The first UFC event of 2018 is now just two days away. UFC Fight Night: Stephens vs. Choi (otherwise known as UFC St. Louis or UFC Fight Night 124) is set to take place inside the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri, on Sunday, January 14.

As suggested by the name of the event, it’s headlined by a featherweight scrap between strikers Jeremy Stephens and Doo Ho Choi. However, there are some great fights across the card for a UFC Fight Night event.

Vitor Belfort looks to make his last appearance in the UFC Octagon against Uriah Hall on Sunday, hoping to end his UFC run on a high. The budding UFC women’s flyweight division has two fights involving big names: Paige VanZant vs. Jessica-Rose Clark and Jessica Eye vs. Kalindra Faria. Thiago Alves opens the Fox Sports 1 preliminary card against Ultimate Fighter veteran Zak Cummings. Meanwhile, UFC lightweight standout Michael Johnson – who is fighting in his hometown of St. Louis – takes on the resilient Darren Elkins in his featherweight debut.

There are plenty of stories to be told on Sunday. However, the biggest of them all could be provided by the fight between Kamaru Usman and Emil Meek.

Usman vs. Meek

The fight between Usman and Meek has long been teased. The contest was originally slated for UFC 219, the promotion’s year-end event, but was postponed due to an alleged issue with Meek’s visa. The match-up was then moved to UFC 220, taking place next week in Boston, before being moved again to this weekend’s event.

Any frustrations about this fight being shifted around so much was surely worsened by the fact the UFC has found it so hard to attract opponents for Usman.

Usman, the winner of The Ultimate Fighter season 21, has had his progression halted in the UFC welterweight division thanks to being a “Nigerian Nightmare” of an opponent, with some of his peers at 170lbs seemingly unwilling to entertain the idea to fight a man on an impressive 10-fight win streak and a flawless UFC record of 6-0.

So it’s lucky the UFC have a man like Emil “Valhalla” Meek on its roster. Meek is quickly building a name for himself in taking the most undesirable fights in MMA, starting with his contest against Rousimar Palhares under the Venator FC banner in 2016.

Former UFC fighter Palhares had gained a reputation for being a lethal leglock submission artist. So lethal, in fact he was accused of deliberately trying to injure opponents by holding onto his submissions despite the tap of an opponent or the referee’s intervention. The UFC released Palhares from his contract in 2013 after the promotion found him guilty of purposely cranking the heel hook submission he had secured on opponent Mike Pierce despite the referee’s attempted stoppage and Pierce tapping eight times.

Palhares’ negative perception followed him to World Series of Fighting and the Brazilian did little to try and shed this poor image. After two leglock submission wins and earning the WSOF welterweight title, Palhares fought Jake Shields in August 2015. Palhares went on to submit Shields in the third round with a kimura, but faced a penalty from the Nevada State Athletic Commission for once again holding onto a submission despite the tap of an opponent and the referee’s best attempts.

Palhares was stripped of his WSOF championship and was suspended from fighting in the USA indefinitely. Therefore, Palhares tried his hand at fighting elsewhere, picking Italian promotion Venator FC as his next destination despite the NSAC’s ban. Norwegian welterweight Meek, a relative unknown at the time, agreed to take Palhares on as an opponent despite the latter’s reputation. It proved a good decision – Meek handily despatched Palhares within 45 seconds with some brutal strikes to the side of the Brazilian’s head as he attempted a takedown against the Venator cage. From there, Meek was on the UFC’s radar and was quickly signed to the promotion.

Usman grateful for Meek

Given Usman and the UFC’s problems in attracting opponents, the former has noted the respect he has for counterpart.

Speaking to MMAjunkie’s John Morgan [H/T FloCombat], Usman said:

“I respect him as a fighter. I think he’s a tough guy. He’s a guy that I believe likes to fight. There are certain types of fighters – some guys just love to fight. There are a couple guys in the division, that – and I keep my eye on everybody in the UFC – not just in my division, but guys like him and Darren Till. I think these guys like to fight. For me, it’s not so much, I don’t really like fighting. It’s competition. I’m going to beat you at this. So I think he likes to fight. He doesn’t care whether he wins or loses… so that makes him very, very dangerous and I respect that.”

Meek isn’t the typical opponent Usman has been asking for of late. Colby Covington, one of the main storylines in the world of MMA in 2017 as both a fighter and antagonist, has long been on Usman’s list of wanted fights. They represent rival MMA gyms based in Florida, but more importantly, Covington is the man who has got what Usman has asked for.

“I called out Demian Maia while he was sitting right next to me. I didn’t get that fight. Colby Covington did,” Usman said. “I called out Dong Hyun Kim. I didn’t get that fight. Colby Covington did. I called out RDA [Rafel dos Anjos]. I didn’t get that fight. He picked Robbie Lawler.

“So it’s not that I’m not doing everything right. I’m doing it right. In a sense, it’s these guys realizing that ‘That’s probably the most difficult fight that I could possibly be in in this division that could really hurt my career.’ Everyone wants to move up the ladder. Nobody wants to fall down.”

From those names, it’s clear Usman has been calling out fighters ranked in the top five of the UFC’s welterweight rankings. Meek is presently unranked, but has already achieved main card billing and is pretty well-known thanks to his eccentric style inside and outside of the cage. Meek isn’t the top opponent Usman has been yearning for, but he still provides an intriguing proposition for the Nigerian-born wrestler.

For Meek, this fight represents yet another opportunity for the Norwegian to make a huge dent into the world of welterweight MMA. However, anything but a win for Usman will surely harm his trajectory towards the UFC title shot many expect him to one day earn.