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Diggin’ Deep on UFC 234: Whittaker vs. Gastelum - Main card preview

Get the scoop on the early main card action of UFC 234, featuring grappling expert Rani Yahya looking to continue his winning ways against up-and-coming Ricky Simon.

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Typically, the third match on a PPV main card sees a pair of combatants fans are not only familiar with, but glad to see. For instance, the last PPV card saw former interim champion Carlos Condit square off with former TUF winner Michael Chiesa. Prior to that at UFC 231, Gunnar Nelson and Alex Oliveira did the damn thing. So what are we getting for UFC 234? Rani Yahya and Ricky Simon. Yeah…

While I’m a fan of Yahya – I enjoy rooting for someone about as athletically gifted as I am – even I don’t want to see him on a PPV main card. I said it in the previous two previews, I’ll say it again here: UFC 234 is the worst PPV card top to bottom in recent memory. If injuries had rocked the card, I wouldn’t be as harsh. To be honest, the lone injury to the main card brought in a more established name when Sam Alvey stepped in for Ryan Spann. Whether you think Alvey is an upgrade or not is up to you to decide, I only said he’s a more established name. I will end up watching the PPV – it is part of my job after all – but I wouldn’t fault you if you decided there wasn’t enough depth to justify spending your own hard-earned cash.

The main card of UFC 234 begins at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Rani Yahya (26-9, 1 NC) vs. Ricky Simon (14-1), Bantamweight

Perhaps the most underappreciated member of the UFC roster, Yahya comes into this contest a winner in seven of his last eight contests. For the longest time, the complaint was that the grappling expert – and I do mean expert – tends to control his victims on the way to a boring decision. However, in that winning stretch, Yahya has collected a submission in five of those seven wins, including each of his last three. His dogged wrestling and anaconda-like control isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing, but the results can’t be argued with, especially given Yahya may be the worst athlete on the UFC roster.

Simon isn’t an exceptional athlete himself, but he is far superior in that department than Yahya. Very physically strong, Simon relies heavily on his wrestling pedigree, securing a total of nine takedowns in his two UFC contests. His striking arsenal has been limited to heavy hooks with the occasional low kick for good measure. Simon has a good gas tank, but one of the things that holds him back is he isn’t always wise with how to expend his energy, often continuing to dig for a takedown that isn’t there. But hey, being active is better than doing nothing.

This is a difficult contest to pick. Throughout his recent winning stretch, Yahya has been fortunate to avoid powerhouse wrestlers like Simon, the prototype fighter that Yahya has struggled with. I do have pause to pick Simon as he tends to put himself into bad grappling positions, but I’m going with my gut on this one and say Simon’s activity wears out Yahya for a hard-fought decision. Simon via decision

Montana De La Rosa (9-4) vs. Nadia Kassem (5-0), Women’s Flyweight

For all the eye-rolling in the direction of Kassem – she’s highly undisciplined and lacking in technique – it does need to be said that she has the physical attributes to become something special. There’s no way in hell she would have been able to win her debut against Alex Chambers if it wasn’t true as she is incredibly raw. She does hit hard and tends to swarm, but she also faded down the stretch as it was the first time she had a fight go past 90 seconds. Regardless, she has shown flashes of becoming a sound combination striker as opposed to just a brawler.

A lot of people overlooked De La Rosa when she was being used as fodder against the likes of Cynthia Calvillo and Mackenzie Dern a few years ago, but the 23-year old has some real promise. She has a solid frame for flyweight, operating behind a jab, though her defense still leaves a lot to be desired. Regardless, she is at her best when the fight hits the mat with seven of her nine wins coming via submission, largely alternating between armbars and RNCs. Though she was a high school All-American wrestler, De La Rosa’s takedown game has yet to surface, coming up short on all six of her recorded takedown attempts thus far.

Even if De La Rosa’s wrestling has underwhelmed thus far, expect it to emerge here. Kassem struggled to stop Chambers from getting her to the ground and De La Rosa is far better than Chambers at taking the fight to the mat. Even if she doesn’t drag Kassem down, I can see De La Rosa pulling guard and Kassem following her to the ground. It is conceivable Kassem has greatly improved in that aspect as it has been 15 months since she last stepped in the cage, but the odds are unlikely she has taken the needed leap. De La Rosa via submission of RD2

Jim Crute (9-0) vs. Sam Alvey (33-11), Light Heavyweight

Even though he’s been attempting to add some diversity to his attack, Alvey is still about as one-note of a fighter as there is in the UFC. Fortunately for him, it’s a hell of a note. His counter right may not be quite as lethal as the H-bomb his mentor, Dan Henderson, used to detonate, but it’s difficult to name someone else in the weight class who has a single punch as lethal. He’s thrown low kicks with more frequency lately to try to supplement his low volume with mixed results. Generally, his success is dependent on landing that big right hand.

Crute is still very young, turning 23 next month. His UFC debut was a back-and-forth affair with Paul Craig that revealed several positives and negatives. His offense first approach leaves him wide open to his opponent’s return attack as his defense is terrible. However, Crute does have some decent power and has no quit in him, even when his stamina level is low. He didn’t enter the UFC with much of a reputation as a grappler, but Crute survived multiple submission attempts from Craig and even turned things around on the Scot on several occasions.

Crute has a lot of potential. I won’t go so far as to say he’s going to turn into a title contender – I haven’t seen that level of promise quite yet – but he seems like a safe bet to be a longtime action fighter. However, his tendency to move forward recklessly leads me to believe Alvey is going to land a bomb at some point that puts the young Aussie to sleep. Alvey via KO of RD1