At UFC San Diego, Marlon 'Chito' Vera will headline a card for the second time in 2022 when he takes on former WEC/UFC Bantamweight champion and all-time great Dominick Cruz. Can Chito's forward pressure and impactful shots put Cruz away or will the former champion be able to frustrate and out-volume his opponent? It makes for an entertaining fight - and one that will certainly impact the title picture at 135lbs.
In the co-main event, Onama makes his third appearance in 2022 and is looking to make it three wins in a row against the ever-entertaining Nate Landwehr. Onama boasts top-tier finishing instincts while Landwehr thrives off being the underdog in the fights. It may not be a co-main event with much at stake in terms of rankings but it will no doubt deliver on the excitement that it promises.
Elsehwere on the main card, super prospect Yazmin Jauregui makes her UFC debut - she might be the best prospect out of Mexico. Her opponent, Iasmin Lucindo, is only 20 years old but already has 18 professional fights which makes her a genuine test for Jauregui.
Devin Clark moves back down to Light Heavyweight to take on Azamat Murzakanov, a fighter who delivered one of the best knockouts of the year in his UFC debut back in March. At 11-0, Murzakanov has yet to suffer defeat.
Ariane Lipski and Priscilla Cachoeira meet at a catchweight 135lbs due to their fight getting cancelled the week prior. Lipski exhibited problems making weight and then pulled out of the fight with sickness. Fighting at 135lbs will certainly benefit Cachoeira who will be carrying more power than her opponent.
Tasked to be the curtain-jerker for the main card is Gerald Meerschaert x Bruno Silva. Knockout power versus slick submission grappling. We're guaranteed to see a finish in this one.
Marlon Vera x Dominick Cruz
Chito has been my Bantamweight darkhorse for years now and he's finally starting to come into his own. No more is he this baby-faced striker with a proclivity for snatching necks. He's a bonafide pressure fighter with a brutal arsenal of attacks and top-tier cardio.
Dominick Cruz is the GOAT of the division and I will not accept any other name. For as long as I live, I'll never forget Cruz being crippled with injuries and still finding a way to defeat TJ Dillashaw - a guy everyone believed would walk right through him. It's one of my favourite performances in a title fight. I love me some Cruz. His lateral movement, skip steps, head movement and everything in between has made him a marvel to watch for years on end. Even now as he has gotten older, Cruz still maintains a level of movement that most fighters would kill for.
This fight fascinates me on so many levels. Chito's output and power are the obvious X-factors but what happens if Cruz evades and evades while landing enough strikes on the exit? We have seen Chito get frustrated in fights where he isn't able to bully his way through his opponent - think of the José Aldo fight back in 2020 and just how sorely he took that 3rd round.
Chito struggles against the best version of Cruz - I just think that version of Cruz no longer exists. Since he returned in 2020, Cruz has looked more hittable than ever. He's still an exceptional evasive fighter but that doesn't change the fact that he got dropped by Pedro Munhoz and also knocked out by Henry Cejudo. Neither of those guys are as relentless in their pursuit of inflicting damage as Chito.
Cruz won't be able to avoid Chito for 25 minutes straight without getting hurt - not at this stage in his career. His best path to victory might be in the wrestling department where Chito is certainly deficient. I'm not confident in how successfully Cruz can keep Chito grounded for across five rounds. As easy as it is to take Chito down, he's one of those guys who will not settle despite being on the bottom. He will elbow off his back and incessantly look to throw up a triangle or armbar.
There's a version of Cruz that once existed and I would pick that Cruz to win this fight 9 times out of 10. But the version we have of him now just isn't sharp enough to deal with a punisher like Chito. Chito blends the spectacular (step-in elbows, side kicks, spinning attacks) with traditionally sound boxing techniques. Cruz won't be able to deal with the array of strikes thrown at him over the course of five rounds.
It's going to be a competitive fight for as long as it lasts. Chito's power bafflingly multiplies as fights enter the latter rounds and I think he will catch Cruz in the 4th of 5th round with something that puts the former champ out to pasture.
Pick: Marlon 'Chito' Vera by KO/TKO
David Onama x Nate Landwehr
Like I mentioned in the introduction to this prediction piece, Onama and Landwehr may not have the name value or ranking number that typically occupies a co-main event slot but they certainly have the entertainment factor.
In the leadup to Onama x Armfield last month, I wrote that Onama might be the hardest hitter at 145lbs and we just don't know it yet. So he decided to strike with Armfield a little before choking him out with an excellent arm-triangle. It gave us a glimpse into the other wrinkles in his game that we didn't quite suspect that he had. One thing that stood out yet again, though, was just how hittable Onama is. For as much power as he packs, he leaves himself open in most exchanges and gets punished for it. His chin seems close to infallible but it's a dangerous game to play as he takes on tougher competition.
Landwehr is similar to Onama in that he enjoys a scrap and is often most comfortable when brawling. The difference is that he's a pretty good wrestler despite not using it much. And as much as he does enjoy a brawl, he doesn't have an ounce of the stopping power that Onama does. Onama's takedown defence is poor but I don't think that it's likely Landwehr wrestles. He's going to find a way to hit Onama and it's going to fill him with confidence - the problem is that Onama is going to be right there with him, swinging with twice the power and accuracy. If Julian Erosa and Herbert Burns can knock you out, I hesitate to imagine the damage that Onama will inflict.
Iasmin Lucindo x Yazmin Jauregui
Yazmin Jauregui is one of my favourite prospects right now, irrespective of gender. Watching her fight in the Combate tournament was one of my MMA highlights of 2021. She scored two stunning knockouts on her way to winning the tournament.
Jauregui doesn't kick much - she's all boxing. And she's really damn good at it. Her combinations are crisp, she routinely goes to the body and also has a fantastic jab. I love a technical boxer who can also hit hard. Six of her eight career wins are by knockout which is a rarity for Strawweight.
Iasmin Lucindo is 20 years old and has 18 fights. She turned pro at the age of 14 to help fend for her mother and aunts who were victims of domestic abuse. Lucindo is a career Flyweight who has fought a couple of times at 115lbs but has also fought as high as 143lbs. Although she's dubbed as a Muay Thai specialist, she does her best work when utilising her strikes to create grappling opportunities and initiate wrestling sequences. On the ground, she's all about letting her hands fly and hunting for submissions. With the boxing pedigree of Jauregui, one has to imagine that Lucindo will be grappling a lot.
Jauregui has pretty respectable defensive grappling and does good work in the clinch. The issue with displaying confidence in Lucindo here is that she strikes into her grappling exchanges. She won't dive across the cage to tie up Jauregui's legs. She's going to have to dance with Jauregui in the cage and, in doing so, will likely find herself moving to Jauregui's beat.
Pick: Yazmin Jauregui by KO/TKO
Devin Clark vs. Azamat Murzakanov
Azamat Murzakanov holds one of my favourite KOs of the year, thus far. Down on all scorecards to Tafon Nchukwi, he drilled Nchukwi with a walk-off flying knee in the final round. It was a complicated fight for Murzakanov who produced low output in the striking department and struggled to take Nchuwki down, landing just one of five takedown attempts. Nchukwi targetted his legs and body and almost walked away with a big win.
Here's the kicker: I don't think Nchuwki is a very good fighter. Frankly, I don't think he's UFC calibre. And he made Murzakanov look very, very bad. Devin Clark is a grinder and a more reliable fighter than Nchuwki.
Clark is a competent boxer but does his best work when mixing lead leg kicks and his wrestling. He's well conditioned and pretty reliable chin. Nothing Clark does is fancy - his game is all about executing the fundamentals at a good level.
I can see Clark outworking and outpacing Murzakanov whose gas tank has always looked quite suspect. If he struggled to initiate offence against a guy like Nchukwi who is hittable and not diverse enough on the feet, I can see him struggling even more against Clark who mixes things well.
It won't be an easy fight for Clark, though. Irrespective of how Murzakanov performed against Nchukwi, he still pulled out a highlight reel KO when it mattered most. If Clark opts to wrestle, he will need to ensure that every entry is perfect. Anything that's done lazily will get punished by a knee or uppercut that could very well end the fight.
Pick: Devin Clark by decision
Ariane Lipski vs. Priscila Cachoeira
I'm really excited for this fight. As someone who loved Lipski's body of work prior to entering the UFC, it's great to see her finally matched up with someone who will have zero interest in wrestling her. Priscilla Cachoeira has scored one takedown in her entire UFC career and historically also struggles against strong grapplers.
Lipski's power is deceptive. She has a solid roundhouse kick to the body and elbows in the clinch. We might finally get to see her break out her Muay Thai. The fact that she missed weight by a considerable amount, however, is concerning. Cachoeira is nicknamed 'Zombie Girl' for a reason. You can hit her with anything and she will continue prodding forward while winging heavy shots. Her forward pressure and aggression could impact Lipski's cardio.
I don't think Cachoeira is at all a better fighter than Lipski but she hits incredibly hard and poses a nightmare matchup for Lipski on the feet. Lipski's conditioning - and, as a byproduct, her durability - doesn't inspire much confidence here.
It's a classic case of volume vs power and I can see power winning out on the night.
Pick: Priscilla Cachoeira by KO/TKO
Gerald Meerschaert vs. Bruno Silva
This fight is brilliant because it's obvious that the UFC want Bruno Silva to go out there and demolish Gerald Meerschaert who has made a career of choking out most of these guys the UFC put him up against.
If there's one fight that won't require the judges' input, it'll be this. Silva is either going to brutalise Meerschaert or he's going to succumb to one of GM3's patented chokes. Time for me to get off the fence.
The UFC brass may be many things but stupid they are not. For as many times as Meerschaert has played spoiler, it's rarely been against fighters who are legitimately very good. Lest we forget that prior to the loss to Alex Pereira, Bruno Silva was being lauded as the dark horse of the division who would one day challenge for the belt. I personally don't think much has changed there. The division is thin enough that he only needs a few wins - especially with the exciting way in which he fights - to get there.
As years and fights go by for Meerschaert, he has been getting slower and more laboured in his striking. He's never been the quickest striker but there's been a significant drop in his output and his defensive capabilities. Bruno Silva is a legit athlete who will bounce your head off the canvas with minimal effort if you give him even the slightest of openings.
I don't think Meerschaert is defensively sound enough to evade Silva's onslaught, nor is he durable enough to survive it. He should be good enough in the grappling department to avoid any hail-mary submission attempts from GM3, too.
I'd love to see Meerschaert flip the script but this is an opponent too tough for him in these latter years of his 50-fight career.
Pick: Bruno Silva by KO/TKO
Angela Hill vs. Lupita Godinez
These two are straight-up gangsters. Originally scheduled to fight in October, they both agreed to a catchweight bout on short notice instead. It should come as no surprise as both have made careers of saying 'yes' to any opponent at any time and in any place.
I feel for Angela Hill a little here. Although she has made exceptional strides in her defensive grappling since she first broke onto the scene, she's now being paired up with one of the most ruthless grapplers in her division - and probably the best she has ever faced. It doesn't help that Hill is 1-6 in her last seven fights and also on a three-fight losing streak.
Godinez, on the other hand, has looked exceptional since joining the UFC and is being lauded by many as a future champion of the division. Although I am not certain that she will hold a belt, I'm confident in saying that she will certainly be in contention over the coming years. A win over Hill would be a step in the right direction.
Hill's striking will always be dangerous, though, and she's deceptively powerful. Godinez will get hit quite a bit as she looks to wrestle and pin Hill against the cage. Godinez is well conditioned though, has a good chin and should be able to walk through most of Hill's strikes on her way to securing a takedown.
Hi'lls best years are behind her and it's a shame that she will probably be on a four-fight skid and sitting on a 13-13 record by the time Saturday ends. It's easy to forget that she was a few dodgy split decision losses away from probably contending for a title a couple of years ago.
Insistent, grinding wrestler vs defensively deficient grappler? You have to go with the former every single time. And Godinez is really, really good at wrestling. No-brainer.
Pick: Lupita Godinez by decision
Martin Buday vs. Łukasz Brzeski
Martin Buday and Łukasz Brzeski have one thing in common: they both looked impressive in their UFC debuts and managed to secure wins over their respective opponents but it was not without controversy. Buday won via a technical decision after Chris Barnett was deemed unable to continue fighting - this because Buday had landed multiple strikes to the back of his head. Brzeski, on the other hand, submitted Dylan Potter in the Contender Series to enter the UFC. The fight was later overturned to a No Contest after Brzeski popped for an illegal substance.
Neither fighter has lost since 2017 so there shouldn't be a lack of confidence or tentativeness on either side. Brzeski does everything in an explosive manner: he blasts calf kicks to start the fight, swings with reckless abandon and is active in clinch situations. Buday is quite the opposite as he fights behind his jab, slows down the pace of fights and actively looks to initiate grappling sequences.
I can see Brzeski looking very good early, especially as Buday struggles to check leg kicks and can take a while to get into the fight. If Buday survives the early onslaught, he will be able to target Brzeski's poor grappling defence and get him down to the mat with ease. It's his most obvious path to victory and also the one where he will face the least resistance.
Pick: Martin Buday by decision
Cynthia Calvillo vs. Nina Nunes
Nina Nunes and Cynthia Calvillo enter this fight on significant losing streaks. Nunes has lost her last two fights and hasn't had her hand raised in four years - granted, she carried and gave birth to a child during that period too.
Calvillo's move up to Flyweight started off well enough when she defeated the now-retired Jessica Eye in a main event spot two years ago. Since then, she's lost three on the trot and two of those have been concerning. She crumbled under the pressure of Jessica Andrade and then got handily dominated by Andrea Lee until her corner was forced to throw in the towel.
With both fighters out of their athletic peaks and winless in years, it wouldn't surprise me to see the loser of this bout retire. I just think Calvillo has a little more left in the tank and has the better tools to win this fight.
Despite her strong takedown defence, Nunes has been dragged to the ground in almost all of her UFC outings at Strawweight. While Calvillo is a former strawweight, she was always quite big for the division and has had a few years to adjust her body to the Flyweight size. Once she gets her hands wrapped around Nunes, her wrestling and strength in the clinch will be too much to handle. Nunes may be able to defend enough to not get taken down a bunch of times but I don't think she has the strength to keep Calvillo from pinning her against the fence if necessary.
This won't be an exciting fight but it would be good to see Calvillo back in the win column as opposed to Nunes who I feel already has one foot out of the sport.
Pick: Cynthia Calvillo by decision
Charlie Ontiveros vs. Gabriel Benítez
Charlie Ontiveros shouldn't be anywhere near the UFC. I'm shocked that he's even managed to squeeze three fights out of the organisation.
I don't want to be disingenuous, nor do I want to waste anybody's time, so I'm going to bypass most of the breakdown I had for this fight. Gabriel Benítez should make quick and easy work of Ontiveros. Not only is he an infinitely better mixed martial artist, Benítez is also a ruthless finisher of fights. He's only gone to a decision four times in 32 fights and Ontiveros has been finished in all eight of his losses.
It's been a while since we've seen Benítez display his excellent submission skills - I think that this is the fight where he can flex that. I can see Benítez chopping the lead leg of Ontiveros, hurting him up against the fence and then snatching his neck for the finish.
Pick: Gabriel Benítez by submission
Tyson Nam vs. Ode Osbourne
I'm a simple man: I see Flyweights and I get excited. How could you not be excited when two of the more prolific finishers in the division are matched up against one another?
Ode Osbourne's move to 125lbs didn't start in an impressive fashion as he found himself on the wrong end of a highlight reel finish against Manel Kape. Since then, he went on to handily beat C.J. Vergara at MSG before brutalising Zarrukh Adashev with a well-timed counter right hook. He's on a two-fight win streak and looking like he could have some success at Flyweight.
Tyson Nam, on the other hand, is no new kid on the block. Soon to be 39 years of age, he's the oldest Flyweight on the roster by some margin. Despite not fighting in almost 19 months, Nam is still a dangerous name for any young upstart in the division. Power is one of the last things to fade away and Nam has that in abundance. He can often find himself waiting for the perfect shot until the bell rings and he loses on the scorecards. Take the fights against Kai Kara-France and Sergio Pettis - two sophisticated kickboxers who fight patiently and smartly. Nam was never going to force either of them to commit and walk into his counterstrikes. But when Adashev and Jerome Rivera thought that they could enter on him without any repercussion, they were introduced to his killer counter right hand and justly put to sleep.
Osbourne is the favourite here and it gives me a little pause. He's younger, more explosive, longer and a better grappler if he needs to explore that avenue. His explosiveness, though, is what concerns me against a headhunter like Nam. 9 of Osbourne's last 10 fights have ended in the first round and it's because he commits himself to pressing forward with reckless abandon. If this fight ends in the first round, I don't think it'll be to the benefit of Osbourne. He will need to be smart and pick his shots if he wants to beat Nam - the fight favours him the longer that it goes and the more that he grapples.
Smart Osbourne wins the fight quite convincingly - I just don't know if he has an off-switch for his eagerness early in the fight. And Nam might just find that off switch for him.
Pick: Tyson Nam by KO/TKO
Jason Witt vs. Josh Quinlan
Jason Witt's run in the UFC has been quite interesting. He's alternated losses and wins in which he's displayed both solid wrestling and an awfully shot chin. That immediately worries me against an explosive striker in Josh Quinlan.
Despite the gulf in experience and quality of opponent faced, I can't see Witt getting his hand raised in this fight. Though he is a solid wrestler, he leaves himself open on takedown attempts and rarely disguises his entries. Quinlan is flashy and explosive. I can see him sleeping Witt with a highlight reel knee or uppercut.
It doesn't help that Quinlan can fight adeptly - and carry power - out of either stance and is liable to switch stances multiple times in a fight. It's a puzzle that Witt will struggle to figure out.
As a professional, Quinlan has yet to go to a decision. Witt doesn't have the durability to be the first guy to take him there either. It's not that I'm really high on Quinlan, I just think that this is a favourable matchup against probably the weakest chin in the division. Of his eight career losses, Witt has been knocked out six times. This is a bad fight for 'The Vanilla Gorilla.'
Pick: Josh Quinlan by KO/TKO
Da'Mon Blackshear vs. Youssef Zalal
It's about damn time that Da'Mon Blackshear got his call-up to the UFC. The former CFFC Bantamweight champion has been knocking on the door of the elite for a good year now. It's a shame, however, that his debut appearance sees him take on Youssef Zalal on just 10-days' notice.
Zalal has been out of action for a year and some change which typically concerns me when it comes to young fighters. This is a guy who fought four times in 2020 and looked fantastic before going on a 3-fight skid. The only reason that I'm not too concerned is that it seems as though Zalal took a year out to focus on refining his skills and preparing his body for a move down to Bantamweight. It's a smart move for the Moroccan who was outworked and outsized in all three of his losses at Featherweight.
Down at Bantamweight, Zalal should be able to wrestle more effectively and keep his opponents down. In the past, we've seen Zalal chain wrestle but be unable to sustain much control time on the ground. His grinding pace and sturdy cardio certainly empower him to continue wrestling even when he struggles to get much out of the exchange.
Zalal doesn't carry much power but does well to blitz, blitz and blitz some more. Against a fighter like Blackshear, that might very well be Zalal's path to victory. Blackshear is excellent in the clinch and, despite not being a strong wrestler, is great at scrambling into advantageous positions to work for submissions. He does his best work when he is striking into the clinch and wearing his opponents down.
I can see Zalal and Blackshear cancelling each other out in the grappling department. They'll probably exchange takedowns, pop right back up and opt to strike instead. If that happens, I'm backing Zalal to be quicker to the punch and strike at a higher quantity than Blackshear who has only had 10 days to prepare for what's likely to be a high-octane bout.
Pick: Youssef Zalal by decision