UFC Fight Island rolls on. Another event on Yas Island brings a vast swath of the European contingent across the Mediterranean sea to the current fight capital of the world, Abu Dhabi. UFC FN 174 sports 12 European fighters, giving this card a real home-town feel. The past #UFCFightIsland cards have gone overall, well and without a hitch. The testing regime employed by the UFC continues to mature into a blueprint for other professional sports bodies to use as provisions to bring their own sports back. It is something to be proud of for Endeavour, the UFC management team and Abu Dhabi. Whilst they have put such a regime in place out of necessity, that they have still done their best to make it as comprehensive as possible.
The card overall is a good one, so let us break that down.
Robert Whittaker vs Darren Till
The Reaper vs The Gorilla. What more need I say? This is about as salivation-worthy a fight that the UFC could put together in the Middleweight division. Both men are brilliant style clashes, both in and out of the cage. Darren Till (18-2-1) has the most famous combat sports social media presence outside of McGregor and Mayweather. A steady stream of viscous training updates, blended with hilarious meme’s, served with a healthy side of showing his family and home life. Till is as stereotypical of a Liverpudlian as you could hope for. An unwavering love for his city, his football team, his family, and for fighting.
Coming from the other side of the world to clash Till in the dusty sand dunes is a man that holds some of the very same characteristics as Till. Whittaker (20-5) is a man that holds two conflicting worlds in the palms of his hands also. In one, soft skinned hand stands his family, of which he is willing to sacrifice his own body for. This being the 26th time in his professional career he will cross the treacherous bridge from the idyllic to the rugged, rough, world of training camps, and war nestled in his other hand.
As an actual contest, we have a Muay Thai specialist in Till. Due to complications in his hometown, Till was sent to Brazil by head coach and father figure Colin Heron to continue his training. On the plane back, returned a man. A man that had built on his Muay Thai childhood, added BJJ, and who was ready to take on the world. No better showing of his capabilities was his demolition job of legend Donald Cerrone in 2017. Bouncing back from his first two career losses in 2019 with a split decision win over Kelvin Gastelum, Till announced himself to the Middleweight division and setup the fight with The Reaper.
Interestingly, Whittaker also began his life in the UFC as a Welterweight before moving up. Let also take into consideration here that Whittaker was fighting in the UFC before Darren Till even made his professional debut. Whittaker blends his wrestling background with his karate background to bring an aggressive, forward moving, high paced fighting style.
This fight is going to be great in the stand-up realms. Whittaker may want to use his high-level wrestling to take the fight to the mat, where Till has shown weakness before. Till however will want to keep it standing and hurt Whittaker with elbows and the power left hand on the counter. With a 70% finish rate from Whittaker and a 67% finish rate from Till, its likely we will see some fireworks. Will the Gorilla cheat death, or will The Reaper claim another soul to take back with him down under?
Mauricio “Shogun” Rua vs Antônio Rogério Nogueira
PRIDE never die. This fight is legend vs legend. Between these two men you are looking at 70 fights, this is only the recorded and professional ones. Both men come from an era, and a style that had you in all out-gym wars as preparation for your actual fights. Both men have represented themselves and their countries across almost every major promotion. Pride, UFC, HooknShoot and Affliction.
Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (26-11-1), is a man with a career that never seems to die. From 2002-2007 he amassed 18 fights with only 2 losses, beating Alistair Overeem twice, Rampage Jackson and his opponent here by a Unanimous decision. A rematch saw the same result in 2015, Nogueira is looking to claw one back. We talk about fighters, and even later in this article of people fighting a who’s who of fighters. Rua and Nogueira really have fought everyone there is to fight. From Jon Jones, Gustafsson, Henderson, Griffin, Machida, Liddell, Coleman, Randleman, Jackson, Evans and even the mighty Kazushi Sakuraba.
Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (23-9) is 2-2 in his last four. With 2 TKO wins, and 2 KO/TKO losses we are looking at twilight fights for both legends, but more so Nogueira. Rua is 4-1-1 in his last six, with wins over Anderson, Tyson Pedro, and Gian Villante amongst them. Rua has been talking of another title shot, and I don’t want to see that any time soon, but both men go in there with adoration from fight fans, and whatever happens on Saturday, their place in the UFC Hall of Fame is secure.
Fabricio Werdum vs Alexander Gustafsson
Alexander Gustafsson (18-6) is one of the best fighters to never win a UFC title. He is one part of one of the greatest fights in history against Jon Jones in 2013. That fight was razor close, and many thought Alexander won it. His last win coming against Glover Teixeira in a main event in his hometown of Stockholm, which saw him utterly dominate the Brazilian, knocking him out with a succession of uppercuts.
Alexander moves up to heavyweight in search of a new lease of life. What better way to welcome him as the stalwart, ex-heavyweight champion, Fabricio Werdum (23-9-1)? Multiple BJJ world champion Werdum is in the twilight of his career. A bad performance against Alexander Volkov, and an equally worrying performance against Alexey Oleynik, this is the UFC looking to get Gustafsson prepped for a title shot as quickly as possible, using the last of the sheen on the Werdum name to boost Gustafsson into the heavyweight rankings, and challenging the top echelon of the division.
Carla Esparza vs Marina Rodriguez
#7 ranked Strawweight Carla Esparza (16-6) meets Brazilian Marina Rodriguez. Esparza was the first female Strawweight Champion for the UFC, after winning The Ultimate Fighter Season 20 and defeating future champion Rose Namajunas. She lost the title to long reigning champion Joanna Jedrzejcyzk, and there is no shame in that. A very well-rounded athlete, good grappling, solid striking fundamentals, a great gas tank and aggressive to boot. Esparza is riding a 3-fight win streak, wins over Alexa Grasso and Michelle Waterson the notables.
Marina Rodriguez will look to break into the UFC rankings for the first time with a win over Esparza here. Rodriguez one year older than Esparza but vastly lacking in UFC experience is undefeated at 12-0. With a great finish rate of 50%, (5 KO/TKO’s and 1 sub) she is a fighter that is always looking for the finish. She has already been in there with big names like Randa Markos, Tecia Torres and Jessica Aguilar. Can she lay hands on Esparza and get the finish and the win, or will Esparza continue her rebound up the rankings?
Paul Craig vs Gadzhimurad Antigulov
Paul Craig (12-4-1) does not take easy fights. Famed on the Scottish shores for finishing prospect Magomed Akalaev at 4:59 of the final round of their fight, he then has gone on for a record of 2-2-1.
He steps in here to face Gadzhimurad Antigulov (20-6). Like Craig, a high percentage of his finishes have come from submissions, so if this hits the ground, I suspect things will get interesting very quickly. But as the trend goes for two good grapplers, things generally turn into a kickboxing match. Antigulov is coming off 2 losses, breaking a 14-fight winning streak, and will look to get back in the win column against Craig. Craig on the other hand will want to go 3 fights unbeaten for the first time in his UFC career.
Alex Oliveira vs Peter Sobotta
German BJJ Black Belt Peter Sobotta (17-6-1) has not fought in two years. Since losing to title contender Leon Edwards by TKO in his last outing, Sobotta took some time away from the sport. Only his second loss in 8 years, Sobotta is far more used to finishing fights in a positive fashion. 15 finishes in 17 wins (and 9 UFC appearances) shows you the calibre of the European veteran who is looking to rejuvenate his career on Fight Island.
Cowboy Oliveira (21-8-1) has had a storied UFC career. 17 fights in the octagon, and a UFC record of 10-6-1) he has fought everyone there is to fight in the Welterweight division. The UFC often puts these sorts of veteran fights together and here is no different, neither fighter has a title shot in their near future, but I like to see fights that are evenly matched, and this one should be a fun one.
Khamzat Chimaev vs Rhys McKee
This fight is bananas. Khamzat Chimaev (7-0) has taken his UFC opportunity with both hands and run a mile. Drafted in to fight Welsh boxer John Philips on the undercard to Kattar vs Ige, June 15th. Dispatching of Philips in one of the most one-sided UFC debuts that we have seen He asked the UFC brass for a quick turnaround, to stay in Abu Dhabi and to fight again on this card, they obliged and in steps in debutant and Irish standout, Rhys McKee (10-2-1).
This exchange on a video call shows what that UFC contract truly means to these fighters. This is poetic for the road that Rhys has taken to get here, always taking the tough road, the tough fights and here is no exception. Make no mistake, Khamzat Chimaev looks every part the real deal. Rhys having only recently made his move to Welterweight only one fight ago is still filling his body into the weight class, but he brings to this fight nearly double the experience, a vast array of strikes totalling his 100% finishing record. McKee will pit his hopes, his dreams, and his unbeaten record against the unbeaten record of Chimaev.
Francisco Trinaldo vs Jai Herbert
Ex-Cage Warriors Lightweight champion Jai Herbert (10-1) steps into his own debut against the UFC veteran Francisco Trinaldo (25-7). Herbert, teammate of Leon Edwards, is a devastating striker. His performances on route to the title in European promotion Cage Warriors had him on the UFC’s radar for a long time, and he had been waiting for a call since late 2019, the call has finally come. Interestingly, the only loss on his record comes from Rhys McKee in a BAMMA contest back in 2016.
Trinaldo, has fought everyone in the UFC lightweight division, from Kevin Lee, Paul Felder, James Vick, Michael Chiesa, Gleison Tibau and another fighter on this card, Jesse Ronson. Trinaldo is a very solid wrestler, using his striking to take him to the grappling portions of his game and a good game plan will be take Herbert away from his 90% finishing record. This is an archetypal veteran vs newcomer matchup; will we see the newcomer blow open the door of the gatekeeper?
Nicolas Dalby vs Jesse Ronson
As heart-warming as it was to see Nicolas Dalby battle back to the UFC after his first stint was cut short after a draw and two losses saw him cut in 2016. A two-year hiatus pushed him into gaining weight, battling depression, compounded by his comeback fight a split decision loss in Cage Warriors in 2018 put Dalby’s career staring down the barrel of a gun. Dalby ate that pressure and came back with three finishes in Cage Warriors, a FOTY contender called a No Contest due to the cage floor being so slippery due to blood spilt from both Nicolas and Ross Houston, his opponent. He gets the call and faces Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira, winning a Unanimous Decision.
This fight against Jesse Ronson (21-10) is a chance for him to solidify his place once again. Ronson is in a similar position to Dalby in that he had a run in the UFC 2013-2014, which saw him drop 3 losses. All of which were split decisions, (no shame in losing to Francisco Trinaldo or Kevin Lee) but was given his marching orders. He comes back here looking for a way back into the UFC for himself, stealing the light from Dalby as the Comeback King. Who takes the glory in this one? Let us find out.
Tom Aspinall vs Jake Collier
The Liverpudlian heavyweight has waited a little while for his UFC debut, teammate Darren Till has outwardly spoken about Aspinall (7-2) openly on many occasions, and now we get to see him. A knockout artist known for his ultra-heavy hands. With two losses to his record, one being by DQ (illegal downward elbow) and one by heel hook submission, that shows you that both of those are experience losses. Aspinall comes in against Jake Collier (11-4), usually a light heavyweight comes into this (3-3) in the UFC. Aspinall will do his best to put a stamp on his debut with a big win, and to put on a good showing on a card that holds two of his Team Kaobon teammates.
Movsar Evloev vs Mike Grundy
Opening the night for Team Kaobon is dominant grappler Mike Grundy. A late entry into the UFC at 33 saw Grundy TKO Ex-Cage Warriors Featherweight Champion Nad Narimani in March 2019. Grundy has competed for England in the Commonwealth Games picking up a 5th place and a Bronze medal. In only his second outing in the UFC, Grundy will look to improve on his 75% finishing rate, with his dominant grappling.
His opponent, Movsar Evloev (12-0) puts his undefeated and well rounded record up against the Liverpudlian having earnt two UD wins in his first two UFC outings, he will be looking to keep the good run going, and put a spoil on what Team Kaobon will wish to be a perfect night.
Who improves their record in this one? If Grundy can find the neck of Evloev, he is lethal.
Tanner Boser vs Raphael Pessoa
Tanner Boser and Raphael Pessoa are two heavyweights looking to turn recent form around, Boser (2-1 UFC) and Pessoa (1-1 UFC) have both dropped losses to ultra-prospect Ciryl Gane. In 18 fights, Boser has finished half by KO/TKO, which is no surprise for a heavyweight. His dance partner has finished 6 of his 10 wins by KO/TKO, both of these are fun, action fighters and I really don’t anticipate this going the distance – yeah, now it’s been said, its destined for a 3 round snooze fest.
Bethe Correia vs Pannie Kianzad
Brazilian veteran Correia (11-4) has been fighting in the UFC since 2013. Holding a (5-4-1) record, she is a gatekeeper to the division, coming off a good win against boxer Sijara Eubanks comes into Abu Dhabi looking to climb back into the rankings.
Sweden’s Pannie Kianzad (12-5) re-entered the UFC after a run in the Ultimate Fighter Season 28 with a UD loss against Julia Avila in 2019. Late 2019 brought a notable win over Jessica Rose-Clark and Pannie will look to capitalise on the Correia name and look to find her own way into the rankings.
Holding 5 finishes between them in 32 fights, I expect this to go the distance.
Ramzan Emeev vs Niklas Stolze
Germany’s Stolze (12-3) is another debutant on this card. Riding high with a 4-fight win streak, and a 75% finish rate he draws the tough Russian Ramzan Emeev (18-4).
Emeev dropped his last to Rocco Martin, and there is no shame in that. A solid wrestling background makes Emeev tough to deal with for anyone, let alone a debutant flying halfway across the world in the middle of a Pandemic to deal with. I will be interested to see if Stolze can nullify the wrestling offense of Emeev and either work to his own famed Rear-Naked Choke or whether he will succumb to the wrestling pressure.
Nathaniel Wood vs John Castaneda
The Prospect (16-4) is back and wants revenge. Known for his excellent striking, he began his UFC run with 3 submission wins. The UFC catapulted him into one of the toughest fights for a rising Bantamweight prospect and matched him with John Dodson. The fight was competitive through the first round and a half, until Johnson took over and managed to get the TKO finish over Wood in the 3rd.
Nathaniel rightly aspires of Top 10, and even Top 5 placements in his UFC tenure, and debutant John Castaneda (17-4) will be doing everything in his power to take that limelight. The biggest fight, and the toughest matchup he has faced yet the well-rounded Minnesota native comes in here the underdog, and without any pressure on him. Can he jump into the UFC with the same splash as Wood did in 2018?