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 Opponents Sean Strickland and Dricus Du Plessis face off during the UFC 2024 seasonal press conference at MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
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The 10 | Jumping Into 2024

Highlighting The Most Compelling, Intriguing, And Important Matchups Slated To Hit The Octagon As The UFC Opens Its 2024 Campaign

Ready. Steady. Go!

A new year is upon us, as is the start of the UFC’s 2024 schedule, which kicks off with two events to open January — one at the UFC APEX and another in Toronto.

Order UFC 297: Strickland vs Du Plessis

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While changes have shifted the complexion of each of these opening events, putting together this collection of 10 fights that significantly pique my interest was still easy work, and not just because I adore this sport and can find something compelling about just about every matchup that graces the Octagon from year-to-year.

The UFC Year In Review: 2023

What I’ve always wanted to do with this series is not only spotlight the biggest names and fights with the biggest stakes, but also give a little shine to a low-key banger or an intriguing matchup between promising newcomers, not to mention give some love to an old head looking to ensure he gets a chance to do something really cool later this year.

Opponents Sean Strickland and Dricus Du Plessis face off during the UFC 2024 seasonal press conference at MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Opponents Sean Strickland and Dricus Du Plessis face off during the UFC 2024 seasonal press conference at MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Two title fights, two critical rematches, and some important bouts between contenders headline this edition of The 10.

Happy New Year, everybody — now buckle up because I have a feeling 2024 is going to be an absolute thrill ride!

UFC Fight Night: Ankalaev vs Walker 2 — Saturday, January 13 (Las Vegas)

Ricky Simon vs Mario Bautista

It’s fitting that the first bout to be spotlighted here comes in the bantamweight division, as my guess is that no weight class will be featured more prominently in this space over the next 12 months.

Mario Bautista trains in Boston, Massachusetts, on August 16, 2023. (Photo by Zac Pacleb/Zuffa LLC)
Mario Bautista trains in Boston, Massachusetts, on August 16, 2023. (Photo by Zac Pacleb/Zuffa LLC)

Simon returns looking to get things moving in the right direction against after having his five-fight winning streak halted in a main event assignment opposite Song Yadong back in April, while Bautista aims to finally punch his ticket into the Top 15 by extending his winning streak to six with a victory in Las Vegas.

READ: Fighters On The Rise | 2024, Part 1

Now 11 fights into his UFC tenure, Simon sits in an interesting place in the 135-pound weight class. Stationed at No. 13 in the rankings, he’s a perpetual tough out, holds a win over top contender Merab Dvalishvili and his last two setbacks have come against fighters positioned ahead of him in the divisional hierarchy.

Bautista has been on a two-year climb to the cusp of the Top 15, posting three wins in 2022 and two more last year. An “all work, no talk” competitor representing the MMA Lab, the surging 30-year-old is 7-1 over his last eight fights and is long overdue for an opportunity to garner wider acclaim like this one.

Ricky Simon kicks Raphael Assuncao of Brazil in their bantamweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on December 18, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Ricky Simon kicks Raphael Assuncao of Brazil in their bantamweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on December 18, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

It feels like 2024 could be a real active, real exciting year in the bantamweight division, and this is an excellent way to kick things off.

Jim Miller vs Gabriel Benitez

Miller has spent the last couple years talking about his desire to compete at UFC 300 in April. In order to do so, he needs to get through this weekend’s clash with Benitez unscathed.

The 40-year-old New Jersey native, who fought at both UFC 100 and UFC 200, has found a nice little pocket for himself in the lightweight division over the last couple years, staying active and posting three wins in four starts, including a blistering knockout finish of Jesse Butler last time out.

Jim Miller reacts after his knockout victory over Jesse Butler in a lightweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on June 03, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Jim Miller reacts after his knockout victory over Jesse Butler in a lightweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on June 03, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Now eight years into his UFC run, Benitez made the full-time move back to the 155-pound ranks two summers back, stopping Charlie Ontiveros in the opening round of their August clash in San Diego. An undisclosed injury forced him out of his original pairing with Miller last February, but he’s back and ready to lock up with “A-10” on the first main card of the year.

Matheus Nicolau vs Manel Kape

The first of two rematches to close out the opening card of the year comes in the flyweight division, as Nicolau and Kape run it back with title implications hovering overhead.

READ: Where We Stand: UFC 2024 Division-By-Division Guide

Nicolau earned wins in each of his first four bouts after returning to the UFC to re-establish himself as a top threat in the 125-pound weight class. Last April, he ran into Brandon Royval in Kansas City, landing on the business end of a first-round finish that has him fixing to get himself back into the win column here.

Manel Kape of Angola knees the body of David Dvorak of the Czech Republic in a flyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on December 17, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Manel Kape of Angola knees the body of David Dvorak of the Czech Republic in a flyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on December 17, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Beginning his fourth year on the UFC roster, Kape hasn’t made the immediate impact he forecasted upon arrival, but after dropping his first two appearances, the 30-year-old touches down in Las Vegas on a four-fight winning streak, with designs on punching his ticket to a championship opportunity with a victory.

When they met in March 2021, Nicolau landed on the happy side of a split decision verdict, doing slightly more over the course of a relatively hesitant bout for both men. Kape has been more active since then but is still prone to periods where he’s not throwing enough, while it will be interesting to see what kind of lasting impact Nicolau’s knockout loss against Royval has on him in this one.

Magomed Ankalaev vs Johnny Walker

Ankalaev and Walker occupy the first main event of the year, rekindling things after their UFC 294 encounter was ended early by an illegal knee.

The Russian light heavyweight is in a weird spot heading into this one, as he’s both unbeaten in his last 11 outings, but also without a victory over his last two as his no contest with Walker in October followed his split draw opposite Jan Blachowicz at UFC 282. Overall, Ankalaev is 17-1-1 with one no contest and remains one of the most complete and dangerous threats in the division, but it also feels like he needs to prove that definitively once again.

Johnny Walker of Brazil and Magomed Ankalaev of Russia react after the stoppage of their light heavyweight fight due to an unintentional foul during the UFC 294 event at Etihad Arena on October 21, 2023 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Johnny Walker of Brazil and Magomed Ankalaev of Russia react after the stoppage of their light heavyweight fight during the UFC 294 event at Etihad Arena on October 21, 2023 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Walker posted solid wins over Paul Craig and Anthony Smith to run his winning streak to three and land opposite Ankalaev in Abu Dhabi, where an illegal knee and miscommunication with the ringside physician resulted in the contest being halted a little more than three minutes after it began. The towering Brazilian has become more patient since linking up with John Kavanagh and the SBG Ireland crew, and always carries significant power in all his weapons.

READ: Brendan Fitzgerald: Comfortable With His Role On The Team

With a new man on the throne, no disclosed timetable for when former champ Jamahal Hill will return, and a congested queue of contenders, this is an opportunity for either Ankalaev or Walker begin the year with a statement win that solidifies their place on the short list of possible title contenders as 2024 gets underway.

UFC 297: Strickland vs du Plessis — Saturday, January 20 (Toronto)

Serhiy Sidey vs Ramon Taveras

A second event, a second bantamweight bout to discuss; I told you it was going to be a busy, exciting year in the 135-pound weight class.

 Ramon Taveras punches Serhiy Sidey of Ukraine in a bantamweight fight during Dana White's Contender Series season seven, week five at UFC APEX on September 05, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)
Ramon Taveras punches Serhiy Sidey of Ukraine in a bantamweight fight during Dana White's Contender Series season seven, week five at UFC APEX on September 05, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)

Sidey and Taveras faced off on Week 5 of Dana White’s Contender Series (DWCS) last season, with the latter coming out of the gates well before Sidey put him on the canvas and referee Kevin MacDonald jumped in to wave things off. After Taveras earned a quick knockout win to close out the season on Week 10, the duo was promptly rebooked to run things back in Toronto.

Sporting a 10-1 record, Sidey was the BFL and BTC bantamweight champ prior to ascending to the UFC, and he brings excellent conditioning and slick boxing with him. The 29-year-old Taveras is 9-2, which includes wins over UFC alums Martin Day and Charles Bennett.

There is some heat between these two after how things played out the first time around, and the fact that they’re doing it again in their joint debuts, on Sidey’s home turf, only spices things up even more.

Charles Jourdain vs Sean Woodson

Jourdain and Woodson face off in a clash of ascending featherweights looking to begin the year by making a case for a place in the Top 15.

Charles Jourdain of Canada knees Kron Gracie of Brazil in a featherweight fight during the UFC 288 event at Prudential Center on May 06, 2023 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Charles Jourdain of Canada knees Kron Gracie of Brazil in a featherweight fight during the UFC 288 event at Prudential Center on May 06, 2023 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

The engaging French-Canadian earned a pair of wins in 2023, showcasing a greater focus on patience and tactics in his decision victory over Kron Gracie before choking out Ricardo Ramos with a guillotine choke in September. It’s never been a question of skill with Jourdain, and if he continues putting a greater emphasis on using his considerable talents effectively, he could keep rolling.

A member of the DWCS Class of ’19, Woodson is unbeaten in his last four, most recently earning a unanimous decision win over Dennis Buzukja in August. His height and smooth boxing have always made the St. Louis native someone to watch in the division, but he’s yet to have the type of signature performance that elevates him to the next level.

This feels like the year where the Top 15 in the 145-pound weight class will undergo some renovations, and the winner of this one will have a very strong case for meriting a number next to their name going forward.

Arnold Allen vs Movsar Evloev

We stay in the featherweight division as Top 10 fixtures Allen and Evloev face off in an absolute can’t-miss contest that carries heaps of significance in terms of the title picture.

Arnold Allen punches Dan Hooker at O2 Arena on March 19, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by John Barry/Zuffa LLC)
Arnold Allen punches Dan Hooker at O2 Arena on March 19, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by John Barry/Zuffa LLC)

After earning 10 straight victories to begin his UFC tenure — and a dozen consecutive wins overall — Allen had his winning streak halted by Max Holloway back in April. The British talent had a tough time getting through the former champion’s defenses and steady stream of output, and now finds himself needing to right the ship quickly or risk losing his place in the Top 5.

Evloev, who turns 30 in February, has been in the UFC for five years now, and arrives in Las Vegas with a perfect 17-0 record. He was put to the test by Diego Lopes on short notice last May at UFC 288 but gets the chance to potentially vault himself into contention should he maintain his zero through this business trip to Toronto.

Both men have been forecasted to be contenders for a couple years and each could really benefit from a dominant effort that fully validates and justifies those beliefs. Each has something to prove after their last outings, so expect both to come out looking to make a statement in The Six.

Neil Magny vs Mike Malott

The man with the most wins in the history of the welterweight division takes on the streaking local kid in the final non-title matchup at UFC 297.

Mike Malott attempts to submit Adam Fugitt in their welterweight fight during the UFC 289 event at Rogers Arena on June 10, 2023 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Mike Malott attempts to submit Adam Fugitt in their welterweight fight during the UFC 289 event at Rogers Arena on June 10, 2023 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Beginning his 12th year on the roster, Magny hasn’t lost back-to-back fights since dropping his second and third appearances inside the Octagon. The TUF alum and Top 15 staple has alternated wins and losses over his last six, but it’s hard to fault him too much for dropping fights to Shavkat Rakhmonov, Gilbert Burns, and Ian Machado Garry.

Malott was the breakout fighter at UFC 289 in Vancouver, winning over the crowd all week before posting a second-round submission win over Adam Fugitt for his third straight UFC win. The Waterdown, Ontario native has been proud to carry the flag for his home nation since joining the roster and will surely be looking to make a statement as he fights less than an hour from home against a ranked opponent.

This one is all about Malott, as a win over Magny could propel him into the rankings and would further solidify his standing as the top talent from the Great White North on the UFC roster at the moment.

Raquel Pennington vs Mayra Bueno Silva

A new era in the bantamweight division will begin in Toronto, as Pennington and Bueno Silva battle for the title left vacant following the retirement of the legendary “Lioness,” Amanda Nunes.

Mayra Bueno Silva of Brazil reacts after her submission victory over Holly Holm in their women's bantamweight fight during the UFC Fight Night at UFC APEX on July 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Mayra Bueno Silva of Brazil reacts after her submission victory over Holly Holm in their women's bantamweight fight during the UFC Fight Night at UFC APEX on July 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Pennington enters this one on a five-fight winning streak, having exhibited the best form of her career during that stretch. She fought for the title in the spring of 2018, losing to Nunes in a bout that came following an extended layoff and a number of injury issues, so expect a much better showing this time around.

Breaking Down UFC 297's Co-Main Event: Pennington vs Bueno Silva

Bueno Silva is unbeaten since moving to the bantamweight division, posting three straight wins before her second-round submission victory over former champ Holly Holm in July was ruled a no contest after the Brazilian tested positive for a banned substance. The 32-year-old has shown flashes of dominance since her relocation and will look to join fellow American Top Team representative Alexandre Pantoja as a UFC champion with a win here.

This is such a compelling fight, as Pennington is one of the most seasoned and game fighters in the division, while Bueno Silva has a little of that “it factor” with her penchant for finishing fights. No one is ever going to replace Nunes, but the winner of this will assume the throne she left behind in June and look to begin a lengthy reign of their own.

Sean Strickland vs Dricus Du Plessis

After getting into a tussle in the crowd at UFC 296, Strickland and Du Plessis will get to mix it up for real in Toronto, with the middleweight title hanging in the balance.

Sean Strickland and Dricus Du Plessis get into fight in crowd at UFC 296
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Sean Strickland and Dricus Du Plessis get into fight in crowd at UFC 296
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Strickland shocked everyone with his dominant decision win over Israel Adesanya to claim the title back in September. The victory capped a three-win year for the Xtreme Couture representative, who has gone 8-2 in 10 fights since returning from his two-year injury hiatus in the fall of 2020.

South Africa’s Du Plessis also authored one of the top upsets of 2023, posting a second-round stoppage win over former champ Robert Whittaker at UFC 290 in July. “Stillknocks” has strung together six straight victories inside the Octagon and eight straight wins overall to land opposite Strickland here, with all but one of those victories coming inside the distance.

There is some obvious tension and animosity between these two, and stylistically, this should be a fascinating clash between the forward pressure and bulletproof conditioning of the champion and the power and relentlessness of the challenger.

UFC 297: Strickland vs Du Plessis took place live from Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on January 20, 2024. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass