Though it has traditionally been accepted that the main event of a UFC fight card tends to have the most weight in the title picture of whatever division the contest is taking place, that appears to be less true as time passes. Much of that has to do with the UFC’s desire to push certain divisions more than others. The division they seem most desirous to promote is the heavyweight division. Thus, with Curtis Blaydes and Chris Daukaus sitting in the main event slot of UFC Columbus, it isn’t the most consequential fight in terms of a title picture. That would go to flyweights Kai Kara-France and Askar Askarov, the winner of which is likely to challenge either Brandon Moreno or Deiveson Figueiredo once they finally settle their score. However, what that also does is prove the depth of this card. There is also a pair of women’s flyweight contests that could launch a challenger at Valentina Shevchenko by the end of the year... and one of those fights is on the prelims! I’m sure this is just a temporary blip as last week’s Fight Night card in London was also deep, but eat up while the UFC is giving us these Fight Night cards of considerable depth. I’m completely here for it....
Curtis Blaydes vs. Chris Daukaus, Heavyweight
To explain what I mean when I say this contest doesn’t have much meaning in the title picture, nobody was more disappointed when Ciryl Gane was unable to wrest the title from Francis Ngannou than Curtis Blaydes. I’d say it’s safe to say Blaydes was more disappointed than Gane himself. I can at least see a rematch for Gane with the reigning champion. Blaydes already had his rematch and was dispatched even quicker than he was the first time he squared off with Ngannou.
What I’m getting at is Blaydes is at the championship level, even if this contest doesn’t have a huge impact in the current title picture. Ngannou is as well and Derrick Lewis was fortunate enough to catch Blaydes with an uppercut, but Blaydes is a bigger problem for most of the division than Lewis is. There isn’t another person in the division capable of securing double leg takedown after double leg takedown the way Blaydes has proven he can. The only other heavyweight in MMA history who compares with Blaydes’ wrestling dominance is former two-time champion Cain Velasquez.
Blaydes downfall thus far has been on the feet. The aforementioned KO’s to Ngannou and Lewis have already pointed out the defensive holes in his game – he should have been keen to Lewis looking to catch him with the uppercut as Lewis had missed with one earlier – but his offensive striking has actually shown solid progress. He was piecing up Lewis with a steady jab prior to the KO and he’s consistently attacked his opponent’s base with low kicks for quite a while. Watching Blaydes go to work with his GnP, everyone knows he has the power to put anyone to sleep. It’s simply a matter of time before he figures out how to do that on the feet.
Outpointing Blaydes is a task Daukaus is unlikely to attempt. Given his best win is either Shamil Abdurakhimov or Aleksei Oleinik – both on three-fight losing streaks – it’s hard to believe a win over Blaydes puts him in the title picture. Nevertheless, with fast hands a surprising power, Daukaus has managed to secure stoppages in each of his UFC wins thus far. There’s no doubt Daukaus is the superior boxer in this contest. He puts together good punching combinations with a level of crispness that is rare for a heavyweight division often reliant on sheer power. Plus, Daukaus is reputed to have a more than capable ground game. I have to say reputed as the only ground work seen out of him thus far is him pounding away on his opponent. However, if his brother, Kyle, is any indication, Chris has a BJJ game that can’t be taken lightly. Still, it hasn’t been seen, so it feels foolhardy to put much weight on his grappling.
What’s more troubling for Daukaus is Blaydes may be too powerful for any of that to matter. Daukaus’ perfect takedown defense in the UFC has a massive asterisk next to it as only two takedowns have been attempted on him Daukaus hasn’t faced anyone who is a level below Blaydes in terms of wrestling, much less on Blaydes level. Many seem to forget Blaydes isn’t just a powerful wrestler either; he’s as technical as any heavyweight is. Daukaus has the classic puncher’s chance, but he doesn’t have the earth-shattering power of Ngannou and Lewis. Blaydes should be able to pound him out before all is said and done. Blaydes via TKO of RD3
Joanne Wood vs. Alexa Grasso, Women’s Flyweight
Am I the only one who finds is shocking Grasso is still just 28? I know she was promoted as a phenom when she first hit the scene in the mid-2010’s, but it feels like she’s been around forever in many respects. Regardless, Grasso hasn’t been the busiest of fighters as of late, only fighting twice since making the jump to flyweight in 2020, making her a bit of a forgotten figure in a division starved for contenders to serve up to Shevchenko.
The thing is, Grasso has the talent to pose a threat to the dominant champion. Largely a boxer, Grasso’s fast hands and ability to put together lengthy combinations make up for whatever she might lack in the power department. Much like her training partner, Irene Aldana, Grasson has been making greater use of kicks, adding a new wrinkle to her arsenal. Plus, she has looked far more comfortable at 125, no longer cutting the extra ten pounds to make the strawweight limit. Given that, it should be expected she discovers her power as she grows into her frame.
That might be a moot point against Wood. For all the holes people poke at the Scot, no one can doubt her toughness as she has yet to be finished with strikes in her career. She can be stunned, but she tends to recover quick enough. Not to say she doesn’t make poor decisions in the short time she is woozy, but some of that may also do with Wood’s struggles when she is pressured. If given room, Wood throws a LOT of kicks. Most of the kicks go to the legs, but she does mix them to the head and mid-section too. Wood’s jab has proven to be a consistent staple of her arsenal too.
If she is pressured, Wood can be devastating in the clinch. She didn’t obtain the nickname of Dr. Kneevil for no reason. However, she can be overpowered if she can’t get the proper grip. The mat has traditionally been seen as her biggest weakness since Wood has been submitted in more than half her losses. Given Grasso’s reputation as striker, some may not consider that to be too troublesome for Wood. Those people would be forgetting Grasso came thisclose to submitting Carla Esparza with an armbar. Grasso doesn’t look to go to the mat often, but she has held her own there when it hits the ground.
It’s impossible to not like Wood. Her ferocity in the cage belies the soft-spoken, quiet nature she exhibits outside of it. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any growth out of her in quite a while. It has made it easy for opponents to strategize for her. Grasso’s growth has been subtle, but it has been there. Plus, Grasso knows how to make adjustments and can pressure in just the manner Wood struggles against. Grasso takes the W and makes it known she is someone Valentina has to keep an eye on. Grasso via decision
Askar Askarov vs. Kai Kara-France, Flyweight
It’s hard to be flying higher than Kara-France at this stage of his career. The Kiwi not only scored his second consecutive KO stoppage, he put away a former bantamweight champion in the process of doing so. Kara-France had already established himself as a fun and fiery flyweight willing to throwdown. The consecutive stoppages proved that brawler’s power could translate from the regional scene.
Of course, calling Kara-France a brawler is a disservice to him, though that is the lens many fans view him from. A versatile striker, Kara-France is just as capable of fighting off the back foot as he is pressing forward. Of course, he would much rather press the action behind his simplistic arsenal of 1-2’s and low kicks. He is willing to throw something wild out there if the opening is available, but Kara-France knows his bread is buttered by the basics. When Kara-France entered the UFC, there were some who believed his stay wouldn’t last very long given his struggles with stopping takedowns and his overall grappling. While no one would say those are his strengths, he has shored them up significantly from his time on TUF.
The question will be if they’ve been shored up enough to deter Askarov from dominating him on the mat. The Russian product has proven himself to be the most dominant wrestler in the division. Though physically strong, Askarov lacks the explosiveness you would expect out of a dominant wrestler. Instead, it’s persistence ala Jon Fitch that Askarov utilizes, chaining his attempts together at a grueling pace. Even if he doesn’t finish the takedown – a common occurrence – Askarov tends to dominate the pace and spend long periods in control. If he does get the fight to the mat, Askarov is amongst the most fundamentally sound grapplers in the division. Plus, the man has secured the ever elusive twister in the European MMA scene.
The main thing that has held back both men is a lack of athleticism. They have made the most of their gifts, shoring up troublesome areas. Askarov knows he isn’t going to win a striking battle, but he could still do some damage to Kara-France if the Kiwi spends all his time looking for Askarov’s takedowns. Kara-France isn’t bulletproof either, having been dropped several times in his UFC run. Then again, Kara-France has proven to be an underrated scrambler. In the end, I like Askarov to get the job done. Kara-France was controlled by Rogerio Bontorin for most of their fight. If Askarov gets him in his mitts the way Bontorin had him, I don’t see Kara-France escaping. Askarov via decision
- If there is ever an All-Violence MMA Hall of Fame, Matt Brown would be an inaugural inductee. The longtime UFC veteran may not have a sparkling win-loss record, but it’s hard to name a boring fight he was in. Now 41, it shouldn’t come as a surprise the vicious striker has slowed down, his chin no longer capable of enduring the shots he ate in his prime. Fortunately for Brown, he can still dish it out as well as he ever could. Hell, he may be better at it given his striking technique appears to be as sharp as it ever was. If only his durability was the only issue. Brown’s cardio appears to be a major question mark too. Bryan Barberena better hope that’s the case as that appears to be the only aspect of his arsenal that isn’t diminished. Like Brown, Barberena’s durability has legendary in his prime. Not so much at this juncture. Though eight years younger than Brown, Barberena’s body has fallen into a state of apparent disrepair even more so than the elderly Brown. Several serious surgeries will do that. Never a heavy-handed banger, it was constant pressure and wear that Barberena would put his opponents away with. He still appears to have a deep gas tank, so beating Brown doesn’t appear to be a longshot. I would say it’s less likely than a Brown victory given the questions about Barberena’s ability to withstand punishment the way he used to. Brown via TKO of RD1
- Given he has headlined several Fight Night cards, Aleksei Oleinik isn’t the cult favorite amongst MMA fans that he used to be. That type of attention tends to take away the cult status. However, I believe it’s still safe to refer to Ilir Latifi in that manner. The longtime light heavyweight delighted his underground fanbase even more when he decided he didn’t want to cut to 205 anymore. Any concerns about him losing the strength advantage he enjoyed over, well, anyone at 205, dissipated when he was able to muscle around Derrick Lewis at times. Pound for pound, there may not be a stronger fighter on the UFC roster than Latifi. Of course, Latifi has his limitations. His movement is stiff, limiting his effectiveness as a striker and grappler. Sure, it hurts when he connects cleanly, but it doesn’t seem to happen very often. As for his grappling, it’s more about top control, strong man submissions, and GnP. However, his squat frame hurts him there too. It can be difficult to get the proper leverage to maintain his position. That could be troublesome against the wily and grizzled Oleinik. The oldest fighter on the roster, Oleinik’s durability, formerly a strength, has been in steep decline, being finished in five of his last six losses when it had previously been years since someone stopped him. Even more worrisome, Oleinik’s gas tank appears to have dropped even more than his durability... and that was never a strength to begin with. Oleinik is still the craftiest submission artist in the game, but he has to get the fight to the floor first. Against Latifi, whose base is in wrestling, I don’t think he can do that. Despite Latifi’s own gas tank issues, his power does have more staying power than Oleinik’s. I expect Latifi will look to wear out Oleinik first before going for the kill. Latifi via TKO of RD3
- Just one fight into his UFC career and Viacheslav Borshchev has already generated plenty of excitement. The former K-1 kickboxer delivered one of the better KO’s of the year in January, crumpling Dakota Bush with a body shot landed with precision. There’s no reason to expect he has peaked either as Borshchev is less than three years into his professional MMA career and he’s getting solid wrestling training at Team Alpha Male. Of course, three years of training wrestling is next to nothing when it comes to high level MMA. The question is whether Marc Diakiese will look to expose that hole. Diakiese is a plus athlete with KO power and is a solid wrestler to boot. The problem is Diakiese doesn’t always fight intelligently. For instance, he opted to strike with Rafael Fiziev, another former kickboxer. Then again, the last time Diakiese had his back up against the wall, the Englishman utilized a safe gameplan to ground his opponent for stretches. Borshchev has struggled to stop takedowns, but the Russian has also been quick to get back to his feet. Even with that said, I’d pick the durable Diakiese if I were to know he’d take a wrestling-heavy approach. I’ll go out on a limb and say he does it. Diakiese via decision