At one point, UFC Raleigh looked like a hell of a card. Cory Sandhagen was looking for his breakthrough performance against Frankie Edgar. Arnold Allen was looking for the same against Josh Emmett. Even Brianna Van Buren’s sophomore effort against Hannah Cifers looked like a fun contest. Then the MMA Gods reminded us that we’re not allowed to have nice things and a deep card for ESPN+ ended up looking like just another ESPN+ card. Damn.
To be fair, the prelims largely looked like a place to get fighters that most fans aren’t aware of their contracted fights even before the injuries killed the depth of the card. Nonetheless, it isn’t devoid of some interesting contests. Allen looks to maintain his train of momentum in the featherweight division against a solid replacement in Nik Lentz. Lucie Pudilova is ALWAYS a blast to watch and she gets an opponent who is almost as promising of producing as much violence as herself in Justine Kish. Former title challenger Sara McMann returns to action after a two-year break for maternity leave. Throw in the fact that the younger brother of Gilbert Burns, Herbert, is set to make his UFC debut and there is reason to pay attention.
The prelims begin on ESPN+ at 5:00 PM ET/2:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Arnold Allen (15-1) vs. Nik Lentz (30-10-2, 1 NC), Featherweight
No one has ever denied that Allen is one of the most physically gifted members of the featherweight division. Owning a chiseled frame blessed with immense strength and surprising speed, the Brit long had the attention of fight analysts. However, it could be argued the 26-year old has been his own worst enemy. A member of the UFC roster since 2015, last year was the first time Allen fought more than twice within a calendar year since that joining the organization. Injuries, legal, and travel issues all played a part in that delay, but he could be gaining momentum at just the right time as he has shown a poise in his recent performances that hasn’t always been present.
That said, poise and maturity aren’t the same thing. Allen hasn’t always chosen the most direct path to victory, choosing to stand and trade with Jordan Rinaldi despite his grappling being far and away his biggest strength, resulting in the contest being far closer than it had any business being. Then again, Allen brutalized an aged Gilbert Melendez on the feet, relying heavily on low kicks to take out the base of the MMA legend. While Allen’s standup has certainly improved, he’d be wise not to abandon his ground game as he has displayed a surprisingly slick choke game.
Then again, submitting Lentz has never been an easy feat with Charles Oliveira – the UFC’s all-time leader in submission victories – being the only one to accomplish that. Lentz is returning to the featherweight division after a four-year stretch at lightweight. The move is somewhat surprising giving the health issues Lentz detailed in cutting to 145 in his previous run, but going through social media posts, he does appear to be slimming down in a healthy manner. If so, it could be a boon for him as his most successful UFC stretch came in his first run at featherweight.
Lentz gained a reputation as a grinding wrestler early in his UFC career. While it wasn’t necessarily unearned – he had at least four takedowns in his first five UFC contests, all of them going to decision – he has evolved into a dangerous and diverse striker in his later career. He had to as there has been a notable decline in his durability and speed. He’s still quite durable, but the speed was never a positive to begin with. Lentz is still a capable wrestler and will assuredly go for a guillotine choke at some point, even though it likely won’t stick.
Given the short notice in which this contest was made, I don’t want to complain too much as Lentz has surprised several times over the course of his career when most were counting him out. Still, there are too many concerns for me to pick him to upset the youngster, even if that’s what Lentz excels at. His stamina has been a concern the last several years and I’m not sure how the extra weight cutting will affect that. Plus, I fear the loss of muscle mass will take off some power in his striking. I don’t expect Allen to get a finish, but I do expect him to get a convincing win. Allen via decision
Justine Kish (6-2) vs. Lucie Pudilova (8-5), Women’s Flyweight
It doesn’t take long for someone to appreciate Pudilova. Not the most skilled in a physical or technical sense, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone with more heart or toughness than the Czech import. She can be outwrestled. She can be outboxed. She can be outstrategized. But she will never be outworked or outtoughed. As a result, she has become a fan favorite as she loves standing in the pocket and exchanging fisticuffs until someone drops. Her endless gas tank is her greatest advantage as she never stops coming. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have much power, which is why she hasn’t been able to secure any finishes in the UFC despite her relentlessness.
Her opponent, Kish, hasn’t been seen in the cage for two years. In many ways, she was the original coming of Pudilova. She doesn’t pay much attention to defense. She loves trading punches in the pocket. Nobody is going to outtough her. However, there are a few subtle differences. Kish’s stamina has been a question at times, but there’s reason to believe she has largely remedied that by moving up to flyweight rather than depleting herself to make 115. Plus, her power has usually been viewed as a positive. However, like the weight cutting issue, that may be a different story now that she’s facing bigger and stronger competition.
There isn’t too much to break down in this one. Kish and Pudilova are very similar fighters in a similar circumstance in what would be one of the better fights on just about any card. I’m favoring Pudilova as she is the bigger fighter in this one with less concerns about her stamina. That said, there would be no surprise if Kish somehow finds a way to take the decision as she is the cleaner striker by a slight margin. Regardless, it’s a favorite for FOTN. Pudilova via decision
Sara McMann (11-5) vs. Lina Lansberg (10-4), Women’s Bantamweight
No one has ever questioned the physical talents of McMann. An Olympic silver medalist in wrestling in 2004, there have been times where McMann flashed exactly what it is everyone expected out of her when she began her MMA career, using her wrestling pedigree and physical strength to bowl over her competition. Unfortunately for her, those moments have been few and far between. McMann’s standup has never developed as her backers hoped. However, even more detrimental has been her mental lapses on the mat, her last three losses all coming by submission. Now 39 and coming back from a two-year absence, it’s a longshot McMann will be able to fulfill her championship goals.
Fortunately for McMann, Lansberg is unlikely to expose her grappling deficiencies as the former Muay Thai practitioner has no desire to engage in a wrestling or grappling battle of any kind. However, she’ll put herself in danger of McMann’s takedowns if she takes the fight where she is strongest: the clinch. To her credit, the Swede has worked hard on her takedown defense, turning away all of Macy Chiasson’s attempts to ground her. Lansberg has also improved her striking in the pocket, based largely on her development of a sound jab.
While Lansberg appears to be at the level of opposition McMann is accustomed to beating, Lansberg continues to surprise analysts with her continued improvements despite her 37-years of age. It isn’t inconceivable McMann has made some strides in her time away either, but a long career in athletics has most likely taken a toll on her body and it would be more likely she has taken a step backward since she last appeared in action. Even if that’s the case, she might control Lansberg with her wrestling. However, I’d guess Lansberg proves to crafty, upsetting McMann’s return. Lansberg via decision
- Expectations were high for Bevon Lewis after a pair of appearances on DWCS. However, as has been the case with many products from the summer series, Lewis hasn’t proven worthy of UFC-level competition… at least not quite yet. Even in his losses, Lewis has shown he has the talent to be a longtime member of the roster. At 6’3” with a 79” reach, he has an imposing frame for middleweight and more than enough power. He just needs to learn how to better use his frame. He gets what is probably his last chance to prove he belongs against Dequan Townsend, a veteran of the regional scene with a similar frame. Townsend has had some success with his kicks from the outside, but he also has been a mess in the clinch and on the mat. Of all the areas Lewis has looked strong in, the clinch was where he looked best. He should find his way to deliver on his promise. Lewis via TKO of RD2
- Much like Lewis, the physical talents of Montel Jackson were obvious on DWCS, but wasn’t quite ready to swim when he got to the UFC either. However, Jackson was able to right his ship after his initial stumble and enters his contest with Felipe Colares on a two-fight win streak. The lanky Jackson showed he can wrestle a bit in his last appearance against Andre Soukhamthath, complimenting his outside striking. However, Colares presents a different kind of test as he’s a very technically sound grappler who knows where his strengths lie, making a concerted effort to make sure he’s always playing to them. Colares may have found a way to navigate the massive range of Domingo Pilarte in his last contest, but Jackson is a far superior athlete with more knowledge of how to put his own long reach to good use. One way or another, he emerges victorious in this battle of bantamweight prospects. Jackson via decision
- It feels just like yesterday that Brett Johns was thought to be one of the top prospects in the sport. Perhaps calling him a prospect at this point wouldn’t be accurate, but when the only losses on your ledger have come against Aljamain Sterling and Pedro Munhoz – two consensus top ten bantamweights in the world — you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. The Welshman lacks explosion, but he’s a technically sound combination puncher with a sneaky submission game to compliment his biggest strength, his wrestling. That wrestling will be tested by DWCS alum Tony Gravely, an aggressive pressure fighter with plus wrestling of his own. However, his aggression has gotten him in trouble before as he’s been submitted in four of his five career losses. Gravely has shown improvements in that area since his last loss, so there’s a strong possibility he can avoid Johns finishing him off. Whether or not it’ll be enough to keep Johns from outslicking him – on the feet and mat – is less likely. Johns via decision
- I’m sure I upset some hardcore fans when I highlighted Herbert Burns as opposed to one of the European scene’s hottest prospects in Nate Landwehr, but Burns is the name that catches more people’s attention. His brother, Gilbert, is a known commodity and Herbert’s grappling chops, while not as accomplished as Gilbert’s, are highly impressive. However, it could be argued that Burns is overconfident in his ground game to the point that he doesn’t put much effort into stopping takedowns. While Burns is good enough on the mat to win some fights that way, that isn’t the type of strategy one wants to utilize against a high level of competition. There is reason to believe it could work against Landwehr as the American – yes, he’s American, he was simply plying his trade overseas – has got himself in trouble before with his aggression. Then again, it’s been a while since he was submitted and he has shown better control without losing his constant pressure. Landwehr wearing out the Brazilian is the most likely outcome. Landwehr via TKO of RD2