After a week away, the UFC returns for UFC Vegas 44 with a slew of fights, 14 at the current count. Name value is on the short end of the stick outside of the main event – an over-the-hill Clay Guida is probably the most recognizable name outside of Jose Aldo and Rob Font – but Mick Maynard and Sean Shelby deserve a lot of credit for once again putting together a series of intriguing contests, even if casuals have no clue who the participants are. Pretty much all the prelims fit that description, including a pair of promising middleweights fighting for their employment and athletic light heavyweights looking for a breakout moment.
While there are betting favorites in most of the contests, none of them are exactly clear cut, the largest favorite being just over a 2-to-1 favorite. Plus, the likes of Manel Kape and Alonzo Menifield are best known for their violent finishes. Though they aren’t spectacular, these prelims appear to be well worth tuning in for.
- It looks like it’s win-or-go-home for both Dusko Todorovic and Maki Pitolo. Todorovic had the higher expectations between the two of them, but has disappointed for two reasons: his inability to land a takedown and his poor standup defense, more particularly his head and foot movement. What’s hopeful for him is those are correctable issues, especially given his physical tools. Todorovic has plus power, athleticism, stamina, and overwhelming GnP. It’s all a matter of him being able to put it all together. Pitolo isn’t quite as gifted in terms of his physical abilities. He’s a tweener – too big for welterweight, on the small side for middleweight – who developed a reputation as a brawler. However, he’s worked hard to become a viable takedown threat. What hasn’t been addressed is his ability to stop takedowns, or at least sufficient opportunity to prove he can stop them hasn’t been provided. Even if Todorovic can’t get Pitolo down, he tends to smother his opponent against the cage. Given Pitolo is on the small side – combined with Todorovic being the better all-around athlete – I’ll side with Todorovic, though this is about as much of a coin flip as you can find. Todorovic via decision
- Even before Manel Kape secured his first UFC win, it wasn’t hard to see what all the hype was about him after his signing to the UFC for those who didn’t see his Rizin performances. In his first two appearances, it was clear he hits plenty hard for a flyweight, even if finishes didn’t follow. Those two performances also highlighted where he needs work as he can be too confident in his ability to put his opposition away, not throwing enough volume should the fight go to a decision. He remedied that with a highlight reel flying knee that showed what type of explosions can happen when he lets loose. In the other corner, Zhalgas Zhumagulov tends to require a tight performance. A subpar athlete by flyweight standards, Zhumagulov is exceptionally technical with his wrestling as his margin for error is thinner than most. That said, he showed some impressive creativity when he secured a funky guillotine to secure his first UFC win in his most recent appearance. However, Zhumagulov’s best path to victory might be using the funky angles he utilizes with his striking in hopes of outlanding the sometimes hesitant Kape. Zhumagulov’s impressive toughness gives him a chance to edge out Kape, but his struggles to secure takedowns has me believing Kape finding a finish at some point. Kape via KO of RD2
- One of the more inconsistent members of the UFC roster, it’s easy to forget Jake Matthews is still just 27 given he’s been on the roster since 2014. Though his physical tools are easy to recognize and he’s had several dominant performances, his level of competition has made it easy to boost his profile. Only one of his opponents out of the 10 UFC wins he has in his career still remains on the roster. To his credit, Matthews has shown a solid fight IQ in his recent contests, taking the fight where his opponent is weakest consistently. The question is where he thinks he should fight Jeremiah Wells? A stout brickhouse with explosive power, Wells doesn’t look like he’ll be easy to get to the mat and control... at least early on. He’s a solid grappler, durable, and has faced better competition on the regional scene than is typical for someone of his experience. Wells has also faded hard by the time the third-round rolls around. Conditioning has never been an issue for Matthews, but I still have concerns about his ability to handle someone he doesn’t have a significant athletic advantage over. Though a different type of athlete, Wells is comparable to the level of Matthews. Wells via submission of RD2
- After an extremely disappointing UFC debut, Cheyanne Vlismas completely redeemed herself in her sophomore effort, showing off every aspect of her game. A quick takedown into some GnP, followed by a perfectly timed head kick as Gloria de Paula looked to climb back to her feet. It was the type of showing that leads observers to claim she’s a future contender. However, it didn’t address any of the issues her debut raised as she couldn’t overcome a simple head and shoulder throw, nor could she get back to her feet following the throw. That’s music to the ears of Mallory Martin. Not a great athlete, Martin makes up for it with exquisite conditioning, determination, and a fundamentally sound wrestling game. She can be overaggressive on the mat, but her chances for success on the mat exceed that on the feet as her lack of attention to detail on defense has been problematic. Though it’s easy to see Martin using her strong control skills from the top position to take a decision, I like Vlismas’ dynamic striking to give her the decision. Vlismas via decision
- It could be argued William Knight is an experiment to see how far raw strength and power can carry someone in the UFC, but that would be ignoring the improvements he’s made in his standup. That isn’t to say he doesn’t still have plenty of limitations, but the fire hydrant of a human being has shown some technique outside of the brawling nature that got him into the organization in the first place. It delivered him his first finish in the UFC when he landed a perfect counter on Fabio Cherant. While that’s promising, fighters can often fall in love with their newly developed skills, abandoning the ways that helped them initially find success. Against Alonzo Menifield, that could be problematic. Menifield isn’t a technical savant by any means, but he has developed a good sense of distance and timing to exploit his impressive punching power. Like Knight, Menifield has been rounding out his attack, but he also appears to have endured the growing pains that come with that. One of the tools he has been rounding out is his takedowns. Given Knight has struggled to stop opponents from taking him down, I’m sticking with the more proven talent in Menifield, especially given Menifield appears to have made huge strides in fixing his gas tank. Menifield via KO of RD1
- It’s been five years since Claudio Puelles made his UFC debut, making a grand total of five appearances since that time. Typically, making that many appearances is worthy of criticism, but in the case of Puelles, it was the intelligent thing to do. Just 20 years old at the time of his debut, Puelles need a LOT of time to marinate and develop, Puelles choosiness has paid off, securing three consecutive wins after dropping his UFC debut. A raw athlete at the time of his debut, Puelles has developed an identity as a wrestler and grappler with a very buttoned-down approach. What’s cause for concern is Chris Gruetzemacher operates a very buttoned-down approach himself and he’s also proven himself to be exceptionally gritty. There’s no doubt Puelles is the superior athlete of the two, but he hasn’t utilized those gifts to the degree that would give Gruetzemacher issues. Trying to grind out Grruetzemacher would be a recipe for disaster, but Puelles hasn’t shown the ability to win any other way at a high level. I haven’t seen enough of Puelles to convince me he can do otherwise. Gruetzemacher via decision
- Credit to Jared Vanderaa for stepping in on short notice. While it’s typical for heavyweights not bothering to cut weight, Vanderaa is one of the few who does have to shed a few extra pounds to make the heavyweight limit. However, it isn’t hard to see what the lumbering big man is thinking as his opponent, Azamat Murzakanov, was originally expected to be fighting at 205 prior to his opponent pulling out. At 5’10”, Murzakanov is short for a light heavyweight, much less a heavyweight. However, he’s also incredibly stout, packing a hell of a punch while proving to be surprisingly light on his feet. Murzakanov’s best hope will be to secure an early stoppage as he tends to fade once the first round expires. Perhaps that won’t be such an issue without him having to cut weight, but maybe it will be if Vanderaa is able to lean all 265+ pounds of his frame on the smaller Russian. Vanderaa has been finished, but not by a single big shot which is the style of Murzakanov. Regardless, I think Murzakanov’s distance management will be enough to have him find a finish with enough big shots, perhaps just one. Murzakanov via KO of RD1
- Alex Morono is never going to get respect. Despite two consecutive wins – including one over Donald Cerrone – he finds himself in the second fight on the card against former CM Punk opponent, Mickey Gall. To be fair to Gall, he isn’t the same inexperienced prospect who trucked over Punk, but he isn’t exactly an established UFC talent either. Gall has always had a UFC-level grappling game, but it has never been elite and his wrestling and striking were always subpar. Gall has developed his striking to something rudimentary, but nothing beyond that and his wrestling hasn’t come along. There are signs of positive developments as he dropped Jordan Williams early, but I’m not sold by a single big punch. In the case of Morono, despite limited athleticism, he has developed into a slick boxer with occasional power. Despite his older age, greater experience, and more established resume, Morono appears to be the one making greater strides at this point. It isn’t an impossibility to see Gall catching Morono by surprise should the fight hit the mat in some manner as he can snatch a sub in a hurry – much like he did to Williams – but Morono, while no mat technician, is scrappy on the mat and no one has been able to submit him thus far in his career. For all of Gall’s shortcomings, he is durable, so even if Morono walks away the victor, it’ll be a hell of a chore to put away Gall. Morono via decision
- MMA can be a weird sport. Despite being the younger fighter in this contest, Louis Smolka is the established talent who is playing the role of gatekeeper to Vince Morales. Not that Morales is exactly an up-and-comer of whom big things are expected, but most would agree he has the higher upside. If only Morales can address his Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. Within the same fight, he can go from a slick combination puncher racking up the volume to someone who is reluctant to engage. Smolka has had an inconsistent UFC run himself, but it’s also no coincidence his less-impressive performance came against far more established talent than Morales has faced thus far. The big difference between these two: Smolka operates under a kill-or-be-killed attitude. Morales flashes occasional power, but not enough to have me believe he can put away Smolka given Smolka has never been KO’d, nor do I believe Morales has the grappling skills to take advantage of Smolka’s overconfidence in his ground game. Smolka via TKO of RD2