10 Things I Like at UFC Vegas 54
Saturday's fight card is filled with intriguing, competitive fights and competitors I'm eager to see back in action
I know this is going to make me sound elitist AF, but to me, Saturday’s fight card is one of those events where if you’re not keen on more than just the main event, I genuinely question how closely you pay attention to the sport and what it is you’re looking for from the UFC.
This is a terrific card with a bunch of meaningful matchups, intriguing pairings, and promising fighters set to step into the Octagon. At least one title challenger should be determine this weekend, but maybe two, and several other bouts will have a clear impact in the hierarchies of their respective divisions, plus we get to see if Jake Hadley makes Dana White look like an asshole or not, which is always a fun game to play.
Not everyone is going to like every card for the same reasons or to the same degree, but if this card doesn’t excite you and pique your interest in a handful of spots, I’m truly at a loss because it’s tremendous, and should be all kinds of fun to watch this weekend.
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The above picture is 14 months old, give or take a couple days, and yet Jan Blachowicz enters Saturday’s main event with Aleksandar Rakic as the underdog.
Blachowicz doesn’t care about the betting odds in the least, but it’s certainly intriguing to me that a little over a year after the Polish standout defeated Israel Adesanya, he’s now plus money against Rakic, who is coming off consecutive tepid engagements against less accomplished competitors. I know the point of betting lines is to generate as much interest on both sides, and I’m sure Blachowicz being an underdog has brought in more than a few ducats, but I also feel like there are a bunch of folks who feel the line is justified — that his poor showing against Glovert Teixeira was a harbinger of a fall from contention or something like that, and I just don’t see it.
Now, no one has come right out and said, “I think Blachowicz is washed” because folks don’t take those kinds of stands in this sport and want to make their cases after the fact most of the time, but it’s strange to me that we haven’t seen more “Can you believe the former champion is the underdog here?” posts on Twitter given how often those pop up for other pairings and plus money fighters.
Maybe he is washed. Maybe he’s just not as good as Rakic. Maybe I’m on an island in believing Blachowicz still has something left and will look good this weekend. I guess we shall see.
But in the familiar words of Chad Dundas and Ben Fowlkes, “If you’ve got $20 you don’t care about seeing again…”
Aleksandar Rakic’s Statement Opportunity
Part of the reason Blachowicz being the underdog really surprises me is because no one — and I mean NO ONE — was particularly high on Rakic coming off his last two victories.
In his fight with Anthony Smith in August 2020, he wrestled “Lionheart” for 15 minutes almost to prove that he could, grinding out a victory that adds shine to your resume, but zero to your highlight reel or hype. Last March, Rakic won a unanimous decision over Thiago Santos in another three-round fight with little action. He landed a total of 36 significant strikes, with the majority of them connecting to the body and legs, giving him another win that looks great on a resume, but was ugly in real time.
Rakic knows he needs a win over Blachowicz to punch his ticket to a title shot, but I don’t think it can just be a grind-him-out, uneventful affair; he needs to make a statement, but I’m not sure he’s fully comfortable fighting that way against someone of Blachowicz’s caliber.
The Austrian was more aggressive, more attacking in his earlier UFC outings against lesser competition, confident he could pressure without taking too much damage and find a way to get out of there early, and he was right. But from his fight with Volkan Oezdemir on, he’s been more reserved, more patient, more calculating, and that doesn’t play as well with the judges, with the fans, and most importantly, with the UFC.
And so I’m interested to see if Rakic opens up a little more this weekend, trying o collect the kind of signature win he desperately needs to put his last two mild showings behind him and land the championship fight he’s been chasing.
Crucial Co-Main Event
The light heavyweight co-main event between Ryan Spann and Ion Cutelaba presents as a make-or-break fight for each man, for very different reasons.
Spann has teased making a run at contention a couple times, but each step forward has been followed by an immediate step back. He’s 30 years old and can continue to have a productive career as someone living in the 8-15 range in the division, depending on who is active and how results shake out, but if he wants to show that he’s still capable of climbing higher than that and staying there, the Fortis MMA man needs to start down that path on Saturday.
Cutelaba is a level below Spann heading into this one, but he’s also two years younger and just now starting to round into form. After debuting in the UFC as a brawl and a brute, he’s worked on his conditioning, the technical side of things, and how to put all the pieces together cohesively, and Saturday’s assignment feels designed to see if he can take a big step forward. He’s stumbled against ranked fighters in the past, but Spann is the most beatable of the bunch he’s faced, so if he’s going to advance to the next tier in the division, this is the fight where it should start to happen.
Fights like this always intrigue me because there is the potential for them to tell us so much about each man, and maybe be a signpost on the road to something greater. It could also end up just being another fight between two fighters with capped potential, but even if that’s the case, at least they’re consistently entertaining fighters that will surely get after it as soon as the fight starts this weekend.
Davey Grant is Fighting
One of these days I’m going to have to put together the actual list of everyone that falls on the “(Insert Fighter) is Fighting” list for me, but Grant is an absolute sure-fire addition.
Look — part of it is that Grant is a lovely man that I’ve been fortunate to have a couple really quality conversations with over the years, and so I’m always going to be happy to see those folks continuing to pursue their dreams and live their best lives, but it’s also that (a) he’s navigated some really miserable injury issues and lengthy layoffs over the years to get to this point, and (b) you can see how much he loves to fucking fight on his face when he’s out there, and that’s endearing to me.
Don’t believe me? Watch this and try not to smile and be excited to see “Dangerous” Davey Grant back out there this weekend:
Complete Flyweight Question Mark
The fight between Katlyn Chookagian and Amanda Ribas doesn’t make a ton of sense from a divisional standpoint, given that Ribas isn’t really a flyweight, but I’ll be damned if that has in any way prevented me from being wildly excited about this compete question mark of a fight this weekend.
I know folks like to bag on Chookagian because she kiais with every strike, fights from the outside, and is a decision machine, but she’s also been a Top 5 flyweight since the division arrived in the UFC, only loses to elite competition (and Jessica Eye) and is basically the Super Macho Man to Valentina Shevchenko’s Mike Tyson in the flyweight division’s version of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!
And then you have Ribas, who is a bundle of light and positive energy, a promising emerging talent, and a complete wild card at the moment because she can shake things up at flyweight with a win, which would also increase her standing back at strawweight as well. She’s an outstanding grappler who learned not to fall in love with her hands last January against Marina Rodriguez, and stylistically, she could present problems for Chookagian this weekend, because even though the veteran flyweight is taller and has long legs, they have a similar reach and her kicks may look like takedown opportunities to the Brazilian.
I cannot wait to see how this one plays out because I really don’t have a good sense of what’s going to happen, and while that means I could be completely wrong with my prediction tomorrow, I know I’m going to be entertained no matter what on Saturday.
Jake Hadley’s Debut
I honestly thought Dana White was going to tell Hadley, “Sorry, but you missed weight” following his win on the Contender Series last summer, and while it would have been understandable, I also think it would have been a mistake. I’m on record saying I think Hadley is a special talent and we get to start finding out if that is true on Saturday, as he debuts opposite Allan Nascimento in the main card opener.
This is an outstanding initial test for Hadley, who fought good competition on the way here and went unbeaten, earning gold in both EFC and Cage Warriors, and as long as he’s not too high on his own supply heading into this one (and his UFC career in general), I think he’s someone that could become a problem in this division in the next two or three years.
There is no one part of his game that particularly stands out over anything else — he’s just quite solid and adept everywhere, plus he has that confidence that allows him to take some chances, press forward, and fight like someone that has zero fear or questions about themselves. Some of that comes from never having lost, but I reckon Hadley is the type that will eventually bounce back from a setback or two without pause because he accepts it’s part of the game and a chance to learn and grow.
Nascimento is a skilled grappler and far more experienced, so how this one shakes out should be really informative about what the future may hold for the newcomer from Birmingham.
Quality Test for Andrea Lee
One of the many things that I adore about this sport is that every four-to-six months (ideally), fighters get a chance to show whether their last performance (or couple performances) were a legitimate sign of improvement and growth, a really good night at the office, or smoke-and-mirrors.
Andrea Lee gets that opportunity on Saturday.
“KGB” looked good, but not great in her submission win over Antonina Shevchenko at UFC 262, but straight up beat the brakes off Cynthia Calvillo in November, making even a persistent doubter like me question whether she’s finally squared things away to the point that she’s ready to make a real run towards the top of the flyweight division. As solid as she had looked at times in the past, I was never sold on her being more than perfectly situated in the 7-12 range in the rankings and having a Jeremy Stephens-like career, which is nothing to be ashamed about, at all. But the win over Calvillo forced me to reconsider, and Saturday’s pairing with Viviane Araujo feels like it will be instructive.
The 35-year-old Brazilian is the kind of jittery striker that could give Lee problems — she moves well, has quick hands, and is generally more fluid than Lee — but if these improvements and performances we’ve seen the last couple times out are legitimate signs of growth and development, Lee could certainly find an avenue to victory this weekend.
Good lord I can’t wait for these fights.
The Michael Johnson Experience
Watching Michael Johnson fight is like watching a mediocre movie that you know by heart and absolutely love: you know there are going to be some cringe-worthy moments, but there will be some cool parts too, and on the whole, you’d rather enjoy the comfort and familiarity of this particular rollercoaster than taking a chance at being thoroughly disappointed by something new.
I vividly remember watching his fight with Thiago Moises, where he dominated the opening round, and tweeting out something along the lines of “Waiting on that Michael Johnson brain cramp” before the start of the second, only to see him have a brain cramp and get submitted 25 seconds into the round.
As dumb as this will sound to some, I genuinely enjoy that kind of potential chaos. I mean, this dude slept Dustin Poirier with cold precision in the fight that served as the catalyst for Poirier making changes that led to his run to the top of the division, and is 2-7 since; that’s wonderfully chaotic. And yeah, there are some real big names in there that beat him, but he also had a “good, good, all the way bad” fight against Darren Elkins and lost to Stevie Ray as well.
You never know how things are going to go with Johnson, but you know it’s going to be worth watching.
Strawweight Styles Clash
You give me a “striker vs. grappler” pairing like Virna Jandiroba versus Angela Hill and I’m a happy camper.
Jandiroba has settled into life in the UFC, establishing herself as a Top 15 talent and showing improved hands to go along with her sound ground game, while Hill has been a fixture in the rankings for a number of years now, and continues to be a consistently entertaining — albeit at times frustrating — fighter to watch.
This one feels like it carries a little more significance because there are some new names bubbling up just outside the Top 15 that will be coming for a number in the next 12-18 months, and each of these women will be in the crosshairs because they currently reside in the lower third, making this a bit of a “take her, not me” type of deal.
I’m also curious to see if Hill has made any adjustments since landing on the wrong side of another split decision verdict that she vehemently disagreed with last December. I get believing you did enough to win, but at some point, when you’re constantly in those types of fights, you have to make some kind of change to what you’re doing in order to avoid constantly being in those type of situations in the future, and I want to see if anyone has relayed that to her yet.
I Want to Know More About… Tatsuro Taira
This one is pretty simple: Taira is a 22-year-old unbeaten flyweight with a 10-0 record, a Shooto belt on his mantle, and a couple good names on his resume. I’m always going to be interested in seeing fighters like that step into the Octagon.
He was scheduled to debut on the final fight card in April, but his bout with Carlos Candelario was cancelled just hours before the event, resulting in it getting shuffled back to here. I think it should be a quality test — Canderlario is 8-1 and his one loss was a suspect split decision defeat last fall on DWCS where he got a contract regardless — and should provide some much needed insights into what Taira brings to the table, what level of prospect he is, and how quickly he might be able to climb the flyweight ladder, if at all.
Another Look at Nick Maximov
The Diaz Brothers disciple is another fighter that I just want more time with because I’m still not really sure what to think of him as a prospect even though he’s 2-0 inside the Octagon and 8-0 overall.
It’s kind of like the way I feel about Tracy Cortez: I see the victories and the solid wrestling, but I haven’t seen very much else, and while I appreciate the positive results and control abilities on the canvas, I also want to see that there is more to your game than being able to neutralize opponents on the deck and grind out rounds.
This weekend’s pairing with Andre Petroski could answer a few questions as the TUF 29 contestant is a solid grappler himself and throws heavy power shots on the feet. He’s a little more well-rounded and experienced than Maximov’s first UFC opponent, Cody Brundage, and should hopefully be able to put up more of a fight on the canvas than Punahele Soriano did last time out.
As the guy that always talks about how difficult it is to win six, seven, eight straight fights no matter who you’re facing, I will always remain curious about fighters like Maximov that have reached this point without a setback, especially when I’m not all that sure how it happened.
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