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Guide to UFC on ESPN+ 61: Santos vs. Ankalaev

Getting prepared for UFC action this Saturday? Here’s everything you need to know in our Guide to UFC on ESPN+ 61: Santos vs. Ankalaev.

UFC on ESPN+ 61
Date: March 12, 2022
Location: UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada

Main Card
Start Time: 7:00 p.m. ET, 4:00 p.m. PT
Where to watch: ESPN+

Light Heavyweights: #5 Thiago Santos vs. #6 Magomed Ankalaev

Overall Records: Santos 22-9, Ankalaev 16-1
UFC Records: Santos 14-8, Ankalaev 7-1
Last Fight: Santos def. Walker–UDec–UFC On ESPN+ 51 (10/2/21), Ankalaev def. Oezdemir–UDec–UFC 267 (10/30/21)
Last Five Fights: Santos 2-3, Ankalaev 5-0
Betting Odds: Santos +435, Ankalaev -600
Background: The main event is a light heavyweight slugfest featuring two men ready to stake a claim as being next in line for a title shot as Santos and Ankalaev square off. Santos will be entering his sixth UFC main event gunning for his second straight win after scoring a lackluster decision win over Johnny Walker in October. Even though the fight was uneventful, it was an important win for Santos as it ended a three-fight losing skid and kept him inside the top five of the light heavyweight rankings. Santos has fought for a title before, pushing Jon Jones to the limit and narrowly losing a decision in July 2019, but suffered major knee and leg injuries that kept him off the shelf for well over a year. He finally looks fully recovered and is looking to improve on his 22 career wins, 15 of which have come by knockout. Ankalaev enters his first UFC main event on one of the best streaks at 205 lbs. as he is currently on a seven-fight win streak. He’s coming off a decision win over Volkan Oezdemir in Abu Dhabi at UFC 267 in October, which was a solid, but unspectacular, win. He would be undefeated if it wasn’t for a literal last-second loss to Paul Craig in his UFC debut in March 2018. Ankalaev has scored nine of his 16 career wins by knockout.

How they match up: At his peak, Santos was known for being a violent finisher with a dangerous kicking game. He’s very well-rounded as well, but hasn’t shown the same flashes since the knee and leg injuries, as he’s been more patient and reluctant to pressure and engage. A slow pace is something Ankalaev doesn’t mind, but he also is willing to engage in a fire fight if need be. He has power in his hands, but specializes in getting the takedown and unloading with some strong ground-and-pound on the mat. Both men land a decent amount of significant strikes per minute, and neither tends to get hit often, though Santos gets hit a little bit more and Ankalaev has better defense on the feet. When it comes to the takedowns, both are in the same range when it comes to scoring takedowns, but Ankalaev is better at defending takedown attempts. This does feel like a fight that could go either way. If the Santos of old shows up, he can make life really difficult for Ankalaev and score the upset. Ankalaev is going to have to utilize pressure and score the takedowns. I’m not overly confident that he’s going to do that and I think there’s going to be an upset in store in this one.

What’s at stake: A win for Ankalaev would make it eight in a row and it could very well secure him a title shot. The title fight between Glover Teixeira and Jiri Prochazka still needs to play out, as well as an upcoming fight between Jan Blachowicz and Aleksandar Rakic. At worst, a win for Ankalaev sets him up for a for-sure title eliminator fight. A loss, though, would send him back to where he would need a few wins. For Santos, this might be his last shot at getting another title shot. He needs a win to stay in contention. A loss would make him 1-4 over his last five and would likely establish him as a gatekeeper in the light heavyweight division. This really is a must-win for both.

Pick: Santos

Bantamweights: #10 Marlon Moraes vs. #14 Song Yadong

Overall Records: Moraes 23-9-1, Yadong 18-5-1 1 NC
UFC Records: Moraes 5-5, Yadong 7-1-1
Last Fight: Dvalishvili def. Moraes–R2 TKO–UFC 266 (9/25/21), Yadong def. Arce–R2 TKO–UFC On ESPN+ 55 (11/13/21)
Last Five Fights: Moraes 1-4, Yadong 3-1-1
Betting Odds: Moraes +200, Yadong -250
Background: A bantamweight bout featuring a former title challenger looking to break a losing skid taking on a young, talented prospect takes place here as the veteran Moraes battles Yadong. Moraes comes into this pivotal fight for him in an interesting position. He is still ranked inside the top ten of the division despite having lost four of his last five fights. However, all four of those losses have been to fighters ahead of him in the division. His three straight losses have seen him drop fights to Cory Sandhagen, Rob Font and Merab Dvalishvili, but the big concern is that in those three losses, as well as his title fight loss to Henry Cejudo, he was finished. He is hungry to bounce back in a big way here. Yadong comes into this fight riding a two-fight win streak, and he has just one loss in his nine appearances inside the Octagon. He’s only 24-years-old and is already inside the top 15 of the bantamweight rankings. He’s coming off back-to-back wins over Casey Kenney and Julio Arce, and ten of his 18 wins have come via a finish.

How they match up: Moraes switched up his training for this fight, working mostly in Thailand at the start of his camp. He did experience a bout with COVID-19 while over there that questioned whether he would be able to take this fight, but he feels recovered. He’s got a great shot here if he comes out like he did against Dvalishvili as Yadong tends to start at a slow pace. Moraes did gas out early in his last fight, but that was due to the fact the fight probably could’ve been stopped multiple times in the first round but Dvalishvili somehow survived. Moraes has effective kicks and likes to strike from the kicking range while Yadong is more of an inside-the-pocket boxer with a bunch of power. Moraes’ chin is a definite question mark as a result of his recent slide, and Yadong has the power to add another knockout loss to his record. Moraes needs to get his kicking game going effectively as it’ll keep Yadong from pressuring and getting into the boxing range. This is a fight that really could go either way and will come down to the experience Moraes has and if the training in Thailand pays off. I do see this fight ending in a finish.

What’s at stake: Moraes’ UFC future could very well be on the line here. He has a big contract and it was, honestly, kind of a surprise he wasn’t released after his most recent loss. I wouldn’t have blamed the promotion if they did release, but his level of competition has been tough, so it’s nice to see him get another fight. This is a must-win for him, though. Yadong has been very impressive thus far during his UFC career, and he has plenty of time to continue to develop considering how young he is. He would likely be inside the top ten with a win and could find himself in title contention with a win. This is the biggest fight of his career, and the biggest test, and will show exactly where he stands at this moment in his career.

Pick: Yadong

Featherweights: #12 Sodiq Yusuff vs. #15 Alex Caceres

Overall Records: Yusuff 11-2, Caceres 19-12 1 NC
UFC Records: Yusuff 4-1, Caceres 14-10 1 NC
Last Fight: Allen def. Yusuff–UDec–UFC On ABC 2 (4/10/21), Caceres def. Choi–R2 SUB–UFC On ESPN+ 54 (10/23/21)
Last Five Fights: Yusuff 4-1, Caceres 5-0
Betting Odds: Yusuff -260, Caceres +210
Background: An interesting featherweight bout between two guys ranked inside the top 15 of the division takes place here as Yusuff looks to get back in the win column against the streaking Caceres. Yusuff comes into this bout looking to bounce back from his first UFC loss nearly a year ago, as he dropped a decision to Arnold Allen in April. That ended a six-fight win streak he was on, which included a 4-0 run to start his UFC career. He’s looking to be more active as he’s fought just once in each of the last two years. Caceres comes into this bout on arguably the best run of his UFC career, which now enters its 12th year. He’s won five straight fights, and seven of his last nine fights overall. He’s coming into this fight following a second-round submission win over Seungwoo Choi in October. He also has wins over Steven Peterson, Chase Hooper, Austin Springer and Kevin Croom during his win streak, which has vaulted him into the featherweight rankings. Ten of his 19 career wins have come by stoppage.

How they match up: Caceres has never been the most dangerous fighter on the feet as he lacks true knockout power but he can make up for it with volume. Unfortunately for him, he’s fighting someone who attacks with more volume and has power in his hands. Caceres does have great defense on his feet, doesn’t get hit a lot, and is very tough to knock out. Caceres excels in his grappling and takedowns as he’s a fairly dangerous threat on the mat. He completes 78% of his takedown attempts and Yusuff defends 68% of takedowns attempted on him. Yusuff has yet to score a takedown and is 0-for-4 in his UFC takedown attempts. He’s going to want to keep it on the feet where he’ll have the clear edge. Caceres could be a sneaky underdog pick here as he’s in the midst of his best career stretch, but Yusuff’s striking and power on the feet look to play the difference in this one.

What’s at stake: Both men are looking to break into the top ten at featherweight, so a win would increase the chances of that happening. It might not happen after this fight, but the winner would likely get a higher-ranked opponent next, setting up that possibility. Caceres has said recently that his goal is to fight 20 years with the UFC, which would mean fighting until 2031, when he would 42-years-old. If he were to reach that, with this being his 26th UFC bout, the possibility of fighting inside the Octagon 50 times is a reachable goal as well. He needs to keep up the wins, though. Yusuff looked every bit of a title contender before his recent setback, so a win would do him good in getting back into the picture.

Pick: Yusuff

Light Heavyweights: Khalil Rountree vs. Karl Roberson

Overall Records: Rountree 9-5 1 NC, Roberson 9-4
UFC Records: Rountree 5-5 1 NC, Roberson 4-4
Last Fight: Rountree def. Bukauskas–R2 TKO–UFC On ESPN+ 49 (9/4/21), Allen def. Roberson–R1 SUB–UFC 261 (4/24/21)
Last Five Fights: Rountree 2-3, Roberson 2-3
Betting Odds: Rountree +105, Roberson -125
Background: A light heavyweight bout featuring two guys who have kickboxing backgrounds takes place here as Rountree welcomes Roberson back to the light heavyweight division. Rountree will be looking for his second straight win after arguably his best showing to date inside the Octagon, where he finished Modestas Bukauskas after landing a brutal kick to the kneecap that injured Bukauskas. That ended a two-fight losing skid and a run where he had lost three of his last four. He has scored six of his nine wins by knockout. Roberson moves back up to 205 lbs. after having fought there once previously as he looks to end a two-fight losing skid. The pandemic hasn’t been very kind to him as he’s fought just once in each of the last two years, losing fights to Marvin Vettori and Brendan Allen. With the benefit of hindsight, those are high-quality losses, but Roberson has split wins-and-losses in his eight Octagon appearances. Like Rountree, six of his nine wins have come via a finish, with two by knockout and four by submission.

How they match up: The battle of two kickboxers should be explosive on the feet, but inconsistency has plagued both men during their UFC careers. Both have been disappointing, but with Roberson, you can at least look at who he’s lost to and get it. Rountree has lost to opponents with less skill than Roberson, but he looked great in his last fight. Roberson’s big struggles have come against opponents who want to take him to the mat, and that is something he likely won’t need to worry about here. Rountree will have the power advantage and is technically better. Rountree will look to attack with leg kicks and keep Roberson at a distance. Roberson could decide to change it up and go for the takedown, but I don’t know if he’s going to be able to get in close enough to get Rountree down. I see Rountree scoring a knockout in this one.

What’s at stake: This is a pivotal fight for both as their UFC futures could both be on the line here. Both have been in skids recently, including Roberson currently, so it’s pretty much a must-win for both. It’s probably more important for Roberson, who has lost two straight, while Rountree signed a new contract a couple of fights ago. Both men bring everything they have when they step inside the Octagon, but a win is important for both in this one.

Pick: Rountree

Lightweights: Drew Dober vs. Terrance McKinney

Overall Records: Dober 23-11 1 NC, McKinney 12-3
UFC Records: Dober 9-7 1 NC, McKinney 2-0
Last Fight: Riddell def. Dober–UDec–UFC 263 (6/12/21), McKinney def. Ziam–R1 SUB–UFC On ESPN+ 60 (2/26/22)
Last Five Fights: Dober 3-2, McKinney 5-0
Betting Odds: Dober -165, McKinney +145
Background: A lightweight bout that saw a late change takes place here as Dober looks to get back in the win column against young prospect McKinney in what should be a fun fight. Dober was supposed to fight Ricky Glenn in this bout, but Glenn had to pull out due to a torn groin. McKinney replaces him on just about a week’s notice. It is a quick turnaround for McKinney, who fought just two weeks ago on February 26, where he scored a dominant and quick first-round submission win over Fares Ziam. It was McKinney’s second straight UFC win, with both coming in the first round, and his fifth straight win overall. He signed a new UFC contract to go with the booking of this fight, and has stated some pretty lofty goals for himself. Dober comes into this fight looking to get back on track after a tough 2021. He was ranked coming into the year on the heels of a stretch where he won six of seven fights, with the lone loss coming to Beneil Dariush. He lost his last two fights, being submitted by Islam Makhachev and dropping a decision to Brad Riddell, fights which knocked him out of the top 15 at lightweight. 16 of his 23 career wins have come by stoppage.

How they match up: You have to give credit to McKinney for stepping up and taking this fight, but it might end up being a mistake. As talented as he is, McKinney should be a guy who isn’t taking a fight without a training camp, especially against someone as good and experienced as Dober is. McKinney also has yet to be outside of the first round, and even past the halfway mark of the first round, in his first two UFC appearances. Dober is one of the most durable fighters on the lightweight roster. Both men have power in their fists though Dober hasn’t been knocked out in over ten years. McKinney does have a strong wrestling game and Dober doesn’t have the best takedown defense, so McKinney’s best path to winning is getting this to the mat and finding the submission. However, Dober has only been submitted by Beneil Dariush and Islam Makhachev, and I’m not ready to put McKinney in that category yet. I think this was an ill-advised fight for McKinney to take and Dober is going to make him realize it on Saturday.

What’s at stake: McKinney has lots of potential and stated a goal after signing a new contract and signing for this late-notice fight, and that goal is to become the UFC Lightweight Champion by the end of 2023. Obviously, this is a fight that he has to win if he’s going to accomplish that goal, but this is also a huge step up in competition, especially on very short notice. McKinney has the talent, and this fight will determine where his talent is going to take him at this time. Dober was on the cusp of being a top ten fighter before his recent setbacks, and the chance to stop a rising prospect in his tracks has to give him lots of motivation. A win would likely set him up for a ranked opponent, while a loss would be three straight and put him in the danger zone. This is a big fight for both.

Pick: Dober

Middleweights: Alex Pereira vs. Bruno Silva

Overall Records: Pereira 4-1, Silva 22-6
UFC Records: Pereira 1-0, Silva 3-0
Last Fight: Pereira def. Michailidis–R2 TKO–UFC 268 (11/6/21), Silva def. Wright–R1 TKO–UFC 269 (12/11/21)
Last Five Fights: Pereira 4-1, Silva 5-0
Betting Odds: Pereira -190, Silva +160
Background: A middleweight bout opens the main card, and it’s an interesting fight that could end up being the most exciting fight of the night as sluggers Pereira and Silva look for a statement win. Pereira is making his second walk to the Octagon as he looks to make it 2-0 since signing his UFC deal. He debuted at UFC 268 in November and withstood an underwhelming first round to score a quick finish in the second round against Andreas Michailidis. Pereira is known as the only man to ever knock out Israel Adesanya in combat sports, doing so when both were competing in kickboxing, and he’s come over to mixed martial arts looking for another shot at Adesanya. Silva is coming into this bout on an impressive run, as he’s won seven consecutive fights and is 17–1 in his last 18 fights. His run of seven straight wins have all come via knockout, and 19 of his 22 overall wins have come by knockout. He’s coming in off an 88-second knockout over Jordan Wright in December at UFC 269.

How they match up: This one looks to be a slugfest, but it would be in the best interest of Silva to not make it turn into a brawl. These are two different kinds of strikers as Pereira has a very good mixture of punches and kicks while Silva is looking to take opponents’ heads off with his punches. Silva comes forward a lot with his punches and doesn’t have the movement or footwork of Pereira, which could lead a lot of sloppiness on the feet. Silva could look to take the fight to the mat, but Pereira has some solid takedown defense and ability to work his way back up. Silva is just too wild and reckless and I don’t think he’s going to do the smart thing in this fight. He’ll likely revert to his brawler mentality, partially due to all of his knockout wins, but it’s going to cost him in this one as Pereira scores the knockout.

What’s at stake: This is an interesting match-up, especially for Pereira. When you look at the records, there’s a big experience gap in mixed martial arts, but Pereira has the kickboxing experience. He also wants to get to Israel Adesanya as quickly as possible, so he needs to pick up big wins quickly, and this fight is perfect for his style. Silva has been impressive thus far and wants to keep up his knockout streak, and a win could see him inside the next set of the middleweight rankings. Both men could be title contenders, and one is going to stand out after this one in a big way. Expect a fun fight that is important for both men.

Pick: Pereira

Preliminary Card
Start Time: 4:00 p.m. ET, 1:00 p.m. PT
Where to watch: ESPN+

Welterweights: Matthew Semelsberger vs. AJ Fletcher

Overall Records: Semelsberger 9-3, Fletcher 9-0
UFC Records: Semelsberger 3-1, Fletcher 0-0
Last Fight: Semelsberger def. Sano–R1 KO–UFC 266 (9/25/21), Fletcher def. Damiani–R1 KO–Dana White’s Contender Series 37 (8/31/21)
Last Five Fights: Semelsberger 4-1, Fletcher 5-0
Betting Odds: Semelsberger -200, Fletcher +170
Background: A welterweight bout featuring two solid prospects at 170 lbs. takes place here as Semelsberger welcomes Fletcher to the Octagon for the first time. Semelsberger is looking to notch his second straight win after scoring a first-round knockout over Martin Sano at UFC 266 in September. That got him back into the win column, and Semelsberger has won three of his first four fights since signing his UFC contract during the pandemic. Semelsberger has scored seven of his nine wins by stoppage. Fletcher makes his UFC debut after earning a contract on Dana White’s Contender Series in August. He stood out immediately with a first-round flying knee knockout in what was the first fight of this season’s run of shows, and there was zero doubt he was getting a deal. It also moved him to 9-0 in his career, which has seen him score eight wins by stoppage. He is a protégé of Dustin Poirier, who will be in his corner for the fight.

How they match up: Fletcher has a lot of talent, but this feels like a bad match-up for his UFC debut. That’s not a knock on his skills, it’s just that he’s still very green and should’ve fought someone else new or in their second UFC bout, not someone like Semelsberger, who is in his fifth UFC fight and has looked very good. Semelsberger is aggressive and durable and a solid athlete. He also lands a high number of significant strikes per minute, but he also eats a lot of punches. Fletcher tends to mix it up more on the feet, but his key to winning the fight might be the takedown. Semelsberger has yet to have his takedown defense tested inside the Octagon and it’ll be interesting to see how he would deal with that type of pressure. Semelsberger does have solid conditioning though we don’t know how Fletcher would hold up in a long fight as we’ve really yet to see it. This should be a fun and explosive fight and one I think can go either way. I see the potential in Fletcher, and, despite the tough match-up, I see him pulling this one off.

What’s at stake: It’s a battle of two solid prospects who will have solid UFC futures ahead of them. It’s Fletcher’s debut, and it is a tough fight for him, but a win shows he’s already ready for the tough match-ups. A loss won’t hurt him, though a win would sky rocket him immediately up the welterweight ladder. Semelsberger is looking to move to 4-1, which would be an impressive start to his UFC career, especially at 170 lbs., and would warrant him a definite step up in competition. This should be a solid fight between good prospects.

Pick: Fletcher

Women’s Flyweights: JJ Aldrich vs. Gillian Robertson

Overall Records: Aldrich 10-4, Robertson 10-6
UFC Records: Aldrich 6-3, Robertson 7-4
Last Fight: Aldrich def. Demopoulos–UDec–UFC On ESPN 30 (8/28/21), Robertson def. Cachoeira–R1 SUB–UFC 269 (12/11/21)
Last Five Fights: Aldrich 3-2, Robertson 3-2
Betting Odds: Aldrich +110, Robertson -130
Background: A women’s flyweight fight is in store here between two solid veterans as Aldrich takes on late replacement Robertson in this one. Aldrich was originally slated to fight Ariane Lipski, but she was forced out and Robertson steps in on just over two weeks’ notice. Aldrich fights for the first time since August, where she scored a decision win over Vanessa Demopoulos. That was her second straight win, and since dropping her UFC debut in December 2016, she’s gone 6-2 inside the Octagon. She’s still in search of her first UFC finish. Robertson will be looking for her second straight win after scoring a first-round submission win over Priscila Cachoeira, despite having her eyes gouged multiple times during the fight, at UFC 269 in December. The win ended her two-fight losing skid, and she’ll be looking to start a new win streak here. She has scored eight of her ten wins by finish, with seven submission wins.

How they match up: This fight is going to come down to the wrestling, a department where Aldrich struggles. While Robertson has improved on her feet, she excels on the mat, where she’s one of the best submission artists in the flyweight division. Aldrich is going to excel on the feet, but she’s generally way too patient. She also tends to fight a lot near the fence, which leaves the openings for the clinch to be initiated. The more they clinch, the more likely it is that Robertson is able to get the fight to the mat, where she’ll go to work looking for the submissions. Despite Aldrich having a full training camp, I favor Robertson, who spends a lot of her down time doing grappling matches and is someone always training. I think she gets Aldrich to the mat and submits her.

What’s at stake: There’s not a ton at stake in this one as neither are close to title contention even with a win, while neither are in danger of being cut with a loss. Robertson has been on the cusp of being in the rankings, and has been inside of them before, but losses have slipped her back out. I doubt she gets ranked with a win, but a win could get her a ranked opponent next. Robertson has more upside, and that’s not a shot at Aldrich, who is a solid fighter.

Pick: Robertson

Bantamweights: Trevin Jones vs. Javid Basharat

Overall Records: Jones 13-7 1 NC, Basharat 11-0
UFC Records: Jones 1-1 1 NC, Basharat 0-0
Last Fight: Kakhramonov def. Jones–R3 SUB–UFC On ESPN 29 (8/21/21), Basharat def. Kahlon–R3 SUB–Dana White’s Contender Series 45 (10/26/21)
Last Five Fights: Jones 3-1 1 NC, Basharat 5-0
Betting Odds: Jones +130, Basharat -150
Background: A fun bantamweight bout takes place here as Jones makes his fourth appearance inside the Octagon and welcomes newcomer Basharat for his debut. Jones will be looking to rebound from a loss in this one as he dropped a decision to Saidyokub Kakhramonov in October. However, it was a fight where Kakhramonov missed weight, so it’s a loss that shouldn’t be held against Jones too much. Jones had won his prior two UFC bouts, though his debut win was taken away due to a failed drug test due to Nevada’s outdated marijuana bylaws. Basharat enters his debut after winning a contract on Dana White’s Contender Series in October, where he scored a third-round submission win over Oron Kahlon to remain undefeated and move to 11-0. Basharat has won all eleven of his fights via stoppage, with five knockout wins and six submission wins.

How they match up: Basharat might be best known from when his opponent in October threw some racist remarks his way, but that showed that any type of trash talk doesn’t faze him, and even serves as a motivator. Despite his undefeated record and Jones’ having more of a modest record, Jones is the more well-rounded fighter of the two. Jones will win the battles on the feet and he does have power in his right hand. Basharat might land with more volume, but he’ll likely get cracked with some solid counters. Basharat is talented on the mat and could take Jones down, but he doesn’t tend to pressure as much on the mat. Both men are talented and I think this fight could go either way, but I see Jones using his power and scoring a knockout win.

What’s at stake: Jones would love to be the one to hand Basharat his first professional loss. Also, unless he signed a new deal, this could be the final fight on the contract of Jones, so a win would secure him a new deal. A loss, though, could see him back out the outside looking to fight his way back in. A loss would hurt Basharat’s undefeated momentum, but he’s another Contender Series product with a tough debut match-up. He’ll stick around win-or-loss, but this will be a test to see what level of competition he should be facing.

Pick: Jones

Featherweights: Damon Jackson vs. Kamuela Kirk

Overall Records: Jackson 19-4-1 1 NC, Kirk 11-4
UFC Records: Jackson 2-2-1 1 NC, Kirk 1-0
Last Fight: Jackson def. Rosa–UDec–UFC On ESPN+ 52 (10/9/21), Kirk def. Amirkhani–UDec–UFC On ESPN+ 47 (6/5/21)
Last Five Fights: Jackson 3-2, Kirk 3-2
Betting Odds: Jackson -110, Kirk -110
Background: A featherweight contest takes place here, and it’s another fight that had a change from the originally scheduled bout as Jackson takes on replacement Kirk in this prelim. Jackson was originally slated to fight Joshua Culibao, who pulled out due to undisclosed reasons. Kirk is taking this fight with an abbreviated training camp, but he got about six weeks’ notice, which isn’t the worst of situations. Jackson is looking to notch his second consecutive win after scoring a decision over Charles Rosa in October. He’s won two of his three fights since making his UFC return during the pandemic, and he’s 8-2 in his last ten fights overall. Kirk will be making his second walk to the Octagon as he looks to improve to a 2-0 UFC record. He debuted on short notice last June and scored an upset win as he defeated Makwan Amirkhani by decision. It was his third straight win and eleventh overall, ten of which have come via a finish.

How they match up: Honestly, Kirk got lucky to score the win over Amirkhani, and another fight on short notice might not be the best for him in this one. He will have the edge in the striking, but Jackson is a strong grappler who will be looking to take the fight down as quickly as possible. Kirk is a good wrestler, but he took advantage of Amirkhani getting tired early and Jackson doesn’t have any sort of similar cardio deficiencies. Jackson’s top game is really, really strong and if he can get Kirk on the bottom, he should dominate the fight. An extended fight on the feet favors Kirk, but Jackson is experienced enough and has been through the battles to where he can hang on the feet. Jackson is going to have to pressure Kirk throughout. This is a close fight that could really go either way.

What’s at stake: This battle of middle-of-the-road featherweights will see the winner get another similar opponent, while the loser will get a step down in competition. I don’t see either guy ever being in title contention. That’s not a knock on either, it’s just that the featherweight division is one of UFC’s toughest. They’ll both be sticking around for a bit, but a win would go a long way for both.

Pick: Jackson

Women’s Flyweights: Sabina Mazo vs. Miranda Maverick

Overall Records: Mazo 9-3, Maverick 9-4
UFC Records: Mazo 3-3, Maverick 2-2
Last Fight: Agapova def. Mazo–R3 SUB–UFC On ESPN+ 52 (10/9/21), Blanchfield def. Maverick–UDec–UFC 269 (12/11/21)
Last Five Fights: Mazo 3-2, Maverick 3-2
Betting Odds: Mazo +260, Maverick -335
Background: Another fight on this card that saw a late change see a women’s flyweight fight between Mazo and late replacement Maverick as both look to get back into the win column. Mazo was originally scheduled to fight Mandy Bohm on this card, but Bohm had to pull out, and Maverick steps in on about two weeks’ notice. Mazo is looking to snap a two-fight losing skid in this one as she went 0-2 in 2021, dropping fights to Alexis Davis and Mariya Agapova. Prior to the setbacks, she had won nine of her first ten professional bouts. Maverick also had a rough 2021, as she lost two straight fight to close out the year. It got off to a strong start with a win over Gillian Robertson in March, which put her on a five-fight win streak. However, she suffered subsequent losses to Maycee Barber and Erin Blanchfield, which knocked her out of the rankings. She is looking for her tenth career win.

How they match up: Mazo is a high-volume striker who is going to need to use her length to keep Maverick at a distance. Mazo has four inches of height and five inches of reach in her advantage. However, Mazo has been a disappointment during her UFC tenure, and, honestly, Maverick beat Barber in their fight. The style match-up in this one favors Maverick as she is aggressive on the feet and uses her striking to set up the takedowns. Mazo isn’t great at defending takedowns, and she isn’t great at going after her own. If Maverick is able to get it down, she’s very strong on the ground and has excellent submissions. Both are young and still have potential, but the tools each possess at this moment favors Maverick in this one as she should overpower Mazo and dominate on the ground.

What’s at stake: Maverick looked like a future title challenger before her setbacks, and she gets the chance to re-establish herself in the flyweight division. She should’ve gotten the nod over Barber, and her loss to Blanchfield is going to end up looking good one day when Blanchfield is a title challenger. Maverick will stick around either way, though this is a must-win for her. This is also a must-win for Mazo as she wants to avoid three straight losses. A third loss for her could signal her next fight being outside of the promotion. This is a big fight for both.

Pick: Maverick

Middleweights: Dalcha Lungiambula vs. Cody Brundage

Overall Records: Lungiambula 11-3, Brundage 6-2
UFC Records: Lungiambula 2-2, Brundage 0-1
Last Fight: Barriault def. Lungiambula–UDec–UFC On ESPN+ 49 (9/4/21), Maximov def. Brundage–UDec–UFC 266 (9/25/21)
Last Five Fights: Lungiambula 3-2, Brundage 3-2
Betting Odds: Lungiambula -125, Brundage +105
Background: A middleweight bout between two low-level 185 lb. fighters takes place here as Lungiambula and Brundage both look to get back into the win column. Lungiambula is looking to bounce back from a decision loss to Marc-Andre Barriault in September, which moved his UFC record to 2-2. He also has a loss to one of the main event fighters on this card, Magomed Ankalaev. Lungiambula has rotated wins-and-losses in his four UFC bouts, so history says he’s due for a win. Brundage enters the Octagon for the second time, but he gets a full training camp for this one. He lost his debut in September, dropping a decision to Nick Maximov in a fight he took on a few days’ notice. He has six career wins, with five coming via a finish.

How they match up: Lungiambula is a power house who tends to make a lot of mistakes during fights. His big two mistakes often are loading up his right hand looking for a knockout punch but not connecting, and fighting with his back against the fence. He could afford to do the latter in this one as he’ll have the reach advantage over Brundage, and Brundage isn’t much of a knockout or takedown threat. Brundage does tend to leave his chin exposed, and that would be a big mistake against Lungiambula. Brundage struggles against bigger opponents, and Lungiambula is a power house with a big, muscular frame for the middleweight division. Brundage’s big key is to get Lungiambula to gas himself out and take advantage of it late. Lungiambula looked his best in his last fight, even though he lost, and I think he’ll look better in this one.

What’s at stake: There isn’t much at stake. I could see the loser being cut from the roster, but that’s not a given. I don’t see either man ever coming close to being ranked, but they need fighters to fill out cards. These guys are at the level they belong in at the moment, and this really isn’t that important of a fight.

Pick: Lungiambula

Bantamweights: Kris Moutinho vs. Guido Cannetti

Overall Records: Moutinho 9-5, Cannetti 8-6
UFC Records: Moutinho 0-1, Cannetti 2-5
Last Fight: O’Malley def. Moutinho–R3 TKO–UFC 264 (7/10/21), Martinez def. Cannetti–SpDec–UFC On ESPN 30 (8/28/21)
Last Five Fights: Moutinho 2-3, Cannetti 1-4
Betting Odds: Moutinho -150, Cannetti +130
Background: A bantamweight bout takes place here as Moutinho looks to ride the momentum of the popularity he picked up in his debut against tough veteran Cannetti. Moutinho is fighting for the second time inside the Octagon as he comes in off a memorable third-round loss to Sean O’Malley at UFC 264 in July. It was a fight Moutinho took on short notice and he got lots of attention and praise for surviving a beating he took at the hands of O’Malley. He’s been waiting to return, but injuries have slowed him down. Cannetti is one of the oldest fighters on the roster, as he’s now 42, and he comes into this one looking to end a three-fight losing skid. He is coming off a split decision loss to Mana Martinez in August in a fight where Martinez missed weight. He’s looking for his first win in nearly four years.

How they match up: Moutinho can take a beating as we’ve seen, but prolonged UFC success means not having fights like that all the time. This is a favorable match-up for him, but Cannetti is a tough veteran with some decent durability. Moutinho is someone who is going to keep coming forward and has virtually no defense on his feet, so he’ll have to deal with the power of Cannetti. However, Cannetti’s gas tank is generally only good for about five minutes, so if Moutinho can weather an early onslaught, he can make it tough for Cannetti late. Moutinho’s own durability is going to end up wearing down Cannetti to where Moutinho gets a finish in the third round.

What’s at stake: Moutinho is going to get a few UFC fights due to the O’Malley fight regardless of how they go, but this does feel like a fight for him to get a win and bounce back. I’m surprised Cannetti is still on the roster with him being 42-years-old, having three straight losses and a 2-5 UFC record overall. A fourth straight loss is assuredly it for him, and this could just be a situation of letting him fight out his contract. If he were to win, which would be the first time in nearly four years, that would show there’s still some fight left in the veteran.

Pick: Moutinho

Light Heavyweights: Tafon Nchukwi vs. Azamat Murzakanov

Overall Records: Nchukwi 6-1, Murzakanov 10-0
UFC Records: Nchukwi 2-1, Murzakanov 0-0
Last Fight: Nchukwi def. Rodriguez–UDec–UFC On ESPN+ 50 (9/18/21), Murzakanov def. Scheffel–R1 TKO–Dana White’s Contender Series 37 (8/31/21)
Last Five Fights: Nchukwi 4-1, Murzakanov 5-0
Betting Odds: Nchukwi +155, Murzakanov -190
Background: The opening bout on the card should probably, actually, be higher on the card as Nchukwi and Murzakanov battle in a light heavyweight bout. Nchukwi got back into the win column in his last fight as he scored a unanimous decision over Mike Rodriguez in September. That got him back on track after his first career loss. He has six career wins, with four coming by knockout. Murzakanov is making his UFC debut in this one after earning a contract on Dana White’s Contender Series. He’s an interesting story as he was once signed to a UFC deal, but had it taken away after failing a USADA drug test. He earned his way back with a first-round knockout of Marcus Scheffel in August on the show, moving him to a perfect 10-0. He has scored seven wins by knockout and one more by submission.

How they match up: Nchukwi is a massive light heavyweight who lands with a lot of volume and is very accurate on his feet with decent defense. He doesn’t have the best speed at 205 lbs., which could be a problem against the fast hands of Murzakanov. The big thing is that Murzakanov is undersized for the division and should be fighting at middleweight, and Nchukwi should use his size to make it difficult for him. Nchukwi should look to use his size and power to work against Murzakanov in the clinch, but he needs to avoid the takedown. Murzakanov has the sambo background and strong takedowns, but his submission game is far from the best. Murzakanov having bursts of offense on the feet coupled with the takedown threats should lead him to a decision win.

What’s at stake: If Murzakanov is going to make a title run, he needs to get his first UFC win out of the way here and be an active fighter. He’s 35, but at 10–0 and a potential to go 11–0, he has all of the tools to become a contender. Nchukwi is still developing as a fighter, as this will be just his eighth career fight, and he’s had some tough battles thus far. He’s not going anywhere, but a win would so that he’s getting better and getting closer to being able to fight ranked opposition.

Pick: Murzakanov

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