What was already a highly anticipated contest received one hell of a shot in the arm when Uncle Dana announced the winner of Brian Ortega and the Korean Zombie would receive a shot at Alexander Volkanovski’s title. Not that it needed anything else behind it as Ortega and Zombie have reputations for explosive finishes and exciting performances. Plus, there is personal animosity between the two that doesn’t appear to be manufactured for the purposes of building up their fight.
It isn’t out of the realm of possibility to say the co-main event could have title implications either. Former strawweight champion Jessica Andrade is moving up to flyweight, with former title challenger Katlyn Chookagian welcoming her. Should Andrade win, it wouldn’t be a shock to see her get next at Valentina Shevchenko. And no, I didn’t forget Jennifer Maia is fighting Valentina. The rest of the contests on the main card aren’t nearly as consequential, but they all look like they have a lot of potential to bring home some of the bonus money that will be out there. The UFC deserves kudos for this card.
Brian Ortega vs. Chan Sung Jung (Korean Zombie), Featherweight
The Korean Zombie has been around for a long time. He first burst into national prominence in 2010 in the WEC with his all-time brawl with Leonard Garcia. Counting that contest, he has only fought 10 times under the UFC banner due to military commitments and various injuries. As we approach his main event with Ortega, that averages out to be less than once a year. However, fighting so infrequently isn’t necessarily a bad thing for Zombie. Not fighting all the time has created an air of mystique around him that makes every time he fights feel like an event. The buzz was just as strong even before the title implications were announced. Plus, it has likely extended his career as there is a good chance he would have burned long before now given his brawling nature earlier in his career.
Then again, it’s been nearly two years since we last saw Ortega in the cage, so it could be argued he isn’t the busiest fighter either. Of course, Ortega was plenty busy up to that point, showing consistent growth all the way up to his loss to Max Holloway. Even in that contest, Ortega showed the best striking of his career, staying in the fight with the then-champion through the first three rounds. Because he’s known for his lethal submissions, Ortega doesn’t get enough credit for the threat he poses on the feet. He doesn’t mind taking chances, as his flying knee on Clay Guida alludes to, not to mention his sneaky power in his punches. Of course, Ortega’s defense remains a work in progress — he’s been able to get by behind his insane durability thus far — but it has been progressing.
Of course, the last we saw of that progression was almost two years ago. Has his progress stalled? Has he continued to improve? Has the multiple injuries caused him to regress? It’s impossible to know until we see him in the cage. He could have ironed out many of the defensive wrinkles he had as the Zombie did when he returned from his military commitment in early 2017. Known as an exciting brawler with a creative grappling game, Zombie was far more attentive to avoiding his opponent’s firepower. In fact, besides his all-time classic against Yair Rodriguez, Zombie has taken very little damage since his return. In the process, he has been able to exploit his opponents and clobber them with his heavy hands, perfecting the timing of his counters. Just because Zombie was able to make that type of growth, it would be foolish to expect Ortega to do the same, though it can’t be discounted outright.
It would also be foolish not to mention the ground game with these two as they could very well provide us with the most exciting grappling contest of the year. Everyone is aware of the danger Ortega poses on the mat. Perhaps the most opportunistic submission specialist in the sport today, Ortega’s squeeze is as tight as they come, whether that be a guillotine or a triangle choke. His ability to chain together submissions is also unreal. But many are forgetting Zombies exploits on the ground. Owner of the very first twister submission in UFC history, Zombie is just as capable of escaping from a tricky submission as he is of slapping one on. That isn’t me saying Zombie is better than Ortega on the mat, but if there is anyone who could survive Ortega chaining together a series of sub attempts, it is Zombie.
In the end, I have to favor Zombie for two simple reasons: I have no idea how Ortega looks at this stage after his long absence and I don’t trust Ortega will be able to get the fight to the mat. Zombie’s improvement has been obvious and even if Ortega has made strides in his striking, I still have a hard time believing Ortega would be the more consistent striker. While I’d give Ortega the edge on the mat, he has struggled to get his opponents on the ground, typically resorting to pulling guard or baiting his opponent into an ill-advised takedown attempt. I don’t see that being a wise strategy with someone as savvy as the Zombie. Regardless of who does win, I anticipate this being one hell of a scrap. Korean Zombie via decision
Jessica Andrade vs. Katlyn Chookagian, Women’s Flyweight
It shouldn’t be a major surprise Andrade is moving up to flyweight. After all, she fought seven times in the UFC at bantamweight before dropping down to strawweight. Now that she’s no longer on the radar for strawweight title, Andrade decided the weight cut is no longer worth making.
It may be a bit more difficult for her to execute her bullying brand of offense as her opposition at flyweight will be taller and longer, an issue that has plagued Andrade in the past. Outside of her quick loss to Weili Zhang, her other two losses at strawweight came to Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Rose Namajunas executing technical attacks from the outside in which Andrade had difficulty navigating their reach. To be fair, Andrade did begin to find success in the final round against Namajunas when she turned up the aggression – yes, it is possible for Andrade to be even more aggressive – but will she be able to do that against someone who is even longer and lankier than Namajunas?
To compound the issue for Andrade, Chookagian is one of the lankier competitors in the division. Learning to use her length has been a work in progress as she would often come up just short with her offense. However, her most recent performance was by far the best of her career, picking apart another notable striker in Antonina Shevchenko. Sure, some wrestling was involved to keep Shevchenko guessing what was coming, but Chookagian was throwing with a confidence and power that hadn’t been previously seen. Throw in the fact that Andrade will be walking into her shots – Andrade doesn’t know how to sit back on her heels – and it doesn’t seem to be too far-fetched that Chookagian picks up her first stoppage in the UFC.
There are two things that could make Chookagian’s reach negligible: Andrade’s own power and her wrestling ability. The magic of MMA is that a contest could in in a split second and Andrade was one of the few women at strawweight that threatened in that manner. There’s no reason her power shouldn’t translate to flyweight. As for her wrestling, she isn’t a technical marvel by any means, but her bowling ball frame has little problem finding the necessary leverage. Even if she can’t, her natural strength has often made up the difference. Should Andrade find a way to get Chookagian to the mat, her GnP has secured several stoppages over the course of her career.
I’m not sure how I feel about the move for Andrade. She was short even at strawweight and was trapped in the middle of the bantamweight rankings when she fought there. I’m not saying her level of success at 125 will be similar to what she did at 135, but a realistic prediction would probably be somewhere in between that and her championship level at 115. Chookagian is still improving and has the gas tank to successfully evade Andrade to go with her improving footwork. Plus, even if Andrade gets her down, Chookagian has excellent defensive grappling. I see her outworking Andrade for a decision. Chookagian via decision
- Those in the know can’t help but hold their breath when the UFC pits a pair of prospects at 205 against one another. There’s so few quality athletes in the division that it can feel counterproductive to have one knock off the other. And yet, that’s what we’re getting with Modestas Bukauskas and Jimmy Crute. A lanky striker, Bukauskas knows how to use his long frame to land punches and low kicks. Unfortunately, he’s still figuring out how to use it to keep the opposition from touching him up. Nonetheless, his technique is good and he utilizes a lot of motion on the outside. That’s a stark relief from Crute, who’d prefer to sling leather in the pocket or to go to the mat. In fact, Crute is coming off his most impressive performance where he repeatedly dragged Michel Oleksiejczuk to the ground before finding a kimura. While light heavyweight isn’t known for it’s grappling, Crute’s brand reliant on power submissions may be amongst the best. The dangerous part will be clinching up with Bukauskas as the Lithuanian his been particularly dangerous in that area. Regardless, Crute appears to be durable and there is much to question with Bukauskas on the mat. The Aussie seems more likely to get the job done. Crute via submission of RD2
- James Krause will never be a household name. In fact, it’s likely his best fighting years are behind him as he turned professional all the way back in 2007. However, you’ll have a hard time finding someone who typifies all of the things that are good and awesome about the sport. It’s no surprise he’s an intelligent fighter given he focuses more on coaching at this stage rather than his own fighting career, though he’s still willing to step in on late notice. Despite the late notice, Krause’s craftiness has often proven to be a great equalizer. Never known for his power, Krause’s attention to detail and technique has allowed him to secure TKO stoppages despite being the smaller man in this late stage of his career. However, not only is he the smaller man against Claudio Silva, but the Brazilian looks like a bad stylistic matchup. A physical mauler with an underrated grappling game, Silva’s inability to stay healthy has been the biggest detriment to him breaking through the UFC rankings. His striking is also on the rudimentary end for UFC fighters, but his durability helps him to make up for that as he can absorb the needed damage to get his opposition into his mitts. From there, Silva is a monster on the mat. Krause may very well be the best grappler Silva has faced, but he might also be the smallest. Throw in Krause hasn’t been training for this contest for long and I favor the Brazillian. Silva via submission of RD2
- Once upon a time, Thomas Almeida was one of the shiniest toys in the UFC’s coffers. Notorious for his flurries of violence on the regional scene, he debuted in the UFC at 23. Though he showed flashes of that violence in the UFC on the way to winning his first four UFC contests, he also showed signs that he needed some more seasoning before the UFC threw him into the deep end. Instead, the organization opted to see if he could swim with the sharks and he wasn’t ready to do so, dropping three of four. Then a plethora of injuries hit Almeida and he is only now ready to step back in after a 33-month absence. Now 29, it doesn’t feel like Almeida will fulfill the vast promise he showed earlier in his career. Nonetheless, it doesn’t mean Almeida is running on empty, nor that his athleticism will be greatly diminished. Jonathan Martinez will welcome him back. Given Martinez isn’t much of a wrestler with a preference for high risk strikes, Almeida will have every opportunity to prove he still has what made him a human highlight reel. Martinez is just about as capable of producing a highlight, but he isn’t as rounded or quite as athletic as Almeida. If Almeida has slipped at all, Martinez should win. I’m of the opinion Almeida will be refreshed. Almeida via TKO of RD2