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UFC Vegas 37 Preview: Can Kianzad break through against Pennington?

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Get the scoop on the preliminary action of UFC Vegas 37, featuring a clash of ranked bantamweights in Pannie Kianzad and Raquel Pennington.

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Pannie Kianzad fighting Alexis Davis at UFC 263
Pannie Kianzad fighting Alexis Davis at UFC 263
Photo by Louis Grasse/PxImages/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Given the way things have been since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, I don’t fault the UFC for booking 15-fight cards. However, as of the time I submitted this preview, there were still 15 fights scheduled for UFC Vegas 37, including nine preliminary contests. While it’s hardly a can’t-miss card as a whole, there are certainly some contests that should pique the interest of MMA fans. For instance, is Pannie Kianzad going to score her breakthrough win? I’ll admit Kianzad’s fight with Raquel Pennington isn’t likely to be the most entertaining fight, but it’s a hard fight to predict. Plus, there are several other promising prospects on the prelims. Then again, I have to admit, that’s almost always the pull to get fans to watch the prelims. It is true though...

Pannie Kianzad vs. Raquel Pennington, Women’s Bantamweight

It took longer than expected, but Kianzad has finally begun to live up to the potential that many saw in her when she was the preeminent women’s bantamweight prospect about six years ago. The Swede is riding a four-fight win streak against increasingly difficult competition. However, while the competition has been increasingly difficult, it’s also been incrementally small leaps in terms of difficulty. She’s getting a sizeable jump in Pennington.

It’s not like Pennington is an elite fighter by any means, even if she has a title fight under her belt not all that long ago. The thing with Pennington is she is doggedly tough, more durable than she is tough, and a grinding style that tends to take the fight out of her opponents. Though Pennington has a reputation as a boxer, that’s rarely the area in which she wins fights. That isn’t to say Pennington doesn’t have the fundamentals down, but she can certainly be outworked from a distance or in the pocket as she’s an average athlete at best.

That’s good for Kianzad. Though she came into prominence as a wrestler/grappler, her recent win streak has been on the back of her improved striking. Much of that is due to Kianzad recognizing she is unlikely to find a finish due to her lack of power, so she has settled for touching up her opponent with great regularity on the back of her improved combination striking. Her defense still leaves a lot to be desired, but she has still managed to consistently be the busier fighter throughout this winning streak.

The UFC knows what it has in Pennington: a hard-nosed gatekeeper who can separate the contenders from the pretenders. They aren’t looking to push her anymore. They still aren’t sure what they have in Kianzad, thus why this fight was made. While it hasn’t been the case in recent fights, Kianzad has broken mentally before. If Pennington can tie things up, maybe take her down a few times, and just turn it into a battle of attrition, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Kianzad bail out mentally. However, she’s coming into this contest with a lot of momentum and has shown a greatly improved fight IQ. Throw in the fact that she is clearly the better athlete with faster hands and I think she can get over the hump, but it’s far from a given. Kianzad via decision

  • Given his thick build and long reach, it’s not much of a surprise that Tafon Nchukwi is moving back to light heavyweight after dabbling at 185 in his first two UFC contests. The heavy hitter was clearly cutting a lot of weight to get the middleweight limit and fell off a cliff in terms of his cardio after being forced into a number of grappling situations. While it’s safe to assume Nchukwi will solve some of those problems by being better hydrated, he’ll have a different type of challenge in Mike Rodriguez as Rodriguez has an 82” reach. Granted, Rodriguez still hasn’t figured out how to best make use of that reach (and probably never will at this point), but Nchukwi’s lack of attention to defense ensure Rodriguez is going to land his share of punches from the outside... provided he doesn’t allow Nchukwi to land a haymaker too early. The biggest problem for Rodriguez is his biggest strength is in the clinch... which means letting Nchukwi into punching range if he wants the fight to go there. If that’s the case, I don’t trust Rodriguez’s chin to hold up while Nchukwi won’t stop marching forward. Nchukwi via KO of RD1
  • Despite finding success in his first two UFC fights, there is still no hype surrounding Nate Maness. While it’s true he isn’t a great athlete, he’s lanky, possesses a good jab, and a LOT of resilience. Maness isn’t going to be a contender, but he’s not a cakewalk who has gotten lucky as so many seem to be labeling him. In fact, he seems to be a very appropriate test for Tony Gravely. An explosive wrestler who has struggled to put his natural power on his feet to good use, Gravely’s UFC’s wins have come against opposition that’s just as questionable as Maness’. If Gravely can get his takedowns rolling, he’s likely to emerge victorious. The problem is, Gravely’s grappling still needs a lot of refinement, particularly keeping his opponent on the mat. Maness’ reach presents another major issue as Gravely’s striking defense is highly problematic. Did I mention Maness is a dangerous counter grappler too? I am in agreement with the odds that Gravely should be the favorite, but it should be far closer to even than the wide margins I’ve seen. That said, my pick will coincide with the oddsmakers. Gravely via decision
  • This contest exemplifies why I wait as long as I do to have my previews posted as late into the week as I do as it wasn’t announced until Wednesday that Brandon Jenkins would be replacing a COVID-ridden Dakota Bush. Any later than Wednesday and it’s highly unlikely the UFC can find a replacement. Regardless, Jenkins is the type of fighter who has been around the regional block and taken his lumps in the process. However, with those lumps, the counter striker has gained a lot of savvy and though he’s not the best athlete, he’s got great timing and knows plenty of tricks of the trade. Zhu Rong is on the other end of the spectrum. At 21, Rong’s youth and inexperience reared its head in his UFC debut, basically giving away the fight to Kazula Vargas even though it was clear Rong was the physically superior competitor. Rong has changed camps, so there’s promise that his focus could be improved. If that’s the case, he should be able to overwhelm Jenkins as it’s hard to believe his late weight cut won’t become a factor. Rong’s lack of defense could ruin it, his chin has held up thus far and his offense is Rong via decision
  • When a fighter takes a fight on short notice, they typically end up fighting at a weight class up from where they have previously been fighting. As far as I can recall, this is the first case where a fighter is taking a fight a weight class down from where they had regularly been fighting. And yet, Cameron VanCamp, who hasn’t won a fight at lightweight since 2017, will be fighting at 155 despite having racked up all his wins at welterweight since that time. He’ll have a hell of chore in front of him as fellow debutant Nikolas Motta enters with a fair amount of hype. With heavy hands and a willingness to mix his strikes to all levels, the only big question about Motta is the quality of his chin. Did I mention he has a great reputation as a BJJ practioner too? VanCamp is a dangerous choke artist and a willing striker, but I very much worry about his strength and energy levels if he’s going to be making the cut to 155 for the first time since 2018 and doing so on short notice. Plus, I don’t see VanCamp catching Motta in a front choke as he has several of his past opponents. Regardless, both appear to be solid additions to the roster. Motta via decision
  • Am I the only one who doesn’t think the move to bantamweight is well advised for JP Buys? Though he’s developed a functional standup game at this juncture, it’s his wrestling and grappling that has propelled any success he’s had thus far in his MMA career. Typically, one of the key factors to wrestlers and grapplers finding success is possessing a size advantage. Moving up to bantamweight negates that. Buys lack of size is going to be exacerbated by his opponent, Montel Jackson, owner of a freakish 75” reach. Well... freakish for 135. Jackson has been outworked on the mat by the likes of Brett Johns, but Buys isn’t as slick as Johns, nor does he have his size. Buys is going to have his work cut out for him just navigating Jackson’s reach on the feet, much less getting the fight to the mat. Given Jackson seems to show improvement in every contest, this feels like as much of a lock as there is on the card. Jackson via decision
  • There’s a good chance Sarah Alpar is already on thin ice with the organization given the well-publicized incident which saw Jake Paul drop a large donation into her Go Fund Me for training expenses. It doesn’t reflect well upon the organization that their athletes need to rely on the general public to support their training. Given she’s being lined up opposite of Erin Blanchfield, one of the favorite prospects in the sport of MMA pundits, it’s not a good indication for Alpar. That isn’t to say she’s doomed. Alpar has a decent wrestling game and is used to being the smaller fighter given she has plied her trade at bantamweight for roughly the last five years. Now returning to 125 with a full camp and the gains she has made in that time, it’s reasonable to believe her ground game could be the best it’s ever been. The problem is, her striking has been a hot mess and Blanchfield is a favorite for reasons beyond her physical abilities, despite her youthful 22 years of age. Displaying a wisdom beyond her years, her smarts have made up for the simplicity of her still developing striking and wrestling. Of course, it’s Blanchfield’s slick grappling that is her biggest strength. Her seemingly effortless work from the top position leads me to believe she finds success in her debut. If she doesn’t submit Alpar, look for her to catch her with a heavy head kick. Blanchfield via submission of RD2
  • It was shocking for many to see Impa Kasanganay make the drop down to 170 as he seemed well suited to the middleweight division, but the early returns appear to be very promising. While Kasanganay has exhibited a nice technical striking skillset since he debuted on DWCS – his attention to defense is highly shocking for someone of his experience — there were still questions about his ground game. Now that he poses a more physically imposing figure at his new home, he exhibited an improved ability to muscle his opponent down to the mat, even finding an RNC. Of course, accomplishing that against an inexperienced Sasha Palatnikov is a different story than doing so against experienced Brazilian veteran Carlston Harris. Harris may be getting his UFC run started late in his career, but he’s at his peak in terms of the combination of his physical abilities and his savvy. Throw in the fact that Harris’ own physical skills rival that of Kasanganay’s — I said rival, not eclipse — and it seems like the youngster will endure another bump in the road before he truly hits his stride. Harris via submission of RD2
  • There’s more indications that Gustavo Lopez’s UFC run is going to be on the shorter end of the spectrum than not, but there’s no doubt that he’s going to do everything in his power to make sure his audience is entertained. The scrappy brawler isn’t the hardest hitter, nor does he have the most iron-clad chin. Nevertheless, he’s willing to step into the pocket and throw fisticuffs. He’d better hope Heili Alateng is willing to throwdown in that manner as Lopez’s takedown defense has been questionable at best. Alateng isn’t a fantastic wrestler himself, but it’s been effective enough for him to take a win on the UFC level on the strength of his ground game, securing late takedowns as his gas tank begins to run shallow. However, while Lopez’s defensive wrestling leaves a LOT to be desired, his own takedowns and BJJ are solid enough to lead me to believe Alateng’s rudimentary ground game isn’t going to be enough to keep Lopez grounded. Throw in Alateng’s inability to make changes on the fly and I think Lopez can outwit him in the end. Lopez via decision
  • Hannah Goldy has had the benefit of a DWCS push since coming into the UFC, but the results haven’t been there. There’s no doubt Goldy’s physicality is impressive — for her size — and she can string together impressive punching combinations, but her unusually short arms for her frame have severely limited the effectiveness of her offense given she doesn’t have a dependable skill set outside of her counter punching. Regardless, it’s hard to believe she won’t have a significant advantage standing against Emily Whitmire as it’s hard to believe Whitmire’s shaky standup is going to evolve into a threat at this stage of her career. Whitmire does have a capable ground game if she can get the fight to the mat, but Goldy’s takedown defense is solid enough that I have a hard time believing Whitmire can get the fight to her world in the manner that would give her the W. Goldy via decision