If there was ever a mixed bag of fights on a card, UFC Vegas 35 is a prime example. It’s hard to find a Fight Night main event that can produce more anticipated excitement than Edson Barboza and Giga Chikadze. Plus, Kevin Lee’s return from a long injury layoff comes with a high level of intrigue as he does so a weight class up against a Daniel Rodriguez who is looking for a signature win. However, it also features six fighters making their UFC debuts. Some of the debuting fighters appear to have the tools to develop into long-term mainstays, but are they ready for the UFC? Only one would definitively appear to be. That’s the reward we get for the UFC bringing TUF back: a trio of potential DWCS fights on an official UFC card. I enjoy DWCS, just like I enjoy a good hamburger. But when the quality is supposed to be that of a juicy ribeye – filet mignon would be a PPV – don’t try to tell me a burger is just as good as a ribeye.
Edson Barboza vs. Giga Chikadze, Featherweight
A quick glance at this fight would have one thinking these are two very similar fighters clashing in what should be one hell of a main event. While that isn’t wrong, it’ll be the small differences that make this contest turn out whatever way it does.
Barboza has been in the UFC for over a decade, beginning his UFC career at a young enough age that he’s still a high-level competitor after that amount of time. Perhaps he’s not in his physical prime any longer, but it could be argued he’s never been better as he has slowly shored up his weaknesses over time. Once, Barboza was prone to takedowns. At present, only the best takedown artists regularly get him down. Hell, he’s even willing to hit the occasional takedown himself. Once thought to only use his hands to set up his lethal arsenal of kicks, it could now be argued Barboza is one of the best boxers in the division. Hell, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to call him mentally weak at this point, an accusation that flew with regularity early in his UFC career.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns with Barboza. Though he’s made massive strides in working off the back foot, he still isn’t nearly as comfortable doing that as he is moving forward and Chikadze has come out aggressive in all his UFC fights. However, Chikadze has also slowed significantly enough to the point he’s typically in survival mode by the third round. Given this is a five-round fight, Chikadze may be playing with fire if he comes out aggressively. Another concern is Barboza also fights very rhythmically, something that can be figured out by someone like Chikadze. Plus, while Barboza traditionally hasn’t been easy to put away, he’s endured a lot of punishment over his UFC run. There won’t be any surprise if his chin deteriorates quickly and Chikadze certainly has the power to put him away.
Chikadze has grown more comfortable in his transition from kickboxing into MMA, to the point he’s been willing to open up his full striking arsenal, scoring early finishes in his last two contests. It could also be argued Chikadze is more technical than Barboza, at least in some aspects. However, even though Chikadze is opening up his arsenal, it still hasn’t come close to some of the strikes Barboza has thrown. For example, Barboza’s spinning wheel kick and flying knee KO’s are a pair of the most iconic highlight reels in the UFC’s history. However, it has always been a fairly basic approach that has taken Barboza down, so perhaps Chikadze will want to keep things simple.
All that said, there is one big thing that has me leaning in a certain direction: the level of competition each has faced. Barboza may have fallen to the elite in the likes of Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje, but he has faced the elite at their peak. Plus, he does have wins over the likes of Beneil Dariush and Dan Hooker, both of whom anyone would be happy to claim as victims. Chikadze’s best opponent on his ledger is an over-the-hill Cub Swanson. Barboza represents a HUGE step up in competition. Is Chikadze ready for that step up? Given Barboza took the best Shane Burgos had to offer, I’m going to say no, but I still expect this to be one hell of a scrap. Barboza via TKO of RD4
Kevin Lee vs. Daniel Rodriguez, Welterweight
It’s been 17 months since Kevin Lee stepped foot in a UFC cage, having both of his ACL’s reconstructed in that time. Given he’s going to be more dependent than ever on his speed and quickness given he is moving back up to welterweight, there’s every reason to doubt he’ll resemble the guy who blazed his way to an interim title fight in 2017. Then again, while that may seem like a long time ago to some, Lee is still just 28. And while there are things to question about Lee, his work ethic hasn’t been one of those things. Maybe he does come back better than ever….
Though there are all sorts of questions around Lee, we largely know what we’re getting out of Rodriguez. Making his UFC debut just a month before Lee last fought, Rodriguez has quickly developed into one of the UFC’s busiest and most consistent action fighters. His attack operates behind his constant pressure and jab. There are plenty of crosses and straight rights that follow the jab – not to mention check hooks with some heat on them – allowing him to rack up volume with little problem.
It’s unlikely Lee will be able to compete with Rodriguez on the feet. Not that Lee is hopeless as a striker – he does have a fair amount of raw power – but he’s on the stiff side and tends to fall apart mentally the moment he gets hit clean for the first time. Fortunately for Lee, he isn’t dependent on his striking to find success. An explosive athlete, it could be argued Lee was the most explosive takedown artist this side of Khabib during his lightweight run. Of course, Lee isn’t fighting at lightweight anymore….
Upon his UFC entry, it was thought takedown defense was a major hole for Rodriguez, but it has held up very well in his six fight UFC run. It could be argued he hasn’t faced anyone with the wrestling pedigree of Lee, but it’s hard to believe Lee will be as effective with his takedowns as he’ll no longer be the bigger man in the cage. It’s hard to believe Lee won’t secure some takedowns, but can he keep Rodriguez down enough to negate the likely striking advantage Rodriguez will enjoy? I’d be willing to pick Lee if I knew he was going to be coming back strong, but two ACL surgeries has me very leery, especially given he’s been heavily reliant on his explosion. Rodriguez via decision
- A quick glance at Bryan Battle’s record indicates a plethora of inexperience against less than impressive opposition. A deeper look reveals a deep amateur record against some recognizable names. A solid athlete with an ideal middleweight frame, Battle offers a diverse and technical striking arsenal, a heavy emphasis on his kicks. He’ll look to keep the fight standing against Gilbert Urbina as Urbina’s wrestling background appears to give him an edge on the mat. Not that Urbina is a wrestling savant, but he knows how to find his opponent’s back and Battle’s wrestling and grappling appears more focused on avoiding the mat. Even if Battle manages to keep the fight standing, Urbina is a large middleweight himself who hasn’t been able to tap into the power that seems to lie in waiting. If he ever does unleash it, he could be something. Unfortunately for Urbina, it’s unlikely he does so in such a short period of time. Battle’s more technical attack should allow him to take the decision and the TUF crown. Battle via decision
- Is it just me, or are more of the Team Alpha Male products not as wrestling-centric as they used to be? Ricky Turcios seems to fit the more modern build of the notable gym as of late, offering little in terms of wrestling offense, but supremely conditioned and tough. That isn’t to say he’s a fish out of water on the mat, but he’s rarely the one looking to take the fight to the horizontal position, preferring to wear down his opponent with a fast-paced volume approach. His opponent, Brady Hiestand, comes out like a ball of fire every time out, looking to get the fight to the mat as soon as possible. The 22-year old has some nice submission chops, but also tends to wear himself out in a hurry in pursuit of a finish as many youthful fighters are prone to do. Turcios should be able to weather his early storm and take the next two rounds with enough ease that there should be any confusion as to who the victor is. Turcios via decision
- I’m not even sure Andre Petroski and Micheal Gillmore make for an intriguing DWCS fight, but here it is on a Fight Night main card. And y’all wonder why I was happier when TUF was in the casket…. Gillmore is both older and more experienced, but his karateka stylings have left him prone to takedowns. At 34 and on the small side for middleweight – he is a natural welterweight — he’s got a hell of a hill to climb to get past the buttoned-down approach of Petroski. Coming from a wrestling background, Petroski knows where his bread is buttered and uses his striking to set up his takedowns. Petroski has a limited ceiling himself, but it is higher than Gillmore’s. Throw in the fact that Gillmore’s love for kicks might be the opening Petroski needs for a takedown and it feels pretty academic. Petroski via decision
- With 46 career fights underneath his belt, it’s hard to find someone with more experience than Gerald Meerschaert. The crafty veteran was never a plus athlete when he was in his physical prime, getting by with a savvy submission game and his durability, never having been finished by strikes on the regional scene. Unfortunately for Meerschaert, his chin has shown signs of major deterioration, being finished three times with punches since joining the UFC, including twice in a row before righting his ship in his last contest against one of the worst strikers on the roster at the time in Bartosz Fabinski. That has to be music to the ears of Makhmud Muradov, A slick combination striker with plus defensive awareness, it seems like a given at first glance that Muradov will put away Meerschaert. Meerschaert has improved his striking over the years, but he’s still very reliant upon outwitting his opponents. Muradov isn’t a wet-behind-the-ears newcomer, having 31 fights to fall back on himself. It’s unlikely Meerschaert is going to catch Muradov in the type of mistake Meerschaert tends to rely on his opponents making at this stage of his career. Muradov’s striking and overall physical advantages will be too much for Meerschaert to overcome. Muradov via TKO of RD2
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