UFC Vegas 54 is headlined by a potential title eliminator. Given the UFC’s preference for entertaining champions, that possibility is likely dependent on whether the victor between Jan Blachowicz and Aleksander Rakic is able to do so with some flash. Blachowicz may also be dependent on whether Jiri Prochazka is able to dethrone Glover Teixeira as there little to no market for a rematch between Blachowicz and Teixeira. With Magomed Ankalaev in the wings, the UFC has a plan B if either Blachowicz or Rakic proves to be too difficult for UFC brass. Throw in Katlyn Chookagian performing her role as the Jon Fitch of the women’s flyweight division and there’s more top talent than usual on this Fight Night card.
Jan Blachowicz vs. Aleksander Rakic, Light Heavyweight
The UFC has never promoted Blachowicz properly. On the verge of losing his employment with in the UFC, He went on an incredible run that culminated in him becoming one of the most unlikely champions in the modern era, perhaps even the most unlikely. And yet, when Blachowicz thwarted the attempts of Israel Adesanya, all of the promotion went towards whether Adesanya could grab a second title. Blachowicz was almost always the B-side on his way to the title and remained in that spot even after grabbing the title. Perhaps the UFC was secretly doing him a favor as the moment he was no longer seen as the underdog, he lost his title to Teixeira.
It’s hard to say if Blachowicz has the motivation to regain the title. For some, there’s nothing they want more than to climb back to the top of the mountain once again. For others, they see their legacy as set and don’t desire to put in the ridiculous amount of work to get back to the top. Perhaps I’m overemphasizing Blachowicz’s frame of mind, but that’s easily the biggest key.
For whatever reason, many appear to have labeled Blachowicz as a heavy-handed brawler. There’s no doubt he’s heavy-handed, but calling him a brawler would be inaccurate. That would be ignoring Blachowicz’s technique and ability to time the counter. While it is true it was ultimately his wrestling that allowed him separate from Adesanya, it’s not like Adesanya was dominating the standup. Blachowicz held his own and landed enough power shots to warrant some respect from the middleweight champ. Adesanya’s big problem is that he didn’t have the skill set to expose Blachowicz’s Achilles heel: his takedown defense.
It’s not known for sure if Rakic has the wrestling to take Blachowicz down. Everyone remembers how Rakic smothered Anthony Smith from top control in their contest, but it wasn’t through traditional wrestling that he was able to get Smith to the mat. It was via low kicks and poor decision making from Smith. Rakic has flashed the ability to score takedowns in some of his fights, but he’s never made enough of a priority of it for observers to know what he’s truly capable of in that department.
It may not matter. The lanky Austrian has proven to be one of the most talented strikers in the division. While Rakic is content to sit on the outside and pick apart his opponent with low kicks and jabs, he’s also shown he isn’t afraid to throw out a more high-risk maneuver, such as a spinning back-fist or a high kick. Perhaps most importantly, Rakic showed he isn’t afraid to keep pressing, even after he’s been compromised. The lump on his leg when he fought Volkan Oezdemir was a sight to behold.
Given Rakic is younger, faster, and the all-around better athlete, many are jumping on him without too much thought. If I’m being fair, my first impression was Rakic would win when the fight was made. As I dug in, I began to lean towards Blachowicz. I’m not positive Rakic’s style of outfighting is great against Blachowicz. After all, Adesanya is one of the all-time great outfighters and Blachowicz beat him. However, remembering that it was a neck injury that pushed Blachowicz out of their originally scheduled fight in March and I swung back towards Rakic. Neck injuries are tough to come back from. Not impossible – see Aljamain Sterling – but difficult. Coming back from a neck injury at 39 is even more difficult. Regardless, expect the contest to be on the plodding side. Rakic via decision
Ryan Spann vs. Ion Cutelaba, Light Heavyweight
In many ways, this is a very appropriate contest as both Spann and Cutelaba are headcases. They’re just different types of headcases….
Cutelaba is the meathead type of headcase. Physically strong, exceptionally intense, and beyond reckless, Cutelaba has been able to blast through a huge chunk of his opponents. However, he’s fallen to some of those he initially ran over as he has faded after incredibly strong starts. There are signs the Moldovan is maturing as he not only beat Devin Clark, he did so over the full 15 minutes. The last round might have been up in the air, but it was a far cry from him being in survival mode as has been the case in the past.
In the case of Spann, he is his own worst enemy. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is, but there’s times where he just doesn’t appear to be in the fight. Perhaps it’s when the spotlight is too bright. For instance, he dropped his initial appearance on DWCS in spectacular fashion. However, in his second appearance, after he had been there and done that, he performed flawlessly. In his last contest, he headlined a card opposite Anthony Smith and looked like a shell of the guy who bowled over Misha Cirkunov.
Even if the good Spann shows up, Cutelaba is a difficult matchup for him. When fresh, Cutelaba is one of the best wrestlers in the division. Holding an opponent down is a different story, but Cutelaba’s constant pressure and takedowns has broken several opponents mentally before he broke them physically. In other words, Spann might have to be in the best headspace of his career to get past Cutelaba. If Spann can keep from breaking and Cutelaba gasses, Spann specializes in the guillotine choke. In isn’t hard to see Spann snatching the neck of a fading Cutelaba as he shoots in for a takedown….
On the flip side, Spann is one of the biggest 205ers on the roster. While he isn’t overly physical, Spann does use his length pretty well and has developed into a far greater power threat than anyone believed him to be prior to his UFC entry. In a pure striking match, the fight is Spann’s to lose. Even with that said, Cutelaba’s raw power can’t be discounted. The bottom line is it’s impossible to know what version of Spann shows up, making it hard to give a confident prediction. What I’m most confident in predicting is someone getting finished, but I’m shooting in the dark as to who accomplishes that. Cutelaba via TKO of RD1
Katlyn Chookagian vs. Amanda Ribas, Women’s Flyweight
If there is a Chookagian fan club out there, it isn’t very big. While her 10-4 UFC record is more than respectable, every single one of those wins were determined by judges sitting ringside as opposed to forcing her opponent to quit or needing a referee’s intervening. Chookagian is a decision machine.
Despite that, I’m happy to say Chookagian makes no apologies for her style. She finds more than enough success in tossing her jab out there with great frequency, often while she has enough distance between herself and her opponent that it has no chance of landing. However, the judges seem to appreciate Chookagian beating up the invisible person between herself and her opponent as it has swung her way more often than not. Much of that can be attributed to the keeyups she lets out with every strike. It may get annoying, but Holly Holm has found success utilizing those as well.
It was surprising to see the UFC match Ribas up with Chookagian given Ribas has the temperament and talent to be a star. Perhaps the most likeable member of the entire roster, Ribas fights with a degree of joy and enthusiasm that’s contagious. It isn’t that she takes glee in hurting her opponent; she just seems to genuinely be having fun out there. However, Chookagian is a nightmare matchup for her. Moving up from strawweight, Ribas didn’t seem to be particularly large for 115. Nevertheless, she’s moving up and is going to be MUCH smaller than the lanky Chookagian.
If Ribas can find a way to get Chookagian to the mat, she might be able to find a submission. Ribas has proven she can hang with the best by dealing with Virna Jandiroba in her last contest. The problem is getting Chookagian to the mat. That means navigating Chookagian’s reach, no easy feat. Once she’s done that, Chookagian’s size should prove problematic as well. Ribas has had success taking smaller fighters to the mat, but she has never faced anyone near the size of Chookagian. Plus, Ribas’ ability to take a punch is questionable. Not only did Marina Rodriguez stop her – Rodriguez’s lone stoppage in the UFC – but Jandiroba knocked her down. And Jandiroba is one of the worst strikers on the roster. This is a bad enough matchup for Ribas that I can see Chookagian picking up her first stoppage win in the UFC… but I’m still picking a decision. Chookagian via decision
- One of the more pleasant and unexpected developments in the last few years has been the development of Davey Grant into one of the more reliable action fighters on the roster. That’s a far cry from the positionally sound grappler whose UFC tenure was most defined by his long absences from the cage. Despite being 36 – and never a great athlete – Grant appears to be the best fighter he’s ever been for a couple of reasons. First, those long absences ensured he didn’t put too many miles on his body. Second, he’s developed not just a comfort on the feet that was previously missing, but a confidence that has translated into power. Confidence is something that tends to be missing from Louis Smolka. The Hawaiian undoubtedly has greater physical attributes than Grant, but has been his own worst enemy throughout his career. Though he appears to have stabilized himself mentally, it may have come when his body is beginning to break down as he was KO’d for the first time in his career in his last appearance. Smolka may only be 30, but alcohol abuse and cutting down to 125 for most of his career may have taken a toll on him. Outside of catching Grant in a submission in the midst of a scramble, I struggle to see Smolka winning. Grant via TKO of RD3
- For many people, myself included, it’s hard to believe Frank Camacho is only 32. Of course, when you’ve been fighting professionally since the age of 16, most people are going to feel like you should be older than you are. What’s worse for Camacho, his last few performances have been indicative of someone who has put his body through hell. To be fair, he has. Even before he made it to the UFC, Camacho had a reputation as an exciting brawler who was nearly indestructible. While Camacho is a more technical striker than most give him credit for, his durability isn’t what it once was. Even if he can’t pick up the victory, he might still be able pick up a Performance Bonus as Manuel Torres has a reputation for being reckless. Granted, Torres showed in his DWCS performance that he can slow things down and fight methodically, but it’s hard to believe that’s the course he’ll take with Camacho. However, there’s two big red flags with Torres. First, his level of competition has been low, especially when comparing it to Camacho. Secondly, Torres has left the first round just once in his career. Camacho is more wily than he gets credit for. If he can drag Torres into deep waters, I think he can teach the youngster a lesson. Plus, while Camacho’s two-year absence can be partially explained by his recovering from a car accident, I think the time away was good for him. Camacho via submission of RD2
- Best known for being awarded a DWCS contract despite missing weight, it can’t be denied Jake Hadley has a high upside. Possessing a large frame for flyweight, Hadley has the power in his hands to be a power threat. However, it’s his ability to find the backs of his opponents that gives him the potential to make a serious run up the division sooner rather than later. Hadley is getting the biggest test in his career in Allan Nascimento. While Hadley is big for the division, Nascimento is absolutely monstrous. Thus, it’s no surprise the Brazilian tends to slow late in his contests. The question will be if he can do enough in the first two rounds. Nascimento isn’t quite as quick in the scrambles as Hadley, but he appears to have an edge in BJJ fundamentals. Plus, the use of his jab and low kicks could be enough for him to jump ahead, especially if Hadley is unable to bully him the way he has some of his past opponents. While I have no doubt Hadley has the brighter future, I’m not so sure he’s better in the present. It’s a coin flip of a pick, but I’ll go with the veteran fighter. Nascimento via decision