UFC Vegas 54: One Question for Every Fight
Touring through Saturday's fight card to figure out what information and insights each contest could divulge
Here we are, back at the UFC APEX for another “Hangover Card,” where a lot of fans probably do have a little bit of a hangover feeling coming out of UFC 274.
Outside of the dynamic finish in the main event, everything about the night felt a little off — there wasn’t much flow to the evening, the bouts mostly didn’t deliver the kind of excitement many expected, and even Michael Chandler’s hellacious finish of Tony Ferguson was one of those half amazing, half saddened situations where the jolt of electricity one would normally feel from watching someone get front kicked under the chin with vicious force was mitigated by the fact that it was Ferguson and it felt like the unfortunately anticipated bad finish many forecasted.
And now we’re spinning right back around for a genuinely intriguing fight card with a number of terrific matchups on Saturday and it feels like almost everyone is having a little trouble getting motivated to get up for this show.
Hopefully moving through these questions about this weekend’s pairings will start to change that for you, because this really is a fun little fight card.
* * * * *
Jan Blachowicz vs. Aleksandar Rakic
Q: Will we see a changing of the guard on Saturday?
Generally speaking, I don’t like seeing recently deposed former champions fighting top contenders in their first fight back, but I’ll make an exception here because this feels like it could be a little more than just a battle to determine who will earn the next in title shot the light heavyweight division.
Blachowicz hasn’t fought since losing the title to Glover Teixeira last October at UFC 267, and was forced to push this fight back due to a nerve issue in his neck. He’s 39 years old, this will be his 38th professional fight, and after how lethargic and overwhelmed he looked against Teixeira, it’s fair to question what he’s got left in the tank heading into this one.
Rakic has been out since mid-March when he scored a unanimous decision win over Thiago Santos; his second consecutive tepid decision against a former title challenger. Those wins kept him moving forward in the rankings, but didn't do him any favours with fans, and now he’s being asked to win another one against a former champion in order to potentially secure a championship opportunity — and there are no guarantees that a win this weekend punches that ticket for either man.
This does feel like a potential “changing of the guard” situation — and maybe the start of a great shift overall — with the significantly younger contender from Austria besting the Polish veteran just a few weeks before the oldest champion in the UFC at the moment defends his belt against a violent, unpredictable young challenger. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Blachowicz come out and look great, quashing any questions about his future for the time being, but having just watched a couple elder statesman with a lot of miles on their tires deal with different issues last week, it’s worth watching for here as well.
Ryan Spann vs. Ion Cutelaba
Q: Can Spann advance to the next level?
Ryan Spann has all the physical tools — he’s long and tall, with power in both hands and a solid grappling acumen, plus he comes from a terrific camp, but thus far, those numerous positives haven’t produced the kind of consistent success you want to see, and it raises questions about whether the Fortis MMA product and DWCS grad will ever take that next step.
In my opinion, Spann’s issues thus far have been his decision-making and his inability to slow himself down in the heat of the moment, which go hand-in-hand. He’s reactive where he needs to be thoughtful and measured, and more often than naught, it has led to costly mistakes.
Against Johnny Walker, he had the goofy Brazilian hurt, multiple times, but rather than ease off the gas just a little in order to pick the right shots and get Walker out of there, Spann hammered down on the pedal and paid the price, getting clipped and ultimately finished. Against Anthony Smith, he wasted time and energy carrying “Lionheart” to his corner in hopes of grounding him in front of Coach Sayif Saud. Instead, Smith got annoyed by the move, never touched the canvas, and dropped Spann no more than 20 seconds later.
He’s one of those guys that still tries to fire back when he’s hurt, rather than taking a beat or two in order to reset, and it continually costs him.
Cutelaba isn’t a world-beater, but he’s a powerful brute that will get after you and bomb big shots if you let him, so this feels like one of those instances where the result should be instructive. Spann needs this win to avoid a second straight loss and to re-establish a baseline for himself within the division, while a loss would provide a clear answer to the question posed above.
Nick Maximov vs. Andre Petroski
Q: Are either of these two legit middleweights to watch?
This is actually a perfect piece of matchmaking as Maximov and Petroski are quite similar in many ways.
Both have eight professional appearances under their belts — Maximov is 8-0, Petroski is 7-1 — and neither fought particularly strong competition on the way up, save for Petroski losing to Aaron Jeffrey. Their first 14 opponents have gone on to produce a combined 6-6 record since their fights, resulting in a Natan Levy Number of (0), which feels really important to note given that each of these guys is looking for their third consecutive UFC win this weekend.
Maximov is six years younger and benefits from his Diaz Brothers affiliation, while Petroski trains with Daniel Gracie & Co. in Philadelphia, but neither have really shown true flashes of upside that makes me believe they’re destined to be players in the 185-pound weight class going forward. Saturday likely doesn’t provide any real further evidence either; instead, it will just take one of them out of the conversation.
I’m inclined to say “No” and continue taking an “I need to see a lot more” approach, so we’ll see if either man can shake me from that position with a dynamic showing this weekend.
Katlyn Chookagian vs. Amanda Ribas
Q: What would a win against Chookagian do for Ribas?
This feels like a real interesting spot for the effervescent Brazilian, who moves up a weight class to take on the entrenched silver medalist after growing tired of waiting for a fight to come together for her at strawweight.
Ribas has fought at flyweight before, earning a first-round submission win over Paige VanZant, and rebounded from her January 2021 loss to Marina Rodriguez with a quality victory over Virna Jandiroba in October, but this is a step up in multiple ways and carries some intriguing possibilities.
She’s already stationed in the Top 10 in the 115-pound weight class, but if she earns a win over Chookagian this weekend, could Ribas thrust herself into pole position for the next championship opportunity in the 125-pound ranks? Beating the veteran contender is no easy feat — only Valentina Shevchenko and Jessica Andrade have done it in recent years — and with no true challengers waiting in the wings as Sheva’s clash with Taila Santos draws near, it doesn’t seem unrealistic that Ribas could skip the line by securing a victory over the top-ranked contender in the division.
I mean, that’s likely what the UFC is hoping happens when Miesha Tate fights Lauren Murphy at UFC 276, but maybe Ribas beats her to the punch this weekend.
Jake Hadley vs. Allan Nascimento
Q: Can Hadley come through right out of the gate?
“Don't make me look like an asshole” was the mandate handed down from UFC President Dana White when he agreed to sign Jake Hadley despite the unbeaten British flyweight missing weight for his Contender Series bout opposite Mitch Raposo last fall. Saturday, the former Cage Warriors champ gets his first opportunity to prove White made the right call by stepping into the Octagon with Nascimento in a terrific initial test.
This is the kind of fight that is going to tell us — and by us, I mean the hardcore set that knows how skilled Nascimento is and that he should have gotten the nod over Tagir Ulanbekov at UFC 267 — where “White Kong” stands in the 125-pound weight class, because it takes a certain caliber of fighter to beat the Brazilian, especially if you’re looking to engage with him on the ground.
I stand by my assessment that Hadley is a legitimate prospect with top-end upside, but looking the part on the way up and maintaining that feel once you hit the big leagues is difficult, and it’s time for the ultra-confident Birmingham man to show and prove.
Michael Johnson vs. Alan Patrick
Q: Is Johnson the best flawed fighter of all time?
Johnson is 11-13 in the UFC, but shouldn’t be judged on his record alone, since he’s fought an absolute Murderer’s Row of competition over the years, including a stretch where he took on Edson Barboza, Beneil Dariush, Nathan Diaz, Dustin Poirier, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Justin Gaethje in succession.
What’s most intriguing to me is that Johnson won those fights with Barboza and Poirier, knocking out the latter in impressive fashion, but has also had a number of unexpected giveaways inside the Octagon as well.
Following is loss to Gaethje, he was paired with Darren Elkins in his first bout at featherweight, and after a good opening stanza, he was submitted in the second. The same thing happened in his bout with Thiago Moises after returning to lightweight, where he dominated Round One, but then got heel hooked less than 30 seconds into Round Two.
He’s had moments and runs where he’s looked like a genuine contender, but they’ve been coupled with instances where his Fight IQ has appeared to be questionable at best. Johnson is one of the most intriguing fighters to watch simply because the variance from one performance to the next is so wide that you simply have to tune in to see which version of “The Menace” is going to turn up.
Virna Jandiroba vs. Angela Hill
Q: Has Hill’s window of opportunity closed?
There was a five-month stretch starting in January 2020 where it seemed like Hill was on the verge of becoming a contender in the strawweight division. After beating Ariane Carnelossi the previous September in Mexico City, she stopped Hannah Cifers in January, hustled into a short-notice, decision win over Loma Lookboonmee in February, and battled Claudia Gadelha to a debated split decision loss in May that had her knocking on the door of the Top 10 and positioned as a lot of peoples’ favourite fighter in the 115-pound weight class.
Since then, Hill is 1-3, though you will hear arguments that she should be 3-1, as she dropped close battles with Michelle Waterson and Amanda Lemos to add to the series of “screwed by the judges” outcomes he’s encountered in her career. Personally, I thought she lost both of those fights and the 1-3 mark is legit, and that Saturday feels like a real referendum on where “Overkill” fits in the division going forward.
People tend to forget that Hill is 37, mostly because she hasn’t been competing in MMA for all that long and exhibits none of the “older person” qualities or attributes you see from many of her male counterparts of the same age. But Hill has never really bridged the gap from being a tough out with a funky style to someone that can use that awkwardness to produce consistent positive results.
She’s currently stationed in the lower third of the Top 15, and it feels like this bout will determine whether that’s a position she can maintain going forward.
Davey Grant vs. Louis Smolka
Q: Can we give Grant some love?
In addition to being one of those quintessential ecosystem guys I rant about all the time in this space, Grant is also one of the nicest, most affable people I’ve engaged with in this sport, and someone that persevered through a whack of adversity that would have prompted others to pack up their gear and move on to something else.
Grant fought Chris Holdsworth in the TUF 17 bantamweight finals in November 2013, but then didn’t fight again until 27 months later, when he beat Marlon Vera. He fought again in October 2016, losing via armbar to Damien Stasiak and suffering a broken arm in the process, which combined with a bout of staph to result in another 21-month layoff. He came back, got submitted, and missed another year-plus before picking up a split decision win in the final quarter of 2019 and finally having a bit of consistency in his appearances since then.
While he enters on a two-fight skid, those losses came against Vera and Adrian Yanez in a pair of competitive fights that each earned Fight of the Night honours, which should tell you exactly where Grant stands in the division and why he’s absolutely one of my guys.
Hopefully he gets some much deserved love and recognition this weekend.
Viviane Araujo vs. Andrea Lee
Q: Is Lee finally emerging as a legitimate contender?
Confession time: when she first hit the UFC, I didn’t understand the hype surrounding Lee, who was 8-2, but lost to the two most experienced, established competitors she fought under the Invicta FC banner, Roxanne Modafferi and Sarah D’Alelio.
Her initial UFC wins didn’t convince me she was a contender either, and the string of close battles where she kept landing on the wrong side of the scorecards didn’t sway me either, though I did think she clearly beat Lauren Murphy at UFC 247. When she dropped a clear decision to Modafferi in September 2020, I thought we were seeing Lee reach her peak and start to plateau, but since then, “KGB” has shown me I was wrong.
Last year, Lee posted consecutive stoppage wins over Antonina Shevchenko and Cynthia Calvillo to spark new intriguing in her standing within the flyweight hierarchy. While the win over the elder Shevchenko featured some technical flaws on the ground, the ferocity and dominance she displayed against Calvillo was truly eye-opening, and makes this weekend’s clash with Araujo a must-see attraction.
While Ribas has the chance to cut the line with a win over Chookagian, Lee can take another step forward in her quest to potentially challenge for championship gold with a win of her own on Saturday. She seems far more settled and stable in life these days, and it’s translating into her performances in the Octagon, which in turn have forced me to reconsider my position on where she fits in the division and where her ceiling may rest.
This is one I’m really curious to see this weekend.
Frank Camacho vs. Manuel Torres
Q: What does Camacho have left at this point?
It’s been nearly two years since Camacho stepped into the Octagon, and the last time he crossed that threshold, he was knocked out in just 41 seconds by Justin Jaynes. Since then, the 32-year-old veteran was forced out of one assignment after testing positive for COVID-19 and another after being involved in a car accident that left him with a herniated disc in his neck.
An all-action fighter with a 2-5 record under the UFC banner, it’s impossible to know what Camacho can bring to the table this weekend against Torres, a DWCS grad with a 12-2 record that includes a couple quality wins, and more than a couple not so quality wins. Neck injuries are scary AF and you wonder if there will be some hesitancy to get right back to being an aggressive, attacking fighter after a lengthy layoff and jarring accident.
Prior to all this, Camacho was one of those fighters you just wanted to continually see compete, regardless of his record in the UFC, because every fight was exciting, so I hope he’s able to get back to that form and find some success going forward. You never want to see injuries have a lasting impact on a career, so here’s hoping “Frank the Crank” is fully healed and back on form this weekend.
Tatsuro Taira vs. Carlos Candelario
Q: What does the future hold for the Shooto standout?
Taira is an undefeated 22-year-old flyweight. He won the Shooto flyweight title last summer and has finished eight of his 10 fights, including seven of them in the first round. Before turning pro, he went 9-0 as an amateur, giving him a real Jack Shore-like profile as heads into his UFC debut opposite Candelario on Saturday.
Flyweight is rich with talent, but also not really deep enough that you can’t climb into the rankings with a couple quality wins, and I’m really interested to see what kind of success Taira can have as he transitions to the biggest stage in the sport.
This is the right kind of assignment for his debut — Candelario was 8-0 before dropping a debated split decision last year on DWCS and becoming the first losing fighter to earn a contract — and given his age, he lands as a long-term prospect to track for me. That being said, if the Japanese newcomer goes out and finishes Candelario quickly, he could get shuffled over to the fast lane in the flyweight ranks.
Interesting times ahead and I’ll be watching.
Keyboard Kimura is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.