UFC 173 kicks off string of high-profile summer matchups

Well, UFC 172 is officially in the books and the title fight went down just about as expected. Jon “Bones” Jones, the top-ranked pound-for-pound fighter and the UFC’s biggest draw, defended his light heavyweight belt for the seventh time by thoroughly dominating Glover Teixeira in Baltimore last month. After becoming the UFC’s youngest champion three years ago at the age of 23, Jones has improved at a frightening rate. With the lone blemish on his record coming on a controversial disqualification back in 2009, and the fact that he has yet to reach his peak as a fighter, only one question remains: can anybody stop him?

But that’s in the past. A number of intriguing matchups dot the horizon, and I’ve got two words for you: Vegas, baby! This Memorial Day weekend, after a few months’ absence, the UFC’s main event returns to the MGM Grand, which has become the best venue to watch a fight outside of a little place called Madison Square Garden.

The UFC 173 bantamweight title fight gives us the classic story of a feisty newcomer challenging the longtime champion. TJ Dillashaw (10-2-0) brings just seven UFC fights to the table, but he has quickly ascended the rankings over the past year to his current peak of #4. Renan Barnao (34-1-0), on the other hand, lost his first professional fight way back in 2005 and hasn’t looked back. That’s right, he’s totaled zero losses in the nine years since, and has defended his title three times since he first beat Urijah Faber for it in July 2012. Barao is the UFC’s #3 pound-for-pound fighter, but Dillashaw doesn’t command nearly the attention that fan favorite Faber does. However, the location of the fight and the other main card events have driven up the average ticket price to $261.82, almost $100 more than UFC 169 in February, which was headlined by the Barao-Faber matchup.

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These other matchups include a light heavyweight bout between two bruisers, #4 Daniel Cormier (14-0-0) and #6 Dan Henderson (30-11-0). Many see the up-and-coming, undefeated Cormier as the next serious challenger to Jon Jones’ reign of terror, and a strong showing against the experienced Henderson could be Cormier’s ticket to his first UFC title fight. The welterweight fight pits former Marine and #5 ranked Jake Ellenberger (29-7) against #1 Robbie Lawler (22-10), who is fresh off one of the most exciting fights in recent memory, a brutal back-and-forth skirmish in February in which he narrowly conceded the title to Johny Hendricks. Both fighters will be hungry coming off of tough losses, and this should be as entertaining a matchup as its more heralded counterparts of the night. Though the average ticket price just a week before this event is peanuts compared to the last UFC title event at MGM Grand (UFC 168, headlined by the highly anticipated Chris Weidman-Anderson Silva rematch, which averaged $550.57 per ticket), I wouldn’t be surprised if prices steadily rise as excitement builds for this holiday weekend showdown.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the summer slate of events. UFC 174, in Vancouver on June 14, is scheduled to throw another fast-rising newcomer, Ali Bagautinov (13-2-0, #4), into the octagon against champion Demetrious Johnson (19-2-1). Johnson has held the flyweight title since its inception in September 2012 and occupies the #5 slot in the pound-for-pound rankings, but Bagautinov may have forgotten what it’s like to take a loss, his last one coming nearly three years ago. More anticipated than the title fight may be the bout between welterweights Rory MacDonald (16-2-0) and Tyron Woodley (13-2-0), ranked #2 and #3 respectively, the victor of which could challenge Hendricks for his newly won belt later in the summer.

It may be another holiday weekend event, however, that we can most look forward to. UFC 175, back in Las Vegas on July 5, features a veritable who’s who of stars and familiar faces: middleweight champion Chris Weidman, the undefeated newcomer who beat the legendary Anderson Silva in his past two title fights, defends against #2 Lyoto Machida. Women’s champion and budding actress Ronda Rousey vs. #2 Alexis Davis. Elder statesmen Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva in what’s sure to be one of the hardest-fought grudge matches of the year. Alex Caceres vs. Urijah Faber, who will be looking to start upon the path to retaking his title.

Next week’s UFC 173 is most pressing right now, but this summer is chock full of excellent fights. Which are you most looking forward to?

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