It didn’t end on the world’s strongest note, but UFC Vegas 54 offered a lot of clarity up and down the UFC’s divisions. Jan Blachowicz kept himself in the conversation around the light heavyweight title, Ryan Spann made it clear that he’s ready to climb back up the rankings, and Katlyn Chookagian kept her death grip on the #1 contender spot in the women’s flyweight division.
So, is Blachowicz about to find himself competing for UFC gold once again? Is it time for Chookagian vs. Shevchenko 2? And is Vivi Araujo a dark horse title contender?
To answer those questions—and a couple other things—I’ll be using the classic Silva/Shelby fight booking methodology from the UFC of years past. That means pitting winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured talent up against one another. Hopefully, by following that model, a few of these bout ideas will actually make it off the page and into the Octagon. Now, let’s get to the fights!
It wasn’t exactly a prime display of ‘Polish Power,’ but Blachowicz looked rock solid for long stretches of his fight against Alexander Rakic, largely shutting down the Austrian’s kicking game with a series of well timed checks and some smooth punching blitzes. Whether or not an injury TKO is enough to get Blachowicz back to a title shot, I’m not so sure. But he’s still the division’s most regularly entertaining top contender. With Magomed Ankalaev vs. Anthony Smith looking like it may have title implications of its own, the first thing that Blachowicz is likely going to have to do is wait. But just for the sake of a fresh and interesting matchup (and because I don’t think Anthony Smith is getting the next crack at gold win or lose against Anakalaev) I’ll say that Smith vs. Blachowicz is the fight to make. It’s kind of a surprise they haven’t faced off already.
An especially brutal way to lose for Rakic, since it almost certainly is going to mean that he’ll be sidelined for the rest of the year. I’m not at all sure whether or not he would have won this bout the way it was playing out, considering the amount of damage that his other leg was taking, but he at least proved himself capable of controlling Blachowicz for an entire round when the opportunity presented itself. In a recent post to his social media pages, Rakic said he’s hoping for a rematch. I can’t say where Blachowicz will be in a few months time, but it seems unlikely that he’ll just be waiting for the ‘Rocket’ on the sidelines. Dominick Reyes has been taking some time away though. When he comes back that seems like it’d be an excellent matchup. Reyes vs. Rakic would be a solid bounce-back opportunity for both men, once Rakic is healed up.
A huge mistake from Ion Cutelaba turned into a great opportunity for Ryan Spann. The ‘Hulk’ looked like he had Spann all figured out when it came to landing takedowns. But the predictability of the approach and a wildly off-balanced overhand meant he also gave his neck to ‘Superman’ on a platter. The result was a quick first round sub and a return to winning ways. Most of light heavyweight is booked out in front of him, but there’s one upcoming fight that feels like it’d be a perfect outing for Spann no matter who grabs the victory. Alexander Gustafsson is returning to 205 once again to battle Nikita Krylov. The winner of that fight is still going to be a mile away from any kind of contender status. Spann vs. the Gustafsson/Krylov winner seems like the best way for all three men to keep climbing the division no matter who shakes out of it with the wins.
For a moment, it looked like Davey Grant was letting his battle against Louis Smolka slip away from him. His offense was crushing in round 1, but Smolka found chances to land his own shots in round 2, and even got some time on top where his game really shines. But if Grant seemed like he was slowing down in the second frame, he absolutely stepped on the gas in round 3, landing several low kicks that had Smolka totally hobbled on his way to the GnP KO win. It’s just the bounce-back Grant needed after two straight losses, and should have him in the sights of another bantamweight looking to claw his way into the top 15. Fights with Chris Gutierrez, Brian Kelleher, Julio Arce, or Raoni Barcelos would all be solid. Of those, Julio Arce is coming off a nice win over Daniel Santos and seems like he’d make the most fun style clash. Julio Arce vs. Davey Grant would be a great mid-card bantamweight action bout.
Not the most decisive victory of her career, but Katlyn Chookagian has also made a career of scraping out the kinds of fights that people would say weren’t the most decisive performances. She knows how to hang tough, how to throw in volume, and she’s increasingly improved her ability to sit down on punches to do a little damage when opponents really try to mix it up with her. Ribas had big moments in every round, both landing punches and hitting takedowns. But she just couldn’t create enough grappling offense or land enough of the better strikes to steer the judges her way. That’s 4-straight for Chookagian and she’s gonna start looking like a contender again soon if this keeps up. After her bout, Chookagian called out “the French chick,” and that sounds like a rock solid idea. Katlyn Chookagian vs. Manon Fiorot, whoever comes out of that with a win has a strong argument for fighting for the belt.
Especially considering how badly Araujo got hurt in round 1, this was an exceptional performance from the Brazilian. She landed consistently with the kind of power that kept Lee from applying her own pressure, and followed that up with a consistent, high-energy takedown game well into the third round. With how booked up the top 10 is right now, Araujo has one of two very clear bouts ahead of her: Alexa Grasso, or Manon Fiorot. Between them, Fiorot seems like the woman who’s more likely on the fast track to a title shot. So how about Vivi Araujo vs. Alexa Grasso. Grasso may not have Araujo’s power, but she’s one of the most consistent, fastest handed strikers in the division. Should be a solid test to see if either woman can make a charge toward contention. Araujo vs. Grasso is a fantastic strawweight scrap.
It’s been more than a few minutes since Michael Johnson last picked up a win in the Octagon, but Alan Patrick spent just a little too much time trading hands with him on the feet and paid a big price for it. While he’s never going to be the ideal of a well-rounded MMA fighter, Johnson showed that—given his kind of fight—he can still be a lot of fun to watch. So let’s make sure he gets his kind of fight. Bookings against Jalin Turner, Damir Hadzovic, Nasrat Haqparast, and John Makdessi all seem like appropriate options. For my buck, at least among those, Makdessi has gotta be the one. Another longtime UFC vet who has been notably grappling-averse for his entire career. Two proven strikers with a lot of miles under their belts. Makdessi vs. Johnson seems like a perfect striking showcase between longtime lightweight vets.
A controlling, fairly one-sided grappling-heavy performance for Virna Jandiroba. Hill was able to keep from getting tapped and keep scrambles going, but she could never quite get to winning positions. It makes for a decent enough victory for ‘Carcara’ if not quite the submission showcase that she might have hoped for. After the bout she called for a top 10 opponent, and it seems like a fair progression given that her losses have only come to other great grapplers in the division. It’s too bad Amanda Lemos is fighting Michelle Waterson, because either woman would make a solid next trip to the Octagon for the Brazilian. Otherwise, Tecia Torres is coming off a hard loss to Mackenzie Dern, seems like a bout against Jandiroba would give her a chance to prove that she can handle a similar style of fight against someone a little less dynamic. Jandiroba vs. Torres should be exactly the kind of step that Jandiroba is looking for.
I’m not at all convinced that Andre Petroski deserved to be the biggest underdog on Saturday’s card. But with the fight primed to take place largely on the mat it seemed like a reasonable bet that Maximov would be the better grappler there. Whether that might have been true over the long run, we’ll never know. But, that’s certainly not how things played out for as long as this fight lasted. Maximov gave Petroski a look at his neck from the front headlock, Petroski turned it into an anaconda choke with a quickness for the win. That gives Petroski 3-straight victories to start his Octagon career. I’m not sure he’s ready for a big step up, but following this win he had a call-out in mind that would make for exactly that. Don’t know that Gerald Meerschaert will be ready to fight in 3 weeks at UFC 275, but even a few weeks further down the road that fight would be a lot of fun. Andre Petroski vs. Gerald Meerschaert would be an excellent middleweight grappling battle.
OTHER BOUTS: Ion Cutelaba vs. Jim Crute, Lewis Smolka vs. Alejandro Perez, Amanda Ribas vs. Joanne Wood, Manuel Torres vs. Natan Levy, Frank Camacho vs. Jesse Ronson, Allan Nascimento vs. CJ Vergara, Jake Hadley vs. Kleydson Rodrigues, Andrea Lee vs. Jennifer Maia, Alan Patrick vs. Leonardo Santos, Angela Hill vs. Herrig/Kowlkiewicz loser, Tatsuro Taira vs. Carlos Hernandez, Carlos Candelario vs. Daniel Lacerda, Nick Maximov vs. Jordan Wright
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