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Three-and-a-half years ago, in the early fall of 2011, the present-day reality of the UFC’s light heavyweight title picture would have seemed outlandish, ridiculous and utterly impossible.

“Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson will never fight Jon ‘Bones’ Jones,” you would have said. 

Bones was coming off a fourth-round destruction of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in his first title defense; Johnson was head-kicking natural lightweights while repeatedly struggling to make the welterweight division’s 170-pound cutoff. 

To be fair, you probably wouldn’t have said the words I just unfairly put in your mouth. The mere concept was too outrageous to even consider. 

At the time, that line of thinking would be like saying today, “A banged-up former professional wrestler in his late 30s with absolutely no mixed martial arts experience will never make his fighting debut for the UFC!” 

Wait. What’s that? That actually happened?

Just like CM Punk fighting in the UFC actually became a real thing, so too did Johnson battling Jones for the light heavyweight strap.

This sport is weird, guys, and Johnson’s journey from bloated welterweight to bloated middleweight to perfect light heavyweight represents just another footnote in the book of oddities that is the UFC’s ever-filling history log.

After Johnson found a home at 205 in August of 2012, he’s rattled off seven consecutive victories, becoming increasingly terrifying with each trek to the cage. 

The UFC came calling Rumble’s name early in 2014, asking the former welterweight to take on rising contender Phil Davis at UFC 172. 

“We’re giving you another shot. Don’t mess this one up. Make things right,” they seemed to say. Or maybe they were just bringing in a warm body with some name value to set up Davis’ eventual rise to title contention. 

Either way, Johnson nodded in understanding and marched to battle focused, rejuvenated and reinvented. He felt at home back inside that eight-sided cage, and he marked his territory all over Davis’ face for the duration of their three-round bout. 

A brutal knockout of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in his next outing, and Rumble was officially a top contender for Jones’ strap. He needed to clear one last hurdle, and the opportunity would be his. 

Unfortunately, that hurdle stood 6’5″ and possessed scary boxing skills that already gave Jones the fright of his life as champ. 

Taking on Alexander Gustafsson at UFC on Fox 14 Saturday evening, Rumble once again faced the odds. 

And once again, he triumphed. 

Now, Rumble is Jones’ newest test, the latest in a line of challengers that consists of the corpses of Rashad Evans, Daniel Cormier, Lyoto Machida and five other downright scary combatants. 

Terrifying as he may be, to avoid joining those names in Jones’ trophy case, Rumble will need to be perfect. He’ll need to be better than he was against Nogueira, Davis and even Gustafsson

He’ll need the performance of his lifetime, and I’m not sure he has it in him. 

Rumble’s big—and perhaps only—advantage in his fight with Jones is his one-shot stopping power. His ability to knock an opponent out with one solid shot has produced some highlight-reel finishes throughout his career, and even though Jones’ chin is phenomenal, there’s no doubt that one good shot from Rumble can close the deal. 

But what does he have after that? When has he fought a wrestler, a master of distance, a diverse, creative striker or a cardiovascular freak like Jones? 

Never. He’s never fought anybody as good as Jones in any one of those areas, and he surely hasn’t fought anybody who owned all those skills at once, because Jones and only Jones can make that claim.

When has Rumble even had to test his gas tank at 205? 

You can point to his decision over Phil Davis, but Davis did not make Johnson work like Jones will. Davis retreated and literally ran away from Johnson at times, allowing Rumble to move forward and to pick his shots. Unless Rumble lands the big shot early, you can guarantee Jones will initiate some clinch wars and force Johnson to carry his weight along the cage. 

Ask Glover Teixeira or Cormier how that worked out for them. 

On the other hand, when has Jones fought a fighter with bigger power than him? 

Plenty of times.

Since capturing the belt, literally every challenger save Chael Sonnen possessed more raw power than Jones. 

Jones has been here several times before, and just because Rumble is the latest and greatest threat to his belt doesn’t mean we should expect anything different than the last six times he fought a man with greater power in his fists and shins. 

Jones’ striking coach, Brandon Gibson, agrees. 

We have faced powerful strikers before like (Ryan) Bader, (Mauricio) ‘Shogun’ (Rua), Rampage and Teixeira,” Gibson told Bleacher Report. “Johnson brings tremendous power and excellent pressure. We have a lot to prepare for, but Johnson and his camp also has their work cut out in preparing for the unique arsenal that Jones carries.” 

With better wrestling, championship experience, a more refined submission game and incredible length (and the know-how to maximize its effectiveness), Jones should take care of Rumble just as he has his last eight challengers. 

The smart money is on Jones’ more polished all-around game, but then again, the smart money in 2011 would have been on Rumble never even approaching Bones’ throne. 

In MMA, there are no certainties, and Rumble’s great equalizer—his power—can erase logic, analysis and yes, even history, in a flash. 

If you’re a betting man and you’re asking my opinion, I’d maintain your money is best spent on Jones in this scenario.

But I’d also walk away from our chat hoping you found the good sense to put your wallet back in your pocket and enjoy the fight. 

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Johnny “Hollywood” Case talked to the media after his big, third-round TKO win over Frankie Perez at UFC Fight Night: McGregor vs. Siver on Sunday night. Case discussed his victory, his past struggles with money and why he painted his toenails black and green.

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Since dropping his first two UFC fights, middleweight Uriah Hall has reeled off two straight victories over Chris Leben and Thiago Santos. 

The 30-year-old fought on Season 17 of The Ultimate Fighter and made a name for himself showcasing his kickboxing skills but fell short of winning the tournament, losing to the show’s last pick Kelvin Gastelum. Hall was expected to get a crack at top-15 middleweight, and former foe, Costas Philippou at UFC Fight Night: Boston, but the latter was forced to withdraw due to injury

Hall, instead, will face off with Strikeforce and Bellator veteran Louis Taylor. The 35-year-old Taylor has looked impressive as of late, winning three straight fights on the independent circuit via first-round guillotine chokes. 

Taylor is a high-level wrestler who has trained with the likes of Matt Hughes and Brock Lesnar. While his knockout power is apparent, he has shown a propensity for telegraphing strikes, as he did against Joe Riggs.

The Reign MMA fighter Hall has already shown improvements to his wrestling, which will complement his striking prowess. His next fight against Taylor could be the one where he eventually puts his entire MMA game together.

Hall’s last win over the former TUF: Brazil 2 competitor Santos was a very close fight, in which his wrestling proved to be the difference-maker, stuffing both of Santos’ takedown attempts and winning a prevailing third round. Hall even continued to throw kicks despite suffering a broken toe in the fight.

An emotional Hall would celebrate the victory post-fight with UFC announcer Joe Rogan and talked about the adversity he has faced in his short UFC career. 

“I was taught to face it. If it comes at you and life takes you down, you get up and say ‘you hit like a b—h,'” exclaimed Hall.

His mental state is what has been criticized by those like UFC President Dana White. Hall could potentially be 4-0 in the Octagon if he had figuratively “flipped the switch” in bouts against Gastelum and John Howard.

On the feet is where Hall, usually, will have the easiest path to victory over Taylor. If he can avoid the power and leg kicks of Taylor, using his six-inch reach advantage and improved wrestling skills, it would give Hall his biggest victory to date. 

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UFC 182 will be Hector Lombard‘s chance to prove his spot in the welterweight rankings.

Everything leading up to the event looked like it would be Rory MacDonald, the UFC’s No. 2-ranked contender, who would be next in line for the championship. However, another close battle between Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler has seemingly pushed MacDonald back down the ladder.

Per a report on UFC Tonight by Ariel Helwani, the UFC called to inform MacDonald that he would not be getting his title shot.

With a glance at the official UFC rankings, it would appear that a win on Saturday would set up a Lombard-MacDonald title eliminator in 2015.

Winner of eight of his last nine, MacDonald has cemented his spot near the top of the rankings. Any fight featuring MacDonald would be a title eliminator. He is that close to earning a shot at gold. For Lombard, he is undefeated, 2-0, since dropping to welterweight. He currently sits as the No. 6-ranked contender.

Those ranked above Lombard are not in a position to challenge for the belt, or to challenge MacDonald for that opportunity. No. 5-ranked Matt Brown has not had a fight since losing to Robbie Lawler, No. 4-ranked Carlos Condit is coming off an injury in a loss to No. 3-ranked Tyron Woodley and Woodley has a recent loss to MacDonald.

That leaves Lombard and MacDonald as the only two logical choices, sans a GSP return, for the fighter next in line after Hendricks.

Lombard is very marketable. No, he doesn’t speak out often. He isn’t the super charismatic figure of a Chael Sonnen. Lombard is the fighter who embarks fear in fighters and fans alike. The fighter the fanbase knows brings violence into the cage. That is a very sellable aspect and has worked to elevate combat sports throughout its history.

Getting to the potential showdown with MacDonald will not be an easy task. Talented welterweight Josh Burkman makes his return to the Octagon more than six years after being cut with three straight losses.

Since leaving the UFC, Burkman has improved drastically. He posted a 9-2 record outside of the organization. He will not be a pushover for Lombard.

Burkman has brought his striking along quite nicely, and he has fight-ending power. He also has an underrated submission attack. An attack that turned out Jon Fitch’s lights in less than a minute of work in 2013. This is not a cakewalk for Lombard.

The 170-pound division is not light on contenders. The upper echelon of the division beats up on each other, making it difficult for anyone to earn a title shot. And even when one gets there, as MacDonald has, a title fight rematch forces them into another fight.

Lombard-MacDonald seems to be the next title eliminator on tap.

It is always possible the UFC matchmakers throw a curveball at us all, but if UFC 182 plays out with a Lombard victory, the only logical fight for him is that potential title eliminator with MacDonald. Neither fighter is one to wait, and they are at the same place in the division.

Lombard seemingly has his chance to reach serious title contention on Saturday.

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Former UFC bantamweight champion Renan Barao will make his return to the Octagon on Dec. 20 against Canadian Mitch Gagnon in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night: Machida vs. Dollaway. It will be quite the step up in competition for Gagnon, who will see an even more motivated and angry Barao on fight night. 

A vengeful Barao is looking to make a statement to the mixed martial arts world after he was thoroughly outclassed, and finished, by current champion T.J. Dillashaw at UFC 173. Things went from bad to worse when Barao fainted on the day of weigh-ins prior to his rematch with Dillashaw just three months later. Now, the Brazilian must regroup and channel his frustration towards Gagnon, who is 4-1 in the UFC.

“My preparation is going great,” Barao told Sherdog.com’s Gleidson Venga. “I train three times a day and hope to give 100 percent so that everybody will keep talking about the fight. I hope they’ll enjoy it.”

Barao, the former pound-for-pound king of the 135-pound weight class, fell from grace just as he was beginning to establish a dominant legacy in the Octagon. The 27-year-old was riding a 16-fight win streak prior to his UFC debut. Barao was thrust into the spotlight with little to no experience fighting in a top promotion—he only fought twice in the WEC—but was a force in his native country of Brazil. 

The Nova Uniao team member’s striking is a spectacle to watch. Similar to his teammate, Jose Aldo, Barao mixes up his punches well with deceptive spinning back kicks and crippling leg kicks. He’s also got the killer instict; when he smells blood in the water, it’s lights out for his opponents. For a 5’6″ bantamweight, Barao‘s reach is an impressive 70 inches. 

His competitors are normally goaded into a stand-up exchange, partly because of his reach, which Barao uses to dictate the pace of the fight, but also because of his elite takedown defense. Prior to his bout with Dillashaw, Barao had stuffed 17 of 17 takedowns coming his way for a whopping 96 percent takedown defense percentage. 

Barao‘s reign at the top of the 135-pound division was short but sweet. After winning the interim title, in Dominick Cruz’s absence against Urijah Faber, Barao went on to defend the strap three times, including once more vs. Faber. His run included finishes of Michael McDonald, Eddie Wineland and Faber. 

Like every human, even a top-level UFC fighter can experience a sudden downfall. While not the most marketable or talkative fighter, Barao was part of the new wave of Brazilian mixed martial artists. Along with former heavyweight champion Junior Dos Santos and Aldo, Barao was the last of his young countrymen to win a title, and nearly the last one to lose it.

Aldo is the last one left standing, with Barao forced to answer the questions that followed his UFC 177 weigh-in debacle, which cost him an immediate chance of putting the memory of a one-sided title defense loss behind him.

Four months is the amount of time between his missed opportunity and a chance at silencing critics on UFC Fight Night. The man he is up against, Gagnon, has only lost once in the Octagon, which came against bantamweight contender Bryan Caraway in his UFC debut. Since the loss, Gagnon has went on to steamroll his way through the division, with all three of his finishes coming in the first round. 

The 30-year-old, who began his MMA career six years ago, sports solid wrestling and jiu-jitsu skills—he’s a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu—but also displays great power in his hands. A funny fact about Gagnon: he has only fought in his native country of Canada because of his visa issues. The Canadian will be traveling to hostile territory this winter when he heads south of the equator to Barueri, Brazil, to tangle with Barao

Gagnon presents a unique challenge to Barao. He is the first southpaw fighter Barao has faced in the UFC. This can potentially alter Barao‘s game plan for a couple of reasons; one, because he will need to be wary of the well-timed straight left and, two, because of the left head kick. Don’t let his three submission wins fool you; Gagnon is a more-than-capable striker. 

He dropped Walel Watson, via a left hook, before securing an easy rear-naked choke. Note: Gagnon has rarely, if at all, fought in the southpaw stance in the UFC but has prior to his time with the promotion. 

Like Barao, Gagnon possesses excellent takedown defense and striking defense. Make no mistake about it, when the two battle in Brazil, it’s going to be a stand-up affair. With the pair boasting takedown defensive percentages upwards of 85 percent, it’s unlikely this fight will go to the ground.

Barao is a black belt in BJJ and has only been taken down once in his WEC/UFC career. Gagnon was neutralized by the grappler Caraway back in July 2012, but outside of his debut, he has shown great activity while on his back.

“I definitely think I can (submit Barao),” Gagnon told MMAFighting’s Guilherme Cruz. “I will put the pressure on him and if he makes any mistake, I’ll definitely [be] getting a submission.”

If the pressure is on any fighter in this tussle, it’s Barao. Figuratively speaking, if he was to lose this bout against a 15th-ranked bantamweight contender, Barao‘s collapse would rival that of the 2004 New York Yankees. One would start to question his desire, motive to fight and overall work ethic. Thankfully, it’s not Dec. 20 yet. 

A win for Gagnon could rocket him into the top 10 of the bantamweight division, or at least have him teetering on the outside of it. Gagnon has a skill set that can cause problems for the former champion. He has also performed well against fighters who have a 70-inch reach or greater, but he has yet to face anyone who is as fast and as technically sound as Barao.

Barao is now in a logjam atop the bantamweight ladder, with Cruz set to fight for the title next year and Raphael Assuncao waiting for his shot. Assuncao defeated Dillashaw previously at UFC Fight Night: Maia vs. Shields. With a renewed focus and a noticeable mean streak, it’s up to Barao to put away this would-be challenger and assert himself back in the mix. 

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Former PRIDE champ and UFC veteran Wanderlei Silva is less than thrilled after being handed a lifetime ban by the Nevada State Athletic Commission Tuesday, and he isn’t shy about saying so. 

The Axe Murderer was issued a precedent-setting lifetime ban by the commission, per Luke Thomas of MMA Fighting, after refusing a random drug test issued back in May. 

In an interview with Brazilian media outlet Combate, Silva went on a tirade blasting the decision, noting some inconsistencies in recent rulings made by the NSAC (translation per Guilherme Cruz MMA Fighting). 

The punishment they gave (Sonnen) was unfair. We don’t know what’s behind this commission because at the same hearing they punished Sonnen they cleared (Vitor Belfort) who tested positive for high levels of testosterone in February, to fight for the title in December. Both had a history. The same case. One is banned, the other one is cleared to fight. … We have to know who’s regulating this commission, who controls it, because it looks like a circus. They do what they want, and where are we going to complain about it? 

Former three-time UFC title challenger Chael Sonnen was set to face Silva at UFC 175 in July, but once his old rival was removed from the card after his drug testing fiasco, The American Gangster was paired with Vitor Belfort, per Matt Erickson of MMA Junkie.  

However, Sonnen was then subsequently removed from the annual Fourth of July weekend pay-per-view event after failing a drug test for anti-estrogenic drugs, per Brett Okamoto of ESPN.com.  

After the results of a second drug test revealed that Sonnen had used performance-enhancing drugs such as EPO and human growth hormones, Sonnen was eventually issued a two-year ban by the NSAC, per Matt Parrino of UFC.com.

Although Belfort tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone in February, the NSAC still granted the Brazilian slugger a conditional license to fight UFC middleweight champ Chris Weidman at UFC 181, per Tristen Critchfield of Sherdog

That championship matchup was postponed after Weidman suffered a broken hand in training (h/t Ariel Helwani).  

While it may be inconsequential either way, was the NSAC‘s punishment of Silva far too harsh or necessary to send a statement to other fighters that the last thing they want to do is refuse a drug test?

 

John Heinis is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. He is also the MMA editor for eDraft.com.

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Alistair Overeem avoided a three-fight losing streak at UFC 169 in February when he pounded on Frank Mir for 15 minutes en route to a unanimous-decision victory. As “The Reem” looks to get back in the title conversation in the heavyweight division and pick up some momentum, his Fight Night 50 opponent, Ben Rothwell, is an ideal adversary.

Overeem came into the UFC with much fanfare and finished Brock Lesnar in the first round of his UFC debut at UFC 141 in December 2011. He earned a title shot with then-champ Junior dos Santos, but it never came to fruition, due to a positive drug test for Overeem ahead of their planned May 2012 fight.

He served a nine-month suspension handed down by the NSAC and returned with back-to-back knockout losses to Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Travis Browne.

Overeem gassed out in the third round of the Bigfoot fight, and the giant pulverized him when he dropped his hands.

Against Browne, Overeem nearly finished the fight with a barrage of punches and knees to the body, landing shots that were very close to putting Browne away. The Hawaiian somehow endured the punishment and knocked out Overeem with a front kick after Overeem had zapped himself of all energy trying to finish Browne earlier in the fight.

Overeem has lost some big fights, and he needs to rack up a few wins before he can fight the best heavyweights in the division. His win over Mir set him on the right path, but he’s going to have to beat back some of the guys from the middle of the pack. Enter Ben Rothwell.

The Kenosha, Wisconsin, native is coming off a win over Brandon Vera last August at UFC 164. Rothwell received a therapeutic-use exemption from the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services and was on TRT for the Vera fight.

When he tested positive for elevated testosterone levels, the commission opted to give him a warning, while the UFC suspended him for nine months.

The fact that he wasn’t punished by the commission means his win wasn’t overturned. He’s alternated wins and losses since his UFC debut against Cain Velasquez in October 2009. Both Rothwell and Overeem have won and lost half of their UFC fights.

Rothwell needs to prove a few things in his fight against Overeem. The first thing he needs is a second win in a row to show he is more than just a “win one, lose one” heavyweight on the roster.

The next thing we need to see is whether Rothwell can fight off of TRT. We’ve seen mixed results when fighters stop taking steroids, and that will be a factor when Rothwell and Overeem throw down at Foxwoods.

Rothwell is going to move forward and try to knock out Overeem, and he doesn’t have the best cardio. Overeem will have a clear striking advantage, and as long as he doesn’t punch himself out, he should be able to pick apart Rothwell. He came in pretty lean for the Mir fight, relatively speaking, and he was landing hard shots until the very end of the fight.

It might finally be time for Overeem to go on a run in the UFC that sees him challenge for the title. He’s got to get past Rothwell if he wants title-eliminator fights, and Big Ben is undoubtedly going to be looking to be the latest heavyweight to send Overeem careening toward the canvas.

It’s a great fight between two hard-hitting heavyweights, and it is the perfect opportunity for Overeem to showcase his skills against a formidable foe.

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Alexis Davis is a walking study on the dynamic contrasts that exist in combat sports. 

Outside of the cage, the Ontario native falls on the quieter side of the spotlight, nearly to the point of the shy variety. She is quick to produce a smile and the ever-polite wave, as she takes in those elements that move at a rapid pace around her. It’s not that Davis can’t keep up with the speed her career is moving at, but more along the lines she’s learned the value of observation. 

Yet, once the cage door closes, she’s as gritty as they come. The California transplant has a career littered with rock em’ sock em’ affairs, and on those nights—like her action-packed tilt with Sarah Kaufman back in 2012—Davis has no trouble donning the crimson mask of battle, just as she is equally comfortable with handing them out to her opposition.

Davis simply loves to scrap. There is something that comes alive inside of her when the conflict begins, and she has no problem leaving the trash-talking and Twitter beefs for those are perhaps better suited.

The 29-year-old knows it is what happens inside the Octagon that matters, and her efficiency inside the cage has allowed her to climb the ranks of the women’s bantamweight division. Davis’ tenacity has earned her three consecutive victories under the UFC banner, and that run has brought her to the doorstep of the biggest opportunity of her career in a showdown with superstar Ronda Rousey.

At UFC 175 this Saturday night in Las Vegas, she will attempt to dethrone the reigning queen of the 135-pound fold and take her shot at being the first person to derail the rocket-fueled trajectory of the former Olympic judoka turned MMA phenom. So far no one has even come close, but all things are said to have their moment, and Davis believes hers will come on Saturday night.

A shot at championship gold is an opportunity years in the making, but Davis still feels like she’s just getting started.

“It does feel like a long time coming, but at the same time it doesn’t,” Davis told Bleacher Report. “I’ve put in a lot of work to get where I am, but how many people can say they have been in the UFC for a year and earned a title shot? This will be my fourth fight for the UFC and I’m already fighting for the title.

“This has all been kind of surreal. When I first started in a small town of Four Corners, Ontario, Canada—most people don’t even know where that is—to living in California and fighting for a world title. It has just been crazy, and you almost have to pinch yourself sometimes.”

While the women’s bantamweight division is still relatively new to the UFC stage, the fighters involved have wasted no time in making it a weight class to watch. In addition to Rousey‘s dominance, a handful of competitors have consistently engaged in high-caliber bouts that have kept stride with—and in some cases eclipsed—their male counterparts on various fight cards.

Of that collective, Davis is certainly a member, and her three wins inside the Octagon steadily carved out her place in the title picture. Yet, in a game where self-promotion can serve to rapidly elevate a fighter’s profile, Davis has been content to do the work in the belief that the biggest opportunity will materialize as the result.

Although she never shouted from the rooftops for a title shot, Davis never took her eyes off the prize at the top of the mountain.

“I’ve always looked to fight the best people possible because that is what I got in this for,” Davis said. “That’s why I got into this sport. I don’t just want to fight anybody…I want to fight the best. I want to fight whoever is at the top, and I’m going to get that opportunity at UFC 175.

“I’m so excited for this fight because she is exactly the type of fighter you want to face. I want fights like the one with Sarah Kaufman where it’s going to bring out the best in me, and I know this is one of those fights. I know she’s going to bring it. I know she’s going to be coming forward regardless.”

While the matchup between Rousey and Davis will feature two high-level grapplers, Davis isn’t necessarily set on the idea that the champion is a “one-trick pony.” Throughout her title reign, Rousey has shown an ever-evolving striking attack and an increasing willingness to trade leather on the feet.

Those skills were certainly on display in her most recent title defense, as she scored a first-round stoppage victory over Sara McMann after she landed a vicious knee from the clinch that put her fellow Olympian on the canvas. The win over McMann was Rousey‘s first of the non-armbar variety, and Davis believes it is a sign of the how rapidly the champion’s game is evolving.

Davis knows she has to be ready for anything on Saturday night, and she’s confident she’ll be ready for whatever Rousey brings.

“I almost feel like you don’t know what to expect from her anymore,” Davis said. “Of course everyone is always saying armbar, armbar armbar, but she’s put a ton of work into her boxing and clinch work. She is coming off a knockout victory in her last fight, so it’s a case of having to be ready for everything. I’m going to have to be fully prepared for this fight to go anywhere and I’m confident that I am.” 

 

Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. 

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