Ben Askren debut, Zabit and Cody Garbrandt: Why you can't miss UFC 235 undercard this weekend
ASKREN TALKS THE TALK, BUT CAN HE WALK THE WALK?
American wrestling ace Ben Askren is undefeated as a mixed martial artist. He has won world titles in both Bellator and ONE Championship. And he has constantly spoken of his belief that he is the best welterweight fighter in the world.
But the court of public opinion has always reserved its verdict on Askren because he has never fought in the toughest proving ground in the sport – the UFC octagon.
That will all change on Saturday night when Askren makes his UFC debut against power-punching former UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler. It's just about as tough an opening assignment as you can hand a debuting fighter, but for one who insists he's the best of the best, it's no less than Askren was expecting.
We know Lawler has strong takedown defence, we know he's durable and we know he's proven at the very highest level of the sport. Facing him will prove to be the acid test for Askren, who will be thrust right into the top ranking positions if he's able to force his smothering wrestling game on the former world champion on Saturday night.
GARBRANDT LOOKS TO BOUNCE BACK
Cody Garbrandt is in a tricky position in the hugely-exciting UFC bantamweight division. He's proved himself to be one of the very best fighters in the world at 135lbs, but he's fallen short not once, but twice, against reigning champ TJ Dillashaw.
So, where does 'No Love' go from here?
It's imperative he bounces back with a win and gets himself back on a winning streak. The list of contenders is growing, with Aljamain Sterling surging into a genuine contender spot and Russian striking sensation Petr Yan looking to gatecrash the world title picture, too.
It means Garbrandt needs a big, impressive win over a seasoned opponent in Pedro Munhoz this weekend to book himself into a potential title eliminator bout.
In reality, Garbrandt's best chance of a quick return to a title fight is for Dillashaw to lose his belt and a new champion to emerge.
But he has no control over that situation, and will need to do the only thing he can to remain in the title conversation, regardless of the identity of the man who holds the belt.
Victory, therefore, is essential. Victory in impressive style is equally as important.
ZABIT LOOKS TO SURGE INTO TITLE CONTENTION
Russian featherweight star Zabit Magomedsharipov has long been tipped for stardom in the UFC's 145lb division. And now he's set to face a hugely respected longtime contender in a fight that, if he's successful, could propel him into a title shot.
Magomedsharipov is riding a 12-fight win streak, with 10 of those wins coming inside the distance. His performances since joining the UFC from ACB (now ACA) back in 2017 have been outstanding, finishing Mike Santiago, Sheymon Moraes and Brandon Davis via submission and winning a back-and-forth scrap with Kyle Bochniak for one of only three decision wins in his entire career.
And now the rangy Russian is looking to claim the biggest win of his career against hammer-fisted American Jeremy 'Lil Heathen' Stephens in the featured preliminary bout at UFC 235.
You'd expect a fight of this magnitude to sit on the main card of an event like this, but with the prelims set to be aired on the main ESPN channel in the US, the fight represents a huge opportunity for Magomedsharpov to put on a show for a colossal US TV audience and further strengthen his claims for a shot at featherweight gold later in the year.
He'll have to be wary of Stephens' devastating fight-ending punch power, but if he avoids that, Saturday night could be a big night for the 27-year-old from Dagestan.
CAN JOHNNY WALKER STEAL THE SHOW AGAIN?
British-based Brazilian light-heavyweight Johnny Walker is making a quick turnaround to compete on short notice at UFC 235 this weekend when he faces Canadian-Latvian contender Misha Cirkunov.
And the 16-3 light-heavyweight, who stunned both of his UFC opponents in quickfire fashion, is looking to jump straight back into the octagon and build on his spectacular momentum as he makes his UFC pay-per-view debut.
Walker starched American powerhouse Khalil Rountree in devastating fashion in one minute, 57 seconds at UFC Fight Night in Buenos Aires last November, then followed up with a spectacular performance as he finished former pro boxer Justin Ledet with a spinning backfist and a flurry of punches in just 15 seconds at UFC Fortaleza on February 2.
Now the spectacular striker faces wily grappler and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Cirkunov at UFC 235 this weekend looking to make it three spectacular wins in a row.
Victory over Cirkunov would propel Walker into the pack of contenders in the UFC's 205-pound light-heavyweight division.
And with fellow countryman Thiago 'Marreta' Santos already right in the mix for a title shot, a win for Walker could see another heavy-handed Brazilian join the queue of fighters looking to battle for the belt in 2019.
Follow live updates on UFC 235 with RT Sport on Saturday night.