Mixed Martial Arts: Rising Kiwi Brad Riddell eyes elite UFC lightweight ranking with win over Gregor Gillespie

Kiwi UFC lightweight Brad Riddell has never been the kind to shy away from a challenge, which is why no second thought was needed when the offer to fight highly-touted prospect Gregor Gillespie came his way.

On Sunday (NZ time), 'Quake' will square off with the 13-1 American in the co-main event of the UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas in a mouth-watering matchup that seems destined for 'Fight of the Night' honours.

Gillespie currently sits 15th in the division's official rankings, reeling off six consecutive wins - including five straight by submission of knockout - before his momentum hit a brutal judder bar against Kevin Lee in November 2019.

A matchup with a fighter of 'The Gift's' calibre and trajectory a mere three fights into his UFC tenure is clear indication of the high regard in which the UFC holds Riddell, and the sweetener of a new multi-fight deal was a welcome - if unnecessary - bonus.

"I was stoked," Riddell tells Newshub. "They said they'd give me a new contract if I fought Gregor, thinking that maybe I'd get put off, because I think a lot of people don't want to fight him.

Riddell in action last year.
Riddell in action last year. Photo credit: Getty

"But I said 'yeah, I'll take a new contract and a ranked fighter any day'."

The Cantabrian's billing at the top of the card is also further proof of his rising standing and testament to his penchant for unrelenting entertainment whenever he steps inside an Octagon, 

The savage duel on debut against Jamie Mullarkey. The bloody war with Magomed Mustafaev that whipped Spark Arena into a deafening frenzy. It's a reputation he's quickly established, and it's undeniably deserved.

"I only found out that it was the co-main event when I got here [Las Vegas] so that was a nice surprise," says the City Kickboxing product.

"I definitely think it's going to be a fight worthy of that. Gregor's pretty entertaining to watch and he's a high paced exciting fighter, and so am I."

Victory over Gillespie would vault Riddell up the standings in the UFC's most cut-throat division, unlocking another tier of opponents and opportunities, as he looks to extend his undefeated promotional streak.

"I think a win puts me in everyone's 'don't want to fight' category," he says. "If nobody wants to fight him, and I go out there and starch him, then it's not looking too hopeful for the rest of them."

The New Yorker has been on the shelf recovering from a broken jaw suffered during his loss to Lee, which was the first of his 14-fight professional career.

With over a year of inactivity, ring rust may well be a factor for Gillespie, although Riddell is preparing for the version of the New Yorker - a former All-American wrestler - that took the lightweight division by storm through 2019.

Gregor Gillespie has won six of his seven UFC bouts.
Gregor Gillespie has won six of his seven UFC bouts. Photo credit: Getty

"Gregor is definitely a handful if he gets hold of you," Riddell notes.

"But I'm going to be fine, because it's not wrestling, it's an MMA fight. That changes a lot of things and I don't think Gregor has fought someone that strikes like me.

"It's always a little more hesitating to shoot for someone when there's legs flying up and all sorts of stuff."

The 29-year-old Riddell may be a relative newcomer as far as the UFC is concerned, but with 10 years and 70 fights worth of kickboxing fights under his belt before he even entered a cage, the Christchurch native has a level of technical striking expertise that overshadows the majority of his colleagues.

His knowledge and experience has been in high demand with his City Kickboxing teammates, who he's regularly cornered. He's also been by featherweight champion Alex Volkanovski's side throughout the Aussie's run to the title and beyond.

Add that insight to a stand-up savant with elite athleticism and an exceptional, ever-improving grappling game - which was on full display in his most recent win over Alex da Silva Coelho in September - and you have a daunting package for any opponent.

"I don't think it's fun to fight me if you're a good wrestler because I just always get up, whether it's the first minute or the 15th minute," says Riddell. "That can be quite demoralising for a strong wrestler. 

"Then I get up and I keep striking, that's the more painful thing. A lot of people can defend the wrestling but then they get up and they're so tired that it's hard to strike.

"But I've been doing that shit since I was a kid. I can get up and throw punches in my sleep."

A fourth consecutive win would be the ideal way for Riddell to kick off his 2021 campaign, and could see him cross off his goal of cracking the top-15 rankings just three months into a year in which he's already become a dad for the first time.

With the stage his biggest to date and the odds stacked against him, Riddell - a veteran, combat purist - is simply reverting to a tried, tested, and familiar formula.

"I'm just going to do what I do best - which is fight.

"I've been doing this a long time and I just eliminate all exterior pressure factors from my mind, and I just go out there.

"I really do enjoy fighting so I just go out there and soak it up and let everything come naturally and it seems to be paying off in my favour so far."

And he already has his next move on his mind.

"At the moment, I'm going to keep my vision from there to myself and then just focus on this fight - and then I'll let you guys know afterwards this weekend."

Join us for live updates of Riddell v Gillespie from 3pm Sunday