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UFC Vegas 54 fight card preview: Early prelims has surprising quality

Check out the key factors for UFC Vegas 54’s early fights, highlighted by a pair of fights between ranked contestants, including fan favorite action fighter, Angela Hill.

Angela Hill punching Amanda Lemos at UFC Vegas 45
Angela Hill punching Amanda Lemos at UFC Vegas 45
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

The last few Fight Night cards the UFC has put together have been bereft of depth. In the process, whatever depth there was that would differentiate the cards all went to the main card. For whatever reason, the depth is spread out over the prelims for UFC Vegas 54. It’s rare enough when Fight Night prelims features a contest with a pair of ranked fighters. UFC Vegas 54 features two such fights. Normally, the selling of Fight Night prelims requires selling on seeing potential up-and-comers before they become the real deal. These prelims feature fighters who have become the real deal.

Viviane Araujo vs. Andrea Lee, Women’s Flyweight

The narrative for Araujo and Lee has some similarities. After successful UFC debuts, there was hope each of them would develop into title contenders. While it’s still a possibility for both to do that, they’ve had enough hiccups in that endeavor that most believe it isn’t going to happen. Given she’s younger, Lee has a bit more time to fulfill that goal. Regardless, It’s a must-win for both.

Even though she’s 35, Araujo still appears to be one of the better athletes in the division. In fact, it could be argued she’s still improving giving she started in the sport late. Those improvements have become more miniscule with each passing fight, but not before Araujo developed a stiff jab in which she could center her attack on. What she hasn’t developed is the ability to avoid her opponent’s offense. If Araujo could get past relying on being able to hit harder, she could probably develop into the contender many saw her becoming.

Perhaps it won’t matter too much against Lee as the former Muay Thai competitor isn’t a heavy hitter by any means. She does have clean technique and can work over an opponent in the clinch, but stoppages have been rare for her. Perhaps she’s turning a corner as she induced a corner stoppage out of Cynthia Calvillo, but Calvillo appeared to have entered the fight broken mentally. Regardless, a brawl isn’t the type of environment Lee wants the fight to fall into. If the fight stay technical, Lee is the favorite. Unfortunately for Lee, she too often lets her opponent dictate what type of fight takes place.

Much of that is due to Lee’s well-roundedness. Yes, she can hold her own in all areas. Wrestling, grappling, in space, in the clinch... she never seems to get overwhelmed. Of course, not being overwhelmed isn’t the same thing as winning the fight. Lee appears to have noticed that herself as the last two fights saw her keeping the fight where she had the best chance to win. She grounded Antonina Shevchenko and kept the fight standing with Calvillo.

There’s a good chance her only option with Araujo will be on the feet. The Brazilian has some of the best takedown defense in the division and has proven to be surprisingly adept at timing her takedowns. A ground attack appears to be the best route for Araujo and it’s very doable. But if Lee has turned the corner, Lee presents the type of fighter Araujo hasn’t been able to get past: a technical striker with a reach advantage and the ability to stay on the outside. This is one of the harder fights on the card to predict, but I see Araujo’s lack of defense allowing Lee to outpoint her. Lee via decision

Virna Jandiroba vs. Angela Hill, Women’s Strawweight

There always seems to be somebody on the UFC roster who will always have a close decision go against them. Before developing his Street Jesus persona, it was Jorge Masvidal. Now, it seems that title falls to Angela Hill. That needs to be said given Hill has lost four of her last five contests. However, three of those losses were razor thin split decisions. In other words, that 1-4 run she is currently on could just as easily be 4-1.

Well established as a favorite of both the fanbase and the organizational brass for her willingness to fight anyone, anytime, anywhere, Hill is running out of time to get over the hump. She’s now 37 and been a professional MMA fighter for eight years. In other words, she’s been in the sport long enough that any gains made to her skill set would most likely be small. Not that she’s a bad fighter. In fact, she’s one of the most technical strikers in the division and lethal in the clinch. Sure, she lacks power, but she has also addressed the issues that led to her slowing in several of her fights. Now, she tends to be just as effective late in contests as was at the beginning of them.

The thing is, she’s going to have to ensure she keeps the fight standing. If she does, she’ll run away with the fight as calling Jandiroba a poor striker might be overselling her abilities on the feet. One of the worst athletes on the roster, Jandiroba gets by with the most technical BJJ game in the division. Perhaps not as flashy as Mackenzie Dern, Jandiroba is very reminiscent of Demian Maia in her ability to maintain control over long stretches of the fight to steal rounds. Of course, that’s assuming she hasn’t capitalized on an opponent’s mistake to get the sub.

However, Jandiroba’s physical tools do create limitations. For instance, her wrestling is alright at best. She does benefit in that she can be more reckless than most in her attempts to go to the mat as she’d be satisfied pulling guard, but the best athletes and wrestlers can stifle her. Hill is a solid athlete and has improved as a wrestler... but is she good enough in those areas to keep the fight standing the whole time? I don’t think so. Hill will be winning as long as she can keep the fight standing, but I think Jandiroba can end the fight if it goes to the mat. Jandiroba via submission of RD1

  • We’ve all questioned how Sam Alvey retains his roster spot, something that’s completely fair to do. Perhaps the 15-month absence is the only reason we haven’t been piling on Michael Johnson. There are few who survive 3-9 stretches, which he is currently mired in. Formerly a fixture in the top ten of the lightweight division – he does have wins over the likes of Edson Barboza and Dustin Poirier – Johnson appears to be stuck in his own head ever since Khabib Nurmagomedov delivered a legendary beating on him. Even as the years have piled up – he’s now 35 – Johnson still comes across as a plus athlete with excellent hand speed. But seemingly every fight, he commits a mental miscue that swings the entirety of the fight’s momentum and victory slips through his fingers. Can Alan Patrick capitalize on that tendency? I’m not so sure. Though he’s three years older than Johnson, Patrick is a comparable athlete. In fact, it could be argued Patrick is more explosive. However, Patrick doesn’t appear to have a lot of mental resilience. I get that the same could be argued about Johnson, but mental resilience isn’t something Johnson’s recent opponents have been lacking in. In other words, it may come down to who has the more functional skillset this time around. I’ve got to pick one of them, so I’ll favor Johnson’s combination punching over Patrick’s takedowns and one-off strikes. Johnson via decision
  • Given the promise Tatsuro Taira has shown, I’m a bit shocked there hasn’t been more hype around the 22-year-old Japanese representative. Perhaps some of that has to do with him competing at flyweight, perhaps it has to do with his ground-heavy approach, or maybe people just don’t pay as much attention to the Japanese scene as they used to. Most likely a combination of all three. Regardless, Taira is surprisingly methodical for someone of his age. Not that he doesn’t possess any explosiveness, but while he’s adept enough at scrambling, he’s shown the ability to slowly work his way into position on the mat. That could be delivering some brutal GnP or finding a sub. He’ll have an unproven opponent in Carlos Candelario. The first product of DWCS to be awarded a contract off a losing performance, the American proved to be exceptionally scrappy. Plus, while his takedown defense is a major concern, his ability to get back to his feet is impressive. Throw in his occasional KO power and it’s not a guarantee he’s a steppingstone for Taira. Despite that, I still favor the youngster. Taira via decision
  • There isn’t a lot that separates Nick Maximov and Andre Petroski stylistically. Both possess limited standup and both are at their best grounding and smothering their opponents. So, what separates them? Petroski would be the more technical wrestler of the two given his collegiate experience, but Maximov has more experience in grappling and BJJ tournaments. Plus, Maximov seems to do a better job of effectively mixing the two disciplines for MMA efficiency. Even though both are limited on the feet, Petroski appears to have more raw power, meaning he might look to keep the fight standing. Perhaps further reason for him to do so is Maximov appears to have an endless gas tank. Petroski doesn’t. Those factors do make sense to make Maximov a notable favorite, but I don’t know if it justifies just how wide the odds are. Regardless, I’m going with Maximov. Maximov via submission of RD3