Last week in this space, I talked about how October in Major League Baseball is where legends are made, and I want to continue with the playoff baseball theme as we head towards UFC 294 and everything on the slate to close out the year.
In addition to October being where baseball legends are made, it’s also a time where unsung heroes often emerge. It’s the period when names like Edgar Renteria, Shane Spencer, Mickey Hatcher, and Gene Larkin became entrenched in the hearts and minds of Giants, Yankees, Dodgers, and Twins fans forever, as the veterans and role players all played pivotal roles in their teams’ postseason success.
Every fight week, there is a chance for a bunch of unheralded names to show out inside the Octagon, and this October fight card feels primed to vault a fighter or two to greater heights, setting them up for bigger and better in 2024 and beyond.
Here’s a closer look at three bantamweight competitors with the opportunity to be the surprise standouts this week in the latest edition of Fighters on the Rise.
The 29-year-old Martinez is a prime example of how consistent, quality success inside the Octagon still isn’t enough to put you on the map with the wider audience, and it’s unfortunate because the Factory X Muay Thai representative is someone that far more people should already be paying attention to at this point.
Martinez debuted with a short-notice loss to Andre Soukhamthath in Moncton, New Brunswick in the fall of 2018. Since then, “Dragon” has gone 9-2 in the UFC bantamweight division, which is arguably the deepest and most competitive weight class in the company, and one of those two losses was a janky split decision defeat to Andre Ewell. He’s 7-1 since that questionable defeat, and enters his fight with Adrian Yanez this weekend on a five-fight winning streak.
The guys on the Ringer Fantasy Football Show have a running bit about if a player had a cooler name, they’d be more popular or drafted higher, and I kind of think the general sentiment of that idea applies here to Martinez.
He’s a super-quiet, zero-flash fighter that gets overlooked a little because there are simply more flamboyant and boisterous competitors littered throughout the division. This matchup with Yanez is a tremendous example as it’s Martinez that is ranked higher — he’s at No. 13, Yanez is at No. 14 — and riding an extended winning streak, but it’s the DWCS alum that most people identify with heading into Saturday’s contest.
But that’s also why I really like this fight and opportunity for Martinez.
His second-round stoppage win over Cub Swanson last October should have already put people onto him as a name to track in the 135-pound ranks, and getting the better of Said Nurmagomedov last time out should have sealed the deal. Since that doesn’t appear to be the case, a sixth consecutive victory this weekend against Yanez feels like it could be just what is needed to elevate Martinez from a hardcore darling and dark horse in the division to someone everyone is paying close attention to heading into 2024.
Christian Rodriguez and Cameron Saaiman
It’s rare that I spotlight both halves of a given matchup, but Rodriguez and Saaiman are absolutely deserving of a mention in this space this week.
When Rodriguez bested Reyes Cortez Jr. in the final bout of Week 7 on Season 5 of Dana White’s Contender Series but wasn’t offered a contract, the UFC President suggested that the Milwaukee native was someone that would eventually find his way to the Octagon with a little more experience. One fight and three months later, he stepped into the Octagon, up a division, and turned in a strong effort in defeat against Jonathan Pearce.
Those kinds of short-notice, different weight class, good account of yourself fights are ones everyone should circle, and Rodriguez has shown why since returning to bantamweight. He choked out Joshua Weems in the first round eight months after losing to Pearce, and then earlier this year, the Roufusport product halted the rapid ascent of Raul Rosas Jr. by showing the young prospect that he needs more seasoning.
The performance against Rosas Jr. is one that should have people eagerly anticipating Rodriguez’ return to action this weekend, as he showed tremendous patience and poise in dealing with the furious initial burst of the now 19-year-old fighter, and then dominated the action over the final two rounds to collect his second straight UFC triumph.
Saaiman also appeared on Dana White’s Contender Series, earning a third-round stoppage win over Joshua Wang-Kim on Season 6, and has continued piling up the victories since touching down on the UFC roster.
The 22-year-old South African secured a third-round finish over Steven Koslow in his debut, edged out Mana Martinez in his sophomore showing, and thrived opposite Terrence Mitchell in July when the former Ultimate Fighter contestant tagged in for Rodriguez when he was forced out of their initial pairing. It hasn’t been smooth sailing the whole way through for “MSP,” as each of his first two outings featured point deductions, but he was clean and efficient in his performance against Mitchell and offers plenty of reasons to be excited about his upside.
You don’t see a 22-year-old with just nine professional appearances under his belt when you watch Saaiman compete — we see a polished, unflappable, focused competitor with a well-rounded skill set and cardio for days, all of which combines to make him one of the most promising young talents on the roster.
Their meeting on Saturday feels to me like one of those fights we’ll look back on in three or four years as a key moment in each of their careers and possibly a matchup we’d like to revisit once they’ve each worked their way into the rankings.
And make no mistake about it: both Rodriguez and Saaiman profile as fighters that could be Top 15 competitors in the talent-rich bantamweight ranks in the next couple years.
Both of these men are outstanding prospects and it’s going to be fascinating to see them compete against one another on Saturday night in Las Vegas.