There isn’t a lot worth paying attention to on the prelims of UFC Wichita, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything. Anthony Rocco Martin – formerly known as Tony Martin – has been streaking up the rankings since opting out of cutting an excessive amount of weight and plying his trade at welterweight. The difference is stark enough that it reminds me of the early days of Robert Whittaker’s run at middleweight. I’m not going to go so far as to declare Martin a future champion as Whittaker became, but the similarities are certainly there. Plus, Yana Kunitskaya challenged for a title less than a year ago. There may be extenuating circumstances behind that title shot, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen….
The prelims begin at 5:00 PM ET/2:00 PM PT on Saturday on ESPN+.
Anthony Rocco Martin (15-4) vs. Sergio Moraes (14-3-1), Welterweight
Moraes has been a favorite of the Bloody Elbow staff for quite some time. A hyper-athletic BJJ expert, Moraes has the physical tools and the grappling skills to be a top contender. However, Moraes also tends to throw caution to the wind, throwing wild haymakers with no thought for leaving himself protected. Yes, he possesses serious power, but it isn’t too difficult to avoid that style of offense when you know it’s coming. Part of the problem is Moraes’ takedowns only seem to work against those with some of the worst takedown defense. Thus, he seems content to stand and trade with hopes that a scramble ensues and he can find either a submission opportunity or getting an advantageous position on the ground.
There is a concern Martin could fall prey as his base is his own wrestling and grappling. Martin does have several impressive submissions on his resume – including a slick anaconda choke in his last appearance against Jake Matthews – but he has also been subject to a few submission losses of his own. However, his last submission loss came four years ago and he has improved exponentially on the feet in that time. He doesn’t have the flash of Moraes, but he is much more fundamentally sound, often establishing a jab very early. Martin’s takedown defense should ensure he comfortably outpoints Moraes. Martin via decision
Marion Reneau (9-4-1) vs. Yana Kunitskaya (11-4, 1 NC), Women’s Bantamweight
It’s hard not to root for Reneau. A teacher who began fighting to put her son through college… what isn’t to like about that? At 41, you wouldn’t think she would have the physical gifts anymore to hang with the best in the division. More often than not, that hasn’t been the case. In fact, she even found a way to submit notable wrestler – and athlete -- Sara McMann. Reneau’s grappling has been her biggest strength – she has several submissions off her back – though she has also shown she can be controlled by a wrestler who is wary of Reneau’s abilities. At one point, it appeared her grappling was the only path to victory, though that isn’t true anymore as Reneau has shored up her striking enough that it is serviceable.
Despite Reneau’s improvements, it’s unlikely she’ll be able to win the standup battle as trading in the pocket is what Kunitskaya does best. Some may be unaware of that given the Russian focused much of her attack against Lina Lansberg on putting the Swede on her back. Or given Kunitskaya’s overturned victory over Tonya Evinger that saw her win via armbar. Kunitskaya has a well-rounded skill set and should be the favorite to win this contest. However, she is also prone to submissions. There will be no surprise if Kunitskaya outpoints Reneau, but I’m picking the American to find an available limb for a tap. Reneau via submission of RD2
Grant Dawson (12-1) vs. Julian Erosa (22-6), Featherweight
The script with Erosa is pretty easy to follow. If you’re a better athlete than he is, you usually come out on top. It isn’t that Erosa is a poor athlete. In fact, his lanky frame makes him a very difficult stylistic matchup at featherweight. What he doesn’t have is the skills that separate the elite like sudden quickness, power, or strength. Dawson doesn’t have the length of Erosa, but he certainly exceeds him in just about all of the other physical categories. A powerhouse wrestler, Dawson’s favorite method is to put his opponent flat on their back and finish things off with GnP. He’s likely to do so here given Erosa’s questionable takedown defense. Dawson via TKO of RD1
Maurice Greene (6-2) vs. Jeff Hughes (10-1), Heavyweight
There are mixed feelings about Greene. No one denies the big man is gifted, but he also showed enough instability in his time on TUF to convince many he’ll never reach the heights his physical talents indicate he should. He was in a good place in his UFC debut, piecing up Michel Batista before securing an arm-triangle choke, proving he owns a more advanced ground game than most expected. However, there is one big caveat heading into his contest with Hughes: he already lost to Hughes less than a year ago. It was a competitive contest, but Greene allowed Hughes to close the distance and make it an ugly fight, negating Greene’s height and reach. Hughes has plenty of limitations, but he’s tough, smart, and hits like a truck. Greene is more talented, but I still see Hughes securing a similar victory to their first contest. Hughes via TKO of RD3
Louis Smolka (15-5) vs. Matt Schnell (12-4), Bantamweight
It doesn’t seem like that long ago when Smolka was one of the bright young stars of the flyweight division. He then lost four in a row and found himself outside the UFC before changing things up. Not only did he move up to bantamweight, he severely cut back on his alcohol intake. The results have been encouraging, though he has yet to secure a win over an opponent on the level of Schnell. Then again, a win over Schnell wouldn’t necessarily say Smolka is back to his previous levels either. Regardless, Smolka tends to push a hard pace and his volume could overwhelm Schnell. That isn’t to say Schnell can’t win this, but he’ll need to get his wrestling game going as Smolka is notorious for his horrendous takedown defense. Given Schnell’s wrestling has largely been MIA in his UFC run, I’ll take the Hawaiian. Smolka via decision
Alex Morono (15-5, 1 NC) vs. Zak Ottow (17-6), Welterweight
It’s hard to get up for this contest, largely because Ottow tends to lull his opponents into a staring contest with the occasional exchange of low kicks or single punches. It’s understandable why he’d want to turn fights into a mental battle given his lack of physical tools, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun to watch. Fortunately for us (the viewers), Morono tends to be an aggressive fighter. He isn’t a great athlete himself, but he is durable and possesses an active style that tends to sway the judges in his favor. That’ll push me in his favor. Morono via decision
Alex White (12-5) vs. Dan Moret (13-4), Lightweight
After five years on the UFC roster, it’s safe to assume White isn’t going to make any major leaps. He is what he is. What he is, is a gatekeeper of the lowest level, turning away those who don’t belong in the UFC. I can’t decide whether Moret belongs or not. He was out of his league against Gilbert Burns, though that was also short notice. Moret has looked better since deciding against cutting the extra ten pounds needed to make featherweight, though the same could also be said about White. I can understand picking Moret as he appears to be the better grappler, but he also appears to be more chinny while White offers more power and athleticism. Those facts push me towards White. White via decision