Now this is how you do prelims.
There’s a couple of aging legends who still have something in the tank along with some prospects who appear to have enough talent to put their names in the rankings for years to come. Oh, there’s also one of the most consistently entertaining action fighters too. Yeah, these UFC 259 prelims rock. However, there has been a little bit of controversy with these prelims. Allow me to indulge you…
There has been debate whether the UFC is disrespecting Dominick Cruz by putting him on the prelims. While it’s certainly a reasonable question, allow me to present a number of things to rebut that idea. First, they put him on the prelims in 2014 when he blazed through Takeya Mizugaki. It’s not like anyone remembered that moment less just because it wasn’t on the PPV portion of the card. Second, Cruz has said he doesn’t care. And third, given Cruz has been considered to be an “active” fighter – by which I mean he’s never retired – it’s hardly an endorsement that his last win came back in 2016. I understand injuries have more to do with that than anything, but it’s hard to remain a great fighter when you don’t show up. I don’t know Cruz is still a great fighter due to his inactivity, but I believe he could be. We’re about to find out.
Dominick Cruz vs. Casey Kenney, Bantamweight
It’s hard to go back through the annals of MMA and find someone with a more unique style that Cruz. His inimitable footwork that has him dashing around the cage in constant movement is only effective due to his deep gas tank, having danced around the cage with no sign of slowing down over 25 minutes several times over his career. Just about anyone else who has attempted to copy something similar to his movement has gassed. However, this will be a three-round contest, meaning part of Cruz’s built in advantage is null and void.
The other question is whether Cruz has lost some of his speed and quickness. He’s still plenty fast, but he has certainly lost something. After years of whizzing around his opposition with clean shots rarely landing on his chin, he has been dropped in each of his last two contests in addition to being outstruck by a sizeable manner. Part of that can be attributed to Cody Garbrandt and Henry Cejudo rarely chasing after him, forcing Cruz to be the aggressor.
If Kenney takes that approach, that will very much be the former flyweight going against type. An aggressive kickboxer who rarely counters, the occasional check hook is about the only counter striking Kenney does with regularity. Another strength of Kenney’s is his durability and toughness. However, Cruz only has two finishes in his last 12 wins, one of them attributable to Brian Bowles breaking his hand. The question becomes whether Kenney can outland or finish off Cruz.
The book on Kenney is difficult to get a feel on. He doesn’t have a glaring weakness, but he doesn’t have an obvious strength that stands head and shoulders above everything else. However, Kenney’s fight IQ has proven to be a valuable asset, identifying weaknesses in his opponents and attacking them nonstop. Against Alateng Heili, he landed body kick after body kick. Against Nathaniel Wood, he attacked aggressively with power shots, negating the advantage in volume Wood built on the strength of low kicks, along with strategic takedowns. Then again, takedowns will be difficult to get on Cruz. Holding him down will be even harder.
This is a very difficult contest to pick. Cruz’s style has always had him operating on a thin line as he rarely lands clean power punches, but now he’s more prone to eating them than he ever has been. Then again, Cruz makes it so difficult to underestimate him given the odds he has overcome in the past. However, Cruz is now in his mid-30’s and his speed appears to be in decline. Kenney isn’t a top-flight bantamweight athlete himself, but it could be argued he’s got the physical advantage over Cruz. I’ll side with youth, but there will hardly be any surprise if Cruz upends the apple cart again. Kenney via decision
Joseph Benavidez vs. Askar Askarov, Flyweight
It’s tempting to write off Benavidez. He’s been fighting high level opposition for well over a decade – his WEC title fight with Cruz was over a decade ago – and that takes a toll on the body. Throw in he’s fighting in the smallest men’s weight class the UFC houses and age tends to be most unfriendly to the smaller weight classes – in addition to coming off two violent finishes at the hands of the reigning UFC flyweight champion – and many are ready to write him off.
Unless the losses to Deiveson Figueiredo is going to demoralize him, Benavidez should still have something left in his tank. He looked fantastic in his first contest with Figueiredo, arguably winning the contest up until an inadvertent head butt changed the course of the contest. He wasn’t as quick as he was at his peak moving in and out of the pocket on the attack, but he was quicker than most and racking up a high volume of punches and kicks. Not exactly a powerhouse, Benavidez nonetheless has enough oomph to hurt and opponent and get them out of there. That’s not something that can be said about every flyweight.
It most certainly can’t be said about Askarov, but he isn’t the one-dimensional ground operator that everyone seems to believe he is. Not a fluid athlete by any means, Askarov has an underutilized jab with the occasional power shot. However, the Russian is just biding time until he can get the contest to the mat. A master of positional grappling, Askarov was able to turn his opponents into knots on the regional scene, including a twister submission. Of course, he’s had a more difficult time securing finishes in the UFC, but he has been successful in exercising long periods of control.
There’s no doubt Benavidez, even in his advanced age, is the physically superior athlete in this contest. For all the extra work Askarov puts in the gym – he’s a notorious gym rat – there’s only so much someone can do to make up for the lack of physical gifts. Askarov has avoided coming out on the wrong side of a fight thus far with his smarts, but it’s going to be difficult to outwit – and especially outscramble – someone who has been there and done that to the extent Benavidez has. Unless Benavidez has lost his will, it would be a surprise to see Askarov topple the flyweight division’s mainstay. Benavidez via decision
- Yadong Song may still be undefeated in his UFC run, but given the controversial nature of his last two contests, many are pumping the brakes on the youngsters push. I didn’t say those people are giving up on him as Song is still very youthful at 23, but pitting him against top ten competition seems like it would be rushing him into a potential crisis of confidence. Song is built like a powerhouse, hitting like one too with short punching combinations consisting of the heart of his offense. However, his attack is simple to a fault, allowing opponents to learn his timing with ease, surprising given his association with Team Alpha Male. Aren’t they known for their wrestling? It appears Song has spent more time honing his wrestling abilities to keep him on his feet, something he’ll almost assuredly want to do against Kyler Phillips. A lifetime practitioner of BJJ, Phillips not only has a strong top game, he’s dangerous in scrambles and aggressive in pursuit of submissions. On the feet, he’s a risk taker with spinning and flying attacks being the norm. Though known for his kicking upon his UFC entry, he’s improved his hands as well. Perhaps the best thing for Phillips is his athleticism rivals that of Song’s. It’s a difficult contest to predict, but I like Song’s experience against a higher level of competition to allow him to edge it out. Song via decision
- It’s hard to see Kai Kara-France advancing beyond his gatekeeper role into contendership, but he has value beyond his role as a gatekeeper. One of the most consistently entertaining performers on the roster – not just the division – Kara-France invokes enthusiasm out of the MMA base when they see he’s on a card. An aggressive counter striker – yes, I know that sounds like an oxymoron – Kara-France may be the most technical striker in the division. Then again, he has to be given he’s a below average athlete with little margin for error. Regardless, he has improved his grappling to the point where he can hold his own on most occasions, shoring up his previously glaring weakness. There’s a good chance that area will be tested anyway as Rogerio Bontorin’s biggest advantage is assuredly going to be on the mat. Of course, he’s also been facing some top-notch wrestlers who have been able to smother his vaunted grappling. That shouldn’t be a worry against Kara-France and Bontorin has proven to be a better striker than advertised from his UFC entry, largely due to his opportunistic nature. What he hasn’t faced is a striker with the discipline of Kara-France. Combine that with Bontorin’s poor striking defense and it feels like this contest has a very good chance of being FOTN. Kara-France via decision