A strong argument could be made that several of the contests on the prelims could be interchangeable with the non-title PPV contests. That would be more of a statement of the depth of the card than it is a rip on the main card fights. However, the theme that seems to separate the cards that did make it to the main card and those that didn’t is the propensity for these fights to be exciting. Flyweights rarely if ever put on a boring fight. Sean O’Malley hasn’t been in a boring fight yet either. Plus, it seems unlikely Geoff Neal and Santiago Ponzinibbio are unlikely to go the distance. In fact, the five Performance Bonuses between the two of them appears to be low for the two of them. There’s plenty of things the UFC can be ripped on, but they do try to give the paying fans good bang for their buck.
For my prelims previews, click here and here.
Geoff Neal vs. Santiago Ponzinibbio, Welterweight
On Thanksgiving, Neal was arrested for a DUI. While anyone should be condemned for potentially putting others in danger for driving in such a state, that note isn’t in here to dunk on him as a person. Everyone makes mistakes and should be cut some slack if they are making an effort to right the wrong and/or ensure it doesn’t happen again. That note is in here to question the focus of Neal heading into a make-or-break contest against Ponzinibbio.
Neal hasn’t been the same since going into septic shock due to an infection in the summer of 2020. He acknowledged as much following his loss to Neil Magny this past spring, saying he was going to take some time away from the sport in hopes of addressing his medical issues in addition to taking a mental break. While I would say the break was a good idea, there is no guarantee the medical issues are completely in the past and the DUI is more of an indication of him being in a bad headspace than anything else. Perhaps he just enjoyed his Thanksgiving more than he should have, but that would also indicate he’s not taking the preparation for his fight with Ponzinibbio as seriously as he should. No matter how the DUI is spun, it’s a red flag with regards to Neal.
If Neal resembles the fighter he was before the medical issues hit, he’s a quick-twitch athlete with plus power, securing four finishes via strikes in his first five UFC contests, showing excellent killer instinct. At his best in the pocket, Neal has struggled with opponents who keep the pressure on him or can stay on the outside and pick him apart. Perhaps the struggles on the outside can be attributed to his physical issues as his losses to noted outside strikes Stephen Thompson and Magny came after those issues, but there’s no way to affirmatively say for sure at this juncture.
We’ll most likely find out as Ponzinibbio enjoys having space to blitz, counter, or launch his kicks from the outside, all set up by his jab. However, that’s hardly the only space the Argentinian is dangerous. He’s ripped apart some opponents in the clinch and has shown the ability to bite down on his mouthpiece and throwdown in the pocket. Ponzinibbio isn’t in his physical prime anymore and it has been noticeable since he required a two-year break to deal with his own injury issues. However, he still has power and while he isn’t impervious to being put away, he’s proven his mettle plenty of times.
I can’t guarantee I would have picked Neal prior to the DUI, but it certainly pushed me in favor of Ponzinibbio. Ponzinibbio isn’t the same guy he was in his prime and Neal is at the age where he should be in his prime. Unfortunately, his medical issues may be wiping out his physical prime and it is more than fair to question his focus. For the sake of my entertainment, I hope Neal is in top form. There’s too many questions to believe he will be. Ponzinibbio via TKO of RD2
Kai Kara-France vs. Cody Garbrandt, Flyweight
For whatever reason, the UFC seems desperate to have Garbrandt be a champion. He received an immediate rematch for the title after dropping it to TJ Dillashaw despite not having a successful defense under his belt. Then, the UFC was rushing to plug Garbrandt into a flyweight title shot despite having no wins in the division and just a single win after snapping a three-fight losing streak before an injury scrapped those plans. Garbrandt gave bantamweight one more attempt and fell to Rob Font, leaving him with four losses in his last five fights, leaving the UFC no option to throw him into the flyweight title picture. You can be damn sure he’ll be the favorite to be next in line should he win here.
No one can deny Garbrandt’s talents. His hand speed is amongst the best in the business and he has the power to compliment it. In fact, Garbrandt’s speed overall has been one of his most consistent advantages throughout his UFC run. However, it’s worth wondering if he’ll lose his speed advantage dropping down to 125, especially given he’ll be dehydrating himself further than he ever has before. More concerning is Garbrandt’s chin has been questioned throughout his entire career. Will it be worse now that he’s cutting further weight?
If it is, the UFC isn’t doing him any favors pitting him against Kara-France. The Kiwi has a reputation as one of the hardest hitting flyweights in the division. A slick counter striker, nobody is claiming he can match the power or boxing technique of Garbrandt. Despite that, plenty are throwing money on Kara-France due to Kara-France having a sturdy chin and having made the cut down to 125 many times without issue. If he can absorb Garbrandt’s power – and that may be diminished with the weight cut – it’s easy to see Kara-France putting the lights out on the former champion.
An underutilized aspect of Garbrandt’s is his wrestling. Despite his extensive accolades in that field, he has landed takedowns in only four of his eleven UFC fights. Given the worries with his chin that became apparent in recent years, many expected him to start utilizing his wrestling to a greater degree. He did try to do that against Font, but the success was minimal given Font was so much bigger than Garbrandt. Perhaps Garbrandt can find more success against smaller opponents, but flyweights are notoriously difficult to keep down. Plus, Kara-France, while not thought of as a grappler, has proven difficult to take down in the latter stages of his career.
It’s impossible to count out someone of Garbrandt’s talent. The problem with picking him is there are so many factors working against him that it’s hard to justify saying with confidence the cut to 125 will go well for him. The last big name who tried to do the same thing was TJ Dillashaw and his flyweight stint lasted a grand total of 32 seconds. Kara-France may not be Henry Cejudo, but Garbrandt hasn’t proven himself to be Dillashaw either. History isn’t on Garbrandt’s side. Even reach is in the favor of Kara-France, a bit of a surprise given Garbrandt has been the one fighting larger opposition. Too much weighs against Garbrandt, so I’m going with the upset. Kara-France via TKO of RD2
Raulian Paiva vs. Sean O’Malley, Bantamweight
Love him or hate him, O’Malley is here to stay as an attraction for the UFC. The eclectic kid has marketed himself in a way that he has developed a big enough fan base the UFC has opted to utilize him as a bankable asset. His polarizing personality has generated his share of haters as well, but who is to say they wouldn’t pay good money to see him lose....
Much of the criticism surrounding O’Malley from his haters is about O’Malley continuing to accept fights with opponents who aren’t at the level of competition it would seem he warrants at this stage of his career. While that is true, O’Malley has stated openly he’s trying to make as much money as possible while taking the easiest fights possible. Given the strategy has him making more money than just about anyone else in his range – and filled up his highlight reel with plenty of moments – the kid can’t be called stupid. After all, fighting is his primary job and I don’t know anyone whose primary motive at their job isn’t to bring home as much bacon as possible while putting in the least amount of work.
However, that strategy does leave a lot of questions, especially if O’Malley’s long-term goal is to be champion. We know O’Malley is a talented striker. He makes expert use of fakes, feints, and his range to land plenty of volume and land it with serious impact. We’ve seen a functional ground game from him too. What we don’t know is how he responds to adversity. His lone loss came by injury and though some will point to him riding out a win over Andre Soukhamthath despite having a compromised leg, Soukhamthath bailed him out by taking him to the mat in the final round. Plus, O’Malley has two leg injuries that appeared to be somewhat freakish in nature. Is he injury prone? Can his body withstand the rigors of the sport in the long run? If it can’t, when will it start falling apart?
Most would agree Paiva is going to test O’Malley in a way he hasn’t been before. The former flyweight pulled out a major upset over Kyler Phillips, a teammate of O’Malley, this past summer after enduring a brutal beating from Phillips. Paiva ate everything Phillips had and kept coming. If O’Malley can’t get Paiva out of there in a hurry – a tough proposition given Paiva has proven to be exceptionally durable — Paiva isn’t going to fade, meaning he may be able to steal a decision or get a late finish should O’Malley’s stamina prove problematic. Unfortunately for the Brazilian, O’Malley’s conditioning has been rock solid. Throw in the fact that Paiva, though a talented striker, is used to being the rangier striker from his days at 125 and it’s hard to see Paiva taking this. If the odds continue to stretch in favor of O’Malley, I can understand a small bet on the underdog, but there is a reason O’Malley is a heavy favorite. O’Malley via decision