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Las Vegas. Three title fights. Israel Adesanya striving to become the next alumni of the “Double Champ” class. Amanda Nunes looking to pour more sand into the mixer that provides the cement for her legacy, and a barnburner of a bantamweight fight see’s Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling finally square off.
The card is incredibly stacked. Let us waste no time in getting into these fights.
Jan Blachowicz (27-8) vs Israel Adesanya (20-0)
Israel Adesanya is chasing greatness. He is chasing legacy; he is chasing stardom. Jan Blachowicz is chasing recognition, chasing respect. Israel spoke of chasing Jon Jones up to LHW, and since Jones has since vacated the LHW belt and moved to HW, Israel takes aim at the newly crowned Polish warrior in Jan Blachowicz.
Both men prefer their fights to be contested on the feet, but black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Jan has all the ability to mix things up.
It has been said before and it will be said again. Izzy is doing things inside that octagon that we do not understand. He is laying traps that have such diverse routes to execution that we likely do not see 75% of what the potential outcomes could be.
Generally, Adesanya takes the first 30-60 seconds of round one to add notes to his ledger. He has his pen and paper, and he reels off his array of feints and angles. It is almost like when you are getting dressed you rifle through your array of shirts and pick what you want to wear to fit the occasion of the day.
Then the strikes come. The range games commence, and the reads continue. Inside 9 seconds against Paulo Costa, Izzy makes a read that he can out-feint Costa into near paralysis. By doing so it is understood that can implement the damage he needs via leg kicks.
The interesting thing in that very opening sequence of the fight is that as he feints Costa, 3 leg kicks are thrown. Each a different type of kick, behind the knee, oblique, and low calf, also all from different angles. Why? Because it signifies that there is an arsenal of low kicks coming. That all have the same set-up but different execution. Thus, rendering the defences difficult. It feels to me like Izzy struck against Costa as if you were going to pass guard, he went passed the legs first, to the body and then to the head. Just passing repeatedly.
He knew that if you render Costa immobile, and that he is not able plant hard on his favoured lead leg he will not generate the power to: A) hurt Israel, B) push Israel to the cage and land his best work.
Adesanya also shows bountiful range mastery. It incredibly hard to push him back from the mid-lines of the octagon because he uses the base of the pizza slice to take a step back, open his body up offering him both angles of escape and then stepping back into a stance – usually with offence. He ensures that there is space. When there is not sufficient space, he creates it with his L-step’s.
On the contrary Israel has looked vulnerable when he is blitzed and crowded in the pocket. Robert Whittaker caught him in the mid step of the pocket. This might seem like a misnomer because of the result in the Whittaker fight, and the angles he created on the fly in a split second to create the finish.
But Jan Blachowicz is not Robert Whittaker. Jan’s short hooks are dynamite.
Unlike Izzy, the wielder of Legendary Polish Power is not a striker with flair. He is rudimentary and that is not a degrading comment. Just as we have spoken about Yan and his “basic” movements, Jan envelopes the same Eastern Block tactics. Jan has attributes that could be especially useful in this fight.
Primarily, power. Lots and lots of it. His game, however, is not built around that power. He has great body kicks. Notably the performance against Ilir Latifi. Jan is a big, and imposing man. We should not forget that this contest will take place in the smaller Octagon, and if you are dealing with a striker with incredible footwork and movement, you will be grateful for that lack of real estate on the canvas to make your night just that touch easier.
The route to victory for Blachowicz seems to be one of two approaches.
- Disrupt the striking of Adesanya with volume.
The former is on paper the easier approach. It is feasible that he can use his excess weight to tire Izzy, drain the batteries with grappling and use that to his advantage. The obvious deficiencies in the latter that likely will cause him huge problems.
In his fight against Corey Anderson, he bites on feints repeatedly. Adesanya had the fight against Costa won in 9 seconds. The last thing you want is to have the book read against Izzy. So, a grapple heavy/grapple centric approach could work well. Israel to his credit has great takedown defence at 87%.
Amanda Nunes (20-4) vs Megan Anderson (10-4)
Nunes is a wrecking ball. For 10 years Justine Cyborg was the most feared woman in MMA. Nunes not only called for that fight, but also obliterated the Brazilian inside a round.
It must be called like its seen. The great Sean Sheehan said: “I’m not telling the truth, only how I see it”. On that note, this matchup has been made because at 145lb, there is not anyone else that Amanda can fight.
On the UFC website, there is not even a ranking table for female 145lb fighters, its merely a photo of Amanda, aloft her two belts on her shoulders. Megan gets this shot as she is the most marketable fighter, and because she comes off a two-fight win streak. At 10-4 she is still green, with holes in her game to fix. But she has opportunities to make this interesting and potentially bring the upset.
She is tall, and rangy with a good jab and a solid right hand. Amanda tends to rush forward, and this offers Megan pockets of space to dictate range and counter the champion. A first-round knockout of Norma Dumont in her last outing with that very right hand shows that Megan has the power to hurt anyone.
The question is whether she can land it on the champion. Amanda is extremely well rounded, and by accomplishments alone is far and away the greatest female to ever compete in the sport. But this is MMA, and anything can happen.
Petr Yan (15-1) vs Aljamain Sterling (19-3)
Dan Hardy has an excellent breakdown on both men. This is as tough a fight to call as any. Russian striker Yan and American grappler Sterling epitomise MMA at its highest levels. To even call one a striker and one a grappler is almost disrespectful.
Petr Yan, who trains out of Tiger Muay Thai adopts an approach to striking that is rudimentary. There is no fat to the Yan style. He will walk you down, cut you off, take whatever you must throw at him on his limbs and hurt you, constantly wearing you down and chipping away until he can land with enough power to stop you.
The fight with Aldo was a perfect example of his cumulative style. In the early goings Aldo gave as good as he got, tearing up Yan’s legs and working him in the exchanges. However, Yan is not fazed by these situations. Continues to invest in his work, that by the fifth round had Aldo turtled on the canvas, in a pool of his own blood, at the mercy of the referee to stop the punishment.
Sterling is the other end of the magnet. He has a wild, unorthodox method to striking, with big athletic movements to create his angles, a wicked low single, and ferocious back attacks. His fight against Cody Sandhagen was undoubtedly the best of his career thus far. Sandhagen looks every bit a future champion, and Aljo was on his back looking to lock in a submission within 30 seconds of the very first round.
Make no mistake this is not just a striker vs grappler. Both men can contest in each other’s specialist areas. But it begs the question of why would you when this is for all the marbles? The result will determine who implements the game plan the best on the night. Not who has the superior skill set. That is rare in any fight, let alone a title fight.
Islam Makhachev (18-1) vs Drew Dober (23-9)
This is just an incredible fight all over.
With Khabib seemingly retired and moving into a coaching roll for Eagles MMA, Islam now has one of the greatest MMA fighters to ever grace the Octagon not just in his camp as a training partner, but as a coach overseeing his overall improvement. It is not understating his potential to say that he could be the future of the 155lb division. He blends his southpaw striking with that same wrestling system employed famously by Khabib.
The Dagestani Handcuffs, the leg clamps all lead Islam to positions of incredible dominance. Whether this results in his opponents offering submission opportunities or resulting in TKO finishes. Islam has been through multiple of the UFC litmus tests already, beating Nik Lentz, finishing Kajan Johnson. Dominating grappling ace Davi Ramos and winning a phenomenal fight against fellow prospect Arman Tsarukyan.
Dober is another seasoned opportunity for Islam. Dober sitting #15 in the rankings is the first member of that illustrious top 15 that Islam has faced, and a win here will set him up with some big matchups in the future.
Dober, is no slouch, however. Having been in the UFC for 8 years already, he has fought a lot of the top guys 155lb’s has to offer. The last 3 wins are his most impressive. Hernandez, Haqparast and Reyes are three great names and to finish all three, is a huge statement.
This is a battle of whether Dober can keep this fight standing and implement his superior striking skill set. If he can, this is an open fight, and a fight Dober can feel confident in. If not, you are entering Islam’s world, and in that world. He is the King.
Thiago Santos (21-8) vs Alexander Rakic (13-2)
Santos shocked the world in his loss to then LHW champion Jon Jones. After severely damaging both of his ACL’s he fought Jones valiantly to a split decision loss. After a year’s layoff, he turned around against Glover Teixeira, and came up short in that fight also, losing to a third-round rear naked choke.
This fight against Aleksander Rakic is a huge fight for Santos. Rakic sits at #4, chomping like a tied-up dog for Santos’ #2 spot.
Austria’s own has settled well into his UFC tenure, a dubious split decision loss to Volkan Oezdemir only the blemish on his UFC record. Devastating knockouts of Jimi Manuwa and Justin Ledet alongside his most impressive win to date in his shutout of Anthony Smith has him right in line for some huge fights soon.
Given the main event, this adds even more weight to this matchup. If Poland’s Blachowicz wins, whoever gets their hand raised will almost certainly be in line for the next title shot.
Dominick Cruz (22-3) vs Casey Kenney (16-2-1)
The first time in five years that Dominick Cruz is not in a title fight, or a five-round fight. Casey Kenney started fighting professionally 7 years ago. Let that sink in.
Dominick Cruz is a unique man in the sport of MMA. His mindset, shown in his loss to Cody Garbrandt, his specific style of analysis and commentary and on top of that? Hid fighting style. An incredible showing of off-rhythm patterns and awkward angles are the foundation of Dom’s game. He builds on to that a monolith of wrestling, and his striking styles.
This is the first time we will ever see Dominick rebound from a KO. 35 years old, fighting for 16 years, and never knocked out until he met Henry Cejudo. Many will say that the fight came too soon as Dom was only just returning from another addition to the list of injuries that have plagued his career thus far.
Casey Kenney, however, is the new blood of the 135lb division. Go and re-watch his last three performances. A domination of Louis Smolka, one of the most brutal body beatdowns you will see against Heili Alatang, and then a close fight with one of England’s top prospects, Nathaniel Wood. If you are not near the top calibre of this division, Kenney will work you.
An interesting wrinkle to this fight is that in his last fight – Cruz was commentating on Kenney’s fight and was critical of his cage wrestling performances. Kenney took that to heart and focussed a lot of his work out of camp on adding to his arsenal. That shows two things, that when legends speak, you take on board the advice. It also shows a young and hungry fighter more than happy to work and adapt.
This fight comes down to a few points. How does Kenney deal with a style that he has never seen before up close? How does Cruz look coming back after a KO loss? If Cruz is still at the top of the division, we will find out in this fight, and if he is not, Kenney will skyrocket himself into the top 10.
Kyler Philips (8-1) vs Yadong Song (16-4-1)
This is just a great scrap. Song Yadong is a fantastic addition to the UFC 135lb roster. With 5-0-1 in the UFC. 3 finishes, the standout the right hand that put Alejandro Perez to the canvas. Sandwiched between that and his impressive win against Marlon Vera was a draw against Cody Stamann. He is striding
Kyler Philips, whilst not having faced the same stiff schedule, is 2-0 in the UFC. A great win against Cameron Else in his last outing. He comes to scrap, and under the tutelage of The MMA Lab you can be sure he has been schooled in the right way.
This does have interesting implications at 135lb. The new era of contenders arriving through to go and challenge the next bracket of fighters has begun. A win here for either gives them leverage to look at names above them in the rankings.
Joseph Benavidez (28-7) vs Askar Askarov (13-0-1)
From the perspective of a long-term fan of MMA, this is tough matchmaking to see. Like Dominick Cruz, Joseph Benavidez is a legend of the sport, a 15-year professional, fought everyone there is to fight, seconded only to one of the greatest fighters of all time, Demetrious Johnson. In his 3-fight win streak between 2018-2019 Benavidez looked good, knocking off the title challenger Alex Perez and stopping the only man to beat the champion, Jussier Formiga.
However, in his two fights against the champion, there looked to be a chasm of difference. After having competed for the title so many times during his career and coming up short in the most recent attempts, you must question what is left in the sport for Joe B. The questions around retirement loomed large after his second defeat to Brazilian champion Deiveson Figueiredo of which he largely downplayed.
Now, booked against undefeated Russian Askar Askarov, it is hard to see the upside for the American. Askarov is a dominant grappler, and a finisher at that. His first bout in the UFC? The Mexican Assassin Brandon Moreno followed by Tim Elliot and then Alexandre Pantoja.
Those are the only 3 fights on his record he has not come away with a finish.
To his credit, Joseph’s grappling has always been a strong suit of his. But the Russian system of grappling is one that is taking the MMA world by storm, and Askarov is a seasoned expert. If Askarov goes in and does what he does, we could see an early night for Joseph Benavidez and Askar Askarov catapulted into title contention.
Kai Kara-France (21-9) vs Rogerio Bontorin (16-2)
DWCS alumni Rogerio Bontorin is coming off his first loss under the UFC banner. As is Kara-France. Based on schedule alone Kara-France by far has the best names on his record, but Bontorin is very well rounded himself.
Coach Eugene Bareman spoke in a press conference about the mental aspects of his game that Kara-France and he has worked on in this camp, and that seems right on the money. In previous fights if Kai has been able to dictate the pace and range of the fight, has looked a world beater. But certain levels of adversity have seen him wilt and not able to rally back and change the course of a fight.
This should be an action-packed fight at 135lbs. Expect Kara-France to try to dictate the pace with his great striking and footwork. Expect Bontorin to try and mix things up and try to take Kai into deep waters, testing the mental fortitude of the Kiwi.
Tim Elliot (16-11-1) vs Jordan Espinosa (15-8)
When you tune in to a Tim Elliot fight you can expect one thing, scrambles. A scramble is commonly defined by the chaotic battle for position that happens in the transitionary periods between a takedown or a shift of position during a grappling sequence. His fights against Louis Smolka, Brandon Royval and Askar Askarov show some good examples. Elliot, at 34 broke his 3-fight skid against Ryan Benoit last time out. However, you must question whether he is still fighting for his career. With the recent spate of releases from the UFC, it seems more cutthroat than ever.
Jordan Espinosa seems in a similar position. After graduating from DWCS has been given a tough run. Matt Schnell, recent title challenger Alex Perez and then David Dvorak inside 5 fights is a very tough run. So, we do not yet know what the true capabilities are here for Espinosa. Tim Elliot is a tough outing for anyone, and we will at least have a very solid understanding of whether he fixed the holes shown by both Schnell and Perez here.
Carlos Ulberg (3-0) vs Kennedy Nzechukwu (7-1)
Opening the card are two fighters that are reasonably green. Ulberg’s coach in a press conference recently remarked that he believes the UFC hold Ulberg’s status in high regard, due to the offering of multiple opponents. It is fair to say that a 3-0 fighter would be hard fought to get a UFC contract generally, but with the connections to City Kickboxing, he comes in here and makes his debut against Kennedy Nzechukwu, who is 1-1 in the UFC.
Sean Brady (13-0) vs Jake Matthews (17-4)
This should be a banger. Jake Matthews is a prospect that fans have been craving to deliver on his potential. It is not fair to call him a prospect anymore, given that he has 14 UFC fights. His recent run of 3 wins holds names of Rostem Akman (soon to be featured in the upcoming Cage Warriors WW Tournament), Europe’s Emil Meek and legend Diego Sanchez.
It was time for Matthews to get another step up, and Brady certainly is that. A man that has never tasted defeat, in both his amateur and professional outings. His guillotine of Christian Aguilera showed a good fight IQ. The first round was contested on the feet mostly, with a level change at the end of the round. As the striking battle became less desirable for Brady, he timed a leg kick into a double leg, and progressed to a mounted guillotine expertly.
This offers a good wrinkle for Jake Matthews. He grappled well against Diego Sanchez, by Sean Brady offers a quite different puzzle. Expect fiery hooks to be exchanged, and some fun ground exchanges too. Great fight.
Livinha Souza (14-2) vs Amanda Lemos (8-1-1)
A strawweight fight brings Livinha Souza and Amanda Lemos together. You might remember Lemos’ UFC debut against Leslie Smith on short notice at 135lb. Whilst that fight did not go her way, she is now back at her rightful weight class of 115 making good on her next two fights in the UFC. Finishing Miranda Granger and beating Mizuki Inoue.
Souza is 3-1 in the UFC looks to continue her climb back up into contention after her win against Ashley Yoder in August last year.
Uros Medic (6-0) vs Aalon Cruz (8-3)
Two DWCS alumni battle to cement their positions in the UFC’s 145lb division. Aalon Cruz is coming off the loss to Spike Carlyle over a year ago. Uros Medic boasts an undefeated record, with 100% of his wins coming by stoppage. Although being only 6-0, he has never made it to the 3rd round of a fight.
Mario Bautista (8-1) vs Trevin Jones (12-6)
The MMA Lab has a good showing on this card, and Mario Bautista kicks the whole thing off. His only loss came in his UFC debut to Cory Sandhagen and there is absolutely no shame in that. Trevin Jones comes off the back of a Performance of the Night bonus in his UFC debut against Timur Valiev.
The bout was overturned to a No Contest after a positive test for Marijuana. Thankfully USADA has since made a ruling on the testing for Marijuana, so we should see a lot less failures for fighters.
A fun bantamweight fight to open proceedings.