At UFC Vegas 58 this Saturday, former UFC Lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos takes on surging contender Rafael Fiziev in a fight that will shake up the top of the division.
The last time we saw Dos Anjos, he turned back the years with a ludicrously violent outing against Renato Moicano. It's still the most one-sided beatdown of the year. Dos Anjos displayed his patented pressure-fighting on the feet and parlayed it with grueling dominance on the ground. It was his finest performance in years.
Rafael Fiziev, on the other hand, is coming off a highlight-reel knockout of Brad Riddell back in December of last year. Riddell was riding a 7-fight win streak until Fiziev became the first fighter to knock him out. His explosive Muay Thai was on display from start to finish and it granted him a shot at one of the division's all-time great fighters.
In the co-main event, Middleweight prospects Caio Borralho and Armen Petrosyan make their second UFC appearances. Despite being victorious, bother fighters' debuts were marred by some controversy. Borralho won via technical decision after repeatedly fouling his opponent until he was rendered unable to continue. Petrosyan, on the other hand, fought clean and fair but his split decision win over Gregory Rodrigues was certainly contentious. I personally scored it for Rodrigues. 71% of fans thought the same while only four media members agreed with the call. Nonetheless, this fight should be exciting. Both guys performed very well despite the drama surrounding their wins.
Elsewhere on the card, Douglas Silva de Andrade and Said Nurmagomedov will likely walk away with Fight of the Night honours in an exquisite Bantamweight scrap.
Heavyweights have also managed to waddle their way onto the main card as Jared Vanderaa and Chase Sherman lock horns in a fight that I really don't care about.
Nina Nunes returns to the octagon after almost 15 months away when she faces Cynthia Calvillo in her Flyweight debut.
Jerking the curtain for the main card will be veteran Michael Johnson and Aussie scrapper Jamie Mullarkey. Someone's going to sleep in this fight.
Let's crack on with these predictions then, shall we?
Rafael Dos Anjos x Rafael Fiziev
Am I crazy for thinking Rafael Dos Anjos is still a player at 155lbs? His last two wins have been against opponents who took the fight on less than a week's notice but I just can't help but think RDA has one final run left in him.
Speed kills in MMA. I've said this time and again. Fiziev has to be one of the fastest and most devastating strikers in the division. Everything he throws is at maximum speed and power - even his defensive tics are explosive. Just look at how the man evades kicks to the head:
For as much as his power gets lauded, not enough attention is drawn to Fiziev's footwork. Part of what makes him such a menace to deal with is the fact that he's constantly cutting angles. Fiziev's opponents get so caught up in trying to follow him around the cage that they leave themselves open to clean strikes.
Because of Fiziev's explosiveness, his cardio has been brought into disrepute. Against Bobby Green, Fiziev looked totally spent by the time the third round started. He threw 223 strikes the entire fight. It felt like one of those fights where an extra few minutes on the clock might have led to his demise. He tightened things up against Riddell and looked better conditioned on the feet but he threw 100 fewer strikes. A low-volume Fiziev is still dangerous but it will cost him against fighters who know how to score, especially across 25 minutes. And he just happens to be taking on one of the division's all-time best in that regard.
RDA has more five-round fights in his career than Fiziev has fights in total. He's a cardio machine with superb Muay Thai and a suffocating submission game. He's been training out at Nova Uniao recently which explains the improved boxing skills, too. As he has gotten older, though, RDA starts fights a little slow before ramping up the pace in later rounds. He's susceptible to getting crowded and blasted with strikes which plays into Fiziev's strengths but his durability tends to see him survive tough spells.
Since returning to Lightweight, RDA has done his best work on the ground. In two fights, he's secured 11 takedowns and has done well to keep his opponents grounded and deal damage. While Fiziev has strong hips and crazy flexibility, that matters very little if he's heaving for air after 10-15 minutes. He may be able to resist RDA's first few attempts but I can see him wilting as the fight goes on.
Fiziev might go in there and knock his head off his shoulders early but, if RDA can survive and get the fight to the ground early, Fiziev's shoddy gas tank will get exposed and RDA will finish him late in the fight.
Pick: RDA by submission
Caio Borralho x Armen Petrosyan
Caio Borralho is here to stay. Fear a man who can knee your skull into oblivion AND rolls daily with Demian Maia. His debut was marred by controversy but he looked great. He seems well conditioned for a fighter who relies a lot on big actions and he'll need to ensure that remains the case against the kickboxing pedigree of Armen Petrosyan. And, no, he isn't related to Giorgio.
Petrosyan is an astute kickboxer who fights best at range. He's a little taller than Borralho and so it might be easier in the early stages of the fight for him to dictate the pace and range of the bout. Although he seems adept at defending submissions, fighters have found it relatively easy to get him down to the mat. Kaloyan Kolev grounded him three times in three minutes while Rodrigues also got him down to the canvas on two separate occasions.
For as much as Borralho looks like an empty-headed brawler, he fights quite intelligently. He knows where his path to victory is in this fight and I wholly expect him to explore that avenue. His submission game is tidy and he boasts a nasty anaconda setup that might put Petrosyan in a lot of trouble.
Borralho will trade with Petrosyan but, the minute he gets hit with something he doesn't like, expect to see the Brazilian barrel his way into close proximity and tackle Petrosyan with ease.
Pick: Caio Borralho by submission
Said Nurmagomedov x Douglas Silva de Andrade
This is the most exciting fight on the card between two insanely durable fighters whose every action is explosive and bombastic.
Despite the surname, Said Nurmagomedov is more of a striker than a grappler. In layman's terms, he's more Zabit than Khabib (he's only completed one takedown in his five UFC fights). While he has a strong submission grappling base, Nurmagomedov's best work is done on the feet. His range management is terrific as he fights behind long kicks and negates pressure fighters with spinning attacks to the body.
Douglas Silva de Andrade is pure chaos. Every fight he's in is a barnburner. He absorbs a lot of damage but dishes it out at twice the power. When he gets rocked, that's when he truly gets going. He combines heavy hands with a savvy submission game that tends to come into play once he has an opponent wobbled.
I'd be surprised if this fight makes it to the final horn. Just five months ago, De Andrade was one-half of one of the craziest fights of the year. He got dropped by Sergey Morozov and sustained a beating until Morozov could beat him no more. He then proceeded to drop the Kazakhstani three times before choking him out. All inside 8 minutes of fighting.
Despite lauding his durability, I struggle to side with the Brazilian. At 37 years of age, and coming off that war with Morozov, I'm a little skeptical about his chin. Although Nurmagomedov is just as explosive as De Andrade it's a different type of explosiveness. De Andrade fights as though he's armed with two clubs and nothing else; Nurmagomedov fights as though he has a light staff in both hands. His striking is a little more refined and he's patient enough to chip away at an ever-stalking De Andrade.
Nurmagomedov will get hurt at some point in this fight, make no mistake about it, but I can see him surviving and catching De Andrade with something flashy.
Pick: Nurmagomedov by KO/TKO
Jared Vanderaa x Chase Sherman
How Chase Sherman still has a UFC career is beyond my capabilities of understanding. When you hold the record for the biggest betting underdog of all time, you probably don't belong. Especially when, in that same fight, you get submitted two minutes into the first round.
Jared Vanderaa is hardly any better. In his last fight, he was submitted by a 45-year-old who punches slower than anyone else in the division and hadn't won a fight in two years (for the record, Aleksei Oleinik is the man).
Sherman and Vanderaa are on a combined 7-fight losing streak. And I have seven remaining brain cells after thinking about this fight for more than a couple of minutes. So I'll save those few remaining brain cells and wrap this one up. Vanderaa is probably marginally better. He's more durable on the feet and a better grappler too.
Pick: Jared Vanderaa by 1st round KO/TKO
Nina Nunes x Cynthia Calvillo
Much like the heavyweight bout on this card, 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
**DISCLAIMER: Nina Nunes withdrew from this bout on the day of the fight**
Jamie Mullarkey x Michael Johnson
I'm not quite sure why Michael Johnson accepted to take this fight. Just two months ago, Johnson managed to secure his first win in four years. You'd think he would savour the moment - at least a few more months. You'd be mistaken.
At 36 years of age, it's evident that Johnson doesn't quite have the same bounce in his step as he once did. His striking is sluggish and he's less defensively astute on the ground than he once was.
I worry about his chin here against a power striker like Jamie Mullarkey. I appreciate that most fight fans might not think much of Mullarkey but I think he's undeniably fun. There's an endearing quality to his game: he's a scrapper who talks more with his hands than his mouth which is a rare commodity in this day and age. Mullarkey hits very, very hard. I'd wager that he's one of the strongest punchers in the division and that's why I'm having a tough time seeing Johnson's path to victory here.
Mullarkey's knees and elbows are devastating and he relishes fights in close proximity. Johnson will try to fight behind his jab but I don't think he has the speed or footwork - at least not anymore - to do so potently.
Pick: Jamie Mullarkey by KO/TKO
Ricky Turcios x Aiemann Zahabi
Ricky Turcios is guaranteed entertainment whether he's inflicting pain on his opponents or gripping the microphone after victory. His free-going attitude follows him around no matter what he's doing. The Ultimate Fighter season 28 winner finally makes his long-anticipated second walk to the cage.
Turcios has an exhaustive fighting style. Spinning attacks, jabs, clinching along the fence, takedowns - you name it, he's doing it. He's a tough fighter to gameplan for purely because you can't predict what's coming your way. Aiemann Zahabi will have his brother, Firas, cornering him once again. While Firas is one of the sport's greatest coaches, I don't think even he can lay out a plan for victory that Aiemann won't just throw out of the window after a couple of minutes.
This is a showcase fight for Turcios which is why he's been given the task of headlining the prelims. I can't wait to see him bamboozle Zahabi for 15 minutes straight. There's no other way I see this fight going.
Pick: Ricky Turcios by decision
Antonina Shevchenko x Courtney Casey
The blueprint to beating Antonina Shevchenko has been laid out for years: take her down, beat her up, rinse and repeat. Her last two fights have seen Casey O'Neill and Andrea Lee drown her on the ground before submitting her. In fairness to Shevchenko, those two fighters are among the best at women's Flyweight. Every time she has come across similar fighters, she's faltered. Where she finds success is against fighters outside the top 20 such as Courtney Casey.
In 14 UFC fights, Casey has only ever secured one takedown. She does her best work on the feet as she throws in high volume. Shevchenko will be able to fight with freedom and without the fear of Casey swarming her on the ground. Shevchenko is the better striker though and, while Casey will certainly throw more, Shevchenko will land the concussive strikes and dominate proceedings in the clinch.
Pick: Antonina Shevchenko by decision
Tresean Gore x Cody Brundage
The hype around Tresean Gore during season 28 of The Ultimate Fighter was quite the sight. With only three professional MMA fights under his belt, Gore punched his ticket to the finale after knocking out Gilbert Urbina. Injury would sideline him from the finale against Bryan Battle who would go on to win. Gore had accrued "uncrowned champ" status to the point where the UFC gave him the Battle fight anyway a few months later. Gore would open the betting favourite before getting comfortably and soundly shut out by Battle.
I say all of that to say: I don't know if Gore is good or not. I can't get a read on his style. He hits hard, yes, but he strikes in such low volume that the threat diminishes hugely as fights go on. It isn't difficult for a smart fighter to quickly get up on the scorecards against him.
I didn't think much of Cody Brundage until his fight against Dalcha Lungiambula. He was on the cusp of getting finished before submitting his opponent, all in the space of three minutes. He thrives in chaos on the feet and has a pretty nifty submission game to boot.
There might be a good fighter somewhere in Gore. Perhaps I'm not seeing what others are seeing. He opens a betting favourite once more despite Brundage's well-rounded game and superior experience.
Pick: Cody Brundage by submission
David Onama x Garrett Armfield
Props to Garrett Armfield for stepping in on three days' notice against David Onama. There aren't many fighters who would gladly make their UFC debuts against a man whose entire repertoire of wins have come by finish. Onama might very well be the biggest power-hitter at 145lbs and we just don't know it yet.
I've watched a little tape on Armfield and, while his boxing combinations are rapid and crisp, he plants his feet a lot. That's a dangerous offensive tic to have when Onama is your opponent.
There isn't much to break down here. Armfield is a lamb to the slaughter and will end up on Onama's ever-expanding highlight reel.
Pick: David Onama by 1st round KO
Kennedy Nzechukwu x Karl Roberson
I don't foresee this fight going the distance. Kennedy Nzechukwu fights with reckless abandon. Either he knocks your head into orbit or you crack his chin. Despite being 30 years of age, he's still quite raw in the sport of MMA and relies on his natural gifts more than technique.
Karl Roberson, on the other hand, is all technique on the feet. He's a pretty good kickboxer who excels at finding the chink in your armour before exposing it. He does, however, take a little too long to find that spot and often gets brutalised in the process. He's riding a three-fight losing streak and I suspect that this will be his last UFC fight.
Expect Nzechukwu to bolt across the cage with little regard for Roberson's kicks and put him out to pasture early.
Pick: Nzechukwu by KO/TKO
Saidyokub Kakhramonov x Ronnie Lawrence
This is terrific matchmaking - an exciting curtain-jerker that should set the precedent for a great night of fights. Saidyokub Kakhramonov and Ronnie Lawrence have had great starts to their UFC careers and, typically, I dislike when prospects are matched up unnecessarily. Here, however, their styles are so well matched that it makes the fight engrossing.
Lawrence's pace in fights is absolutely absurd. He fights a little like Merab Dvalishvili. He may not keep you down for long periods, but he's going to be throwing you around the cage incessantly. In just three fights under the UFC / DWCS banner, Lawrence has secured 26 takedowns. And most of them are enthralling to watch, too, as he carries opponents through the air before slamming them down. That's what makes this fight great. Kakhramonov is a combat sambo specialist and will prove to be Lawrence's first real test in the wrestling department. He's also a serial neck-snatcher. If Lawrence shoots in lazily, he will get submitted.
Even when Lawrence gets tired, his pace is still at a higher level than most fighters' maximum. As good as Kakhramonov, I don't think he'll be able to keep up with Lawrence. Once Lawrence secures a few takedowns, Kakhramonov is going to break and it might be one-way traffic from that point on.
Pick: Ronnie Lawrence by decision