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The wheels of the UFC are up once again, greeted by the heat shimmer of the man-made Kingdom that is Abu Dhabi. The 2020 UFC schedule were held without fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the situation on Fight Island this time is such that 2,000 fans are allowed into the Etihad Arena. A stadium that is used to housing a raucous 18,000 strong crowd.
MMA fans globally consuming these recent events have been gluttonous. Feasting on the sound of many a battle in an empty arena. Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson. Dustin Poirier and Dan Hooker. The 2021 schedule was rung in last Saturday by Max Holloway and Calvin Kattar. It was the first fight in a long time that had fans. The Etihad hosting the first set of 2,000 fans who bore witness to the sublime display by the Hawaiian.
As good as it is to have fans back in arenas to consume and contribute to fights. Could you imagine Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier locked in a cage, in an empty arena? The only percussion being that of bone on bone. The pair beating a steady tune for as long as the drummers could play. That sure was a prospect that was worth salivating over. McGregor highlighted as much in a recent interview with Ariel Helwani that he was relishing that opportunity. He also promised to “throw smacks” loud enough to drown out the fans. A comprise we are willing to make.
There is plenty to discuss on this card, which on paper may not boast the best names. But could shape up to be fantastic. Let us get into some fights.
Dustin Poirier (26-6) vs Conor McGregor (22-4)
The story of this fight is 6 years in the making. The first encounter, September of 2014, MGM Grand, Las Vegas. Dustin had competed twice under the WEC banner, and ten times under the UFC banner. Conor was strolling into only his fourth showing for the promotion. It is uncommon for the promotion to ship European fighters out to the States early on in their tenure, Conor made his debut in just his second fight for the promotion. Boston, Max Holloway, UFC Fight Night 26.
In the 106 seconds the first encounter lasted was typical early McGregor. Flashy kicks. Lots of volume. Crisp, sniper like counter punching. The style of Conor McGregor is best described as an attacking counterpuncher. This may seem like a hypocritical description, but Conor, like most high-level fighters base their approach on reads.
The way he determines those reads are by throwing a myriad of strikes, feints and movements at an opponent and see what comes back. Usually, a strike or feint comes back, and that is the basis on which Conor will build, throw, and land the destructive shots that send men hurtling to the canvas.
Conor now is a different fighter. His game now represents a seasoned veteran. It is that of efficiency. Far less spinning hook kicks, jumping teeps, turning sidekicks and heel kicks. What you see, is a master craftsman. The Cowboy Cerrone performance was one that showed the ingenuity and the fight IQ that McGregor is operating on currently. A failed takedown landed Conor in a clinch situation. A change of foot position, and Conor sent 3 shoulder strikes into the face of Cerrone, breaking his nose and leading toward the end of the contest.
Dustin has taken a similar path of evolution in his rise to the rematch. The loss to Conor was a devastating one. The pre-fight build up had been tense, rife with trash talk and Poirier had vowed to prove that the Irishman was merely just another fighter talking a game.
Conversely Conor recently spoke in an interview about his respect for Dustin, how well he took the 2014 loss, and you can only agree. Dustin has spoken openly about that loss just after and in the years since. His vast struggles to make the 145lb limit and after the loss to Conor took the smart decision to move up to the 155lb division.
From there, the world of the Layfette native changed. He spoke post-McGregor that his camps were focussed so much during his 145lb tenure on losing the weight that there really was no time for skill acquisition and improvement. The extra 10lbs seemed to improve everything. His chin was a huge question previously, that become granite. If you have not already, go and watch the wars between Hooker, Alvarez, Gaethje. The lack of skill acquisition was taken from 1st to 5th gear, his defence boxing movement became one of his best weapons, along with a stunning jab and footwork to match.
The granite chin is highly likely to be tested in this bout, and something he will need to rely on, but will not want to rely on too heavily. Instead, his grappling is something that Poirier would do well to lean on. The stats on McGregor’s first round danger are mind boggling, and Poirier needs to focus on two things: 1) lasting the first round, 2) sapping the energy of McGregor. He has all the skills to do that.
The worrying thing here for Dustin is that he does find himself getting hit in fights, and of all fights you want your improved boxing to stand to the test, its this one. McGregor is a sniper, and any inch of an opening, the Irishman will take with devastating results.
Dan Hooker (20-9) vs Michael Chandler (21-5)
This is a fight that divides opinion. The UFC commonly do not give fighters coming over from Bellator an easy entry. They have not changed their tact here.
For those who do not know, Michael Chandler is the former Bellator 155lb champion. A fighter with a phenomenal wrestling pedigree, and a great right hand. He has fought and beaten the likes of Benson Henderson, Patricky Pitbull, Eddie Alvarez and Marcin Held. He walks into the UFC looking to enter the top 5 ranks immediately and work toward a title shot. The UFC have delivered him New Zealand’s own, Dan Hooker.
Hooker, a long rangy fighter with a vast kickboxing history is coming off a loss to Dustin Poirier in his last fight (going 3-0 before that). Like Poirier, he used to fight at 145lbs, with a record of 3-3. After moving up to 155lb he has a record of 7-2, with wins over title contender at 170lb Gilbert Burns. Striking phenom Marc Diakese, Paul Felder, and veteran Jim Miller. If you needed a use case for the abolishment of MMA weight cutting, look no further than this card.
The tale of this fight is vastly interesting. A new entrant into the UFC looking to make a vast splash. A splash at the expense of a fighter coming off a loss primarily but also a fighter trying to prove that the UFC is the premier crop of fighters and that winning a Bellator belt does not mean you have a place in the top 10 in the UFC.
Hooker has shown good takedown defence at 77%. He also possesses the weapons to deter a wrestler from making open cage shots, namely his range control and a huge knee. But his cage work, his clinching is all solid to match. However, the grappling credentials of Michael Chandler far exceed those of which Hooker has faced in the Octagon to date. Chandler is by no means simply a wrestler, but the advantage areas are obvious. This is at its core a throwback fight, almost. A striker and a wrestler.
Jessica Eye (15-8) vs Joanne Calderwood (14-5)
Both fighters are desperate for some stability. Eye, 2-2 in her last 4 has not seen back-to-back wins since 2018. A hellish knockout suffered at the legs of Valentina Shevchenko and a decision loss to Calvillo her most recent losses, however sandwiching those were a good performance against Vivian Araujo and a split decision win over Katlyn Chookagian. Eye stands in a low stance, looking to come forward in quick bursts and land solid straight shots. Her wrestling is good and will be a huge weapon in this fight if she chooses to implement it. However, her head movement is not good, and her hand speed looks to be slowing, likely due to her selection of stance. Standing low allows you to land with great power, but its difficult to generate speed from the same places.
Jo-Jo Calderwood is an inconsistent fighter. She can come out and look fantastic in fights, against highly touted Ariane Lipski and in the early goings of her fight against Andrea Lee. It seems the key to Jo-Jo’s performances is a question of range. Against Lipski Calderwood dictated the range excellently, keeping her opponent either all the way out of range, which meant Calderwood could use her long teeps, and leg kicks to score, or all the way in, in a phone booth or a clinch. This allows the use of elbows, and knees.
However, where Jo-Jo can become unstuck is against fighters that force her to work in that middle distance. Jennifer Maia pressured Jo-Jo enough that she was not able to force Maia back, and did not want to clinch too much with her as that may end in a grappling exchange. As it happened, she caught a kick of Maia and forced her to the mat – but the obvious flaw in her game was shown, she allowed Maia too much space on bottom and wound up being submitted by an armbar.
If Eye can force the range to be one that Jo-Jo does not like, she will be able to implement a style that can give her the win. However, if Jo-Jo can dictate the pace early, stifle the incoming flurries from Eye and force the fight in a realm of her choosing. Its her fight to lose.
Ottman Azaitar (13-0) vs Matt Frevola (8-1-1)
Do not blink in this. That statement will likely be repeated for a few fights on this card, but this has sleeper fight written all over it. Matt Frevola is the prospect killer, taking out Jailin Turner and Luis Pena in his last two.
Ottman Azaitar, looks every bit the prospect. Undefeated, his last 5 fights finishing by way of KO he is a dangerous man in the striking ranges. His two UFC bouts have both ended in violent fashion, namely his destruction of Teemu Packalen in 2019.
Frevola is an all-action fighter, who seemingly has no care in the world for his own gas tank, opting for the high-octane movements always. Azaitar is a little bit more measured and wants to work his hands to get a hold of you with the knuckles of his right fist, and historically when he does, its not gone well for the receiving end. It should be stated again, do not blink for this one.
Marina Rodriguez (12-1-2) vs Amanda Ribas (10-1)
Two of the best prospects in the women’s Strawweight division come together in some brilliant matchmaking here. Ribas looks like the best chance at a challenge to the top 5 of the division, whereas Rodriguez is another all-action fighter.
Rodriguez dropped a highly contentious decision to Carla Esparza last time out but is undefeated outside of that. Ribas has a single blemish on her otherwise perfect record, back in 2015 to now UFC fighter Polyana Viana.
What is so impressive about Ribas is her well roundedness, judo throwing Mackenzie Dern is not something that many fighters would want to do, as that would result in you being on the ground with her. Ribas did not mind a bit and nullified the Jiu-Jitsu ace’s guard expertly well. She then went on to demolish Paige VanZant in her most recent bout.
When the cage door closes on this fight, there will be fireworks, neither takes a backstep and both are always looking for the finish.
Arman Tsarukyan (15-2) vs Nasrat Haqparast (12-3)
This has my vote for Fight of the Night honours. What an incredible piece of matchmaking that this is by the UFC, Sean Shelby, and Mick Maynard. Tsarukyan, an Armenian fighter made his debut in the promotion against non-other than Dagestan standout, Islam Makhachev. There does not come a debut much tougher than that. Even though he lost a decision that night, the skills of Arman were on full show. Usually, Islam will strike his way into wrestling distance and out grapple all his opponents. Arman refused to accept such a fate and showed his beautiful ability to create scrambles, and his own grappling.
Arman then turned his stock around by beating Olivier Aubin-Mericer, an accomplished grappler and then grappling legend Davi Ramos in what truly was a shutout performance. Recently he began training with California based BJJ black belt Edwin Najmi, to sharpen those submission skills, which may provide an insight into his plans for this fight. Tsarukyan is an uber prospect, 24 years of age, 17 fights into his career, and always improving, the sky is the limit.
The man standing across from him is every bit his match when it comes to being a prospect.
However, the skills of this man are steeped in the opposite trench. Nasrat Haqparast is a standup, pressure, high octane fighter. He also dropped his first fight with the promotion, against an equally tough test in Marcin Held. He then took a scalp in a wonderful performance against Marc Diakese and followed that up with two just as impressive wins over Thibault Gouti and a finish over Joaquim Silva.
For the last while, he has moved his camps to Tristar and under the tutelage of Firas Zahabi. In Coach Zahabi you have a master game planner who will help equip Nasrat with all the tools needed for him to reach the top level.
Its not usually the done thing to pit two great prospects together, as this always leaves one of them on the rebuild, but in this climate. Let us see it.
Brad Tavares (17-6) vs Shoeface (10-4)
Brad Tavares has been a litmus test, a gatekeeper if you will of the Middleweight division for some time. You will notice his record is littered with prospects, Israel Adesanya, Edmen Shahbazyan, Yoel Romero, Robert Whittaker. The list goes on and on. Its widely known that if you beat Tavares, you could be destined for the top 10, maybe even the top 5.
This, in some ways is a compliment to Tavares. Its imperative that you have these types of fighters as it keeps the natural churn at a steady equilibrium. Tavares is very well rounded, tough, good kickboxing, tough to takedown, good clinch work, good anti-wrestling against the fence. However, with two straight losses, he will feel the pressure to pick up a win here.
Despairing for a win just as much is Antonio Carlos Jr. Shoeface is what seems like the last of the World Champion BJJ players to turn to MMA looking solely to adapt a game centred around his jiu-jitsu. Between 2016-2018 he won 5 fights, 4 by submission. He, like Tavares is on a two-fight skid.
This has the feeling of loser leaves town. Tavres should be well rounded enough to dictate where this fight takes place. But if Shoeface does manage to get it to the ground, it could be a long night for Tavares.
Sara McMann (12-5) vs Julianna Pena (9-4)
When you talk about pioneers of female MMA, and female combat sports. Sara McMann must be in your conversation. She represented the USA at the 2004 Olympic Games on the wrestling team. She has competed professionally in MMA since 2011 and has competed on several professional grappling tournaments.
Given her previous list of accolades, it is not a surprise what McMann is looking for in fights. She has one of the meanest head and arm triangle submissions in MMA. Having finished multiple people with the submission. Her game is simple, get the takedown, achieve dominant position, ground and pound until a submission arrives, and take it.
Julianna Pena is another stalwart of female MMA. Making her debut in 2009 before entering and winning TUF 18 with a 1st round TKO over Jessica Rakoczy. With only losses two a former and a current champion since then, Pena is every bit a live wire in this fight.
She has great scrambling ability when she finds herself on bottom, with great reversals and when she gets to the top, and a dominant position she is more than happy to ground and pound her way to winning rounds.
Khalil Rountree (8-4) vs Marcin Prachnio (13-5)
This is odd matchmaking from the UFC. Prachnio is 0-3 in 3 UFC fights, his last loss to Mike Rodriguez in 2020. Usually, the promotion would pair a fighter with that kind of record against someone that either has a similar record to them or is evenly matched skills wise. That is, if the UFC want to continue to do business with that person.
Khalil Rountree is a man that whilst going 2-2 in his last four, has dropped two of those to everyone’s favourite wildman Johnny Walker and Ion Cutelaba. Both established UFC names. In-between those losses are wins over kickboxing legend Gokhan Saki and Eryk Anders. Rountree is no joke, with slick Muay Thai after a recent reinvention of his style.
This looks to be a one-sided affair. Prachnio will know that another loss here will almost certainly spell the end of his UFC tenure. That often allows fighters to fight with pure freedom, knowing that they have nothing to lose.
Andrew Sanchez (12-5) vs Makhmud Muradov (24-6)
The volution of Andrew Sanchez has been long awaited, but it seemed like the American had turned the corner in his last outing against X. He has begun to opt for a karate-esc style, using that to setup his strong grappling or as in his last fight, drop his opponent before finishing him with vicious ground and pound. He will hope that this is the beginning of the realisation of the potential that fans have been hoping to come to fruition since his Ultimate Fighter stint.
Makhmud Muradov has looked good in his two UFC outings, a finish over Trevor Smith his 30th professional MMA fight so whilst bringing in a vat of experience, has some questions over whether his gas tank is quite at the level it should be.
This on paper is an evenly matched contest, however the grappling favour should go to Sanchez, we will see what style he adopts in this fight.
Nik Lentz (30-11-2) vs Movsar Evloev (13-0)
Veteran vs Newcomer. Its always good when old archetypes are brought back to the fore on high profile cards.
Nik Lentz is every bit a wily veteran. Although he is currently on a two-fight skid, to lose to both Arnold Allen and Charles Oliveira brings absolutely no shame whatsoever. Lentz is a pressure fighter, who likes to use his grappling heavy, grinding style to wear out opponents, he is proficient at using guillotines to either force a scramble and gain top position, or to use them as a sweep to achieve the same outcome.
This fight, however, is every bit a litmus test from the UFC. The promotion is famous for throwing guys to a veteran to see just where the are in their career. Evloev is a prospect. Teammate of 135lb champion Petr Yan he is known for his crazy scrambling ability. If you want to see some average sized men do some crazy things, go, and look for tape of Yan and Evloev training out in Tiger Muay Thai, it is incredible.
Evloev is coming off the back of two very impressive wins. Mike Grundy, a commonwealth wrestler, and Enrique Barzola are two tough names to draw for your first 3 fights with the promotion and to get past both of those is impressive. The UFC loves a finish. Movsar will certainly be looking for one here, Lentz is not easy to finish since 2012 he has only been finished twice and both were by Charles Oliveira.
Amir Albazi (13-1) vs Zhalgas Zhumagulov (13-4)
Sweden born Amir Albazi opens the card against Dagestani native Zhalgas Zhumagulov. Both gentlemen are accomplished grapplers. Albazi a multiple time Swedish grappling champion, and Zhalgas hailing from an area of the world in which you are born with wrestling in your blood.
Albazi, moving to London and training out of London Shootfighters seems to have made the bigger leaps in his progression. Albazi is more than happy to compete on the fight. He paws out a lovely jab from an orthodox stance, sitting down into his right hands and left hooks. He also showed his ability to fight on the counter in his debut against Malcolm Gordon.
The fight against Gordon was one-way traffic, Amir dominated the standing portions of the fight. Saw an opportunity to take Gordon down, which he did without much issue, completed a guard pass, secured the mount position and as Gordon began to scramble out, Albazi locked up a triangle choke in the transition which he dutifully finished.
There is a certain calmness to Albazi which will pay dividends against the hectic Zhumagulov.
Zhalgas came into the UFC off the bag of some impressive wins. Tyson Nam and Ali Bagautinov to mention two. His debut loss to Raulian Paiva was an odd fight. For the first round or so it was a close encounter, but the third there were some dubious calls for groin strikes, eye pokes and similar. His fighting style on the feet is reckless, he is very much a reactionary figure.
He will wait for his opponent to throw and trusting in his chin will take to land. In said fight with Paiva he showed how difficult he is to take down, and that is going to be an interesting part to this fight.
Albazi should have the advantage in the feet, which should coast him to a win, should he fail to get the takedowns he will look for. Zhalgas is unpredictable however, you are never quite sure what you are going to get. A great fight to jerk the curtain, and the card.