Following on the heels of Jon Jones vs. Ciryl Gane, UFC 286 feels like a half step down from a top-tier UFC PPV offering. That said, even though the card doesn’t feature the usual second title fight, the lack of depth is mostly limited to the prelims.
The co-main event features fan favorite Justin Gaethje against an opponent who will be more than willing to throw fisticuffs with him. Marvin Vettori doesn’t have the same level of action-fight cred that Gaethje has, but he was a fun B-side against Israel Adesanya less than two years ago. He’ll look to keep Roman Dolidze from taking his prestigious top-5 spot in the middleweight hierarchy. It also looks like the UFC sees something special in Casey O’Neill, and if the promotion is correct in that assessment, she’s may catch fire sooner rather than later. Top to bottom, it’s not the beefiest card, but five main card fights are nothing to turn sneeze at.
For the early prelims preview, click here. For the televised prelims, click here.
Justin Gaethje vs. Rafael Fiziev, Lightweight
Over the last decade, there hasn’t been a high-priced free agent the UFC has signed that has worked out better than Justin Gaethje. I get that the ‘Highlight’ hasn’t claimed the title like Eddie Alvarez did (never mind catching a loss off the ‘Underground King’), but Gaethje has lived up to the hype in every other way, perhaps even exceeding it.
Win or lose, every fight from Justin Gaethje has been top tier entertainment. After ten trips to the Octagon, the 34-year-old has averaged one Performance Bonus per appearance. That’s an unheard of rate, putting the likes of ‘bonus whores’ like Joe Lauzon and Charles Oliveira to shame.
It isn’t like he’s just been losing either. Sure, his 6-4 record doesn’t have a surface level shine to it, but he’s only been fighting the best fighting the best lightweight has to offer. Even Khabib Nurmagomedov said he felt closest to losing his title when he faced off with Gaethje. His losses to Alvarez and Dustin Poirier were both absolutely brutal thrillers. Even though he was finished by Oliveira in the first round, he managed to floor the recently dethroned champion before ‘Do Bronx’ turned the tables.
All the plaudits aside, there may be indications that Gaethje’s gung ho style is catching up to him. He did win his bout against Michael Chandler, but struggled far more than most expected him to despite seemingly getting the exact fight he wanted. It’s also worth wondering, would Gaethje have been floored by Oliveira a few years ago? Obviously, there’s no definitive answer, but Gaethje’s legend was built on his ability to walk forward after being hit by a sledgehammer—or, at the very least, bounce right back up. It just may be that he’s slowing down. After all, he’s said himself he only has so many blood-and-guts battles left in him.
The danger in a contest with Fiziev is that the Tiger Muay Thai fighter is probably the cleanest striker Gaethje has ever faced. Even if the Arizona native hasn’t just been facing brawlers, Fiziev offers an intensely diverse striking attack. Gaethje could pressure Edson Barboza, something everyone knows about the Brazilian at this point in his career. That isn’t so easy to do against ‘Ataman’. Maybe the Azerbaijani isn’t quite as speedy as Barboza out at range, but Gaethje can’t know exactly where Fiziev is going to operate. What makes Fiziev so dangerous is how effortlessly he can flow anywhere from in tight to way outside and still threaten to turn out the lights on his opponents.
Gaethje’s reckless style has created a rabid fanbase that loves to point out the man’s wrestling credentials. There’s little doubt Gaethje could win a pure wrestling match here, but the truth is he has yet to complete even one takedown during his UFC run. Throw in that Fiziev’s takedown defense has held up far better than anyone might have expected and it’s hard to see Gaethje’s wrestling as the key to his success. After all, how many credentialed wrestlers pick up their takedown game again late in their careers after developing a reputation as a striker? Wrestling is a young man’s game and Gaethje Isn’t getting any younger. It may sound blasphemous, but I’d bet Fiziev is more likely to score a takedown on Saturday night.
I’ll admit, when the contest was first announced, my gut reaction was to favor Gaethje. He’s faced the tougher competition and has an innate ability to make even great opponents fight his fight. But I’m not sure he can win as many of those battles anymore, especially not against the division’s best talents. Fiziev may not have the same level of natural power —so there’s always a chance of a Gathje KO—but he’s one of the most technical strikers on the roster with underrated defensive skills. I admit Gaethje isn’t quite as reckless as he was when he lost to Alvarez and Poirier, but I’m willing to bank on the idea that he’s lost a step. Fiziev specifically called out Gaethje; this must be a fight he believes he can exploit. I’m going to agree with him. Fiziev via TKO of RD3
Jennifer Maia vs. Casey O’Neill, Women’s Flyweight
It isn’t hard to see the star potential in O’Neill. The Aussie (by way of Scotland) is loud, brash, and talented. However, she’s also one of the younger, more raw talents in the division—entering this contest at the age of 25. That means she has a lot upside remaining, but she also has a lot to learn. Given her aggressive nature, it feels like an inevitability she’ll be forced into a hard lesson sooner or later. Is Jennifer Maia the one to teach her that lesson?
If O’Neill had already had a bit more seasoning—and maybe a prospect loss or two—I wouldn’t hesitate to pick her here. Maia is her own worst enemy, often falling to opponents who don’t have the well-rounded skills she possess. The Brazilian has above average power, and she’s extremely strong for the division—even while on the short end of the flyweight spectrum. In terms of pure grappling, there are few fighters who look more technically sound than Maia on the mats. Hell, she’s an incredibly sound boxer too. Take each category individually and there wouldn’t be a long list of names ahead of her in any one part of MMA.
The issue for Maia, as far as I can see, is that she struggles to control the flow of the fight. She’ll get stuck looking to counter her opponent for such long stretches that she can seemingly forget about all the other things she could be doing—including throwing first to induce a countering exchange. At other times, she’ll make it so obvious she’s looking for a takedown that her opponents have no problem stuffing it. While Maia is incredibly top heavy, she’s so methodical in maintaining control that it’s rare to see her actually threaten with anything. Yes, she subbed Joanne Wood on her way to a title shot, but that’s the only official submission attempt in her entire UFC run. Most concerning with the 34-year-old’s fight IQ is her willingness to stay work off her back rather than getting back to her feet when the opportunity presents itself.
On the flip side, a lack of activity is the least of O’Neill’s worries. Over the course of three rounds, she landed an insane 229 significant strikes on Roxanne Modafferi. The concern will be whether she can either withstand a clean counter from Maia or avoid her power shots. Given O’Neill’s hyper-aggressive nature, it shouldn’t be a surprise there are major concerns about her defense. I expect we’ll find out soon just how well her chin can hold up. She did beat Antonina Shevchenko, but she was able to ground the sister of the former champion and pound her out on the mat. Mauling Maia on the mat is going to be significantly more difficult. So much so that I wouldn’t count on O’Neill taking that route.
The other concern is O’Neill is coming off a torn ACL. She’s making a quick turnaround too. Granted, I’ve been concerned about ACL injuries several times in the past, only for afflicted fighters to return good as new. It may just be that doctors have got those surgeries to a level beyond where they were a decade ago, and an ACL tear is no longer the athletic drain it used to be.
At the end of the day, the simple analysis is that O’Neill is durable and far more active. Which leads me to feel that she should get the win by a comfortable margin. Deeper examination suggests Maia is a HUGE step up, however, and has seen pretty much everything there is in the cage. She may struggle to change phases and overanalyze, but she doesn’t panic (even when sometimes she probably should). One reckless moment from O’Neill might be all Maia needs.
It’s also worth noting that Maia managed to really step up her activity level against Maryna Moroz. That’s a promising development. Still, I’ve learned not to take too much from one recent contest from a veteran when there’s an entire track record of counter examples to draw from. I’ll go with the surface analysis here. O’Neill via decision
Marvin Vettori vs. Roman Dolidze, Middleweight
If it weren’t for Sean Strickland, it would be safe to say that the winner of this contest would be the craziest middleweight in the UFC.
Dolidze got the attention of everyone when he beat Jack Hermansson with one of the most violent finishes in recent memory, a combination of the rarely seen calf slicer with brutal GnP. It was officially labeled a TKO, only because Hermansson is ridiculously tough and refused to tap. Regardless, the Georgian proved something notable with that win. It’s clear now that he’s an incredibly skilled, creative grappler. While Dolidze’s accolades have been a talking point for the broadcast booth, he hadn’t been able to show their full extent in the cage previously. After his latest showing, it’s fair to say he’s a damn dangerous grappler.
That Dolidze still has four finishes amongst his six UFC victories without an official submission is also indicative of his power. The 34-year-old is undoubtedly blessed with some heavy hands. He’s even secured a couple of his KO’s with knees in the clinch, out-muscling his opponents in tight quarters. If there was concern about him cutting down to 185, he’s proven he can do so without sacrificing much strength or power.
What still hasn’t been addressed is whether he can hang with an opponent who can push a hard pace. When Dolidze blitzes, he can unleash a torrent of offense. However, when given the choice, he typically picks a leisurely tempo. Going hard for the entirety of a fight has always been Vettori’s calling card. It doesn’t always show up in his striking numbers, since the ‘Italian Dream’ will also pursue a dogged wrestling game. No matter the method though, the Kings MMA talent is always in his opponent’s face, pressing the action.
Given Dolidze’s credentials on the mat, I’d assume Vettori is most likely to pursue a striking battle. Sure, he isn’t a powerhouse puncher—he has yet to knock anyone out in the Octagon—but he throws in combination and can pile up the volume in a hurry. Vettori has proven he can push a hard pace and remain effective late into championship rounds. Dolidze has gone the distance one time at 185, an ugly grind against overgrown welterweight Laureano Staropoli.
The other areas of the fight largely feel like they could cancel each other out. Dolidze is incredibly strong in the clinch, but Vettori typically does very well from there himself. Even the ground battle looks like it could be a stalemate. Vettori is one of the more underrated mat fighters in the division and isn’t easy to take off his feet.
I like Vettori here. He’s proven himself to be extremely tough and it’s hard to deter him from pursuing a strategy when he’s set his mind to it. Only Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker have been able to thwart Vettori completely from effectively pressuring and Dolidze isn’t nearly the technician they are. Dolidze has the skills to be the first to finish Vettori, but his lack of technical application is cause for concern. The Italian is hard to take down and he tends to pop back up in a hurry when he does hit the mat. If Dolidze proved to have a consistently strong fight IQ, I’d be thinking so much harder about this contest. As it is, I expect Vettori to outwork him. Vettori via decision
Gunnar Nelson vs. Bryan Barberena, Welterweight
Gunnar Nelson was originally scheduled to face Daniel Rodriguez for this card. Unfortunately, Rodriguez withdrew around a month before the contest. As a replacement, longtime veteran Bryan Barberena looks like he’s walking into a terrible stylistic matchup. The man’s career has been made on defying the odds. I don’t just mean in the cage either, as he has overcome a pair of major surgeries that likely would have ended the ability to compete for many fighters.
Unfortunately, he also hasn’t won a fight where he was a clear underdog since 2016. If Nelson opts to engage in a brawl, I have no doubt Barberena can drag the ‘Gunni’ into the muck and secure an upset. But that’s not a fight Nelson ever really allows. The Icelandic grappler is all about efficiency, whether it comes to his strikes or his takedowns. He’ll be expecting Barberena to charge forward, where he’ll be waiting for a counter or a quick shot.
Outside of an brutal blitz from a prime Santiago Ponzinibbio, Nelson has proven to be very durable. Barberena is a builder, something he’ll likely struggle to do here, and I’m not crazy about his grappling either. This feels like one of the easier contests on the card to pick. Nelson via submission of RD2