While UFC 285 is being headlined by the return of Jon Jones, it has a not-so-low-key theme of youth being served. No portion of the card exemplifies that more than the early prelims.
Most of the contests offer a prospect the UFC has invested some interest in. Granted, the fighters the UFC has interest in don’t always pan out – see Paige VanZant and Sage Northcutt – but there has also been an Alex Pereira and a Conor McGregor when the UFC has highlighted particular fighters early. In the UFC, it’s rare that there’s a sure thing in a contest, but there tends to be an A-side and a B-side. This early in a fighter’s development, it’s rare the A-side comes up short. After all, the UFC has gotten better at about picking which prospects they want to highlight.
- Is it just me, or has the UFC cooled on Ian Machado Garry? With three UFC fights under his belt, I’d expect the UFC to be pitting him against opponents who are knocking on the door of the official UFC rankings. Instead, it looks like they’re giving him a step backwards from his last opponent, Gabe Green. Perhaps that sounds harsh given Song Kenan owns a 4-2 UFC record, but Song’s wins came against opposition with a combined 1-10 UFC record. Plus, Kenan hasn’t fought in two years. The Chinese native has some power and is an underrated athlete, but he’s a one-dimensional boxer. Garry is primarily a striker as well, but he is also a skilled grappler if he’s unable to keep the fight standing. Plus, while Garry’s defense still needs to be tightened up, he knows how to use his lengthy frame to score his own offense. While I do believe the UFC has cooled on Garry, I don’t think they’ve given up on him. Kenan does appear to be a step back – a step sideways at the very least — but that’s more of an indication the UFC believes Garry needs more time to develop than they initially thought. After all, he’s still just 25. Kenan seems like a safe be to provide Garry with some decent experience without being a major threat to upend his apple cart. Garry via decision
- If the UFC has the slightest reason to give someone a push, they tend to match them appropriately to garner as many benefits as they can. I touched on that idea in the opening paragraph. Based on that, it looks like the UFC is giving up on Mana Martinez given he appears to be the B-side against Cameron Saaiman. Just 22, Saaiman is far from his peak. Despite that, he already shows a surprisingly well-rounded game, not to mention a level of conditioning that has been the difference between some fighters being contenders and champions. What he has yet to develop is a specific skill that opponents will avoid at all costs. While Martinez has his faults – his wrestling is adequate at best and he can spend too much time looking for just the right punch – he does have the type of power his opponents need to be leery of. There is reason for concern as he’s been unable to deliver a finish in his three UFC contests, but his first eight wins all from his striking prowess to put an end to the action. To his credit, Martinez appears to be maturing as a fighter, having consistently faced a higher level of competition. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him rediscover his power against a more reckless Saaiman. Or he could struggle to stop Saaiman’s takedowns and not find the power shot he’s looking for. My first instinct is to predict the more experienced Martinez finds what he’s looking for, but Saaiman appears to be wise enough to make the necessary adjustments in the course of a fight. Throw in the UFC sees him as the A-side and that cinches my pick. Saaiman via decision
- Tabatha Ricci and Jessica Penne have been scheduled before, the original contest being shelved at the last minute due to a Penne illness. Given Ricci’s career is on the ascension and Penne’s is on the decline – she is 40 after all – it’s hard to believe this is going to benefit Penne in any way. That isn’t to say Penne doesn’t have advantages over Ricci. Penne is one of the taller members of the division and Ricci is one of the shortest. Throw in that Penne has developed a steady jab and Ricci’s standup is very much a work in progress and a win is still conceivable for the former Invicta atomweight champion. Most are favoring Ricci due to her impressive grappling accolades. While I would agree Ricci is the superior grappler, Penne has proven to be a tricky grappler herself. Even if Penne doesn’t win the grappling battle, she should mitigate Ricci’s advantage. However, there is one other thing that makes a big difference: Ricci is the more aggressive fighter by a wide margin. Throw in that she’s proven to be exceptionally durable and Ricci’s aggression should ensure she’s the busier fighter. Like most, I believe Ricci wins. I just don’t believe I’m as certain as the majority of those picking this contest. Ricci via decision
- It’s hard to believe Da’Mon Blackshear will be staying at bantamweight for the duration of his career. At 28, it’s hard to believe he has more than a few more years left of being able to continue to cut down to 135 on his 5’10” frame. Until that point arrives, his length is going to continue to be problematic, even as he hasn’t fully mastered using it to his advantage. Well, at least on the feet. Blackshear has proven crafty at wrapping his limbs around his opponents. The problem is, he’s too frequently operating from off his back as he struggles to stuff takedowns. Farid Basharat isn’t a wrestling specialist, but he’s skilled enough to take down someone of Blackshear’s ilk time and again. In fact, Basharat has proven to be a fighter wise beyond his 24 years. It’s rare to see a fighter as well-rounded as he already is so early in their career. Nevertheless, Blackshear represents a big step up from what Basharat has previously faced and Blackshear isn’t going to be wowed by Basharat’s reptation. I see Basharat’s first loss coming against a veteran striker who exposes Basharat’s youthful defense. Blackshear isn’t the guy to take advantage of that. Basharat via decision
- It could be argued Conor McGregor ultimately did Loik Radzhabov a favor when he wanted his own guys put on the upcoming version of TUF. Radzhabov was pushed off and ultimately ended up being signed to the UFC without having to live in the house. There are some who believe he didn’t need to prove himself on the much-maligned show as he’s a two-time PFL lightweight finalist. There’s no denying Radzhabov has the talent to fight in the UFC; it’s been his conditioning and fight IQ that are questionable. Regardless, he has a HUGE advantage in terms of quality experience over Esteban Ribovics, a DWCS product by way of Argentina. The 26-year-old is about as reckless as they come, not having a contest go to decision yet. Of course, he’s also undefeated, so he has yet to pay a price for his undisciplined approach. Unfortunately for Ribovics, his wild swinging ways should leave him open to the takedowns of Radzhabov. Plus, Radzhabov is extremely durable and has good power himself. I’d feel more comfortable picking Radzhabov if he wasn’t getting the opportunity with about a week’s notice, but that leaves things much more up in the air. Like Radzhabov, Ribovics has the talent to be fighting in the UFC. Despite that, his lack of maturity at this point still has me leaning towards Radzhabov. Radzhabov via TKO of RD2