Contenders, ex-champs make February exciting for UFC on ESPN+

Marlon Moraes, left, lost a split decision to Raphael Assuncao in 2017 but gets another shot at him on Feb. 2. Jason Silva/USA Today Sports

February is a busy time for the UFC on ESPN. There's UFC 234 on Feb. 9 in Melbourne, Australia, with prelims on ESPN leading to a pay-per-view main event in which Robert Whittaker defends his middleweight championship against Kelvin Gastelum. And over the course of the month there are three other high-stakes fight cards -- two of which can be seen exclusively on ESPN+.

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UFC Fight Night: Fortaleza

Saturday, Feb. 2, on ESPN+

Marlon Moraes arrived in the UFC in 2017 amid high expectations. He was the World Series of Fighting bantamweight champion and had won 13 straight fights. But Raphael Assuncao was not the most cordial welcoming committee, as he took a split-decision victory when the two Brazilians met in Rio de Janeiro. Now they're facing off again, once again in their homeland. With both men on win streaks, the rematch on ESPN+ carries heavy stakes: The victor will be lined up for a shot at 135-pound champ TJ Dillashaw, the only man to beat Assuncao in his last dozen fights.

It's a big night all around for Brazil, as the co-main event features the legendary Jose Aldo, who ruled the featherweight division for six years during a run of 18 straight victories. He takes on exciting star-in-the-making Renato Moicano, winner of performance bonuses in two of his last three fights.

Adding to the virtuoso Brazilian vibe will be a trio of jiu-jitsu aces: welterweight Demian Maia, lightweight Charles Oliveira and 12-1 strawweight Livinha Souza.

UFC Fight Night: Phoenix

Sunday, Feb. 17, on ESPN and ESPN+

Renan Barao once was on top of the world. The Brazilian buzz saw went nine years and 33 fights without a loss, culminating in a reign as UFC bantamweight champion. Since losing the belt to Dillashaw in 2014, however, Barao has struggled through a tough stretch. He lost his past three fights and five of his last six. Barao is just 31, though, and will be determined to get his career back on track when he faces Luke Sanders in an early ESPN+ prelim.

Jessica Penne is in much the same rebuilding process. The California strawweight has not fought in nearly two years, and has lost three straight -- a skid that began with a title fight loss to then-champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. At age 35, Penne headlines the ESPN+ portion of the card in a redemption showdown with Jodie Esquibel.

It all leads to an ESPN main card featuring former heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, who comes home to Arizona -- where he grew up, where he starred in collegiate wresting -- to take on Francis Ngannou. The Camaroonian slugger competed for the big-boy belt himself just a year ago.

UFC Fight Night: Prague

Saturday, Feb. 23, on ESPN+

Jan Blachowicz is not flashy, but the workmanlike Pole has been quietly getting the job done, amassing a four-fight win streak. Brazil's Thiago Santos does bring the flash, with six finishes during his current run of seven wins in his last eight fights. Something has to give when the light heavyweight contenders come face to face in the main event on ESPN+.

The co-main event features another rising star, Russian bantamweight Petr Yan, who is 11-1 and on a run of six straight victories. The 25-year-old former boxer faces his highest-level challenge in John Dodson, who twice competed for the UFC flyweight belt and put longtime champ Demetrious Johnson through a tough test.