Two of the best and most exciting featherweights in the world headline UFC: Long Island on Saturday. Though Brian Ortega and Yair Rodriguez haven't won a fight in two and three years respectively, they still represent the cream of the crop at 145lbs. It's likely that whoever wins here will get a shot at the belt, even if that means Ortega taking on Alexander Volkanovski again. It's a battle between two infinitely durable guys with a proclivity for finishing fights. One of the best fight night headliners we will see all year, no doubt.
Elsewhere on the main card, Michelle Waterson-Gomez returns to the octagon after a 14-month layoff to take on the devastating power-hitter, Amanda Lemos.
Li Jingliang looks to avenge his sobering loss to Khamzat Chimaev when he takes on the King of Kung-Fu, Muslim Salikhov. This fight should be pretty bonkers and someone will probably wake up with a flashlight dangling in front of their face.
Sumudaerji will look to enter the top 10 of the UFC Flyweight rankings as he faces off against the #8 Matt Chnell who has lost some steam at 125lbs in the last 12 months.
Shane Burgos and Charles Jourdain merely need to exchange strikes once and they'll be awarded with Fight of the Night honours. It's inconceivable that this fight will be anything other than sheer fireworks.
Opening up the main card, Lauren Murphy welcomes Miesha Tate to the top of the scrap heap at Women's Flyweight as the former UFC Bantamweight champion looks to make one final push for gold in a new division.
Brian Ortega x Yair Rodriguez
Now this is perfect matchmaking. Five rounds of high-level, chaotic Mixed Martial Arts between two of the best in the world. I'm so happy this fight wasn't thrown on a PPV main card. When you put two infinitely durable fighters in a cage together and dangle potential title contention over their heads, it has to headline a card.
If you had to conjure up a list of MMA's most exciting fighters, you'd be absolutely crazy to not mention Brian Ortega and Yair Rodriguez. Even when they're losing, they're fun to watch.
I can envisage Yair leading the dance for the first two rounds, keeping Ortega at bay with strikes down the middle. The problem is that Ortega will walk through shot after shot just to get himself in boxing range. He isn't someone you can stave off for too long and he does his best work later on in a fight. Of his six UFC finishes, four of those have come in the final round of fights that he was losing in. Once Ortega manages to dart into boxing range, Yair is going to fight wildly. Elbows, spinning strikes, flamboyant knees - he's going to throw everything at Ortega. In amongst that craziness, I think Ortega will keep his cool and manage to catch Yair in a submission. Either Yair will get caught off balance (as he often does) and Ortega will follow him down to the canvas or Ortega's going to jump on his back.
The general problem with Ortega's game is that he's a fundamentally bad wrestler. He has zero aptitude for takedowns and that means that he has to find a way into submissions from unorthodox situations. If Yair wasn't such a wild fighter, I'd probably pick him to beat Ortega. I just think Ortega is smarter and will be able to tough out the first couple of rounds before exposing Yair's explosiveness to sink in a choke.
One thing's for certain, this fight is going to be incredible.
Pick: Brian Ortega by submission
Michelle Waterson-Gomez x Amanda Lemos
Long gone are the days of Michelle Waterson-Gomez's hunt for UFC gold. The UFC did their utmost to push her campaign but the fact of the matter is that Waterson-Gomez simply cannot hang with the top of the Strawweight division. Scrappy as she is, a great fighter she is not. I think she's reconciled with the fact that a UFC title is not on the horizon.
The UFC is using what little value is still attached to her name to build a legitimate title contender here. Amanda Lemos got handily crushed by Jessica Andrade but, then again, who hasn't been? Outside of that, her Strawweight run has been pretty impressive. Not only has she been winning fights, she's been brutalising opponents with one-punch power that we're not used to seeing at 115lbs. Despite being 35 years of age, I still think she's a player at 115lbs and poses serious danger to a lot of the top fighters in the weight class. Do I think she'll win a belt? No. But she'll definitely be in the title picture at some point.
For all of her flaws, Waterson-Gomez is a glutton for punishment and insanely durable. She's never been knocked out in the UFC. If Lemos can become the first fighter to do so, it's going to send some shockwaves through the division and will sit well with the casual fans who think Waterson-Gomez is a world beater. It's pretty obvious to me that this is what the UFC wants.
Lemos is going to mess Waterson-Gomez up but will have to manage her shoddy gas tank in doing so. If she aggressively hunts the finish, she could find herself struggling in the latter stages of the fight. I envisage two rounds of total dominance by Lemos followed by a sketchy 3rd round where a bloodied Waterson-Gomez starts to take over.
Pick: Amanda Lemos by decision
Li Jingliang x Muslim Salikhov
The Leech vs The King of Kung-Fu. Here's a Welterweight fight I didn't know I needed in my life until it was announced. It's been lost in the shuffle as conversations have naturally surrounded Burgos x Jourdain and Ortega x Yair. This fight might not match the violence of those aforementioned but it will, no doubt, end in brutal fashion.
Whenever someone decides they want to strike with Li Jingliang, they enter an unspoken agreement to suffer for 15 straight minutes. The path to beating him has been laid out for a while: take him down, grind him out. Thankfully, despite what ideas of what his last name may insinuate, Salikhov is not a wrestler. He's someone who will happily stand and trade for 15 minutes. That's why this fight rocks.
Jingliang is the betting underdog and I cannot for the life of me understand why. I appreciate that the last time we saw him out there, he was handily dominated by Chimaev, but I have fresher memories of Jingliang crushing his opponents than of Salikhov doing the same.
For as technical a striker as Salikhov is, he's been racking up wins against fighters who either strike slow or don't have the cardio to match him. Jingliang is both well conditioned and a fast striker. He's someone who is always in constant pursuit of the body. His power hooks and roundhouse kicks to body are two of his most patented strikes. Against a fighter like Salikhov who defends with such a high guard, I can see Jingliang hunting that midsection and finding success all day long.
Jingliang is going to find a way to make this fight dirty early on and will manage to break an aging Salikhov down inside the distance.
Pick: Li Jingliang by KO/TKO
Matt Schnell x Sumudaerji
This feels like a changing of the guard at Flyweight. Matt Schnell has been in the division for what feels like an eternity and, despite showing some promise in recent years, looks as though his best years may be behind him. Although he's only 32, it seems as though he's hit a ceiling. Every time he gets close to the top of the scrap heap at Flyweight, he's met with adversity and crumbles. Mentally, I wonder if he has much left in him to ward off a surging 26-year-old Sumudaerji.
Since moving down to 125lbs, Sumudaerji has looked terrifyingly good. His size, striking speed and power make him a bit of an outlier in the division. His striking arsenal is diverse as he blends a kick-heavy game with sound boxing fundamentals. His rise to the very top of the division is inevitable.
I'll be honest, I worry about Schnell's chin here. For as good as Schnell has been over the years, he's always had suspect durability. Of his 11 UFC fights, Alexandre Pantoja has just two knockouts and Schnell is one of them. Hector Sandoval only had five UFC fights but his sole finish via strikes was over Schnell too. Over the years, Schnell has learned to fight smarter and more patiently if his opponent isn't pushing the pace but Sumudaerji is going to be right there in his face for as long as the fight lasts. And I don't think it'll last very long at all.
Pick: Sumudaerji by 1st round KO/TKO
Shane Burgos x Charles Jourdain
Violence. Chaos. Carnage. Savagery. Brutality. Barbarity. Viciousness. You get where I'm going with this. For as long as this fight lasts, Shane Burgos and Charles Jourdain are going to beat the ever-loving life out of one another. I can't recall the last time I was this certain of a fight delivering on its hype as much as here.
This is one of those fights where I certainly have an idea of how it might go but all it takes is one explosive action from either guy to change the outcome entirely.
I'm going to stick my neck on the line and say that Burgos is more durable and a better striker than Jourdain. Burgos has been finished by Edson Barboza and Kattar but think about all the strikes he absorbed before finally wilting. I appreciate that Jourdain has never been knocked out as a professional but he's also never fought a sheer aggressor like Burgos - a guy who hunts the body almost as incessantly as he tries to knock your head off your shoulders. The diversity in his striking arsenal will cause Jourdain a lot of trouble.
Jourdain is a terrific striker but he's not as technically sound or as powerful as Burgos is which I think, if this fight descends into a brawl like all of Burgos' fights do, he won't quite have the skillset to keep up with Burgos. That may be dismissing Jourdain's ability but styles make fights and Burgos has made a living of fighting in the pocket against harder hitters and lived to tell the tale.
I don't think there's any chance of either guy wrestling here. It's going to be a blast for as long as it lasts. These guys can probably secure Fight of the Night honours in less than 5 minutes' work. One thing's for certain, it's not going the distance.
Pick: Shane Burgos by KO/TKO
Lauren Murphy x Miesha Tate
What the UFC is trying to do with Miesha Tate's twilight years is plain as day to see. It's obvious that they want one last big fight out of her and, of course, she's happy to oblige. I don't know how tough the cut to 125lbs will be for Tate at the age of 35 but, stylistically, the UFC could not have given her a more desirable matchup for her Flyweight debut. She would have struggled more against Jessica Andrade, Alexa Grasso, Manon Fiorot and Viviane Araujo who are all ranked lower than Lauren Murphy.
Much as I respect the doggedness and workmanlike approach of Murphy's game, it's a limited style. She can do a little of everything offensively but, defensively, she's less capable of good moments.
If Tate is well conditioned enough, she will work for takedown after takedown. Murphy might be able to defend the first few but she'll end up pinned against the fence nonetheless. She doesn't have the firepower or defensive nous to counter Tate's shots and make her pay for it. If not for the question marks over the weight cut, Tate would probably be a bigger favourite heading into this fight than the -170 odds floating over her name at the time of writing this.
I'm expecting Tate to have a field day with the #3 ranked Flyweight and stake her claim at Valentina's belt. The UFC wants it, Valentina wants it and Tate most definitely does too. This is a layup if ever I've seen one.
Pick: Miesha Tate by decision
Punahele Soriano x Dalcha Lungiambula
This has the potential to be a serious slugfest between two fighters who have happened upon successive losses in 2022. They've both lost to grinding grapplers as Punahele Soriano was defeated by Nick Maximov and Dalcha Lungiambula by Cody Brundage - who he almost decapitated before getting choked out. These are two fighters who need to face other strikes just for the sheer entertainment of it all. They're never going to set the world alight but, for one night, they can seriously entertain a crowd if given the right stylistic matchup.
Lungiambula will be gleaming with confidence as he trains with Brendan Allen - one of only two men to hand Soriano a loss in the octagon. The difference is that he is not Allen, nor is he as good as Allen. There may be little things that he can do to expose Soriano's game but he doesn't have the skillset to execute it the way that Allen did.
Whereas Lungiambula is pure explosiveness on the feet, Soriano is the more technical fighter of the two. I'm just not certain that he has the mentality to fight with patience and poise against someone like Lungiambula, especially as he's on a losing streak. That's where I can see this fight being really, really exciting. Soriano is the better fighter and I don't think it's contestable. But if he gets cracked once, I can see him trying to get it back with reckless abandon.
Having said all of that, I'm going to give Soriano the benefit of the doubt. He's the better conditioned fighter of the two and Lungiambula looks like he's starting to lose wind in the UFC. If Soriano can find those shots to the body that he's known for, he's going to significantly reduce the threat that Lungiambula poses. I struggle to see it go any other way, realistically.
Pick: Punahele Soriano by decision
Ricky Simón x Jack Shore
This might be my favourite matchup on the card from a purely technical standpoint. Yes, I'm all over the pure chaos and violence that Burgos and Jourdain will deliver but this, to me, is equally as exciting.
Jack Shore and Ricky Simón are two of the very best fighters at 135lbs in the UFC which is one hell of a compliment considering how deep that division has become in recent years.
Simón has a fantastic grappling game. If he decides he's going to take you for a ride, well, you don't get much of a say in the matter. His striking is better than people give him credit for, too. He can hit relatively hard but it's the speed and precision of his punches that always catches opponents off-guard. He does his best work in close proximity, striking often to the body before engaging in grappling sequences.
Wales are starting to produce some incredible MMA wrestlers and I don't think most have caught on to this yet. Shore and Mason Jones - also in the UFC - are flying the flag and displaying serious wrestling pedigree in the octagon. Shore may not be the offensive wrestling juggernaut that Simón is but 18 takedowns in 5 fights is quite something.
I think a lot of people will be surprised when Shore manages to grapple with Simón and succeed in most exchanges. I'm relishing the prospect of these two just scrambling for 15 minutes straight.
If the fight is largely contested on the feet - either because they don't want to grapple or because Shore has stuffed Simón's takedown attempts - Shore will crack Simón and put him out to pasture. For all the speed and savvy that Simón has on the feet, Shore is twice as fast and twice as good. If an old Urijah Faber can knock you out, imagine what Shore could do. I hate to hang that bizarre result over Simón's head but it's impossible to ignore.
Shore is going to hold UFC Bantamweight gold one day. The hunt begins on Saturday.
Pick: Jack Shore by KO/TKO
Bill Algeo x Herbert Burns
A week ago, Bill Algeo and Herbert Burns were scheduled to fight completely different opponents on this card. Due to injuries and withdrawals, the UFC managed to salvage their statuses on this card by pairing them against one another.
This is a classic striker vs grappler matchup. Algeo is all volume and pressure while Burns will strike into a takedown before submitting his opponents.
In every single one of his UFC fights, Burns has managed to get each opponent down at least once - one of those culminating in a win via rear-naked choke. Algeo, on the other hand, fights so aggressively that he's been taken down 19 times in four fights. He's managed to win two of those. While he's defensively sound on the mat, he's never fought someone as decorated in the submission department as Burns and that's a bit of a scary prospect if you're Algeo. If Ricardo Ramos can get you down on 8 of 13 attempts, imagine what Burns can do.
Make no mistake about it: if Burns thinks he can strike with Algeo, he's going to get run over. But at 34 years of age and almost two years of inactivity, Burns has to fight smart. His path to victory is clear as day.
Pick: Herbert Burns by submission
Dustin Jacoby x Da Un Jung
If Dustin Jacoby had a fan club, I'd be the chairman. He has looked outstanding since returning to the UFC. He's yet to taste defeat with five wins and a draw under his belt. I don't care about rankings much but, in a division as shallow as Light Heavyweight, it's baffling to me that a man with his resume is only perenially ranked and dipping in and out of #15. I don't think Jacoby's going to be contending for a belt at any point but the man is just a technically proficient kickboxer who knows how to have fun.
Da Un Jung fought to a draw with Sam Alvey in 2020. Sam Alvey. 2020. It's still a nasty taste I can't wash out of my mouth. Even after he destroyed Kennedy Nzechukwu with one of the most brutal elbows you'll see. It's a weird blemish on his record despite the total dominance he's shown across every single other UFC fight he's had.
If Jung wrestles like he did against William Knight, it's going to be a rough fight for Jacoby. Most of Jacoby's opponents are willing to trade with him but, when they do look for the takedown, they don't face much resistance. The problem is that Jung will have to walk through fire to get to those positions. Jacoby is a better striker and knows how to fight patiently and on the outside if he needs to. If they clinch against the fence, Jacoby is stronger and does better work offensively to stay active in those positions.
This is a really competitive fight and a total coin-flip. I can't foresee either man getting finished. It's likely going to be a contentious decision and spark the weekly faux-outrage on social media about MMA judging. I can't wait.
Pick: Dustin Jacoby by decision
Dwight Grant x Dustin Stoltzfus
This is one of those fights where the loser is likely to lose their position on the UFC roster. Dwight Grant has had a better and more memorable UFC career, scoring a highlight reel knockout over Carlo Pedersoli back in 2019 and going to war with Daniel Rodriguez and, most recently, Sergey Khandozkho. The problem is that, while Grant can get drawn into exciting bouts, he never really wins them. And if we look past the Pedersoli fight, when he does win it's never really decisive. If he's not on either side of a knockout, he's almost always in a split decision fight. This move up to Middleweight reeks a little of desperation.
Dustin Stoltzfus' UFC run has been nothing short of awful: three fights, three resounding defeats. Kyle Daukaus swept the scorecards with him before Rodolfo Vieira and Gerald Meerschaert submitted him. The frustrating thing with Stoltzfus is that there's a decent fighter behind all of the disappointment. He can kick and keep a fight at range or he can catch you in creative submissions.
There's every chance this fight could be ugly but I can't see that happening. Both fighters should come out aggressive and with a point to prove. Up a weight class, Grant may be carrying even more power in his hands. But he might also be poorly conditioned and unaccustomed to carrying that extra mass in the cage against a guy in Stoltzfus who moves a lot and will have you chasing him. And I think that's where this fight will go - I'm expecting Stoltzfus to control a large portion of it, eventually get hit with something he doesn't like, and navigate the fight to the ground where he'll find his first UFC victory.
Pick: Dustin Stoltzfus by decision
Jessica Penne x Emily Ducote
I'm really excited to see how Emily Ducote finds life in the UFC. At one point in her career, she was a 6-5 Flyweight and looked like she might not amount to much despite showing some promise early on. Since that point, Ducote has dropped down a weight class, won five fights and claimed the Invicta Strawweight belt in devastating fashion.
Ducote's first fight in the UFC is a pretty strong test and, without a doubt, the toughest fight of her career as she takes on former UFC title challenger Jessica Penne. Penne had a four-year layoff after her loss to Danielle Taylor in 2017. When she returned to action at 38 years of age, she narrowly defeated prospect Lupita Godinez and submitted Karolina Kowalkiewicz in the space of four months. Upon first glance, two excellent victories. But it's important to inspect further. 75% of fans thought Godinez won while 12 out of 17 media members thought the same too. It was a fight where Penne did little with the advantageous positions she had while Godinez landed the more impactful strikes. Her victory over Kowalkiewicz, while dominant, marked KK's 5th loss in a row.
As much as this is a tough test for Ducote, I'd argue it's even tougher for Penne. Godinez willingly engaged in the grappling department because it's her style too while Kowalkiewicz was clearly over the hill. Ducote is a young and fresh fighter who not only throws in combination but hits incredibly hard for her weight class. I don't think Penne has the footwork or reaction time to stay out of the way of what Ducote throws at her, nor is that her style. Penne fights aggressively and pushes the pace, often paying the price for doing so. At 39 years of age, I worry about her durability in a fight like this.
Ducote's going to be a fun addition to the UFC's ever-blossoming Strawweight division.
Pick: Emily Ducote by KO/TKO