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UFC 264 Preview: Recent title challengers clash in the early prelims

Get the scoop on the early fights of UFC 264, topped by a bout between fresh championship contenders Jennifer Maia and Jessica Eye.

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Back when the UFC was putting a heavy push behind Fight Pass, it wasn’t a surprise to see the most consequential fights of the preliminaries take place on the Early Prelims. Of course, that hasn’t been the case in years, so it was quite the surprise when not just the most consequential prelim was on the UFC 264 Early Prelims, so was the second most consequential prelim… at least in the immediate future. It wasn’t that long ago Jennifer Maia and Jessica Eye were challenging for the Women’s Flyweight championship and Brad Tavares and Omari Akhmedov are two of the most underrated members on the roster in any division. And yet, the fact they are where they are at on the card is an indication of what the UFC thinks about them….

Jennifer Maia vs. Jessica Eye, Women’s Flyweight

Given it’s unlikely Maia and Eye will be fighting for the flyweight title again any time soon, it makes sense for them to face off and help establish the pecking order of those who have been disposed by the champion. There’s a good chance they’ll be joined by several others by the time Shevchenko has been dethroned….

The compact Maia did more to boost her image in her loss to Shevchenko by doing something no one else had been able to do since Shevchenko moved to flyweight: win a round against her. Yeah, that’s all it takes for Shevchenko’s opponents to get notice. Regardless, Maia secured the round on the basis of her impressive core strength, muscling around Shevchenko against the cage and proving to be difficult to dislodge from the top position. Perhaps Maia would have been able to find more success if she had a stronger wrestling game, but it’s not like she’s going to have the same issues with Eye.

Then again, Eye has been working on her wrestling recently and there’s no doubt her technique has improved. What has been holding her back has been her poor timing on the takedowns. Regardless, against Maia, Eye will want to avoid the ground as Maia’s greatest strength is her grappling. With flexibility that belies her frame, Maia is dangerous even from her back. Eye is resilient as hell, so it seems unlikely she’ll get caught, but Maia could just as easily hit a sweep and exercise long periods of control.

Eye’s route to victory is staying on the outside and mixing up her punching combinations; perhaps she’ll mix in a healthy mix of low kicks, but she’s hit and miss with implementing kicks. The problem is Eye is at her best when she can implement her own brand of physicality and it’s exceptionally difficult to see her doing that to Maia. Plus, while Maia struggles if the fight stays on the outside, her simplistic but effective pocket boxing is likely to cause Eye problems. Eye has melted mentally in the past with one good punch, something Maia can surely supply. Eye hasn’t been as prone to her meltdowns in recent years, but I still don’t like how she matches up with Maia, even if she can avoid the meltdowns. Maia via decision

Omari Akhmedov vs. Brad Tavares, Middleweight

Akhmedov only has a single loss in his last eight UFC contests, a mark only matched by Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker within the division. And yet, he’s a name few casual fans are aware of. Like I said in the opening paragraph, he’s one of the most underrated members of the roster….

Part of that can be attributed to a lack of finishes, his submission of Tom Breese earlier this year being the only stoppage of the last six years. That can be attributed to Akhmedov becoming a more mature fighter, learning to fight a more measured pace with jabs and well-timed takedowns being the center of his attack. In the past, Akhmedov preferred winging heavy hooks in pursuit of the finish, leaving himself fighting for survival by the time the final round came around. Throwing the power shots more judiciously has allowed him to stay fresh as of late.

However, Akhmedov has been more aggressive in recent contests, resulting in his old issue with his stamina. It that arises against Tavares, it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t be fighting just to survive come the final round given Tavares is one of the better conditioned fighters on the roster. In fact, Tavares may very well be one of the most technical strikers too. What has held Tavares back is a lack of power and average athleticism. Well… his power has been improving given he has been sitting down on his strikes more often, but it’s usually a case of him looking to touch up his opponents more than anything else.

This all comes down to who can implement their strategy. If Akhmedov can pressure Tavares into the cage, land some heavy shots, and outmuscle the Hawaiian throughout the contest, this is going to be his fight. The problem for Akhmedov is Tavares’ footwork, cardio, and takedown defense are all excellent counters to what Akhmedov does well. Expect Tavares to stick and move his way to a decision victory. Tavares via decision

  • I have to admit, I put way too much stock into Jerome Rivera when he came into the UFC. His 5’10” frame, slick grappling, and youth hooked me into thinking he was going to be a longtime staple of the flyweight division. While it is still a possibility, when the bell rang, it exposed his questionable fight IQ and massive holes in his striking. While it’s clear Rivera is attempting to make good use of his length by throwing a wide variety of kicks, his inability to prevent the opposition from closing the distance has been negating that advantage. Plus, Rivera’s overconfidence in his BJJ has seen him spend far more time on his back than would be advisable. Perhaps fighting one of the shorter members of the division in Zhalgas Zhumagulov will be the remedy he needs to get back on track. Zhumagulov is a negative athlete – for flyweight – and doesn’t pack much of a punch. What he does have is a well-rounded game without any major holes, not to mention the know-how to mount an effective offense against his opposition despite limited physical skills. Rivera has far more tools to work with than Zhumagulov, but I don’t trust him in the least. Plus, he’ll have a hell of a time putting away the durable Zhumagulov. Zhumagulov via decision
  • The UFC may have had some setbacks in their quest to make inroads to the Chinese market, but make no mistake, they aren’t giving up on turning the market into a cash cow. Otherwise, they’d be doing Yaozung Hu a huge favor by cutting the raw prospect loose and allowing him to gain experience on the regional scene. Hu possesses a lanky frame, toughness, and enthusiasm for the sport, so there’s tools to work with. However, his Greco-Roman wrestling base hasn’t translated over effectively and defense is a word that has yet to enter his vocabulary. Perhaps that’s why he’s dropping to middleweight, where he’s going to be the bigger man in the cage in most cases. That will surely be the case against Alen Amedovski, who is an undersized 185er in the modern sense. While that does cause concern given Hu’s wrestling background – and Amedovski’s terrible takedown defense and overall grappling – the native of Macedonia stands a good chance of putting Hu to sleep with one of his powerful hooks. After all, Hu’s defense needs to be completely overhauled. That very well may have happened – it’s been over two years since we last saw Hu – but Hu’s ability to trade fisticuffs with Rashad Coulter until the final bell has me believing he will withstand anything Amedovski can land… provided the weight cut doesn’t erode his chin. Hu via decision