Ranking UFC's most exciting upcoming Fight Island matchups

Conor McGregor. (Eric Jamison/AP)

Following a four-week break over the holidays and turn of the calendar, the UFC is set to return to Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island for three Fight Island events on Jan. 16, Jan. 20 and Jan. 23.

An anticipated Jan. 20 headliner between Leon Edwards and Khamzat Chimaev was unfortunately cancelled following Chimaev’s positive COVID-19 test in December and it hasn’t yet been rescheduled, however, it’s not all doom and gloom for the UFC to start 2021.

In fact, there’s plenty to admire with the UFC’s first slate of events this year, which will be capped off by a pay-per-view card featuring the sport’s most recognizable superstar.

With that in mind, here are nine matchups we’re particularly excited about.

9. Carlos Condit vs. Matt Brown
When/where: Jan. 16, UFC Fight Island 7

This one is for fans of the old dogs. These two longtime welterweights have delivered jaw-rattling strikes and provided many jaw-dropping moments competing in the Octagon over the years. At his peak, Condit was the WEC champion and won an interim UFC belt. Brown is one of the more successful non-winning alumni from The Ultimate Fighter reality series. Both men are known as simply being two of the toughest SOBs in the sport. Remember last year when “Shogun” Rua and fellow Brazilian legend “Lil Nog” battled for a third time even though both were well past their prime? It delivered because both men chose to go out on their shields and Condit-Brown has those same vibes.

8. Warlley Alves vs. Mounir Lazzez
When/where: Jan. 20, UFC Fight Island 8

Lazzez’s path to the UFC was unique. It began after Dana White was informed of Lazzez via pestering by one of his son’s friends during a birthday party in 2020. White took a chance and the UFC gave Lazzez a difficult test in his debut against knockout artist Abdul Razak Alhassan. He passed with flying colours, earning a unanimous decision win and a Fight of the Night bonus along the way. Alves holds a 2015 submission victory over Colby Covington and is another tough out for Lazzez despite losing two of his past three.

7. Nasrat Haqparast vs. Arman Tsarukyan
When/where: Jan. 23 at UFC 257

Make sure you have this one on your radar. It features two of the top lightweights under the age of 26 currently on the UFC roster. Tsarukyan looked phenomenal in his July victory over Davi Ramos and Haqparast hits like a truck.

6. Michael Chiesa vs. Neil Magny
When/where: Jan. 20, UFC Fight Island 8

Unfortunately, this is a huge step down from Edwards-Chimaev in terms of public interest, but as a late fill-in main event, you could do a lot worse than two top-10 welterweights going head-to-head. Both are coming off wins over former UFC champs – Chiesa over Rafael Dos Anjos and Magny over Robbie Lawler – and this one could produce some fun action. Chiesa is 3-0 since moving up to 170 pounds but still relatively unproven in the division.

5. Marina Rodriguez vs. Amanda Ribas
When/where: Jan. 23 at UFC 257

Rodriguez has made great strides since her appearance on the Brazilian edition of Dana White's Contender Series and she’ll be motivated coming off a split decision loss to inaugural strawweight champ Carla Esparza in December. Rodriguez is ranked No. 8 at 115 pounds, while Ribas sits at No. 9 as a strawweight star on the rise thanks to her outstanding grappling skills and sunny disposition. Whoever wins will be one step closer to title contention in the deepest division in women’s MMA.

4. Santiago Ponzinibbio vs. Li Jingliang
When/where: Jan. 16, UFC Fight Island 7

These two 170-pounders throw heavy leather. Ponzinibbio has won seven in a row dating back to 2015 but hasn’t fought since knocking out Neil Magney more than two years ago. The 34-year-old Argentinian could reintroduce himself to the welterweight division and slide himself back into the contender conversation with a statement win.

3. Dan Hooker vs. Michael Chandler
When/where: Jan. 23 at UFC 257

Chandler makes his long-awaited UFC debut but before the former Bellator lightweight champion can challenge for UFC gold he’ll have to get past the No. 6-ranked contender. Hooker is taller, younger, has a reach advantage and a more dynamic striking arsenal. It’s a worthy co-main event and great litmus test for Chandler who’ll undoubtedly be fixated on the result of the main event if he manages to get his hand raised.

2. Max Holloway vs. Calvin Kattar
When/where: Jan. 16, UFC Fight Island 7

Holloway is the former featherweight champion who’s coming off a contentious split decision loss to reigning title holder Alexander Volkanovski. Meanwhile, Kattar is riding a win streak where he knocked Jeremey Stephens out with a vicious standing elbow in May and proved he can go 25 hard minutes in a five-round decision over Dan Ige in July.

This matchup has all the makings of a high-level, high-paced bloody chess match with the potential to see all five rounds thanks to each man’s durability. The odds this one ends up boring are astronomically low.

1. Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier 2
When/where: Jan. 23 at UFC 257

It’s a pretty easy No. 1 to be honest. There’s not much in sports more exciting than the lead-up to a McGregor fight. It’s a rematch of a 2014 featherweight tilt in which McGregor needed only 1:46 to get a knockout win. Both fighters have since carved out new legacies at lightweight and the winner of this fight will likely end up fighting for the 155-pound title later in 2021.

McGregor is a former champion and Poirier held an interim title. Both were submitted by the since-retired Khabib Nurmagomedov yet both bounced back with impressive victories – McGregor dismantled Donald Cerrone at UFC 246 and Poirier won a Fight of the Night against Dan Hooker. There are a combined 21 post-fight bonuses in this main event (Poirier’s 11, McGregor’s 10) so getting your money’s worth shouldn’t be an issue.

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