While the two title fights for UFC 277 aren’t the most star-studded fights – no disrespect to Amanda Nunes, but she has never been a box office smash — the quality of the main card beneath those fights is exquisite. Perennial fan favorite Derrick Lewis returns in what casual fans may declare a layup, but Sergei Pavlovich is a real threat to the heavy-handed KO artist. While the flyweight title picture is murky, Alexandre Pantoja and Alex Perez could potentially earn themselves a title shot with a win. And while he has developed a reputation as a boring fighter, there are some who believe Magomed Ankalaev is the best light heavyweight on the planet.
Derrick Lewis vs. Sergei Pavlovich, Heavyweight
There’s a good chance we’ve already seen peak Lewis. I understand based on his age, 37, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to argue he’s in his prime given how kind Father Time has been to the heavyweight division. There hasn’t been any sign of decline in his power level either. So why would I say Lewis could be on the decline?
It all comes down to one thing for Lewis: motivation. The charismatic big man never made any secret that he originally got into the sport of MMA for the money. He doesn’t love the sport, but recognized his natural skills would allow him to make some serious dough. Lewis now has enough money that he owns a Lamborghini. Now that his finances are secure, it’s reasonable to speculate that he’s going to start half-assing his preparation for fights.
However, it should be noted that an unmotivated Lewis is still a dangerous Lewis. It’s hard to say definitively who the more powerful striker in the history of the organization is between himself and Francis Ngannou. Lewis isn’t a stupid fighter either. He knows how to bait opponents into a kill shot. His uppercut KO of Curtis Blaydes is one of the best examples waiting for the perfect shot in the history of the sport. Plus, while many lament Lewis’ conditioning, he does a fantastic job of conserving his energy and exploding when needed. That doesn’t just apply to his winging punches or throwing kicks; he’s bench pressed multiple opponents to escape from underneath them. Not technical in the least, but it has gotten the job done several times.
Whether he’ll be able to bench press Pavlovich is a fair question. Perhaps not as naturally big as Lewis, Pavlovich is still one of the beefier heavyweights on the roster. In a division that allows for more than a few extra pounds, Pavlovich doesn’t carry much additional weight. He packs a hell of a wallop too, coming into this contest with three consecutive first round finishes, something even Lewis – the UFC’s all-time leader in KO’s — can’t claim at any point in his career. Throw in the youthful Pavlovich has a strong wrestling base and it’s easy to see where many are thinking this is the Russian’s chance for a breakout victory.
Watching film of Pavlovich, I picked up on something that is a cause for concern: thanks to his stiff movement, he’s easy to hit. That isn’t to say he isn’t durable; he’s faced some heavy-handed opponents and has never gone to sleep. But there’s a difference between the level of competition he has faced and Lewis. A BIG difference. I do believe Pavlovich is vastly improved from the debutant who was drubbed over by Alistair Overeem, but his stiff movement has me believing he’s eventually going to eat a haymaker from Lewis that he won’t be able to come back from. There is always the possibility Pavlovich lands something earth shattering first – Lewis is coming of a loss where Tai Tuivasa put him out cold – but a potentially unmotivated Lewis is still a big step up from a decrepit Shamil Abdurakhimov. If Abdurakhimov can get in some solid offense on Pavlovich, I have no doubt Lewis can... especially if he’s looking spry. Lewis via TKO of RD1
Alexandre Pantoja vs. Alex Perez, Flyweight
The inactivity of Perez isn’t completely his fault, but 20 months on the shelf has resulted in him becoming a largely forgotten commodity in the flyweight division. It’s also left it up in the air just how good he is. Sure, he’s looked exceptionally good in his wins, but his best win came against a Jussier Formiga on his last legs. His UFC losses don’t help to address the concerns as they were both first round losses to Joseph Benavidez and Deiveison Figueiredo.
There isn’t nearly as many questions about Pantoja. In terms of pure BJJ, Pantoja is at the top of the food chain in the division. He’s hardly a one-trick pony either, throwing his strikes with plenty of power. He’s not a bad wrestler either. Pantoja hasn’t been able to beat the elite of the division either, but he has pushed them far more than Perez has been able to. Some will point to Pantoja’s two wins over Brandon Moreno, though it would be appropriate to point out those came long before Moreno hit his prime.
What has held Pantoja back has been two things: his poor takedown defense and his faulty gas tank. Pantoja isn’t helpless off his back, but he’s hardly a threat on the level of Paul Craig. The issue is Pantoja has been too content to stay on the mat, trusting too much in his BJJ. To be fair to Pantoja, he has worked at getting back to his feet with greater urgency. However, when a rapid pace has been forced upon him, he has slowed down the stretch.
Many anticipate Perez will attempt to push a heavy pace. After all, he’s utilized that strategy on several occasions, including one contest where he landed 84 significant strikes about three-quarters through the first round. However, it should also be noted how exhausted he was after that contest. Perez has utilized a wrestling-heavy approach to win fights as well, but taking down Eric Shelton several times is a completely different ball game than taking down Pantoja.
There is a lot that we know about Perez that is easy to like. He’s proven to be versatile in his attack. He packs a wallop in his punches. His low kicks can be debilitating too. But he’s also a limited athlete who has yet to consistently prove himself against ranked opposition, much less against the elite of the division. Plus, he’s had issues making weight, something that doesn’t get easier as he gets older. I’m sure 20 months away isn’t going to help with that issue. Pantoja may be older, but he has always been the better athlete and hasn’t displayed issues getting down to the flyweight limit. Throw in that Pantoja has never been finished through his career and I feel pretty damned confident in picking the Brazilian. Pantoja via decision
Magomed Ankalaev vs. Anthony Smith, Light Heavyweight
There’s a very good chance the winner of this contest will get a shot at Jiri Prochazka’s newly won title. Of course, much of that will be dependent upon the contest being entertaining, something Ankalaev has struggled with. Anyone who has followed this sport for the slightest amount of time knows Uncle Dana puts a hell of a premium on aesthetic value.
If it was strictly based on results, there’s a possibility Ankalaev would already be penciled in to fight for the shiny gold belt. The Russian native has rattled off eight consecutive wins since dropping his UFC debut to Paul Craig at the last second... literally. No one has ever doubted the physical gifts of Ankalaev either, many predicting he’d fight for the title someday as soon as he was signed to the organization. With serious punching power, impressive physical strength, and deceptive speed, it’s all there for Ankalaev to be champion. However, his greatest asset is by far his intelligence.
Ankalaev tends to start out slow as he’s processing what his opponents give him early on. That doesn’t mean he’s losing; he’s merely emphasizing defense while taking in the information provided to him. However, once Ankalaev has enough information, he’s more than capable of achieving a highlight reel KO, something he’s done on several occasions. However, as his competition has gotten tougher, the finishes have dried up.
It’s a rarity when Smith goes the distance. When he does, it usually doesn’t go in his favor. That’s due to Smith’s exceptional durability. Given the 50-plus professional fights under his belt and his emphasis on offense, it’s a minor miracle his body has held up as well as it has. Nevertheless, Smith is exceptionally dangerous when he’s able to get the fight where he’s at his best. Typically, it’s on the extreme’s where he’s at his best: either all the way on the outside where he tends to mix up his jab and low kicks or all the way in, doing his damage in the clinch. Though it’s usually the damage he can do with his knees that people think of, punches, elbows and trips are also prominent features of his offense.
However, Smith’s last two losses made his inability to stop takedowns glaringly obvious to those who were unaware of that factoid. To be fair, Smith is a good scrambler and may be the greatest submission threat in the division this side of the aforementioned Craig. But what happens against an opponent with good positioning from the top position? As Glover Teixeira and Aleksander Rakic proved, Smith’s lack of athleticism and strength make it difficult for him to escape from a technician. Some would say Ankalaev is overly technical to a fault.
In terms of his physical skills, Smith has been fighting over his head for quite a while. All the fights he’s been in has created a natural feel for fighting, resulting in a sixth sense in terms of opportunism for finishes. He also appears to have hit his ceiling, which is around the top five of the division. That’s a hell of a ceiling, but Ankalaev not only has a higher ceiling, he appears to be tailor-made to take down the longtime veteran. There’s a reason the odds are as long as they are as Ankalaev doesn’t seem likely to provide Smith with any of his typical roads to victory. Ankalaev via decision