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The UFC are back in the fight capital of the world, Las Vegas.
There has been something special about each COVID-19 card, whether in the UFC Apex or Fight Island. Nothing changes here at UFC 255.
Those with slightly longer memories will recall the debacle that ensued with the trade of Ben Askren and Mighty Mouse Demetrious Johnson to ONE Championship. Threats of closing the 125lb male division got all the way to the roster being cut to around 15 fighters. The rhetoric of smaller athletes, regardless of gender not selling tickets of pay-per-views was dug back up, and life looked glum for -145lb athletes.
UFC 255 will bring us two title fights in that exact division. Although those divisions sit on opposite ends of the stability spectrum it certainly feels like Fly really does never die.
Newly crowned Brazilian Figueiredo will look to cement his reign with his first title defence, whereas Valentina Shevchenko looks as though her dynasty has never looked stronger. Having defended her belt three times and not looking flustered in any.
A number one contenders match up takes place between Brandon Moreno and Brandon Royval. It is hard to see past the winner of that matchup securing the next shot at the 125lb strap.
A bout between Chookagian and Calvillo is likely to determine who is next in line to face Valentina should she get through Jessica Andrade. Cult favourite Mike Perry is back in action against Tim Means. Viral KO star Joaquin Buckley is back against Jordan Wright, and for European fans, Denmark’s Nicolas Dalby and Paul Craig are in action.
Deiveson Figueiredo (19-1) vs Alex Perez (24-5)
Deiveson Figueiredo is a name that not many MMA fans would have expected to be the champion of 125 if they had been asked 3 years ago. But the champion he is and looked brilliant in two fight crowning with Joseph Benavidez.
A stalking, marauding flyweight who stands like he is readying himself for a sprint. Always sitting his weight into both of his legs to maximise the amount of power he generates with every shot. It should not then be of surprise that only 3 of his 19 wins have gone to a decision.
Figueiredo has an abundance of power. He is patient in his application of said power. He threw two strikes in 36 seconds of the first round against Joe B, the second a right hook that dropped the challenger. 100% accuracy, devastating results.
As soon as he gains an advantageous position, then the relentless outpouring of energy ensues, showing a high level of maturity. Even when on the back of a hurt Benavidez, he took his time. Attempting palm to palm jaw crunches to no avail, he changed his position, Joseph working his way back to the feet.
Deiveson went back to the game plan. Landed another furious right hand, followed it up with bone shattering ground and pound, before eventually putting him to sleep.
We are looking at a champion that knows his game, he knows what he wants, and how to get it. Joseph Benavidez is a legend of the 125lb division and the sport in general. Figueiredo showed that it was time for a new King.
Weight has been a problem for the champion, and he will want to ensure that does not cause him any issues in the run up to this bout.
Alex Perez is a seasoned veteran at only 28. This title challenge will be his 30th outing, his 8th with the UFC. The champion only has 9 UFC outings. His UFC tenure has been a myriad of finishes. The most notable, stopping Jussier Formiga, (the only man to have beaten the champion in the UFC) with leg kicks in the very first round.
How do you stop a power striker, that sits down on his punches with every opportunity? Leg kicks might be a good place to start. Perez is more of a conventional flyweight in his movement patterns. Feints, lateral movement in and out of range and likes to fight with volume. Moving his head well and is happy to bite down on his mouthpiece in the pocket.
Perez is a well put together fighter. He looks to implement his game, well versed in the clinch exchanges, cage wrestling, open cage wrestling and is obviously a submission threat. At the top level though, if there is any chink in your armour then it is going to be found, utilised and be your downfall very quickly. Joseph Benavidez did just that.
Joe B made two vital reads. When Perez threw range finding kicks, he would be caught and take big shots on the counter when Perez was unbalanced. Second, Perez was not comfortable in the blitz. Benavidez used both repeatedly until Perez stopped throwing kicks and was too mindful of the blitz. That is when the left hook came that spelled the end of the fight. The ground exchanges were a mere formality.
Does the champion find those same holes and utilise them? Or do the recent performances of Perez show that he has closed those up and will rise to the top?
Valentina Shevchenko (19-3) vs Jennifer Maia (18-6-1)
The female 135lb division is ruled by an iron Queen. The Kyrgyzstan native Shevchenko is the definition of a nomad. It is customary for her camp to travel the world going to different gyms in different countries looking to pick up the best knowledge.
Having only lost three fights, twice to the greatest female fighter of all time, Amanda Nunes. Once in the early throngs of her career to Liz Carmouche (which she rectified by successfully defending her belt against Carmouche, August 2019).
If you were to build a fighter, you would ask for the following attributes: excellent cardio, blending of striking and ground game, footwork, and supreme fight IQ. Welcome to Valentina Shevchenko.
Her most impressive attribute is her fight IQ. That IQ is supported by the vast scaffolding of skills allowing her to choose what weapon to implement, and those weapons are devastating.
The Jessica Eye KO is perfect application of that fight IQ. Southpaw Shevchenko strolls to the middle of the canvas, immediately dominating the outside foot battle. Two body kicks land. A feinted circling into the power hand of Eye, Eye bites on the feint, loading up her right hand and edging into the range. Unaware that Shevchenko had already cut the angle, and up comes one of the nastiest high kicks you are ever going to see. Eye’s body looked as though she was in rigor mortis before she even hit the ground.
Fights should be called as they are, and Jennifer Maia has a very tough challenge on her hands. Maia is a good fighter, with a dangerous ground game and a much-improved striking arsenal. Her win against JoJo Calderwood showed the work she has been putting in on her straight shots and variety in shot selection. She moved into range well and landed the shots she wanted.
However, she was being tagged by kicks almost at will by the Scottish fighter. She also conceded a takedown when throwing a kick. Now the ground is where she wants to be, and that showed with her re-guard and the attacking guard and eventual armbar finish.
We have seen the grappling ability of the champion way back in 2017 when she submitted Julianna Pena, and again in 2018 with the rear naked choke of Priscila Cachoeira. Finally, in her last defence against fellow card member Katlyn Chookagian, Valentina enters a foot sweep takedown from catching a kick. The guard of brown belt New Yorker Chookagian is not somewhere you would expect Valentina to want to be, yet she nullified the attacks of the challenger and opened a big cut with an elbow whilst on the ground. The same occurred in the next two rounds, a caught kick into a takedown for the champion, until in the third round she immediately passed guard from the down took the crucifix position and finished the fight.
Anything can happen in MMA, but it is difficult to see the method to victory for Maia if not for a mistake by the champion.
Mike Perry (14-6) vs Tim Means (30-12-1)
Mike Perry was scheduled to fight Robbie Lawler on this card. Lawler was forced out of the fight due to an injury. The UFC had a roster of names in which to put Perry with, and chose to go with 36-year-old, 43 fight veteran Tim Means.
By no means is that any slight on Means, who could well go in and get the win. But it seems backwards to matchup a fighter that is on the decline of their career with a fighter who, with a cult following is again building steam.
It should be mentioned that Perry has had a tumultuous time outside of the cage of late. UFC President Dana White explicitly stated that Perry would need to jump through considerable hoops before he would book him in a fight. Whether that has happened we may find out on fight week press conferences.
From a style’s perspective, Perry looked to have turned a corner against Mickey Gall showing more patience and a more diverse shot selection than the brawling reckless style in his early fights against Danny Roberts. The weakness in Perry’s arsenal was the grappling exchanges, recently we have seen Perry train with Olympian Yoel Romero and undertake some grappling matches, one against Al Iaquinta. A good sign for the Orlando native.
Tim Means is a savvy veteran, with a smattering of all types of win on his record. Ground and Pound wins, Submission wins, straight KO/TKO wins. Of late he has looked to be slowing, going 2-2 in his left 4. Losses to fellow card member Daniel Rodriguez and Niko Price. On a positive note, he mixes striking well with his takedown offense, and reads the situations he is in well, measuring when best to continue for mat returns or to disengage and reset.
The betting lines show Mike Perry to be the favourite in this fight, and that is not a shock. As stated though, Means is a veteran and this fight will show whether Perry has rounded out the holes in his game, or not.
Katlyn Chookagian (14-4) vs Cynthia Calvillo (9-1-1)
New York fights Los Angeles.
Katlyn Chookagian is in an odd position. In her last 5 she has beaten JoJo Calderwood and Jennifer Maia. The former being the outright number one contender before fighting the latter, losing and Maia now fights for the title. In between those wins are losses to the champion and the next in line, Brazilian Jessica Andrade.
Cynthia Calvillo is fresh to the 125lb division, having moved up mid-2020 and putting on an excellent display against then number one contender Jessica Eye. She was booked to fight Lauren Murphy before Calvillo was forced to pull out of that bout.
Calvillo, an orthodox fighter has an interesting method of fighting. Her obvious strengths lie in her grappling. So, she layers on top of that, heavy feints, body to head punching and footwork. All to lead to and hide the grappling
This was on show in her fight against Jessica Eye. Range is an obstacle for Calvillo at 125lb, standing at 5”4 most females she will fight will have a height and reach advantage. However, she uses the threat of her grappling and her footwork to force her opponents to fight in a lower stance allowing them to counter wrestle more efficiently which plays nicely into Calvillo’s striking game.
The step in jab sets up a lot of the work that Calvillo does, and her improved defensive head movement allows her to take more risks in her combinations, and either end those combinations introducing her wrestling, or to step off and continue to strike.
Something that Katlyn will look to capitalise on is Calvillo’s tendency to spend a little long in the pocket. Chookagian equally has a style that is built for her frame. Standing at 5”9 she has an awkward style to deal with, long jabs, check hooks mixed in with an off-beat footwork pattern.
In her performance over Jennifer Maia, Katlyn used her range well. Finding a lot of success with her straight shots. Maia, being a dominant grappler and 5”4 gives us an insight as to how body frames might match up on fight night.
Katlyn is susceptible to takedowns, and Calvillo is good at chaining her takedown attempts to get this to the mat. Katlyn has the range to negate the forward pressure style of Calvillo. The edge to cage wrestling goes to Calvillo, but if this hits the mat it should be fireworks. Katlyn is a brown belt under world renowned coach John Danaher, and Calvillo is a submission hunter in her own right with three rear naked chokes in the UFC.
Mauricio Rua (27-11-1) vs Paul Craig (13-4-1)
A rematch almost a year to the day in the making.
Shogun seems to be the last of a final guard of fighters that refuses to roll over, Pride never dies it seems. After their first fight this time last year both men have continued and picked up wins in their various next fights. Shogun picking up a split decision against fellow legend Minotouro Nogueira. Paul Craig taking another submission win over Antigulov (R1 Triangle).
The first fight saw roles reversed from what we are used too. Paul Craig was winning the striking battles, whereas Shogun was winning the grappling exchanges. This is a fight that both men were keen to run back, if nothing more than for their fighting pride and no-one can argue that.
Both men are also in vastly different positions in their career, Craig looking to gain some stability in his career after fighting a who’s who at 205, and Shogun squeezing out the last of the powerful elixir that drove him to MMA over 18 years ago.
Brandon Moreno (17-5-1) vs Brandon Royval (12-4)
The People’s main event Ladies and Gentlemen. This fight comes with a warning of fireworks you would expect to see on New Year’s Eve night at London’s South Bank.
These fighters bring a remarkably similar style to the octagon. All action everywhere and absolutely no care for their own health in the process.
Brandon Moreno was a standout performer as an alumnus of TUF 24. Albeit losing to Alexandre Pantoja it was obvious that he had a fan friendly style, and all the skill to hold his place in the UFC Flyweight roster. The UFC brass obviously thought so as he was given a contract, blowing through Louis Smolka in a round for his debut, and submitting Dustin Ortiz in his third bout. He suffered two losses, to standout Sergio Pettis and a second loss to Pantoja.
Being embroiled in the tumultuous escapade that was the Flyweight division post Demetrious Johnson Moreno ended up being cut by the UFC, which at the time left fans aghast and vocally upset. Moreno, rolled with the punches thrown at him, entered the LFA and won the Flyweight title stopping Maikel Perez with a R4 TKO.
The UFC came to their senses and brought Moreno back into the fold, and in 3 fights Moreno is undefeated.
Fellow LFA alumni Brandon Royval entered the renewed UFC Flyweight division silently. Until he bulldozed through the cage wall and straight over Tim Elliot and then right through Kai Kara-France.
The Kara-France first round come the end of the year might go down as the most insane round of said year. Royal came out armed with both kitchen sinks and was invariably throwing them at the City Kickboxing offering. Kara-France drops Royval, who amid being dropped, used the momentum of hurtling toward the mat to bounce up and drop Kara-France with a spinning elbow. Incredible.
Moreno is a slightly more refined version of Royval. Take this with a pinch of salt, he wandered on into a Jussier Formiga guillotine within the first minute of his last bout, so do not think he is not willing to blindly march into the pocket in search of his opponents chin.
His low, forward leaning stance, wide base and jerky feints allow him to dart into the pocket on his own will. Although it leaves him overextended in many exchanges, he throws each of his shots, each of his combinations with the intention of hurting you and moving toward a stoppage. A scrambly risk taker whether he is on top, or on the bottom.
Royval’s differences are slim, he stands taller in his southpaw stance. His hands low, throwing a wider arsenal of kicks than Moreno. Yet his penchant for chaos is uncanny, as previously mentioned in his Kara-France win.
However, Royval gives no respect to any weapon his opponent possesses, marches him down like a soldier on the frontline, and fires the clips he has on his belt until he is empty. In his current UFC tenure, his opponents have run out of ammo before he has. But who will run out of ammo first when these two tornadoes meet?
Joaquin Buckley (11-3) vs Jordan Wright (11-0)
Joaquin Buckley was burnt into the retina of every mobile device last month with his incredible jump spinning back kick finish against Impa Kasanganay. Many pundits came out to add it to the discussion of the greatest knockouts of all time and rightly so. The audacity to attempt it, and the athletic ability to pull it off is incomprehensible to the average human.
Jordan Wright almost had an equally outstanding entrance to the UFC. His debut strike thrown in his debut outing was a spinning wheel kick that dropped his opponent. Imagine that for an entrance? His night was a short shift regardless, as he opened a cut over the right eye of Villanueva that had the lower part of his eyelid hanging out, that will be a TKO then.
This is exciting match making as we have a Joaquin Buckley who has the athletic ability to succeed in any field or roped arena, and a Jordan Wright who looks to catch you on the outside with his traditional karate esc bounce mixed with a modern style of kickboxing shuffle to his feet.
Buckley has shown that he is susceptible to volume strikers, his loss to Kevin Holland showed the chink in his armour. Wright does not look like he has that level of volume, but he certainly has the tools to make this is a very fun fight.
Buckley will want to build on the catastrophic hike in eyes that are turned toward him, and Wright will want to steal as many of them as he can.
Antonia Shevchenko (8-2) vs Ariane Lipski (13-5)
The Panther vs The Queen of Violence.
Ariane Lipski walked into the UFC with a lot of fanfare, the poster girl of Polish promotion KSW. 5 fights under the banner, 4 finishes. Upon entering the UFC she was thrown to the wolves, and given to veteran and long-time perennial contender, Joanne Calderwood. Taking a loss there, she was given to another UK fighter, this time prospect Molly McCann.
Some holes were shown in her game on that night, and the shine had started to fade from the jewels in the Violence Queens crown. Back she came in late 2019 with a decisive win over Isabela de Padua and again mid 2020 with a vicious highlight reel kneebar over Luana Carolina.
The ball has begun rolling it seems for the Brazilian and as it does, it rolls into the sister of the champion. One Antonina Shevchenko.
Antonina has been a part of the training setup and in the camp of her sister for as long as both can remember. If you are training with a world champion day in and day out, some of that is bound to rub off. Antonina has a solid Muay Thai background, he fights well going backwards and on the counter. At 5”8 with a 68” reach she is long for the weight class and can use that well to keep Lipski at bay.
The problems in her game have been shown in her grappling, Roxanne Modafferi for one.
This is an interesting styles matchup, a striker used to fighting at range, used to fighting her fight, against a fervours all round fighter.
Nicolas Dalby (18-4-1) vs Daniel Rodriguez (13-1)
Europe stand up. This is the sleeper fight on the card.
Nicolas Dalby is used to the uneasy, uncertain road. Well publicised are his battles outside of the octagon with mental health. He stormed back into the UFC after a great performance back in late 2019 against Cowboy Oliveria. As is the shortcoming of Dalby, is that he often fights to the level of competition he has infront of him, losing to Jesse Ronson by RNC in the first round 4 months ago.
He was originally scheduled to fight Orion Cosce the brother of Louis Cosce. However, Orion was forced to withdraw from the bout. Dalby will bring his kickboxing style, heavy kicks, backed by solid boxing and vastly underrated wrestling game and go head to head with relative UFC newcomer, Daniel Rodriguez.
Rodriguez made himself known to the UFC in a successful appearance on the DWTNCS in 2019. Although he was not offered a contract that night, he would need only one further fight, a R2 TKO to get the call up. A finish over Tim Means in his UFC debut has continue an unbeaten run that currently stands at 9.
His last outing was what you would call a gut check. Within the first 2 minutes he had been dropped badly by Dwight Grant, turtled taking shots with the referee asking for him to fight back or the fight would be stopped. He somehow answered that call getting up, and TKO’ing a tired Dwight Grant against the fence.
This will give confidence to both men. Dalby knows that Rodriguez can be hit and hurt. Rodriguez knows he can weather a storm.
Alan Jouban (16-7) vs Jared Gooden (17-4)
A veteran vs a newcomer.
Alan Jouban has struggled of late. 1-3 in his last four, is a stark contrast to the 3-1 in the four before that. Wins over Mike Perry, Belal Muhammad in that latter bracket. Jared Gooden makes his debut here with a full record at 17-4, but at only 26 still has plenty of athletic years in the tank.
This feels like good matchmaking and a great way to show where both men are in their career. If Gooden gets the win here, he shows he is ready for UFC calibre opposition. If Jouban gets the win, it shows that he could be ready to turn his career around and take another run at breaking the top 15.
Kyle Daukaus (9-1) vs Dustin Stoltzfus (13-1)
The second Daukaus to enter the UFC. Kyle Daukaus follows his brother Chris into the UFC banner and looks to make good on the family name. Although he took a loss in his first outing to prospect Brendan Allen, Daukaus is a finisher. Of his 9 wins, one has gone to decision, the others have come by choke, either a d’arce or a rear naked choke.
Dustin Stoltzfus is no stranger top a submission either, hitting a rare gem of a submission, a twister on the regional scene at German promotion GMC. An array of chokes, leglocks and TKO’s litter his record. Dustin got the full call up here after a TKO win in DWTNCS due to a suspected broken arm after a slam.
Both of these men will be looking to make good on their early UFC runs, and lets hope in some fashion this hits the mat.
Louis Cosce (7-0) vs Sasha Palatnikov (5-2)
This is a pandemic fight. That is no disrespect to either fighter, I think fighters getting a chance on the big stage is a brilliant thing, but the UFC does not usually make a habit of signing developmental talent unless there is a promotional reason.
Louise Cusec comes in here looking every bit the prospect, however. Hard hitting, fast, athletic 25-year-old. He has won every fight on his record by finish, and his last outing a seriously impressive win over regional standout Victor Reyna. Its too early to say how he will land in the UFC, but viewers should be looking for an exciting performance.
Hong Kong born American Sasha Palatnikov is equally in the infancy of his career. Having fought high level competition in Mounir Lazzez and coming up short, it may be that Palatnikov needs some more time to grow, but he made good on only the second loss of his career with a R1 stoppage in UAE Warriors to book his ticket to this fight in the UFC.