The UFC’s annual trip to Madison Square Garden is upon us, a total of 14 fights taking place. The early prelims are short on big names – as would be expected from early prelims – but they do appear to have some FOTN candidates in there. What is a bit of a surprise is the lack of top prospects at the bottom of the card. Typically, the UFC has tossed in those whom they believe has superstar written all over them. For instance, Ian Machado Garry topped the early prelims in last years MSG showing. This year, it’s Ottman Azaitar and Matt Frevola in that spot. Nobody is seeing future stars in either of those two. Regardless, each of the fights are well-matched, none being a blatantly obvious mismatch.
- It’s possible Ottman Azaitar lost out on the prime years of his career due to his stupid violation of COVID protocols early in 2021. The UFC initially cut him before bringing him back, but the damage to his reputation at this point is permanent. Azaitar is considered to be a wrestler first, but he has opted to go balls to the wall in looking to get an immediate finish thus far in his UFC career. It has been successful so far, but Teemu Packalan and Khama Worthy have ultimately been determined to be chinny in the first place. That argument could be made about Matt Frevola as well given the aggressive wrestler has been finished within a minute or less in two of his losses. However, in other fights, Frevola has shown a solid chin. Regardless, if both live up to their reputations, this contest has an excellent chance of picking up a FOTN bonus as Frevola is thought to be exceptionally aggressive himself. However, unlike Azaitar, Frevola’s aggression tends to go towards the pursuit of takedowns. He did show pop in his last performance, securing four official knockdowns within a round, but that was the first time his power was manifest in his UFC run. Given Azaitar’s stamina is a huge question mark – he’s only won a single decision in his career in addition to leaving the first round only three times — there’s a good chance Frevola might only need survive the opening round. I think he can. Frevola via submission of RD3
- Karolina Kowalkiewicz was on her way to having one of the saddest endings to a notable career. Formerly one of the best strawweights on the planet, she endured a five-fight losing streak against increasingly weaker competition, looking worse in each passing contest. On the verge of washing out of the UFC, Kowalkiewicz shook things up with a camp change to ATT and produced immediate results. Her confidence returned and she secured the first finish of her UFC career. Of course, it also came against an opponent whose desire appeared to have extinguished in Felice Herrig, so perhaps an asterisk should be attached to the win. Then again, even if the asterisk is attached, Kowalkiewicz is facing one of the few women on the roster older than herself in Silvana Gomez Juarez. Not that Juarez is without talent. She’s a skilled striker with legit KO power, a rarity in the division. However, she’s also proven to be a fish out of water on the mat, being submitted in the first round in her first two UFC contests. Kowalkiewicz hasn’t shown a great ability to take a contest to the mat, but Gomez hasn’t shown the ability to stuff a takedown either. If Kowalkiewicz has genuinely recovered her confidence – and it looks like she has – she should easily take this contest. There won’t be much shock if Juarez can catch her, Kowalkiewicz at least has some defensive awareness, something that can’t be said about Na Liang. Kowalkiewicz via submission of RD2
- It doesn’t seem that long ago that Seung Woo Choi had the look of one of the top featherweight prospects. Now, he’s very likely fighting for his UFC employment. It doesn’t appear to be a misjudgment in terms of his physical skills; Choi is still the hard-hitting hulk of a 145er we all thought he was. The question is whether he has developed enough craft to deal with an opponent savvy enough to present a diverse attack. There’s no doubt Mike Trizano can do so, but the former TUF winner has been bonus chasing in his recent contests as opposed to mixing things up, focusing almost entirely on providing a striking battle. He did pick up a FOTN bonus in his last appearance, but he’s also on a two-fight losing streak, just like Choi. Trizano doesn’t have the physical skills to succeed without mixing things up, so he’ll fight himself out of the UFC if he continues down that path. Choi isn’t quite as technically sound as Lucas Almeida, who put Trizano down in the latter’s most recent contest, but he is bigger, stronger, and has more raw power. There’s no guarantee all that will be enough if Trizano fights to the best of his ability, but there’s no guarantee Trizano will do that. Given there’s no guarantee Trizano wins even if he fights a good fight, I’ve got to favor Choi. Choi via TKO of RD3
- People still tend to think of Montel Jackson as a youthful prospect, but he’s now 4 years removed from his appearance on DWCS and 30-years-old. If the lanky bantamweight is going to make a move, he’s got to get a move on it immediately after a 14-month layoff. No one doubts his talent. The first thing people tend to pick out from him is his impressive punching power, but his wrestling may actually be his biggest strength. We’ll know for a fact if it’s the real deal if he can get Julio Arce down given Arce’s takedown defense has been stellar thus far in his UFC run. Arce has been reluctant to wrestle himself, preferring to utilize his tight boxing instead. There were some concerns Arce might have his gas tank stunted when he dropped down to 135, but three fights in and there’s no ill-effects to be seen thus far. In fact, it could be argued Arce turned in the best performance of his career in his most recent win. However, he’s also 33, an age when many men his size begin to start their decline. If Arce can stave off Jackson’s takedowns, he is by far the more disciplined striker and would likely outpoint Jackson. However, the threat of Jackson’s wrestling alone might be enough to open up Jackson’s striking enough for him to test Arce’s chin. I think Jackson’s wrestling will find more success than just being a threat. Jackson via decision
- If you were to line up all the light heavyweights on the UFC roster in a row, Carlos Ulberg would be picked out of the lineup more often than not as the physical protype. Tall and chiseled, he even has the Hollywood good looks that cause women to swoon. Ulberg isn’t without talent either, having a successful kickboxing career before turning full-time to MMA. He’s still raw in terms of his wrestling and grappling, raw enough that he can worn down if forced to commit to it too much. You’d better believe Nicolae Negumereanu will look to do just that as the Romanian is proving to be most effective in getting his type of fight. He needs to as he isn’t anything special in terms of his physical talents –he’s on the smaller side for the division in addition to being an average athlete at best – but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone with his combination of will, stamina, and durability. Negumereanu hasn’t faced someone with the striking skill of Ulberg, so a KO isn’t out of the question, but that’s only if Ulberg can keep the fight at a distance. Negumereanu is going to do everything in his power to ensure it doesn’t stay there. Negumereanu via TKO of RD3