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The 10: March's Best Matchups

 
One month, two events, 10 fights – welcome to the March 2015 edition of The 10, our look at the top matchups hitting the Octagon in the month ahead.

February delivered a legitimate Knockout of the Year contender (Matt Dwyer) and a ton of eye-opening performances – from Benson Henderson picking up a submission win over Brandon Thatch and Marion Reneau doing the same against Jessica Andrade to Frank Mir getting back into the win column and Ronda Rousey notching her fifth consecutive successful title defense to run her record to a perfect 10-0.

While March features the fewest events of any month this year, there is no shortage of quality scheduled to hit the UFC cage.

Here’s a look at what’s coming your way in March.

This is The 10.

UFC 185 – Saturday, March 14 – Dallas, Texas
Sergio Pettis vs. Ryan Benoit

Fighting on the same card as his big brother for the second consecutive event, the younger Pettis takes his two-fight winning streak down a division for his UFC flyweight debut opposite the returning Benoit.

Pettis spent most of his time on the regional circuit competing in the 125-pound ranks before jumping to bantamweight for his final pre-UFC appearance. Following his UFC 181 victory over Matt Hobar, the Roufusport product talked about being at a constant size and strength disadvantage and dipping into the flyweight division and now here he is.

Benoit had one of the more interesting UFC debuts in recent memory when he faced Josh Sampo back in November 2013 on the TUF 18 Finale. The 25-year-old Janjira Muay Thai disciple was subbed out in the second round of an entertaining back-and-forth battle that won Fight of the Night honors, but because Sampo missed weight, Benoit went home with a cool $100,000 in his pocket.
Daron Cruickshank vs. Beneil Dariush

The last time we saw Cruickshank, his promising scrap with KJ Noons was being brought to an anti-climactic end following a nasty eye poke that left “The Detroit Superstar” unable to continue.

Dariush was a busy man in 2014 – not “Cowboy” Cerrone or Neil Magny busy, but close – fighting four times and picking up three victories, closing out his year with a unanimous decision win over Diego Ferreira at UFC 179 in October.

Now paired together, this fight looks like a classic “striker vs. grappler” battle at first glance, but Cruickshank has some solid wrestling skills in his back pocket if needed and as a student of Master Rafael Cordeiro at King’s MMA, Dariush’s striking continues to improve.

In the deep and competitive lightweight division, this is a fight that will position the winner for bigger and better things later in 2015.
Chris Cariaso vs. Henry Cejudo

The veteran Cariaso returns to action for the first time since challenging Demetrious Johnson for the flyweight title at UFC 178. That fight snapped the California native’s three-fight winning streak and now he’s been tabbed to serve as a litmus test for an Olympic gold medalist looking to make an impact in the Octagon.

This will be Cejudo’s second attempt at making his UFC flyweight debut, as medical issues forced the late cancellation of his bout with Scott Jorgensen at UFC 177 last summer. He subsequently moved up to bantamweight and turned in a strong outing against Dustin Kimura, but the 2008 Olympic gold medalist wants to give it another go.

Provided he hits the mark, this is a great pairing – a chance to see where Cejudo stands in a division in dire need of fresh challengers by facing off with an established and game veteran.
Roy Nelson vs. Alistair Overeem

From a fight that hinges on one fighter successfully cutting weight to two behemoths that don’t have to worry about shedding any pounds, just avoiding overhand rights…

Overeem rebounded from his September loss to Ben Rothwell with a convincing first-round knockout win over fellow Netherlands native Stefan Struve in December, taking the “Skyscraper” down early and putting him out with a massive right hand late in the opening frame. Meanwhile, Nelson’s last appearance was memorable for all the wrong reasons if you’re “Big Country,” as the gregarious TUF 10 winner was on the receiving end of a Mark Hunt walk-off knockout.

The 38-year-old Las Vegas native has been a fixture in the heavyweight Top 10 for the last five years, but “The Reem” is coming for his place in the pecking order.
Johny Hendricks vs. Matt Brown

When this is the third fight on the Pay-Per-View main card, you know it’s a loaded event.

Both men enter off losses to Robbie Lawler – Brown in July and Hendricks in December, when he dropped the welterweight strap to “Ruthless” at UFC 181 – but remain stationed in the Top 5 in the divisional rankings, so this one clearly carries title implications.

After picking up his seventh consecutive win over Erick Silva in what was a vintage Matt Brown performance, “The Immortal” just didn’t have the firepower to hang with the man that now sits atop the welterweight division. He was supposed to return last month against Tarec Saffiedine, but the former Strikeforce champ was scratched with an injury, leading to this opportunity to return to contention with just a single victory.

As for Hendricks, 2014 featured the highest highs and lowest lows, as it began with “Bigg Rigg” claiming the vacant welterweight title, but ended with a flat performance against Lawler in the rematch. Now he returns to the site of his greatest professional victory in hopes of moving one step closer to fighting for UFC gold again later this year.
Carla Esparza vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk – for the UFC women’s strawweight title

For all the trivia buffs out there, remember that this date and this fight, as it marks the first time the women’s strawweight title was defended inside the Octagon.

Esparza became the inaugural champion in the UFC’s newest division back in December, completing her run through Season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter with a dominant third-round submission win over Rose Namajunas. The victory pushed her winning streak to five and etched her name in the history books, but now comes the hard part: taking on all comers and holding on to what she’s worked so hard to get.

First up in that cavalcade of challengers is Jedrzejczyk, an unbeaten 27-year-old Muay Thai practitioner who picked up a split decision win over Claudia Gadelha in December to earn her shot at Esparza and the freshly minted women’s strawweight title. A native of Olsztyn, Poland, “Double J” brings a pressure-based attack to the Octagon, working to cut off the cage and keep her fights standing, but that will be easier said than done against the former collegiate wrestler Esparza.
Anthony Pettis vs. Rafael dos Anjos – for the UFC lightweight title

Pettis is the ultimate opportunist and is electric to watch inside the Octagon. Whether he’s capitalizing on an opponent’s mistake – as he did in winning the lightweight title from Benson Henderson and defending it against Gilbert Melendez – or creating finishes on his own – as he did against Joe Lauzon and Donald Cerrone – “Showtime” is capable of ending a fight at any time and in any number of ways.

His adversary in the UFC 185 main event is a fighter who stands as a testament to hard work and commitment. Dos Anjos began his UFC career with back-to-back losses. Since then, the Brazilian has added size and strength, honed his striking and became a better wrestler while maintaining his elite submission skills, leading to eight wins in his last nine appearances, a three-fight winning streak and this well-deserved opportunity to vie for the title.

The champion is certainly a difficult matchup for anyone in the division – a blend of speed and skill, power and creativity that is hard to prepare for – but dos Anjos is no walk in the park either. He’s stepped up his game as an underdog in the past and is definitely capable of doing it again here.
UFC Fight Night: Maia vs. LaFlare – Saturday, March 21 – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Godofredo Pepey vs. Andre Fili

Every month has a sneaky-good, under the radar, “this should produce something exciting” fight on the calendar and this is the representative for March.

“Pepey” has picked up back-to-back first-round stoppage wins – first with a beautiful flying knee knockout of Noad Lahat and then a mounted triangle armbar submission of Dashon Johnson. The 27-year-old TUF Brazil alum is perpetually entertaining and hasn’t seen the second round in more than two years.

Across the cage, Fili rebounded from his UFC 172 loss to Max Holloway with a hard-fought split decision win over Felipe Arantes at UFC 179, the company’s previous trip to Rio de Janeiro. The Team Alpha Male fighter doesn’t have the compact, chiseled physique and collegiate wrestling credentials of many of his teammates, but he pushes the same breakneck pace while bringing a little more flair to the cage.

When this one ends with a gnarly finish or as the Fight of the Night, remember who told you it was crucial to check out.
Erick Silva vs. Ben Saunders

Not every fight has to have clear and obvious title implications. Heck, some fights don’t have to have any title implications at all to be awesome. Take this fight, for example.

Saunders is 2-for-2 since returning to the UFC, scoring the first omaplata submission win in his first fight back before picking up an awkward TKO win over Joe Riggs last time out when “Diesel” did something funky to his neck while getting taken down.

Silva, meanwhile, has picked up six bonuses in his last seven fights and the only time he didn’t cash an additional check after his fight was when Dong Hyun Kim banked a cool “50 G’s, Baby” (copyright Conor McGregor, 2013) with an out-of-nowhere knockout shot.

Neither fighter is currently in contention and no one should care – this is going to be a wildly entertaining fight. There is no way it can’t be. These are two of the most aggressive, attacking fighters in the division and they’re both looking for a way to stand out in the packed welterweight ranks.
Demian Maia vs. Ryan LaFlare

Some would argue that this is too anonymous a fight to be a main event. Those people would be wrong, as any matchup between two Top 15 competitors in one of the deepest, most talent-rich divisions in the UFC is a damn fine fight and certainly deserving of headlining a Fight Night event.

LaFlare returns after nearly a year on the sidelines spent dealing with knee issues. Healthy and ready to roll, the Team Blackzilians representative (by way of Farmingdale, New York) is a perfect 11-0 for his career and 4-0 in the Octagon, with wins over Benny Alloway, Santiago Ponzinibbio, Court McGee and John Howard.

After coming away on the wrong side of the results in a Fight of the Night-winning bout opposite Rory MacDonald at UFC 170 last February, Maia rebounded with a sweep of the scorecards against Alexander Yakovlev in May. Like LaFlare, the Brazilian spent the second half of 2014 battling injury concerns, but the No. 7-ranked welterweight is poised to return and pursue another victory.

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