As expected, the main event for UFC Vegas 35 absolutely delivered. The fact that the TUF Finale bouts also turned into action battles was a nice bonus, the whole card provided a solid night of action from top to bottom—with only a couple of less thrilling bouts down on the prelims.
So, is Giga Chikadze suddenly a top contender in the featherweight division? What’s next for the newest season of TUF winners? And how far can Daniel Rodriguez continue his dark horse run up the welterweight division?
To answer those questions – and a few other things – I’ll be using the classic Silva/Shelby fight booking methodology from the UFC of years past. That means pitting winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured talent up against one another. Hopefully, by following that model, a few of these bout ideas will actually make it off the page and into the Octagon. Now, let’s get to the fights.
A brilliant performance from Chikadze who started hot, faced a little adversity in round two, and then made the necessary adjustments to take over and finish the fight in round three. His power and creativity had Barboza clearly cautious from the outset, and once the Brazilian found a way to create his own offense, Chikadze started blitzing forward to create the kind of power exchanges that would get the former lightweight on his back foot—where his defense is notoriously less finely tuned.
The victory marks Chikadze’s ninth straight, with seven of those wins coming inside the Octagon. And it legitimately has the former GLORY kickboxer lined up for a top-5 contender’s bout. He called out Max Holloway, who has his own booking in the works, but fights against Calvin Kattar, Josh Emmett, Arnold Allen, or Chan Sung Jung would all make perfect sense. Of those, the one I most want to see is none other than the ‘Korean Zombie.’ TKZ showed exactly how difficult and well-rounded a matchup he can be last time out against Dan Ige, and Chikadze could definitely use a test against an elite featherweight who can mix in a few high level takedown attempts. Chikadze vs. TKZ is an action thriller that would be a real step up in competition for for the Georgian on his way to title contention.
No matter whether he wins or loses, Edson Barboza is always a thrill to watch. The speed and power he puts into every technique he throws, and the consistency of his delivery practically guarantees that each fight he’s in will be a violent delight. This time around, he was notably more staid than other outings, but found great success in the second round with body kicks, forcing Chikadze to blitz and pressure with more urgency. No doubt the TKO loss will be a disappointing outcome for the now-ATT-trained fighter, but that shouldn’t dampen interest in whatever next fight he takes.
Just given the propensity of grapplers on the rise at 145 – between Ilia Topuria, Bryce Mitchell, and Movsar Evloev – I do feel that thrilling striking matchups are slightly limited at the moment. But, there is one obvious option that should provide yet another classic war: Sodiq Yusuff. The Nigerian is coming off his own defeat at the hands of Arnold Allen, and a bout with Edson Barboza is exactly the kind of chance for him to show off his power once more. And a chance for Barboza to prove his own continuing quality as a gatekeeper to the elite. Barboza vs. Yusuff seems like a guaranteed slobberknocker.
Urbina looked like he had Battle dead to rights straight out of the gate in round 1. Hurt him standing, took him down, and put together some brutal ground and pound. But when that didn’t end up in a finish, Urbina started to fade and Battle’s own offense took over. He’s clearly tough to put away, and has a busy striking game behind a wide variety of kicks. And the fact that he capped it all off with a sub makes him a fascinating prospect going forward. As for what that should mean for his first fight in the Octagon? Probably a fairly soft start if he can manage to get one. Bookings against Abu Azaitar, Wellington Turman, or maybe the winner of Laureano Staropoli vs. Jamie Pickett all seem like good next options. Of those, I’ll go with the Staropoli/Pickett winner. I’m still not convinced that Staropoli is that well suited to the middleweight division, and Pickett has been terribly uneven in his DWCS & two UFC bouts. Battle vs. the Staropoli/Pickett winner should be a quality first test no matter who comes out of that bout with the win.
An absolutely brutal war for Turcios who threw himself into the fire over and over against Hiestand, eating a ton of shots and spending a bunch of time fighting off his back as a result. But his unwillingness to accept bad positions and his constant output swayed the judges that even when he was in rough spots, he was still doing more work to win the fight. That victory makes him the ‘Ultimate Fighter’, and unfortunately also pitches him straight into the middle of a deep and difficult bantamweight division. As such, I don’t really feel like Turcios should get rushed too fast. Opponents like Ronnie Lawrence, Tony Kelley, or Batgerel Danaa all seem like reasonable next bouts. Of those, I’ll go with Kelley. His fun, high output striking style seems well suited to another wild war for ‘Pretty’ Ricky, without nearly the same wrestling threat Hiestand brought to the table. Turcios vs. Kelley should be a quality first post-TUF introduction to the UFC.
Rodriguez is putting together one hell of a resume inside the UFC, with victories over Tim Means, Mike Perry, and now Kevin Lee. He did a fantastic job of staying calm and composed on the mat with Lee, and otherwise keeping his striking output high all through the fight as Lee’s takedown game got less and less decisive. Ideally this kind of win could set him up for a top 15 bout, but the fact that he’s basically said he’ll be on call for whatever the UFC needs makes it much more likely that he’ll just end up taking a random fill-in spot whenever one pops up. I’d love to see him get a bout with Santiago Ponzinibbio, or maybe even the Chimaev/Jingliang winner. But, if he ends up fighting someone like Max Griffin or Mickey Gall I won’t be at all surprised. Bypassing all that though, I just remembered that Muslim Salikhov snagged a rankings spot. Salikhov vs. Rodriguez seems like an ideal striking battle. Time to book it.
A fantastic comeback victory for Meerschaert who had already started to turn the tide of the fight by the end of the first round. Muradov was landing the cleaner shots, but Meerschaert did well to stay in the pocket and throw on the return with power every time Muradov stepped in. The more tired Muradov got, the more effective those return volleys started to become. That puts ‘GM3’ on a two fight win streak after back to back KO losses to Ian Heinisch and Khamzat Chimaev. And it should put him right in the path of Brendan Allen or the winner of Kevin Holland vs. Kyle Daukaus or the winner of Edmen Shahbazyan vs. Nassroudine Imavov. The winner of that Imavov/Shahbazyan fight especially intrigues me, since it’s two young prospects both looking to really separate themselves from the pack at 185. Meerschaert is an excellent prospect test, given his toughness and crafty submission game. GM3 vs. the Imavov/Shahbazyan winner seems like a great opportunity for either prospect to build their resume, or for Meerscheart to really go on a run.
ABDUL RAZAK ALHASSAN
I’m not sure that tells us a whole lot about just how good Alhassan looks working under his new camp over at Team Elevation, but given a chance to trade kicks with Alessio Di Chirico, he annihilated ‘Manzo’ straight out of the gate with a crushing shot to the dome. That’s a three fight losing skid snapped for the Ghanaian Judoka, and a great opportunity to get him back in the cage against some dangerous strikers in the middleweight division. Fighters like Abu Azaitar, Dricus Du Plessis, or Eryk Anders would all fit the bill nicely. But I’m especially a fan of a potential matchup against Roman Dolidze. The former light heavyweight is know for his creativity standing as well as a decent grappling game when he can get fights to the floor. Has Alhassan buoyed his takedown defense out in Colorado? Can he do enough damage to Dolidze to put him away before Dolidze can find a path to the mat? I’m interested in seeing both questions answered. Abdul Razak Alhassan vs. Roman Dolidze seems like a quality middleweight action fight.
A landslide win for Jacoby. Stewart came out looking to push the pace on the former kickboxer, but turning takedowns into consistent grappling offense proved a difficult task. And once Jacoby get Stewart stranded in the standup realm, he turned a tidal wave of jabs into an onslaught of big right hands for the finish. That makes a 3-0-1 start to Jacoby’s second UFC run and likely will have him knocking on the door of a top 15 ranking. That should put him square in the crosshairs of fighters like Alonzo Menifield, Marcin Prachnio, and Da Un Jung. But, given his wealth of fight experience, it also seems like an opportunity to push Jacoby just a little bit further. Maybe something like a fight with Nikita Krylov? It’d be a winner/loser bout, but I’d be fascinated to see what Krylov could do with his Karate background against Jacoby. Or, if he could be the man to make Jacoby’s middling takedown defense really work against him. Krylov vs. Jacoby seems like a great chance for Krylov to prove he’s still a top 10 fighter, or for Jacoby to turn his success into a real run up the division.
Jamall Emmers did just the right thing early, by timing Sabatini’s entries to land big shots standing. And then followed that with exactly the wrong thing, by chasing the MPR Endurance talent to the mat and getting involved in a 50/50 leg lock battle. The result is a fantastic sub win for the former CFFC champ and a 2-0 start to his Octagon career. Just gotta keep pushing him up the division and testing him against more prospects looking to make their way in the division. Fighters like Sean Woodson, Lerone Murphy, or Kamuela Kirk. Of those, I’ll go with Woodson. His busy backfoot boxing game will likely force Sabatini to lead, where he still needs to prove he can close distance without getting clipped up. Sabatini vs. Woodson seems like a good chance for both men to continue separating themselves as potential top prospects at 145.
OTHER BOUTS: Gilbert Urbina vs. Aliaskhab Khizriev, Brady Hiestand vs. Jesse Strader, Kevin Lee vs. Mike Perry, Andre Petroski vs. Andreas Michailidis, Michael Gillmore vs. Dustin Stoltzfus, Makhmud Muradov vs. Trevin Giles, Alessio Di Chirico vs. Ian Heinisch, Wellington Turman vs. Jacob Malkoun, Sam Alvey vs. Jack Marshman, Darren Stewart vs. Ed Herman, JJ Aldrich vs. Sijara Eubanks, Vanessa Demopoulos vs. Gloria de Paula, Jamall Emmers vs. Bill Algeo, Mana Martinez vs. Johnny Munoz, Guido Cannetti vs. Jamey Simmons