When a card is a one-fight card, it better be a damn good fight. Given some of the headliners the UFC has stuffed at the top of recent Fight Night cards, I’m very happy with the main event of UFC Vegas 51: Vicente Luque and Belal Muhammad. Ask me that a year ago and I would have expressed a different mood given we’ve seen that fight before and it wasn’t competitive, Luque eliminating Muhammad in just over a minute. However, with both having picked up the biggest wins of their careers in their last two fights in definitive fashion and Kamaru Usman having a dearth of opponents, I’m happy to see which one of these two can define themselves as a legit title contender. After all, their first fight came over five years ago. As for the rest of the card, well... you might recognize a name or two if you don’t follow the sport too carefully.
Vicente Luque vs. Belal Muhammad, Welterweight
Kudos to Muhammad for his persistence. Hardly the athletic freak that tends to populate the top of the welterweight division, Muhammad has gotten to this point with hard work, a dedication to his physical fitness, and by being a student of the game. Billed as a technical savant with a limited ceiling when he first joined the organization, Muhammad ignored his detractors and is coming off back-to-back victories over a pair of former two-time title challengers. Not bad for someone with a limited ceiling.
Though he was exceptionally technical in both his striking and wrestling when he entered the UFC, Muhammad has found a way to tighten his technique further still. He’s still not likely to score a KO in most of his fights, nor is he a bullish wrestler by any means. Regardless, Muhammad tends to win the battles on the feet due to his ability to find just the right angle and tee off with a ridiculous amount of volume. In terms of his wrestling, I did say he was persistent, right?
His fight IQ was readily available for all to see in his most recent wins. Against Demian Maia, Muhammad was able to successfully avoid putting himself in any serious danger of being put on his back against the cagey BJJ expert. Against Stephen Thompson, it was taking the vaunted kickboxer to the mat time and again, knowing Thompson’s ground game was all about getting back to his feet. Against Luque, Muhammad will have to pick a poison.
Much like Muhammad, Luque is a technical boxer. The differences between the two is Muhammad is far more successful at avoiding the return fire of his opponent as Luque tends to be a brawler by nature. However, Luque has the chin to survive what his opponent throws at him and the power to put them to sleep when he fires back. In fact, only one of Luque’s 14 UFC victories was decided by the judges. Of course, not all of those were KO/TKO’s. Luque has proven to be a slick grappler too, the d’arce choke in particular being a favorite of his.
What has held Luque back from entering the top tier of the division prior to this point has been his fight IQ. More directly, Luque allows his opponent to dictate where the fight takes place. Though he has shown the ability to score takedowns, Luque rarely chooses to take the fight to the mat via that route. Plus, while he has shored it up significantly in recent years, Luque’s takedown defense has always been a question mark.
Muhammad has been able to wear out several of his opponents with his relentless attack. The problem is Luque appears to have just as deep of a gas tank as Muhammad. If Luque is able to match the pace of Muhammad, it’s likely to devolve into a brawl and that favors Luque by a wide margin. Muhammad is used to walking a tightrope in order to pull out a victory, but the margin of error has never been thinner for him than it is here. Luque is either equal or superior in every major physical category. The Brazilian is likely to find a finish before five rounds is up. Luque via TKO of RD2
- Caio Borralho and Gadzhi Omargadzhiev are getting a bit of a bum rap by debuting against one another in the co-main event spot. I’m not making a case they deserve to be there. Only that it isn’t their fault they were stashed there and for what it is, it’s a damn fine matchup. At first glance, Borralho looks like the second coming of Paulo Costa. Hell, Borralho even proved he can blitz an opponent in a similar manner when he secured his contract. However, it doesn’t take long to see Borralho has a more diverse skillset than the KO specialist. It isn’t just that Borralho can wrestle and grappler a bit; he’s proven willing to do so if the situation calls for it. Omargadzhiev isn’t quite as diverse, but the Russian may already be one of the better mat specialists at 185. With a beautiful blend of wrestling and grappling, Omargadzhiev tends to find quick finishes almost immediately once the fight hits the mat. However, Borralho is a big step up from what Omargadzhiev has been facing and the Brazilian won’t prove to be as easy to take down. Plus, the limited footage of Omargadzhiev on the feet doesn’t look bad, but is it because his opponents are respecting his takedowns? Impossible to say at this point. I hardly feel confident in my pick, but I like the well-roundedness I’ve seen out of Borralho. Borralho via decision
- It was less than a year ago that Miguel Baeza had the look of the next big thing at welterweight. With a big frame for 170, a solid chin, capable grappling, and KO power, he appears to have everything he needs to make the official UFC rankings his home for a long time to come. However, the 29-year-old appears to have been tested against those knocking on the door of the rankings a little too soon. Regardless, his opponent, Andre Fialho, isn’t as big of a step back as some might assume. A patient power puncher, Fialho can be too patient at times. However, when he does connect cleanly, his opponent rarely is able to remain upright. Given Baeza’s chin doesn’t seem as solid as it was once believed to be, Fialho stands a great chance of pulling off the upset. If Fialho can’t find the shot he’s looking for early, he has faded before, leaving the chances of him securing a decision appear unlikely, especially given Baeza’s ability to fill in his volume with a heavy dose of low kicks. The problem is, Baeza’s defense is still a major concern and while his chin was only officially cracked in his last fight for the first time, he has been hurt in several fights before that. I like Fialho to find the finish. Fialho via KO of RD1
- It isn’t hard to see the extensive physical gifts possessed by Mayra Bueno Silva. The Brazilian is a top-flight athlete with plenty of toughness and durability to compliment her impressive power and grappling chops. The problem is she tends to allow her opponents to dictate the pace and direction of where the fight goes. Silva has been fortunate enough to squeeze out a couple of wins since joining the roster thanks to her prodigious talents, but that approach will only take her so far. Her opponent, Yanan Wu, isn’t all that dissimilar, save for one major detail: Wu never stops moving forward. It’s a bit of a surprise the durable Wu hasn’t been able to secure more love from the judges given her approach, but her defense has overshadowed her constant output when it comes time to add things up. Strictly on talent, this fight is Silva’s all day, especially if the fight hits the mat as Silva has proven to be a deadly submission threat. The problem is it seems doubtful the fight hits the mat unless Wu decides to take it there. Silva can still win even if Wu gets the exact fight she wants. Silva is that gifted, which is why I’m picking her. But her low fight IQ would also have me worried about laying serious money on her. Silva via decision
- It wasn’t that long ago the general consensus was that TJ Laramie was going to be a major force in the UFC’s featherweight division while Pat Sabatini was likely to be nothing more than a lower-level gatekeeper. Now the roles have been reversed. To be fair to Laramie, he’s still just 24-years-old, so there’s plenty of time for him to rebound. However, the stout wrestler turned off a lot fans when he walked right into a guillotine from Darrick Minner, leaving questions about his fight IQ. However, even before that, there were questions whether he’d have the size to make his relentless wrestling work at a high level. If he can get it working against Sabatini, all those questions will be answered with a resounding yes as Sabatini has proven himself to be one of the more resourceful mat practitioners in the division. If it comes down to the striking, neither tends to win their fights in that department, but Sabatini has the stronger track record. While Laramie has the talent to get by the crafty Sabatini, I haven’t seen the fight IQ required for him to do so. He could have developed it in the 19 months since we last saw him, but I can’t bank on it until I see it. Sabatini via submission of RD2
- At 34, Mounir Lazzez is old for someone of his experience, so the native of Tunisia needs to get moving if he hopes to make any sort of a run. At first glance, he appears to have the skillset to do just that. At 6’1” with a 76” reach, Lazzez possesses the length to pick his opponent apart in the manner his nickname of The Sniper would indicate. However, Lazzez has proven he isn’t afraid to pursue takedowns as well, proving himself to have a deeper bag of tricks than most believed when he was signed. He’ll welcome short notice opponent Ange Loosa of Switzerland. Loosa came up short in his DWCS appearance last fall, but it was also one of the best contests in the history of the program. In a losing effort, Loosa showed plenty of power, toughness, and durability. While it would be a competitive contest, I’d probably favor Loosa if he had plenty of time to prep for this contest given his overall edge of athleticism. Instead, he has less than a week to make week and scout his opponent. I’ll pick Loosa anyway, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Lazzez puts him to sleep with one of his multitude of kicks. Loosa via TKO of RD1