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UFC Vegas 56 prelims preview: Will the rise of Jeff Molina continue?

Get the dirt on the preliminary fights of UFC Vegas 56, featuring action fighting flyweight Jeff Molina looking to topple tough veteran Zhalgas Zhumagulov.

Jeff Molina punching Daniel da Silva at UFC Vegas 41
Jeff Molina punching Daniel da Silva at UFC Vegas 41
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

How do I define these prelims? While UFC Vegas 56 claims the top women’s MMA prospect and perhaps the most exciting flyweight prospect, the rest of the card feels like filler. I’m not saying there aren’t proven veterans – Damon Jackson comes to mind – but the contests feel like a lopsided contest, a pink slip derby with two combatants who were unable to carve out a warm spot in the hearts of fans, and/or fights thrown together to fulfill contractual obligations. Even the fight with Erin Blanchfield – the aforementioned best women’s prospect – feels like it’s lopsided. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll gleefully watch what Blanchfield will do, but the only fight on these prelims that I’ll appropriately circle as an all-around intriguing contest is the one featuring Jeff Molina, as he faces the first stern veteran test of his career. These prelims certainly have their bright spots, but the majority is worth passing on, at least by UFC standards.

  • It’s easy to forget Felice Herrig and Karolina Kowalkiewicz have fought before. It’s less that it’s been four years and more that neither of them have won a fight since Kowalkiewicz edged out their first encounter. That’s a combined seven fights between the two of them without a victory since that contest. In other words, this is likely a loser-leaves-town contest. Kowalkiewicz’s decline has been most precipitous given she once fought for the title. While there does appear to be a physical decline, Kowalkiewicz’s inability to take a punch anymore is even more disconcerting. It has rendered her meek whereas she used to find success behind her confident aggression. It also makes it near impossible for her to navigate her opponent’s attack to enter the clinch. Herrig has her own mental issues, but they appear to be more related to whether she’s still interested in fighting any more. Having been a fighter in some form since at least 2005. That’s a lot of physical and mental strain. However, she has taken off almost two years, perhaps giving herself the time off she needs to recharge. Herrig hasn’t given any signs of a physical decline and the belief here is the time off was good for her. She should easily outpoint Kowalkiewicz. Herrig via decision
  • After entering the UFC as one of the most lowkey products of DWCS, Joe Solecki began to create a bit of buzz when he won his first three UFC contests, including a decision over Jim Miller. His status as a dark horse fighter to watch was blown up when he was upended by Jared Gordon. It shouldn’t have been much of a surprise given Solecki is a limited athlete. That doesn’t mean his early winning streak was a fluke. Solecki’s BJJ is as technically sound as anyone in the division and he knows how to capitalize on a mistake. The question is whether Alex da Silva has matured enough to keep from exposing himself Solecki’s submission prowess. The Brazilian is a plus athlete with surprisingly long arms and plenty of power. The funny thing is da Silva has been more of a wrestler than a striker in his UFC run, though part of that can be attributed to his matchups. It would be a major brain fart on da Silva’s part to take that route this time around as Solecki’s standup has proven to be constrained. In terms of pure physical skills, this fight is da Silva’s to lose. I don’t trust da Silva will keep the fight where he’s at his best. Solecki via submission of RD1
  • I like Daniel Argueta. I think he’s a fine prospect who has been brought up at reasonable pace. He beat some no-name opponents in his first few fights before a gradual increase in the level of difficulty to the point that he’s coming off headlining an LFA show. All the while, he has remained undefeated on the strength of his wrestling and pressure. Argueta should prove to be a nice addition to the bantamweight division. However, he’s stepping in on short notice at 145 against one of the most savvy members of the featherweight division in Damon Jackson. Jackson is one of the least impressive athletes on the roster, but he is massive at 145 and is one of the most persistent submission artists on the entire roster. Plus, while Jackson has been put away, he’s also taken a beating in several contests, only to be there in the end to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Argueta hasn’t shown the striking to put him away and I don’t think he’d be doing himself any favors in attempting to play on the mat with Jackson. This is a terrible situation for the newcomer. Jackson via submission of RD2
  • It’s going to take a hell of a turnaround in his UFC career for Benoit Saint-Denis to be known for more than just enduring one of the most lopsided beatings in UFC history due to a negligent referee. Saint-Denis proved he’s a tough SOB in the process as he never quit, but it was also the type of beating that can alter a career for the worse. He’s hoping to find more success by dropping to lightweight in hopes of better utilizing his physicality. That had better be the plan as he won’t want to get into a kickboxing contest with the lanky Niklas Stolze. Like Saint-Denis, the German is making his debut at 155, but he’s hoping his length will prove problematic for the smaller opposition. Saint-Denis isn’t much smaller, but he isn’t nearly as clean on the feet as his opponent. It’s hard to get a feel for this contest. I can see Saint-Denis finding a way to get the fight to the mat and either brutalizing Stolze or submitting him. However, I can also see Stolze outmaneuvering the Frenchman for 15 minutes. I’ll say Stolze’s edge in experience is what makes the difference. Stolze via decision
  • It’s hard to put a ceiling on Tony Gravely. There’s several factors that indicate he could leap into the official UFC rankings if he keeps plugging away. There are other things that indicate his already knocking against his ceiling. Gravely is a strong combination boxer in the pocket and a relentless wrestler. When all systems are firing, it seems like nothing short of a freight train will stop him. However, sometimes all it takes is a single punch to swing the momentum against him. Gravely is prone to mental errors, both on the mat and while trading fisticuffs. Can Johnny Munoz expose Gravely? Well, first he’ll have to get Gravely to the floor as Munoz hasn’t proven to be a reasonable threat on the feet. More worrisome, he hasn’t proven he can secure takedowns in a consistent manner, despite making a LOT of attempts to do so in his first two UFC contests. If Munoz can find an advantageous grappling position, he stands a good chance of tapping Gravely. That’s a big if. Gravely is a FAR better athlete, a better wrestler, and a better striker. Munoz is a fantastic submission threat, but there’s too much that will have to go his way for him to find the finish for me to feel comfortable picking him. Gravely via decision
  • Including his contest in DWCS, Jeff Molina’s three contests under the UFC banner have all been barnburners. The ability of the 24-year-old to keep his head and maintain a semblance of his technique in the midst of a brawl has been incredible, indicating Molina has an incredibly bright future. Upon closer inspection of the level of competition Molina has been facing and it’s fair to wonder if the initial evaluation of him as an action-fighter with a limited ceiling might not have been more accurate given Molina is an average flyweight athlete at best. Zhalgas Zhumagulov isn’t a plus athlete himself, but the native of Kazakhstan has fought and beaten a far more impressive level of competition. Much like Molina, Zhumagulov doesn’t excel in a single area, but does everything well and is as tough as they come. It’s a difficult contest to predict and given Zhumagulov is 33, my initial prediction favored Molina. However, further tape study has me swinging towards Zhumagulov based on the underrated power in his hands and unwillingness to back down. It’ll be razor thin, but I think Zhumagulov has the savvy that eluded Molina’s past opponents, giving him the edge he’ll need to squeak past the hyped Molina. Zhumagulov via decision
  • I get the feeling the UFC brass doesn’t much care for Andreas Michailidis. The Greek product was set up to be fodder for the debuting Alex Pereira – the guy who knocked out Israel Adesanya in kickboxing – and now he’s welcoming another KO artist into the organization in Rinat Fakhretdinov. The Russian hasn’t lost since 2014 with the majority of his wins being first round KO’s. The again, Fakhretdinov has compiled that impressive record largely by crushing cans. In other words, I don’t think Fakhretdinov is on the same level as Pereira. That doesn’t mean I don’t favor him here. Sure, Michailidis has shown he has a solid all-around skillset. But he doesn’t excel at any one thing and has been stopped via strikes in every one of his losses. For all the questions I have about Fakhretdinov, power isn’t one of them. If Michailidis can make it out of the opening round, the odds will swing heavily in his favor, but I don’t trust he can do that against the newcomer. Fakhretdinov via KO of RD1
  • There have been a lot of words to describe JJ Aldrich. Solid. Steady. Consistent. Tough. Ballsy usually wasn’t one that came to mind, but it has to be added to the lexicon after she asked for – and was granted – a fight with Erin Blanchfield. Blanchfield completely wiped the mat with one of the more notable prospects in the division in Miranda Maverick, someone with far more advanced physical talents than Aldrich. I’ll grant that Aldrich is fundamentally a better striker than Maverick, but that’s where the notable advantages she has over Maverick end. Now, we’re expected to believe Aldrich will be able to outstrike Blanchfield? While Aldrich has improved her wrestling after barely using it in her early UFC run, it’s hard to believe it will be enough to stop Blachfield after Blanchfield ragdolled two fighters known for their wrestling-based attacks. Aldrich’s toughness might allow her to go the distance, but I have rarely felt more confident in a pick than I have in picking Blanchfield. Blanchfield via decision