UFC’s Louisville return features top middleweights vying for title contention

(This story originally published at The Courier-Journal, part of the Gannett network)

The UFC returns to Louisville for the first time in more than 13 years Saturday with UFC on ESPN 57 at KFC Yum! Center (8 p.m. ET), and there’s a lot riding on the main event.

Ranked middleweight contenders Jared Cannonier (17-6) and Nassourdine Imavov (13-4) meet in a five-round bout, in what both men hope is their next step toward a championship fight.

Cannonier, who came up short in his first bid at UFC gold in July 2022, has rebuilt himself with back-to-back wins, with one coming against controversial former champion Sean Strickland.

The Phoenix-based fighter is No. 4 in the official UFC rankings and admits he was hoping for a bigger-name opponent. However, Cannonier, 40, knows the UFC brass appreciates active athletes, so he wasn’t going to turn down a headlining opportunity.

“I wanted something better,” Cannonier told The Courier-Journal. “But these crumbs were all they had left for me. Instead of sitting on the shelf, I took this fight. I’m going to go out there and have another great performance, and keep marching forward toward that title. That’s the whole goal.”

No. 8-ranked Imavov, 28, has no such gripes with the matchmaking. He’s the younger competitor who is still trying to prove his name and achieve his first crack at a UFC title.

When the phone rang for this fight, he pounced on it.

“It’s a very good thing for me,” Imavov said through an interpreter. “It’s once again proof that the UFC believes in me. The fact I accept every fight. Everyone, everywhere, every time. It’s also why the UFC gives me favor and makes me fight hard opponents.”

Imavov traveled more than 10 hours from France, where he lives and trained for this fight. He relishes the chance to see different parts of the world and experience Louisville for the first time.

Although Imavov knows he is likely going to be the villain to the crowd on fight night, he is embracing all the elements.

“I like the city — it’s pretty calm and quiet, and I can’t wait to perform,” Imavov said. “I hope they are going to make a lot of noise. They can be cheering for him, they can be cheering for me — for me, it’s the same. As long as there is noise, I will be happy.”

Cannonier is also enjoying his surroundings going into Saturday’s event. Over the past nearly four years, he has only fought in Las Vegas and Texas, so getting the chance to close the show in a fight-starved region is something he takes pride in.

“There’s lots of trees, fresh air and things like that,” Cannonier said. “I like getting on the road, and it’s nice to be back in front of (a) crowd fighting in an arena again. This will be pretty fun. Pretty cool to do that.”

For more on the card, visit MMA Junkie’s event hub for UFC on ESPN 57.

Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie