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UFC Japan: Saint Preux vs. Okami - Fights to make

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All the best, most interesting, and shamelessly coolest fight that the UFC has to book following their latest event in Saitama, Japan.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Saint Preux vs De Lima Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The UFC has another card in the books, and frankly, this is a little bit of a tough one to make heads or tails of. While the card provided it’s share of action, it was largely short on notable, meaningful bouts. So even the winners don’t come away with an easy next step to take.

But that’s just all the more reason that the UFC needs the help of some expert fantasy fight picking. And to get the job done, I’ll be using the classic Silva/Shelby model of matching fighters. That means winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured talent against one another. If you’d like to take part in the next Fights to Make column, just leave a quote below starting, “People told me, ‘You’re crazy, what are you doing?’ This, that. Sometimes, I was thinking the same after the heavy training, like, what I’m gonna do, what I’m doing. But, I am f—-ing happy, man.” I’ll pick one response from below as the winner.

Joining me this week is BE reader SonoraStorm. Now, let’s get to the fights:

Hi, I’m Xeth, SonoraStorm on BloodyElbow. I’ve been watching MMA since the mid-90s as a soldier with the 82ndAirborne, when we’d rent UFC tapes from Blockbuster and re-enact classic matches. It’s been great to see the explosion and evolution of MMA since TUF 1. Currently I’m a software engineer and data scientist, and I’m working on developing a data-driven approach to predicting MMA fights. UFC Japan didn’t have a lot of big names, so my match-making is going to be aimed more at developing fighters and keeping divisions progressing rather than selling Pay-Per-Views.

OVINCE SAINT PREUX

Xeth - OSP did what he was supposed to do – blow through a short notice middleweight. But to do it with yet another Von Flue choke…it’s the Von St. Preux now. It’s happened five times in the UFC, and he’s been the one to do it three of those five times. OSP is 34, which isn’t that old in the heavier divisions, and with Jon Jones being Jon Jones, there’s time for one last title push, in the match that was originally scheduled: OSP vs Shogun Rua.

Zane - I’m not sure going back to Shogun serves anyone that well... even OSP. I realize Shogun has revitalized himself a bit with a series of wins, but there were people actually happy to see Okami in this fight rather than getting the originally scheduled rematch. I was having all kinds of trouble thinking of an opponent for Ilir Latifi last week, but this seems like the answer to that question. Ovince St. Preux vs. Ilir Latifi.

YUSHIN OKAMI

Xeth - If you’re fighting OSP, there’s one thing you have to keep in mind at all times: do not hook OSP’s neck from guard. I wasn’t stunned to see a short-notice middleweight lose to OSP, but to see him lose by a Von Flue choke was disappointing. Film, team. It’s called studying film. Okami’s a middleweight, not a light heavyweight, so if we’re going to re-book him, it’s going to be at middleweight. Let’s give him Eric Spicely, in a win-or-go-home match.

Zane - I’d be down to watch Eric Spicely work his graps on Yushin Okami if he could, but Spicely is currently booked against the funky/tough, Gerald Meerschaert. Assuming he’s returning to 185, however, a fight against someone like Rafael Natal or Rashad Evans seems like they’d be more the right speed. Another longtime veteran with a lot to prove. If the UFC wants Okami to be more of a gatekeeper to new talent, then there’s always the recently signed Rob Wilkinson or DWTNC fighters Byrd and Neal. Still, I think Okami vs. Natal would be my first go-to.

JESSICA ANDRADE

Xeth - WOW. Andrade survived a fast start and wicked gash on her head that was pouring blood, and beat Claudia Gadelha pillar to post. Unfortunately for her, this is Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s division, and Joanna Champion may be the best to ever do it on the woman’s side (apologies to Cyborg, who lacks the competition she deserves). One school of thought would be to have Andrade fight the Joanna-Rose Namajunas winner, but if it’s Joanna, we’ve seen that fight too recently, and if it’s Rose in an all-time-upset, Joanna gets an immediate rematch. The other school of thought is rest while the UFC’s introduction of the woman’s flyweight division shakes out, which may have Joanna move up a weight class. That would be my preference, but otherwise book Andrade and the winner of Joanna-Rose.

Zane - When you have a fighter as exciting as Jessica Andrade, it almost seems like a crime to make them sit and wait. I agree, that an instant title shot likely isn’t in the cards right now, but there’s got to be something she could do while waiting for 125 to sort itself. Assuming Karolina Kowalkiewicz beats Jodie Esquibel, a fight between Kowalkiewicz and Andrade would be must see action. And it would make the winner pretty much the undisputed top contender for a second chance at a belt. However, since the goal is to not have Andrade spinning her wheels too long and waiting for someone else to fight, lets book Jessica Andrade vs. Tecia Torres. Torres has won two straight, and is a tough out for anyone in the division. Her combination of pace and toughness would make for an amazing bout with ‘Bate Estaca.’

CLAUDIA GADELHA

Xeth - Claudia looked great for the first 3 minutes of Round 1, opening a brutal cut on Jessica Andrade and showing some slick boxing, before Andrade reached into a different dimension and simply blew Gadelha out of the water. Claudia had only ever lost to Joanna Champion before this, so she’s still one of the division’s elite, but her days of contending for championships are probably over, with her new role being a gatekeeper to the elite. There’s another woman in this division with a similar profile that should make for an amazing fight: Claudia Gadelha vs Carla Esparza.

Zane - There’s no question that a bout against Esparza makes reasonable sense on paper, but I’m not convinced it would be a kind matchup to Esparza. She has yet to prove she can really win against a certain combination of skill and physicality that Gadelha absolutely represents. Assuming Namajunas doesn’t beat Joanna Jedrzejczyk, then Gadelha vs. Namajunas would be my top pick to see. If the unlikely happens, then roll with the Esparza fight. But Namajunas off a loss to Joanna ‘Champion’ feels like the better booking.

GOKHAN SAKI

Xeth - We saw what we expected to see with Gokhan Saki – elite striking that resulted in a blistering knockout, some rust from a 2.5 year lay-off, and suspect cardio. He’s 33 years old, so there’s not a lot of time to develop him as an MMA fighter. I’d like to push him substantially and see if he can take on a fighter hovering on the fringes of the top 15, and test his ground game in the process. Let’s see him take on C.B. Dollaway.

Zane - It wasn’t incredibly pretty (well, the KO was), but he got the job done. Now the question is, how do you match Saki going forward to keep him fun and not let him get run over. Dollaway certainly could lose (he has a predilection for getting KO’d hard), but if Dollaway wins, you’ve kinda burned the excitement of Saki for a guy who likely won’t be charging up the division. My instinct is to go with Aleksandar Rakic off his recent win over Francimar Barroso. A big, powerful young fighter who loves to kickbox. It’ll be good matchup for Saki, and a chance for a young kid to make his name. Steve Bosse would also be a good choice, once he returns from injury.

DONG HYUN KIM

Xeth - The UFC argues that they don’t need the Ali Act in MMA because they’re leaders in protecting fighters’ health. Meanwhile, ‘The Maestro’ beat the corpse of Takanori Gomi. You do the math. Beating Gomi by KO in the first round is table stakes at this point, so we don’t really know much more about Kim from winning this fight. Let’s have him fight Jordan Rinaldi, another 29 year old fighter, and see if either is capable of making a run at the Top 15.

Zane - ‘Maestro’ is in position to take any of a number of fights at the bottom of the lightweight division. And while he’s likely best served by taking on somewhat predictable, less athletic opponents, who let him show his offensive variety and dynamism, fans are well served pitting him against other hyper aggressive action fighters who can bring out his brawling instincts. Finding just the right balance is the trick. A fight with Damir Hadzovic would be fun, and Danny Henry would likely promise a lot of punishment traded, but I’ll lean Thibault Gouti coming off his first UFC win over Andrew Holbrook. Gouti’s technical boxing style should make for a fun matchup for DHK Jr. to try and work around.

TERUTO ISHIHARA

Xeth - Teruto won a sloppy fight that would have been a majority draw had it not been for his opponent’s propensity for below-the-belt strikes. After a dominant 10-8 round, he let Dy back into the match, primarily due to a complete lack of threat from the right side. You can see he’s growing a bit at Team Alpha Male, with slightly improved cardio and a better ground game, but he’s not ready for any kind of push - give him Peru’s Humberto Bandenay next.

Zane - Now already with 6 bouts in the promotion, it seems a little counter productive to be still chucking relative newcomers at Ishihara. At this point, it should be about continuing to give him experienced challenges and seeing what he can make of them. If Nick Hein is going to return from injury anytime soon, that would be a weird style clash of the one-handed power strikers. However, I like Teruto Ishihara vs. Enrique Barzola (the other Peruvian). Barzola’s relentless pace and funky wrestling could punish Ishihara for the continued holes in his game, or give him a chance to show he’s really developing.

JUSSIER FORMIGA

Xeth - Jussier chocked out Ulka Sasaki in the first round, continuing his trend of being the gatekeeper into the top 5. Formiga’s role in the Flyweight division at this point is well-defined: if you can beat him, you’re getting a title shot. His post-fight interview was a bit odd, which may be because of the multiple translators: he simultaneously isn’t worried about the title right now, but wants Sean Shelby and Uncle Dana to give him a title shot? Let’s pit him against another prospect knocking on the door to the Top 5, Ben Nguyen.

Zane - Yeah, no question, Ben Nguyen vs. Jussier Formiga is the best bout on the table right now. Nguyen has shown steady improvement in coalescing his athletic grappling and striking styles into a complete, high level MMA game. A bout against Formiga is exactly the kind of test he needs if he wants to turn those improvements into being a real top contender. Formiga has a habit of losing to well rounded, physically elite fighters, is Nguyen one of those? Or can he still be out-worked by a defensively savvy and technically proficient challenge like Formiga?

OTHER BOUTS: Dy vs. Bochniak, Sasaki vs. Smolka, Nakamura vs. Akhmedov, Morono vs. Alhassan, Kondo vs. Aldrich, Chan-Mi vs. Yoder, Anzai vs. Ottow, Jumeau vs. Ayari, Abe vs. Aliev