Despite the crowded nature of this card – 15 fights! – it really boils down to one fight: the main event. However, while it’s hardly shocking news that the main event is the most consequential fight, it’s about as good of a Fight Night main event as the UFC can provide… even if it’s at heavyweight!
Fan favorite Derrick Lewis and wrestling bulldozer Curtis Blaydes square off in a grudge match that has been brewing for some time. However, the funny thing about the contest is even though Lewis and Blaydes are two of the top heavyweights in the game, it’s unlikely the winner would get a title shot any time in the next year… and that’s with both of them having wins over another contender in Alexander Volkov! Stipe Miocic and Francis Ngannou battle it out for the big gold belt at the end of March and it appears Jon Jones is waiting in the wings for the victor. If Ngannou wins, whose to say Miocic doesn’t wait around for the possibility of a rubber match given he already has a win over Ngannou? Even though Lewis and Blaydes are easily the superior combatants on this card, it appears more likely the winner of the co-main event would get a title shot….
Curtis Blaydes vs. Derrick Lewis, Heavyweight
There has to be some major beef between Lewis and Blaydes. From a logical standpoint, it makes no sense for Lewis to call out Blaydes. Owning a win over Ngannou, Lewis very well could have been the first challenger Ngannou faced if he wins the title from Miocic. On the other hand, Blaydes has lost twice to Ngannou. Blaydes needs the win over Lewis far more than Lewis needs the win over Blaydes. And yet, it was Lewis who made the callout….
To be fair, Lewis also understands the more he fights, the more money he makes. Given his one-of-a-kind personality and many notable post-fight interviews, the UFC has always been happy to oblige him. Plus, only Ngannou has successfully matched or exceeded Lewis’ punching power on a consistent basis. It only takes a single punch from Lewis to change the trajectory of a fight, something Blaydes cannot make a claim to, though the potential appears to be there for that skill to develop.
What Blaydes can make a claim to is being the more consistent fighter. He may be the best heavyweight wrestler in MMA history this side of Cain Velasquez. The primary factor that separates him from Velasquez is potentially a big issue in this contest: his stamina. Whereas Velasquez could go five hard rounds with takedowns being his primary emphasis – so long as he was at sea level – Blaydes faded hard down the stretch in his win over Alexander Volkov this summer. While it’s safe to assume Blaydes worked to address that issue, Lewis is harder to takedown and keep down… at least as long as Lewis wants to get back to his feet.
One of the regular strategies Lewis employs to conserve energy is allowing his opponent to exhaust themselves to keep him down and looking for the positioning to deliver damage. Against Blaydes, that’s a risky proposition as Blaydes is improving in his ability to deliver meaningful damage. Just ask Alistair Overeem. Plus, even if Blaydes can’t score the takedown, he’s proven he can hold someone against the cage for long stretches. It’s rare he does a lot of damage from there – though he is also improving in that aspect – but control is something he does very well.
This fight will be won and lost on the breaks. Sure, Lewis is far superior in space, but Blaydes isn’t going to give him space, rendering that aspect largely moot. Blaydes may be able to exhaust Lewis and pound him out on the mat, but the most likely scenario appears to be him attempting to do that will exhausting himself in the process. If he slows to the point his takedowns are sluggish, Lewis could very well blast a flagging Blaydes into oblivion. Even when he’s tired, Lewis has proven he can still execute a fight ending sequence. Blaydes has proven difficult to put away, only Ngannou finding success in that. It’s a coin flip whether he can avoid Lewis’ finishing blow. It’ll be a close call, but I think he can. Blaydes via decision
Ketlen Vieira vs. Yana Kunitskaya, Women’s Bantamweight
When these two were originally scheduled to compete this past summer, there was an outside shot the winner could have ended up as the next challenger for Amanda Nunes’ bantamweight title. After Vieira pulled out, both were rescheduled against other competition and emerged successful. That should mean the outside shot of the winner getting a title shot should remain… but for some reason, it feels like likely now than it did then. Nonetheless, it’s likely the winner of this contest will be closer to a title shot than Lewis or Blaydes. That should say something about the state of the women’s bantamweight division.
Part of that is due to neither having the most aesthetically pleasing style, Kunitskaya in particular. One of the most physically strong 135ers in the woman’s division, Kunitskaya has made a habit of mauling her opposition in the clinch against the fence, stifling their offense and wearing them down with all manners of punches, knees and elbows in close quarters. It rarely results in a finish, but it’s been effective thus far.
It’ll be difficult for Kunitskaya to implement that strategy against Vieira as she’s one of the few in the division who might be able to match her core strength, if not exceed it. Of course, Vieira has proven more willing to throw fisticuffs in the middle of the cage, slowly improving her technique, though she is still on the sloppy end of the scale. Not very quick, Vieira’s willingness to trade cost her against Irene Aldana, though her power has proven to make some of her opposition hesitant to exchange. However, her base remains her suffocating grappling.
This is a winnable contest for Kunitskaya. She’s quicker than Vieira and Cat Zingano proved it isn’t impossible to bully Vieira, at least for short periods. Even if Kunitskaya can’t control Vieira against the fence, she has flashed a jab with some effectiveness leaving a possibility of her being able to chip away with that and low kicks. However, her biggest hole has me leaning towards Vieira: her takedown defense. Vieira tends to find her way to the mat one way or another and I’d be shocked if she doesn’t find multiple takedowns this time around. Vieira via decision
Andrei Arlovski vs. Tom Aspinall, Heavyweight
Arlovski is a difficult figure to place. Not only is he a former UFC heavyweight champion, he’s the all-time UFC leader in heavyweight wins. You’d think those accomplishments would make him an all-time great, but very few look at him that way. That’s what happens when longevity and claiming the title when the best heavyweights at the time are in a different organization are major factors in those accolades. Regardless Arlovski deserves a level of respect he doesn’t always seem to get, especially given he’s still collecting wins against respectable opposition despite making his UFC debut over 20 years ago.
To clarify, there is a big difference between respectable opposition and elite opposition, effectively making Arlovski a mid-tier gatekeeper. That shouldn’t be seen as a denigration of Arlovski as he is 42 and it should only be natural to expect his physical capabilities to be on the decline. Of course, Arlovski has been able to stave off the effects of Father Time as he has never been a more technical or diverse striker than he currently is. He makes use of his left hand – there may not be a fighter in the history of MMA who was more reliant on their power hand than vintage Arlovski – and low kicks have become a staple of his arsenal. His chin isn’t as bad as many would advertise either as he has learned to roll with punches.
Of course, Arlovski has continually been put to sleep by the hardest hitters in the division – Jairzinho Rozenstruik and Francis Ngannou being the most recent to put him away – and the question here is whether Aspinall qualifies as one. Yes, Aspinall put away both of his UFC opponents, but neither would be labeled as proven quantities. However, it’s easy to get excited when the longest contest of those contests was 95 seconds. The speed with which Aspinall eliminated his opposition is incredible, not just in the UFC. He’s even reputed to be a hell of a grappler to boot, owning a BJJ black belt.
Where Aspinall is a mystery is beyond the first round as he has yet to win a fight that leaves the opening frame. To be fair, one of those losses was as DQ loss, but a fighter that hasn’t won beyond the first round will have questions hovering over their head regarding their stamina, particularly at heavyweight. Despite his age, Arlovski has had one of the better heavyweight gas tanks and has a clear route to victory if he can survive the opening frame. It’s not an impossibility, but I don’t see him doing that. Aspinall via TKO of RD1
- There are zero secrets to Darrick Minner’s game. With 22 of his 25 career wins coming via submission – along with 21 of those wins coming in the first round – he’s going to try to get the fight to the ground as quick as possible and go for the finish, usually a guillotine or an RNC. Given the amount of effort he puts into pursuit of the finish, he tends to wear himself out quickly to the point where he strictly goes into survival mode should the fight leave the opening round, rarely making it the 15-minute time limit. The question is whether he can catch Charles Rosa, traditionally one of the more dogged 145ers in the division. Perhaps for the first time in his UFC career, Rosa may not only end up have an athletic advantage, he’ll likely end up with an advantage on the feet despite his heavy reliance on low kicks. However, it is Rosa’s own prowess on the ground that defines his game, possessing both an active guard and top game. Perhaps most importantly for him, he’s proven very difficult to submit. He should survive Minner’s early attack and find a finish. Rosa via submission of RD2
- It’s reasonable to expect Aleksei Oleinik to fall off a cliff at any moment. After all, he’s 43-years old with 74 fights under his belt. That’s a lot of wear and tear. However, the longtime vet has never been all that reliant on physical advantages on his opposition anyway, winning on savvy, guile, and what may be the deepest bag of unorthodox submissions in the game. No one else in UFC history has an Ezekiel choke on their resume. Oleinik has two. Opponents tend to do everything in their power to avoid hitting the mat with him as Oleinik’s movement on the feet is glacial. Of course, Chris Daukaus isn’t exactly known for his speed either, but he’s proven to be a better athlete than what most gave him credit for when he entered the organization late last summer. In fact, Daukaus’ hand speed has actually been pretty impressive. Given Oleinik’s durability – once a hallmark – appears to be fading, it wouldn’t be surprising in the least to see Daukaus put him down in a hurry. However, Daukaus’ takedown defense hasn’t been tested and Oleinik tends to eat untested grapplers alive. Oleinik’s power needs to be respected and he has plenty of tricks to get the contest to the mat. He’s most likely to do that early, spelling an early night in the showers for both. Oleinik via submission of RD1
- Thanks to his impressive collegiate wrestling accolades, Phil Hawes was seen as a mega-prospect about five years ago. Including his appearance on TUF, he had a stretch of three losses in four contests and the bloom appeared to be off the rose. Hawes hit the gym, earned his way into the UFC through DWCS, and has impressed enough that many are once again on the Hawes-train. The improvement in his striking has been the most noticeable improvement, eliminating his last two opponents in a combined 96 seconds thanks to the power in his fists. He’ll try to replicate his success against Nassourdine Imavov, a lanky youngster whose bests days are ahead. Known as the Russian Sniper, his 6’3” frame makes it easy for him to live up to that nickname with his outside attack. It isn’t like he’s incapable of putting together a strong attack in close quarters either as his knees in the clinch have proven to be devastating in several contests. However, while he isn’t a bad grappler, his wrestling leaves much to be desired. No matter how impressive Hawes’ striking has been of late, wrestling is still his bread and butter. I don’t anticipate a quick finish this time around, but Hawes should find a way to end this before the final bell. Hawes via TKO of RD2