Several on cusp of title shot at UFC 215

FILE - In this March 15, 2015, file photo, Rafael dos Anjos celebrates after winning the men's lightweight mixed martial arts title bout against Anthony Pettis at UFC 185 in Dallas. Anjos defends his UFC lightweight title belt against Donald Cerrone in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday, Dec. 19, in a meeting of two fighters who traveled lengthy roads to their showdown. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade, File)
(AP Photo/Brandon Wade, File)

Having quietly inched its way along, UFC 215 has quickly — albeit remarkably quietly — become one of the best cards of the year. Featuring two title fights, one of which bears historic elements, Saturday’s event in Edmonton hosts a number of compelling storylines.

Of course none of those will be more important than either the flyweight or women’s bantamweight championship contests, but they’ll certainly hold their own as they provide a slight boost to a card that deserves more attention.

A majority of the fighters preparing for battle Saturday in Canada will not be fighting for UFC gold, but a handful are preparing to prove themselves ready for such an opportunity.

Tyson Pedro, still just 25, will be making his walk to the Octagon for just the third time in his pro career. A little-known commodity outside of the hardcore regional fan bases in Australia, Pedro made his UFC debut with a 4-0 record — three victories of which came within eight months of that debut in November of 2016.

He was seen as a potential stepping stone for then-rising prospect Khalil Rountree, but wound up pulling off a first-round submission win to keep his stoppage ratio at 100 percent. Pedro’s next fight, taking place five months later at UFC 209 in March of this year, ended with a first-round TKO win over then-undefeated light heavyweight Paul Craig.

The Aussie fighter is now ranked within the UFC’s top 15 at 205 pounds, facing the No. 10 fighter of one of the most shallow divisions in MMA. Despite ceding experience to a far more seasoned opponent, Ilir Latifi, another big win for Pedro is not out of the question; neither is a surge up the rankings.

Pedro would still be a few more victories away from making the ultimate climb up the 205-pound ladder, but not many. The UFC is in dire need of viable talent to promote at light heavyweight, as well as talent that hasn’t already proven itself futile against one of the few men high in the top-heavy rankings.

Pedro isn’t alone in that regard, serving as a rare potential title contender in a division needing capable fighters.

Sara McMann brought a perfect 7-0 record into the Octagon the night she met Ronda Rousey, who was in the midst of one of the most dominant runs in UFC championship history at the time. McMann was billed as a true test for Rousey, who was only a few months removed from fighting beyond the first round in her nine-fight pro career. It took Rousey only 66 seconds to dispatch McMann, earning the first TKO win of her career.

McMann bounced back with a narrow split decision over Lauren Murphy before the former Olympic wrestler dropped back-to-back contests to Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes. For those not paying attention, this means all three of McMann’s losses have come against women who at one point held the UFC women’s bantamweight title.

With her first UFC losing streak now in the rearview mirror, McMann aims to pick up her fourth straight win, and possibly third consecutive finish, when facing Ketlen Vieira. Ranked sixth in the division (but really fifth since Rousey is essentially retired), only a handful of fighters stand between McMann and a second title shot — and not one of those fighters would have a longer winning streak should she win Saturday night.

A second title shot could also be in the near future for former lightweight kingpin Rafael dos Anjos, who faces Neil Magny on the main card at UFC 215.

After suffering back-to-back losses near the end of 2016, dos Anjos not only lost his belt, but realized he would longer compete in the division he was previously champion of. The losses, coupled with his consistent struggle to make the 155-pound limit, prompted a move up to the 170-pound division and its larger, much stronger opponents. His divisional debut went off without a hitch, defeating former Strikeforce welterweight champion Tarec Saffiedine via unanimous decision. He now takes a stab at the top 10 of the division, hoping to use a win over Magny to catapult himself into the title scene at welterweight.

Despite potentially having only two wins come Sunday, dos Anjos would be one of few options available for champion Tyron Woodley. The top three contenders (Stephen Thompson, Robbie Lawler and Demian Maia) have all suffered recent defeats to the champ, and the fighters ranked Nos. 3-6 are all coming off losses.

A win over Magny should conceivably set up dos Anjos for a No. 1 contender fight with any one of the fighters currently standing atop the division.

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