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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

UFC Vegas 20: Fights to make

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UFC Vegas 20: Rozenstruik vs. Gane is all wrapped up. And what looked to be a promising, high level card on paper, unfortunately turned into something of a slog. Ciryl Gane proved that he can fight a cautious, winning bout at a very high level—but that’s hardly what anyone hoped to see when he was matched up with heavyweight KO artist Jairzinho Rozenstruik. Magomed Ankalaev, similarly, failed to thrill in the co-main—but continued to look like a tough problem to solve at light heavyweight.

So, is Gane getting rushed too far too fast as a headlining fighter, with only three years of pro MMA experience? Is Ankalaev primed for a top contender’s bout? And can Pedro Munhoz make his bid for contention off a big win over Jimmie Rivera?

To answer those questions – and a few 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.

CIRYL GANE

An electrifying performance? No. The kind of fight that’s likely to be a major hindrance to Gane going forward? Also no. In a division like heavyweight, the ability to turn in a very dedicated, safe striking performance actually says a fair bit about Gane’s potential to compete with the elite of the division long term. And as long as he can hang out around the top 5-10, he’s going to get a lot more chances to shine. The UFC loves to headline cards with heavyweights and Gane has plenty of mileage left. Bouts against Alexander Volkov, Derrick Lewis, or Alistair Overeem would all seem like logical next steps.

Last week I was clamoring that the winner of this bout should face Lewis, and that’s still fine. But given a less than thrilling victory against a low output power-puncher here, I’m less sold on the necessity. Instead, lets go with Gane vs. Volkov. Put the Frenchman in against another rangy volume striker and see if he can stay as safe as he did against Rozenstruik.

JAIRZINHO ROZENSTUIK

At some point Rozenstruik was going to really pay for his low-output style. Alistair Overeem nearly got a win out of him for it, and JDS picked up the opening round of their bout just because – when Rozenstuik isn’t landing a big counter or flurrying wildly – he’s just not providing a lot of extra offense. That may not be an impediment to earning an eventual title shot, but it is the kind of thing that can lead any of a number of opponents picking up an ugly win against him on the right night. Coming off this loss, fights with Curtis Blaydes, Walt Harris, or the winner of Sakai/Abdurakhimov would all be solid options. Given just how green Rozenstruik still is to MMA I’m more apt to argue that he should take a real significant step back. Rozenstruik vs. the Sakai/Abdurakhimov winner seems like a good chance for ‘Bigi Boy’ to return to form, or for his opponent to make a splash in the heavyweigh top 10.

MAGOMED ANKALAEV

Not the most dominant performance of Ankalaev’s run. He looked a bit surprised by Krylov’s high pace and creative kicking game. But was able to walk Krylov down a lot, and used the Russo-Ukranian’s reactions to get key takedowns and to push the clinch when needed. All that added up to a fairly clear unanimous decision, even if it wasn’t a highlight thriller. The win should put Ankalaev in line for another top 10 ranked light heavyweight. But, outside of a nonsense potential booking against Glover Texieria (who is set to play backup for UFC 259) the entire rest of the top 10 is already set to face off, or otherwise occupied. There’s Cirkunov vs. Spann, Rakic vs. Santos, and Crute vs. Smith.

Of all those, the winner of Anton Rakic vs. Thiago Santos seems like the best way to go. It’s a high profile step forward, but Santos isn’t anywhere near a title shot right now. And much like Ankalaev, Rakic could use some more opportunities to get in front of people and build a little hype. Ankalaev vs. the Rakic/Santos winner seems like a great way to turn one of the three into a top contender.

MAYRA BUENO SILVA

Montana De La Rosa didn’t exactly lose this fight, but if anyone came away looking like the victor it was Mayra Bueno Silva. There’s an argument to just run this one back, but I don’t think it’d make much sense. Silva clearly dealth the better damage in the major exchanges throughout. The fence grab was a bad foul, but there’s not a lot to be proved by going for a rematch. Instead, bouts with Taila Santos, Antonina Shevchenko, or Gillian Robertson all seem like they’d be decent ideas.

Unfortunately, as much as I’d like to see the Shevchenko fight, she’s already booked to fight Andrea Lee. The Lee/Shevchenko winner wouldn’t be a bad idea for Silva, but it’s probably more high profile than what she’ll be lined up for. Instead, let’s go Mayra Bueno Silva vs. Taila Santos. A big, strong athlete, who can handle Silva in the clinch and has a strong positional top game. Both should be a real test for Silva’s style. Silva vs. Santos for the battle of big, powerful flyweights.

PEDRO MUNHOZ

A great victory for Munhoz, who found pressure and the calf kick early and never let up on either one on his way to a unanimous decision. Rivera was obviously ready to counter kicks with punches, but Munhoz had the kind of jaw to eat the shots and get the kicks in anyway. That win puts him in position for another top 5 contender’s bout. After the win he called out TJ Dillashaw, but there’s a pretty long line to face the former champ at this point, and I’m not entirely convinced that Munhoz is at the front of it.

It’s too bad Marlon Moraes is on such a skid, because Munhoz vs. Moraes would be a hell of a violent fight. The other obvious answer would be a bout against Cory Sandhagen. Sandhagen likely wants to just wait for the winner of Aljo/Yan and a potential title shot, but maybe the UFC can convince them to fight each other first. The winner would be an absolutely bonafide challenger for the belt. Munhoz vs. Sandhagen would be a thrilling battle.

ALEX CACERES

Not the kind of performance that really screams ‘Bruce Leeroy’ is moving past his position as a mid-card action fighter, but he’s put together a decent enough run and really should be getting another chance to fight some high level talent. That could be bouts with someone like Bryce Mitchell or Makwan Amirkhani. But, I’ve got a much more fun idea in mind. One that should give Caceres exactly the kind of name fight he wants without necessarily throwing him at one of the division’s young future contenders.

Edson Barboza just re-signed with the UFC, and he’s badly in need of opponents that will give him high energy, standup action wars. That seems to fit Caceres perfectly. Alex Caceres vs. Edson Barboza is a perfect fight to give two seasoned veteran action fighters the kind of showcase performance they’re looking for.

THIAGO MOISES

Moises has made some major improvements in his standup game over the last couple years. At this point, the guy that dropped an LFA title fight to Robert Watley seems firmly in the rear view mirror—and a chance to compete with the lightweight elite is out in front of him. That could mean a fight with Jim Miller or the Riddell/Gillespie winner. But, there are a couple of bouts a little lower in the division that feel like they’d be excellent prospect vs. prospect contests for Moises right now. Fights with the likes of Rafael Fiziev, Arman Tsarukyan, or Joel Alvarez.

From those options, I’m most interested in the Alvarez battle. The Spaniard has shown a shockingly dangerous range game that forces opponents to either get picked off with long kicks and punches or test his ferocious guard grappling. But, with the way Moises has been fighting lately, he seems perfectly poised to make Alvarez pay for a willingness to work off his back. Moises vs. Alvarez to see who the better grappler-turned-striker is at 155.

ALEXIS DAVIS

A badly needed win for Davis, who sounds like she’s done with the flyweight division. And while a few years ago 135 would have been a place where she’d already fought most of the notable names, these days the bantamweight division has a lot more new faces. Bouts against Karol Rosa, Jessy-Rose Clark, or Pannie Kianzad all make sense. I feel like Clark makes the most sense in that list. She looked like she’d turned a real technical corner with her striking last time out. But she’s been susceptible to grappling pressure in the past. If Davis can bring the fight like she did against Mazo here, then she’s got a clear path to victory. If Clark can offer a bit more power standing, though, then she could turn Davis’ defensive troubles into a real liability. Davis vs. Clark to see if Davis can make another push into the women’s bantamweight top 10.

RONNIE LAWRENCE

A great, wrestling-heavy debut for Lawrence, who took some shots from Cachero standing but continuously mixed up his kicks and got in on powerful double legs and bodylock slams. He’s got the kind of gas-tank a fighter needs to play a high-energy wrestling game at 135, and it should be fascinating to see if he can find the kind of success that Dvalishvili and Simon have put together.

After a good debut win, however, I don’t think there’s any reason to rush him. He’s only had seven pro fights. And while he may feel his striking is a level above what he showed in this bout, I’m not so sure he should bank on it. Bouts against Tony Kelley, Anderson Dos Santos, or Umar Nurmagomedov would all be decent. But I like the idea of Lawrence against Ode Osbourne. Osbourne has some real power to trouble him with standing, but loves to work an active guard game. Should be a big liability against Lawrence, but an opponent who can also do more damage if Lawrence gets wild in striking exchanges. Lawrence vs. Osbourne seems like a good fight for both men to get more experience.

OTHER BOUTS: Nikita Krylov vs. Crute/Smith loser, Montana De La Rosa vs. JJ Aldrich, Jimmie Rivera vs. Raphael Assuncao, Kevin Croom vs. Danny Chavez, Alexander Hernandez vs. Roosevelt Roberts, Sabina Mazo vs. Cortney Casey, Vince Cachero vs. Gabriel Silva, Dustin Jacoby vs. Marcin Prachnio, Maxim Grishin vs. John Allan

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