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Diggin’ Deep on UFC 234: Whittaker vs. Gastelum - ESPN prelims preview

Get the scoop on the televised prelims of UFC 234, featuring exciting young lightweight prospect Devonte Smith in action opposite of Dong Hyun Ma.

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The televised prelims of UFC 234 – the first televised PPV prelims on ESPN – are just as underwhelming as the Fight Pass prelims. Like I said in my previous preview, the entirety of the UFC 234 card – sans the top two fights – is the most disappointing card in recent memory. I will admit there are some contests that look like they could be fun, but none of them feature a true up-and-comer, much less a notable name. That isn’t to say there aren’t any names that could grow into someone to watch – Devonte Smith comes to mind – but there is reason to take caution with any prospects to be seen on ESPN.

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

Devonte Smith (9-1) vs. Dong Hyun Ma (16-8-3), Lightweight

For the most part, the Contender Series alums have run into serious adversity upon their UFC debut, win or lose. Smith was the exception. A couple of jabs and a straight right from him secured his first UFC victory in a span of 46 seconds. A plus athlete with a 76” reach, Smith may just be scratching the surface of his potential. Given that he showed great discipline in both his Contender Series contest and his official debut against Julian Erosa, that’s a scary thought for his future opponents.

Ma – formerly known as the other Dong Hyun Kim – has been slowly rewriting the narrative of him as a wild brawler. Sure, pressure and power punches is still his preferred method to victory – and usually his best option – but he’s also shown the ability to hunt for trip takedowns and use grappling control to pick up a win. He has added some head movement, though on the whole, his defense is still poor. Given that he’s riding a three-fight win streak, it’s clear that Ma is developing a better knowledge of when to go gangbusters and when to take a more measured approach.

There is a big asterisk next to Ma’s winning streak as not one of his victims remains on the UFC roster. In other words, there isn’t a lot of quality to his victories. Smith may not have any better of a track record, but his physical attributes are far superior to the native of South Korea. Smith also has a greater learning curve at this point. I’ll be very surprised if he doesn’t walk away the victor from this one. Smith via decision

Shane Young (12-4) vs. Austin Arnett (16-5), Featherweight

It may have taken four tries – though only three under the official UFC banner – but Arnett finally picked up a win in the world’s premier MMA organization. A lack of athleticism and poor defense have been the hurdles Arnett has struggled to overcome, but a more patient approach, utilization of his 72” reach, and use of sound angles got him a victory over Humberto Bandenay. One oddity about the contest was Arnett’s use of kicks to the body given his camp, Sikjitsu, has traditionally taught their own fighters not to defend body strikes. Like I said, poor defense has hurt Arnett.

Few expected Young to still be around at this point. Thought to be a short combination volume striker with little power when he was picked up, Young surprised many when he finished off a tough Rolando Dy with a short elbow. Then again, Young did accumulate over 100 significant strikes in less than two rounds with no signs of letting up so maybe the initial scouting reports were accurate. There do remain questions about his takedown defense, though he did manage to climb back to his feet several times in his UFC debut against Alexander Volkanovski, no small feat.

While I don’t see either of these strikers having a long and fruitful UFC career, Young appears to have the greater staying power. He was never rattled despite being on the receiving end of Volkanovski’s continued onslaught, whereas Arnett became scared to throw anything in fear of being countered by Hakeem Dawodu before the end of their contest. Young’s volume overwhelms Arnett. Young via TKO, RD3

Kai Kara-France (18-7) vs. Raulian Paiva (18-1), Flyweight

One of the last flyweight signings before the rumors of the division’s contraction began, Kara-France’s UFC debut was a rollicking slugfest between himself and Elias Garcia. Everything that had people excited about his entry was on display. Striking combinations. Punching power. Toughness. If the flyweight division is to survive, Kara-France needs to continue keep those attributes at the forefront as his wrestling and grappling aren’t where they need to be if he hopes to climb whatever ladder exists in the division.

The UFC isn’t giving him an easy opponent in his sophomore effort as Raulian Paiva put together one of the most complete efforts seen on the Contender Series against a quality opponent. Unfortunately for Paiva, he was involved in a motorcycle accident in October that saw his girlfriend die a week later from her injuries. While Paiva didn’t suffer any major injuries, it’s hard to believe his mental makeup hasn’t been affected at all. If the youngster is in a good head space, he’s shown a well-rounded skill set with his striking defense being his biggest weakness. Fortunately, he’s shown the toughness to make up for that hole.

With the caveat that this is one of the worst PPV cards in UFC history, this is one of the contests I’m most looking forward to on the card. Kara-France is a hell of a striker and Paiva has shown a willingness to stand and trade. While I do like the long-term potential of Paiva better, the young Brazilian suffered a major tragedy less than four months ago. Plus, Kara-France will have the Australian crowd behind him in addition to not having to deal with the hours of travel Paiva does. Regardless, it should be fun. Kara-France via decision

Teruto Ishihara (10-6-2) vs. Kyung Ho Kang (14-8, 1 NC), Bantamweight

While no one expected Ishihara to develop into a contender, his recent 1-4 stretch is nonetheless disappointing. Attempting to become a stronger wrestler by aligning himself with Team Alpha Male, he hasn’t done much to supplement his low output or his shallow gas tank. Ishihara has plenty of power and a quick burst – when fresh – but he’s gotten himself into some bad situations when he hasn’t been able to secure an early finish. One major positive: despite being finished by Petr Yan, Ishihara is one tough bastard.

Unfortunately for Ishihara, Kang appears to be one of the few bantamweights on the roster who could be tougher. The Korean has been far more active on the feet since returning from his mandatory military service, implementing low kicks into his arsenal to supplement his volume. However, his bread-and-butter is still his aggressive ground game. Very physically strong, Kang’s strength allows him to make up for some of his technical shortcomings on the ground. Despite that strength, he relies more on trips and throws as opposed to traditional wrestling takedowns.

Given Kang’s durability and improved volume, it’s hard to see Ishihara securing a win. Despite his improved wrestling, it doesn’t appear likely it will be enough to successfully compete with Kang on the ground. I’ll give Ishihara’s ability to survive the benefit of the doubt, but there is no way I’d pick him to win. Kang via decision