While the card for UFC Fight Night: Lewis vs. Oleinik has taken some hits due to injuries and withdrawals, it’s nothing like the historic ravaging last weeks card took, involving at least six fight cancellations in the 48 hours before and during the event. Given this is being published within that time frame, keep in mind there’s always the possibility some of these fights don’t take place.
That would be a shame as the main card is mostly concentrated with meaningful fights, though many might say the term interesting is more appropriate. Any Aleksei Oleinik fight would fall under that category – though boring wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility either – and Derrick Lewis has had some unique contests himself. Throw in former middleweight kingpin Chris Weidman’s latest attempt to rectify a sinking ship and the debut of the reigning Invicta bantamweight champion – who has a strong similarity to one Ronda Rousey – and it sounds like a satisfying feast of fights.
The main card begins on ESPN+ at 9:00 PM ET/6:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Derrick Lewis vs. Aleksei Oleinik, Heavyweight
Who doesn’t love the Black Beast? I’m not just referring to his one-of-a-kind post-fight speeches; featuring golden nuggets such as “My balls was hot” and “Where’s Ronda Rousey’s fine ass at?” His Instagram is one of the most entertaining in any medium too. The guy just has an innate ability to say and/or do the most inappropriate thing without going too far, making him one of the most valuable treasures in the sport of MMA.
While most would agree Lewis is unlikely to become champion, he’s settled into a role of being a high-level gatekeeper. If a fighter beat Lewis, they should be in consideration for a crack at the shiny gold belt. So… why is the 43-year old Oleinik getting a crack at the heavy hitter? Well, everyone loves an underdog story. In sports, the athlete who makes a run at greatness at an age when most are retired from the field is one of the greatest underdog stories. Add in the fact that Oleinik is one of the trickiest combatants in the history of MMA – no hyperbole – and a win over Lewis isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility.
Oleinik’s abilities on the mat are on a level no one else can match. He’s mastered some of the most unlikely submissions the sport has seen – such as the Ezekiel choke and the neck crank – securing multiple UFC victories in those manners. To put it in perspective, no one else has ever won via Ezekiel choke in the history of the UFC and he’s the only fighter in the post-Zuffa era with multiple neck crank victories. Given Lewis’ habit of waiting until he’s ready to burst up to his feet as opposed to a more traditional submission defense, a few seconds might be all Oleinik needs.
The most likely outcome is undoubtedly Lewis clobbering Oleinik into oblivion. Only Francis Ngannou has been able to rival the power of Lewis on a consistent basis and Oleinik may be the most immobile fighter in a division full of glacially slow individuals. Hell, Walt Harris was successful in that strategy. However, Harris may also possess the quickest reactions of anyone in the division and Lewis, though quicker than many perceive him to be, isn’t as fast as Harris. Oleinik isn’t a traditional takedown artist either, but the vet has his tricks. Did I mention the old man has an unusually long reach and hits pretty damned hard? Lewis isn’t impervious to a well-placed haymaker by any means.
I’ve given all the reasons why it wouldn’t be a surprise if Oleinik pulls off the upset. But it still feels nuts to pick against Lewis. He hits so damned hard and Oleinik, though more durable than you’d expect from someone his age, can’t absorb punishment the way he used to. Lewis doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to play to his strengths, nor for his increasing intelligence. Even if Lewis ends up on the mat, he’s unlikely to take his time getting back to his feet as he usually does. Plus, Oleinik fades quickly after the first round. So long as Lewis focuses on stopping takedowns and landing his heavy artillery when the opportunity presents itself, he should walk out with his 15th UFC victory. Lewis via TKO of RD1
Omari Akhmedov vs. Chris Weidman, Middleweight
When it comes to discussions about champions who have fallen off a cliff after they lost the title, Weidman has to be at or near the top of the list, right up there with Renan Barao and Rousey. He’s gone 1-5 in his last six contests, every single one of those losses coming via KO/TKO. And yet, he’s still hanging around, trying desperately to regain his former glory….
Weidman is still a fantastic athlete. He still is a technically sound boxer. He’s still a fantastic wrestler too. The problem with Weidman is his chin has up and left. He tried to solve that by moving up to light heavyweight – and thus having less weight to cut and being less dehydrated – and was KO’d by Dominick Reyes in less than two minutes. Rather than give 205 another go-around, the former champion decided to return to the home of his former glory. While many believe the move is foolish, the positive end of the move is it allows Weidman to be the bigger man as there are few at 185 who are larger than him.
While I acknowledge Akhmedov has displayed some heavy hands in the past – and thus why many are picking him to secure the W – it’s worth noting he hasn’t scored a stoppage win since 2015. Part of that is actually maturity as the Russian native stopped swinging for the fences and began taking a more measured approach, developing a jab and remaining effective late in fights. While the argument that power rarely dissipates while a fighter is in their prime is a strong and logical argument, the lack of finishes is disconcerting.
Despite Weidman’s fading chin and Akhmedov’s momentum making this seem obvious, there is a road for Weidman to win. Akhmedov has struggled against those who have made takedowns a priority and Weidman will assuredly do so. Regardless, Weidman’s striking defense has never been a strength, even when his chin was holding up. Plus, it isn’t just that Weidman is getting finished. He tends to get hurt multiple times before being finished. It’s hard to pick against the continued decline of the former champion. Akhmedov via TKO of RD2
Yana Kunitskaya vs. Julija Stoliarenko, Women’s Bantamweight
Prior to Ketlen Vieira pulling out, there was an outside possibility the winner between her and Kunitskaya would have their name bantered about as a possible next opponent for Amanda Nunes. There’s still a possibility, but what was already an outside possibility is even further on the outside… if that makes sense.
Many forget that Kunitskaya has already competed for UFC gold before, being served up to Cyborg Justino as a sacrificial lamb. While she wasn’t ready for primetime at that point – nor was she fighting at her proper home — she has been making steady improvements. She’s very busy on the feet with a variety of attacks, though there is rarely a method to the madness as is typical of most Jackson-Wink products, though it is worth noting she no longer works at that gym. Regardless, Kunitskaya has been most effective slowing things down against the fence in the clinch, wearing down her opponent with a steady amount of knees, punches, and elbows.
While it would be an upset should Stoliarenko get the win, it shouldn’t be seen as an earth-shattering event. The reigning Invicta bantamweight champion, Stoliarenko is coming off a performance that showed incredible amounts of grit and durability, taking a bloodbath of a decision over Lisa Verzosa. A bruising grappler, it was the first victory in her career that didn’t come via armbar. Her striking has improved since her time on TUF, but Stoliarenko’s penchant for leaping punches and elbows leave her wide open to be countered.
For its overall skill level, this fight isn’t extraordinary by any means. Given the lack of depth in the bantamweight division, it has a lot of import. While Stoliarenko certainly deserves to be on the UFC roster, Kunitskaya is a huge leap in competition from anyone else the Lithuanian armbar specialist has faced. An upset is possible as Kunitskaya tends to trust her abilities off her back more than she should, but the smart money says Kunitskaya exposes the truck-sized holes in Stoliarenko’s defense on the feet. Kunitskaya via decision
Beneil Dariush vs. Scott Holtzman, Lightweight
There may not be a more understated four-fight win streak in the UFC at the current moment than that of Dariush. An explanation for an overlooked winning stretch like that might be a lack of finishes, but Dariush has secured finishes in his last three contests, which also picked him up performance bonuses. What Dariush needs is a win over an opponent ranked higher than him. Unfortunately for him, that isn’t Holtzman.
That hardly indicates Holtzman is going to be an easy out for the favored Dariush. Holtzman, a former collegiate hockey player, is a plus athlete with an endless gas tank. Those characteristics – along with his toughness — have allowed him to become an effective pressure fighter despite not being known for his technical prowess. One of the things that has hurt his notoriety is how often his fights end up against the fence thanks to Holtzman’s constant forward movement. It’s hard to score a highlight reel finish when so much time is spent in close quarters against the fence. Nonetheless, Holtzman has become exceptionally efficient in the clinch.
Dariush, the more accomplished fighter between the two, has struggled with the type of physicality Holtzman presents. However, Dariush also presents the type of package that Holtzman has struggled with throughout his career: strong wrestling and grappling. In fact, Dariush is the best submission specialist Holtzman has ever faced. Hell, Dariush might even be the most skilled striker Holtzman has faced. Dariush’s issues have been in his durability, but the Kings MMA product appears to have healed up his past injuries and looks like he’s in the proper place mentally and physically to continue his ascent. Dariush via submission of RD2
- The difference between Maki Pitolo at 170 and Pitolo at 185 turned out to be a world of difference. Proving to be far more energetic without cutting the extra 15 pounds, the DWCS product proved relentless in his pressure and pursuit of takedowns, eventually breaking Charles Byrd amidst his constant attack. Darren Stewart used to employ a similar strategy before discovering its limits, becoming a skilled pocket boxer ever since being unsuccessful in securing a win in his first four UFC performances. Pitolo has enough power that he could stun or KO Stewart with a single punch and steal a win away from the Brit, but the odds favor Stewart. His size and strength will make it difficult for Pitolo in the clinch and he has developed into the more skilled striker of the two. Stewart via TKO of RD3
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