The UFC returns from a week off with an underwhelming card. They know damn well that it’s an underwhelming card. After all, why would they schedule the main card to begin after midnight on the east coast? That isn’t to say there isn’t a reason beyond it being a subpar card for it to start late.
The prelims will feature the conclusion of the ‘Road to UFC’ finals, featuring fighters from several Asian countries. If you haven’t heard of the ‘Road to UFC’, it shouldn’t be a surprise. The UFC didn’t put much promotion behind it, at least not in North America. I can’t speak for the level of promotion in Asia, but the level of the talent coming up through the tournaments is a mixed bag. It’s worth mentioning this is the second iteration of the tournament the UFC has done. The first produced Teruto Ishihara and Mizuto Hirota. No disrespect to either man, but I’m sure the UFC is hoping the winners this time around will produce a greater impact. Only time will tell, but the UFC is looking to crown four winners this time around.
- You wouldn’t think of India in terms of being a hotbed for wrestling, but they’ve produced some solid grinders in recent years. Hell, Bajrang Punia and Ravi Kumar Dahiya both medaled in their respective weight classes in the most recent Olympics. Of course, they have nothing to do with Anshul Jubli, but MMA fans shouldn’t be too surprised to see a notable wrestler coming out of India. The uglier a fight, the better for Jubli. He’s got good size and utilizes it well to wear out his opposition. Unfortunately, he struggles with maintaining his attack over the course of 15 minutes and hasn’t developed much effective offense outside of his wrestling. That will be problematic against Jeka Saragih. The first UFC fighter out of Indonesia, Saragih is small for the lightweight division. In other words, it isn’t hard to see Jubli smothering him with little trouble. Then again, modern day judging tends to favor striking damage over control and Saragih won’t hesitate to let his fists fly. He won’t hesitate to leave his feet or throw a spinning attack either... which could very well work against him. Given the problems in gauging the level of competition for both men, it’s hard to feel confident picking either one to emerge victorious. Saragih is the pick to win the final tournament final on the evening, but I would never recommend putting money on this contest to anyone. Saragih via decision
- I like the recent tape I’ve seen of Jeong Yeong Lee. The problem is, there isn’t even 90 seconds of footage of him in the cage over the last four years. At 27, there’s a good chance he’s a very different fighter than the one we saw go to decision in 2018. Regardless, what we have seen of him is indicative of an aggressive fighter with some tight technique and a killer instinct. His opponent, Zha Yi, reminded me very much of former UFC lightweight Zhu Rong. Thus, there was little surprise when I discovered they were teammates. Like Zhu, Zha is an explosive athlete who has built up an impressive resume by trucking over the multitude of cans that populates the Chinese MMA scene. That isn’t to say Zha hasn’t picked up some decent wins, including over ONE Championship veteran Koyomi Matsushima to punch his ticket to the featherweight finals. Zha may have the higher upside between himself and Lee, but he’s also the more reckless of the two. Plus, Zha is used to being able to being the bigger man in the cage. That won’t be the case with the lanky Lee. I don’t have a lot of confidence in my pick, but Lee’s the choice to win the featherweight tournament as he leaves fewer holes to be exposed. Lee via TKO of RD2
- Easily the most hyped of the Road to the UFC products, Rinya Nakamura looks like he could be Japan’s best opportunity to develop into a star on the UFC level. The 27-year-old is a world class wrestler, winning the Under-23 World Championship a few years ago. Of course, a pure wrestling pedigree isn’t enough to guarantee success in MMA, but the transition for Nakamura has been exceptionally smooth thus far. Say what you want about his opponents that he beat to get here, but Nakamura bowled over them in a manner that you would expect for someone with his hype. His opponent, Toshiomi Kazama, has some promise. He’s a skilled submission specialist with a reckless streak that often leads to fighters becoming fan favorites. He’s got a strong judo background to build on too. Unfortunately for the 25-year-old, he can’t hope to match Nakamura’s physicality. Kazama’s striking hasn’t developed far enough to give him a realistic chance of exposing Nakamura’s own inexperience in the standup. It’s hard to see Nakamura not being crowned the bantamweight tournament winner. Nakamura via TKO of RD1
- The flyweight final caught me off-guard when viewing the odds. Perhaps it shouldn’t have, considering Hyun Sung Park secured first round finishes in both of his wins to get to the finals, but I also thought Seung Guk Choi had the harder road to traverse. Regardless, while the fight feels more like a coin flip to me, Park is a notable favorite, almost assuredly due to his penchant for securing finishes. However, it’s worth noting Park was losing a one-sided affair until he wasn’t in his semifinal matchup. He’s miserable defensively, relying on his athleticism to overwhelm his opponents. He’s not a bad athlete, but he wouldn’t be anything special in the UFC. Choi is the more technical fighter with similar physical skillset. The difference is that Choi is a bit too hesitant for his own good. I don’t get the feeling he’ll be able to expose the defensive holes in Park’s defense. There are certain fights where the best defense is an overwhelming offense. This looks like one of those fights. Thus, while I questioned the depth of the odds, I am ultimately picking the favorite to be crowned the first contract winner of the evening.. Park via submission of RD3
- I know why the UFC opted to keep Ji Yeon Kim around, even if it surprised me following four consecutive losses. Win or lose, she tends to put on a show. Nine fights into her UFC career and the South Korean native has yet to secure a single takedown in that time. Despite her poor striking defense and willingness to trade – creating a high level of excitement – Kim has yet to be knocked down, much less finished. Everyone knows she’s fortunate the UFC is allowing her to keep her roster spot. Do they realize how lucky she is the UFC is pairing her with Mandy Bohm? Bohm didn’t face any competition of note on her way to the UFC and it has really shown since she touched down. If Bohm can find a way to fight in the clinch, she could be the one to officially send Kim packing. Unfortunately, Kim has been successful in dragging all her opponents into a firefight, even if they can take her down. I don’t see Bohm being able to match the volume and intensity of Kim. Kim via TKO of RD3
- If we’re being brutally honest, Denis Tiuliulin has no business winning any fights in the UFC. He’s a minus athlete, is far from a technician in any aspect, and has yet to show any notable offense in terms of his wrestling and grappling. And yet, the scrappy Russian found a way to secure a finish over Jamie Pickett to pick up a win within the premier MMA organization in the world. That’s what being double tough and forcing you opponent into an ugly brawl can do. Unfortunately for Tuiliulin, Jun Yong Park is a solid brawler himself. Even worse for Tiuliulin, Park is capable of being more than just a brawler. Park has picked up several of his wins on the back of his wrestling prowess. Tiuliulin did stuff all of Pickett’s attempts to take him down, but Pickett’s wrestling has been more miss than hit. In other words, if Tiuliulin’s takedown defense looks like it did on the regional scene, there’s no reason to believe Park will give him much of a chance to fight his fight. Even if Park opts to engage in a brawl, the threat of the takedown should allow him to maintain an edge in what would otherwise be a relatively even engagement. Park via submission of RD2
- Based on his DWCS appearance, Jesus Aguilar looks like he’s going to be a handful on the mat for a huge chunk of the division. While his wrestling could still use some work, he’s got very sticky BJJ and the ability to hang with anyone in scrambling situations. He’s even got a signature move, having secured over half of his wins via guillotine choke. Even though his striking is going to need to be shored up if he hopes to have long-term success, he’s most likely to have his formidable ground game tested. That’s because Tatsuro Taira gives every indication of being a mat prodigy. Like Aguilar, Taira’s wrestling isn’t quite on the same level of his BJJ, but the gap is far closer for him than it is for Aguilar. Taira’s technique is air tight, especially considering he’s only 23. There’s no reason to think he won’t get better. There’s holes in his standup, but there’s been noticeable improvement with each passing fight. Plus, even with those holes, it appears he’s still got the edge in that phase. Outside of a mental error from Taira, this looks like a clear win for the young Japanese representative. Taira via decision