debut last weekend in Jacksonville, in 44 seconds prior to facing Lopes, who showed out as a short-notice replacement against Movsar Evloev earlier in the year.
He’s looked very good over his last two appearances, and with another victory on Saturday, it might be time for “Tubarāo” to share the Octagon with someone closer to the Top 15.
UFC Fight Night: Strickland vs Magomedov took place live from the UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada on July 1, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!