By E. Spencer Kyte | Posted 2 years ago

Remember back in elementary school when two kids that had been thick as thieves for a couple grades suddenly turned on one another, becoming mortal enemies, culminating in a showdown at the bike rack after the final bell on Friday?

That’s what Saturday’s UFC 272 main event between Colby Covington and Jorge Masvidal feels like to me.

It’s a feud that has been simmering for a couple years and it’s going to boil over but not before a cornucopia of compelling fights and intriguing fighters hit the Octagon first.

T-Mobile Arena is going to be jumping and the action is going to be electric, so here’s a little something to get you primed for the face-punching!

Fighter to Know: Mariya Agapova

The women’s flyweight division is home to the best collection of talent under the age of 25 in any weight class, and Agapova is a part of that group, which also includes Casey O’Neill, Erin Blanchfield, Maycee Barber, and Miranda Maverick.

Agapova, who turns 25 next month, showed a tremendous amount of growth and development as a fighter last time out when she picked apart and ultimately finished Sabina Mazo in early October.

She was “all gas, no brakes” at the outset of her career, but that all out approach led to her landing on the wrong side of one of the biggest betting upsets in UFC history two fights back against Shana Dobson. Following a year on the sidelines, Agapova returned last fall and showed greater poise and patience, using her sharp boxing to piece up Mazo through two rounds before dropping her with a nasty left hook to the body, overhand right combo and lacing up a rear-naked choke.

Following that effort, she called for a fight with Maryna Moroz, as the two have a genuine beef after Moroz had a whole lot to say about the young fighter from Kazakhstan after she left American Top Team where they previously trained together.

The UFC granted Agapova her wish and if she can keep her emotions in check, she should turn in another performance that makes it clear she has a bright future in the 125-pound weight class.

Fighter to Know: Marina Rodriguez

Rodriguez enters her fight with Yan Xiaonan riding a three-fight winning streak and stationed at No. 3 in the strawweight ranking. Many believe she is already next in line to challenge for the title, despite the fact that the rematch between champion Rose Namajunas and inaugural titleholder Carla Esparza has not yet been booked.

That’s part of the reason the streaking Brazilian is poised to step into the Octagon.

After competing once in 2020, where she dropped a debated split decision to Esparza, Rodriguez went into last year eager to remain active, and then rattled off three straight victories, including a pair of five-round, main event triumphs over Michelle Waterson and Mackenzie Dern.

Rather than sit on the sidelines, the 34-year-old Muay Thai practitioner wants to keep things moving and stay sharp, so she signed on to face Yan, who had her 12-fight winning streak halted by Esparza last May in a one-sided affair.

Rodriguez is 15-1-2 as a mixed martial artist and continues to look better each time. Her win over Amanda Ribas last January showed the power and precision she carries in her hands, while her victories over Waterson and Dern highlighted that she can maintain a high-output, pressure style through five rounds, all of which will serve her well if she secures a championship opportunity later this year.

Saturday’s contest is no cakewalk, but Rodriguez has been lights out over her last couple of fights, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if she makes a statement and earns a future title shot this weekend in Las Vegas.

Fighter to Know: Bryce Mitchell

Sporting a 5-0 record in the UFC and returning for the first time since Halloween 2020, Mitchell is an intriguing name to watch in the talent-rich featherweight division.

After closing out 2019 by becoming just the second person to hit a twister submission in the Octagon, “Thug Nasty” posted a pair of impressive victories in 2020 to climb into the Top 15. A hand injury in his win over Andre Fili left him sidelined for all of last year, but Saturday night, the 27-year-old Arkansas native returns to take on divisional stalwart and dangerous striker Edson Barboza on the main card.

The man that made camo fight shorts a thing in the UFC has looked the part of a potential contender to this point of his career, but facing Barboza after roughly 16 months on the shelf is a tall order. The Brazilian may only have three wins in his last 10 outings, but look at who he has faced during that stretch — Khabib Nurmagomedov, Kevin Lee, Dan Hooker, Justin Gaethje, Paul Felder, Dan Ige, Shane Burgos, Giga Chikadze.

Barboza is one of those guys that fight fans respect to the hilt because of the strength of schedule he’s fought over the years, which also means a victory over him carries a lot of weight. Should Mitchell be able to get it done, he’ll find himself on the doorstep of the Top 10 in the 145-pound weight class and staring down another step up in competition in the second half of the year.

Colby Covington (16-3 overall, 11-3 UFC) vs. Jorge Masvidal (35-15 overall, 12-8 UFC)

Here’s the Cliff’s Notes on this welterweight grudge match:

Masvidal essentially gave Covington his “campus tour” when the former All-American wrestler came for a visit at American Top Team (ATT) in South Florida, and the two became friends, training partners, and roommates for a time after Covington joined the team.

For a while, they were all “Us Two vs. Everybody” about things, but it started going sideways around the time Covington beat Rafael Dos Anjos for the interim UFC welterweight title.

Masvidal will tell you it’s because Covington stiffed Paulino Hernandez, a trusted coach, father figure, and mentor to Masvidal, following that win over Dos Anjos, even though the two had a handshake deal in place about payment.

Covington says Masvidal was jealous of his success and couldn’t handle that his former roommate had climbed ahead of him in the pecking order.

Either way, things got uneasy between the two, to the point that ATT owner Dan Lambert had to put rules in place in order to prevent them from making things tense in the gym. When they broke said rules in under a week, he kicked them both out. Covington went to train elsewhere, while Masvidal laid low for a couple months and charmed his way back into the gym he still calls home to this day.

They’ve been bumping gums at one another for a while now and it’s all going to come to a head.

Stylistically, the matchup favors Covington — he’s a high-motor wrestler with outstanding conditioning and a proven ability to work at a ridiculously high clip.

Outside of his early UFC loss to Warlley Alves when he was still a developing fighter, the only person to get the better of him inside the Octagon is current champ Kamaru Usman, and “Chaos” unquestionably has given the reigning welterweight titleholder the two toughest fights of his career.

But Masvidal is a crafty, savvy veteran and owner of the fastest knockout in UFC history, so counting him out would be a mistake. He needs to land something that gives Covington pause early in the fight or else he’s going to spend the entirety of the contest defending takedowns and dealing with Covington’s constant pressure.

It’s a big ask, but certainly not one Masvidal can’t fulfill.

Like those schoolyard rumbles, the excitement and anticipation surrounding this one will most likely end up being greater than the fight itself, but still — just like it was fun to Timmy Robinson and Benji Morris slug it out after school, it should be similar seeing Covington and Masvidal do the same on Saturday night.

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