Aspen Ladd was hiking with her dogs in the California wilderness when her manager tried to inform her she’d be headlining a UFC event for the first time.
The 24-year-old bantamweight is known for frequently losing herself on 12-mile hikes — with “the pack,” as she calls her collection of canines — usually in areas where cell service isn’t available. She knew something was up at the end of that particular hike when she opened her phone to multiple missed calls and texts.
“That’s probably the biggest news I’ve ever missed while on a hike,” Ladd told ESPN.
This weekend is a big deal for Ladd, as she could very well be one win from a UFC title shot. She’ll face former featherweight champion Germaine de Randamie in the main event of Saturday’s UFC Fight Night in Sacramento, which is a relatively short drive from her hometown of Pioneer, California.
Ladd (8-0) is no stranger to the fast track. She took her first amateur bout just two weeks after her 18th birthday and hasn’t looked back since. The UFC is high on her potential. Within the past year, the promotion has paired her against one of its biggest stars, Holly Holm (although the matchup fell apart before the fight could take place), and now has booked Ladd in a main event.
De Randamie, 35, is in a much different stage of her career. The Dutch striker, who is 8-3 in MMA after going 37-0 in kickboxing, has missed significant time in the past two years due to hand and eye injuries, but she also is on the cusp of a title shot. And if de Randamie were to earn that shot, it would be a rematch she has long coveted. De Randamie lost to Amanda Nunes in 2013, before the Brazilian was champion.
The main event will feature a young prospect, whose accomplishments have come well ahead of her time, against an established vet, who might be running short on time. And the stakes might be nothing short of an opportunity to face the greatest female fighter of all time.
By the numbers
3: Current champions Germaine de Randamie has fought. Her pro MMA debut in 2008 was a loss to Vanessa Porto, who now reigns as Invicta FC flyweight champ. Her second career loss came in 2011 against Julia Budd, who is now Bellator’s featherweight champ. And de Randamie’s only other defeat was to Amanda Nunes, who before becoming UFC bantamweight and featherweight champion won by TKO over the Dutchwoman in 2013.
0: Previous UFC main card appearances by Aspen Ladd.
5.6: Significant strikes per minute by Ladd. The UFC average is 3.1.
37-0: De Randamie’s record in professional kickboxing. From 2000 to 2011, she won four world championships.
5: Ladd’s age when de Randamie made her pro kickboxing debut.
Source: ESPN Stats & Information research
A look back
Five vs. five
“It’s kind of a classic matchup of grappler vs. striker. She’s world-class at what she does. I’m very good at what I do. It’s just going to be who can implement their game plan on fight night.” –Aspen Ladd, speaking to KTXL television in Sacramento
“Let’s bang it out. Let’s have some fun, girl. Let’s do this. I’m a fighter, but I’m an entertainer, too. A lot of people spend a lot of money to see us fight, so let’s make it a fight. I believe she’s a great athlete, and she going to bring a great fight to me. We’re going to make one hell of a fight.” –Germaine de Randamie, speaking to UFC.com
Aspen Ladd steps up in competition against an ex-Invicta FC champ:
Brett Okamoto’s pick
Immediately after Ladd’s most recent bout, a decision over Sijara Eubanks in May, I said her potential is through the roof but I thought she needed time to develop. Here we are two months later, and she’s fighting a seasoned kickboxer in a five-round main event. I believe Ladd will accomplish big things, but this feels like too much, too soon. For the record, however, I won’t be shocked if she proves me wrong. De Randamie via knockout, third round.
Waiting in the wings
The champ doesn’t wait in the wings for anyone, so allow us to rephrase that: Amanda Nunes will be sitting on the top of the bantamweight mountain, looking down on the weekend’s proceedings … while also gazing over yonder at the featherweight peak where she splits her time. The winner here could be next up for the two-division champ — de Randamie is No. 3 in ESPN’s 135-pound rankings and Ladd is ranked fourth — or Nunes could instead wait for the winner of the 145-pound showdown between Cris Cyborg and Felicia Spencer on July 27. In the champ-champ entertainment era, MMA matchmaking no longer progresses in a straight line.
What to watch for (beyond the main event)
How often do you get to see a Hall of Famer fight?
Urijah Faber, the former WEC featherweight champion and three-time UFC title challenger (four-time if you count an interim shot), entered the UFC Hall of Fame in 2017 with good reason. Over his 13-year career, he has played a large role in bringing attention to the lighter-weight fighters in MMA.
Faber (34-10) was bursting with star power, fueled by some notable achievements. He was 17-0 in fights ending in submission, 6-0 in the UFC. He had 26 career takedowns, second most in UFC bantamweight history. And he spent the second-most time inside the cage among 135-pounders: 3 hours, 29 minutes and 4 seconds.
He’s about to add to that cage time, as “The California Kid” — at age 40, he’s still a kid — is returning to the Octagon in Saturday’s co-main event, which takes place in his hometown of Sacramento.
Faber faces Ricky Simon, who has some impressive numbers of his own. He is 15-1 and riding an eight-fight winning streak.
One other number that favors the 26-year-old Simon: According to the voracious researchers at ESPN Stats & Information, 40-year-olds are 2-7 in the UFC in 2019.
No one in the UFC fights like Ryan Hall. You’ve got to see him.
In December, Hall fought and defeated BJ Penn, and he did it by heel-hook submission. Penn, who in 2000 became the first non-Brazilian to win the black-belt division of the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship and went on to be one of MMA’s great grapplers, had never once tapped out in his 30 previous fights.
That’s how elite Hall (7-1) is on the mat. And as MMA fighters go, he’s as unorthodox as they come. He revels in the ground game, naturally, and he’ll try to get you into his comfort zone by any means possible, including a forward roll into you to grab a leg. And once he has you, he has you.
This is what Darren Elkins (24-7) will be contending with in their intriguing featherweight prelim.
Welcoming each other back
The last time Nicco Montaño fought, she won the UFC flyweight championship.
The last time Julianna Peña fought, she was riding the momentum of consecutive victories over top bantamweights Cat Zingano and Jessica Eye as she entered the Octagon for a No. 1 contender showdown with Valentina Shevchenko.
But that most recent fight of Montaño’s was way back in December 2017, and she subsequently was stripped of her championship after pulling out of a title defense. And Peña’s last appearance was even longer ago, in January 2017, and she lost that Shevchenko fight.
The Montaño absence was prolonged by a six-month suspension after she failed an out-of-competition U.S. Anti-Doping Agency drug test. Peña’s time away from the game has been under happier circumstances, as she became a mother in January 2018.
Now both women are back, and they will share the cage in a bantamweight prelim.
Nickname of the night
Andre Fili, who faces featherweight Sheymon Moraes, should be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame on the basis of his nickname alone: “Touchy.” It works in so many ways. He’s going to touch you. He’s a touchy guy, so don’t mess with him. And, of course, he’s “Touchy” Fili.