It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise the final UFC card of the year is strong. The UFC is going to go on hiatus for several weeks and they typically want to end the year strong. Hell, even though it’s a Fight Night, it isn’t shocking it’s a strong card... until you realize it’s a Fight Night that’s taking place at the Apex in Las Vegas: UFC Vegas 66 to be exact.
The UFC has been loading up the Fight Night’s that go before a live audience, but their weakest events have been saved behind their private doors. Hell, even the prelims have a couple of fights that I’d be happy to see on a PPV main card. I don’t always recommend catching the UFC cards from top to bottom, but to ensure you don’t miss Manel Kape and David Drovak, plan on watching the whole damn thing.
Said Nurmagomedov vs. Saidyokub Kakhramonov, Bantamweight
If one were to believe MMA was representative of the real world, you’d think the name Nurmagomedov was Russia’s version of Smith given the number of fighters with that name that are making a notable impact. Said isn’t the worst of the Nurmagomedov’s, but he does appear to be the most overlooked of them. Perhaps that has to do with him not fighting like a traditional Nurmagomedov....
Whereas Khabib, Umar, and Usman are all known for their wrestling-based smashmouth approach, Said employs more of a finesse style. Not that he can’t wrestle, but Said has chosen to use those abilities to keep the fight standing. That ability will be put to the test by Kakhramonov, who fights more like Said’s namesakes.
Kakhramonov isn’t necessarily a special athlete. Not that he’s devoid of athleticism, but in a division swimming with impressive athletic talents, he doesn’t jump off the page. What does jump off the page is the sheer doggedness and physicality he displays. In his last contest, Kakhramonov manhandled Ronnie Lawrence in a manner that Lawrence was used to delivering to his opponents. Kakhramonov sent a message loud and clear to the rest of the division: don’t let the native of Uzbekistan get his mitts on them or they will regret it.
Kakhramonov has shown in some of his other contests that he’s perfectly happy to stand and trade. He is on the wild side with his punches, but he throws with power and has more room for leeway than most given opponents tend to be more preoccupied with his takedown attempts. If Kakhramonov can utilize the threat of his takedowns to keep Nurmagomedov off balance, perhaps he can land some heavy artillery. Otherwise, there’s a good chance he’ll be eating a spinning attack of some sort to the face....
Nurmagomedov doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his jab. All everyone wants to look at is his vast array of spinning attacks that tend to land with ridiculous levels of accuracy. However, everything revolves around his jab as he uses it to keep his opponents honest and right where he wants them to be to land the kill shot. Should he be taken down, Nurmagomedov has a solid grappling pedigree. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been seen in the UFC the same way it was on the regional scene. For instance, Nurmagomedov was controlled for lengthy stretches by Douglas Silva de Andrade, not exactly a fighter noted for his ground game.
Nurmagomedov picked up a hard-fought win over de Andrade, but it also served as a bit of a warning in how he performs against physically strong opponents. I can see Nurmagomedov hitting Kakhramonov with something powerful given all the holes in Kakhramonov’s striking defense. But I also see Kakhramonov doing what he needs to do to close the gap and get Nurmagomedov to the mat. Even if Nurmagomedov finds his way back to his feet, Kakhramonov isn’t going to give him room to breathe. I like Kakhramonov to score the upset. Kakhramonov via decision
David Dvorak vs. Manel Kape, Flyweight
Kape is everything the UFC wants out of a flyweight champion. He possesses major KO power, a solid chin, and a brash personality. Due to a combination of carelessness and bad luck, we haven’t seen Kape in a year, making it difficult for him to climb the flyweight ladder. The UFC would love to see Kape fighting for the title as soon as possible, so don’t be surprised if he ends up in a title eliminator if he can get past Dvorak.
Kape has developed his power in a way that goes against the nature of the flyweight division, having secured a win via decision only once in his career. He does have some submission ability, but it’s his power that has been most prominently on display, his last five victories coming via strikes. He isn’t the most technical striker, but he has a lightning quick burst and a dynamic attack, making it so his KO’s consistently come out of nowhere.
If Kape can KO Dvorak, he’ll be the first to successfully do that. The Czech native’s lone non-decision loss was due to a cut ten years ago. While there’s no denying Dvorak’s toughness and durability have contributed to his success, he isn’t completely reliable on it. Dvorak is one of the more technical strikers in the division. With a longer reach, Dvorak does a fantastic job of keeping his opponents on the outside with a jab. He may only have a fraction of the power of Kape, but Dvorak knows how to rack up the volume and his countering nature means he tends to catch opponents coming in.
The key for Dvorak will be to drag the fight out. Kape tends to fade and lose power the deeper a fight goes. If Dvorak can score some early takedowns and tire out Kape with grappling, he can score the upset. Dvorak does appear to be the better grappler, but I don’t trust his ability to get Kape to the mat. I wouldn’t be shocked if Dvorak is able to outpoint Kape on the feet either, but I wouldn’t be counting on it. Kape is the far superior athlete. As such, he’s more likely to accomplish what he’s looking to accomplish. Kape via TKO of RD2
- The matchup between Cheyanne Vlismas and Cory McKenna is a curious one given it’s between a pair of prospects the UFC appears to see something special in. Typically, they wait until there’s major stakes before a matchup like this. Perhaps I’m wrong on their perception. Perhaps they think they have an abundance of prospects. Both have concerns that need to be addressed before they can consider moving into the rankings, but that’s where their youth comes into play. For Vlismas, her takedown defense needs some work, specifically against head-and-arm throws. She did stuff all of Mallory Martin’s attempts in her most recent contest, but Martin’s takedown abilities aren’t going to impress anyone. McKenna’s wrestling is considered to be her biggest strength. However, for McKenna, the issue is her fight IQ. Many would say she handed Elise Reed the win when McKenna opted to strike with the striker rather than play to her own strength. While McKenna has a decent boxing base, it will always be limited by her reach, which is the shortest on the UFC roster. I see no reason for anyone to be supremely confident to pick either fighter, but I like where Vlismas is at this stage of her career as opposed to McKenna. Vlismas via decision
- Having been on the UFC roster since 2014, it makes it incredibly easy to forget Jake Matthews is still just 28. Granted, he has been fighting professionally for a decade, limiting how much more he can improve... but his last appearance proved he isn’t done getting better. Even though he was expected to take the heavy-handed Andre Fialho to the mat, Matthews remained standing with him and pieced him up before finding the finish. Will he play the same game with Matt Semelsberger? Semelsberger is a lanky striker with an impressive burst, as his two KO’s under 16 seconds would suggest. The former collegiate football player has taken to wrestling reasonably well too, but there are still limitations to that aspect of his game. Perhaps most concerning, Semelsberger still has major holes in his striking defense and questions about his gas tank. I wouldn’t have been so sure Matthews would be one to expose Semelsberger in that manner a few years ago, but the Aussie’s standup work has begun to pay off. Plus, Matthews losses in recent years have come to skilled wrestlers and grapplers who far exceed what Semelsberger has shown. This contest feels like one of the easier contests on the card to call, especially if the fight leaves the first round. Matthews via decision
- It turns out Julian Marquez doesn’t have an ironclad chin, though he certainly did have us all wondering for a while prior to suffering his first KO loss. The former collegiate wrestler has made his bones being a pocket brawler, relying on his power and chin to get the job done. Some may get the impression Marquez is a submission specialist given all three of his UFC wins came via some sort of choke, but it’s really a weird statistical anomaly. Not that Marquez has achieved those finishes purely through luck, but it’s more indicative of his opportunistic nature as opposed to his grappling and willingness to get the fight to the mat. There’s every chance we’ll get to see that again as Deron Winn is one of the more decorated wrestlers in the division. Winn has made every attempt to make himself a viable threat on the feet, but one key factor continues to hold him back: his height. At 5’6”, he’s easily the shortest fighter in the division, often getting pieced up in his attempts to land his own brand of offense. Not that it doesn’t create issues when he’s pursuing takedowns, but height doesn’t matter as much when they’re on their back. However, he has had issues keeping his opponents on the mat. If he can’t keep Marquez down, his chances of winning are slim. Marquez via TKO of RD2
- Are we all finished underestimating Maheshate? The Chinese native was a heavy underdog in his DWCS appearance. He was a moderate underdog in his UFC debut. The line is fairly even for him against Rafa Garcia, but are we sold on him being a legit talent? At 23, even if someone doesn’t believe Maheshate is the real deal, he could very well develop into that. He’s got size the size, power, and athleticism. What we don’t know is if he has the takedown defense and grappling to let his fists fly without worry of his back hitting the mat. Garcia is going to let us know. Garcia isn’t the most technical wrestler, but he is dogged in pursuit of takedowns and has a solid BJJ base. If Maheshate can keep the fight standing, the youngster is the tighter and crisper striker, Garcia mostly winging heavy hooks and overhands. Garcia’s punches hurt when they land, but his accuracy is lacking. Plus, Garcia is usually sucking wind in the third round. Despite that, Garcia has proven to be extremely durable and Maheshate’s own stamina could be compromised if Garcia makes him grapple a lot. I like the veteran to provide Maheshate with a learning opportunity, but I do believe Maheshate has a bright future. Garcia via decision
- All Bryan Battle does is defy expectations. The TUF winner was seen as a scrapper who was lucky enough to win the tournament. While there’s no doubt the best description of him is scrappy, he isn’t without talent and skill. Even more important, Battle has proven himself to be a student of the game. He’s been prepared for whatever his opponent is going to throw at him, not to mention an efficient offensive attack of his own. Having moved down to welterweight has also provided Battle with a size advantage that he was lacking at middleweight. Whether it affects his gas tank is still unknown, but it’s hard to believe Battle hasn’t made the cut the right way. Regardless, it will be put to the test by Rinat Fakhretdinov. The Russian is a physical presence who pursues takedowns with reckless abandon. While Fakhretdinov’s pressure will test the limits of Battle’s gas tank, Fakhretdinov also has a history of fading down the stretch. It’s hard to see Battle winning the first round, but Fakhretdinov’s wild technique should tire him quickly and allow Battle to begin turning the tide the deeper the fight goes. It’s impossible to feel 100% confident picking either combatant in this contest, but I’m ultimately going with the younger fighter with more room for improvement. Battle via decision
- Given his physical gifts and the length of his career, I would have expected Journey Newson to have made a bigger impact than what he has. He’s got plus power and solid grappling skills, so he can win the fight no matter where it goes. His wrestling skills are still a mystery as the only time his UFC opponent has attempted to take him to the mat, they’ve been successful. Then again, only one of his opponents has made a point to put Newson on the mat. It’s hard to believe Sergey Morozov won’t test Newson’s takedown defense. The Kazakhstani native knows his bread is buttered with his wrestling base and pursues takedowns with great aggression. He doesn’t always finish the takedown, but his constant pressure tends to result in a takedown at some point. Plus, Morozov’s boxing has proven to be effective enough for him to win a standup battle. Newson has struggled in dealing with pressure and I don’t see any reason for that to change after being in the fight game for over a decade. Morozov’s chin has been found wanting before and he can be submitted, especially if his gas tank begins to flag. I can see him getting a stoppage, but I expect Morozov to outwork him. Morozov via decision