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Diggin’ Deep on UFC 244: Masvidal vs. Diaz - ESPN2 prelims preview

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Get the inside scoop on UFC 244’s televised prelims, featuring a highly anticipated contest between the steady Corey Anderson and KO machine Johnny Walker.

Though there is nothing wrong with the other contests on the prelims on UFC 244, there is one contest that stands head and shoulders above the rest. It’s plausible the winner of Corey Anderson and Johnny Walker will determine the next challenger to Jon Jones title. There’s no doubt the UFC would prefer the flashy Walker to come out ahead as Anderson’s three fight win streak hasn’t done much to excite viewers, with all those victories coming via decision. On the flip side, Walker has yet to go beyond two minutes in his undefeated three-fight UFC run.

Plus, don’t underestimate the potential for excitement between Shane Burgos and Makwan Amirkhani, a contest some have earmarked this stacked card as the favorite for FOTN. Edmen Shahbazyan has also excited many with his potential. He receives a stiff test in veteran Brad Tavares. And the wily Andrei Arlovski will get his chin tested by heavy-hitting Jairzinho Rozenstruik to open the prelims. Yeah… these prelims rock!

The prelims begin on ESPN2 at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Corey Anderson (12-4) vs. Johnny Walker (17-3), Light Heavyweight

Though Anderson is considered the veteran in this contest, they started their careers within a year of one another and Walker has more career contests. It is true that Anderson has more UFC experience by a mile in addition to being three years older, but for those who are trying to make this a narrative where it’s the young lion trying to overtake the old vet, just stop.

Anderson has a real bone to pick with the UFC. Feeling he’s already done enough to warrant a crack at Jones with a pair of wins over top five light heavyweights within his current win streak, he accepted this fight with Walker in hopes of proving there is more substance to his grinding wrestling than there is to the pyrotechnics behind Walker’s quick finishes. Anderson knows his style doesn’t attract a lot of eyeballs, but securing 19 takedowns over the course of two contests to begin this streak is undeniably impressive. He may not have been able to take down Ilir Latifi, but he did outbox the muscular Swede and avoided Latifi’s own takedowns. Anderson isn’t a power puncher on the feet, but he’s technically sound enough that he can outpoint a good chunk of the division.

Walker’s brief run has done a lot to excite, but little in terms of answering questions. Yes, there is regional footage of him – including him going the distance in his appearance on DWCS – but it’s also against lower competition. Plus, he’s grown and matured since that time. Nonetheless, he has shown some weakness to grapplers who can get the fight to the ground and his defense on the feet can be exposed as he executes a tall man defense similar to what has plagued James Vick. He’s been able to get away with it due to his freaky athleticism, but as opponents become more aware to his tendency for moves like flying knees or spinning attacks, he’s more likely to be exposed.

I’ve flip-flopped on my thoughts of this contest a couple of time. Walker isn’t going to continually starch his opponents within minutes. He doesn’t always use his 6’6” frame or his 82” reach to the best of his abilities, but isn’t inept in his use of it either. Regardless, he’s ripe for a fall, especially given his reckless nature. However, he’s also very strong in the clinch, an area where Anderson has shown some weakness before. Plus, Anderson isn’t exactly known for having an iron-clad chin, suffering three KO’s out of his four losses. Anderson has a very good chance to win this if he can get his wrestling game going, it seems highly likely he can break Walker. The problem is doing that over the course of 15 minutes without Walker’s explosiveness touching up Anderson’s chin. I won’t be surprised to see Anderson grind out another win to derail the hype train, but all Walker might need is one chance. Walker’s the pick. Walker via KO of RD1

Shane Burgos (12-1) vs. Makwan Amirkhani (15-3), Featherweight

While there are noticeable holes in the game of both Burgos and Amirkhani, they’re also consistently two of the more entertaining featherweights on the roster. That’s a hell of a statement given the quality of competition and action that comes from that division.

That said, there’s a clear delineation where each wants the contest to take place. Burgos will hope to keep the contest standing as he’s far more comfortable on the feet than Amirkhani. The American has a powerful counter left hook that has almost single handedly secured him his first couple of UFC contests. He’s slowed the aggression a bit since Calvin Kattar dealt him his lone career loss, being more selective with when he wants to rush headlong into the pocket. The 134 significant strikes he landed on Cub Swanson shows he’s still throwing a lot. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he throws similar volume against Amirkhani given Mr. Finland’s tendency to slow late in contests… provided Burgos can keep the fight standing.

Burgos’ takedown defense has been outstanding thus far, going on his back just a single time in his six UFC contests. However, none of his opponents have come anywhere close to the wrestling credentials of Amirkhani. Aside from an eight second drubbing of Andy Ogle, Amirkhani has gotten at least one takedown in all his subsequent UFC contests. It isn’t just his wrestling either as Amirkhani is one of the best scramblers in the sport as well. His standup continues to need work, but he has power and knows his bread is buttered on the mat. Amirkhani will do everything in his power to ensure this contest spends as much time on the mat as possible.

Amirkhani’s chin has been durable throughout his career as he has never been finished due to strikes. However, he does have an issue with remaining effective late into contests, typically running near empty in the third round. If Burgos can avoid Amirkhani’s submissions, that could be his chance to capitalize and finish off a tired Amirkhani late. There are many plausible ways this contest could play out, but what I just described appears to be the most likely outcome. Burgos picks up a win in his home state. Burgos via TKO of RD3

Brad Tavares (17-5) vs. Edmen Shahbazyan (10-0), Middleweight

I’ll be the first to admit I believed Shahbazyan was your typical DWCS product who was being rushed to the big stage too soon. Hell, the kid was only 20 when he was awarded his contract. Instead, the Edmond Tarverdyan product has reeled off three straight wins, earning himself a spot in the official UFC rankings. Granted, the UFC has been careful not to rush the talented youngster too quickly, but his progress has nonetheless been remarkable.

Aggression typifies what Shahbazyan is all about. Constant forward movement until he latches onto this opponent, Shahbazyan will either than begin fighting in the clinch or searching for a takedown. Though he is largely devoid of technique, Shahbazyan has been able to make up for that with ample physical tools to batter the opposition as he is a physical specimen. More technical opponents with similar tools would find success against the youngster, but those aren’t too common unless he gets a major jump in competition.

Enter Tavares. No, Tavares isn’t the athlete Shahbazyan, nor is he a huge jump, but he is a respectable talent and is technical… sometimes, too technical. Tavares went over seven years at one point between stoppage victories as his outside boxing and low kicks typically don’t have too much oomph behind them. Nonetheless, Tavares is defensively sound, picking his spots wisely to outpoint the opposition. However, that approach has also failed him against the most talented in the division, sometimes in spectacular fashion.

Tavares has sound footwork and has typically been difficult to put on the mat. Now 31 and approaching a decade of service time in the organization, Tavares has developed into one of the more savvy vets of the middleweight division. Then again, he has been overwhelmed in the past by the physicality of opponents such as Robert Whittaker, Yoel Romero, and Israel Adesanya. Though I like what I’ve seen out of Shahbazyan a lot, I’m not ready to say he’s going to climb their heights quite yet. He still has a lot to learn. Tavares may or may not be the type of patient vet to teach him those lessons, but my guess is that he is. Tavares via decision

Andrei Arlovski (28-18, 1 NC) vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik (8-0), Heavyweight

Despite two impressive finishes, there doesn’t seem to be as much hype around Rozenstruik as I’d expect. Sure, securing wins over names like Allen Crowder and Junior Albini doesn’t do much to build up a reputation, but everyone starts somewhere. The hard-hitting Muay Thai striker has the athletic ability to be a real difference-maker in the division. The biggest concern for the native of Suriname is his ground game, an area that he has minimal experience. He’s shown some takedown defense and rudimentary submission defense – enough to fend off the likes of Albini – but the belief is he’ll be in trouble once he faces an opponent with a consistent wrestling and grappling game.

Nobody knows for sure if Arlovski is capable of exposing Rozenstruik’s ground game. While Arlovski has been in the game for over two decades, his ground game rarely is put on display, whether by his own choice or by his opponents’. Given Arlovski’s noted fragile chin in combination with Rozenstruik’s background, most would expect Arlovski will make an effort to take the contest to the mat. However, though Arlovski’s chin is well documented, it’s been nine fights since he was last put to sleep, that at the hands of Francis Ngannou. Arlovski has done a better job of rolling with punches in addition to exhibiting the best footwork he’s ever exhibited in his career. In his last performance, Arlovski landed a career-high 152 significant strikes against Ben Rothwell, putting together lengthy combinations to increase his volume. He did slow down the stretch, but the pace he pushed for a heavyweight is impressive nonetheless.

While Rozenstruik hasn’t come across as particularly mobile in his UFC performances this far, he isn’t going to be as stationary as Rothwell, perhaps the most lumbering figure on the entire roster. Arlovski can probably utilize ground control and GnP to work his way to a decision. The question is if Rozenstruik can find a way to land something to turn out Arlovski’s lights. I’m not confident in the choice, but I’ll say he does so. Rozenstruik via TKO of RD2