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UFC Vegas 38 Preview: Johnny Walker and Thiago Santos race to put the other to sleep

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Get the scoop on the main card action of UFC Vegas 38, headlined by a pair of KO artists at 205 in longtime veteran Thiago Santos and athletic monster Johnny Walker.

Johnny Walker after his win over Ryan Spann at UFC Vegas 11
Johnny Walker after his win over Ryan Spann at UFC Vegas 11
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

While I’m excited about the UFC Vegas 38 main event between Thiago Santos and Johnny Walker, I’m wondering if the matchmakers made the right decision in making their contest a main event. Does anyone think they’re actually going to go three rounds, much less five? However, that’s probably the biggest complaint that I have with the main card as every single contest of UFC Vegas 38 is a high quality Fight Night main card contest. Well, they would have been, had Leonardo Santos been able to make it to his scheduled fight with Alexander Hernandez. Given the circumstances, I’ll relent. After all, Mike Breeden is about as good of a signing as the UFC can get in the short amount of time they had to fill that hole. So enjoy this card, as the card next week isn’t nearly as good...

Thiago Santos vs. Johnny Walker, Light Heavyweight

I completely understand the arguments that Santos bettered Jon Jones when they met for the light heavyweight title in the summer of 2019. I disagree with those sentiments, but I understand them. Santos fought the fight of his life. However, he also ruined his body in the process, blowing out both of his knees. While the fighting spirit of Santos doesn’t appear to have taken a hit, his explosiveness has, not showing the same burst that was so key to his success prior to his injuries.

Of course, Santos has also been facing opposition noted for their durability... something that hasn’t been a hallmark for Walker. The lanky Brazilian has so often been able to rely on his freakish athleticism and power to overwhelm his opponents that he rarely ended up having his chin tested. However, the results haven’t been good when his opponents connect and Walker has never paid any attention to his defense. If he did, he possesses a freakishly long frame, meaning all he needs to do is put in minimal effort and a world of difference could be made. However, it caught up with him against Corey Anderson and Ryan Spann. Walker survived being knocked down twice by Spann, but it’s still troubling given neither are considered to be KO artists.

Despite his apparent decline of athleticism, Santos is the favorite not just because of Walker’s questionable chin, but because Santos’ killer instinct has long been one of his hallmarks. Of his 13 UFC victories, 11 of them have come via KO, Kevin Holland and Elias Theodorou being the only ones to make it the distance and neither of them have been KO’d in their careers. If Santos can hurt Walker, it’s hard to believe he won’t finish the fight.

The biggest key in this fight is how well Santos’ own chin holds up. Santos has been KO’d before, but he’s endured a lot damage without going to sleep since moving up to 205, indicating an improved chin now that he’s no longer dehydrating himself. Walker is almost assuredly going to have an opportunity to test the sturdiness of Santos’ chin due to his own aggression and physical tools. Of course, Santos is likely to be ready for some sort of a burst from Walker and will be ready to counter. Unless Walker has cleaned up his defense at a level that hasn’t been seen yet, the smart money says Santos’ improved boxing should result in the longtime UFC veteran snapping his three-fight losing skid. Santos via KO of RD1

Kevin Holland vs. Kyle Daukaus, Middleweight

After a fantastic 2020, Holland’s 2021 has been a nightmare thus far. Headlining a pair of cards, the loudmouthed opportunist was taken down repeatedly in both contests, exposing a gaping hole in his takedown defense that had largely been ignored by his opposition up to that point. Part of that can be attributed to Holland being an excellent scrambler with some creative BJJ chops, but his lack of urgency when his opponents opted to play it safe and chip away at him from the top position proved to be his undoing.

There’s plenty of reason to believe Holland can bounce back. For one, he appears to finally be taking seriously the idea of improving his takedown defense, spending lots of time at AKA to shore up that area. Significant improvement is hardly to be expected since his last contest in April, but it’s a start. Plus, Holland has shown continued growth in his striking, making better use of his lanky frame. Plus, you’d never know it by looking at his skinny frame, but Holland is more than a handful in the clinch.

However, the biggest factor in favor of Holland is Daukaus’ habit of allowing his opponents to dictate where the fight takes place. If his opponent want to stand and trade, he’ll engage them. If they want to scramble on the mat, he’s happy to do so. That’s in part because Daukaus is well-rounded, capable of hanging with just about anyone on the roster. However, hanging with someone and winning the battle are completely different things. Not that Daukaus can’t win those battles – he has the ability to control Holland on the mat – but it’s a matter of whether that’s the route he’ll pursue.

Even if putting Holland on his back isn’t his sole focus, this is a very winnable contest for Daukaus. While Holland has the longer reach, Daukaus is just as tall and more physically imposing. Some would say Daukaus’ wrestling hasn’t shown up in the UFC the way it did on the regional circuit, but this would be the fight it would show up if it’s still in his bag. However, his willingness to allow opponents to take the fight where they want and his lack of quickness in comparison to Holland still has me leaning in the direction of Holland. Daukaus is very difficult to put away, so the most likely outcome sees Holland outhustling the younger of the Daukaus brothers. Holland via decision

Aspen Ladd vs. Macy Chiasson, Women’s Bantamweight

At one point, it looked like Ladd was being groomed to challenge for Amanda Nunes’ belt. She wasn’t far from getting there either, perhaps just a win away from getting that opportunity. Then she blew out her knee – both her ACL and her MCL – and now there are a lot of questions that need to be answered before it feels appropriate to talk about her in that manner once again. While it would be agreed Chiasson is a step down from what Ladd was facing prior to her injury – an appropriate step – this is not an easy fight for her in any way.

Chiasson is a massive bantamweight, perhaps the largest one on the roster. Being well aware of that advantage, Chiasson has found great success by pressuring her opponent against the cage, leaning against them with her massive frame and wearing them down with her nonstop action from there. Sure, the constant short punches, elbows, and knees rarely land with major authority, but the damage piles up as the volume does. However, the other aspect of Chiasson’s size, her reach, is still a long way from being fully utilized. There’s been some progress, but it’s far from developed enough to think it would be effective against the top tier of the division.

Whether Ladd is at that point after the injury is still up for debate. It’s hard to believe the knee injury will affect her best feature: her GnP. It could be argued her brand of GnP is the best in all of women’s MMA, becoming an unrecognizable violent fiend, maintaining a surprising amount of technique as she pounds away. Like Chiasson, Ladd has been making progress with her striking from a distance, her willingness to let her fists fly being the same thing that might give her an advantage in the pocket against Chiasson as well as giving Chiasson the edge.

However, there’s one aspect in this that sways me in this contest: wrestling. Chiasson isn’t a bad offensive wrestler, but there’s a lot of holes in her defensive wrestling that it’s difficult to see Ladd being unable to exploit it as wrestling is Ladd’s base. Given Chiasson’s lone loss came against someone who rose up to match her physicality in Lina Lansberg – and Ladd should be able to exceed what Lansberg did – and I’m sold on Ladd. Plus, Chiasson’s striking hasn’t progressed enough to have me believing she can exploit Ladd’s lack of defense. Of course, this is all predicated on Ladd’s knee holding up…. Ladd via TKO of RD3

  • With each and every passing fight, it looks like Alex Oliveira is very close to the end of his UFC run. To be fair, it’s been a hell of a run, having already clocked in 20 appearances with several highlight reel finishes under his belt. What’s weird about saying that is Oliveira still appears to be a plus athlete, barely suffering a loss in the fast-twitch reactions that have made him so dangerous. What’s dragging him down is the shortened gas tank – he hasn’t even been able to turn in a single solid round of action if he’s pressed – and declining durability. Given Oliveira used to miraculously cut down to 155 and take fights left and right, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Constant weight cutting takes a toll, especially drastic weight cuts. It’s hard to believe Niko Price won’t find a way to win this one outside of his reckless nature getting him caught by Oliveira in the opening minutes. Price pushes a hard pace and is one of the most opportunistic members of the roster, not just for the welterweight division. He can probably match Oliveira’s power too. Price may not be the athlete Oliveira is, but he isn’t far off. If Oliveira doesn’t catch Price early, his only hope is to grind Price away on the cage. That doesn’t seem likely. Price wears out Oliveira quickly and finds a finish. Price via KO of RD2
  • My reaction was similar to everyone else’s when I heard Misha Cirkunov was dropping down to middleweight: How in the hell was he going to shed an extra 20 pounds? The muscular Canadian never appeared to be undersized at 205, the only opponent who didn’t fall prey to Cirkunov’s physicality being upcoming title contender Glover Teixeira. The other opponents who defeated Cirkunov otherwise did so with their speed more than anything. It’s hard to believe anyone at 185 will be able overwhelm Cirkunov with their own strength, but Cirkunov is gonna have to catch them first... and 185ers are generally quicker than 205ers. Of course, Krzysztof Jotko has never been known for his physical abilities. Not that Jotko isn’t likely to have a speed advantage, but it will limit the scope of his attack as he enjoys operating in the clinch. Jotko does have solid boxing combinations a solid timing on his counters, which should give him a route to victory. However, Jotko doesn’t have the power of those who have put CIrkunov away in the past, meaning he’ll have to avoid the mitts of Cirkunov for 15 minutes. That’s gonna a hell of a chore. Cirkunov is stiff on the feet, but he does hit hard and is fantastic at applying submissions. The most likely outcome sees Cirkunov catching Jotko in an early submission, but Jotko’s chances of winning will improve with every passing minute. Cirkunov via submission of RD1
  • The worst thing that ever happened to Alexander Hernandez was KO’ing Beneil Dariush in 42 seconds upon his UFC entry. The bar ended up getting set so high for him that he was unable to feel his way through the UFC landscape at a reasonable pace and develop an identity. After some trial and error that saw some significant setbacks, Hernandez appears to have encountered a career reset and is being brought along at a more reasonable rate. Possessing good – not great – power and a plus wrestling game, Hernandez appears to be paralyzed by over analyzation at times ever since his aggressive tendencies proved detrimental against Donald Cerrone. If that’s the case, Mike Breeden has a good chance of pulling off the short notice upset. A talented boxer who can lay the punishment on thick when he gets rolling, the problem is that it can take Breeden a bit to get the ball moving on his offense. Even worse, Breeden pays little to no attention to defense. That has me leery of leaning in the direction of the newcomer, especially given the closest comp to Hernandez that Breeden has faced – Anthony Romero – beat him decisively. Expect Hernandez’s wrestling to be the biggest factor. Hernandez via decision