For the first Fight Night in a while, we aren’t getting a card centered around a single fight. There are several ranked fighters outside the main event for UFC Vegas 50, including several other fighters that have either hung around the fringes of the official rankings or don’t appear to be too far from breaking in for the first time. In fact, I get the feeling the main event may be getting somewhat overlooked. I kind of get it. Thiago Santos’ only win in his last four fights was one of the worst fights in recent memory, beating Johnny Walker only because two losers couldn’t be declared. On the other side, Magomed Ankalaev is the owner of one of the quietest personalities in the sport. Despite violent finishes in four of his seven UFC wins, fans are indifferent towards him. With a win here, the talented Russian could secure a title shot, which could force fans to take a stance on him one way or another.
Thiago Santos vs. Magomed Ankalaev, Light Heavyweight
While the opening paragraph didn’t hide how I believe this fight is going to go in the least, it needs to be said this is a winnable contest for Santos. It isn’t as winnable as it was before he blew out his knees – yes, knees, as in both of them – against Jon Jones, but wear and tear is a part of every sport. Given Santos has been fighting for over a decade at a regular rate, he’s taken more than his share of wear and tear.
The odd thing is, despite his age, Santos doesn’t appear to have suffered a decline in his durability. Since moving up to 205, he hasn’t been finished with strikes. It would appear being well hydrated has been beneficial for him in that sense. However, he has lost some of the explosiveness that was once his trademark, and it may not be entirely the fault of his blown-out knees. Perhaps he’s packed on so much bulk that he’s lost some of his quickness? Whatever it is, even if he’s still a dangerous striker, Santos doesn’t move the way that he used to.
That could be problematic for Santos. While Ankalaev is a plus athlete in the light heavyweight division, he isn’t an elite athlete. Regardless, he’s plenty athletic enough to get inside of Santos range and take him down, much in the way a plodding Glover Teixeira was able to. Ankalaev may not have the grappling chops of the reigning champion, but his ability to secure takedowns isn’t too far behind Teixeira’s are this point. Once the fight does hit the mat, Ankalaev’s GnP is some of the best in the business. Santos may own a BJJ black belt, but he’s never put those chops on display in the Octagon. There’s no reason to believe he’ll start now. If Ankalaev is able to get a dominant position from the top, there’s a good chance it’s all over.
As for Ankalaev’s stand up, he’s very plodding. Part of that is his preference for countering and he’ll gladly pick off his opponent as they look to move in. Ankalaev’s timing is that good. Just ask Ion Cutelaba about it. Though Ankalaev often only throws one strike at a time, he’s more than capable of stringing together lengthy punching combinations. Throw in the fact he’s a more diverse striker than he’s often given credit for and he may very well be the superior standup fighter at this juncture. Santos is content to fight at whatever pace his opponent wants. That used to work well for him, but with his lost speed and Ankalaev’s ability to make in-fight adjustments, I think he’ll be the stepping stone the UFC hopes him to be against Ankalaev. Anakalaev via TKO of RD3
Marlon Moraes vs. Song Yadong, Bantamweight
Not that Yadong is lacking in motivation to pick up a win, but the stakes are far higher for Moraes than they are for the much younger Yadong. Moraes had a stretch of three fights where he tore through three top ten opponents within the first round to secure a title shot. Everything has been downhill for him since then, winning a single fight in his last five appearances... and many would say he didn’t even rightfully win that fight. It doesn’t help that each of his official losses saw him unable to make it to the final bell, suffering TKO losses each time out.
While that would signal Moraes is finished as a top-flight fighter, there are signs that may not be the case. Well, perhaps top-flight is a stretch, but the indications are there that he can still serve a useful purpose as a gatekeeper. Always known for his explosiveness and wide variety of kicks, Moraes did hurt Rob Font before Font put him away. Even more encouraging, Moraes came thisclose to finishing Merab Dvalishvili, only for the seemingly indestructible Georgian to come storming back. Moraes still has plenty of power, even if his burst isn’t quite what it was when he first came into the UFC. The question now is whether his chin has completely disintegrated.
A definitive answer is expected against Yadong. Still only 24, Yadong’s power has never been in question. It was whether he’d be able to adjust once he got to the level where he couldn’t simply outathlete his opponent anymore. After a couple of bumps in the road, Yadong has added a level of craft to his boxing that was missing upon his entry. Though he’s proven he has some powerful takedowns, the Team Alpha Male product prefers to use his wrestling in reverse to keep the fight standing. Given Moraes’ underrated scrambling ability, that might not be such a bad idea this time around.
When it comes to pure ability to end a fight, Moraes is the superior fighter. He offers more cunning and craft in his striking. He has a better feel for submissions too. Given he’s been fighting significantly longer than Yadong, it shouldn’t be a surprise in the least. However, Yadong’s chin hasn’t been touched up nearly to the level of Moraes’ and there’s only so many times someone can be hit before their brain begins turning off at a faster rate. I wouldn’t eliminate the possibility of Moraes finding a way to finish Yadong, but the youngster from China has shown plenty of durability thus far. The book has been written how to beat Moraes and it’s to pressure him. I anticipate Yadong will be right up in Moraes’ face looking for the finish as quickly as possible. Yadong via TKO of RD1
Sodiq Yusuff vs. Alex Caceres, Featherweight
It only took 25 fights, but Caceres finally broke into the official UFC rankings following his win over Seung Woo Choi last fall. Caceres has been fortunate enough to keep his roster spot on several occasions as he has some head scratching losses on his record – Guan Wang for instance – but his persistence paid off as the former TUF 12 participant is currently riding a personal best 5-fight win streak. Will he be able to extend it to six?
While the immediate answer for most people is no, those are the same people who would also say he wouldn’t ever get his streak up to five. While Caceres is no power puncher, he is crafty on the feet with the ability to string together lengthy punching combinations. He isn’t afraid to whip out a head kick or a spinning attack if the situation suits him. Of course, Caceres can be overconfident at times and walk into his opponent’s heavy artillery, but his chin tends to hold up well for the most part, having been finished by strikes just once in his lengthy career.
Make no mistake that Yusuff will look to add to that number. Reputed as one of the harder punchers in the division from the moment he was signed to the roster, he’s proven he’s a sharp striker in his own right. He may not operate with the level of smoothness or flair that Caceres does, but Yusuff tends to get more immediate results. It’s not like his striking is lacking in diversity either, but it’s his punches that have produced the best results thus far.
Some may say Yusuff’s takedown defense and overall ground work requires some work, but I’d say nothing more than polishing. Andre Fili and Arnold Allen were able to take him down, but Fili and Arnold have been able to take down most everyone they’ve faced when that’s their goal. And while Arnold controlled Yusuff for a long stretch of their fight, Yusuff was never completely smothered. While Caceres should have a sizeable advantage on the mat in terms of pure grappling, I don’t know if he has the physicality required to consistently control Yusuff. Caceres could catch him in a submission amidst a scramble, sure, but I’d say the odds of that happening are significantly lower than other routes this fight could take. Anytime Caceres has taken a step up in competition, he tends to get hurt at some point. Yusuff is a step up in competition and is arguably the hardest hitter Caceres has faced. Regardless, it should be fun while it lasts. Yusuff via TKO of RD2
- There may not be a more Jekyll and Hyde fighter on the roster than Khalil Rountree. One fight, he looks like a man on a mission, throwing laser sharp kicks and punches that have the potential to be career altering. Ask Modestas Bukauskas how his knee is doing. Another fight, Rountree is afraid to pull the trigger and looks like the only type of wrestling he’s aware of the of the WWE variety. Given Rountree has talked about retirement despite having several good years left in the tank, it seems motivation is the issue. Will he be motivated against Karl Roberson? The former Glory kickboxer is moving up to light heavyweight after several botched weight cuts to 185. Though he’s the one with the past career in kickboxing, it’s anticipated he’ll look to take the fight to the ground based on two factors: Rountree’s poor takedown defense and Roberson’s glee to grapple. Roberson has willingly engaged with superior ground fighters on several occasions, resulting in all four of his career losses coming via submission. To Roberson’s credit, he does have more career wins via submission than KO/TKO — including two subs in the UFC – but it shows poor opponent recognition. With his back against the wall, will he take an intelligent approach with Rountree? Impossible to say, but given Roberson has the possibility of winning standing or on the mat, I’ll give him ever so slight of an edge. Roberson via TKO of RD2
- It makes all the sense in the world for Terrance McKinney to capitalize on his momentum from a few weeks ago when he submitted Fares Ziam in the first round. After all, McKinney has successfully completed several quick turnarounds, including one in his UFC debut. However, McKinney isn’t looking to complete a turnaround against someone still looking to establish themselves in the UFC; he’s looking to do so against a very established Drew Dober. Dober hasn’t been able to turn himself into a name casual fans recognize, but he has effectively turned himself into a gatekeeper to the official UFC rankings. Dober is an effective combination puncher with occasional power. He likes to stay in the face of his opponents, but doing so could give McKinney the opening he’s looking for to exploit his explosiveness. That could come in the form of a haymaker or a takedown. Given Dober’s iron chin and troubles in stopping takedowns, the expectation should be McKinney will look to establish wrestling dominance. Still, this is a big ask of the youngster. If McKinney’s explosive attacks don’t land early, will he have the energy to go the distance? That’s where the quick turnaround worries me. Dober is not only prone to takedowns, but also to being submitted. Thus, I believe it’s a risk worth taking for McKinney as he’s proven he can secure a quick win in that manner. Unfortunately for him, I believe Dober is too big of a jump in competition, especially given McKinney hasn’t been preparing for this fight for long. Dober via TKO of RD3
- There is no doubt the UFC is hoping to make a star out of Alex Pereira. A former multi-division champion in kickboxing for Glory, his two wins over reigning UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya have been well documented, including one that put Adesanya to sleep. No one doubts the striking prowess of Pereira. He’s as accurate and powerful as you can ask someone in possession of his lanky frame to be. Plus, he isn’t afraid to throw a spinning or jumping attack if he sees the right opening. What is in question is Pereira’s ability to stay off the mat. One would think that would be the logical route to victory for Bruno Silva, but it’s easy to see the heavy-handed Brazilian falling back on his old trappings of slugging things out. Even if Silva tries to take things to the mat, his wrestling chops have always been a question mark. However, once the fight hits the mat, Silva could very well be the proud owner of the most devastating GnP in the sport. Even if Silva hasn’t shown it, he’s reported to have some submissions in his arsenal too. All he may need is to get the fight to the ground just one time. Then again, for all his inexperience with wrestling and grappling, Pereira is working on the right skills to ensure his exposure in those departments is minimized, showing a strong sprawl. The winner of this contest is likely to get a big push. I think it’ll be Pereira given Silva’s reliance on his chin. Pereira via KO of RD1