The UFC heads to Dallas, Texas on Saturday for UFC 277. The event marks the first time the promotion has visited the city since May 2017. Like that fight card, this weekend’s pay-per-view features two title fights.
In the main event, Julianna Pena defends her bantamweight crown against the woman she defeated in December for that belt, Amanda Nunes. In the evening’s co-main event, former UFC flyweight champion Brandon Moreno matches up against Kai Kara-France in a bout that will determine the interim 125-pound champion. Like the headliner, the Moreno vs. Kara-France scrap is also a rematch.
Ahead of the July 30 event, I look at the storylines to follow during the five-fight pay-per-view portion of the UFC 277 fight card.
Julianna Pena vs. Amanda Nunes 2
Judging by the odds, there is a lot more belief in the skills of Julianna Pena heading into UFC 277 than there was ahead of her first meeting with Amanda Nunes at UFC 269. Pena was a +650 underdog to Nunes, who was the -1000 favorite in that contest. Pena upset the defending champion on that night in December 2021, winning via second-round submission. Pena, who ended Nunes’ reign as UFC women’s bantamweight champ with her victory, is still an underdog in this rematch, but she is in the +230 range, while Nunes is around a -275 favorite. That’s a big difference from their first clash.
The question facing the 34-year-old Nunes is, has the rest of the division — or at least one fighter — caught up with her? Nunes had been the champ since 2016. Six years at the top of a weight class is a long time in the UFC — long enough for the other competitors to do a deep study of a fighter’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses and then cobble together a game plan based on that knowledge.
Nunes’ mission at UFC 277 is to prove that she is still the best fighter at 135 pounds and that her loss to Pena, her first setback since Cat Zingano defeated her via TKO in 2014, was just the culmination of a nightmare lead up to UFC 269.
As for Pena, this is her opportunity to signal that a new era began in the women’s 135-pound division in December. Her plan, at least according to what she told the media ahead of the event, is to follow the same approach that won her the title — standing toe-to-toe with Nunes and showing that she is the better fighter.
Brandon Moreno vs. Kai Kara-France 2
Brandon Moreno and Kai Kara-France fought in a three-round affair in December 2019. That doesn’t seem like it was all that long ago, but the fight, which Moreno won, was on the early prelims of the UFC 245 pay-per-view card. At UFC 277, the two flyweights battle in a contest that is scheduled for five rounds as the evening’s the co-headliner. The winner of the contest walks away with the UFC interim flyweight title.
For Moreno, this bout marks his fourth title fight in a row. In his previous three title fights — all opposite Deiveson Figueiredo — Moreno fought to a draw, won the title via submission and dropped the belt in a unanimous decision loss. The pressure and spotlight will be old hat for the 28-year-old Moreno, who is the No. 1 ranked fighter in the official UFC flyweight division.
As for Kara-France, who is the No. 2 ranked 125-pounder, he is 4-1 since his loss to Moreno and coming off a decision win over Askar Askarov in March. Kara-France was a +360 underdog to the favored Askarov in that contest. Askarov was a -490 favorite.
The big question in this contest is how the teams will have their fighters prepared for this momentous matchup.
Kara-France is a member of City Kickboxing. That team, under the tutelage of head coach Eugene Bareman, has emerged as one of the elite gyms in the world. Bareman has been UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya’s longtime coach and he’s also worked with UFC featherweight titleholder Alexander Volkanovski. City Kickboxing always has their fighters well prepared for action and the team has shown a spectacular ability to adjust their game plan between rounds.
UFC 277 marks the first fight of Moreno’s career under James Krause and Glory MMA. Moreno left the gym he had worked with since he was a teenager, Entram Gym, following his loss to Figueiredo earlier this year. With that, it will be interesting to see what Krause and company can do with Moreno and what type of chemistry they have in-fight. Krause is an excellent coach, so expectations should be high for Moreno under his guidance.
Derrick Lewis vs. Sergei Pavlovich
The UFC seems to love having Derrick Lewis on its Texas cards. UFC 277 marks the sixth time Lewis, who calls Houston home, has fought in his adopted home state under the UFC banner. Lewis’ record in his first three UFC fights in Texas was a perfect 3-0 with two knockout wins. However, his last two fights in the “Lone Star State” have not gone his way.
Lewis enters UFC 277 as the No. 5 ranked fighter in the official heavyweight rankings. Lewis doesn’t need a win here to stay relevant — he’s built up plenty of goodwill with the promotion and its fans — but a loss won’t be beneficial if he hopes to get another crack at the heavyweight title.
Lewis’ loss to Tuivasa marked his first pronounced step toward gatekeeper status in the division. If the 37-year-old drops a second straight fight to a younger and lower ranked opponent, Lewis might find himself in the position where he becomes the de facto test for rising stars in the heavyweight division. That’s not a terrible spot, but it’s not the best place to be, especially if those youngsters start to rack up wins against him.
Sergei Pavlovich ended a long period of inactivity in March with a TKO win over Shamil Abdurakhimov. This is the fight where the No. 11 ranked heavyweight gets the opportunity to make a huge jump up the rankings. A win against Lewis, especially via stoppage — and 12 of Pavlovich’s wins have come via knockout — will put him in the conversation of “next generation” UFC heavyweight contender.
Alexandre Pantoja vs. Alex Perez
Alex Perez has not fought since he lost a title fight to Deiveson Figueiredo in November 2020. That fight was Figueiredo’s first title defense of his first reign as the UFC flyweight champion.
Here’s the lowdown on Perez’s trials and tribulations since then. The UFC booked him opposite Matt Schnell at UFC 262 in April 2021, but Perez withdrew from that bout. Perez then got booked to face Askar Askarov on the July 31, 2021 fight card, but Askarov pulled out of that fight due to injury. In turn, the UFC moved Perez to the August 28, 2021 card opposite Schnell. That booking then got bumped to September 4 and then shifted to UFC 269. Perez missed weight for that fight. However, that was not the reason the fight didn’t take place. Medical issues prevented Schnell from taking part in the bout. The UFC then tried to get Perez vs. Schnell on the UFC 271 card, but Perez came in at 128 pounds and Schnell said no thanks to fighting at catchweight. With that, the fight was scrapped. Despite the time between fights and two misses on the scale, Perez is still the No. 6 ranked fighter in the flyweight division.
The most pressing issue for Perez is if he will make weight, since he’s been over 126 on his last two trips to the scale. After that, the next biggest concern becomes, how has the time away from fight action affected him? Perez is just 30 years of age, but he’s more than two years removed from his most recent win.
Pantoja has also been inactive. The 32-year-old is on a two-fight winning streak with his most recent victory coming in August 2021 when he submitted Brandon Royval. That fight earned him a shot at then champion Brandon Moreno, but a knee injury that required surgery forced him to turn down that opportunity. Pantoja makes his first trip back to the octagon since that surgery at UFC 277. The No. 4 ranked fighter in the division, we’ll find out how that surgery has affected him and if he can prove that Pantoja is worthy of his lofty ranking.
While not as important as the co-main event contest, this fight is a very important flyweight matchup, especially coming so close to Matt Schnell’s come from behind win at UFC Long Island. A poor performance or even a dip in competitiveness from either of these fighters could see them ceding ground in the rankings to someone like Schnell, Matheus Nicolau, David Dvorak or Amir Albazi.
Magomed Ankalaev vs. Anthony Smith
Magomed Ankalaev is on an eight-fight winning streak, but his most recent win, a lackluster decision over Thiago Santos, hurt more than helped him. The hype surrounding Ankalaev has cooled considerably since the start of 2021. His UFC debut was a crazy (literally) last-second submission loss to Paul Craig. After that he won five straight with four knockouts, but he is on a run of three straight decision wins heading into this bout. Those decisions victories began once the UFC matchmakers pitted Ankalaev against top-10 ranked 205-pounders, starting with Nikita Krylov in February 2021.
Ankalaev’s past two outings have not been illuminating. Former UFC light heavyweight title challenger Volkan Oezdemir seemed gun shy in their October 2021 scrap. That allowed Ankalaev to control the fight on the feet. Santos was also reluctant to engage. In return, Ankalaev gave Santos a lot of respect for his striking talents and didn’t push things while the two were standing.
I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not 100 percent sold on Ankalaev being a world class talent who can dictate a fight and create opportunities for himself to excel. That’s not a dealbreaker as far as his upside, but it will make his climb to elite status much more difficult.
What makes this matchup crazy interesting is that Anthony Smith is a smart fighter, who knows how to breakdown other fighters and that allows him to put together excellent game plans.
I think this will be the fight where we find out if Ankalaev is the future champion some expected him to become when he made his UFC debut in 2018.