I get it, these aren’t the main card fights on UFC 259 you really want to see. When a card features three title fights, it’s easy to overlook the non-title fights on the main card. However, both cards feature a pair of youngish fighters whom many believe could claim the titles in their division. Many believe Islam Makhachev only needs to stay healthy – and avoid cageside brawls – to reach the top, whereas Aleksander Rakic appears to be a win away from a title shot…provided he can get past Thiago Santos, no small feat. After all, many believe Santos should have been the rightful winner over Jon Jones for the light heavyweight title in the summer of 2019. As for Makhachev, Drew Dober doesn’t have the same name value Santos does, but he does present a step up in competition above what Makhachev has faced in the past.
Islam Makhachev vs. Drew Dober, Lightweight
For quite a while, Makhachev has been touted as a poor man’s Khabib Nurmagomedov. It’s easy to understand why. Both have very strong wrestling bases that rely more on mauling their opposition than technically looking to pass through their opponent’s defenses. However, there is one big difference that differentiate Makhachev’s more famous teammate and himself.
Whereas Khabib was hardly risk averse – he did voluntarily stand with Conor McGregor when most figured that was a foolish endeavor – Makhachev is all about minimizing the danger to himself. Not that anyone thinks minimizing risk is a bad idea; a large part of winning fights is avoiding damage. For example, he avoided going to the mat for most of the fight with BJJ expert Davi Ramos even though Makhachev is considered to be one of the best wrestlers in the division. You could argue it’s good fight IQ – which it is – but it also leaves a degree of uncertainty to his abilities against the elite. That includes his level of competition in general. Who is his best win? Arman Tsarukyan? Nik Lentz? For someone who was such a heavy favorite when he was scheduled to fight Rafael dos Anjos, Makhachev is still very much a mystery. While Makhachev’s physical brand of wrestling has been very impressive, none of those whom he has regularly taken to the mat have proven themselves to be difficult to take down against top competition.
Whether Dober qualifies as top competition is yet to be determined, but no one will deny the wrestle-boxer is well deserving of the opportunity against someone with the name value of Makhachev. Dober has always been an aggressive combination puncher, but shown an innate ability to regularly his opposition to sleep in recent contests, securing stoppages in his last three wins and five of his last seven overall wins. Small adjustments over time have resulted in the additional power and Makhachev’s lone loss did come from a single punch. Should Makhachev get a little too aggressive, don’t be surprised to see Dober either hurt or finish Makachev off. Makhachev’s standup isn’t bad by any means, but it’s not difficult to outwork him as he throws simple, short punching combinations and some single punches… not much else.
However, the problem with Dober is his takedown defense. It isn’t like his takedown defense is a glaring weakness, but it doesn’t appear to be reliable enough to stuff Makhachev when he will really need to do so. If there is a finish, I expect it will come from Dober as Makhachev’s chin failed the biggest test it has faced so far and Dober’s chin appears to be made of granite. Perhaps Makhachev can find a sub, but I think he’ll concentrate on locking Dober down as opposed to finishing him off… as has been his typical path. Makhachev via decision
Thiago Santos vs. Aleksander Rakic, Light Heavyweight
In any other division, this might be a last gasp for Santos to remain a relevant figure in the title picture. After all, the hard-hitting Brazilian is now 37 and has had injury issues as of late. Then again, the man who beat him, Glover Teixeira, was 41 and had the same types of things said about him when he was the same age. Even more encouraging, Santos doesn’t appear to have lost any speed or reaction time in his strikes, throwing them with potentially more velocity than anyone else in the division. While some may point to the likes of Jan Blachowicz or Jiri Prochazka, Santos may arguably be the most feared striker in the division.
Of course, MMA is a multi-faceted sport and while Santos has certainly made progress in several areas outside of his striking, he still doesn’t appear to be where he needs to be to get over the hump. For example, Teixeira won largely due to Santos’ inability to climb to his feet after being taken down. When Santos was at middleweight, he was able to muscle up against his smaller opposition, his plus athleticism helping greatly in that endeavor. That hasn’t quite been the case at 205 against larger opponents, particularly when they’ve proven themselves to be sound grapplers.
Whether that describes Rakic is still up for debate, though the early returns are promising. Known as a dynamic striker, Rakic completely dominated and controlled Anthony Smith on the mat in his most recent contest. While the lanky Austrian had shown the ability to do maintain control on the mat against Justin Ledet, doing so against Smith is taking it to a different level. If Rakic can control Smith, controlling Santos seems like a given.
The question is whether Rakic will take that approach with Santos, even if it appears to be the clearest path to victory. It isn’t necessarily a guarantee Santos would win the battle on the feet either. At 6’4” with a 78” reach, Rakic is the taller and rangier fighter and he’s done a solid job of utilizing those traits thus far. He’s not afraid to throw high-risk strikes either, with high kick and spinning back fist KO’s on his record. Regardless, with Rakic’s ability to take the fight to the mat, it’s hard not to give him the edge over Santos. Rakic via TKO, RD3