By Dwight Wakabayashi
The UFC is set for two more events in the remainder of February, with some very intriguing storylines set to play out at UFC on FUEL TV 7 this coming Saturday from London, England, followed by UFC 157 on Feb. 23 from Anaheim, Calif.
The two events will be headlined by title fights with interim bantamweight champ Renan Barao set to defend the title for the first time against young stud Michael McDonald on Sportsnet, while Ronda Rousey will face Liz Carmouche to legitimize the women’s title at UFC 157.
Aside from the exciting title fights, there are some very interesting match-ups in the rest of February that will tell us all we need to know about some of the fighters making waves in the UFC. New Strikeforce imports, legends fighting for one last shot and rising stars looking to leapfrog previous contenders, all these scenarios are set to play out in the next two events.
Here’s a look at six relevant fighters and whether they will be contenders or pretenders when the dust settles on the month.
Che Mills (vs. Matt Riddle, UFC on FUEL TV 7)
After some substantial hype and one win in the UFC, Mills was left as a pretender after he lost badly to Rory MacDonald in April of last year. He then got a mulligan in his next fight with Duane Ludwig when the fight was stopped after Ludwig blew his knee out early in the first round. Just where does Mills sit in the welterweight division? If Mills is really a future contender, he should be able to beat Matt Riddle convincingly. If this fight is close or Mills loses, he will be exposed as not all he is cracked up to be.
Prediction: Pretender. Mills wins a close decision but not enough to separate himself from the pack.
Ryan Jimmo (vs. James Te Huna, UFC on FUEL TV 7)
The Canadian light-heavyweight Jimmo got the hype train in full swing with his seven-second knockout debut at UFC 149 Calgary in July. The knockout was against veteran Anthony Perosh and Jimmo gets a large step-up in this fight with New Zealand’s biggest man Te Huna. Forget about another flash knockout, Jimmo is in tough to get a win in this fight and will be tested like he has never been tested before. His chin, his striking, his defence and his heart will all be pushed by Te Huna, and we will really see what the big man from Edmonton is really about.
Prediction: Pretender. Te Huna will prove to be too much for Jimmo.
Dustin Poirier (vs. Cub Swanson, UFC on FUEL TV 7)
I think it is safe to say that Poirier will be a future contender and a threat to any of the top dogs in the featherweight division. The question is will it be this year, or will he take a back seat to Swanson? Poirier was on the fast track to a title shot before Chan Sung Jung put a block on it by beating Poirier last May. Poirier bounced back by submitting Jonathan Brookins and now finds himself within one win of a shot again. Can Poirier get over the hump?
Prediction: Contender. His all-around game will allow him to beat Swanson to set himself up as the true No. 1 contender in the division, ahead of Chad Mendes and Ricardo Lamas.
Brendan Schaub (vs. Lavar Johnson, UFC 157)
Brendan (The Hybrid) Schaub has certainly had some tough times in the UFC lately, getting knocked out in two consecutive times in the cage against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Ben Rothwell. Both were first-round losses and a tough lesson for the former TUF 10 finalist. Schaub needs a strong win over Lavar Johnson to get him back in the mix with the top fighters in the division. Another loss would put him on very shaky ground in the UFC, a surprising state of affairs for such a young and promising fighter.
Prediction: Contender. Schaub learned some valuable lessons in his two losses and will beat Johnson convincingly to get back on track.
Robbie Lawler (vs. Josh Koscheck, UFC 157)
Lawler has always been an enigmatic fighter, always tough enough to fight the very best of the world, but also vulnerable to the odd upset loss. Lawler jumps in to the UFC from Strikeforce with a very important fight facing current welterweight gatekeeper Josh Koscheck. The winner of this fight says they are still a contender, and still relevant in fights with the best in the division. The loser is the welterweight gatekeeper at best for the remainder of his career.
Prediction: Pretender. Koscheck will find a way to win and Lawler will remain a pretender for his entire time in the UFC.
Liz Carmouche (vs. Ronda Rousey, UFC 157)
It’s tough to say that someone already fighting for a title may still be a pretender but such is life with the women’s division. We are still waiting to find out if there are any real challengers to Rousey’s title and this fight will go a long way in providing the answer. Carmouche is worthy of this shot and credit to her for accepting the challenge, but if Rousey takes her arm in the first round as expected, we will know that there are no real contenders in the women’s division. Especially since Cristiane (Cyborg) Santos has asked for her release from the UFC.
Prediction: Pretender. Rousey takes her arm in the first round.
Dwight Wakabayashi is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report UFC and regular contributor to Sportsnet.ca’s UFC section. Follow him on Twitter @wakafightermma.