My apologies for the length of this preview article. I had grown accustomed to the three tiers of contests provided by the FOX era: Fight Pass prelims, televised prelims, and the main card. Then the first card of the ESPN era featured three tiers as well: ESPN+ prelims, televised prelims, and the main card. Well, it appears that was most likely an unusual format due to the UFC’s debut on their new network. Now there are only two stages: prelims and main card. Perhaps I should have broken up the prelims given there are seven contests on them. Whoops.
What to watch for on these prelims? There doesn’t appear to be anything that immediately catches my eye. There are several prospects who are early in their UFC development, though none of them appear to have the can’t-miss label attached to them. At this juncture, I’d say Ricardo Ramos has shown the most potential, though he has yet to be seriously tested.
The prelims begin on ESPN+ at 5:00 PM ET/2:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Markus Perez (10-2) vs. Anthony Hernandez (6-0, 1 NC), Middleweight
Physically, there isn’t anything that stands out about Perez. He isn’t a great athlete, nor does his physical strength standout. However, he has also shown a lot of resilience in his UFC run, including his losses to Eryk Anders and Andrew Sanchez, refusing to go quietly into the night. The switch fighter relies a lot on kicks in his standup, but Perez’s strongest aspect of the game remains his grappling. It’s just a matter of whether he can get the fight to the ground as his wrestling remains questionable.
Hernandez has shown a lot of potential in his short career, including a 40-second KO on the Contender Series. However, the 25-year old had that victory overturned when marijuana metabolites were found in his system following a drug-test. Regardless, Hernandez’s power was very much apparent, a significant fact given he’s better known for his own submission prowess as over half of his victories have come via guillotine choke. Though that may raise some eyebrows as the one-dimensional Cody McKenzie had a notable penchant for the guillotine, Hernandez is far more well-rounded than the eccentric TUF alum.
There are several reasons to be excited about Hernandez. He’s young. He has plenty of power. He’s a solid athlete too. Plus, he hasn’t been gobbling up cans on his way to the big show either. However, I see the potential for a solid wrestler to chew him up and spit him out. Fortunately for him, Perez isn’t that fighter. Despite that, Perez’s toughness and resilience doesn’t lead me to think this will be a walk in the park for Hernandez. He picks up the victory, but will have to work his ass off for it. Hernandez via decision
Mara Romero Borella (11-5) vs. Taila Santos (15-0), Women’s Flyweight
Don’t let Santos’ impressive record fool you. She spent the majority of her career beating up on cans on the Brazilian circuit. The combined records of her opponents heading into their contests with her prior to her appearance on the Contender Series: 7-11-1. That’s over the course of 14 fights. Like I said, a lot of cans. That doesn’t mean the 25-year old is doomed to fail. Santos has a deep kicking arsenal with solid power and a good gas tank. The question is whether she’ll be ready for the step up in competition she’ll assuredly get on the big stage.
Much like Santos, Borella’s most consistent weapon of attack is her low kicks. Unlike Santos, Borella doesn’t offer the same threat to finish the fight with her striking prowess. Nonetheless, Borella showed in her UFC debut against Kalindra Faria just how dangerous she can be, dragging the experienced Brazilian to the ground and subbing her out to an RNC in less than three minutes. Most encouraging for the Italian is the consistent improvement she has displayed since moving to ATT. Borella may be older and have more fights under her belt than Santos, but she also made her debut more recently and has only been able to ramp up her training since making the aforementioned move to ATT.
Santos looks like she’ll be a keeper. She can fight off her back foot, has great distance management, and a calm demeanor. Regardless, I’m still going with Borella. Her loss to Katlyn Chookagian came with some controversy as she appeared to do more damage despite coming out on the short end of the stick. Borella is easily the toughest opponent Santos has seen to date while Borella has been further tested. It should be a good one though. Borella via decision
Thiago Alves (22-13) vs. Max Griffin (14-5), Welterweight
I hate predicting Alves’ fights. Right when I conclude he’s washed up, he turns in his best fight in years when he sent Patrick Cote into retirement. At that point, I give him the benefit of the doubt and he turns in back-to-back flat performances that he currently rides into this contest. Now that I’m convinced he’s at the end of the line – again – he’s probably going to come out sharp.
If Alves is sharp, he is still the proud owner of some of the most dangerous low kicks in the business. He may not be able to hit the high-risk maneuvers -- such as flying knees -- in the same manner he used to, but Alves has become a more technically proficient boxer in the pocket than he was in his youthful days. However, as he has gotten older, he’s also lost a step or two and can’t take punishment the way that he used to.
Fortunately for Griffin, he’s the younger fighter with far less mileage on his body. Thought to be more of a brawler when he threw down with noted Brazilian striker Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos, Griffin showed he’s more than capable of pulling off a disciplined approach, picking apart Mike Perry on the counter. While no one will ever mistake Griffin for being a high-level wrestler, he has improved his takedown defense enough that he is able to stay standing against those who only look to use their wrestling as a fallback. In other words, against guys like Alves.
In his prime, Alves was one of the most exciting fighters on the roster. That feels like a lifetime ago at this point. Griffin isn’t quite as long or as stout as Curtis Millender – who has beaten both of these men in the recent past – but he is comparable and may even be more technically sound. I can’t get the image of Alves being unable to navigate the length of Millender out of my head. Griffin studies film and is no doubt is aware of Alves’ struggles. He should expertly outwork his Brazilian counterpart. Griffin via decision
Junior Albini (14-4) vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik (6-0), Heavyweight
Albini’s nickname may be Baby, but Rozenstruik’s alias of Bigi Boy seems to describe him more aptly as he tips the scales at the heavyweight limit. An initial look at their records would also seem to indicate Albini is the more experienced combatant. However, that would be overlooking Rozenstruik’s 82 professional kickboxing contests since 2007. Rozenstruik has been fighting for a long time and there isn’t anything he hasn’t seen… at least on the feet. The native of Suriname has shown some solid takedown defense thus far, but there is no doubt he’ll be playing with fire if Albini is able to get him to the mat for an extended length of time.
That’s good news for Albini, who entered the UFC with a reputation as a sound grappler. Sure, he was subbed by Alexey Oleynik the one time he took a fight to the ground, but that was more overconfidence than a lack of ability. Albini has shown potential to be a major difference maker in his UFC run on the feet, but he has also shown inflexibility to making adjustments and a questionable gas tank. Nonetheless, the Brazilian has plenty of power in his fists and good timing on the counter.
This is a simple contest to figure out. Albini could knock out Rozenstruik, but why compete on the feet with a guy who has 64 KO’s in his kickboxing career when you can take him to the ground? The question is whether he can get the fight to the mat. Or is it whether he’ll be willing to…? Albini has shown incredible durability, so it’ll be a hell of a challenge for the newcomer to put him to sleep. Rozenstruik via decision
Geraldo de Freitas (11-4) vs. Felipe Colares (8-0), Featherweight
A contest made roughly a week before the event, it doesn’t take much film study to figure out which fighter the UFC is pushing in this bout. Both combatants are on the younger side of things, but the 24-year old Colares is the one the UFC believes can turn into a keeper. A volume striker who tends to throw a lot of low kicks, there isn’t a lot of power behind the youngster. Nonetheless, there appears to be plenty of untapped potential for Colares to unlock. His wrestling is lacking in terms of the traditional sense, but he is improving in that aspect in addition to showing some judo training based on his throws and trips.
De Freitas has an excellent frame for his weight class, clocking in at 5’9”. Unfortunately for him – and no surprise given the late notice – he’s fighting above his natural bantamweight class. Nonetheless, de Freitas shouldn’t be counted out. On the whole, he’s faced superior competition and has displayed more pop in his punches than Colares. Though I can’t say for sure – information and video on him has been sparse – BJJ appears to be his base with the armbar being his submission of choice.
I’ve already tipped my hand on this contest. Colares appears to be the bigger fighter with a more diverse standup and takedown arsenal. While I may not go so far as to give Colares the advantage on the ground, I don’t want to say de Freitas is superior there either. Even though this contest feels more appropriate headlining a Shooto Brazil card than appearing on a UFC prelim, it shouldn’t be a bad scrap. Colares’ superior ability to take the fight where he wants proves to be the difference. Colares via decision
Ricardo Ramos (12-1) vs. Said Nurmagomedov (12-1), Bantamweight
Three wins in the UFC in three attempts apparently isn’t enough for Ramos to get a step up in competition. Perhaps the close nature of his most recent win over Kyung Ho Kang kept UFC matchmakers from giving him a bigger name. Regardless, Ramos has flashed a dynamic offensive attack both standing and on the ground. He put Aiemann Zahabi to sleep with a spinning elbow, though his lanky frame is best put to use entangling his opponents in various submissions with RNC’s and triangle chokes being his specialties. Perhaps the biggest concern is how quickly Ramos tends to fade late in contests, partially due to his weight cut, but also attributable to his tendency to go all out early.
Nurmagomedov may have picked up a victory in his UFC debut, but it was about as lackluster of a successful debut as you’ll see. Perhaps moving back up to bantamweight will provide for a more energetic performance than the one he put on against Justin Scoggins, though his methodical approach has never required high energy usage. In fact, Nurmagomedov isn’t much of a finishing threat, trying to outpoint his opposition with his variety of kicks from the outside.
I struggle to see how Nurmagomedov pulls this one out. Ramos will come out gangbusters, either finishing off Khabib’s “cousin” or taking the early lead. Nurmagomedov’s lack of finishing ability and Ramos’ length likely negating just enough of Nurmagomedov’s outside attack spells a fourth consecutive UFC win for Ramos. Ramos via submission of RD1
Rogerio Bontorin (14-1) vs. Magomed Bibulatov (14-1, 1 NC), Flyweight
Y’all remember when Bibulatov was supposed to be the next big thing in the flyweight division? That seems like a lifetime ago as Bibulatov debuted with an unimpressive win – by his standards -- over Jenel Lausa before falling to John Moraga in his sophomore effort. That was about 16 months ago and we haven’t seen him since. Nonetheless, Bibulatov has shown enough to keep hope alive that he can develop into a title contender… provided there is a flyweight title to be defended by the time he hits his stride.
The questions surrounding Bontorin have to do with making the flyweight limit as the last time he attempted to fight at 125, he missed the mark. Nonetheless, the Contender Series alum showed tons of resilience when he survived several near-finishes from Gustavo Gabriel only to come back and secure a submission victory. While it shows loads of heart, it also is indicative of the concerns about his defense. Nonetheless, he has a solid all-around game with a knack for getting the back.
I remember getting excited by Bibulatov’s highlight reel back in the day. There are spinning techniques he pulls off with aplomb, technical single leg takedowns, and other times where he just ragdolls his opponent. I have to believe the fighter I saw several years ago still exists somewhere in Bibulatov’s small frame. He is just 30 after all. Bontorin looks like he could be a fun action fighting flyweight, but he doesn’t strike me as a potential contender. That alone has me picking Bibulatov. Bibulatov via decision