After a one-month residency on “Fight Island,” the UFC returns to its Las Vegas home Saturday night with UFC on ESPN+ 31.
We cannot tell a lie: The UFC’s fifth event in 21 days is not the deepest card the promotion has ever presented. But don’t mistake that for a total lack of intrigue, as there are in fact a few fights worth appointment viewing.
Starting with the main event, where a fight marked for future stardom gets his first UFC main event. Undefeated Edmen Shahbazyan will take on his toughest test to date, when he meets respected veteran Derek Brunson in the featured middleweight bout.
UFC on ESPN+ 31 takes place Saturday at UFC Apex in Las Vegas and streams on ESPN+.
Without further ado, then here are four burning questions heading into UFC on ESPN+ 31.
How high can Edmen Shahbazyan fly?
Few fighters have restored their gym’s reputation in a singular manner quite like 22-year-old Shahbazyan (11-0 UFC, 3-0 MMA), who has become the poster boy for Glendale Fighting Club.
There’s no point sugar-coating this: The gym took a major tumble in esteem after the downfall of Ronda Rousey, a fighter who was a killer on her way up, but proved incapable of adjusting to the quality of competition in her division as its skill level increased. And it’s not as if the gym had a deep bench, either.
But Edmond Tarverdyan’s gym has persisted in the face of withering criticism and a new generation has emerged, led by Armenian-American standout Shahbazyan, who has looked every bit a well-rounded killer as he’s made his way up the middleweight ranks.
He’s gotten better as the spotlight has gotten more intense, too, as he proved with a head-kick KO under the bright lights of New York’s Madison Square Garden last time out at UFC 244.
Now he steps up to his first main event, and his biggest challenge. Brunson (20-7 UFC, 11-5 MMA) might bristle at this phrase, but he’s the gatekeeper at 185 pounds. Beat him, and you’re on the shortlist for a title shot. Fail to take him seriously, and he’ll make you pay.
That’s exactly the type of challenge Shahbazyan should take at this point, and that’s why this main event is eagerly anticipated among those in the know.
Is this Joanne Calderwood’s last chance to break from the pack?
Credit Joanne Calderwood for her perseverance.
Big things have been expected from the Scottish competitor since she tore it up as an undefeated strawweight prospect in Invicta FC. But she never quite got to the top of the division, including missing weight before losing a co-feature bout in Glasgow to Cynthia Calvillo in 2017.
That loss on home soil would have been enough to discourage all but the heartiest of competitors. But Calderwood (14-4 MMA, 5-4 UFC) regrouped, made a permanent move to flyweight, and has found success.
Calderwood has won three of four since moving to 125 pounds. Her only stumble was in a fight against Katlyn Chookagian that was essentially a title eliminator. But, after a win over Andrea Lee, Calderwood finds herself again in a position where a win could get her a shot at champion Valentina Shevchenko.
The opposition is Jennifer Maia(17-6-1 MMA, 2-2 UFC), who is in a similar career spot. For both – but for the older, longer-tenured Calderwood especially – this could mark the last, best shot at getting an elusive UFC title shot.
Is this the night Randy Brown sheds the ‘Lookin’ for a Fight’ tag?
The predecessor of Dana White’s Contender Series, “Dana White’s Lookin’ for a Fight,” hasn’t held up as well as the current show.
The YouTube/UFC Fight Pass series is primarily associated with one of the most embarrassing chapters in UFC history, the MMA “career” of pro-wrestler CM Punk, who got blasted twice by DWLFAF grads in Mickey Gall and Mike Jackson before scampering back to the WWE.
Meanwhile, Jackson never fought in the UFC again, and Gall’s career has stalled somewhat.
But then there’s Randy Brown. Brown (12-3 MMA, 6-3 UFC) has stuck with the UFC, shown vast improvement, and learned from his mistakes and roadblocks along the way. His past two wins were legit victories as he finished Bryan Barberena and Warlley Alves, the latter of which earned him his first career post-fight bonus for “Performance of the Night.”
Now Brown gets his toughest test in the UFC welterweight division in Vicente Luque. Luque (18-7-1 MMA, 11-3 MMA) has a bigger name due to an exciting fighting style that has earned him three “Fight of the Night” bonuses in his past five outings. But his wins are against fighters by and large the same caliber of Brown’s recent wins, which suggests this is a more competitive fight than some may initially have thought.
Bobby Green vs. Lando Vannata: Who takes it?
Yeah, we’re going to go with that simple of a question for this fight.
Sometimes there’s a matchup that is interesting enough on its own merits that it doesn’t need a blazing storyline going in, or the potential for some key question coming out of the fight.
The duo fought to a split draw at UFC 216. Both fighters had their successes during the fight that they could point at and argue with merit that they deserved the win.
So why not run it back, even if it took three years? And why not enjoy it for what it is?
Neither of these guys is ever going to hold the UFC lightweight title. We know who both of these guys are and both are capable of exciting fights. Green (25-10-1 MMA, 6-5-1 UFC) is capable of putting on bizarrely interesting performances, while Vannata (11-4-2 MMA, 3-4-2 UFC) is the type who can just as easily score a spectacular KO as be on the receiving end of one. Nothing is going to change after this fight.
But their first fight was interesting and they deserve to have a winner. Sometimes that’s enough.