At UFC Vegas 57, two of the hottest prospects and title hopefuls at Lightweight battle it out. This fight is a hardcore's delight but the winner may soon be a name on the lips of casual fans too.
Arman Tsarukyan, at just 25 years of age, is riding a 5-fight win streak in arguably the deepest division in the sport. His only loss in the organisation came at the hands of soon-to-be title challenger, Islam Makchachev, in a short-notice bout. Tsarukyan fought valiantly and was Makchachev's toughest test to date. Since then, he's beaten veteran names in Olivier Aubin-Mercier, BJJ ace Davi Ramos and the all-action Matt Frevola. In the last 12 months, Tsarukyan has started to find the power in his strikes as he knocked out Christos Giagos and, most impressively, Joel Alvarez.
Mateusz Gamrot entered the UFC a perfect 17-0 as the former KSW double champ (Featherweight and Lightweight). Though he suffered defeat in his debut in a very close fight with the ever-impressive Guram Kutateladze, Gamrot bounced back in emphatic fashion. 2021 was the year of the Gamer as he rattled off back-to-back-to-back stoppage wins over Scott Holtzman, Jeremy Stephens and Carlos Diego Ferreira.
Elsewhere on the card, Shavkat Rakhmonov puts his undefeated record on the line against one of the toughest tests in the Welterweight division: Neil Magny. The Haitian Sensation will be looking for his 20th Welterweight win which would put him ahead of the great Georges St-Pierre. Rakhmonov, however, is a pure finisher who will be looking to add a big name to his hit list.
Umar Nurmagomedov, sambo world champion and cousin of Khabib Nurmagomedov, is the biggest favourite on the card. He takes on Nate Maness who has been quietly amassing quite the win streak at Bantamweight.
Thiago Moises and Christos Giagos go to war in a fight that should be quite exciting for as long as it lasts meanwhile Chris Curtis - one of the standout fighters of 2021 - faces one of the trickiest tests of his career in BJJ whizz Rodolfo Vieira.
And, yes, Josh Parisian takes on Alan Baudot on the main card in a heavyweight bout that no-one asked for.
Arman Tsarukyan x Mateusz Gamrot
Is it just me or has Tsarukyan gotten bigger over the last 18 months? The guy is built like a barrel and is now parlaying a superb wrestling base with impactful striking skills.
Gamrot has one of the most aesthetically pleasing single-leg takedowns in the sport. I love the way that he drops really low for it, almost at the ankle, and angles himself against the opponent's knee to trip them over. He's a really impressive grappler, in particular when it comes to scrambling. He manages to win positions based purely on creativity. Against Tsarukyan, however, I think scrambling might come as a detriment for Gamrot. Tsarukyan, once he gets his opponents down, is strong and dominant. He doesn't let positions slide away from him and, when opponents try to wriggle out, he punishes them with devastating elbows.
Gamrot is the flashier and more explosive grappler but the technique of Tsarukyan is so sound and effective that I think it will reign supreme. Gamrot likely has the advantage on the feet from a technical standpoint but Tsarukyan's power is not to be played with. In all honesty, I don't think either guy wants to risk standing for very long.
Much has been made in the lead-up to this fight of Gamrot's experience in 5-round fights. He's fought in countless main events over in KSW while this is the very first time that Tsarukyan is preparing for a 25-minute fight. It's a fair argument. Can Tsarukyan's cardio extend as far as the fourth and fifth rounds? What's interesting to me is that, in Gamrot's last fight against Carlos Diego Ferreira, he looked knackered in the second round until he gutted out the finish; The suspect cardio was largely in part to the grappling-heavy approach in the first round. At some point in this fight, it's inevitable that these two will grapple and Gamrot's explosiveness could be what costs him.
Whoever wins this should, in my opinion, start to be mentioned among the elite at Lightweight. It just feels inevitable that the winner of this fight will probably contend for a title in the next 18 months once the UFC figures out what they're doing with the belt. Justin Gaethje has contended enough - and fallen short enough times - to take a step back. Dustin Poirier seems more focused on money fights than having another crack at the top (which he is perfectly entitled to). That realistically leaves Michael Chandler, Beneil Dariush, and the winner of this fight, to contend for whatever remains of the battle that Oliveira and Makhachev will inevitably have in October.
I can't shake the image of Tsarukyan pinning Gamrot down and landing heavy shot after heavy shot. This fight is going to be incredible and I cannot wait.
Pick: Tsarukyan by 4th or 5th round TKO
Neil Magny x Shavkat Rakhmonov
Neil Magny is consistently excellent at playing gatekeeper - and he's probably one of the best that the sport has seen. As I mentioned earlier, a win on the night puts him above GSP for most wins at Welterweight. That doesn't mean he's better than GSP, of course, but it's a testament to the durability and quality of Magny.
Feed him prospects at your own peril.
Shavkat Rakhmonov is genuinely great. I tend to always pump the breaks on prospects and generally don't like seeing them shoot up the rankings too quickly but Rakhmonov's talent is undeniable and to halt his progression for the sake of building him up would be idiotic. I give the UFC a lot of credit for booking this fight and I give Magny even more credit for taking it.
It's clear that I think the world of Magny but I do think he's just another guy in the way of Rakhmonov's ascent through the rankings.
Magny's striking and wrestling has improved considerably in recent years but one thing remains: he's always going to be hittable. Max Griffin almost put him out in their fight back in March. The difference is that Griffin is not a big finisher by any stretch of the imagination while Rakhmonov is all finishes. 15 wins, 8 knockouts, and 7 submissions. He doesn't just smell blood, he feasts on it.
Rakhmonov commits to the calf kick early which is Magny's one true Achilles' heel. After this, he's patient on the feet but dangerous with spinning strikes and stiff shots up the middle. His ground game is frightening, too. Just ask Michel Prazeres who had never been submitted before until Rakhmonov asphyxiated him in the second round of their fight.
I just don't see a path to victory for Magny, even if he manages to make the fight ugly. Rakhmonov will find a way, as he always does, and will pass the Magny test.
Pick: Rakhmonov by submission
Josh Parisian x Alan Baudot
You can stop scrolling now, folks. The consensus best fight of the card is here.
This is one of those Heavyweight fights that slithers its way onto the main card and everyone is left dumbfounded. The argument is always that big Heavyweights are exciting and the casual fan can get behind the potential for a big knockout. My argument is that these guys have a combined two knockout victories since 2018. And my additional argument is that they both suck.
I won't waste your time (or mine) with many words. Parisian is a better and smarter mixed martial artist than Baudot. He will grapple his way to victory in a fight you'll forget quicker than DC forgets the judging criteria.
Pick: Parisian by decision
Thiago Moisés x Christos Giagos
Christos Giagos is a very frustrating fighter. Who he is in the first half of the fight versus the second half of the fight is wildly disproportionate. In the first half, Giagos could probably rock more than half of the Lightweight roster and land them in trouble. In the second half, more than half of the roster would probably run circles around him. His lack of cardio is a genuine concern and it's because his actions early on in fights are always explosive, a combination of big power strikes and grappling exchanges.
Moisés isn't afraid to engage in high-octane fights but he's more measured - and certainly better conditioned - than Giagos. Though he is riding back-to-back losses, Giagos is a step down in competition and one that he should be able to out-grapple and outstrike as the fight goes on.
Pick: Moisés by 3rd round TKO
Umar Nurmagomedov x Nate Maness
Nate Maness is tough as nails and has proven that in a quietly excellent start to his UFC career. But that toughness isn't something that can thwart a talent like Umar Nurmagomedov.
There's not much to say about this fight. Nurmagomedov is crafty on the feet and as slick as you can imagine on the mat. Once he gets you down there, you may as well offer your neck up before it gets snatched anyway.
I'm predicting win number three and submission number three inside the UFC cage for Nurmagomedov.
Pick: Nurmagomedov by first-round submission
Chris Curtis x Rodolfo Vieira
This is pretty bizarre matchmaking by the UFC, if you ask me. Chris Curtis should be fighting someone willing to stand and trade with him, not a guy who will tear his knee apart if he gets a hold of him.
Rodolfo Vieira's stock after the shock submission loss to Anthony Hernandez has never been lower. It was such a shock that Vieira has won since but most people probably don't remember.
I think Vieira is better conditioned than he's given credit for. After all, his gas tank is knocked for the Hernandez fight where he went for broke in the first round and then got outrageously tired. Since then, he went 3 rounds with Stoltzfus before submitting him. A performance that proved he could manage his cardio.
What I like about Vieira is that he isn't your typical BJJ ace in MMA. Take Mackenzie Dern, for example: she's excellent on the ground but is routinely unable to wrestle her opponents down. Brian Ortega is another. Vieira, on the other hand, has an excellent Judo game and double-leg takedown. He doesn't have to create a weird scramble to get the fight where he wants it; he relies simply on his technique.
What Vieira is not, though, is a good striker. He throws heavy, with reckless abandon, in an attempt to back you into the fence. There's no technique behind what he throws, nor does he mix in any combinations. Against a striker like Curtis, there's every chance he gets nuked early.
We haven't seen Curtis' wrestling tested yet in the UFC. Phil Hawes and Brendan Allen chose to strike with the Action-Man. I can see Vieira getting the fight to the mat early and drowning Curtis.
Pick: Vieira by submission
Tafon Nchukwi x Carlos Ulberg
This fight can only go one of two ways: if it's messy and he can close the distance, Nchukwi will find a finish late in the fight. If Ulberg manages his range, he'll stop Nchuwki inside the first 7 minutes of the fight. I can't seen any other scenario playing out.
Ulberg caught a lot of flak for the Cherant performance but, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango. And Cherant did not want to be Ulberg's dance partner.
I love the various tools that he has on the feet. His left hook is always thrown with a speed and venom that could put most mortal men to sleep. I don't like his lack of head movement - he's always on the centre line and consistently pulls his head back with his hands down. Against a shorter fighter in Nchukwi who will have to clobber his way into distance, the poor striking defence of Ulberg is a concern.
I'm backing Ulberg to fight smart again, much like he did against Cherant, but with a little more venom against a game Nchuwki.
Pick: Carlos Ulberg by knockout
TJ Brown x Shayilan Nuerdanbieke
TJ Brown didn't have the most impressive start to his UFC career but wins over Kai Kamaka III and Charles Rosa have helped keep him in the organisation. Nuerdanbieke is a Chinese MMA veteran despite being only 28 years of age.
His exciting finishes in WLF and JCK landed him a spot on the UFC roster back in 2021 when Joshua Culibao handed him a loss in his debut. He bounced back, however, against Sean Soriano as a sizable underdog.
Nuerdanbieke's game plan is simple: he throws heavy, singular shots on the feet to open up takedown attempts. His best work is conducted on the mat where he has a pretty good top game.
TJ Brown is not too dissimilar as he also looks to get fights to the ground as quickly and as often as possible.
I think both of these guys will cancel each other out in the grappling department and, when that happens, I back the striking volume of Brown over the single shots of Nuerdanbieke across 15 minutes.
Pick: TJ Brown by decision
Raulian Paiva x Sergey Morozov
This has all the potential to snatch Fight of the Night honours from some of the bigger names on the card. Two fighters who are not averse to emptying their gas tanks - and exposing their chins - on their way to victory.
Paiva looks a little more comfortable at Bantamweight than he did at Flyweight despite his high-profile loss to Sean O'Malley last year. His body just seems better suited to the weight class. His size and reach advantage will give him the edge early on against Morozov who only four months ago went to war with Douglas Silva de Andrade. I'm uncertain of how his chin will hold up after the sheer craziness of that fight.
Morozov's path to victory is through the grappling, without a doubt. Paiva should be smart and scrappy enough to keep it standing and win most of the exchanges on the feet, thanks in part to a strong calf-kicking game and strikes up the middle.
Make no mistake about it though, this fight is a total coin-flip. What's certain is that it will get messy and chaotic at some point as is typically the case with these two.
Pick: Paiva by decision
Cody Durden x JP Buys
Loser goes home in the sole flyweight bout of the night. Cody Durden has one victory in four UFC bouts while JP Buys has lost his only two fights in emphatic fashion.
If anything, this fight should be interesting for any grappling enthusiasts. For all intents and purposes, JP Buys is an exciting MMA wrestler. He's relentless in the way he chains his takedowns and has a very strong base. Durden has a pretty impressive collegiate wrestling background which translates well to the cage.
Durden will have the advantage on the feet. He's not a power hitter by any means but he has a solid jab and moves well enough defensively. What may be his downfall in this fight is his cardio, especially if Buys has the intention of grappling for 15 minutes. Durden has a suspect gas tank while Buys hasn't really shown any signs of exhaustion in his fights - including in a four-round battle with Luthando Biko back in 2019 to retain his EFC title.
Buys has only ever gone to decision once in his career - and that was in his most recent fight against Montel Jackson - but I don't think we will see a finish on the night. I do, however, think he will rescue his UFC career with a big win. But it won't be pretty.
Pick: JP Buys by decision
Mario Bautista x Brian Kelleher
Brian Kelleher is a gangster. Bantamweight, Featherweight - you name the weight class, he'll fight you there. At 35 years of age, however, I worry about Kelleher's durability when he cuts down to 135lbs. His kill-or-be-killed style has seen him on either side of the highlight reel.
Against the younger fighter in Mario Bautista, who boasts a crisp striking game with a proclivity for chokes on the ground, Kelleher will be tested across the board. I don't think it's a test he'll be able to pass. Bautista will be quicker in most facets of the fight and I suspect he'll be able to finish Kelleher along the way.
Pick: Mario Bautista by submission
Jinh Yu Frey x Vanessa Demopoulos
Let's just address the elephant in the room here: Vanessa Demopoulos looked awful on the scales. She was the last fighter to make weight and it was not a pleasant watch. Jinh Yu Frey, on the other hand, has been in excellent shape after deciding to leave Atomweight behind.
Jinh Yu Frey is the favourite and for good reason too. She possesses a solid striking game, particularly up against the cage, and is quite physically imposing. I suspect she will keep the fight against the fence for the most part and drain Demopoulos' suspect gas tank. There's a world in which Demopoulos snatches up one of her patented armbars but Frey should have enough savvy about her to avoid sitting in Demopoulos' guard.
Pick: Jinh Yu Frey by decision