10 Things I Like at UFC Vegas 57
From an electric main event to some key questions being answered about emerging talents, Saturday's card has plenty to offer
If we’re calling events that follow pay-per-view shows “Hangerover Cards” (and we’re 100% doing that BTW), we need to come up with a name for the shows that lead into PPV events.
Professional wrestling outfits call them “Go Home Shows” because it’s the last time they get to set the stage for the audience before they hit the squared circle for whatever big event is taking place on the weekend, but that doesn’t work here because this isn’t professional wrestling and we’re not getting the same competitors at consecutive events.
Sticking with the bar theme, I like the idea of “Happy Hour Cards” because there is always something good on the Happy Hour menu, but let’s be honest: we all look at it and know that it’s not the best collection of offerings, but are happy to grab the one or two things we like.
I think that solves it.
Pre-PPV cards will henceforth be known as “Happy Hour Cards” on this newsletter.
Here’s what I like on this week’s menu.
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Arman Tsarukyan’s Upside
It’s fitting that on the night of the NBA Draft — one of my all-time favourite nights, though I don’t follow my old Draft Night routine (explanation coming) — I’m talking about a fighter’s upside, because the draft is often about taking the player with the most upside.
Tsarukyan is the MMA equivalent of a Top 5 selection to me — he’s 25 years old with outstanding fundamentals and clear next-level skills, with a wealth of quality experience on the way up to this point, and yet still has an abundance of room to grow. As good as he is right now — 18-2, 5-1 UFC, W5, ranked No. 11 UFC / No. 13 Fight Matrix / T11 MMAFighting — would anyone be surprised if he levelled up over the next three or four years?
Levelling up means Tsarukyan becomes a part of the championship class in the 155-pound weight class, which doesn’t sound at all unrealistic to me. He’s taken all the right steps, progressed along an impressive trajectory, and gets a chance this weekend to take another step forward. Even if he falters here and lands on the wrong side of things, it’s not really that big a deal because of all the things I wrote in the previous paragraph and all the evidence we have to quality young talents needing a little extra time to get it right at the absolute apex of this sport.
Tsarukyan is already an outstanding fighter, and his upside is insane.
Spencer’s Old NBA Draft Night Routine: so I started this during the summer of 2001 when I was working at and living at my university for the summer. I would order a pizza from wherever I fancied at the time — first one was a Pizza Hut New Yorker — and sit, by myself, watching the draft, shouting at the television, and enjoying my pizza.
I only managed to rattle off five straight years of this before work and life intervened, but mixed in a couple return to the routine engagements over the last 15-plus years, though tonight won’t be one of them. My guess is Jabari Smith goes No. 1, unless Houston opts to trade up for some reason to take Paulo Banchero, who should be there for them at No. 3 (Chet Holmgren goes No. 2 to OKC), but you know, teams do dumb shit all the time.
Mateusz Gamrot Being in the UFC
Mamed Khalidov never came over. Neither did Michal Materla. Roberto Soldic is apparently thinking about it, but hasn’t jumped ship yet, and Salahdine Parnasse seems quite comfortable where he is as well.
The first two of those men are icons under the KSW banner, while the latter are current champions and elite talents cultivated by the Polish promotion, which is one of the biggest MMA outfits in the world and one of the best in the business, hands down. Understandably, the braintrust at KSW has historically done a very good job of keeping its best home-grown, in-house talents in house, which is why Gamrot just being in the UFC is a thing I love.
Look, the 31-year-old, who resides in Poznań, was a two-weight champion for the promotion at the time he left. He was 17-0 with one No Contest verdict, a massive draw for the organization, and universally recognized as one of the top fighters competing outside of the UFC. If he chose, Gamrot probably could have enjoyed a lucrative and successful next few years continuing to fight under the KSW banner, defending his belts, and doing exactly what he had been doing.
Instead, he took his talents to Las Vegas, ostensibly, and began testing himself against the best fighters in the UFC, and we’ve all benefitted as a result. Each of his four UFC appearances have been entertaining and his last three wins have been terrific, even if they somehow didn’t resonate with the self-described serious fans that “watch every event,” yet can’t seem to remember more than a handful of fighters.
Gamrot staying with KSW would have been like Marc Gasol never coming to the NBA after winning the ACB MVP in 2008, and before you scoff at that comparison because you don’t think all that highly of the younger Gasol, go check the resume… my guy is headed to the Hall of Fame.
Neil Magny’s Self-Awareness
Magny really is one of my favourite people in the sport to talk to because in the most basic terms possible, he just gets it — he understands this is part of the business, embraces it with open arms, and is always engaging and open about things, which sounds simple, but trust me, it doesn’t always work like that.
It’s no surprise to me, however, that Magny is this way when we speak because he seems to be that way permanently, including when it comes to his approach inside the Octagon.
We laughed about how everyone knows what he’s going to do each time he steps into the Octagon when we spoke ahead of this fight, and Magny talked about how he’s constantly having to refine his approach because with more than five hours worth of footage available on him, he can’t just go out there and look to jab-and-move. He still does, but there is more to it than that.
I have the utmost respect for guys like Magny that find a way to thrive and excel in a space where there have been so many others that came along, ran hot, but burned out, all while he’s remained a fixture in the welterweight rankings for nearly a decade. I joked with my friend Shaheen Al-Shatti once that I’m the Neil Magny of MMA media — a dude that sticks to the basics, puts in the work, and has been hanging around for a dozen years now — and now that I think about it even more, it’s a point of pride for me.
Real heads know that Magny is the real deal and what he’s done is really difficult to achieve. I think the same can be said for me too.
Shavkat Rakhmonov’s Entrance Exam
Rakhmonov has been lights out thus far in his UFC career (and his entire career, for that matter) and while I think he could very well develop into a title contender in the next few years, I’m still desperate to see him in there with Magny on Saturday night.
This is the kind of fight everyone should always get behind, because it really is perfect matchmaking: you’ve got an absolute stud prospect everyone is collectively excited about, taking on a tested, established veteran who doesn’t quite get the respect he deserves for what he’s done inside the Octagon, and now matter how it shakes out, someone wins big.
Either Rakhmonov beats a bona fide Top 10 talent and takes another step forward in the division, or Magny hands him his first loss and folks are left with no choice but to recognize how quality he’s been for the better part of the last decade. Each outcomes works within the division, gives us something new to deal with going forward, and as an added bonus, clarifies some questions that remain about Rakhmonov one way or the other.
Just a perfect pairing and hopefully a terrific fight on Saturday night.
Thiago Moises’ Timeline
This is one I’m going to keep in the “Receipts” folder because something tells me I’m going to be looking for it in a couple of years.
Moises turned 27 in March. He’s 15-6 as a professional, 4-4 in the UFC, and currently resides, somewhere between Nos. 16 and let’s say 25 in the UFC lightweight division. According to Fight Matrix, he’s No. 32 in the world, which feels like it fits with my 16-25 projection. This weekend, he faces Christos Giagos in a bout where he’s looking to snap a two-fight skid.
I don’t know if Moises is going to become UFC champion, but I do think he’s going to be one of those fighters that, after a .500 start to their UFC career with losses against quality competition, becomes a perennial contender and Top 15 fixture when they’re 29-32.
Think Dustin Poirier. Think Charles Oliveira; fighters that started young, fought a tough slate, but kept working, kept improving, and eventually went on a real nice run to establish themselves as stalwarts within the lightweight division. I think Moises has that kind of upside, because while some folks see a fighter with a 4-4 record in the Octagon, I see guy that was willing to test himself against top-shelf competition and in most instances, proved to be a very tough out for a bunch of highly-skilled, highly-regarded competitors.
It’s just a hunch, just a feeling, but I think Moises will still has a bright future in the UFC.
More Bantamweight Excellence
The fight between Nate Maness and Umar Nurmagomedov on Saturday’s main card is not only another strong reminder of how otherworldly deep and competitive the 135-pound ranks are right now, but it’s also a clash between two emerging talents looking to keep moving forward in that bantamweight hellscape.
Maness is criminally underrated. He’s 3-0 in the UFC with wins over Johnny Munoz Jr., Luke Sanders, and Tony Gravely, with a 14-1 record overall that includes a TKO title win and his only loss coming to former (and maybe future?) UFC competitor Taylor Lapilus. He has good size for the division, has shown he can deal with adversity, and beat guys in multiple ways, all of which should qualify him as someone fans are excited to see this weekend.
But for most, he’s simply “the guy fighting Umar Nurmagomedov,” which tells you how excited and intrigue people are by Khabib’s undefeated cousin, as they should be.
While he’s not even close to the same style of fighter as the former lightweight ruler, “Cousin Umar” has been awfully impressive through his first-two UFC appearances, producing submission wins over veterans Sergey Morozov and Brian Kelleher. He’s far more bouncy and kicky than Khabib, but he’s proven to be quality on the canvas as well, and although there are scores of quality up-and-coming talents outside the rankings at bantamweight right now — Maness, Said Nurmagomedov, Kyler Phillips, Montel Jackson to name a few — Umar is currently the one with the most hype and attention, and might be the best of the bunch.
This matchup should help clarify things and create some interesting matchup possibilities for the second half of the year, regardless of who gets their hand raised this weekend.
Chris Curtis’ Whole Story
Writing about Curtis’ long, winding road to the UFC last year ahead of his debut win at UFC 268 remains one of my favourite pieces I’ve ever been able to put together, and running it back with him ahead of his second appearance a month later was good times as well.
As much as I love the actual nuts-and-bolts of this sport in terms of the technical elements, the strategic pieces, and the actual action of it all, getting to connect with people and share the human side of it has always been the thing that fascinated me the most, and I’m quite proud to have been able to sit down with the 34-year-old “Action Man,” who takes on Rodolfo Vieira on Saturday, and have the conversation that resulted in this piece coming together the way it did.
All kinds of people spend a whole lot of time talking about how the UFC doesn’t build stars and nobody knows most of the people, but very few take the time to actually try to get to know the athletes, and it’s not like the opportunities to do so aren’t out there and available. If they did, there would be more chatter about Curtis returning to action this weekend and the incredible year he had last year.
But there’s not, because the loudest voices in the space don’t talk about him, and the “never miss a card” set never seem to be paying close enough attention when all the non-obvious cool things land in front of them.
Big Boys Gettin’ After It
Light heavyweights Carlos Ulberg and Tafon Nchukwi close out the prelims against one another and I’m genuinely excited to see this good old-fashioned hoss fight on Saturday night.
Both guys are big, athletic figures with limited experience in the UFC, and I fully expect this to be one of those bouts where it’s more of a “who can out-athlete the other” as opposed to a technical battle, and frankly, I’m here for it.
I’ll be honest, I haven’t been particularly impressed with Ulberg, who won a fight that was tailor-made for him on the Contender Series and has gotten a bit of a push because he’s a City Kickboxing guy and the UFC likes giving chances to competitors from the same gyms as some of their champions. Physically, he looked a create-a-fighter dialled up to max values on the UFC game, but in terms of application inside the Octagon, it’s been just meh thus far.
Nchukwi has fought better competition, but managed basically the same results, entering with a 2-2 mark to Ulberg’s 1-1, and is still a raw prospect. There are pieces of his game that I like and I think with time and experience, he could become a fringe Top 15 guy in the 205-pound ranks (which isn’t as difficult as it is in other divisions), but on Saturday, I think he’s simply going to get in there and look to out-hustle Ulberg and be the more well-rounded athlete.
This is one of those bouts that doesn’t carry any real immediate divisional ramifications, but should still be a ton of fun.
Additional Reminders of Bantamweight’s Excellence
The two additional bantamweight fights on the prelims are further evidence to the support the “bantamweight is the best division in the UFC / sport” arguments, which is one I’ve been making and supporting for some time.
In each bout, a still young, still undefined fighter (Raulian Paiva, Mario Bautista) squares off with a more veteran opponent (Sergey Morozov, Brian Kelleher) in matchups that should tell us something more about the former, but could also quite reasonably be won by the latter, and I would argue that there is no other division in the UFC where fights like this can happen as frequently as in the 135-pound weight class. There is just so much talent, and so many game, active veterans that it’s a perfect mixture right now.
Both Paiva and Bautista have shown flashes and could work their way into that pack of talent on the fringes of the Top 15 I mentioned earlier in the Maness/Nurmagomedov fight, and how they navigate these tests this weekend should clarify whether that’s a happening now thing, a could happen down the line thing, or a probably not ever going to happen thing.
Key Fights for DWCS Alums
JP Buys and Vanessa Demopoulos both competed on Dana White’s Contender Series, with each losing their initial appearance. Buys got a contract with a win in his second showing, and “Lil Monster” scored a short-notice call-up less than a year after appearing on the show.
As the guy that has chronicled damn-near every episode of the annual talent search since its inception, I have a bit of a soft spot and a perpetual interest in the fighters that passed through the show, extending out to some of the competitors that didn’t make the UFC and remain in the regional circuit to this day.
Buys needs a win on Saturday after losing his first two assignments and returning to flyweight. He has a neutral matchup with Cody Durden this weekend, and it feels like a “win or go home” situation for the South African. Demopoulos is in far less dire straights as she’s coming off a victory, but she has a more unfavourable pairing (IMO) against former Invicta FC atomweight champ Jinh Yu Frey. I’m still not sold Demopoulos being more than a .500 fighter (or slightly lower, honestly) at this level, and I’m curious to see if she can change my mind this weekend.
There really is something interesting to me about every fight, every week, even if it’s something as simple as “can these DWCS alums show they belong this weekend?”
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