Outside of the MSG cards, it’s hard to find a PPV card whose prelims are more stacked than the offering of UFC 266. There’s a former title challenger who was considered by some to be the ultimate human highlight reel in the sport not that long ago. A pair of lightweights who are considered to be solid action fighters squaring off. One of the top up-and-coming heavyweights on the roster, perhaps the top and up-and-coming heavyweight. Plus, everyone’s favorite fighter returns from knee surgery. Yeah, these prelims are totally worth tuning in for.
Marlon Moraes vs. Merab Dvalishvili, Bantamweight
It’s amazing how far Moraes has fallen. After taking the first round against Henry Cejudo for the bantamweight title in 2019, Moraes hasn’t been the same. He eeked out a controversial win over Jose Aldo, then proceeded to get violently finished by both Cory Sandhagen and Rob Font. Perhaps it shouldn’t be too big of a surprise given he’s 33 – lighter weight classes tend to age quicker than the heavier ones — with over 30 fights on his resume.
On the flip side, Dvalishvili has established himself as a favorite of the MMA community, riding into the fight on a six-fight win streak against increasingly difficult competition. The UFC has been reluctant to push him as Dvalishvili is all about taking his opponent to the ground time and again, relying on his conditioning and wrestling to wear down his opponent. It isn’t the prettiest style, but it’s impossible not to respect his abilities given few have been able to do it better than Dvalishvili in the history of the sport. Granted, Dvalishvili’s standup is limited and he’s not much of a submission threat, but he gets the job done.
It usually doesn’t take Moraes long to get a bead on his opponents tendencies, explaining his streak of three straight first round finishes on his way to his title shot. WIth fast hands and a deep arsenal of kicks to all levels, Moraes reputation as the most dangerous striking bantamweight was well-deserved. Of course, if he’s lost a step (I can’t say definitively that he has, but it’s a fair debate to have) it’s going to throw off his timing. It seemed Moraes attempted to compensate for that by taking a wrestling approach towards Font and has some success with that. But is he really going to outwrestle Dvalishvili? Hell no.
Moraes isn’t without hope. Dvalishvili’s constant pressure leaves him readily available to be hit and Moraes is slick on the mat. A guillotine as Dvalishvili shoots in on him seems very plausible. But the most likely outcome sees Dvalishvili breaking Moraes mentally with his constant takedowns. Throw in that Moraes tends to slow down significantly if forced to grapple and a finish late for Dvalishvili seems like a good likelihood. Dvalishvili via TKO of RD3
Dan Hooker vs. Nasrat Haqparast, Lightweight
There are a lot of unusual X-factors in this contest... provided it takes place. Hooker had to endure a very difficult process to get the requisite credentials to fly from New Zealand to the states, ensuring his weight cut is going to be difficult. However, Haqparast was dealing with similar issues in leaving Germany, not having clearance to get to the states at the time this article was submitted. His weight cut is going to be an issue too, but the 26-year old is also greiving from the loss of his mother, who passed just a few weeks ago. Will that be motivation or will it weight him down?
Between the two, Hooker is the more diverse and experienced striker. Not only does Hooker possesses a deep arsenal of kicks, he’s also more than a handful to deal with in the clinch. While the Kiwi is coming off a first round KO loss, he’s traditionally been extremely difficult to put away, a sustained beating at the hands of renowned striker Edson Barboza being the only thing to put him away with strikes prior to his last contest. If that loss was a fluke as opposed to the beginning of a trend, Hooker’s ability to withstand punishment will continue to be his greatest asset.
Haqparast may be a better overall athlete than Hooker, but he doesn’t have the killer instinct that has defined Hooker. There is something positive to be said for Haqparast’s patience, usually allowing the fight to develop at it’s own pace, but a fighter typically needs to know when to press the action and/or when to pull back if they hope to take the next step in their development. Haqparast has yet to show that while that was one of the factors that pushed Hooker into fights with the likes of Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler. Of course, the native of Germany doesn’t have the experience of Hooker, but there’s nothing to indicate he has immediately picked up that knowledge since his last fight in March. Maybe working with Kings MMA will do the trick, but I tend to rely more on what I see in the cage.
There is a lot to like about Haqparast. For as young as he is, he’s incredibly technical and defensively minded. However, Hooker is a massive step up for him and save for Drew Dober – whom Haqparast lost to – none of Haqparast’s past opponents are near the level of striking Hooker presents. I haven’t seen enough out of Haqparast’s wrestling to make me think he might be able to go the wrestling route either. Unless Hooker is more compromised by his weight cut than Haqparast, Hooker feels like an easy pick. Given Haqparast’s situation is more in the air, I feel even more confident in saying Hooker is the pick. Hooker via TKO of RD1
Shamil Abdurakhimov vs. Chris Daukaus, Heavyweight
Daukaus wasn’t even on the radar of most MMA fans when Abdurakhimov last stepped foot in a UFC cage. SInce we last saw Abdurakhimov — when he was mauled by Curtis Blaydes – Daukaus has ripped off three first round finishes in a row, starting with his UFC debut. Throw in the fact Abdurakhimov is now 40 and it’s easy to see why everyone seems to be picking Daukaus without much thought.
However, I can assure y’all there’s a reason why Abdurakhimov is considered a step up for Daukaus. Daukaus’ first two UFC opponents have yet to prove themselves and his most recent win came over a then 43-year old Aleksei Oleinik who has fallen off a cliff in the last year or so... and yes, Daukaus’ win came after that fall. While Abdurakhimov isn’t a spring chicken either – which we’ve already established – there haven’t been signs of him aging out yet. Granted, his last appearance was two years ago, so he could very well be over the hill and it’s fair to predict that, but it can’t be said definitively.
How they match up is interesting too. Daukaus’ fast hands have caught his opponents by surprise. He’s also proven to be effective in the clinch, particularly with his knees. Even more encouraging is Daukaus appears to be slimming down and getting into better condition as he’s getting to focus more on his fight career. In the case of Abdurakhimov, he’s an underrated athlete. He can surprise with his speed and has good, technical boxing skills. Abdurakhimov can also fall back on his wrestling if needs be.
What has me leery about picking Daukaus without much thought is Abdurakhimov has only lost to opponents who overpowered him on the mat. Dauakaus is known to be a solid grappler, but not an overpowering one. Plus, he’s never faced anyone near the level of Abdurakhimov... provided Abdurakhimov hasn’t fallen off a cliff the way Oleinik did. I don’t think he has as he doesn’t have nearly the miles of Oleinik. Maybe Daukaus can overwhelm Abdurakhimov with his fast hands, but how long will his speed be relevant if the fight leaves the first round? I’m sure I’m in the minority, but I’m fine with that. Abdurakhimov via TKO of RD3
Roxanne Modafferi vs. Taila Santos, Women’s Flyweight
Nobody ever roots against Modafferi. They may cheer harder for her opponent, but no one is ever against her. She’s just too damned lovable. Possessing one of the lowest talent levels in terms of her physical gifts, Modafferi makes it work with savvy and guile obtained over years of experience, debuting in the sport all the way back in 2003. It’s an amazing accomplishment she has been able to remain relevant this far into her career, especially given many believed she was washed up circa 2013.
Modafferi has a reputation as someone who continually upends the apple cart for younger fighters making their way up the ranks, particularly when she’s being counted out. Given Modafferi is coming off a knee surgery, she’s in a familiar spot against Santos: a major underdog. Santos has the look of a potential top contender, needing a signature win. There’s no doubt Santos has the physical skills as she’s a gifted athlete with a well-rounded arsenal. Against brawler Molly McCann, she took her to the mat time and again. Against grappler Gillian Robertson... well, most of the fight was spent on the mat, but it was Santos who dictated control on the mat despite that being where Robertson is at her best.
Modafferi has always done her best work on the mat, having forgotten more tricks of the trade on the mat than most have ever learned. She can be overpowered, but unless Modafferi is severely compromised by her knee surgery, I don’t see Santos doing that. Even though Santos has shown some solid takedown defense, it’s hard to believe Modafferi won’t get her down at some point as few are more savvy with their trips. However, even with Modafferi being one of the smartest fighters active in the sport, any loss of physical abilities is going to be very painful. Even more worrisome, all the wear and tear on Modafferi makes it more likely that Fater Time knocks her on her butt sooner rather than later.
I wouldn’t discount the idea of Modafferi steal a decision, but Santos athleticism and improving fight IQ has me believing she’s the victor. Santos via decision