Given the controversy surrounding the bantamweight title, all the excitement has been around Petr Yan and Cory Sandhagen. Well, the controversy and it’s damn near impossible for high level bantamweights to have a boring fight, especially Yan and Sandhagen. However, it’s a bit of a shame as the true headliner between Jan Blachowicz and Glover Teixeira is the classic tale of two underdogs colliding for light heavyweight gold.
Blachowicz was on the verge of being cut loose by the UFC in 2017 as he had dropped four of his previous five. Now, he’s the defending champion who turned away a challenge by one the golden boys of the UFC in Israel Adesanya. As for Teixeira, he enters the contest on the heels of his 42nd birthday, over seven years since he last fought for the title. He was supposed to be put out to pasture by now, not competing for titles. Both are thought to be some of the nicest guys in the sport too. However, there is a sound argument that stylistically, they could produce a fight that’s hard to watch. Thus, the focus on the interim bantamweight title is understandable, but I hope fans don’t sleep on the official headliner either.
Jan Blachowicz vs. Glover Teixeira, Light Heavyweight
It seems like Blachowicz is starting to get a modicum of respect now that he disposed of Adesanya. The Pole utilized timing in both his strikes and his takedowns – not to mention some lengthy top control – to score a definitive win on the scorecard, showing respect to the former kickboxer’s range and technique. The performance continued a trend of intelligent performances from Blachowicz, tailoring his attack for each of his contests to the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent. So how will he look to attack Teixeira?
Look for Blachowicz to fight at a slow pace as the thing that Teixeira does best is something that has been the Achilles heel for Blachowicz: wrestle. Blachowicz’s early struggles in the UFC were due to his being put on his back and held there for long periods of time. Even if Blachowicz were able to stuff takedowns, pushing him against the cage in the clinch had been a recipe for success for well. Blachowicz has made massive strides to ensure that doesn’t happen – and it hasn’t since his loss to Patrick Cummins – but he has also largely been able to avoid opposition that emphasize wrestling. Corey Anderson fell in love with his striking and Jacare Souza was both over the hill and fighting a weight class up than his typical home at 185. Aside from that, Blachowicz has been facing strikers. Thus, I would expect Blachowicz to be on his heels expecting to either stop Teixeira’s attempts with a powerful sprawl or dissuade him with a powerful counter.
How Teixeira can close the distance is a bit of a miracle as the aging Brazilian has lost any speed he once possessed, lumbering around the cage at the pace of a slug. And yet, Teixeira has never made better use of his wrestling and grappling than he has in the latter stages of his career, utilizing constant pressure and threatening with his power that hasn’t declined in the least. Improved use of angles helps to account for his success as well, but so much of his success can also be attributed to his durability. Sure, it isn’t what it was at his peak, but it is still better than most. He endured some real punishment from Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos before he was able to put them away himself.
Should Teixeira get Blachowicz to the ground, the Pole’s survival instincts are incredible. While surviving isn’t winning, Blachowicz has the power to score a late KO himself should he get grinded on for a while, so that factor is more notable than it would be in most contests. Should Blachowicz find a way to the top position on Teixeira, his own grappling is an underrated aspect of his arsenal, though it is difficult to see him catching Teixeira, who may very well be the best grappler in the division. Well... perhaps I should say ground fighter as there isn’t anyone in the division who better uses his GnP to loosen up the opposition.
If Teixeira were in his prime, I’d be picking him hands down. Even now, at his advanced fighting age, he’s a problematic matchup for Blachowicz. Back in the day, he would have been an absolute nightmare. Unfortunately, he’s not only a bit less durable, his burst isn’t nearly as sudden and that also impacts his power. Plus, at 42, he’s in danger of falling off a cliff at any moment as he’s taken a LOT of damage over the course of his career. Blachowicz is getting up there in years and mileage himself, but neither are quite at the level of Teixeira and it also seems he’s still improving at this late stage of his career. That nudges me in the direction of Blachowicz, but I’d be putting my money on Teixeira if I were a betting man as the odds are far wider than they deserve to be.
Petr Yan vs. Cory Sandhagen, Bantamweight
It’s astonishing Yan isn’t a bigger fan favorite than he is. A whirling dervish of violence with several highlight reel finishes – not to mention a drubbing of a legend in Jose Aldo – it’s hard to conceive what the public expects of him to make him an attraction. Well, I suppose the low-key Russian could be more vocal ala Conor McGregor, but it’s hard to see what more he can do in the cage.
I suppose if he was a bullish one-punch KO artist, it would change the view on him. Of course, that’s generally something you have or you don’t have and it’s hard to believe Yan could become more technical in his striking. That isn’t to say that Yan doesn’t punch hard – just ask Jimmie Rivera – but he’s not going to consistently put his opponents to sleep the way John Lineker or Cody Garbrandt were able to do. What tends to happen more with Yan is he builds momentum, making reads on his opponent throughout the contest and using the information he’s gained to wear them out the deeper the fight goes, crippling low kicks being key to their destruction. That’s exactly what happened with both Jose Aldo and Aljamain Sterling: they were competitive early, perhaps even winning at some point, before Yan began to swing the momentum in a strong manner.
One of the more interesting aspects of this contest is Sandhagen tends to work in the opposite direction, starting strong out of the gate while slowing the deeper the contest goes. Not that he completely fades, but there is a clear decline in his funky movements late, tending to use more direct power attacks late. If Sandhagen doesn’t secure an early finish, there is cause for concern given Yan’s ability to process information and make adjustments on the fly.
Of course, Sandhagen’s lanky frame allows him to take liberties most other bantamweights can’t afford. He’s far from perfect at allowing his opponents into his range, but he has been making strides in that department, which could prove problematic for Yan as that was what allowed Sterling to take an early lead in their fight. Throw in that Yan struggled with the technical nature of Rivera for long periods of their fight and it isn’t too hard to see a scenario in which Yan struggles to traverse Sandhagen’s reach.
However, what really sways me in the direction of Yan is the wrestling department. Sandhagen isn’t a bad wrestler, but his takedown defense has been boosted by turning away TJ Dillashaw nearly 90% of the time out of 19 attempts in their contest. That might sound impressive, but it was a Dillashaw on a bad wheel. Because Yan has chosen to stand and trade so often, his wrestling pedigree tends to get lost in the wind. The former champion took current champion Sterling down at will, basically to show that he could as wrestling was supposed to be Sterling’s wheelhouse. Even if Yan doesn’t get Sandhagen to the mat, he could control him in the clinch for long periods of time. Sandhagen does have an underrated grappling game, including being a submission threat off his back. However, he also has had a bad tendency to give up his back in scrambling situations. Sandhagen has worked hard to limit exposing his back in recent contests, but it wouldn’t be hard to see him wither to an exhausted state where Yan is able to find it and put him away quickly.
Regardless of who the deserving champion is or isn’t, this a fantastic, must-see fight that is difficult to pick. There is a heavy tilt towards Yan given many believe he should be the rightful champion and Sandhagen is coming off a loss, controversial though it may be. I swing towards Yan myself, but much like the light heavyweight title scrap, the betting line is so wide that I’d be tempted to throw money towards Sandhagen. After all, Sandhagen only needed 28 seconds to put away Frankie Edgar.... Yan via decision