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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Fight Night: Whittaker vs. Brunson main card preview

Get a sneak peak at the UFC: Melbourne card, featuring women’s action fighter Seo Hee Ham, raw prospect Khalil Rountree, and longtime Aussie favorite Kyle Noke.

MMA: UFC 193-Noke vs Sobotta Matt Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Not much to look at here. There may be in the future as many believe Khalil Rountree could develop into a contender, but he’s incredibly green at this point. The rest of the contests consist of people fighting for their jobs and unheralded prospects making their UFC debuts.

However, my job isn’t to hype up these contests or even to judge the quality of the fights, though I admit I’ve usually done just that before getting to what I’m supposed to be doing. That would be giving you the scoop of what to expect out of each fight. As usual, I’ve got you covered.

Kyle Noke (22-9-1) vs. Omari Akhmedov (15-4), Welterweight

These former middleweights know that they are on dancing with the unemployment line. Will Noke hit a new low in front of his fellow countrymen or will he save his UFC career?

Noke has been incredibly inconsistent since dropping to welterweight a few years ago. He’s looked fantastic at times such as in his wins over Charlie Brenneman and Peter Sobotta and disinterested at other times such as his losses to Alex Morono and Keita Nakamura. Unfortunately for him, both of those losses were the most recent contests on his ledger, indicating he’s near the end of the line. Does Noke have enough in the gas tank to keep his UFC career alive?

Akhmedov appeared to be an up-and-comer to keep an eye on at one point, jumping out to a 3-1 record to start his UFC career. Subsequent stoppage losses to Sergio Moraes and Elizeu Zaleski have not only changed the narrative on his durability, but his MMA future as well.

Perhaps Akhmedov’s energy conservation should be called into question more than his durability. He throws everything he has into his punches, often leaving himself exhausted before the second round has expired. As both of his stoppage losses came in the third round, that narrative lines up with the evidence. There is no doubt that he has stopping power in his punches. The issue is that he has no Plan B if he can’t finish his opponent early.

Noke’s durability hasn’t been in question at all. The former bodyguard of Steve Irwin has only been stopped by strikes once in his career, all the way back in 2008. His submission defense on the other hand…. It isn’t that Noke is a horrible grappler. He does have submission abilities off of his back and is especially dangerous if he can get the back of his opponent. The problem has been a lack of speed at 170 which has only been exacerbated as he gets on in years. Now 36-years old, Noke has relied more and more on his hulking frame to bully his opponents and beat them down.

He's going to have a hard time bullying Akhmedov who is a bit of a pace-setter himself. The Sambo specialist has a powerful double-leg that he looks for regularly. Expect him to look for takedown opportunities off of Noke’s powerful kicks, which is his best offensive weapon. Noke isn’t a great wrestler and has shown a vulnerability to anyone with a wrestling background… or Sambo in this case.

Based strictly on the matchup, I favor Akhmedov by a slim margin. However, Noke has a history of bucking the odds and not always in the good way. He’s lost five of his last six contests he was favored to win while winning the last two he was the underdog. He’s the underdog here. As unscientific as it is, I’m picking Noke off of that trend. Noke via decision

Yusuke Kasuya (9-2-2) vs. Alex Volkanovski (13-1), Lightweight

Unheralded prospects collide in a contest that is difficult to know what to expect as the youngsters are also very unproven.

Though it is easy to forget as it happened well over a year ago on a less heralded card, Kasuya does have a UFC appearance under his belt. Losing a clear decision to Nick Hein, the 27-year old had his moments in the contest to indicate that he could be worth keeping around for a while. Despite that, he’ll need a good showing as there is more talent at lightweight than any other division in the sport that could easily take his roster spot.

Volkanovski has faced a similar level of competition over his career as Kasuya with a similar amount of success. There is no doubt that he is getting his shot in the UFC based on his Australian heritage as there are more heralded prospects still on the regional scene. Then again, the same could probably be said about Kasuya’s Japanese heritage. Regardless, both have a lot to prove.

The most obvious thing about Volkanovski is his lack of size. His 5'5" frame and 65" reach seems better suited for bantamweight at this level. Nonetheless, it shouldn’t be a massive detractor for him in his matchup with Kasuya. Kasuya isn’t a large lightweight himself, possessing just a couple of inches advantage in both height and reach. Also, Volkanovski is a wrestler first, second, and third which serves him well against Kasuya who is not very skilled in that area. Then again, Kasuya is very dangerous is scrambling opportunities which are a surety to occur if Volkanovski can’t get him down on his initial attempts to take the fight to the ground.

On the feet, Volkanovski should have the power advantage, though not necessarily the edge in skill. A bit of brawler, Volkanovski’s strikes serve first and foremost as a way to close the distance for his takedown entries. Despite that, his power needs to be respected. If he can get an advantageous position on the ground to unleash his furious ground and pound, the likelihood of the contest being over is very high.

Despite his reputation as a submission specialist, Kasuya has some notable skill on the feet. Though better suited to fight on the counter, he has also shown the ability to string together some nice punching combinations. Whether or not he can accumulate the volume will be key as Volkanovski is assuredly going to get his takedowns and his stout frame has proven difficult to catch in a submission.

MMA isn’t always about who is the better fighter. Matchups can dictate the lesser fighter walks out with the W. Though I think Kasuya has a brighter future at lightweight, I don’t like how he matches up with Volkanovski. The stout Australian should be able to ground out the durable Japanese representative in a fight that I fear will be a stinker. Volkanovski via decision

Tyson Pedro (4-0) vs. Khalil Rountree (4-1), Light Heavyweight

Pedro isn’t ready for the UFC. Neither is Rountree. Yet here they are competing against one another in the premier MMA organization. I thought new ownership was looking to get rid of these type of fights….

Pedro had a single professional fight heading into 2016. Only one of his opponents had more than three professional fights with that same opponent being the only one to possess a winning record. In other words, his 4-0 record doesn’t mean much. At 25-years old, he does offer a big athletic canvas to work with, but it should have been a few years yet before stepping into the UFC.

Rountree has been a hot prospect for a while, taking the TUF route to get into the UFC. Most believe that his UFC entry is happening too soon with his loss to Andrew Sanchez in the TUF final offering further proof of that assessment. Make no mistake that his physical gifts make him a potentially elite fighter, but he is like Pedro in that he is a very long way from getting to that stage.

The big surprise with Rountree is that he has decided to stay at 205 as he had several contests at the regional level at middleweight. Perhaps he believes his speed will make up for the lack of size, though it will certainly hurt his grappling ability, something Sanchez took advantage of. What Rountree does have in his favor is some of the most vicious kicks in the game. He’s not bad with his hands either, though he still needs to develop better timing of when to put full force into his strikes.

Pedro is a very different fighter, looking to grind out and maul his opponent rather than end things with a single shot. His wrestling is still underdeveloped as he relies on his raw physical skills to drag his opponent to the mat where he’ll look to sink in a choke, usually a guillotine or RNC. He’s massive at 6'3", so his lack of technical wrestling hasn’t hindered him yet. Pedro does have a bit of a boxing background to go with his BJJ, though it hasn’t been put on display in the cage quite yet. If he can get the fight in the pocket, he’ll probably be able to show off some of those skills.

Until Rountree shows any sort of affinity for grappling, he’s going to have a huge target on his back. I have no doubt he’s worked hard to shore up that area, but this is a prove it sport. Pedro does provide some stylistic problems for him, but I also believe that Rountree’s experience with tougher competition – by far – than anything Pedro has faced will make a world of difference. Rountree collects his first real UFC highlight. Rountree via KO of RD1

Seo Hee Ham (17-7) vs. Danielle Taylor (7-2), Women’s Strawweight

There is not a more natural fight to make for these two ladies as both Ham and Taylor should be fighting at atomweight. Alas, the UFC does not have an atomweight division….

Ham was one of the first strawweights signed to the UFC when the division was introduced to the UFC, her reputation being that of a fun action fighter. She has lived up to that reputation, even picking up a FOTN bonus when she fought Cortney Casey last year. The problem is that she has struggled to find success at the highest level due to being severely undersized.

Taylor’s resume is much shorter than Ham’s with a single UFC appearance, but it’s safe to say that she struggles even more than Ham with the size of her opposition. Taking her fight with Maryna Moroz on short notice, neither fighter was willing to commit and it resulted in one of the worst contests in recent memory. She’s getting a shot at redemption against Ham. She better make good on it as she won’t get another chance if she doesn’t.

It makes sense why Taylor was hesitant to rush in against Moroz when you look at their size. Moroz stands 5'7" with a 67" reach. Taylor clocks in at 5'0" with a 60" reach. Both stood on the outside flicking jabs with no hopes of landing at one another while the crowd booed incessantly. She won’t have the same size disparity against Ham (5'2" with a 62" reach), so it’s hard to believe her performance will be similarly disappointing.

To be fair, Taylor was very entertaining on the regional circuit. Using her speed to her advantage, she’d dart in and out of range while landing her explosive punches as her size belies her power. If she can land clean, she can put her opponent out cold. She’s also capable of the occasional reactionary double-leg and has some decent leg kicks, the one thing she found success with against Moroz. Her size severely limits the depth of her game, but it is enough to pick up wins if executed right.

Ham’s striking style couldn’t be more different from Taylor. Preferring to stand in the pocket, bite down on her mouth guard, and sling leather, Ham accumulates volume like few others do. Unfortunately, she also absorbs a lot in the process. Outside of Joanna Jedrzejczyk, there may not be a strawweight who puts together better punch-kick combinations than the Korean. Ham’s takedown defense has been better than expected and though she doesn’t ever look to take the fight to the ground, she knows enough to survive on the mat and get back to her feet.

I’ve become an unabashed Ham fan. I say that in advance of me picking her to forewarn that I may have a bit of bias, but I strongly believe I’d be picking her even if I didn’t have a bias. She doesn’t have a lot of power, but it hasn’t mattered too much yet as she is incredibly durable and usually lands more volume than her opponent. Taylor isn’t going to win this contest on volume, she’ll have to put down her durable opponent. It’s possible, but I don’t think it is happening. Ham via decision