Given we’re in the midst of a stretch of three UFC PPV’s over a stretch of six weekends, it’s a surprise the UFC has been able to put as many quality fights on their recent Fight Night cards. The last Fight Night card featured Petr Yan and Merab Dvalishvili at the top of the card, but it wasn’t the only contest on the card. Alexander Volkov, who had headlined seven cards, was in the co-main event. Nikita Krylov and Ryan Spann were scheduled to headline a card earlier this year before a late cancellation of that fight. UFC San Antonio has similar depth.
Marlon Vera could earn himself a title shot if he can overcome recent interim title challenger, Cory Sandhagen. Not only is Holly Holm a former champion, she’s headlined seven cards, including one just last year and three of those cards being PPV’s. There’s also Manel Kape, whom many believe can become the superstar the UFC has been waiting for in the flyweight division. Like Vera, Kape could be a victory away from a title shot. Since the UFC began running cards on the regular week to week, this could very well be the most impressive stretch of five events they’ve ever put together. Given the spat of offerings from other organizations and it’s safe to say there has never been a better time to be an MMA fan.
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Marlon Vera vs. Cory Sandhagen, Bantamweight
This is one of the easiest UFC main events to break down that I’ve seen in quite a while. That hardly means it’s an easy contest to pick, but the basics of the contest are simple. Vera is a powerhouse; Sandhagen is a volume machine. Not much else to it, at least on the surface.
That isn’t to say Sandhagen is incapable of finishing his opponents; his last three wins have been finishes. That isn’t to say Vera can’t win a decision either; half of his victories in his current four-fight win streak have been decisions. But there is a distinct difference in how each of them get to those points. Sandhagen tends to throw a barrage of strikes at his opponent, overwhelming them until either the accumulated damage creates a stoppage or springing an attack on them in the midst of the barrage that finishes the job. In general, it might seem like this is the safer approach, but Sandhagen’s approach has frequently left him open to being countered. For example, he continually threw spinning attacks at TJ Dillashaw that Dillashaw countered by taking Sandhagen’s back in the middle of the spin. To be fair, Sandhagen has toned down the amount of high-risk maneuvers since that time, but his overall aggression still leaves him vulnerable defensively.
Vera is far more patient than Sandhagen. In fact, it could be argued his biggest weakness is his lack of volume, even with him having greatly improved his output from his early days in the UFC. Vera’s primary forms of attack is keeping his jab in his opponent’s face and throwing out a barrage of kicks. The kicks tend to primarily focus on the legs, but he has no problem issues in throwing them to all areas. The variety of kicks is impressive too. Front kicks, push kicks, head kicks… even upkicks when he’s on his back have proven to be effective for Vera. The reason Vera has found success is the lethal nature of his strikes. Yes, his kicks are considered to be his most dangerous strike, rightfully so. But Vera has power in his fists and elbows in the clinch too. Kicking range isn’t the only place where Vera can finish his opponents.
What the contest comes down to is how well one believes Sandhagen’s chin will hold up. Sandhagen has never been finished by strikes. He has been submitted – and Vera has one of the most dangerous guards in the division – but he’s never been put away with strikes. Sandhagen has faced some of the best in the division too. John Lineker, Marlon Moraes, and Petr Yan are some of the most venomous strikers that have populated the bantamweight division in recent years. Plus, the two men Vera last finished, Dominick Cruz and Frankie Edgar, were UFC champions over a decade ago. In other words, while they have deserved name value, they also have a LOT of mileage on their bodies. It was no surprise their bodies were unable to withstand the power of Vera.
On the flip side, Vera has developed a real mean streak in recent years. He’s always been a KO threat, but there is a malevolent streak that wasn’t there in his early career. Plus, he’s been racking up knockdowns at an unheard of rate for the bantamweight division. In back-to-back fights, he’s racked up three knockdowns, plus several other times where he hurt his opponent without them hitting the mat. Furthermore, while Vera tends to start slow, much of that has to do with him gathering reads. He has a sixth sense of knowing how to process those reads so he can exploit his opponent’s holes. Perhaps most importantly, while Vera takes a lot of damage, he takes it well. His pace is so deliberate, he tends to see everything coming his way. As they say, it’s what you can’t see that gets ya….
There’s no doubt this contest is going to be a barnburner and highly competitive. Anyone who tells you they know who is going to win is lying. Just like me, they have their reasons for why they believe a particular outcome will emerge, but that’s it. Ultimately, I’m leaning towards Vera. He has momentum and confidence, in addition to Sandhagen being there to be hit. Sandhagen is tough as nails, but he has been hurt before. If there is a chink in the armor, Vera is going to have five rounds to exploit it. Plus, the last guy to beat Vera, Jose Aldo, utilized a lot of grappling control to beat Vera. I don’t think Sandhagen has the type of safety-first approach that would win him rounds in that manner. Instead, I expect he’ll put himself at the mercy of Vera for the entirety of the fight. Not that he can’t win – there’s a lot of different ways for this contest to play out – but I favor the meaner fighter in this one. Vera via TKO of RD3
Holly Holm vs. Yana Santos, Women’s Bantamweight
Regardless of whether you believe Holm should have been awarded the victory over Ketlen Vieira, it can’t be denied that she didn’t look the same as she did before her 19-month layoff due to knee surgery. Perhaps her shaky performance was due to not having shaken off all the cage rust, perhaps it was because Holm had entered her 40’s by that point. What can’t be denied is Holm has done her part to mitigate any physical decline as she was in fantastic shape and still appears to be. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a version of Holm where she appeared to be in anything other than optimal shape. Holm still had the conditioning to go five rounds effectively. It was that she wasn’t moving with the same speed and efficiency as we’ve all grown accustomed to that ultimately resulted in her loss.
If age was the primary culprit, there isn’t much more Holm can do. Father Time comes for us all. If it was cage rust following the long layoff, there’s no reason to believe she won’t be back to the form we’ve come to expect from her. Given how easily Holm has been able to transition to featherweight at times without looking like she’s giving up any size at that class, it’s a wonder she’s always had such impressive cardio at 135.
As Holm has advanced in her career, she’s become more reliant on making her contests a battle of attrition. She has frequently pushed her opponents against the cage, utilizing elbows, short punches, and knees to wear them down while maintaining long periods of control. It isn’t pretty, but it has been effective… when she’s the bigger fighter.
Even though Santos has experience fighting as heavy at lightweight, I’d say it’s safe to say Holm will be the bigger fighter. Not that Santos is likely to be dominated should the fight take place against the cage for long stretches. In fact, Santos has had the most success in her UFC run with those types of fight, mighty curious for many given her background was as a striker. Even if Santos hasn’t lived up to her reputation as a striker, her clinch ground game have proven to make up for that, largely due to her being above average athletically in a division that is short on athletes. That said, when she has lost in the UFC, it has come against superior athletes. Even worse, she’s lost in spectacular fashion every time.
Two years ago, no one would hesitate to pick Holm in this contest. Santos is well-rounded, but not very dangerous. But given Holm didn’t look herself against Vieira – including getting hurt on several occasions – she could very well be in a permanent decline. If she is, I anticipate Holm will do absolutely everything in her power to slow the decline. Thus, given Santos’ UFC losses have come against fighters who were clearly superior athletes, it feels safe to say Holm will come out on top. Plus, this will be Santos’ first contest since giving birth. She is at the advantage of having returned from pregnancy before, so she has an idea of what to expect. Then again, the first time was about a decade ago and the adjustment could be more difficult this time around. Expect there to be lots of clinching against the cage with the former champion getting back on track. Holm via decision
Andrea Lee vs. Maycee Barber, Women’s Flyweight
Barber is one of the most polarizing figures on the roster. When she first joined the roster, she was claiming she was going to be the youngest champion, breaking Jon Jones record. Hubris got the better of her, as a torn ACL against savvy veteran Roxanne Modafferi upended those hopes. Barber’s rough times weren’t over with that loss, but she has since rebounded and is currently on a three-fight winning streak.
The polarization is whether she still deserves the push she is being given. The current winning streak isn’t without controversy, as most believed she lost to Miranda Maverick and the other opponents were favorable matchups for her. To be fair, Barber shouldn’t have been pushed as she was in the first place. The issue is she publicly talked a big game and the UFC felt obliged to give her every opportunity to reach that goal. Now that she’s being brought along at a reasonable pace, she’s been able to show growth and maturity. To put it in the simplest way possible, she’s not as bad as her detractors say, even if she isn’t as good as her supporters claim.
What can’t be denied is she is physically gifted. Incredibly strong for the weight class, she’s a bully in the cage, throwing with power and pushing her opponent against the cage for long stretches. It isn’t the prettiest and she still has a long way to go in terms of sharpening her tools. That’s where Lee may be able to upend her. While Lee has long been lauded for her Muay Thai background, she has always been short on power. In other words, she frequently has been able to outland her opponents on the feet, but still manages to come out on the short end of the decision.
Then again, that has less to do with Lee’s lack of power and more to do with her willingness to fight where her opponent wants to fight. Lee is well-rounded, capable of wrestling and grappling some, even though she’s at her best fighting on the outside. Lee’s ego gets the best of her and tells her she can win in those areas. She can… just not every time. In fact, she isn’t winning those exchanges most of the time. What she should do is consistently put herself in positions that provide her the best chance of winning. If she had been doing that since coming into the UFC, it’s plausible she could have already fought for the title.
There’s no doubt Barber is the physically superior athlete in this contest. She hits harder, she’s stronger, and she’s faster. What she doesn’t have is the fight IQ that tends to come with experience. She has been growing in that aspect, but she’s still a way away from where she’s going to be when she’s in her fighting prime. For this fight, it could be where it needs to be, provided she continues to sharpen the tools in her shed. I’m not convinced they are. Lee’s clinch – Barber’s favorite area to operate – is superior to anyone Barber has faced. Plus, I don’t know if Barber has know-how to cut off Lee’s angles on the outside consistently. Throw in the fact that Lee is fighting in front of her home crowd – and Texas judges are notoriously homers – and I smell an upset brewing. Lee via decision
Alex Perez vs. Manel Kape, Flyweight
As I indicated in the introduction, many believe it will only be a matter of time before Kape is fighting for a title. Though it wouldn’t be fair to call him a prospect when he was signed by the UFC, he wasn’t exactly a finished product. The UFC threw him into the deep end anyway, pitting him against the likely next title challenger in Alexandre Pantoja. Dropping that fight – as well as his sophomore effort against Matheus Nicolau – showed Kape needed a bit more seasoning. Since that time, Kape has shown exactly why the UFC was so high on his abilities.
Very few flyweights have proven to have the power of Kape. Even fewer have shown the dynamism. John Lineker and John Dodson both had the power, but almost solely in their fists. Deiveson Figueiredo is about the only other one who can match the versatility of Kape. You name the technique, Kape can throw it with power and accuracy. That isn’t to say he couldn’t tighten things up some, but he can explode with a flying attack when his opponent is least expecting it as his level of explosion is unmatched. Unfortunately, at least in terms of wins and loses, Kape is more showman than fighter, allowing for moments of inactivity. In the process, Kape’s opponents get to hang around if he doesn’t put them away right away like David Dvorak did.
That said, there’s a reason to believe he won’t do that with Perez. Dvorak is a point fighter with minimal power. Perez is the type of fighter to take the fight to him. It’s been a blessing and a curse for him. He’s delivered some impressive finishes by overwhelming his opposition. For example, he overwhelmed Jose Torres with 84 strikes in less than four minutes to get him out of the cage. He also finished Jussier Formiga with leg kicks within the first round. However, he was also steamrolled by Figueiredo and Pantoja – his last two opponents — in less than two minutes as they were ready for his aggression. Perhaps most telling for this contest, they were superior athletes.
The issue with Perez is he’s an average athlete at best, at least in terms of the flyweight division. His speed is limited and he doesn’t have the power to dispose of his opponents with a single strike. Those he’s been able to overwhelm have been limited athletes. As already stated, Kape is one of the best athletes in the division, if not the best. Right up there with the likes of Figueiredo and Pantoja.
I’ve made it clear who I favor. That doesn’t mean Perez doesn’t have a road to victory. He’s the better wrestler and may be able to grind out an ugly decision, especially if Kape walks in thinking victory is owed to him. However, Kape seems to understand he needs a win more than he needs a highlight reel if he wants a title shot. He already has scored a pair of impressive finishes and had a couple of moments against Dvorak that can be added to his reel, even if he didn’t get the finish. Plus, Kape’s grappling has notably improved from his time in Rizin, even if it’s just about stuffing takedowns and getting back to his feet. Given Perez’s aggression, I expect a finish to arise. Kape via KO of RD 1
- If you’re thinking you just read about Austin Lingo, you’d be correct. He was scheduled to fight Ricardo Ramos just two weeks prior to this event, but Ramos’ disastrous weight cut – he came in at 154 for a featherweight contest – prompted a cancellation of the contest. While I appreciate the UFC getting him back in the cage quickly, it also has to be a concern that he’s cutting weight again to the featherweight limit. If it hasn’t affected him too badly, Lingo has proven himself to be a solid pressure fighter who throws with power. The problem is, Nate Landwehr does the same thing and has done so against a higher level of competition. In fact, the list of fighters who press a harder pace than Landwehr is short. Landwehr fought Darren Elkins in the style of fight Elkins thrives on… and emerged victorious. Granted, it wasn’t a prime Elkins, but it’s still a hell of an accomplishment. The one thing Lingo has that Landwehr doesn’t is one-punch power. Landwehr has traditionally been durable, but he has been put away quickly when he’s been caught by surprise. If you’re standing in front of him trading fisticuffs, you probably need a baseball bat to put him down. Bottom line is Landwehr will push Lingo like he’s never been pushed. We’re going to learn a lot about Lingo, but given his cardio won’t be helped by a second quick weight cut, I have a hard time believing Landwehr won’t emerge victorious. Landwehr via TKO of RD3
- If one were to point out the most curious signing out of DWCS, many would single out Chidi Njokuani. Formerly a fixture in Bellator – he even headlined one of their cards – it seemed odd for him to take the route to the promotion given he was 26 fights into his career at that point. After all, it’s typically prospects who go the route of DWCS. He’s turned out to be a great addition. Had ringside doctors deemed the cut on Gregory Rodrigues’ head to be too risky to send him back out, Njokuani would be sitting with a 3-0 record. Now that he’s not killing himself to make 170, he’s been able to open up his offense, throwing with greater frequency and power. On the flip side, Albert Duraev has proven to be somewhat of a disappointment since his DWCS signing. Entering the UFC with a reputation as a mauler, Duraev’s wrestling hasn’t come close to matching its pre-UFC reputation. When he does get the takedown, his control has been a mixed bag. Most concerning, Duraev’s chin is becoming a major concern, having suffered knockdowns in each of his UFC contests. In terms of pure striking technique, Njokuani appears to be superior to either of Duraev’s previous UFC opponents. Given he isn’t lacking for power, I think Njokuani can put a hurting on Duraev, though his lack of lateral movement has me believing Duraev is a live dog once the fight is beyond the first round. Njokuani via TKO of RD1
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