The UFC's first 2017 show to be broadcast on Fox is a big one.
Taking place in the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado, UFC on Fox: Shevchenko vs. Peña (otherwise known as UFC on Fox 23) is headlined by a fascinating women's bantamweight title contender elimination fight between Valentina Schevchenko and the unbeaten Julianna Peña.
If that main event doesn't whet your appetite, the January 28th show features big fights on this card from top to bottom. The ever-enthralling—and hometown hero—Donald Cerrone takes on the sharp boxing skills of Jorge Masvidal in the co-main event, while a bout with serious title implications in the bantamweight division between Raphael Assuncao and Aljamain Sterling takes place on the Fox Sports preliminary card—a portion of the night's fights headlined by a fun middleweight scrap between Nate Marquardt and Sam Alvey.
But, the contest which is near-certain to be the headline-grabber is the heavyweight showdown between divisional stalwart Andrei Arlovski and heavyweight's most exciting prospect in France's Francis "Predator" Ngannou.
It's been some time since the heavyweight division has had a new talent wreaking havoc among its gatekeepers on the UFC roster. With three knockout wins, complimented with a submission victory in his last appearance against Anthony Hamilton, during his brief UFC tenure, Ngannou has injected the landscape of the 265lbs weight limit with a new lease of life.
Born in Batie, Cameroon, 30-year-old Ngannou has done nothing but shine since bursting on the international MMA scene when making his UFC debut at the end of 2015. That night, on December 19th at UFC on Fox 17, Ngannou knocked out fellow promotional newcomer Luis Henrique in the second round. Predator then followed that with two more TKO victories against Curtis Blaydes and Serbian Bojan Mihajlovic—before rounding out 2016 with an impressive Performance of the Night-worthy submission victory over Anthony Hamilton on December 9th.
The combination of Ngannou's innate finishing ability, and how active he has been in the UFC in the space of a year, has led to many heads be turned by the talents of this recently-unknown heavyweight commodity. Bearing in mind MMA remains essentially outlawed in France, Predator's quick impact on the sport has been rather impressive.
Boasting a 9-1 record with all victories coming by either knockout or submission, Ngannou is certainly a prospect worth keeping any eye on. But, three of his four UFC wins have come against UFC newcomers. Predator's first true test will come on Saturday night against wily heavyweight veteran Arlovski—an opponent and opportunity Ngannou is excited at the prospect of facing. "For me, this is something great, because since I was young, I've always dreamed of something like this," he said Thursday at open workouts. "I didn't have many opportunities in my life. It was difficult. But I always kept my dream of making it somehow. I never gave up. I'm so happy to have this. I promise myself to give it more than my best on Saturday."
37-year-old Arlovski, who hails from Belarus, has well and truly been there and done that with experience befitting a man who has spent close to two decades at the highest level of the sport. During his time in MMA, Arlovski has won the UFC heavyweight title and faced the likes of Fedor Emelianenko, Pedro Rizzo, Ricco Rodriguez, Alistair Overeem, Josh Barnett, Frank Mir, Travis Browne, Tim Sylvia, one Viacheslav Datsik and current UFC champion Stipe Miocic—and that's not mentioning all the big names he has fought in his career.
With numerous accusations of having a weak chin—which aren't totally baseless, given the Belarusian's nine knockout losses—Arlovski pleasantly surprised the masses with the initial success he enjoyed upon his long awaited return to the UFC following his six-year absence away from the promotion. "The Pitbull" had a great 2014 and '15, beating Brendan Schaub, Antonio "Big Foot" Silva and the aforementioned duo of Browne and Mir to earn himself a spot in title contention for the UFC heavyweight strap.
However, Arlovski endured a horrible 2016 and lost all three of his fights in that year—losing to Miocic, Overeem and Barnett by two knockouts and a submission, respectively. The loss of momentum has led to Arlovski reassuming his role as a gatekeeper of the UFC heavyweight landscape. But, given his experience, Arlovski is not one to be afraid of the problems posed by a relative rookie—even if it is Ngannou.
In fact, despite his years in the fight business, Arlovski appeared perturbed by Ngannou's perceived arrogance ahead of their fight at the public workout media scrum—something he is utilising as motivation ahead of Saturday night. "He's a big fan of Mike Tyson, and he's going to knock out Arlovski in the first round," Arlovski said as transcribed by MMAjunkie. "It's good. I like it. I like his attitude."
"To me, he looks really cocky," later adding, "his comments, how he talks to people. I might be wrong."
In a classic contest pitting old guard versus new, veteran versus prospect, this heavyweight showdown is sure to provide plenty of entertainment while the huge importance of this fight is tangible for both men. An Arlovski win rids him of his painful memories of 2016 and could be yet another chance to propel his career in a bid to regain the UFC heavyweight title which was once his, while avoiding defeat will also cement his spot on the UFC roster. Meanwhile, victory for Ngannou would certainly make a splash for the upcoming heavyweight and his stock will increase a considerable amount—surely earning a spot in the top 10 of his division's rankings.
Make sure you catch this fight on Saturday night!