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Ikram Aliskerov of Russia reacts after his knockout victory against Warlley Alves of Brazil in a middleweight 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)
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Fighters On The Rise | UFC Fight Night: Perez vs Taira

Highlighting Three Ascending Athletes Looking To Continue Their Rise This Weekend

The last time the action emanated from the UFC APEX a couple weeks back, the athletes spotlighted in this series included competitors in each of the final two fights, because, despite their end of the night positioning, it felt like folks didn’t quite grasp how good they had looked over the last handful of fights and needed a little reminder before they returned to action.

This weekend, we’re back in the APEX and back to highlighting athletes competing at the top of the card, because two of the three competitors discussed below are closing in on title contention and it’s high time people started paying closer attention to them.

This is Fighters on the Rise for UFC Fight Night: Perez vs. Taira. 

Alex Perez

Perez makes his third start of the year this weekend, hustling back into action just seven weeks after his blistering knockout win over Matheus Nicolau in a second straight main card pairing, this time opposite undefeated Japanese rising star Tatsuro Taira.

Alex Perez punches Matheus Nicolau of Brazil in a flyweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on April 27, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Alex Perez punches Matheus Nicolau of Brazil in a flyweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on April 27, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

It may seem strange to be spotlighting a former title challenger in a series dedicated to emerging names competing on the weekend, but it honestly felt like Perez had lost his position as a contender heading into his last appearance, which is why his performance that evening against Nicolau stood out so much. The 32-year-old Dana White’s Contender Series graduate had suffered three straight losses heading into the contest, including getting out-worked by Muhammad Mokaev earlier in the year, and now he was jumping into a short-notice pairing against a Top 5 stalwart, and few had a good sense of what to expect from him that evening.

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In the span of seven minutes and 15 seconds, Perez reminded everyone that he is still a serious threat in the flyweight ranks, taking the fight to Nicolau straight away behind strong combinations before stinging him with a short right hand in tight and settling him with another along the fence seconds later.

He looked dialed in and dangerous — like someone that needed that March engagement with Mokaev in order to shake off the rust accumulated over nearly two years on the sidelines, and having dealt with myriad issues since his championship fight with Deiveson Figueiredo all the way back towards the end of 2020. The losses and struggles to make it to the Octagon consistently over the previous three-plus years tainted how the talented California native was perceived, and Perez erased all that with one clean right hand to the Brazilian’s chin.

This weekend, he dives right back in against Taira, an unbeaten 24-year-old making his first main event appearance under the UFC banner.

Alex Perez poses for a portrait after his victory during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on April 27, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)
Alex Perez poses for a portrait after his victory during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on April 27, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

He’s looked outstanding in four of his five UFC appearances thus far, with the only slight blemish coming in his short-notice clash with Edgar Chairez where he faded down the stretch and had to fend off a string of tricky submission attempts late. Last time out, Taira turned in his best performance to date, showcasing improved striking and greater power in registering a second-round stoppage win over Carlos Hernandez.

Saturday’s main event is a massive opportunity for Perez — a chance to slow Taira’s march towards the top of the division while registering a second win in less than two months. Given that the title picture is wide open at the moment — and the fact that Perez has a history with current champ Alexandre Pantoja — a dominant effort here could put him in the mix for the next championship opportunity in the 125-pound weight class.

Ikram Aliskerov

Aliskerov earned his place on the UFC roster with a first-round stoppage win over Mario Souza on Season 6 of Dana White’s Contender Series, and since then, he’s felt like a fighter on the cusp of a breakout in the middleweight division.

He made his promotional debut last May, knocking out Phil Hawes in the first round to extend his winning streak to six and push his record to 14-1 overall. For a moment, he was linked to a main card matchup against Paulo Costa at UFC 291, but was then shuffled into a pairing with Nassourdine Imavov at UFC 294 instead. Unfortunately, Imavov was forced to withdraw and replaced by Warlley Alves, whom Aliskerov dispatched in just over two minutes.

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The missed opportunities have continued into his sophomore campaign this year, as Aliskerov was forced out of a showcase showdown with Anthony Hernandez at UFC 298 in February, and now his original dance partner this weekend, Andre Muniz, suffered a foot injury that prompted him to be replaced by newcomer Antonio Trocoli.

Ikram Aliskerov of Russia reacts after his knockout victory over Phil Hawes in a middleweight fight during the UFC 288 event at Prudential Center on May 06, 2023 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)
Ikram Aliskerov of Russia reacts after his knockout victory over Phil Hawes in a middleweight fight during the UFC 288 event at Prudential Center on May 06, 2023 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)

The Brazilian competed on Season 3 of Dana White’s Contender Series, defeating Kenneth Bergh in the first round, only to have the result overturned after he tested positive for a banned substance. He returned to competition in November 2021 with a first-round submission win, and was briefly linked to a pair of prior short-notice opportunities in the UFC before finally getting the chance to make the walk for the first time this weekend.

Aliskerov is one of those fighters where it feels like people simply need to see him in there with someone with an established position in the division in order to fully comprehend where he fits in the division and why many consider him a dark horse contender just two fights into his UFC run.

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The 31-year-old is a former Sambo world champion, sports a 15-1 record built against solid competition on the way up, and his only loss came to Khamzat Chimaev. He made quick work of both Hawes and Alves through his first two starts, and if he does the same against Trocoli this weekend, he’ll once again be in line for a step up in competition and a chance to prove himself against one of the division’s best.

Joshua Van

Van competes for the second time this year on Saturday and makes his second appearance in this series in 2024 as well after he earned a second-round stoppage win over Felipe Bunes on the opening card of the year in January.

This will be Van’s fourth UFC appearance in the last 12 months, and he enters on an eight-fight winning streak overall, having earned decision wins over Zhalgas Zhumagulob and Kevin Borjas last year prior to making a quick turnaround and settling Bunes to kick off his 2024 campaign. He only turned pro at the tail end of 2021 and has been hustling to garner as much live experience against increasingly more established competition the whole way through, which is a big part of the reason so many people are high on him as a prospect.

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Joshua Van Starts 2024 Out With A TKO Win | UFC Fight Night: Ankalaev vs Walker 2
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His hands are crisp and he’s already shown some grit while navigating a couple rough patches over the course of his first three Octagon appearances, but what really stands out about Van as someone to watch is that he’s clearly a plus athlete with plenty of room to grow, yet he’s already enjoying consistent success at the UFC level.

Saturday’s meeting with Tagir Ulanbekov is more than a step up in competition; it’s like reaching the landing on a flight of stairs and just springing up to the next floor. The 32-year-old trained alongside Islam Makhachev heading into this contest, arrives having garnered consecutive submission wins, and sporting a 15-2 mark overall. He is, without question, far and away the most experienced and dangerous opponent Van has faced thus far in his career.

But that’s what makes this the perfect time to once again shine a light on Van because regardless of how this one plays out, his prospects for the future remain exceedingly bright.

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If he goes out and wins, he forces his way into the Top 15 in just four fights (and at the tender age of 22), putting him alongside Taira as one of the top, young emerging talents in the whole sport, and if he falters, he’s sure to grow from the experience and return stronger, while still having several years before he reaches his athletic prime.

In terms of long-range talent-watching, there are few fighters in the UFC I’m more keen to track going forward than Van.

You’d be wise to pay close attention, too. 

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UFC Fight Night: Perez vs Taira took place live from UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada on June 15, 2024. See the final Prelim and Main Card Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass