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Diggin’ Deep on TUF 26 Finale: Part 1

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Get the scoop on the announced contests for the TUF 26 Finale this Friday, featuring bantamweight prospect Brett Johns facing former Bellator champion Joe Soto.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Johns vs Morales Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

Since the UFC has decided to not reveal the entire card for the TUF 26 Finale, and I’m not going to try and cram every contest into a preview that night, I’ve decided to take the contests that have been announced thus far and throw them into one preview. Where they end up in terms of placement on the card, I really don’t care. There is a strong chance many of you will be reading this by the time the rest of the contests were announced, but whatever. You’ll get over it.

The main card starts at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Friday.

Andrew Sanchez (10-3) vs. Ryan Janes (9-2), Middleweight

Sanchez was never someone whom analysts expected to develop into a contender. Thus, no one felt the sky was falling when the TUF 23 winner fell short against Anthony Smith this past spring. Sanchez has never been a very good athlete, but he is a relentless wrestle-grappler with a nice bag of tricks to get the fight to the ground — provided he hasn’t depleted his gas tank. Sanchez expended a lot of unnecessary energy dancing around the cage against Smith looking to move in and out of range. He did reasonably well with the approach as he has put a lot of time into his boxing, sharpening his skills as a counter puncher. He just had nothing left with allowed Smith to make a comeback.

Janes is somewhat similar to Smith in that he has a long reach that he knows how to use, throwing an effective jab with regularity. The difference is Janes continually leaves his chin out there to be touched up. He’s tough as nails, which has allowed him to survive thus far, but a chin can only hold out for so long. Should Sanchez take him to the ground, Janes is an underrated grappler, securing the majority of his wins via RNC. However, he’s also picked up those wins against lesser athletes and grapplers. Sanchez isn’t a great athlete, but the collegiate wrestler knows what to do on the mat better than most.

Janes isn’t going to be a walk in the park for Sanchez, but Sanchez is without a doubt a sizeable favorite. Janes just doesn’t have the physical tools to be a UFC talent in the long term. Sanchez, for all of his faults, does. Sanchez has shown minimal ability to secure the finish, so expect this one to go the distance. Sanchez via decision

Joe Soto (18-5) vs. Brett Johns (14-0), Bantamweight

Remember when Soto appeared to be on his way out the door as he was riding a three-fight losing streak? Yeah, that doesn’t seem to be that long ago. Now he’s evened out his UFC record with a three-fight win streak, appearing to have hit his stride. One of the more well-rounded fighters at 135, the studious Soto tends to attack his opponent where they are weakest. If he’s facing a boxer with questionable grappling, he’ll take them to the ground just like he did to Marco Beltran. Against a renowned grappler such as Rani Yahya, Soto forced the Abu Dhabi grappling champion to stand and trade. Soto’s boxing combinations are crisp enough that he’s a threat in the pocket. Where he’s had problems is against opponents with superior athletic ability who can attack with sudden explosion as Soto’s athleticism – though not necessarily a negative – can’t keep up with the best.

Whether Johns is an elite enough athlete to give Soto problems is debatable. Best known for his relentless chain wrestling, Johns isn’t a bad pocket boxer either. Attacking in bursts with his own combinations, he hasn’t fully picked up the nuances in his footwork or use of angles to fully make himself a double-edged threat as he tends to eat more damage than he gives on the feet. Once the fight is on the ground though, it’s a whole different story. Johns’ relentless ground-and-pound and scrambling ability more than make up for his top control issues as he either deals out significant damage with his strikes or drags them back down to the mat again if they get to their feet.

This isn’t an easy contest to decipher. Johns is the superior athlete you would expect out of a rising prospect facing a gatekeeper of sorts, but Soto doesn’t get enough credit for his intelligence. He knows how to attack an opponent’s weakness with great efficiency… provided he isn’t overwhelmed by their physical gifts. Rather than flip a coin, I’ll go with my gut and say the youngster passes the difficult test, but just barely does so. Johns via decision

Sean O’Malley (8-0) vs. Terrion Ware (17-6), Bantamweight

One of the early winners of the Contenders Series, O’Malley appears to have both the personality and style to develop into a household name. Having the ability and actually doing it are completely different things. Regardless, O’Malley is someone to keep an eye on.

At 5'11" and 23-years old, O’Malley will probably need to move up to featherweight before his career is over. O’Malley doesn’t do the best job of utilizing his length, but he does have a lot more power than his skinny frame would suggest. His creativity sets up all sorts of odd angles for his punches that opponents can’t see coming and he isn’t afraid to throw a spinning strike or jump into a flying knee. Plus, O’Malley shows an active guard off his back. His defense consists of him staying on the outside and throwing kicks, but he’s relying solely on his toughness when he comes into the pocket.

Ware is exactly the type of opponent O’Malley needs for the UFC to effectively market him. Almost strictly a standup fighter, Ware puts together sharp punching combinations and comes very close to matching O’Malley’s long reach. What has held him back is his own lack of wrestling, threatening with submissions being his primary takedown defense. Nonetheless, Ware has shown incredible durability and superior movement in the pocket to the younger and less experienced O’Malley.

Given O’Malley has yet to show any wrestling ability, the UFC is trying to lob a favorable matchup his way by giving him someone who will stand and trade with him. However, they’re also creating a favorable matchup for Ware. The veteran has an endless gas tank, pushing a hard pace, and continually moving forward. O’Malley is very capable of winning this fight and I won’t be surprised at all if he does, but I smell an upset here. Ware via decision

Eric Spicely (10-3) vs. Gerald Meerschaert (26-9), Middleweight

Those in the know can’t help but snicker at this contest. Both Spicely and Meerschaert are severely limited by their physical talents, but have been able to overachieve thanks to their deep arsenal of submissions. So… who comes out ahead?

Spicely has the bigger profile as he obtained the most notable scalp between the two when he subbed Thiago Santos last summer. Possibly the most one-dimensional grappler on the UFC roster, Spicely is a non-threat on the feet. His wrestling is hardly threatening too, but he is relentless in his pursuit of the takedown. If he gets it, opponents need to be wary of his chokes as it’s difficult to escape from his grasp once he has sunk in a hold.

Unlike Spicely, Meerschaert has actually shown the ability to hold his own on the feet against respectable strikers. A lot of that has to do with the extensive experience he has accumulated as he has seen just about everything over his long career and knows how to respond appropriately. Like Spicely, he isn’t the most technical wrestler, but he does have a deep bag of tricks such as knee taps and trips. Should he get the fight to the ground, he doesn’t have the specific level of danger that Spicely does in his chokes, but Meerschaert’s versatility of submissions is impressive.

Given that Spicely has only been able to secure wins over strikers on the UFC level, I anticipate he’ll struggle to get Meerschaert out of there. Meerschaert’s standup has evolved to the point he’ll give Spicely problems as long as the fight remains on the feet while providing a level of threat on the ground Spicely hasn’t been able to survive. Meerschaert via TKO of RD3

DeAnna Bennett (8-3) vs. Melinda Fabian (4-3-1), Women’s Flyweight

One of the more experienced fighters from this past season of TUF, Bennett hit a rough patch by losing three in a row heading into her stint on TUF. Part of the issue appeared to be her trying to slim down to strawweight, but flyweight is without a doubt her proper home. Not only is Bennett experienced, she’s well-rounded too. She throws a lot of kicks with a simple, yet effective brand of boxing in the pocket. Wrestling is her real strength as she possesses a technical skill set which she uses to set up her finishes, whether that be searching for a submission or using her ground-and-pound.

Fabian is very one-dimensional, especially in comparison to her opponent. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t stand a chance as Fabian is a very good at the one dimension: kickboxing. The funny thing is that all of her victories have come via submission as she has picked up all of her wins against tomato cans. What has limited Fabian’s career thus far has been her lack of wrestling. Perhaps she picked up some tricks from coach Alvarez…?

Bennett was eliminated from the tournament in violent fashion and could have the same thing happen to her again as Fabian has the kicking arsenal to put her out cold. Regardless, it is more likely that Bennett takes Fabian down and hunt for the finish. She’ll likely find it early. Bennett via submission of RD1

Ariel Beck (4-4) vs. Shana Dobson (2-1), Women’s Flyweight

Beck and Dobson are similar fighters, which could make for a fun scrap between two strikers. Dobson has more natural power, but she struggles to put together more than one strike at a time. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if she bit down and threw more. Instead, she spends a lot of time feinting and faking. Well… that’s what she did against Roxanne Modafferi. Dobson threw a lot of kicks to the legs and mid-section on the regional scene. Was she showing Modafferi respect because she is Modafferi, or is it a higher level of opponent in general that she respects? If she can throw a steady output, she could pull off the upset.

Beck has more experience against a higher level of opposition, including a barnburner against Andrea Lee back in 2015. Though the common belief is that Beck is weak on the ground – half her career losses and her tournament loss came via submission – she showed a lot of heart in fighting off Lee’s multiple attempts in that contest. On the feet, she puts together sound punching combinations and has some decent footwork.

Beck and Dobson are both raw prospects. Regardless of who wins, both are in danger of holding on to a roster spot for only a short while if they don’t mature in a hurry. Beck has shown a greater ability to pile up the damage in a hurry and Dobson hasn’t shown to be a threat on the mat, so I’ll take Beck in a decision. Beck via decision

Rachael Ostovich (3-3) vs. Karine Gevorgyan (3-2), Women’s Flyweight

Primarily known for her grappling prowess, Ostovich doesn’t get enough credit for her abilities on the feet. She throws a hard overhand right and some kicks to the mid and lower regions. What hurts her standing is her lack of attention to defense, though the same could be said about her ground game. Not the best wrestler, Ostovich is relentless in her single-leg attempts and often resorts to head-and-arm throws. When those don’t work, she sets herself up into a bad position, often negating her impressive grappling chops.

Gevorgyan got her spot in the house for being Armenian. I know that sounds harsh, but her resume was the worst out of all the fighters in the house. She has looked good on film in her victories on the regional scene, but she has yet to pick up a victory over an opponent with a win on their record. Like many from the European circuit, her lack of wrestling is her biggest weakness as she relies on guillotine chokes as her primary form of defense. Yikes. To be fair, she has good form on the feet, even if she is reluctant to throw down.

Though Gevorgyan was the wild card in the house – nobody really knew anything about her -- Ostovich is the wild card in the division. She has a lot of talent, but has also been wildly inconsistent. Wait… I’m supposed to be predicting this fight, not Ostovich’s future. Easy win for the Hawaiian. Ostovich via TKO of RD1