On Saturday, Jan. 28, the UFC returned to where it began, the Mile High City of Denver, for UFC on Fox 23: Shevchenko vs. Pena, which emanated from the Pepsi Center.
In the night’s main event, striking stalwart Valentina Shevchenko took on The Ultimate Fighter 18 winner Julianna Peña in a bout that determined the next bantamweight No. 1 contender. The 28-year-old Shevchenko had tasted defeat just once since 2010 — a decision loss to current champion Amanda Nunes at UFC 196. Shevchenko quickly rebounded by dominating former titleholder Holly Holm in July at UFC on Fox 21. Peña, meanwhile, had reeled off four straight wins inside the Octagon since capturing the reality show crown in 2013. In her most recent appearance, she topped former title challenger Cat Zingano at UFC 200 by decision.
The 12-fight event kicked off Saturday with two preliminary card bouts streaming live on UFC Fight Pass at 4 p.m. ET. Six additional preliminary card bouts aired live on Fox Sports 1 at 5 p.m. ET, with the four-fight main card taking place at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.
Bantamweight Valentina Shevchenko showcased her evolving ground game, submitting Julianna Peña with a second-round armbar. Peña took the fight to the clinch in the first round and scored with knees to the midsection of Shevchenko. Shevchenko responded with takedowns, but could not mount much offense from the top position. Late in the frame, Peña attacked with an armbar, but Shevchenko was saved by the bell. In the second round, Peña again clinched and then earned a takedown. She worked from the guard of Shevchenko, but late in the round Shevchenko attacked with armbar of her own and Peña was forced to submit.
Jorge Masvidal went into enemy territory and sent hometown fighter Donald Cerrone home with a second-round TKO loss. Cerrone attacked the lead leg of Masvidal early and often in the opening frame. Masvidal countered with boxing combinations, but his leg began to turn red and match the color of his fight shorts. Late in the round, Masvidal connected with a right hand the dropped Cerrone. He flurried hard for the finish and believed he had it, but referee Herb Dean signaled that it was only the end of the round. The second stanza saw Masvidal attack with aggression. He marched forward and delivered another right hand that dropped Cerrone. He again went for the kill, battering the body of Cerrone along the fence, forcing Dean to halt the contest.
Frenchman Francis Ngannou put the heavyweight division on notice with a violent, first-round knockout of former champion Andrei Arlovski. Ngannou fired a looping right hand early, but Arlovski was able to avoid it. Arlovski flurried forward, but Ngannou countered with a right shovel hook that sent him airborne and crashing to the ground. A pair of follow-up punches sealed the deal as the referree pulled Ngannou off the battered Belarusian.
Jason Knight kicked off the main card by submitting Alex Caceres in the second round. Caceres attacked at range early, but Knight was unfazed by his volume, marching forward and landing power shots. Late in the round, Knight scored with a big slam and he took the back of Caceres as the round expired. Round two mirrored the first early, but Knight was able to get the fight to the canvas again and latched onto the back of Caceres with a body triangle. He methodically softened up Caceres with elbows and punches before ultimately locking in the fight-finishing rear-naked choke.
Middleweights Sam Alvey and Nate Marquardt put on a grueling battle to close out the preliminary card. The first round was spent gauging range and jostling for position along the fence. In the second round, Alvey began to open up with punches, opening up a cut on the left cheek of Marquardt. The veteran Marquardt picked up the pace in the final stanza, dragging Alvey to the ground and taking his back. Alvey was able to escape and cruised to the decision win.
The bantamweight match-up between Raphael Assunção and Aljamain Sterling failed to live up to expectations as the bout turned into a slow, technical chess match on the feet. Sterling used his speed and range to stay outside and score with kicks. Assunção was patient and found his range to counter. He repeatedly landed overhand rights that kept Sterling from pulling the trigger. The pace slowed as the fight progressed as both fighters remained cautious. Assunção’s power shots were the difference, however as two of the three judges at cageside rewarded him for his efforts.
Welterweights Li Jingliang and Bobby Nash thrilled the Denver crowd with a back-and-forth battle that ended with Jingliang knocking out Nash in round two. The pair took their time finding their respective ranges, but Jingliang was able use his reach to land punches. Midway through the round, Nash caught the Chinese fighter with a left hook that dropped him. Nash looked for a choke, but Jingliang was able to survive. The pair kept at it in round two, exchanging heavy shots. Late in the round, Jingliang clipped Nash with a right hand and then another that sent an unconscious Nash to the mat.
Newcomer Jordan Johnson used his superior wresting to dominate Luis Henrique da Silva from bell-to-bell. Johnson landed an overhand right in the opening minute, but soon turned to takedowns to neutralize the Brazilian’s offense. Johnson looked for a choke, but da Silva was able to defend. The second and third rounds were all Johnson as he gained top position and smothered da Silva. A late straight armbar attempt came up short for Johnson, but there was no doubt who won when the scorecards were read.
Eric Spicely made short work of Italy’s Alessio Di Chirico, submitting him in the first round. Spicely quickly worked to get Di Chirico to the mat, but ended up on his back when the Italian reversed position. Spicely wasted little time throwing up his legs and locking in a triangle choke to get the finish.
Brazil’s Marcos Rogerio de Lima crushed late-notice opponent Jeremy Kimball, earning a first-round TKO. De Lima stalked Kimball around the cage before Kimball caught a kick and pushed the Brazilian to the mat. De Lima looked for a leg lock, but the fight quickly returned to standing. Once there, de Lima connected with a big shot that sent Kimball crashing to the ground. He rained right hands and the referee jumped in to save Kimball from further punishment.
Flyweights Alexandre Pantoja and Eric Shelton battled hard for three rounds with Pantoja coming out with the split decision victory. Shelton’s takedowns were the story early in the first round, but Pantoja was able to transition to Shelton’s back and threaten with submissions. Shelton showcased great defense to avoid being finished. It was more of the same in round two, as Shelton did well early in the round with his striking and wrestling, but again finished the round with Pantoja on his back. The final frame was much slower and the pair exchanged a lot of single shots. When the scores were read, it was Pantoja who claimed the win.
Kicking off the card lightweight Jason Gonzalez was able to submit J.C. Cottrell inside the first round. Gonzalez rocked Cottrell early in the fight, but Cottrell scored with a big takedown. Cottrell worked from top position and advanced to mount, but Gonzalez slipped out the back door and attacked the neck of Cottrell as he shot again. Gonzalez locked up the D’arce choke and coerced the tap.