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UFC Vegas 59: Santos vs. Hill preview - Will youth or experience be served?

Dig into all the main card action out of UFC Vegas 59, headlined by an upstart Jamahal Hill looking to dislodge the experience Thiago Santos from his spot in the light heavyweight hierarchy.

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Jamahal Hill facing Johnny Walker at UFC Vegas 48
Jamahal Hill facing Johnny Walker at UFC Vegas 48
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Even though there are some fights on UFC Vegas 59 that look like they should be a lot of fun, steam has been lost in every one of the main card fight. The main event features a man whom some believe outpointed Jon Jones for the title in Thiago Santos. However, Santos hasn’t been the same fighter he was leading into his fight with Jones, returning from the injuries he sustained in that fight a shell of the fighter he once was. Thus, he’s being seen as a stepping stone for Jamahal Hill. Vicente Luque and Geoff Neal would have once been seen as a clash between the two most notable up-and-comers at welterweight. But with Luque coming off a loss and Neal having a string of lackluster showings, it feels like an appropriate fight, but not one that gets the pot stirring the way it would have not that long ago. Augusto Sakai headlined a pair of Fight Night cards, only to lose both of those contests on the way to three consecutive losses. Don’t get me started on Ariane Lipski. And last, and assuredly least, there’s the TUF finals. Did anyone watch? Does anyone care?

For the prelims preview, click here. For an audio preview, click here.

Thiago Santos vs. Jamahal Hill, Light Heavyweight

When Santos moved his way up to light heavyweight, he went on a tear, securing Performance Bonuses in all three of the fights he was in on his way to punching his ticket against Jones. Ever since that fight, Santos has been a shell of himself. While a reasonable argument could be made his decline was due to him shaking off rust from the multiple surgeries he endured afterwards, that has lost merit after four fights. It isn’t just rust at this point. Either the injuries have permanently slowed him, or age has caught up to the 38-year-old. It is most likely both.

Santos used to have one of the quickest triggers on the counter. The power and speed in which he would land created a high degree of hesitancy for his opponents to trade with him on the feet. Now, with the loss of speed, Santos has also lost a bit of his face-melting power and has become trigger shy. The man who was picking up an extra $50K on the regular has been nowhere to be seen.

To be fair to Santos, he still throws tight and technical punches and kicks. He still has a good knowledge of angles and distance and has shown zero problems going the distance in a fight. Part of that is due to the incredibly slow pace he’s been fighting at, but it can also be pointed out he hasn’t had stamina issues since making the move to light heavyweight. And while Santos has lost power, he had plenty enough to spare, dropping both Glover Teixeira and Magomed Ankalaev in his contests with them. Given Hill is short on experience, especially against high level opposition, it shouldn’t be a shock if he is able to put Hill to sleep.

Of course, Hill is a solid favorite for a reason. One of the better athletes in the division, Hill has been showing incredible leaps and bounds in his improvements. Given Hill turned professional less than five years ago, it shouldn’t be a surprise he’s making gigantic strides. The fact that he continues to do so at a high level is what is shocking. Hill isn’t on the technical level of Santos – he doesn’t have the mastery of distance and leaves his chin out there – but he isn’t a sloppy brawler either. Plus, with the height and reach he possesses, Hill can be afforded a certain level of leeway. That isn’t even mentioning the advantage he’ll have in speed and quickness over Santos. Did I mention finishing power? Yeah, he’s got that too.

Something Santos backers love to point out is he owns a black belt in BJJ. That hasn’t translated into MMA in the least. Santos has one submission victory in his career, that coming over a decade ago. Perhaps he’ll look for a takedown as a change of pace or maybe to seal a round, but it would be foolish to think he’ll look to win the fight on the mat given Hill tends to get back to his feet easy enough. Hill appears to have learned his lesson after tangling with Paul Craig anyway. In fact, Hill has been far more focused since Craig mangled his arm, fighting with an intensity that was missing prior to that showing. Hill doesn’t win this fight ten times out of ten, but he certainly wins it far more than Santos does. The UFC typically knows what they’re doing in these fights and they see Hill as someone who could fight for the title not too far down the road. Hill is going to add Santos’ scalp while the aging Brazilian still has some name value. Hill via TKO of RD3

Vicente Luque vs. Geoff Neal, Welterweight

At this point, Luque has established himself as one of the UFC’s all-time great action fighters. That’s no hyperbole. The Brazilian has picked up eight Performance bonuses in his UFC tenure and secured finishes in 13 of his 14 UFC wins. Not even the UFC’s knockout king, Derrick Lewis, can claim such a sterling finishing rate. While that’s a resume to be proud of, Luque isn’t satisfied. Luque wants to be champion... and it isn’t as ridiculous of an idea as many might think.

Sure, Luque came up short against Belal Muhammad in his most recent contest, an inferior athlete to Luque. However, that’s also neglecting the incredible amount of progress Luque has made since he debuted in 2015. Luque couldn’t stop a takedown to save his life and was as defensively inept as anyone on the roster. Those are still his most notable weaknesses, but he has shored up his wrestling immensely and is one of the most indestructible members of the roster across all divisions. Despite engaging in numerous career shortening brawls, Luque has yet to be finished via strikes in his career, nor has he been submitted in the UFC.

Luque’s durability has allowed him to find success operating under the idea that the best defense is a good offense. For all his defensive issues, Luque throws tight, technical combinations at a high clip. It isn’t just at a high clip for a short amount of time; Luque never stops coming thanks to his superior conditioning. That’s where most people think he’s going to overcome Neal as Neal has struggled to control the pace since he began consistently fighting ranked opponents.

However, that shouldn’t be any reason to automatically pick Luque. In terms of punching power, Neal probably surpasses Luque. In fact, Neal not only secured a finish over the only guy Luque couldn’t finish out of his UFC wins – Mike Perry – he did so in just 90 seconds. Luque’s defensive issues combined with Neal’s power don’t make the idea of Neal being the first to put Luque away sound ludicrous. Neal is well coached and throws tight strikes himself.

What ultimately has me continuing to lean towards Luque is the advantage he has on the mat. Neal has shown excellent takedown defense throughout his UFC run, but cracks have begun to show against the higher level of opposition. Luque doesn’t often look to wrestle, but when he chooses to do so, he’s been pretty successful at succeeding at getting the fight to hit the floor. Once it does hit the floor, Luque is one of the more underrated submission artists on the roster, the d’arce choke being his specialty. Even if Luque doesn’t secure a takedown, it isn’t hard to see one or the other slipping or getting knocked down in the heat of a mad exchange, sending the action to the mat. Luque is a fantastic scrambler. Neal won’t be easy to catch, but Neal also hasn’t played on the mat with someone on the level of Luque. Luque via submission of RD2

Augusto Sakai vs. Serghei Spivac, Heavyweight

Everyone is down on Sakai. Understandably so given the flabby Brazilian enters the contest on a three-fight losing streak. However, to be fair to him, it’s not like he’s been losing to nobodies. Alistair Overeem may no longer be on the roster, but that had more to do with the size of his contract and his age than his abilities. Jairzinho Rozenstruik has the ability to put anyone to sleep and is now a fixture in the top ten of the division. And Tai Tuivasa proved his resurgence was no fluke when he not only put Derrick Lewis to sleep, but endured some of Lewis’ own heavy artillery. Sakai isn’t an elite heavyweight, but he’s no bum.

Against Overeem, Sakai was betrayed by his gas tank. No worries this time around as this fight isn’t scheduled for five rounds and Sakai has traditionally held up better than the average heavyweight over three rounds. Spivak doesn’t have nearly the power of either Rozenstruik or Tuivasa, so it would be a shock to see Sakai fall prey to a nap. That isn’t me saying Spivac has no chance of winning this contest, but it does help further my argument for why Sakai shouldn’t be counted out as many seem to be doing.

The issue with Spivac is he’s a bit of a niche fighter. The lanky Moldovan is one of the most pillow fisted heavyweights on the roster. Yes, he does have a couple of TKO stoppages on his UFC resume, but those were attributed to him trapping his opponent on the mat and continuing to pound away as opposed to him staggering them on the feet. In fact, Spivac still has a lot of figure out with regards to his standup. He’s good enough he can outpoint Aleksei Oleinik on the feet, but that isn’t saying a hell of a lot. Spivac will want to clinch up with Sakai in hopes of tripping him to the ground where Spivac does his best work.

The issue there is Sakai also does his best work in the clinch. Like Spivac, Sakai isn’t considered to be a big power threat, but his track record indicates he can put an opponent to sleep if he lands clean enough. Spivac has struggled to hurt opponents, much less put them to sleep. Plus, Sakai’s takedown defense has been stellar outside of Overeem taking him down after he had already gassed.

I wasn’t surprised to see Spivac as the favorite, but I was shocked at how heavy of a favorite he is. I guess people hate Greg Hardy bad enough to elevate Spivac to that level. Regardless, if Sakai’s head is where it needs to be – no guarantee given the three consecutive stoppage losses – his skill set is far more consistent than Spivac’s. Spivac is more reliant on utilizing his length and that won’t have that advantage against Sakai. Plus, while I have no doubt Spivac is the more skilled ground fighter, Sakai’s ground game is fundamentally sound enough that I think he can fight off Spivac’s submission attempts and get back to his feet. It’ll be close, but I like Sakai’s clinch work and overall standup to be the difference. Sakai via decision

  • Given he’s the younger brother of the UFC’s welterweight champion, Mohammed Usman assuredly has the advantage in name recognition. Not that it means anything inside the cage, but picking the larger of the Usman brothers simply because he’s an Usman would be foolish. Not that Usman doesn’t have skills to work with. He’s got a good wrestling base, power in his fists, and is a good heavyweight athlete. What he doesn’t have is a natural feel for fighting or a gas tank. Both of those issues can be fixed over time; Kamaru took a while to round out into an actual MMA fighter himself. But there doesn’t appear to be enough time for him to fix that in the hear and now as Zach Pauga looks like he’s tailor made to expose Usman’s short gas tank. A natural light heavyweight, Pauga has proven to be slippery enough against the other heavyweights on the show that he should be able wear out Usman by the end of the opening round. If Usman fights smart, he could smother the smaller Pauga just enough to squeeze out the win. However, it’s hard to fight smart when your tired and Usman hasn’t proven he can remain effective long enough for me to trust picking him, even if he’s the better heavyweight prospect. Pauga via TKO of RD3
  • If the contest between Brogan Walker and Juliana Miller were taking place two years from now, there’s absolutely no doubt who I’d be picking: Miller. The 26-year-old Miller is the superior athlete with aggression in both her ground game and her standup. However, she’s also very inexperienced with a style that Walker is well equipped to counter. Walker doesn’t have near the upside of Miller, but she is a steady hand with some good Muay Thai in addition to being double tough. If Miller is reckless, it could be an easy night for Walker. However, if Miller can fight with creative control, her dynamism could easily overwhelm Walker. Ultimately, I’m favoring the younger fighter as the TUF experience was probably better for her development than Walker as the thing Miller needs most to further her development is experience. I’m no fan of TUF, but it does offer a lot of experience in short order. Having an actual camp should also help Miller show those improvements. Miller via decision
  • There have been flashes of what earned her the nickname of the Queen of Violence, but Ariane Lipski hasn’t come close to living up to her previous reputation. For whatever reason, Lipski has been reluctant to let her fists fly, resulting in her getting outworked on the regular. When Lipski has secured UFC wins, it’s been on the basis of her exercising large quantities of grappling control. There is some promise in knowing that she does have some grappling competency, but that’s not fighter the UFC was expecting when they signed her. They’re giving her the best chance to return to her previous form by pitting her against Priscila Cachoeira, the division’s preeminent brawler. Cachoeira is tough as nails and throws with plenty of power, but she’s also reckless as all get out and a subpar athlete. Lipski isn’t an elite athlete, but she’s far superior to Cachoeira, not to mention technically superior. If the version of Lipski we saw prior to signing with the UFC shows up, there’s no doubt she secures the W. If the version of Lipski we’ve seen in the UFC shows up, there’s still a chance she wins based on her superior grappling, something Cachoeira is lacking in. Physically and technically, there’s no reason Lipski should lose this fight. It’s all dependent on her headspace. Lipski via decision