The UFC has the finest set of women’s champions that it has had, perhaps ever but for sure since it went to four divisions.
Strawweight champion Zhang Weili is 21-1 and has won 21 in a row after a career-opening loss in 2013 as a 24-year-old. Flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko has won five in a row and, if you discount the two excruciatingly close losses she suffered to bantamweight/featherweight champion Amanda Nunes, she’s reeled off 12 consecutive victories.
And Nunes has built herself into one of the biggest stars in the sport. She’s won 11 in a row and 13 of her last 14.
That is a tough group to crack, and each of them will be massive favorites the next time they fight.
If you were betting on who might be the next woman other than those four to become a UFC champion, let me throw out a name:
Hill, who will become the first African American woman to headline a UFC card on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+) when she faces Michelle Waterson in a five-round strawweight bout at Apex, is one of the most improved fighters in the sport.
She’s coming off a loss to Claudia Gadelha that seemed more like a poor job by the judges than anything Hill did wrong. Had she won that bout, she’d be on a four-fight winning streak.
Now, she needs to get past Waterson, who will, to steal a hockey term, be fighting desperately because Waterson is coming off back-to-back losses of her own. Waterson is 34 and will turn 35 in January, and 35-year-olds on three-fight losing streaks don’t generally have bright UFC futures.
The Hill-Waterson bout should be a good stand-up match, and Hill’s activity should be a benefit for her in this bout. Hill lands 5.76 significant strikes per minute, far more than Waterson’s 3.31.
Hill is ranked 13th, five slots below Waterson, who is eighth. And that’s Hill’s biggest problem in even getting to a fight with Zhang, let alone winning the title from her: There are so many women ahead of her.
But a Hill victory over Waterson would likely boost her into the Top 10. And since No. 3 Tatiana Suarez hasn’t fought in 16 months because of an injury and No. 5 Nina Ansaroff is pregnant, she’d really be even two spots closer to the top if she wins.
She’d have to win at least one more if she beats Waterson to even be in the title picture, but given how frequently she fights, that’s not a big hurdle.
Zhang would be a massive favorite if she ever met Hill, but Hill is a late bloomer whose style could prove difficult for the champion. Plus, we don’t know if Zhang will ever be the same after the beating she took in an epic win in March over Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see UFC president Dana White placing the belt around Hill’s waist, but it’s not as unlikely as it was a year ago.
Hill has an opportunity if she keeps winning, and that’s all a fighter could ask.
Hill is currently a -125 favorite according to BetMGM with Waterson at +105.
Sleeper fight of the weekend: Avila-Eubanks
Julia Avila has been consistently impressive during her run in the UFC, and her match against Sijara Eubanks could be that one bout which surprises fans.
Avila is coming off a 22-second TKO of Gina Mazany and has won four of her eight fights by first-round finish.
Eubanks is coming off a win over Sarah Moras and has had three more months working with coach Mark Henry to hone her striking.
Avila is -300 on BetMGM. Eubanks is +240.
Bellator has a twin bill
Bellator has two shows this weekend, with Bellator 245 on Friday (10 p.m. ET, Paramount/DAZN) and Bellator 246 on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, Paramount/DAZN). Friday’s main event is a light heavyweight rematch between Phil Davis (-350) and Lyoto Machida (+275).
Those two fought at UFC 163 in 2013, with Davis taking a unanimous decision.
On Saturday, Juan Archuleta faces unbeaten Patchy Mix for the vacant bantamweight title in the main event.
Cat Zingano, who in 2014 was the last woman to beat Nunes, will make her Bellator debut against Gabby Holloway.
Since defeating Nunes to improve to 9-0 at UFC 178, Zingano has had a rough time in the cage. She was submitted in 14 seconds by Ronda Rousey in a bantamweight title fight at UFC 184, then dropped decisions to Julianna Pena and Ketlen Vieira. After a win over Marion Reneau, Zingano was poked in the eye and lost to Anderson at UFC 232.
For Zingano (-900) to make any noise in Bellator, she needs to get past Holloway (+600).
Perhaps Bellator’s most interesting fight of the weekend will be its co-main on Saturday, when Jon Fitch takes on Neiman Gracie. Gracie opened his career by going 9-0, including a finish of highly regarded wrestler Ed Ruth. But he lost a title shot to Rory MacDonald in January, dropping a five-round decision. It will be a battle of grappling experts with Fitch.
Keep an eye on Bellator’s Raymond Daniels
Kickboxer Raymond Daniels fights Peter Stanonik on Friday at Bellator 245. Daniels isn’t going to go on a long run, as he’s 40 years old and has a long kickboxing history.
But he’s an exciting fighter who has great knockout power. He’s probably not going to be a contender at this stage of his career, but his fights have high contact potential and figure to be fun.
He’s also married to MMA fighter Colbey Northcutt, who is the sister of ex-UFC fighter Sage Northcutt.
Iole’s weekend picks
I like three fights on the UFC card on Saturday. I’ll lay -115 on Roosevelt Roberts to win over Matt Frevola. I like Hill at -125 to defeat Waterson and I’ll take Anthony Ivy at +220 to upset Bryan Barbarena.
My play on Bellator is to lay -140 on Rafael Carvalho to defeat Alex Polizzi.
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