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UFC Vegas 49 preview: Can Bobby Green upend the Islam Makhachev train on short notice?

Dig into the main card of UFC Vegas 49, headlined by late replacement Bobby Green looking to upset the freight train that is Islam Makhachev.

Bobby Green punching Nasrat Haqparast at UFC 271
Bobby Green punching Nasrat Haqparast at UFC 271
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not a fan of the UFC making David vs. Goliath fights. While I enjoy Bellator, they make far too many fights where there is a heavy favorite looking to squash an underdog. Think of how they built up Michael Page for years. No one ever doubted the talents of Page, but it always felt like an inevitability. While it’s fun when the underdog wins – think Zach Freeman beating Aaron Pico – it doesn’t happen very often.

However, when a scheduled fight morphs into a David vs. Goliath fight, that’s a different story. Islam Makhachev was scheduled to meet Beneil Dariush at UFC Vegas 49, only for Dariush to be forced out due to an ankle injury with just over a week before the event. On such a short amount of time, it’s nearly impossible to find a replacement on that level. If I’m being honest, the UFC didn’t find a replacement the level of Dariush, but they came damn close with Bobby Green. And in some ways, not only did the story become more interesting, so did the matchup.

Islam Makhachev vs. Bobby Green, Lightweight

Though the matchup became more interesting, that doesn’t mean Makhachev isn’t a rightful and heavy favorite. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s the second coming of Khabib Nurmagomedov, but there is a reason those comparisons are out there and justifiable. Makhachev is that damn good.

At their heart, Makhachev and Nurmagomedov offer the same base. No surprise given they were training partners for the longest time. World class sambo practitioners, if Makhachev or Nurmagomedov want an opponent on the mat, that pretty much means they’re going to the mat. The difference is Makhachev operates with a level of caution Nurmagomedov never showed. Surely that has something to do with Makhachev’s one career loss, where he became overaggressive and was KO’d for the sin. While it doesn’t make for the brutality that came with Nurmagomedov’s fights, it does create a one-sided nature as opponents rarely land anything significant against Makhachev. 11 fights into his UFC career and no one has landed more than 13 significant strikes in a single fight on him, according to UFC Stats. Over the course of his career, Makhachev has only eaten 84 significant strikes TOTAL. To help put that in perspective, Green ate 76 in his last contest alone and that was considered to be a lopsided win for Green.

Makhachev clearly does a lot of film study as he enters the fight knowing what he wants to do and what openings he’s looking to exploit. That isn’t to say he doesn’t make reads during the fight either, but the plan is set long before he steps in the cage. Whether it’s a single leg or a body lock clinch takedown, he’ll find a way to get the fight to the mat. He can threaten with his fists too, but that’s generally only used to set up takedowns. For Makhachev, everything is about risk mitigation until he gets the fight in his wheelhouse. Once he does, Makhachev is a powerhouse on the mat.

Where Green makes this a more interesting fight is his ability to rattle Makhachev’s risk mitigation. As talented as Dariush is, he doesn’t offer the level of hand speed Green does, nor does he offer the unique angles at which Green attacks. Though many have chided Green over the years for the way he keeps his hands low, it does provide him with an avenue of attack opponents struggle to see coming. Possessing some of the fastest hands in the sport affords him that opportunity. No one will mistake Green for a powerhouse puncher, but all he may need to do is sting Makhachev once before pouncing on the imposing Russian. That doesn’t seem to be an unrealistic possibility given Makhachev has had his chin cracked. It hasn’t been cracked since, but it’s not because it’s been tested, as was discussed.

While Green’s wrestling is solid, I don’t anticipate it playing a major role. Makhachev is just too good in that department and Green is unlikely to try for his own takedowns. Green’s sprawl may allow for him to hit Makhachev with the shot he’s looking for, but I get the feeling Makhachev will attack in a way to mitigate the sprawl. Should Green hurt Makhachev on the feet, a club and sub doesn’t seem preposterous either. When it comes down to it, Makhachev has the most avenues to victory. It won’t be easy given Green is both mentally and physically tough. Makhachev is likely to beat Green, but break him? That seems like a long shot. I realize there’s a lot more to these fighters than what I’ve stated, but it really only comes down to Green’s hands and Makhachev’s risk aversion. If this were a long scheduled fight as opposed to a short notice contest, I’d probably say Green goes the distance. As it is, I say Makhachev gets a late stoppage. Makhachev via submission of RD4

Arman Tsarukyan vs. Joel Alvarez, Lightweight

While Alvarez is quickly making his way up the ranks of the lightweight division, it should be noted the Spaniard officially only has two UFC wins at lightweight. He’s missed weight in his last two contests. Typically, when a fighter has missed weight in consecutive contests, the UFC encourages a move up in weight. For whatever reason, that hasn’t been the case with Alvarez, at least not yet. Rest assured, if Alvarez misses here, he won’t be fighting anymore lightweights.

It’s hard to believe Alvarez will find the same level of success if he’s forced to move up to welterweight. Sure, he’s still be tall for the division at 6’3”, but he’s an absolute monster at that size for 155. Alvarez is also developing a level of confidence on the feet to go with that size, walking down Thiago Moises with his straight punches and knees before finishing the job with elbows and uppercuts. Given that’s the first we’ve seen out of Alvarez on the feet on that scale, there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to improve. Of course, much of that does depend upon his ability to stay at 155....

Even if Alvarez doesn’t show the same level of skill on the feet as he did against Moises, he has one of the most dangerous guards in the game. Though the triangle choke has been his specialty, it was an armbar that he was able to nab during his UFC run from the bottom position. He’s also proven adept at snatching guillotines as he’s taken down, something Tsarukyan is almost assuredly going to be prepared for.

One of the most technical wrestlers in the division, Tsarukyan combines his plus athleticism with incredible doggedness to accomplish his goals, usually takedowns. While the numbers indicate Tsarukyan is only so-so at securing takedowns, it should be noted he opened his UFC career against the likes of Makhachev and wasn’t scared off from continuing to take the fight to the mat. Given Alvarez is comfortable giving up takedowns due to his dangerous guard, it would be a shock if Tsarukyan didn’t find some sort of success in that avenue.

On the feet, Tsarukyan has been growing more comfortable, capping his recent development at ATT with a heavy left hook that floored the typically durable Christos Giagos. He’s always shown fast hands, but now he’s adding a power threat as he climbs the division. The question is whether he wants to play that game with Alvarez. After all, Alvarez will have a 5-inch reach advantage and an 8-inch height advantage. Tsarukyan is improving, but so is Alvarez and that is a HUGE discrepancy.

Even though I’m still worried about Tsarukyan’s size disadvantage, I still like the Armenian to emerge victorious. With Tsarukyan’s many ways to take the fight to the mat and Alvarez’s poor takedowns, it feels like an inevitability the fight hits the floor multiple times. Tsarukyan isn’t a slouch either. He went toe-to-toe with Makhachev on the mat in one of the more fun scramble-fests in recent memory. He handled Davi Ramos on the ground too. Plus, given Alvarez’s struggles to make weight, will he be too depleted to fight at his best should he make 155? I’m not sure. Regardless, this is a fantastic piece of matchmaking. Tsarukyan via TKO of RD3

  • I’m surprised the UFC is giving Misha Cirkunov another fight. I’m even more surprised he decided to stay at middleweight after he looked emaciated in his first fight at 185. I suppose he did set a UFC career high for takedowns with five and he wasn’t KO’d. On the flip side, he didn’t do much with those takedowns and no one is going to mistake Krzysztof Jotko for a KO specialist. Fortunately for the chinny Cirkunov, no one will mistake Wellington Turman for a KO specialist either. Turman is at his best on the mat, possessing a strong, fundamental BJJ base. Turman has been lacking in the wrestling department to make the best use of his grappling, so he’s been forced to make up for it by being more aggressive on the feet than he should be. Turman doesn’t have the technique, power, or chin to make a long UFC career in that manner. Even if he does find a way to get the fight to the mat, Cirkunov’s judo background has made him a hell of a takedown and submission threat himself. I haven’t seen anyone who believes it’s a good idea for CIrkunov to be fighting at 185, but it’s hard to see Turman being able to finish him. He may be able to outwork him, but that would involve him being able to control Cirkunov. I don’t see that happening given Cirkunov’s pedigree. Cirkunov via decision
  • There aren’t too many fans of Priscila Cachoeira left after her nasty eye-gouging episode in her losing effort to Gillian Robertson. Fortunately for her, Cachoeira still has plenty of power in her fists and doesn’t mind eating a shot or two in order to deliver her punches. Cachoeira isn’t known as “Zombie Girl” for no reason as she can eat more than her share of punishment. The problem is, that’s where Cachoeira’s positives largely run out. She’s a poor wrestler and grappler and doesn’t show a lot of technique on the feet. Across from her, Ji Yeon Kim is the more technical striker and more accomplished ground fighter. Despite that, Kim is far from a sure thing as she doesn’t have the best fight IQ and her defense is poor. She does appear to have a sturdy chin, but make no mistake, Cachoeira will test it. Cachoeira will make the fight a firefight from the beginning, but given her poor technique and tendency to put everything into her strikes, she’s inclined to gas should the fight go beyond the opening round. Should that happen, Kim should take a clear decision. I wouldn’t be willing to throw money on either fighter, but I’ll go with Kim. Kim via decision
  • Gregory Rodrigues has made a hell of an impression in his two UFC contests since joining the organization last summer. The hard-hitting Brazilian appears to have put his ample talents together in one tight package. With plenty of punching power and a top-flight BJJ pedigree, Rodrigues stands a great chance of getting the upper hand no matter where the fight goes. What is worrisome is his questionable chin, something Armen Petrosyan is more than capable of exposing. While Petrosyan’s striking pedigree isn’t as impressive as Rodrigues BJJ pedigree, it’s nonetheless notable. Though Petrosyan is big for 185, he moves with far more speed than you’d expect from someone his size. The Armenian works his strikes to all levels, throwing with ample enough power to stop the opposition dead in their tracks. However, Petrosyan’s chin, much like Rodrigues’ chin, is very questionable. Even more worrisome for Petrosyan is his poor takedown defense. Rodrigues isn’t a stellar wrestler, but he’s strong enough to make it work and blends his wrestling beautifully with his judo. Petrosyan has an overall edge on the feet, but where Rodrigues is almost as likely to knock him out on the feet, it seems a near impossibility for Petrosyan to control or submit Rodrigues on the ground. Thus, given Rodrigues has more overall avenues to victory, I’ll go with him, though I could see him getting caught up in a firefight and having his lights turned out. Rodrigues via submission of RD2