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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Atlantic City: Barboza vs. Lee - Fight Pass prelims preview

Get the scoop on the early fights from UFC Atlantic City, featuring world class scrapper Leslie Smith looking to turn away upstart prospect Aspen Ladd in the headliner.

Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

A week after six fights taking place on the Fight Pass prelims, UFC Fight Night Atlantic City represents a bit of a return to normalcy with only three. What hasn’t changed from last week is the type of contests on the early bouts. There isn’t any contenders to be found, but there should be some decent action. The one I’d highlight: Leslie Smith and Aspen Ladd. Smith has never been in a boring fight in her life and Ladd looks like she could play an important part in the future of the division.

The Fight Pass prelims begin at 6:30 PM ET/3:30 PM PT on Saturday.

Leslie Smith (10-7-1) vs. Aspen Ladd (6-0), Women’s Bantamweight

One of the most respected women in all of MMA – just as much for her work outside the cage with Project Spearhead as for her toughness inside it – Smith surprised a few analysts when she decided to remain at bantamweight when flyweight opened up. Regardless of where she fights, Smith has consistently been one of the most entertaining fighters on the roster. Pushing an insane pace with intense pressure, Smith knows how to find the smallest hole and exploit it. She tends to leave sizeable holes of her own for the opposition to exploit, but it takes either a Cyborg or a ripped appendage to stop her… literally.

Ladd is the most hyped prospect to be brought into the UFC in the bantamweight division since Holly Holm. Then again, that isn’t saying too much given the shallow pool of talent that currently exists for 135. Regardless of exactly how bright her future is, Ladd has some similarities to Smith, in that she is constantly moving forward with a seemingly endless gas tank. However, Ladd tends to utilize a more ground oriented approach, securing takedowns, and pounding out opponents with her vaunted ground strikes. Her standup? Still a work in progress.

Y’all remember Smith’s contest with Irene Aldana a bit over a year ago? There were a lot of similarities as Aldana was considered a bright up-and-comer expected to use Smith as a stepping stone. This contest feels eerily similar. One big difference: Ladd will look to take the fight to the mat… at least I think she will. She did display a questionable strategy early in her UFC debut against Lina Lansberg by fighting in the clinch with the Elbow Princess, but she did eventually settle down. I’m plugging my nose and closing my eyes as I type my pick…. Ladd via decision

Merab Dvalishvili (7-3) vs. Ricky Simon (12-1), Bantamweight

It’s hard to get a bead on Dvalishvili following a debut that was an absolute mixed bag. Displaying a nearly endless gas tank, Dvalishvili was the aggressor for the duration of his contest with Frankie Saenz, securing an impressive eleven takedowns. However, he lost the fight as he did nothing productive with the takedowns – zero submission attempts and only two significant strikes from the ground – and couldn’t keep Saenz down. Plus, Dvalishvili’s striking appeared to take a step back following steady progress on the regional scene.

Simon’s striking has never looked better than it did less than a month ago when he defended his LFA title in less than a minute. Simon has developed into a skilled combinations puncher, expertly mixing his punches to the body and head to keep the opposition guessing where he might attack next. His wrestling isn’t anything to take lightly either. A teammate of Chael Sonnen’s, Simon’s timing is something gained only after years of wrestling.

While I would have loved to see the progress of Augusto Mendes, I’m also excited to see Simon make it to the UFC roster. A plus athlete with length and a well-rounded arsenal, it’s easy to see why a number of analysts have predicted big things for the youngster. Dvalishvili does provide him with a worthy challenge for his UFC debut, but I’d expect Simon to be ready for whatever is thrown his way. Simon via decision

Tony Martin (8-0) vs. Keita Nakamura (33-8-2, 1 NC), Welterweight

It only took eight fights in the UFC, but Martin is finally giving up on lightweight. It isn’t that he didn’t find any success at 155, but the dude was HUGE for the weight class. Many would say he was too big as he tended to fade hard down the stretch of his contests. Given he was improving in that area in recent contests, there shouldn’t be any worries now that he’s cutting less weight, making his overpowering brand of grappling a more viable weapon down the stretch. The price that could come with the move up is facing bigger and longer opposition. Given Martin’s game has been dependent on him being the bigger opponent, it could take an adjustment period before he finds his feet at 170.

Fortunately for him, Nakamura isn’t a large welterweight. In fact, it’s rare when Nakamura is the bigger or stronger fighter in the cage. You’d think he’d be a poor takedown artist when you combine that with his lack of traditional wrestling. Nonetheless, years of experience has helped him develop an innate sense of timing for trip takedowns and he’s as slick at taking the back as they come. Nakamura is tough as nails too. In almost 15 years in the sport, Nakamura has only been KO’d once.

This was some slick matchmaking by Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard. Nakamura has struggled with larger opponents since coming back to the UFC, relying on his opportunistic nature to escape with victory in a couple of contests. Even if he is moving up in weight, Martin should fill the bill as the larger fighter. However, Martin has also struggled against opportunistic submission artists… like Nakamura. Perhaps the standup proves to be the difference. Martin has developed into a serviceable striker after relying almost solely on his wrestling and grappling and possesses more natural power. Given his trajectory has been moving steadily upward, I’ll pick the younger fighter. Martin via decision