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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Auckland: Felder vs. Hooker - Main card preview

Get all the hijinks headed into the main card contests of UFC Auckland,

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC

Like most Fight Night cards, UFC Auckland doesn’t have any major plot points in the major stories presented by the organization. However, there are several underlying stories Auckland is presenting that those who enjoy fights — while knowing nothing about them – would be happy to partake in.

In other words, there are several contests on the main card that look like they would be strong FOTN contenders on any card, with their lack of name recognition being the biggest strike against them.

Maybe it’s a good thing all these fighters are being bunched together on one card as they stand a better chance of securing the coveted $50K bonuses. I’ll blatantly admit I’m always rooting for the lesser known fighters to take home the bonuses as they could certainly use them more than the more established stars. For instance, Conor McGregor would probably spend all $50K on a suit. A lesser known fighter uses that to begin training full-time. You see where I’m coming from?

The main card begins on ESPN+ at 6:00 PM ET/3:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Jim Crute (10-1) vs. Michel Oleksiejczuk (14-3, 1 NC), Light Heavyweight

I’ll still maintain the UFC brought Crute into the organization a bit early, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been able to swim better than expected when dragged out of the shallow end. A good athlete with supreme toughness and an underrated ground game, Crute blew through his first two UFC opponents, Paul Craig and Sam Alvey. However, he got caught up in a perilous situation when he found himself in a Peruvian necktie from Misha Cirkunov. Even with that on his record, Crute’s abilities on the mat shouldn’t be discounted as his natural strength makes him difficult to contain. Plus, he’s got a knack for strongman submissions like kimuras and Americanas. Crute still isn’t the cleanest technical fighter, but he’s fortunate to be in one of the larger divisions where that doesn’t matter as much.

Oleksiejczuk isn’t the cleanest striker either, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one who pushes a harder pace at light heavyweight. Unfortunately, Oleksiejczuk found out there are limitations to just how hard he can push the pace before exhausting his gas tank. After putting a walloping on Ovince Saint Preux, Oleksiejczuk slowed considerably when the second round hit and left himself open for a submission. The Pole, though undersized for 205, appears to have an iron chin and shows more power than you’d expect from someone with such an unassuming frame.

Oleksiejczuk has two sub-two minute finishes in the UFC, indicating he fell in love with coming out swinging like a madman with the idea he could get the finish. It happens quite often, even to more established fighters. The question is what he has learned from it. Oleksiejczuk was much more measured in his UFC debut and that approach would likely work against Crute. This contest is somewhat of a make-or-break for Oleksiejczuk as far as his fight IQ goes. Crute, though not much younger, has more time before crossing that road. My read is that Oleksiejczuk has the smarts to make the necessary adjustments. Oleksiejczuk via decision

Karolina Kowalkiewicz (12-5) vs. Xiaonan Yan (11-1), Women’s Strawweight

It doesn’t seem like it was all that long ago Kowalkiewicz was preparing to face Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the strawweight title in the UFC’s debut in Madison Square Garden. After all, that event was also the last time Conor McGregor won a fight prior last month. Despite a spirited performance that won over fans – my wife, at the very least – Kowalkiewicz has been in a major tailspin ever since. Including that loss, she has gone 2-5.

At one point, it could be argued Kowalkiewicz was only losing to the divisional elite. However, losses to Michelle Waterson and Alexa Grasso have changed that narrative. Both are excellent fighters, but they aren’t elite. It appears Kowalkiewicz’s lack of physical gifts have caught up with her. She’s always been a good, not great athlete and knew how to get the fight where she was at her best: the clinch. With opponents hip to her strengths and weaknesses, they’ve forced the Pole to fight from a distance, an area where Kowalkiewicz isn’t technically clean enough to consistently win.

Yan isn’t the freak athlete fellow Chinese representative – and UFC strawweight champion – Weili Zhang is, but she’s an impressive specimen herself. Possessing a solid strawweight frame and a deep gas tank, Yan is almost always throwing in combination, either beginning her attack in the pocket or from the outside. She also tends to gain steam the deeper a fight goes, getting a read on her opponents and their tendencies. There’s reason to question her ground game, but Kowalkiewicz isn’t the one to test her mat skills.

Yan feels like the easy pick, but she also feels like the type of fighter who could get caught up in the moment and allow Kowalkiewicz to weasel her way into the clinch. If Kowalkiewicz had a finishing nature, I could see her snatching victory with one or two engagements from close quarters, but her last finish came in 2014, before she joined the UFC. Yan uses her athletic advantage to outpoint the former title challenger. Yan via decision

  • Even though those who pay close attention to the sport recognize that Marcos Rogerio de Lima will never recognize his full potential, it doesn’t make his inconsistency any less frustrating. Though on the small side for heavyweight, the former kickboxer has the KO power to be a difference maker in the division. Not a contender, but he could enter the rankings. The difference between de Lima at heavyweight and light heavyweight is the greater amount of energy he has now that he no longer is cutting weight. His grappling has been abysmal, but few see him going to the mat with Ben Sosoli, another heavy hitter with a smaller frame. Sosoli has the advantage in the toughness department, but he doesn’t have the physical tools to make up for his lack of length. He could catch de Lima should the Brazilian get sloppy, but given Sosoli was outpointed by Greg Hardy – a hell of an athlete, but hardly a technical marvel – it doesn’t seem likely. De Lima via TKO of RD2
  • There was a LOT of hype behind Brad Riddell coming into his UFC debut this past fall. A former kickboxer with several championships in the sport, Riddell pieced up a game Jamie Mullarky, the duo picking up FOTN, a rarity in a contest as one-sided as it was. Riddell has adapted well to the aspects of MMA that he’s had to adapt to. For instance, he showed little problem turning away most of Mullarky’s takedown attempts, ensuring he kept the fight where he’s at his best. That will be a bigger challenge against Magomed Mustafaev, one of the better athletes in the lightweight division. Of course, few are keen to this knowledge as Mustafaev has one fight since 2016 due to his inability to remain healthy. Nonetheless, Mustafaev has a penchant for hitting the high risk, high reward strikes that oohs and ahs the audiences. Mustafaev is proficient enough in the ground that he offers a greater risk than Mullarky, but I still favor Riddell’s rock solid fundamentals on the feet – and power — to get the job done. Riddell via decision
  • It feels very unlikely Zubaira Tukhugov’s exploits in the cage will ever exceed the attention he received for his role in the melee that followed the Conor McGregor-Khabib Nurmagomedov contest, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t stand a chance. The hard-nosed Russian was once seen as one of the top prospects at featherweight, but hasn’t won a fight since 2015 due to a combination of poor performance and suspensions. He showed last year he still has explosion and a plus wrestling game to work with, but he also faded hard down the stretch to allow victory to slip through his fingers against Lerone Murphy. He’s not going to get a break against Kevin Aguilar, a hard-hitting counter striker who has shorn up his takedown defense that was questionable on the regional scene. Aguilar hasn’t successfully dealt with someone as physically gifted as Tukhugov, but Tukhogov’s lack of volume leaves a big opening for the durable Texan to steal a decision. To be fair to Tukhogov, he faded in the extreme heat and humidity of Abu Dhabi. Regardless, I can’t trust him given his lack of activity. Aguilar via decision