By Pete Hoffman
The MMA calendar finally has picked up again. After two weeks off in the beginning of January, there were back-to-back fight weeks: UFC Fight Night 143 on Jan. 19 and Bellator 214 on Saturday. Between fight announcements and actual fights, there has been plenty of movement in the rankings.
Here is a look at five fighters on the rise and five on the decline:
On the rise
Paulo Costa, middleweight: The 6-foot, 185-pound Costa -- a 27-year-old from Brazil with a professional record of 12-0 -- has the looks of Ricky Martin and the power of Vitor Belfort. Costa has finished all 12 of his opponents, including 11 by knockout (one by submission). His most recent fight, at UFC 226, was the longest of his career: He needed until the 2:38 mark in the second round to knock out Uriah Hall, winning his second career "performance of the night" bonus. His biggest challenge to date comes April 27 against 41-year-old Cuban veteran Yoel Romero at UFC on ESPN 3 in Miami.
Andrea Lee, flyweight: The female version of Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. The 29-year-old Texan is skilled in Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Kyokushin. The 5-foot-7 Lee has shown her patience in engaging her opponents at 125 pounds -- not every fight has to be a brawl, though she has no problem striking with the best of them. Lee (9-2) is on a five-fight win streak. She is set to face Ashley Evans-Smith on Feb. 17 at UFC on ESPN 1, and a win could skyrocket Lee into a fight with a top-5 opponent her next time out. Lee can be a serious challenge to the current flyweight champ Valentina Shevchenko.
Shane Burgos, featherweight: This exciting brawler has won two "fight of the night" honors in UFC, one of which was his only loss (to Calvin Kattar) in 12 pro fights. Burgos, 27, comes from Tiger Schulmann, the same camp as No. 5-ranked bantamweight Jimmie Rivera. Burgos likes to exchange, but his Tiger Schulmann training has accelerated his growth in MMA. He has successfully submitted opponents from compromising positions. Burgos, a native of the Bronx, suffered from scoliosis at age 16. Now, he is building up steam to crack UFC's top 15 featherweights in 2019.
Aspen Ladd, bantamweight: The 23-year-old from Folsom, Calif., already has beaten veterans Tonya Evinger, Lina Lansberg, and Sijara Eubanks. Ladd puts her undefeated record (7-0) on the line on March 2 at UFC 235 against former bantamweight champion Holly Holm. The winner looks primed to take on Amanda Nunes for the 135-pound title later in the year.
Leon Edwards, welterweight: Currently the No. 10-ranked 170-pounder in UFC, Edwards (16-3) is on a six-fight win streak. His most recent victory came over Cerrone in June 2018 at UFC Singapore. The 6-foot-2 southpaw can fight at middleweight (185 pounds), but dropping 15 pounds allows his speed to stand out. He hasn’t finished many opponents of late, but he has proven he has superior conditioning. Edwards' long layoff will end in March, when he’s set to fight Gunnar Nelson at UFC Fight Night 147.
On the decline
Aaron Pico, featherweight: The 22-year-old top Bellator prospect suffered the second loss of his young career this weekend. He lost his pro debut in 2017, foolishly rushing Zach Freeman and getting submitted by guillotine choke in just 24 seconds. Pico went on to win his next four bouts, each by devastating knockout in the first round. But this past weekend at Bellator 214, Pico made a costly mistake versus his veteran opponent Henry Corrales. Pico put Corrales on the mat with a heavy strike then took too long to continue his attack, allowing Corrales to get back on his feet. Within 30 seconds, both fighters were swinging for the fences, and Corrales landed a right hook flush to Pico’s chin that completely stunned Pico, the announcers, and the crowd. Corrales landed a couple more shots, and the fight was stopped. It was a huge upset: Pico had entered as more than a 5-1 betting favorite. And it was no ordinary loss by decision or even tapping out. It was a knockout-of-the year-level finish. How will Pico respond? Can the young wrestler get his confidence back? Pico’s stock drops significantly until we see him bounce back.
Carlos Condit, welterweight: The former interim welterweight champ with 43 bouts under his belt has been on a tumultuous downslide. Condit has lost five fights in a row and eight of his past 10, albeit against the best of the best. Too many wars may have taken a toll on the Albuquerque, N.M., native. At just 34 years old, Condit has time to rebound, but it needs to happen soon.
Darren Till, welterweight: The 26-year-old from Liverpool, England -- like Conor McGregor, Francis Ngannou, and Cody Gabrandt before him -- got a UFC title fight rather quickly. But his performance against champion Tyron Woodley left a lot to be desired. Till (17-1-1) was choked out in the second round as the versatile Woodley exposed some major flaws in Till’s game. Till is scheduled to take on Jorge Masvidal at UFC Fight Night 147. It is a favorable matchup for Till. Masvidal has no problem keeping the fight standing up, which is where Till fares best. If Till can't win, maybe it’s time for him to jump back to middleweight, which seems to fit his body better and is a much easier weight cut for the 6-footer.
Alex Hernandez, lightweight: The 26-year-old from St. Louis was on an eight-fight win streak before getting completely picked apart by Cerrone in two rounds at UFC Fight Night 143 in Brooklyn earlier this month. Hernandez, though the first to engage for most of the fight, could not find Cerrone’s chin and allowed his opponent to land shots from all angles. Standing and exchanging strikes instead of getting his opponent to the ground, Hernandez suffered the same fate that Pico did. Hernandez does not have a date set for his return to the octagon.
Karolina Kowalkiewicz, strawweight: The “Polish Princess” had a nice start to her career, winning her first 10 pro fights and first three in UFC before landing a title shot against countrywoman Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Kowalkiewicz lost that fight by decision and has dropped three of her past five in all, most recently to Jessica Andrade by a vicious one-punch KO at UFC 228 in September. Her rebound fight is scheduled for March 30 against Michelle Waterson at UFC on ESPN 2 in Philadelphia. Waterson will advance the fight and track her opponent down. This is not a layup for Kowalkiewicz.