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Diggin’ Deep on UFC 235: Jones vs. Smith - ESPN prelims preview

Get the scoop on the UFC 235 prelims on ESPN, featuring a streaking Zabit Magomedsharipov looking to overcome hard-hitting mainstay Jeremy Stephens.

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I reported in the Fight Pass preview there were several promising prospects in the earliest contests of UFC 235. However, the prospects that have caught the attention of most observers can be found on ESPN in Zabit Magomedsharipov and Johnny Walker. Given this will be Magomedsharipov’s fifth UFC contest, perhaps calling him a prospect is a bit of a stretch, but it doesn’t feel like he’s been tested yet. He’s going to be pushed by Jeremy Stephens and Walker will look to overthrow a former hot prospect in Misha Cirkunov. The bantamweight contest between Cody Stamann and Alejandro Perez looks like a fun contest too. I’d rather forget about the Diego Sanchez contest, but three out of four contests looking very much like they’ll be worth tuning in to isn’t too bad.

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

Jeremy Stephens (28-15) vs. Zabit Magomedsharipov (16-1), Featherweight

It feels like we’ve been waiting forever for Magomedsharipov to step in the Octagon with a proven opponent. He was set to do so against Yair Rodriguez last fall before an injury interrupted, but we’re finally going to see if Magomedsharipov is genuinely creative or if he’s merely reckless taking advantage of opponents who aren’t fortunate to possess the same physical gifts of the Russian.

There is one caveat to the idea of him being tested. Stephens, one of the longest tenured members on the roster, was underestimated opponents who have yet to establish themselves. For example, Stephens didn’t appear to take Renato Moicano seriously, allowing the then unknown Brazilian to take an easy decision. However, Magomedsharipov has far more hype behind him than Moicano did at the time, so it would appear the likelihood of him sleeping on Magomedsharipov is far more unlikely.

Though Stephens is known for his punching power – which he does have plenty of – he has developed into a more nuanced fighter in the last few years, showing the ability to methodically pick apart his opposition as opposed to taking their head off. However, something Stephens tends to struggle with is opponents who know how to snipe from the outside. It isn’t that Magomedsharipov can’t brawl – he absolutely can – but he knows how to use his length. Stephens has used wrestling to pick up a win from time to time, but if you combine Magomedsharipov’s creative submissions combined with his own solid wrestling and it seems more likely the Russian takes the fight if the contest hits the ground for an extended period. Outside of Stephens landing a haymaker, Magomedsharipov feels like a safe bet to emerge the victor. Magomedsharipov via decision

Misha Cirkunov (14-4) vs. Johnny Walker (16-3), Light Heavyweight

It wasn’t that long ago Cirkunov was the next big thing in a division desperate for fresh faces. Cirkunov stumbled badly when given a couple of tests against legit top ten talent, leading to him largely being forgotten about despite 205 still clamoring for new blood. It’s premature to call Cirkunov a bust as the Latvian export is one of the better grapplers in the division in addition to his raw power. However, it’s hard to tap into that power when he’s still not completely comfortable on the feet in addition to being embarrassed by the first decent wrestler/grappler he faced in Glover Teixeira. The potential is still there, even if he no longer has the same type of appeal he possessed earlier.

Speaking of appeal, it’s hard to top the outcome of Walker’s first two UFC contests. Absolutely MASSIVE for light heavyweight at 6’5” with an 82” reach, Walker presents a most unique size disparity this side of Jon Jones for the division. He isn’t scared to take chances either, showing great creativity. If Cirkunov plays this right, he could be right there to capitalize on an overzealous spinning backfist or flying knee from Walker, score an easy takedown, and nab a submission. However, Walker’s confidence is sky high. I don’t see Cirkunov being the one to knock the charismatic Brazilian down to earth. Walker via TKO of RD1

Cody Stamann (17-2) vs. Alejandro Perez (21-6-1), Bantamweight

Despite losing to Aljamain Sterling last fall, Stamann has already exceeded the expectations most had for him when he entered the UFC with little to no fanfare in the summer of 2017. A stout wrestle-boxer, his strong base creates problems for opponents who want to take their chances on the mat with him while his use of angles and solid footwork make up for his short reach. There isn’t anything sexy about his approach as Stamann tends to wear down his opponents with his constant pressure and volume, but it has proven effective.

Perez has benefitted from a LOT of favorable judging, as he could just as easily have lost three of his last five as opposed to being undefeated in his last seven contests. He’s going to need the luck to remain on his side as Stamann easily represents the toughest competition he has faced in his career. It probably won’t be enough. Perez is tough and has the gas tank to keep up with Stamann. What he doesn’t have is the wrestling. Stamann tends to take the fight where his opponent is weakest. Expect this contest to mostly take place on the mat. Stamann via decision

Diego Sanchez (28-11) vs. Mickey Gall (5-1), Welterweight

As much as we’d all like to see Sanchez call it a career, the UFC deserves some credit for their matchmaking with him as of late. Craig White wasn’t a hard hitter. Neither is Gall. The 37-year old no longer has a chin after years of hard-hitting battles, but he can still win a fight on the strength of his wrestling… in the right matchup. The question is whether Gall’s wrestling is enough to overcome Sanchez’s veteran savvy. Sanchez’s savvy can be overridden by his tendency to fall into his wild man persona, abandoning all discipline. Plus, Sanchez isn’t the athlete he once was. Gall uses his aggressive brand of wrestling and grappling to secure a W, though Sanchez will make him earn it. Gall via decision