Thanks to the card being moved from England to Vegas with about a month and half notice, there ended up being a lot of cancellations due to visa issues for what is now known as UFC Vegas 36. Fortunately, the main event wasn’t cancelled and the co-main event found a suitable replacement. Thus, while there were several contests that were worth watching that ended up getting snuffed, the card is still passable. In fact, most observers have praised the limited number of contests on the card. Can’t say I blame them. There’s times where the bloated card makes it hard to maintain enthusiasm throughout a card, even if the top of the card is awesome. That won’t be an issue with only 10 fights on this card.
Derek Brunson vs. Darren Till, Middleweight
Brunson has never been closer to the top of the division as he is now. Riding a four-fight win streak, during which he was even odds or the underdog in every contest, Brunson has grown accustomed to being overlooked at this stage. It makes sense as most were writing him off after being bowled over in back-to-back contests against Ronaldo Souza and Israel Adesanya prior to this run. Brunson moved to a big camp at that point, developing a more patient style and returning to his wrestling roots. This more mature version of Brunson may not be the wrecking machine he was when he was blitzing his opponents about five years ago, but he is certainly a superior fighter.
That isn’t to say Brunson has eliminated all his weaknesses. Despite his recent run of success, Brunson’s chin is still very much a question mark. Obviously, he hasn’t been finished, but there have been some close calls, particularly against Edmen Shahbazyan. If his chin is weak, he’s sure to be finished by Till… right?
A closer look at Till reveals a different character than what he’s perceived to be. Of his six UFC wins, only two happened to be finishes, one over a Wendell Oliveira who was winless in the UFC and Donald Cerrone when he was moonlighting at welterweight. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have power. Till keeps his left hand at the ready and he’s secured several knockdowns over the course of his UFC run. However, his being unable to turn those knockdowns into finishes leaves a question of his killer instinct. For all the questions of Brunson’s chin, he has shown an improved ability to survive when he gets hurt, in part due to his return to his wrestling roots. But Till’s takedown defense is a major strength… right?
It can’t be denied that Till’s takedown defense has been awesome. However, he’s only faced one fighter who placed a greater emphasis on their wrestling than their striking in Tyron Woodley. Woodley may not have technically gotten a takedown in their contest, but he did control Till on the mat for long periods of time. Plus, Till has been the larger man in all of his UFC fights, every single one of his opponents having fought at welterweight at one point or another in their UFC run. A large middleweight, Brunson will be the bigger – and longer – man.
Given Till isn’t putting away very many opponents, you’d think he’d be outstriking them. Well… it’s been over three years since Till landed more significant shots than his opponent according to UFC Stats. There’s no doubt Till’s form ensures that there’s plenty of power behind his shots when lands them, but he’s going to have to begin throwing more. Till may be the better athlete at this point – and Brunson is still a plus athlete — but this is the best version of Brunson we’ve ever seen and he creates all sorts of problems that Till hasn’t had to deal with previously. This works as a main event since it’s such a hard contest to pick, but I’m going with Brunson to extend his underdog streak for at least one more fight.
Tom Aspinall vs. Serghei Spivak, Heavyweight
He may not be getting a push on the same level as Cyril Gane, but there’s no doubt the UFC has some very high expectations for Aspinall. He’s done everything he can to make them feel good about his future, securing two vicious KO’s in under two minutes, plus a submission of a former champion. Of course, it’s been 15 years since Andrei Arlovski was champion, but that doesn’t negate the fact that Aspinall has looked awesome.
Largely because KO’s get more attention on the highlight reels, it often gets overlooked that Aspinall is a BJJ black belt. Of course, given his submission of Arlovski was the first look at his ground game for many, the reasons to question whether it was a paper black belt were warranted. Regardless, his ability to grapple needs to be considered given Spivak is one of the few heavyweights whose first option is to take the fight to the mat. In the traditional sense, Spivak isn’t a good wrestler, but he is a student of the game and possesses some slick trips. Once the fight hits the mat, his positional control is his best weapon, aided by his long limbs in tying up the opposition, often frustrating them to the point they make a mistake and a submission opens up.
Of course, Spivak has flailed against superior athletes and there is no doubt Aspinall is vastly superior in that field. Aspinall does have some technical deficiencies on the feet, but his hand speed and power make up for that. It doesn’t take long watching the sport to learn never to say never, but Spivak’s awkward standup doesn’t appear to threaten Aspinall in any serious manner, despite his clear improvements. In order for Spivak to get the fight into his wheelhouse, he’ll need to close the distance without taking any serious damage. I don’t like the odds of that happening, even if Aspinall’s pressure makes it a bit easier for Spivak to cover that ground. Aspinall via KO of RD1
- Alex Morono deserves all sorts of credit as I never would have predicted he would have lasted over a half a decade in the UFC when he first signed. Lacking in size, speed, or power, Morono found initial success with his heart and hustle. While that’s still the driving force behind his success, Morono has become a more technical striker, putting together functional combinations when he previously flung his fists in hopes of something landing. Not that Morono has become a striking savant, but his instincts have become pretty good over the years. Of course, his lack of physical tools does limit his upside, but the same could be said of David Zawada. Zawada isn’t as technical as Morono, but he is more durable and opportunistic, both on the feet and on the mat. Much of that opportunism is due to his willingness to take risks, something that has bitten him in the ass on occasion. Then again, Morono might be the right person for him to try something crazy. No one doubts the toughness of Morono, but his durability doesn’t clock in at quite the same level as Zawada. Zawada isn’t likely to take a decision if it goes the distance as he’s unlikely to match the volume of Morono, but my gut says he can find a finish. Zawada via TKO of RD1
- Khalil Rountree is one of the most frustrating members on the UFC roster. A very heavy-handed striker, there appears to be no middle ground with Rountree. Owning a KO win over former kickboxing great Gokhan Saki and an exceptionally dominating win over Eryk Anders, he also has a series of one-sided losses. Rountree’s porous takedown defense and inability to force his fight on his opponent has been his biggest issue. If his opponent is willing to give him the fight he wants, Rountree is fine. Will Modestas Bukauskas do that? Hard to say. Bukauskas doesn’t have the wrestling to impose his will on Rountree in terms of physicality, but his use of angles and footwork make it easy to see him taking advantage of his height and reach to pick apart Rountree from the outside. Then again, it’s hard to stay disciplined enough to do that for 15 minutes and not give Rountree the opportunity to test his chin. Even with that said, Rountree allowed Marcin Prachnio to outpoint him with an outside attack. I think Bukauskas can do the same. Bukauskas via decision
- Despite flashing plenty of talent, there’s still a lot of mystery to just how high Luigi Vendramini can climb. The youthful Brazilian has plenty of firepower and flashes a solid BJJ game, but has also floated through his fights for long periods, resulting in a decision loss in his last contest. Perhaps he learned a lesson when he finally let go of his hands in the final round and came thisclose to securing a KO. However, he’ll have a different set of problems on his hands with the debuting Paddy Pimblett, a renowned wrestler from the European scene. Of course, there are reasons to question just how effective Pimblett’s wrestling is given he’s been plying his trade on the European scene against largely mediocre wrestlers. Whether Pimblett’s striking is up to par at this level is also in the air, but I do feel confident in saying Vendramini has a decided advantage standing. The smart money used to be to go with the grappler in a striker vs. grappler contest, but that narrative has been flipped on its head in recent years. Vendramini via decision