There haven’t been many fights that I would recommend to fans on the prelims in the last few months. UFC 255 is presenting one of the biggest exceptions in recent memory as Brandon Moreno and Brandon Royval are squaring off in what is not only a high-stakes contest, but the front runner to pick up a FOTN bonus. Depending on what the UFC wants to do with Cody Garbrandt when he recovers from his torn bicep, the winner of Moreno and Royval could be fighting for the flyweight title in their next contest. Aside from a title fight, stakes don’t get much higher than that. The UFC will probably emphasize Joaquin Buckley being on the card – he of the likely KO of the Year – but trust me when I say Moreno and Royval is where it is at.
Brandon Moreno vs. Brandon Royval, Flyweight
It has been a joy to watch Moreno’s progression upon his initial entrance into the UFC. The raw talent was always obvious, but he struggled to put everything together on a consistent basis. Regardless, he was able to find success as he proved to be one of the most opportunistic fighters on the roster, stealing fights he would have been on the losing end had those contests maintained their trajectory. As fighters got more film to watch him, they knew what to look for and his rough edges were costing him. Those edges have been smoothed out and he’s been unbeaten since coming back to the organization last year.
Where Moreno was a powerful striker – and he still is by flyweight standards – he’s now a consistent striker, having developed a jab. Whereas he was a fantastic scrambler – and he still is – he’s picked up some sound positional grappling, particularly on the defensive end. The question is whether the finishes that defined his early run have disappeared because he’s facing a higher caliber of competition or if his more consistent approach has taken out the gambler in him that tended to have luck on his side.
There doesn’t appear to be any removing the gambling nature out of Royval and with good reason. Two fights into his UFC career and he has two wins well before the final bell ring in the men’s division least known for finishes. Both came via submission – a guillotine and an arm-triangle choke – but he put on a clinic with his striking too. Flying knees, spinning attacks, all variety of kicks… you name it, Royval will throw it. Of course, throwing that amount of caution to the wind comes with a price. Royval takes a lot of punishment as his attention to defense is nonexistent.
Taking a defensive approach may work wonders for Moreno as Royval is going to go full bore looking for the finish. The concern with his approach is Royval tends to exhaust himself, winning just one of the five contests that have gone to decision in his career. If Moreno can survive the early onslaught – and Moreno is tough as nails – he should be able to take the last two rounds. However, that’s a BIG ask. Moreno got himself into bad situations with Askar Askarov and Jussier Formiga and found a way to escape. Of course, those two don’t have the killer instinct of Royval and it would be much more difficult to avoid tapping to Royval. Regardless of what really happens, I have no doubt that it won’t hold the MMA universe enthralled for its entirety. Royval via submission of RD1
A stern reminder for MMA fandom: Joaquin Buckley has a lot to accomplish before he can be known for more than just his spinning heel kick KO. There’s a good chance that could define his whole career, even if he stays in the UFC for the better part of the next decade. For instance, Toby Imada won 30 fights over his long career and made it to two Bellator tournament finals. And yet, all people remember him for is his inverted triangle choke of Jorge Masvidal. Nonetheless, Buckley has the talent to be known for more than just that. A quick-twitch athlete with power and fast hands, there’s never a time when Buckley isn’t going for the kill. The same could be said of Jordan Wright, formerly a punchline from DWCS. Wright didn’t face decent competition until his appearance on the UFC’s sister show, where he was promptly disposed of. To be fair, Wright appeared to learn from his embarrassing showing, ripping off two victories over solid competition in the process. Though he has a karate background, it was Wright’s work in the clinch that disposed of Ike Villanueva. Of course, Wright also had a distinct athletic advantage, something he won’t have over Buckley. Wright may be able to make up for that with an apparent advantage on the mat, but I haven’t seen enough of an inclination for him to consistently take it there. Buckley being more battle-tested – along with his slight edge in explosiveness – gives him the edge in my eyes. Buckley via TKO of RD2
Even though she has picked up wins in her last two contests, there may not be a more disappointing fighter who made their way into the organization in the past two years than Ariane Lipski. Known as the Queen of Violence, Lipski has had a reluctance to engage since entering the UFC that wasn’t present on the regional scene. She is on the correct path to right her ship – I did say she’s won her last two fights – and she’s only 26. The question is whether Antonina Shevchenko represents too big of a step up from her previous opposition. Much like Lipski, Shevchenko was thrown to the wolves far too early, but the older of the Shevchenko sisters turns 36 this week; either she makes her move soon or she probably never will. With a background in both professional kickboxing and Muay Thai, opponents know they would much rather take their chances with her on the mat and they’ve found plenty of success in that endeavor. Not that Shevchenko is a turtle on her back, but she only began focusing on MMA in 2017. That’s a lot of ground to make up after ignoring her grappling for years. Lipski, though she is better known for her own Muay Thai, has a sound ground game. The question is whether she can get the fight there. If Lipski at least threaten to get the fight to the mat, she should at least be competitive enough to hang in the fight. If she can get a takedown or two, she should win it. I think she can do that. Lipski via decision
It’s hard to get a handle on Nicolas Dalby. Once a vaunted prospect, Dalby washed out of the UFC after four fights. Then he rebuilds himself in Europe, takes a hard-fought and inspiring win over Alex Oliveira upon his return to the promotion… and craps the bed in his next contest against a short-notice Jesse Ronson. Over confidence appears to be the culprit as he showed Ronson no respect, so we shouldn’t expect that to be an issue going forward… right? Dalby isn’t particularly athletic, nor is he a powerhouse, but he doesn’t have a glaring weakness either. In fact, he tends to fight smarter when he doesn’t have a clear advantage anyway, knowing he can’t overwhelm his opponent. He certainly won’t be able to overwhelm Daniel Rodriguez, a pleasant addition to the welterweight division after entering without any hype. Rodriguez tends to push a hard pace – he’s averaged over 9.5 significant strikes per minute in his UFC run – but can also get sloppy at times. Fortunately, he’s shown one hell of a chin, being on the verge of defeat against Dwight Grant only to catch him with a haymaker when he was on wobbly legs himself. Dalby has never had issues with cardio himself, but he has made a habit of getting dropped – it’s happened in four of his last five UFC appearances – and I don’t trust he can avoid the power of Rodriguez. Rodriguez via TKO of RD2