I feel like a broken record at this point, but the UFC has once again put together one hell of a PPV card. Well, I guess it isn’t technically a PPV card, but it is a numbered event and it’s absolutely top notch. Numbered events have traditionally been on pay-per-view for several years at this point, so it makes sense to look at this card as a PPV. Besides, the two title fights, the main card action is fights with significant meaning in the divisions the contests take place.
The funny thing is, the largest name out of those contests appears to be the lone fighter who isn’t in the official UFC rankings in Khamzat Chimaev. I’ll accept any arguments that Islam Makhachev or Alexander Volkov might be bigger names, but the fact all of these fights feature at least on ranked fighter is indicative of the amount of significance of these fights. For all the crap the UFC gets, there isn’t anyone out there who can put on a better card.
For the prelims preview of UFC 267, click here.
Islam Makhachev vs. Dan Hooker, Lightweight
There’s no doubt Hooker deserves all sorts of credit. There’s been all sorts of hoopla about him stepping in to face a dangerous opponent in Makhachev. That hoopla is well deserved, but it doesn’t even tell the entire story. If you were to manufacture a fighter in a lab designed to beat Hooker with realistic proportions – in other words, can’t be absolutely fantastic at everything to the point they are indestructible – Makhachev would be the result. This is a terrible stylistic contest for Hooker… and he doesn’t seem to care.
Of course, Hooker has nothing to lose. He’s already getting significant praise and with all of the COVID protocols in New Zealand, he wouldn’t necessarily be going home right away anyways. If Hooker does lose, he doesn’t slide down the rankings in the least as he’s expected to lose. However, if he does win, he’ll be responsible for derailing the Makhachev train and will likely vault to close to the top of the list in terms of contendership. Credit to him, but when it came down to it, the decision to take this fight kind of seems like a no-brainer.
Not that Hooker doesn’t stand a chance. He’s a dangerous striker with a never-say-die attitude, meaning he’ll still be there ready to pounce late in the third round, even if Makhachev has been dominating the entirety of the contest up to that point. Whether it’s on the outside or in the clinch, Hooker is equally dangerous, having an excellent knowledge of how to use his lanky frame. His kickboxing background framed his technical approach from the outside, though he’s hardly against engaging in a brawl. In the clinch, Hooker’s ability to leverage his knees has also been key to his success.
Unfortunately for Hooker, Makhachev became the most dangerous wrestler in the lightweight division the moment his teammate, Khabib Nurmagomedov, retired. In fact, the comparisons between the two haven’t stopped and nor should they. Makhachev doesn’t appear to be as good as Khabib in any area whether it be wrestling, striking power, and durability, at least he isn’t yet. However, it would only be a slight advantage in each of those areas that Khabib would be superior. That’s high praise given Khabib is an all-time great.
The biggest difference between Makhachev and Khabib is the degree of caution in which Makhachev fights. Khabib didn’t mind eating a shot in order to either deliver one of his own or secure a takedown. Makhachev is extremely risk-averse when it comes to taking any sort of damage, thus, his UFC career consists of him taking an average of less than one significant strike per minute. Much of that is due to Makhachev holding his opponents to the mat for long periods of time, but make no mistake, Makhachev’s defensive radar is always up and beeping.
Perhaps the one offensive area Makhachev has an edge over Khabib is in his submissions. That could be due to Khabib’s physicality taking priority, but Makhachev isn’t lacking in strength himself. Whether it’s an armbar or a power submission, Makhachev has proven to be a major threat to end the fight on the mat.
The bottom line is dependent upon whether Hooker can stop Makhachev’s takedowns. Hooker’s takedown defense has been good, especially since he stopped dehydrating himself to make 145. However, he’s also been fortunate enough to mostly face opposition willing to stand and trade with him, the best wrestler he’s faced since moving up to lightweight being Dustin Poirier. Poirier is a fine wrestler, but he isn’t on the level of Makhachev. There may not be a fighter on the earth who times their wrestling shots better than Makhachev. Makhachev’s attention to defense also leads me to believe the traditional puncher’s chance isn’t likely to go down. Makhachev via submission of RD3
Alexander Volkov vs. Marcin Tybura, Heavyweight
Volkov is in a tricky spot. I don’t necessarily want to say unenvious, but he’s too good for the vast majority of the heavyweight division while being a clear step below the elites. Coming off a loss to one of those elites, he’s having to play the role of gatekeeper again. Should he turn away Tybura, he’ll probably need another win, perhaps two, before he gets to return to the role of the door knocker.
Whether Volkov will ever have his elite breakthrough moment is heavily debatable. At 6’7”, he’s exceptionally tall – even for the heavyweight division – and his ability to maximize his height and reach continues to improve. There typically isn’t anything too fancy with his boxing, largely utilizing 1-2’s and a large volume of low kicks, but his front kicks are what really set his attack apart. One development that most see as a positive is the mean streak Volkov has picked up, no longer content to just pick apart his opponents over the course of a fight. Volkov didn’t let the KO come to him against Walt Harris and Alistair Overeem; he pressed the action throughout the contest and dove in for the kill once he had both of them hurt.
However, the aspect that has made the most waves as of late has been the additional muscle Volkov has put on. It’s likely that has played a role in his additional power, but the Russian largely chose to add it in hopes of making taking him to the mat a more difficult task. Given he hasn’t been taken down since packing on the pounds, it could be argued it served its purpose, but it may have come at the expense of his movement. Then again, he could be happy to have the extra pounds against Tybura as it seems likely Tybura will look to win with a ground based attack.
It’s not that Tybura is helpless on the feet. He’s actually pretty damned good. There aren’t many heavyweights on the roster who would be able to comfortably match the sheer volume Volkov throws and Tybura looks like he’d be one of them. Despite possessing a frame that shows more flab than definition, Tybura is not only a deceptive athlete, he’s also well conditioned, having gone five rounds without a major decline in his activity. The issue for Tybura is whether he’ll be able to navigate the 80” reach of Volkov. Getting through the reach of longer opponents has been an issue for Tybura, provided they don’t fade. Don’t expect Volkov to fade.
Tybura has put a greater emphasis on takedowns in his recent fights and just about everyone remembers Volkov being taken down time and again by Curtis Blaydes. The problem is, Tybura is no Curtis Blaydes and Blaydes is the only fighter in recent years to take Volkov down with consistency. Even if Tybura can get Volkov down, Volkov doesn’t tend to stay down for long and those that Tybura has been able to pound out on the mat have been novices on the mat.
Bottom line: it’s hard to see a route to victory for Tybura. That isn’t to say he doesn’t deserve this opportunity, winning five in a row to get to this point. But what is his route to victory? Outstriking Volkov seems unlikely. Tybura does appear to be the better grappler, but getting the fight to the ground, much less keeping it there, seems like chore he’s unlikely to complete. Tybura can surprise with power, but Volkov is hard to put away, Derrick Lewis and Vitaly Minakov being the only ones to successfully put him down with punches. Coming off a loss to Cyril Gane, Volkov is probably in a sour mood and looking to take it out on Tybura. Volkov via TKO of RD2
Li Jingliang vs. Khamzat Chimaev, Welterweight
I’m a bit surprised the UFC is still pushing Chimaev in the manner they are. Just about all of the momentum the Chechen created from last summer’s splash has been lost due to inactivity as he dealt with all sorts of health issues, primarily COVID. I guess the splash was big enough that some of the ripples are still in effect….
There’s no denying Chimaev’s attitude helps with his popularity. There’s nothing a fan loves more than someone willing to throwdown against anyone, anywhere, anytime. That describes Chimaev to a tee. Up until this month, he held the modern record for quickest fight turnaround, doing so by going down in weight for the second fight. Massive for the welterweight division, Chimaev’s wrestling technique has been overshadowed by the pure physicality he’s shown when he drags his opponent to the mat. Perhaps most impressive has been his ability to keep his opponent down, not needing to drag anyone back to the mat once again in a round thus far in his UFC run. It’s not like it’s just lay-and-prey either, landing a total of 192 strikes in just under nine minutes of control time in his first two UFC contests.
There were questions about Chimaev’s striking that many believed he answered when he starched Gerald Meerschaert with a right cross. I’m not going to say it was a lucky punch, but Meerschaert isn’t exactly a defensive savant on the feet. Further along those lines, neither John Phillips nor Rhys McKee, Chimaev’s other two opponents, were equipped to deal with his takedowns. I won’t go so far as to say the UFC gift-wrapped each of Chimaev’s opponents for him, but he was extremely fortunate his scheduling played out the way it did. Chimaev is no doubt a talented prospect, but he’s still largely unproven.
It’s hard to believe Jingliang will be bowled over in the wrestling department. The Chinese representative gained his entry into the UFC on the back of his grappling prowess. Sure, his wrestling isn’t exactly a strength, but it’s hardly a weakness and he possesses far more physicality than McKee and he’s far from a floundering mess on the mat the way Phillips is. It’s hard to see Chimaev mauling him in the same manner he did those two I just mentioned.
There’s still a large mystery to how the fight will play out on the feet. There hasn’t been an extended exchange on the feet in a fight with Chimaev, though there’s no doubt he has all sorts of power. Jingliang’s chin has been particularly impressive. He has been knocked down several times throughout his UFC career, but has sprung back to his feet in a hurry. As far as Jingliang’s own striking, he vacillates between being a brawler and trying to be more technical. Though he has made progress with his fundamentals, there’s no doubt he’s still far more comfortable in an environment where fists fly freely. The question is if he’ll want to risk that with Chimaev’s power.
The one big unknown is Chimaev’s gas tank. There’s no doubt he’s well-conditioned, but he’s only entered the second round three times and the pace he tends to push is exceptionally difficult to maintain over 15 minutes. Jingliang is a huge step up from any previous opponent Chimaev has previously had and has never had issues with his stamina. Throw in that Chimaev expressed doubt in his ability to fight again when he was recovering from COVID and it seems like his previously unshakable confidence may be a problem. If Chimaev had been more active socially heading into this fight, I’d probably be picking him. However, his silence heading into this week doesn’t seem like a good thing in my eyes. Jingliang via decision
Magomed Ankalaev vs. Volkan Oezdemir, Light Heavyweight
There are so many MMA fans that are already writing off Oezdemir, it blows my mind. I’m not saying I don’t understand why the bulk of fans are picking Ankalaev to win, but the number who seem to believe this will be a cakewalk for the heavily favored Russian is ludicrous.
Let’s do a quick rundown of Oezdemir’s UFC losses. First, was to Daniel Cormier, a former two-division champion. Second, was Anthony Smith, someone who has fought for the light heavyweight title and only lost to best in the division himself. Third, was Dominick Reyes, someone whom many believe beat Jon Jones, Oezdemir losing a razor-thin decision. And lastly, a violent KO at the hands of Jiri Prochazka, someone whom many believe is the division’s champion in waiting. Even if one were to say Oezdemir didn’t rightly deserve his win over Aleksander Rakic, just being competitive with Rakic is no small feat. Besides, that win over Rakic is arguably more impressive than Ankalaev’s best win, which would probably be Nikita Krylov, which was also a closely contested contest.
Everyone knows what makes Oezdemir such a dangerous man to face: his power. Scoring consecutive KO’s in under a minute against notable competition is what blasted him into prominence in the first place. However, while many will dispute Oezdemir didn’t beat Rakic – for the record, I too scored the fight for Rakic – he did take him to a tight decision. It proves Oezdemir doesn’t have to win a fight via KO, even if that is his preferred method. In fact, Oezdemir’s technical striking prowess is one of the most underrated aspects of his game. It isn’t on the level of Ankalaev, but the difference between the two isn’t a gulfing chasm as many would insinuate.
That said, Ankalaev may be the most technical fighter at 205, and I’m not just talking about his striking. Though still incredibly methodical in his movements, the robotic nature of Ankalaev’s movement has melted away, resulting in a fighter whose technique flows naturally, nothing being forced. His punches come straight down the middle, typically beating a fighter throwing looping hooks… an aspect Oezdemir has been known to do. However, the biggest advantage Ankalaev will have will come on the ground as Oezdemir’s grappling is still a HUGE question mark. Ankalaev tends to hit his takedowns with perfectly timed shots before climbing on top to deliver his signature GnP. If there’s any aspect in which Ankalaev is a more powerful striker than Oezdemir, that would be it.
While I shake my head at those underestimating Oezdemir, it isn’t because I’m picking the Swiss representative. Ankalaev is the rightful favorite in the contest as he’s got the edge in just about every significant category, including durability. However, the one in which Oezdemir does have the edge, power, is always tricky to deal with. Ankalaev tends to take the path of least resistance, leading me to think he’ll look to ground Oezdemir and look to pound him out. Oezdemir’s takedown defense has improved since his UFC debut, but I still wouldn’t say it’s at a level to consistently thwart Ankalaev. Ankalaev via TKO of RD2
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