The mixed martial arts world stops for a rare breather over the last week of March, but it’s simply the calm before the storm as the sport prepares for what’s shaping up to be an epic April.
The month kicks off with events by three promotions in three days. The latter, UFC on Fuel 7 in Sweden on April 9, kicks off a stretch of four consecutive Saturdays in which the world’s biggest MMA promotion holds fight cards.
So without further ado, here's a look at eight fights in April worth circling on your calendar:
1. Pat Curran (18-4) vs. Shahbulat Shamhalaev (12-1-1), Bellator, April 4, Atlantic City: Curran, a former lightweight whose only loss in his past 10 fights is to Eddie Alvarez, has found his power at featherweight, as evidenced in his memorable slugfest win over Patricio “Pitbull” Friere on Jan. 17. The current Bellator featherweight champ will find a willing opponent on April 4 in Shamhalaev, who boasts KO/TKO wins in each of his past five bouts. The Russian, who is on a 10-fight win streak, earned his title shot by blitzing his way through the Bellator season-seven featherweight tournament, in which he finished each of his foes inside of two rounds.
2: Sarah Kaufman (15-2) vs. Leslie Smith (5-2-1), Invicta 5, Kansas City, KS, April 5: Invicta, the promotion which played a big role in putting women’s MMA back on the map, returns to action with its second event of 2013. While Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos’ bout against unheralded Australian Fiona Muxlow will garner the bulk of the headlines, the real fight to watch is between Kaufman and Smith. Kaufman, who is heading to the UFC after this event, is a former Strikeforce bantamweight champion and one of the most capable strikers in the game. Smith, who trains with Team Cesar Gracie in Northern California, loves to scrap, as she proved over the course of a draw and a win in a pair of fights with Kaitlin Young on previous Invicta cards.
3. Alexander Gustafsson (15-1) vs. Gegard Mousasi (33-3-2), UFC on Fuel 9, Stockholm, Sweden, April 6: An intriguing light heavyweight showdown headlines the UFC’s next international event. With six straight UFC wins, and each coming against an opponent tougher than the previous one, Gustafsson has worked his way into the discussion to potentially challenge champion Jon Jones. The lanky Swede’s next challenge is Mousasi, who comes in feeling he has something to prove. The former Dream and Strikeforce champion hit the wall a couple years back, losing his Strikeforce belt to “King Mo” Lawal and fighting to a draw against a fading Keith Jardine. Since then, though, Mousasi has won three straight to set himself up for the biggest fight of his career. His task won't be easy as he has to figure out how to make his kickboxing background work against a tall, lanky striker.
4. Miesha Tate (13-3) vs. Cat Zingano (7-0), “The Ultimate Fighter 17” Finale, Las Vegas, April 13: This fight was already hotly anticipated, as it was hinted the winner would get the next shot at women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey’s title. But the ante was upped further at UFC 158, when UFC president Dana White announced the winner of this bout would coach opposite Rousey on the next season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Tate, who lost her Strikeforce title to Rousey in 2011, is a well-rounded fighter who has scored nine of her 13 wins via finish, including six submissions. Her third-round comeback win over Julie Kedzie last August in San Diego was considered one of the best fights of the year. Zingano, meanwhile, is stepping up to her biggest career spotlight. The high-energy fighter from Lakewood, Colo. in undefeated and has finished all but one of her foes.
5. Benson Henderson (18-2) vs. Gilbert Melendez (21-2), UFC on FOX 7, San Jose, Calif., April 20: An all-but-official unification fight sees Henderson defend his UFC lightweight title against longtime Strikeforce champ Melendez in the main event of UFC on FOX 7. It’s also a chance at redemption for the Cesar Gracie camp. Gracie’s fighters have come up 0-3 in UFC title fights in recent years, including Nate Diaz’s loss to Henderson in December. Will Melendez be his camp’s saving grace? And can he shake off ring rust? Melendez was a killer in 2009-10, but he's been out of the cage for almost a year and faces a prime Henderson, who has won 15 of his past 16 fights.
6. Daniel Cormier (11-0) vs. Frank Mir (17-6), UFC on FOX 7, San Jose, Calif., April 20: The undefeated Cormier battered former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett for five rounds last May in the Strikeforce heavyweight tournament final. But we haven’t seen him in the Octagon yet, first because Cormier broke his hand, then second because Mir suffered a knee injury, which forced postponement of their originally scheduled May bout. Will this be Cormier’s heavyweight swan song before a drop to light heavyweight and a run at Jones? And what does Mir, who has been written off perhaps more often than any elite fighter, have left in the tank after his crushing loss to Junior dos Santos last May?
7. Alan Belcher vs. Michael Bisping, UFC 159, Newark, N.J., April 27: This is a battle for relevance in the middleweight division. The veteran Bisping seemed to finally be in position for a long-awaited shot at Anderson Silva’s middleweight title when he was brutally knocked out by Vitor Belfort in January. Belcher, meanwhile, has never quite been able to put it all together, as injuries or subpar performances at inopportune times always seemed to get in the way. The middleweight belt will be tied up for awhile with Silva scheduled to defend against Chris Weidman in July, but in the meantime, the winner of this fight stays in the mix.
8. Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen, UFC 159, Newark, N.J., April 27: Sure, this isn’t the most compelling matchup on paper. Jones hasn’t defended his title against a legit light heavyweight challenger in over a year, as he’ll be meeting his second straight converted middleweight. And Sonnen is fighting at light heavyweight for the first time since 2005. But let’s face it, by the time fight night rolls around, this match will have more attention than the other seven fights on this list combined. The combination of one of the top three pound-for-pound fighters in the world against a fighter with an unparalleled ability to draw attention will be enough to get most to ignore what seems like a mismatch and tune in. As for what happens when they lock the gate to the Octagon? Anything short of a decisive finish by Jones will be viewed as lackluster.
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter @davedoylemma .
What fight are you looking forward to the most? Tell us in the comments below.
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