While I don’t believe there is much reason to get excited about the preliminary contests, the main card doesn’t feature a single fight that deserves criticism for being on the main card of a PPV. No, none of the contests outside of the main event have a can’t-miss feel to them like Donald Cerrone and Tony Ferguson did a few months back. But if we’re being honest, those types of contests – one that creates a bigger stir than a typical main or co-main event – only comes around every now-and-again, maybe once a year. The fighters in the first three main card contests have a combined 34-9 record in the confines of the UFC, none of them owning more than two losses. I’d be lying if I claimed all those victories came over quality UFC competition, but they’ve all proven they deserve their spots on the card in what should prove to be competitive contests.
Islam Makhachev (17-1) vs. Davi Ramos (10-2), Lightweight
Makhachev’s recent trajectory has been questionable at best as it feels the UFC has been lobbing softballs at him, his most recent contest coming against a debuting Armen Tsarukyan. Tsarukyan proved to be game, but why was Makhachev facing a debuting fighter when he was riding a four-fight win streak? Nonetheless, Makhachev appears to be back on track as Ramos is riding a nice win streak of his own in which his plentiful physical skills have been prominently on display. The only thing missing in Ramos’ streak: quality names, as his quality of opposition has been worse than Makhachev.
Ramos’ talent has never been questioned. Holding grappling titles in both Grapplers Quest and ADCC, Ramos was already considered a top-flight grappler when he made his UFC debut in 2017. He’s utilized those skills to secure three consecutive RNC victories in a row at one point, utilizing his cat-like quickness to get the back. His striking was used too, displaying explosive power in his fists that wasn’t a given to analysts when his MMA career began in earnest. Ramos still has a long way to go if he hopes to become a technically sound boxer – something that would appear to be doubtful – but he’s nonetheless dangerous. One big negative though has been his propensity to look for a highlight reel KO, often forgetting to utilize his world class BJJ chops.
Ramos isn’t the only powerful puncher who has forsaken their strength. Makhachev’s lone loss came when he forgot what he was best at too, resulting in a KO at the hands of Adriano Martins. Khabib’s teammate has since repented of that misdeed, emphasizing his overwhelming wrestling all the way to his current five-fight win streak. That hardly means Makhachev is a boring fighter as he fancies looking for finishes, willing to give up an advantageous position for a potential submission. This led to several entertaining scrambles against Tsarukyan. Is he willing to play that type of game with a grappler like Ramos? Hard to say. His best option could be to bang it out on the feet if he can’t avoid that tendency.
Makhachev represents a BIG step up in competition for Ramos, his best win likely coming against Nick Hein. I’m not saying Ramos can’t compete with the likes of Makhachev. I’m saying a steadier climb might have been a wiser approach with him rather than a series of middling opponents before throwing him in far deeper waters. Ramos appears to be durable enough to convince me he can avoid being finished, though I wouldn’t rule out a late stoppage as Ramos has faded late in contests that have gone the distance. Makhachev via decision
Curtis Blaydes (11-2, 1 NC) vs. Shamil Abdurakhimov (20-4), Heavyweight
If it wasn’t for Francis Ngannou, Blaydes would be all the rage for the future of the heavyweight division. It isn’t just because Ngannou tends to knock silly every single one of his opponents – whereas Blaydes path to victory is more methodical — but because both of Blaydes’ two career losses came at the hands of the massive Cameroonian. It isn’t like Blaydes has been running roughshod over nobodies either, as Mark Hunt and Alistair Overeem count as two of the former junior college wrestling champion’s victims.
What makes Blaydes so dangerous is his combination of athleticism and wrestling technique. Normally an athlete of his size and caliber is gobbled up by more lucrative sports such as football or basketball. Somehow, Blaydes slipped through the cracks and MMA fans are the benefactors. It took him some time to adjust his style to MMA – see his painful performance against Daniel Omielanczuk – but there hasn’t been an opponent who has been able to stay upright if Blaydes doesn’t want them too since that learning experience. Don’t sell his GnP short either as his combination of punches and elbows made a bloody mess of what used to be Overeem’s face.
Those who remember Abdurakhimov’s UFC debut against Timothy Johnson are probably writing off the 38-year old Russian given Johnson used his mass to ground Abdurakhimov and pound him out. While I’m not saying that outcome is an impossibility, it would be foolish to believe that version of Abdurakhimov is the same one that will be stepping in with Blaydes. His continually improving boxing is highlighted by Abdurakhimov’s impressive footwork and combinations, allowing him to outmaneuver his opponent around the cage while hitting the occasional well-timed takedown. Blaydes’ standup has progressed nicely, but he’s not on the same level of Abdurakhimov.
Even though Abdurakhimov does a much better job of moving around the cage than when he first entered the UFC – giving his opposition minimal opportunities to score takedowns – Blaydes isn’t Timothy Johnson. He’s far more athletic and explosive, which will make it more difficult for Abdurakhimov will have a difficult time avoiding Blaydes’ pressure. Blaydes’ chin isn’t impenetrable as Ngannou has proven, making the idea of Abdurakhimov scoring a KO not nearly as silly as it might have seen just a short time ago. Nonetheless, the first instinct is likely the right one for this contest: expect Blaydes to drag Abdurakhimov to the mat and maul him until the referee steps in to stop the massacre. Blaydes via TKO of RD3.
Mairbek Taisumov (27-5) vs. Diego Ferreira (15-2), Lightweight
It’s plausible the one thing that has been holding back Taisumov from being a household name in the MMA community is his VISA problems as the Chechan has yet to fight in the USA under the UFC banner. It has limited the quality of competition, though that issue hasn’t been able to hide Taisumov’s skillful standup as five of the six wins in his current win streak have come via KO/TKO. Taisumov doesn’t typically push a hard pace, usually jumping in and out of the pocket in hopes of inducing a situation where he can counter. It can result in a slow-paced, dull contest like he had in his most recent showing against Des Green, but that’s only if his opponent doesn’t give him anything to work with.
That shouldn’t be an issue with Ferreira. The wildly aggressive Brazilian was the first person in years to extort an entertaining contest out of Rustam Khabilov, being the first to beat him in several years in the process. Whether it’s coming forward with reckless punches, leaping in for a takedown attempt, or fishing for a submission on the ground, Ferreira tends to go full bore. His wrestling leaves a lot to be desired, but he’s dangerous on the mat if he can succeed in forcing the fight to the mat. Due to his inability to do so on his terms, most of his fights have turned into a slugfest where he’s been able to get away with his lack of technique thanks to his power, athleticism, and overwhelming aggression.
Though Ferreira has faced far better competition than Taisumov, that competition has also exposed some of his issues that Taisumov’s haven’t revealed about him yet. While Ferreira has been able to style on some good athletes in Khabilov and Olivier Aubin-Mercier, both of them are also tentative strikers. Taisumov may be patient, but he isn’t tentative. He doesn’t need to be told twice to attack when given the opportunity. It’s plausible Ferreira could overwhelm Taisumov if the fight hits the mat – he did that to Khabilov — but Taisumov has been able to stifle better wrestlers than Ferreira. Ferreira is fairly durable, but I still see the likelihood of Taisumov finding a way to finish him off being pretty high. Taisumov via TKO of RD1
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