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Robelis Despaigne of Cuba poses for a portrait after his victory during the UFC 299 event at Kaseya Center on March 09, 2024 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
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Fighters on the Rise | UFC St. Louis

Highlighting Three Up-And-Coming Talents To Keep Close Tabs On This Weekend In St. Louis

The UFC returns stateside and touches down in St. Louis for the second time, hot on the heels of UFC 301 last weekend in Rio de Janeiro.

Headlined by a heavyweight battle between divisional mainstay Derrick Lewis and ascending Brazilian Rodrigo Nascimento, Saturday night’s fight card at Enterprise Center is not only a homecoming for local products Joaquin Buckley, Sean Woodson, and Charles Johnson, but also a showcase of some impressive emerging names that have yet to really break into the larger discussions about up-and-coming talents in their respective weight classes.

If things go well this weekend in the shadow of the Gateway Arch, that is likely to change, especially for the trio of ascending standouts profiled below.

Here’s the latest edition of Fighters on the Rise.

Nursulton Ruziboev

Nursulton Ruziboev of Uzbekistan punches Sedriques Dumas in a middleweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Boardwalk Hall Arena on March 30, 2024 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Nursulton Ruziboev of Uzbekistan punches Sedriques Dumas in a middleweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Boardwalk Hall Arena on March 30, 2024 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

In case you weren’t listening when Ruziboev was mentioned in this space ahead of his Atlantic City showdown with Sedriques Dumas at the end of March, the streaking talent from Uzbekistan makes a relatively quick turnaround while dropping to the welterweight division, jumping straight into a Top 15 matchup opposite Joaquin Buckley in the co-main event.

All the things that made Ruziboev a person of interest at middleweight — his height (six-foot-five), his reach (76 inches), his experience (46 career fights, 34 wins), and his finishing abilities (32 stoppage wins) — make him an even more intriguing proposition now that he shifts down a division. He’s fought at welterweight a handful of times in the past, and in speaking with him ahead of this bout, suggested that he doesn’t cut much weight to compete at ’85, which ups the ante even more.

FREE FIGHT: Joaquin Buckley vs Vicente Luque

Through two UFC starts, the Philadelphia-based fighter is 2-0 with a pair of first-round stoppage wins; first blasting out Brunno Ferreira last July, and then finishing Dumas in a bout where there were some unfortunate eye pokes that factored into things. He’s won 10 straight overall, trains with a great team led by John Marquez, and gets a chance to make an immediate impact in his new surroundings on Saturday.

A St. Louis native, Buckley lobbied for a chance to be on this card and now makes the same quick turnaround as Ruziboev, having earned the biggest win of his career two fights after his new opponent bested Dumas in Atlantic City by stopping Vicente Luque in the second round. The 30-year-old is 3-0 since returning to welterweight himself and his dynamic movements and unquestioned athleticism have helped him become a person of interest in the division, and a second win this year would certainly push him further up the rankings.

This is a potential breakout moment for Ruziboev — a co-main event assignment in just his third UFC appearance, against a ranked local favorite no less, and if he can make the transition to welterweight seamlessly, he’ll head into the second half of 2024 with a number next to his name and plenty of options when it comes to his next fight.

Mateusz Rebecki

Mateusz Rebecki Chops Down Loik Radzhabov In The Second Round | UFC Fight NIght: Emmett vs Topuria
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Mateusz Rebecki Chops Down Loik Radzhabov In The Second Round | UFC Fight NIght: Emmett vs Topuria
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Because there were so many outstanding newcomers that joined the UFC ranks in 2023, the freshman year that Rebecki put together flew a little under the radar.

Full St. Louis Fight Card Preview

A member of the Dana White’s Contender Series (DWCS) Class of ’22, the 31-year-old Polish lightweight debuted with a unanimous decision win over short-notice replacement Nick Fiore in January, added a second-round stoppage win over Loik Radzhabov in a fight he absolutely dominated from start-to-finish in June, and closed out his rookie campaign with a first-round armbar finish of Roosevelt Roberts at UFC 295 in New York City in November.

The trio of triumphs extended his overall winning streak to 16 and pushed his record to 19-1, setting him up for a step up in competition as he kicks off his sophomore season in the Octagon this weekend in St. Louis.

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Rebecki faces off with Diego Ferreira, a long-time Top 15 fixture returning to action for the first time since defeating Michael Johnson last spring. That knockout win ended a three-fight slide for the Fortis MMA rep, and reminded everyone that Ferreira is still a dangerous force just outside the rankings in the loaded lightweight class.

This is precisely the kind of fight that the surging Rebecki needs at this point in his career — a pairing with an established, battle-tested veteran whose only losses have come against outstanding talents.

Beating a guy like Ferreira inches him closer to breaking into the Top 15 and should, in theory, set up another step up in competition next time out, which would likely mean a battle with someone sporting a number next to their name. If he falters, it comes opposite a proven commodity, and prompts a quick reset and some slight adjustments in order to try and get things moving in the right direction again.

Last year’s rookie class was outstanding, but there is a real possibility that Rebecki asserts himself as one of the best of the bunch now that they’ve all got a year of UFC experience under their belts.

Robelis Despaigne

Robelis Despaigne of Cuba reacts after defeating Josh Parisian during their heavyweight bout at UFC 299 at Kaseya Center on March 09, 2024 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)
Robelis Despaigne of Cuba reacts after defeating Josh Parisian during their heavyweight bout at UFC 299 at Kaseya Center on March 09, 2024 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Going into his promotional debut at UFC 299, a lot was rightfully made of Despaigne having earned three 2023 wins in a combined 19 seconds, including needing just three and four seconds to win his last two fights, respectively. It felt like one of those fun stats that there was no way the former Olympic bronze medalist in taekwondo could possibly replicate now that he was competing on the biggest stage in the sport.

That was true… but also not, because Despaigne dispatched Josh Parisian in 18 seconds, felling the former DWCS and Ultimate Fighter alum with a retreating right hand.

Just in case it isn’t clear: you’re not supposed to be able to generate fight-ending power while backing up and not really having your feet set underneath you, but that’s precisely what Despaigne did, and everyone rightfully went crazy about it.

RIO REWIND: UFC 301 Prelim Results | Main Card Results | Official Scorecards

Now the 35-year-old Cuban jumps in with another DWCS grad, Waldo Cortes Acosta, looking to register his second win of 2024 and prove he’s the powerful new heavyweight to pay close attention to going forward.

Cortes Acosta has been solid since punching his ticket to the Octagon with a first-round stoppage win in his DWCS appearance in the fall of 2022, amassing a 4-1 record with wins over Lukasz Brzeski and Andrei Arlovski following his early 2023 loss to Marcos Rogerio de Lima. Like Despaigne, “Salsa Boy” is still developing as a mixed martial artist and has shown some promise, so it will be interesting to see what kind of further improvements he’s made since his January win over Arlovski.

It’s difficult to say how far Despaigne can take things given that he’s already 35 years old and still in the very early days of his MMA adventure, but he has legitimate fight-changing power and has been a ton of fun to watch thus far, so sit down, buckle up, and let’s all continue to enjoy the ride!

Order UFC 302: Makhachev vs Poirier

UFC Fight Night: Lewis vs Nascimento took place live from Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Missouri on May 11, 2024. See the final Prelim and Main Card results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass