MMA: UFC 249-Stephens vs Kattar

May 9, 2020; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Jeremy Stephens (red gloves) fights Calvin Kattar (blue gloves) during UFC 249 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

After nearly a month off, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is back.

Fans thirst for fights will be quenched on Saturday, January 15, as the UFC returns to the Apex. Saturday’s card is headlined by a clash between top-10 featherweights, No. 5-ranked Calvin Kattar and No. 8-ranked Giga Chikadze.

Chikadze has bulldozed through the competition since entering the UFC. Out of the country of Georgia, Chikadze is on a 9-fight win streak, including knockout victories over UFC legends Cub Swanson and Edson Barboza. Chikadze has amassed nine victories via knockout in his 14 victories overall.

Chikadze is dangerous in all areas of striking both with his kicks and fast hands. The former kickboxing champion uses his kicks as a mechanism to control the striking range. If opponents are lucky enough to get inside striking range against Chikadze. The Georgian isn’t afraid to use his hands.

Chikadze said, "I’m not only the best striker inside the UFC, I am the best boxer in the UFC as well."

Although Chikadze has showcased impressive striking while in the UFC landing an average of nearly four significant strikes per minute, his opponent Calvin Kattar is widely considered one of the top boxers in the UFC, possibly only behind No. 1 contender Max "Blessed" Holloway.

Kattar has showcased his elite boxing skills throughout his career amassing 11 knockout victories out of his 22 victories overall. Kattar is a high-volume striker landing nearly five significant strikes per minute. Despite Kattar’s striking prowess, he was no match for Halloway when the two faced off in January 2021. Kattar was a glorified punching bag for Holloway, as the former featherweight champion broke UFC records for both total strikes landed and strikes attempted. Holloway landed more than 400 strikes and attempted over 700. Coming into Saturday night the question for Kattar is has he recovered mentally from the loss his last time out?

With featherweight title challenger Holloway forced out of his trilogy bout with featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 272 in March due to injury, Saturday's main event was thought to have added importance — with the winner potentially sliding into a title shot as a replacement. Both men’s immediate title hopes were dashed earlier this week, when the UFC announced that featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski will make his next title defense at UFC 273 tentatively in Brooklyn, New York on April 9 versus No. 4-ranked Chan Sung Jung, "The Korean Zombie." Despite a title berth not being on the line Saturday night, there are still a multitude of questions left to be answered when the octagon door locks Saturday night. Will Chikadze continue his impressive run or will Boston native Kattar return to his contending form?

This winter, the Omicron COVID-19 variant has wreaked havoc on all sports. The UFC is no different, as Saturday’s original co-main event between Michael Pereira Lima and Andre Fialho in the welterweight division has been canceled due to COVID-19 protocol. With the cancellation, two veteran former title challengers in the women’s flyweight division move up to the co-main event slot as No. 2-ranked Katlyn Chookagian takes on No. 4-ranked Jennifer Maia. Despite the No. 2 ranking, Chookagian understands there is no real appetite among fans to see her fight flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko in a rematch. Chookagian told the media "I know if I keep winning eventually that shot will come again."

Chookagian is on a two-fight win streak including wins over Vivianne Araujo at UFC 262 in May 2021 and Cynthia Calvillo at UFC 255 in November 2020 respectively. Out of her 16 wins, Chookagian's last nine oddly came via decision. The New Jersey native’s strategy is to use her kicks to control the distance and avoid taking much damage.

For Chookagian, controlling the distance might be much harder to do in the smaller 25-foot cage of the Apex. Not to mention, Maia is one of the most talented grapplers in the UFC. Maia has a take down accuracy percentage of 50% compared to Chookagian’s 15% takedown. Accuracy percentage looks for Maia to get this fight to the ground as fast as possible. It will be interesting to see how both women navigate the smaller octagon.

Also on the main card at flyweight, is a top-10 matchup between No. 5-ranked Brandon Royval and No. 7-ranked Rogerio Bontorin, two men who are no stranger to explosive, exciting fights. Royval is badly in need of a win in order to stay in the top five. The Denver native has lost his last two fights; one of those came at the hands of current flyweight champion Brandon Moreno. Despite the losses, Royval has always brought an aggressive mindset to the octagon, scoring a finish in 11 of his 12 wins. Similar to Royval, Bontorin has also shown a knack for finishing fights, with 14 of his 17 wins coming by finish including an impressive win over Matt Schnell at UFC 262. This bout has fight of the night potential written all over it with the winner vaulting himself into title contention.

The main card opener takes place in the lightweight division — Russia’s Vlacheslav Borschev makes his much-anticipated UFC debut since coming off Dana White’s Contender series. The Russian will face top prospect Dakota Bush. Slava Claus began his career in kickboxing amassing an 18-2 Record. Since making the transition to MMA with Team Alpha Male, Slava has impressed with a 5-1 overall record including five knockout victories.

On the prelims, the spotlight focuses on the lightweight division as the always-game Boston native Charles Rosa steps in the octagon to do battle with TJ Brown on two days notice. Other veterans that make their return to the octagon include Court McGee and Brian "Boom" Kelleher. All the action begins with the prelims on ESPN Plus at 4 p.m. and continues with the main card at 7 p.m. on ESPN.

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