While UFC 231 is not expected to draw a massive pay-per-view audience, there’s still plenty for fight fans to be excited about.
There are two tantalizing title bouts at the top of a card that has a nice balance of weight classes, personalities and fighting styles, plus a healthy injection of Canadian talent including fan favourites Elias Theodorou and Olivier Aubin-Mercier.
There are also a handful of fighters flying under the radar that could make some serious noise as we head into 2019.
Here are three fighters in particular to keep an eye on at UFC 231.
Unless you watched season 27 of The Ultimate Fighter and its accompanying finale, you probably have never heard of Brad Katona. Fight fans unaware of the 26-year-old Winnipeg native will become educated at UFC 231, though, as the 7-0 fighter has a great opportunity to make a mark in a featured preliminary bout against Matthew Lopez.
Katona earned a dominant unanimous decision victory back in July over Jay Cucciniello to win a TUF 27 season that featured a cast comprised solely of undefeated fighters. He won the tournament as a featherweight (145 pounds) despite his natural weight class being bantamweight (135 pounds). That night he fought in front of 2,123 people at the Pearl Theater in Paradise, Nev., a stark contrast to what he’ll experience at Saturday’s sold-out venue that seats more than 18,000.
Katona doesn’t seem nervous of the big stage whatsoever.
— UFC Canada (@UFC_CA) December 7, 2018
“There is a sense of comfort with this fight compared to the last. Last time everything was new. It’s still exciting for me, to be in here in front of all of you guys with this big bundle of [microphones] is exciting to me,” he told gathered media in Toronto earlier this week. “It feels very right.”
Katona thinks it’ll be difficult to top his performance against Cucciniello but did say he feels his preparation for UFC 231 was better than his preparation before that summer bout in the desert.
Lopez is a tough out and was in a similar situation earlier in his career. At UFC 206 in 2016, the last time the UFC travelled to Toronto, Lopez fought and beat Ontario native Mitch Gagnon. He’ll look to play spoiler again but it won’t be easy.
Katona will have coach John Kavanagh in his corner after once again spending his fight camp with SBG Ireland, the infamous Dublin gym Conor McGregor calls home.
Polite and soft spoken, you wouldn’t guess Katona was a professional fighter unless you noticed his cauliflower ears. Katona has a degree in mechanical engineering and his intelligence serves him well in mixed martial arts.
“I think looking at the sport very analytically and looking at yourself with a critical eye is very important to me and it should be,” Katona said. “You could have a coach who would do that for you but for me I want to take charge on everything I do. I don’t want to just be told what to do, I want to be told why I’m doing it, that way I can reflect on it and if it’s right for me.
“There’s thousands of ways of doing things and it’s finding the right way for you is important and fortunately I found a gym in SBG and a coach in John Kavanagh that’s just perfectly aligned with that, too.”
The 205-pound weight class is a marquee division yet historically top-heavy, so a buzz builds whenever a promising new light-heavyweight bursts onto the scene in the UFC.
Austrian Aleksandar Rakić has the goods on paper: he’s young, tall, shredded, aggressive, willing to brawl and boasts one-shot knockout power in his hands. Those same characteristics saw Volkan Oezdemir quickly rise up the rankings and earn a title shot within one year of making his UFC debut.
Rakić puts his skills to the test against Devin Clark in the night’s opening bout. Clark is a training partner of Jon Jones and can’t be taken lightly, but there’s a reason Rakić is the biggest odds-on favourite on the card.
He has been perfect ever since losing his professional MMA debut in 2011. He railed off eight wins in a row, finishing seven opponents with strikes and one with a submission before getting his shot in the big show. He’s 2-0 in the UFC after getting his hand raised against established veteran Francimar Barroso in his promotional debut and handing Justin Ledet his first loss.
This is Rakić’s first time fighting in North America and his first opportunity competing at a numbered UFC event. Rakić has the chance to set the tone for the night and show the world he’s ready for a ranked contender.
A women’s flyweight champion will be crowned in the night’s co-main event but before the belt is even wrapped around either Valentina Shevchenko’s or Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s waist we may already know who the next title challenger is.
The women’s 125-pound weight class is new and there are plenty of scenarios to play out in the near and distant future but the winner of Katlyn Chookagian vs. Jessica Eye, if they impress, would have a strong argument.
Chookagian in particular has amassed an impressive 11-1 MMA record with her only loss being a split decision to former bantamweight title challenger Liz Carmouche. A loss to Carmouche is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, Carmouche holds a stoppage win over Shevchenko.
Chookagian is primarily a striker and pairing her with either of the two European co-headliners would make for a fun stylistic matchup.
“Besides the two girls fighting in the co-main event, we’re the only ones being talked about and taken seriously in this division, so I definitely think this is a No. 1 contender fight,” Chookagian said.