On the heels of one of the best events of 2022 – perhaps even the best event – it’s natural to expect there to be a drop off in the action for UFC Vegas 65. Thus, in a convoluted compliment, it’s kind of a good thing the UFC is loading up on lower level contests on this card.
That doesn’t mean these are ill-conceived fights or that they’ll be boring. For instance, the curtain jerker is a fight I could see being made a few years down the road if the participants come anywhere close to fulfilling their potential. Think of the first match between Francis Ngannou and Curtis Blaydes and how many thought that could be a rematch with title implications in the future. Those prognosticators were somewhat right. Plus, it wasn’t that long ago that Jennifer Maia was challenging for the women’s flyweight title. In other words, there is some quality on the prelims of the card....
Jennifer Maia vs. Maryna Moroz
There’s no doubt Moroz is a forgotten figure within the flyweight division. It isn’t difficult to figure out why. Provided this contest with Maia isn’t cancelled due to weigh-in shenanigans or a late injury, this will be the first time since 2016 that Moroz has fought twice within a calendar year. It’s hard to gain traction when one doesn’t keep up appearances.
There’s no doubt the move to 125 has been extremely good for Moroz. She was massive for the strawweight division and didn’t always have the proper energy levels to put forth a consistent effort bell-to-bell. That hasn’t been the case since then. In fact, even though wrestling traditionally has been stronger as opponents drop down further in weight – making them larger for their weight class – her wrestling has been a far larger part of her game since moving up in weight to face larger opponents. That includes a win over Mayra Bueno Silva, currently fighting at bantamweight, that saw Moroz exercising nearly an entire round’s worth of control over the course of the fight.
While Silva can be a tricky grappler, she isn’t nearly as consistent or controlling as Maia. Maia is probably a better fighter off her back too. Of course, the issue for Maia is she hasn’t been consistent in her efforts to get the fight to the ground, much to her own detriment. That’s in part because Maia is the classic grappler who has fallen in love with her striking. Not to say she doesn’t have any success in that field. Maia is a solid pocket boxer with plus power. The problem is she has issues with tracking down fighters to fight in that range, often being picked apart by fighters on the outside. Moroz is no expert, but she is the taller and longer fighter with a steady jab....
Ultimately, Moroz is no defensive savant and isn’t difficult to take to the mat. Plus, while Moroz has been able to hang with the physicality of her opponents at flyweight, none of them are on the level of Maia in terms of physical strength. Even more telling, none of them have attempted to ground Moroz. I get that Maia’s fight IQ has been questionable, but she has also been losing to fighters a clear level above where Moroz has been fighting. I don’t get the feeling Moroz is at that level. Maia via TKO of RD2
Zhalgas Zhumagulov vs. Charles Johnson
From a personal standpoint, I was happy to see Zhalgas Zhumagulov get one more chance to prove he deserves to be in the UFC. I won’t say he was robbed in his contest with Jeff Molina, but it was a very close contest. Zhumagulov isn’t a great athlete, but he’s well aware of his physical limitations and knows how to maximize the best of his abilities. What his goal will be against Charles Johnson will be to close the distance, whether that’s to take the fight to him in the pocket or secure takedowns.
A tall flyweight who knows how to use his length, Johnson tends to keep his opponent at bay with a plethora of jabs and kicks from the outside. He has improved his abilities in the pocket since he took several boxing matches several years ago, but that range doesn’t allow him to maximize his physical advantages as well. His UFC debut saw him get taken down by Muhammad Mokaev 12 times, but there’s two things to remember. First, it was Muhammad Mokaev; he’s a fantastic wrestler. Secondly, Johnson refused to stay down, getting back up several times. While Zhumagulov is the superior wrestler and grappler, I don’t think he’ll get to show that enough to overcome Johnson’s advantages on the feet given the edge Johnson’s ability to get back to his feet and his overall physical advantages. Johnson via decision
Vince Morales vs. Miles John
At this point, it feels pretty clear how to view Vince Morales. A talented boxer, he’s more than a handful if he’s allowed to let his fists fly in the pocket. However, his ability to stop takedowns is a huge Achilles heel. To be fair to Morales, he has improved his get up game significantly, but he still struggles to stop the takedown.
Miles Johns hasn’t made his wrestling a major point since joining the UFC, but it’s hard to believe Johns’ wrestling has simply vanished. To be fair to Johns, he has become a solid boxer, developing a jab to center his attack around. Plus, he’s been able to show off his power in the last couple of years when there was no certainty his power would translate to the UFC. However, what might be more telling is Johns has faced a plethora of opponents who are considered to be better grapplers than he is. That could explain why his wrestling has been MIA. Despite Morales’ technical advantages with his hands, I still don’t feel comfortable giving him the edge on the feet given his weakness to low kicks... and Johns makes low kicks a regular part of his arsenal. I might have considered Morales for the upset otherwise, but Johns should be able to exploit both of the major holes in Morales’ attack. Johns via decision
Ricky Turcios vs. Kevin Natividad
Ricky Turcios built up a lot of good will with his impressive and creative performance to be crowned a TUF winner. All that good will went down the toilet in his sophomore UFC effort, beating the hell out of the invisible man standing between himself and Aiemann Zahabi. Turcios appeared oblivious to how terrible his performance was immediately after the contest, but the thought is someone smacked him upside the head, letting him know he needs to commit to his strikes.
There’s no way in hell he’ll be able to touch up Kevin Natividad’s questionable chin if he doesn’t actually touch it. Even though his ground game is probably his strongest feature, Natividad has opted to keep his two UFC contests on the feet. Eventually, his opponents turned out his lights. It isn’t that Natividad doesn’t have anything to offer on the feet; he’s got some power and solid form. Turcios is does have a solid chin and a slippery ground game, but he doesn’t appear to have the power to make Natividad pay a heavy price.
I don’t have a good feel for this fight. If Turcios fights intelligently, he should be able to outpoint Natividad. But how do I know he’ll fight a smart fight? I do have a hard time believing he won’t make some adjustments, but I’m not convinced he’ll make enough. Natividad via decision
Maria Oliveira vs. Vanessa Demopoulos
There’s a good amount to like about Maria Oliveira on paper. She has an excellent strawweight frame, she’s a natural athlete, and has youth on her side. All the tools are there, but there’s still a lot of wrinkles that need to be ironed out. For instance, there’s still some issues with her striking technique.
More worrisome is the lack of confidence she displays in the cage. Confidence has never been an issue with Vanessa Demopoulos. Perhaps that’s due to her background as a pole dancer. Regardless, while Demopoulos has far more natural shortcomings on the feet than Oliveira, she makes up for it with aggression and assurance. However, that would only make the fight a toss-up if it were strictly a standup affair. Demopoulos is one of the division’s best submission specialists.
She isn’t the most technically clean grappler, but her extreme flexibility and creativity make her one not to be taken lightly on the mat. Her wrestling is still a work in progress, but the same could be said of Oliveira’s takedown defense. This largely comes down to mindset. Oliveira thinks she’s going to win. Demopoulos knows she is going to win. Demopoulos via submission of RD2
Brady Hiestand vs. Fernie Garcia
It’s been well over a year since we saw Brady Hiestand’s hide, but I’d say that’s a good thing. At 23, with seven professional fights under his belt, Hiestand would have benefitted from more seasoning before getting to the big show. Thus, taking time to learn from his camp was a brilliant decision, allowing him to hone a striking game that is still on the clunky end.
Not to say there isn’t tools to work with as he’s got a big frame for 135 and has some natural power, but he’s going to have a hard time outpointing his opposition on the feet at this level if he remains static from his time on TUF. He’s getting a big question mark in Fernie Garcia as the Fortis MMA prospect may have already hit his ceiling. If Hiestand hasn’t improved his striking, Garcia will probably outpoint him with ease... provided Hiestand doesn’t look for takedowns. Garcia has shown he can hit his own takedowns, but he’s struggled to stop his opponents from doing the same to him.
Garcia is a capable grappler, so a finish doesn’t seem likely if Hiestand opts to wrestle a lot. Regardless, I’m not convinced Garcia will get the opportunity to outpoint Hiestand on the feet. Hiestand via decision
Tereza Bleda vs. Natalia Silva
Make no mistake, Uncle Dana signed Tereza Bleda off DWCS off her reputation as opposed to what he saw in the cage that night. Not that he didn’t make the right move, but he tends to reward flash over consistency.
Bleda’s performance may have been boring as she smothered Nayara Maia, but it was also dominant. She’ll probably get some crap for her nickname as she has been dubbed “Ronda,” but people tend to forget that Rousey would probably still be one of the top ground fighters if her MMA career didn’t fizzle out due to pure stubborness. And while Bleda probably would be quite on that level yet, she hasn’t given any reason to say the nickname is undeserved quite yet.
There’s no guarantee her ground game will get to be put on display as Natalia Silva looked like a world-beater in her UFC debut, doing whatever she wanted against Jasmine Jasudavicius. Silva is clearly a special athlete and while she isn’t as young as the 20-year-old Bleda, she’s got her best years ahead of her as well at 25. Silva showed a far more diverse standup than anything Bleda has shown, but she’s also going to be significantly undersized in comparison to Bleda.
Bleda may be able to get away with a meat and potatoes approach, provided she doesn’t have any new holes exposed by Silva. Given the ceiling of both fighters, this is easily my favorite prelim contest. Silva’s flash has tempted me, but I’ll go with Bleda’s basics. Bleda via decision