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Diggin’ Deep on UFC 221: Romero vs. Rockhold - FS1 prelims preview

Get the scoop on UFC 221’s televised prelims, featuring a flyweight contest between Jussier Formiga and Ben Nguyen along with the UFC debut of hot prospect of Israel Adesanya.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Formiga vs Sasaki Susumu Nagao-USA TODAY Sports

Even though UFC 221 is an underwhelming PPV, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any matches worth keeping an eye on. Israel Adesanya is an intriguing prospect making his UFC debut. Alexander Volkanovski and Jeremy Kennedy are both prospects that have made some noise in a short time. Damien Brown and Dong Hyun Kim are never in a boring fight. Did I mention the winner of Ben Nguyen and Jussier Formiga could be fighting for the flyweight title by the end of the year? Admittedly, none of the fights by themselves are must-see TV. Collectively, they offer enough that I can see worse ways to spend two hours on Saturday night.

The FS1 prelims begin at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Damien Brown (17-11) vs. Dong Hyun Kim (15-8-3), Lightweight

It’ll be a major surprise if either Brown or Kim were to ever break into the official UFC rankings. However, that isn’t why they’ll remain on the roster for quite some time yet. Brown and Kim are both happy to stand in the pocket and trade fists, sacrificing brain cells for the entertainment of fans. It’s guys like Brown and Kim that draw the fans into the sport.

Brown’s loss to Frank Camacho last November was the best performance of his career. Despite the lack of athleticism or speed, Brown has proven to be double-tough and gritty as hell. There isn’t anything special about his combination striking, nor is he a powerhouse. And yet, he has been able to rock multiple opponents and even put one to sleep since coming into the UFC. Brown is nothing special on the ground and struggles to finish off his takedowns, but he’s proven to be scrappy at least.

Kim isn’t a superb athlete, but it’s clear he has the advantage in that category over Brown. Kim’s attention to defense is nonexistent, marching forward with extreme fervor and minimal technique. He has shown the ability to fight a measured pace with takedowns being a large part of his game in his victory over Brendan O’Reilly. However, Brown’s willingness to meet him in the pocket and throw down will likely prove too tempting for Kim to fight a smart fight.

This contest should be a lot of fun even if this contest doesn’t end up meaning too much in the end. Given neither are technicians, this contest should come down to who is more durable. Both have been stopped in recent contests, but Kim has also been rocked on multiple occasions in his contests. Brown’s ability to absorb punishment appears to be more trustworthy. Brown via TKO, RD3

Rob Wilkinson (11-1) vs. Israel Adesanya (11-0), Middleweight

As far as prospects from Australia go, Wilkinson is about as middle of the road as it gets. He’s better than the likes of Anton Zafir or Ashkan Mokhtarian, but not on the same level as Tyson Pedro or Tai Tuivasa. He’s more akin to the aforementioned Brown: capable of winning some fights, but he’ll fall short against the upper half of the division. Unfortunately for him, many view Adesanya as one of the best prospects to come from down under in years, if not the best one ever.

Originally from Nigeria – and now hailing out of New Zealand – Adesanya has secured a KO/TKO in all eleven of his contests with none of them going past the second round. Best known for kickboxing in the Glory organization, Adesanya’s strikes are technical, accurate, and perfectly timed. He can put as much heat as he wants into a single shot, but he’s also capable of stringing together brutal combinations that wear down the opposition. While his ground game is still very much a work in progress, he’s worked very hard on his takedown defense to the point that his sprawl needs to be respected.

Wilkinson does pose a stylistic challenge for the striker as he’s primarily a wrestler with some nifty back-take skills and chokes. Not the smoothest athlete or greatest technician, Wilkinson relies heavily on his aggression and enthusiasm to get the fight to the ground and at least create a scramble. At 6’3” with an 80” reach, he has the length to be an effective out fighter and he’s worked hard to create a decent jab. However, he still tends to let opponents within striking distance as severely undersized Siyar Bahadurzada had no problem finding his chin in Wilkinson’s UFC debut.

Should Wilkinson find a way to get Adesanya to the ground with some time to work, he has a chance. I just don’t see that happening. Adesanya is a far superior athlete and fights start on the feet. Look for Adesanya to be a strong candidate for a bonus given Wilkinson’s defensive struggles on the feet. Seriously, he’s that damned good. Adesanya via KO, RD1

Alexander Volkanovski (16-1) vs. Jeremy Kennedy (11-0), Featherweight

Though I like the potential of both Volkanovski and Kennedy, I can’t quite figure out what UFC matchmakers Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard were thinking in matching these two together. It isn’t that I’m especially opposed to prospects squaring off with one another. It’s that I struggle to see these two grinders putting together an entertaining scrap.

A squat featherweight at 5’6”, Volkanovski has been working hard to improve his striking to utilize his unusually long 71” reach. He does have the power in his right hand to put his opposition to sleep with one strike, but he still needs a lot of polish. Volkanovski will throw the occasional spinning elbow, but for the most part his striking consists of him mixing jabs with low kicks moving forward with the occasional heavy handed shot. His bread and butter still consists of his wrestling, though opponents have been able to catch him off-guard for their own takedowns.

Kennedy’s striking from a distance is still very clunky. Until he fixes that, he won’t be able to consistently beat the top half of the division. Fortunately, that isn’t his strength. He pushes an insane pace, working for takedowns from start to close. The takedowns tend to add up quickly late in the contest as his opponent wears down. Kennedy’s opponents tend to fight their way back to their feet as he prefers delivering ground-and-pound as opposed to holding them down.

Neither Volkanovski nor Kennedy have faced any opponents noted for their wrestling ability. Thus, it’s hard to predict how one or the other might do defending the takedown attempts that are sure to come. Though I’m hardly confident in my pick, I’m favoring Volkanovski as his standup should give him just enough of an edge to swing the judges in his favor. Volkanovski via decision

Jussier Formiga (20-5) vs. Ben Nguyen (17-6), Flyweight

Perhaps the most accomplished flyweight on the roster who has yet to be turned away by Demetrious Johnson, Formiga is running out of time to punch his ticket for a shot at the only flyweight champion the UFC has known as the Brazilian turns 33 in April. Some of you may read that and scoff as co-main eventer Mark Hunt turns 44 in March, but the timeline for flyweights is far different than it is for heavyweights. Whereas the big men rely heavily on power, the little dudes rely far more on speed and quickness, two attributes that tend to fade long before power does.

Nonetheless, Formiga still looks to be in superior physical shape, easily outgrappling Ulka Sasaki in his last appearance in September. Long considered to be one of the most dangerous BJJ specialists in any division, Formiga tends to play it safe when gaining the advantageous position on the ground by maintaining position rather than searching for a submission. Instead, Formiga was uncharacteristically aggressive against Sasaki. On the feet, the Nova Uniao representative has turned a porous boxing game into something more than functional complimented by stinging low kicks. He won’t KO anyone, but he has shown the ability to win a standup battle based on points against the right opponent.

Nguyen is unlikely the guy Formiga will try to do that against. One of the most dangerous strikers off the back foot in the division, Nguyen backs far more punch moving backwards than any flyweight has the right to possess. He isn’t too bad moving forward either, throwing a high level of low kicks in hopes of encouraging his opponent to move forward so Nguyen can counter. Nguyen has proven to be an effective scrambler too, but he fell short against Louis Smolka in a contest largely spent on the ground. If he can’t outgrapple Smolka, why would any of us believe he can outgrapple Formiga?

Though Nguyen is the underdog, he isn’t without hope. Formiga’s chin has been cracked on multiple occasions and Nguyen certainly has the power to make Formiga see stars. However, Formiga has worked very hard to avoid getting blitzed since his loss to Joseph Benavidez. The safe pick is to go with the Brazilian via decision, but a stoppage by Nguyen isn’t out of the question. Formiga via decision

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