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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Vegas 8: Smith vs. Rakic - Main card preview

Get the low down on the hard-hitting UFC action in Vegas, headlined by former title challenger Anthony Smith looking to claw his way back to contention by going through Aleksandar Rakic.

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Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

It’s safe to say the UFC cards outside of the PPV have gotten progressively worse since the UFC returned from Fight Island. Last week’s card had plenty of fun surprises, but name someone outside of the main event who fought last week. Could do it? That’s my point. Finally, this week is reversing the course as there are plenty of contests worth watching. The main card features a former champion and two former title challengers. There’s also the divisional debut of perhaps the UFC’s most marketable Mexican product and a rematch between one of the craziest brawls we’ve seen this year and there isn’t a main card contest that doesn’t have intrigue.

The main card begins on ESPN+ at 9:00 PM ET/6:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Anthony Smith vs. Aleksander Rakic, Light Heavyweight

There are a LOT of similarities between Smith and Rakic. They have similar lanky frames. They tend to employ a high volume of low kicks. They both switch stances with frequency. Muay Thai represents their striking base. There are obviously slight differences – no two fighters are ever alike, not even in a single area – but chances are the fight will be decided in their differences. Thus, I intend to highlight what differences should illuminate themselves.

Experience between the two might illustrate the single biggest variance. Smith is one of the most experienced fighters on the UFC roster, fighting with great frequency in his days on the regional scene. He’s seen as much, if not more, than anyone else on the roster and he’s still only 32. He’s picked up a lot of crafty little tricks along the way and never seems to be in panic mode… unless you count him freezing against Jon Jones. However, with all that experience also comes a LOT of wear and tear and he’s coming off receiving one of the most brutal beatings anyone has ever seen in a cage at the hands of Glover Teixeira. To Smith’s credit, he’s been finished before and has bounced back like nothing happens, but the body can only take so much it’s rare a fighter takes a beating like that without severe consequences. Will he bounce back?

Even if he can, Rakic has an edge in athleticism. The dude is MASSIVE for the weight division. Smith is big himself, but I struggle to see Rakic staying at 205 for the entirety of his career. It’s worth throwing out that Smith is an underrated athlete himself, but Rakic’s sudden burst is amongst the best in the division. He’s plenty strong, able to stuff takedowns with ease, and is comfortable working in close quarters against the fence. He isn’t quite as active in the clinch as Smith – I’d be shocked if the clinch doesn’t come into play – but he does have the ability to stifle Smith.

I could have also said they both have underrated ground games in terms of similarities, but their functional use of the mat is so different that I had to discuss the differences. Smith’s grappling doesn’t get the kudos it deserves, in large part because he so rarely makes an effort to get the fight to the mat. He has trips and throws in the clinch, but only goes for those when the opposition has put themselves in a bad spot as opposed to Smith actively looking to take them down. When the fight does go there, he’s as slick as taking the back as anyone at 205 and knows how to secure the finish.

On the other side, Rakic could care less about hunting for a submission. He’s all about brutalizing his opponent and he does a damn good job of it. His beating of Justin Ledet wasn’t quite at the same level as what Smith endured from Teixeira, but it wasn’t far off. Rakic’s top positioning is fantastic and he’s good at making sure opponents don’t get back to their feet. Given how relaxed Smith can be on the mat, this looks like it is the biggest X-factor for the fight in my book.

This is a very close fight. Smith has a knack of pulling a victory out of nowhere, showing some of the best opportunistic instincts in the sport. However, there is a question of whether we’ve seen his best performances being behind him. No one is questioning that about Rakic. Throw in the fact that Smith has never been a defensive savant – Rakic has at least been passable up to this point — and I’m leaning towards the Austrian in this one. Rakic via decsion

Robbie Lawler vs. Neil Magny, Welterweight

We all love Robbie Lawler. Over a three-year stretch, he was the most consistently entertaining fighter the sport had ever seen. He turned in the FOTY in 2014, 2015, and 2016 with several other impressively violent performances that tantalized audiences. However, since that last FOTY performance, he’s gone 1-4. Is Lawler washed and we’re simply living off those good vibes?

To be fair to Lawler’s losing record, he has been facing top competition, all those losses coming to opponents who at one point or another held championship gold in major promotions. His loss to Ben Askren was as controversial as any loss in recent memory, coming thisclose to winning before the end result. Lawler is still capable of being as lethal as he ever was, but it’s only for a short window. He faded HARD against Rafael dos Anjos and Colby Covington, being unable to keep pace with them. Sure, he lasted until the end, but there’s a difference between lasting until the end and going the distance.

If he can’t put away Magny, Lawler’s struggles to keep a hard pace could be troublesome. For all of Magny’s faults, a shallow gas tank isn’t one of them. Then again, those were five round contests and this one is only going three. That’s one potential advantage for Magny that may be negated. How about reach? Magny’s 80” reach is ridiculously long at 170 and he’s made the best use of it that he ever has over the last couple of contests. On the other hand, Lawler is the type who, by the time his career is over, will have forgotten more than most have ever learned about striking over their careers. The former champion is used to fighting bigger opponents from his days at middleweight. Magny’s length will be an issue, the question is whether Lawler will be able to solve it within three rounds.

If this ends before three rounds, Lawler’s the victor. Even if it has been over five years since he secured a stoppage, I have a hard time believing his power has disappeared. The biggest problem with Lawler is he can be too patient for his own good waiting for the proper opening to explode or taking too long to gather the proper reads. Magny will continue to pepper Lawler with jabs and low kicks – something Lawler is susceptible too – that it’s hard to see Lawler taking rounds unless he can secure a knockdown. If Magny can jump ahead, he’s sound enough in the wrestling department he could utilize that to stay ahead of the scorecards. This is a very difficult contest to predict. If you don’t have a strong feeling about this contest, flip a coin as I can understand both sides of the argument. I’ll go with the younger fighter who is still showing signs of improvement. Magny via decision

Magomed Ankalaev vs. Ion Cutelaba, Light Heavyweight

We’ve seen this fight before… and nobody should mind seeing it again. An early stoppage tainted it the first time around that awarded Ankalaev a quick victory, though no one will deny Cutelaba certainly looked wobbled. Perhaps he was too good of an actor? Will it play out in a similar manner the second time around?

It’s hard to believe much will change about how each fighter approaches the contest. Ankalaev is the more methodical of the two and will look to counter Cutelaba’s aggression. An explanation that simple makes it sound like Cutelaba is a dumb fighter, but his approach has been largely successful as it plays to his strengths. A plus athlete, Cutelaba’s power and strength are his most impressive features. His power double is amongst the most difficult to stop in the division. Couple that with his devastating GnP and there are plenty of wins for the Moldovan to be had.

Ankalaev, one of the more understated prospects in the UFC, has an innate ability to take what his opponent gives him. If he sees an opening for a jab, he’ll thrust it in there. If a leg is out there to be grabbed for the takedown, he’ll latch onto it. However, he’s becoming a major proponent of head kicks, nailing Cutelaba with several of them in the seconds that their contest lasted. The issue with Ankalaev’s approach is that it can be incredibly boring if his opponent isn’t giving him anything to work with. However, Ankalaev’s most impressive feature remains his GnP. While not as aggressive as Cutelaba’s, it is more efficient and may even be more brutal.

Cutelaba’s style is high risk, high reward. However, Ankalaev’s style is designed perfectly to counter what Cutelaba does… at least on the feet. Ankalaev is extremely difficult to takedown, but Cutelaba may want to look at the possibility of takedowns right off the bat to at least give Ankalaev something to think about. Whether Cutelaba does or not, I still favor Ankalaev to pick him apart. Even if Cutelaba finds a way to make it work, this fight isn’t going to a decision. Ankalaev via TKO of RD1

  • It looked like Alexa Grasso was about to bust out in the strawweight division. Sure, she dropped a controversial decision to Carla Esparza, but many viewers believed Grasso was the deserved winner. It was impressive enough she was getting a crack at Claudia Gadelha, only for Grasso to badly miss weight, leading to her exodus from the division. Now, instead of an opportunity for a signature win, she’s starting over again at flyweight. It might not be a bad thing. At flyweight, she won’t be that small and she was quick at strawweight. Imagine how much quicker she’ll be at 125. Grasso will be at a significant reach disadvantage against Ji Yeon Kim, but her speed, quickness, and sound boxing technique should allow her to navigate that with success. Not that Kim is a bad striker herself – she’s quite a skilled counterstriker – but she has struggled to keep up with active opponents who can at least match her own striking prowess. Plus, Kim has shown no desire to engage in wrestling and that might be Grasso’s new Achilles heel in her new weight class. Without that threat, Grasso’s edge in athleticism and aggression should be the difference. Grasso via decision
  • An expected contest between former title challenger Ricardo Lamas and BJJ ace Ryan Hall was canceled when Hall suffered an injury. To casual fans, that may not seem like much of a blow. To diehards, that hurts. Lamas remains on the card, but most will view his contest with Bill Algeo as an afterthought. If you enjoy violence, that would be a mistake. Lamas has established himself as one of the sports ultimate opportunists. If he sees an opening to hurt you, he’s going to take it and there’s a good chance you’ll never be the same after. Just ask Erik Koch or Jason Knight. The risk with Lamas is that he’s generally low output, but that shouldn’t be an issue against Algeo. The short-notice newcomer struggles with the concept of defense, frequently marching with his hands down swinging whatever he thinks will connect. Algeo does have a hell of a chin – he’s never been KO’d – but he might want to reconsider that strategy against Lamas. Sure, Lamas doesn’t appear to be as durable as he was in his prime, but Algeo isn’t a particularly hard hitter and Lamas can still crack. Regardless, this should be fun. Lamas via TKO of RD2