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Guide to UFC on ESPN 34: Luque vs. Muhammad 2

Getting prepared for UFC action this coming Saturday? Here is everything you need to know with our Guide to UFC on ESPN 34: Luque vs. Muhammad 2.

UFC on ESPN 34
Date: April 16, 2022
Location: UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada

Main Card
Start Time: 8:30 p.m. ET, 5:30 p.m. PT
Where To Watch: ESPN & ESPN+

Welterweights: #5 Vicente Luque vs. #6 Belal Muhammad

Overall Records: Luque 21-7-1, Muhammad 20-3 1 NC
UFC Records: Luque 14-3, Muhammad 11-3 1 NC
Last Fight: Luque def. Chiesa–R1 SUB–UFC 265 (8/7/21), Muhammad def. Thompson–UDec–UFC On ESPN+ 57 (12/18/21)
Last Five Fights: Luque 4-1, Muhammad 4-0 1 NC
Betting Odds: Luque -195, Muhammad +165
Background: The main event is a pivotal bout in the welterweight division featuring two men who are on solid win runs and in title contention as Luque battles Muhammad. It is a rematch of a November 2016 bout, which took place at UFC 205 in Madison Square Garden, and saw Luque score a first-round knockout. They’ve both done tremendously well in the five-plus years since then, as Luque has gone 10-2 since and Muhammad has gone 10-1 with a no contest. Luque is on a four-fight win streak, while Muhammad hasn’t lost in his last seven fights, with six wins and the no contest. Both have moved themselves way up the rankings, as Luque is ranked fifth coming in and Muhammad is ranked sixth, which puts them into the title picture. In the ten wins since their first fight, Luque has scored nine finishes, and 19 of his 21 professional wins have seen him score a finish. Muhammad isn’t the finisher that Luque is, as in the ten wins since their first bout, he’s only finished one opponent. In fact, in his 20 career wins, he’s only scored five by stoppage, with the other 15 coming by decision.

How they match up: Both men are tremendously better fighters since their first fight, and this is much more interesting than when they fought in 2016. Luque is a ferocious finisher, mixing in hard punches with a very underrated ground game, and he has shown he can submit some of the best fighters in the world. He is a high-volume striker, but he does tend to let himself get hit a little too much. Luque is going to bring constant aggression, and Muhammad does like to fight at a methodical pace. Muhammad has had an increased focus on his wrestling in recent bouts, and he dominated Thompson with the takedowns and ground pressure in his last fight. Going to the ground with Luque may seem like a bad idea, but if anyone can avoid Luque’s submissions, it’s Muhammad. Muhammad does have a good pace and his conditioning is outstanding, but this is only the second time he’s been booked in a 25-minute fight. Both men are going to look to pressure the other, but I see the power of Luque being the key factor in this fight. I don’t know that he’ll finish Muhammad, but I’m not expecting a different outcome than they had in the first fight.

What’s at stake: The title picture is kind of a mess in the welterweight division at the moment, and the winner is just going to cloud it up some more. Kamaru Usman had been an active champion, but it might be some time before he fights again, which is at least keeping Leon Edwards on ice. Khamzat Chimaev jumped both in the rankings following his win over Gilbert Burns, and it looks like he might fight Colby Covington next. If that fight doesn’t happen, the winner of this fight would be a natural next fight for Chimaev, at least rankings-wise. The winner of this fight could argue for a title shot next, but it finally appears to be Edwards’ time to challenge, so any additional challenge means the winner here could miss close to a year of fighting. This is a pivotal bout for both, as the winner is in the mix, and, honestly, the loser doesn’t lose much as they’ll still be in the mix, except in the need of a few wins.

Pick: Luque

Middleweights: Caio Borralho vs. Gadzhi Omargadzhiev

Overall Records: Borralho 10-1 1 NC, Omargadzhiev 13-0
UFC Records: Borralho 0-0, Omargadzhiev 0-0
Last Fight: Borralho def. Murray–R1 TKO–Dana White’s Contender Series 44 (10/19/21), Omargadzhiev def. Silva–R1 SUB–Dana White’s Contender Series 45 (10/26/21)
Last Five Fights: Borralho 5-0, Omargadzhiev 5-0
Betting Odds: Borralho +110, Omargadzhiev -130
Background: A pair of middleweights making their respective UFC debuts battle here in the co-main event slot as Borralho and Omargadzhiev each welcome the other to the Octagon for the first time. Both men signed their UFC deals in 2021 off of impressive showings on Dana White’s Contender Series. Borralho actually competed twice during the most recent edition of the show, with both fights coming three weeks apart and taking place in two different weight classes. He got a decision over Aaron Jeffery at middleweight in his first appearance, but wasn’t signed when many thought he should’ve been. He got a late-notice second-chance, scoring a first-round finish of Jesse Murray as a light heavyweight to stamp the fact he deserved a contract. Seven of his ten career wins have been via a finish. Omargadzhiev only needed one chance to get a contract, and he made the best of it in earning a deal, scoring a first-round submission of Jansey Silva to leave no doubt that he deserved a deal. It moved Omargadzhiev’s record to 13-0, and eleven of those 13 wins have seen them score a finish.

How they match up: Borralho is going to employ a four-inch reach advantage in this one, and he is going to need it. Omargadzhiev is a solid striker with knockout power and a strong wrestling game. Borralho is likely to be the stronger man inside the Octagon, given his experience fighting up a weight class, and he’s shown to be a very accurate striker with solid power. Omargadzhiev tends to not get hit a lot, but that could easily change in this fight. I sense the fight is going to come down to who wins the clinch battles against the fence. Borralho has some solid grappling and he should be looking to be the one to push the pace of the fight. Omargadzhiev is going to look to turn this into a grind, but that might be easier said than done. This should be a very interesting battle.

What’s at stake: It’s a pair of middleweights in a high-profile slot making their UFC debuts, and both looked impressive on the Contender Series. The loser isn’t going anywhere, but the winner could find themselves with a rocket strapped to their back for a quick rise up the middleweight ladder. This one has the makings of a fight that could end up stealing the show and getting some post-fight bonus money.

Pick: Borralho

Welterweights: Miguel Baeza vs. Andre Fialho

Overall Records: Baeza 10-2, Fialho 14-4 1 NC
UFC Records: Baeza 3-2, Fialho 0-1
Last Fight: Williams def. Baeza–R3 TKO–UFC On ESPN+ 55 (11/13/21), Pereira def. Fialho–UDec–UFC 270 (1/22/22)
Last Five Fights: Baeza 3-2, Fialho 4-1
Betting Odds: Baeza -170, Fialho +150
Background: A welterweight fight that wasn’t originally planned for this show takes place here as Baeza returns against Fialho. Baeza was originally slated to fight Dhiego Lima in this bout, but Lima abruptly retired from competition, and Fialho steps in with an abbreviated training camp. Baeza comes into this fight looking to snap a two-fight losing skid. He started his career with a perfect 10-0 record, including three finishes to begin his UFC career. His losses in 2021 came to Santiago Ponzinibbio and Khaos Williams. Eight of his ten wins have been finishes. Fialho makes his second appearance inside the Octagon. He made his debut in January at UFC 270, stepping in on short notice to fight Michel Pereira. He lost by decision, ending a four-fight win streak. Fialho has scored 12 of his 14 wins by a finish.

How they match up: Baeza likes to fight at a fast pace and with some high volume. That isn’t good news for Fialho, who tends to get hit quite often. Baeza’s biggest weapon is going to be the calf kick. He’s going to have to effectively use them to keep Fialho away from the takedown range. Fialho is at his best when he’s able to become the one controlling the pace. He’s also a straightforward fighter, and Baeza is going to make him pay for that with leg kicks and counter shots. Baeza has the more power of the two, the better technique on the feet, and better movement on his feet. He’ll also have the cardio edge. Everything in this fight points it in the way of Baeza, but Fialho is dangerous. Still, this should be one for Baeza.

What’s at stake: Baeza is trying to snap his losing skid and get back to the spot he was in prior to those losses, where many thought he was a dangerous up-and-coming prospect. He still is, but the losses set him back. However, a third straight loss would be dangerous for him, and would find him fighting for his job in his next fight. This is two UFC appearances for Fialho on short notice, so I don’t see anything happening to him with a loss, but going 0-2 to start a UFC career isn’t the best thing. Both men will see another fight inside the Octagon, but it is a must-win for both.

Pick: Baeza

Women’s Bantamweights: Mayra Bueno Silva vs. Wu Yanan

Overall Records: Silva 7-2-1, Yanan 12-4
UFC Records: Silva 2-2-1, Yanan 1-3
Last Fight: Fiorot def. Silva–UDec–UFC On ESPN+ 53 (10/16/21), Edwards def. Yanan–UDec–UFC On ABC 1 (1/16/21)
Last Five Fights: Silva 2-2-1, Yanan 2-3
Betting Odds: Silva -525, Yanan +385
Background: A battle in the women’s bantamweight division takes place here as Silva moves up from the flyweight division looking for fresh challenges, while Yanan looks to end a losing skid. Silva is moving up following disappointments in her last two fights. She had a draw with Montana De La Rosa that came after she was deducted a point for grabbing the fence, so she would’ve won without that. She then dropped a decision to Manon Fiorot in her last fight in October. She had won seven of her eight career fights to start her career prior to the setbacks. Yanan has had a rough start to her UFC career and she’s looking to turn that around here. She signed with the promotion on the heels of an 11-1 record, but has gone just 1-3 inside the Octagon in her first four appearances. She’s lost two straight, dropping decisions to Mizuki Inoue and Joselyne Edwards, and has fought just once since August 2019.

How they match up: This is your classic striker against grappler battle, with Silva occupying the grappler tag and Yanan being the striker. Silva does have some power in her hands, but she relies more on aggression and pressure as she looks to get opponents down to the mat, where she will have the advantage here. Yanan tends to land more strikes per minute, and Silva leaves herself open to getting hit quite often, probably a little too much. Yanan has been outwrestled in her UFC losses, so Silva should look to utilize a gameplan of her pressure and getting Yanan to the mat. The big question is going to be whether Yanan can withstand the ground pressure, and I don’t see her being able to do that.

What’s at stake: Both are in must-win situations here, but Yanan appears to be in much more need of a win. A loss would be three straight and a 1-4 record, and the only thing that would keep her on the roster after is the fact she’s Chinese and they need fighters from China as it’s a market they’re trying to capitalize on. Silva has shown a lot of potential and has been ranked at flyweight before, and this is a chance for her to get new life in a division that is rather shallow at the moment. Still, both are in must-win positions.

Pick: Silva

Featherweights: Pat Sabatini vs. TJ Laramie

Overall Records: Sabatini 16-3, Laramie 12-4
UFC Records: Sabatini 3-0, Laramie 0-1
Last Fight: Sabatini def. Lutz–UDec–UFC On ESPN+ 56 (11/20/21), Minner def. Laramie–R1 SUB–UFC On ESPN+ 36 (9/19/20)
Last Five Fights: Sabatini 5-0, Laramie 4-1
Betting Odds: Sabatini -550, Laramie +400
Background: A fun battle in the featherweight division takes place here as some opponent shuffling ends up with prospects Sabatini and Laramie squaring off. Sabatini was originally slated to fight Gavin Tucker at last week’s UFC 273 event, while Laramie was slated to fight Melsik Baghdasaryan on this card, but both lost their opponents, so they were matched up. Sabatini comes into this bout riding a five-fight win streak, which includes wins in his first three UFC bouts. He’s coming off a decision win over Tucker Lutz in December. He has scored 12 of his 16 wins by finish, with ten coming by submission. Laramie returns from a long layoff, as he hasn’t fought since his UFC debut in August 2020. That was a disappointing debut, as he suffered a submission loss to Darrick Minner in just 52 seconds, which ended a four-fight win streak he was on. Injuries and illness have forced him out of two scheduled bouts prior to this one, and Laramie will be looking for his tenth finish in this one.

How they match up: Sabatini is a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and likes to fight on the mat, as evidenced by his ten submission wins. He’s not going to scare many on the feet, but he likes to pressure for takedowns. If he gets you to the mat, though, he’s relentless with his submission attempts. Laramie is going to have to be aware of this and avoid what happened in his fight win Minner, as Laramie didn’t even land a single strike in that fight in the short time it lasted. Laramie is a ground specialist as well, but the chain wrestling of Sabatini might overwhelm him. Laramie is better on the feet and has the power edge, but it’ll be all about stopping the constant pressure from Sabatini. Laramie got caught in his last fight, and he is good enough on the ground to avoid the submissions from Sabatini, but I expect Sabatini to grind this one out.

What’s at stake: Sabatini has looked great thus far during his UFC run, and this match-up is kind of baffling. I understand why it was made, but it’s tough luck for Laramie, who has been getting non-favorable match-ups thus far. Sabatini could get close to fighting a ranked opponent next with a win, while a loss wouldn’t set him too far back. A loss would be crushing for Laramie, moving him to 0-2 in his opening UFC bouts, and would put him into must-win territory in his next outing. Both are solid prospects and this should be a good fight.

Pick: Sabatini

Welterweights: Mounir Lazzez vs. Ange Loosa

Overall Records: Lazzez 10-2, Loosa 8-2
UFC Records: Lazzez 1-1, Loosa 0-0
Last Fight: Alves def. Lazzez–R1 TKO–UFC On ESPN 20 (1/20/21), Loosa def. Howard–UDec–XMMA 4 (4/2/22)
Last Five Fights: Lazzez 3-2, Loosa 3-2
Betting Odds: Lazzez -180, Loosa +155
Background: A fight that saw a change during fight week takes place here as Lazzez returns from a long layoff to welcome Loosa to the Octagon for the first time on short notice. Lazzez was originally scheduled to fight Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos in this fight, but Zaleski pulled out due to personal reasons. Loosa was signed on late Monday night as a replacement, stepping in on about five days’ notice. Lazzez is fighting for the first time since January 2021, where he suffered a first-round knockout loss to Warlley Alves. That ended a three-fight win streak, which included a win over Abdul Razak Alhassan in his UFC debut. Lazzez has scored eight of his ten wins by knockout. Loosa is fighting for the second time in the month of April, as he fought on the XMMA card held on April 2. He scored a decision win over UFC veteran John Howard on that show, which got him back into the win column. He had a very entertaining bout with Jack Della Maddalena on Dana White’s Contender Series in September, a fight in which the winner was going to get signed no matter what, but he came up on the short end. He has scored six of his eight wins via stoppage.

How they match up: Lazzez is coming into this fight on a full training camp, while Loosa is making a quick turnaround from his last outing, so it’s unknown what kind of condition he’ll be in. That gives Lazzez an early edge. This should be a very entertaining battle on the feet as both are kickboxers with a lot of power. Loosa does have a wrestling game that should concern Lazzez, but Lazzez does work well in the clinch. However, Loosa likely won’t have the conditioning to have a steady wrestling flow going with his short notice, so he’ll likely just want to battle on the feet. This will turn into a fun fight on the feet, but it’ll be the mixture of strikes from Lazzez coming from a solid range as he picks apart Loosa on the feet on his way to a decision.

What’s at stake: If Lazzez wants to make a run at title contention, he needs to win this one and get more active. Time isn’t really on his side as he’s already 34-years-old, so he needs wins and activity. At worst, if he doesn’t make it to the rankings, he’s someone who looks like he’ll be able to have plenty of entertaining fights inside the Octagon. Loosa is someone who looked like he was going to make his way onto the roster sometime soon, so he is deserving of this opportunity. Taking this fight on short notice will get him a few fights, and even if he comes up short, he’ll be a guy to keep an eye on, especially when he gets fights with full training camps.

Pick: Lazzez

Preliminary Card
Start Time: 5:30 p.m. ET, 2:30 p.m. PT
Where to watch: ESPN+

Heavyweights: Devin Clark vs. William Knight

Overall Records: Clark 12-6, Knight 11-3
UFC Records: Clark 6-6, Knight 3-2
Last Fight: Cutelaba def. Clark–UDec–UFC On ESPN+ 50 (9/18/21), Grishin def. Knight–UDec–UFC 271 (2/12/22)
Last Five Fights: Clark 2-3, Knight 3-2
Betting Odds: Clark -170, Knight +150
Background: A pair of fighters who normally fight at 205 lbs. battle in the heavyweight division in this one, in a fight that came together on relatively short notice, as Clark battles Knight in the featured prelim. Clark is fighting for the first time since September, which was his only 2021 outing, as he looks to end a two-fight losing skid after dropping fights to Anthony Smith and Ion Cutelaba. He’s had an up-and-down UFC career, splitting his 12 appearances inside the Octagon, and he’s still in search of his first UFC finish. Knight is making a quick return after fighting in February, which was controversial. He was supposed to fight Maxim Grishin in a light heavyweight outing, a fight he took on very short notice. He ended up missing weight for that fight by 12 pounds, a UFC record, but they ended up fight as a heavyweight bout, which Grishin won by decision. That ended a two-fight win streak Knight was on, and he’s looking for a better outing here.

How they match up: Knight is a powerhouse and he’s going to have the size advantage no matter what division they’re fighting in. Clark does have a two-inch height and reach advantage in this one, but that might not matter. Knight didn’t show a lot in the Grishin fight, as he wasn’t even very active in that fight, and his technique hasn’t looked good lately at all. He has the power in his hands, which catches his opponents off-guard. Clark likes to wrestle and look for takedowns, but he isn’t going to be able to overpower Knight. He’s going to have to pressure Knight against the fence all while looking out for the power right hand that Knight can land. If Knight actually decides to engage in this one, he should win this as Clark is the type of opponent he traditionally knocks out. Clark is durable, but he was overpowered by Cutelaba in his last fight, and much of the same looks in store here.

What’s at stake: The future of both men could be on the line in this one. Knight has potential, but he’s been disappointing for the most part during his UFC tenure, and the big weight miss last time did him no favors. He really can’t afford another loss, as they may decide to cut bait with him. Clark is in a must-win as he tries to avoid three straight losses. He’s taking a fight here that has a lot of disadvantages for him, so he should get another UFC bout even with a loss, but a win would put him right back to where he can get close to the rankings when he moves back to light heavyweight.

Pick: Knight

Women’s Bantamweights: #11 Lina Lansberg vs. #12 Pannie Kianzad

Overall Records: Lansberg 10-5, Kianzad 15-6
UFC Records: Lansberg 4-4, Kianzad 4-3
Last Fight: McMann def. Lansberg–UDec–UFC On ESPN+ 24 (1/25/20), Pennington def. Kianzad–UDec–UFC On ESPN+ 50 (9/18/21)
Last Five Fights: Lansberg 3-2, Kianzad 4-1
Betting Odds: Lansberg +330, Kianzad -435
Background: The only other fight featuring ranked fighters takes place on the prelims as ranked bantamweights Lansberg and Kianzad both look to get back into the win column here. Lansberg returns to action for the first time since January 2020, as she gave birth to a child during her time away. She’s looking to rebound from a decision loss to Sara McMann in her last outing. She had won two straight and three of her last four prior to that loss. Kianzad is also looking to rebound from a loss in her last fight, as she dropped a decision to Raquel Pennington in September. Kianzad was on quite the roll before then, as she had won four straight fights, which saw her score wins over Jessica-Rose Clark, Bethe Correia, Sijara Eubanks and Alexis Davis. She’s in search of her first stoppage win since April 2014.

How they match up: There are lots of unknowns surrounding Lansberg coming into this one. She’s coming off the long layoff, gave birth, and is now 40-years-old. She was a solid fighter prior, with a strong clinch game and an improved wrestling attack. Kianzad struggled with the clinch work Pennington was doing in her last fight, and if Lansberg can replicate that or, at least, do something similar, it could lead to issues for Kianzad. If Lansberg retains the same strength in the clinch, she’ll be tough, but she doesn’t have the striking to match Kianzad on the feet. Kianzad is a high-volume striker and Lansberg doesn’t have the best defense on the feet. Kianzad’s pace and high-volume attack should be good enough for her to score a decision on the scorecards.

What’s at stake: Lansberg is going to be just happy to get back to action, and if she can score the upset, who knows where she goes from here. She could get into the top ten with a win and into some bigger fights, but doesn’t seem like someone who will challenge for a title. Kianzad was close to title contention prior to the Pennington loss, and a win would put her back into contention in a shallow division. Neither is in danger of being cut with a loss, but the winner could crack the top-ten.

Pick: Kianzad

Lightweights: Drakkar Klose vs. Brandon Jenkins

Overall Records: Klose 11-2-1, Jenkins 15-8
UFC Records: Klose 5-2, Jenkins 0-1
Last Fight: Dariush def. Klose–R2 KO–UFC 248 (3/7/20), Zhu def. Jenkins–R3 TKO–UFC On ESPN+ 50 (9/18/21)
Last Five Fights: Klose 3-2, Jenkins 3-2
Betting Odds: Klose -630, Jenkins +450
Background: A lightweight bout featuring a former contender returning from a long layoff takes place here as veteran Klose takes on Jenkins for his sophomore outing inside the Octagon. Klose is fighting for the first time since before the pandemic. He was last in action at UFC 248 in March 2020, when he suffered a second-round knockout loss to Beneil Dariush in an incredible fight that might be best remembered for the viral moment featuring the reactions of Joe Rogan and Daniel Cormier to the finish. Prior to that, Klose had won three straight and five of his six UFC appearances, though he’s still in search of his first UFC finish. Jenkins fights for the second time in his UFC career, though this will be the first time with a full training camp. He’s coming off a third-round knockout loss to Rong Zhu in his debut, which ended a three-fight win streak. Jenkins has scored 13 of his 15 wins by stoppage.

How they match up: Klose’s long layoff is the result of injuries sustained after he was pushed by Jeremy Stephens when they were doing a staredown for a fight in 2021. While it didn’t look any worse than any other shove during these moments, Klose had some sort of whiplash effect that messed up his neck, and he’s admittedly still dealing with issues to this day. He’s in good enough shape to fight again, and he’s got the tools and talent to where this match-up is favorable to him. Klose has solid wrestling and a good striking acumen. Jenkins can be dangerous, but his attacks are sporadic and outlandish, and he doesn’t have the technical striking that Klose does. Klose might take the safe approach and move the fight to the mat, where he should be able to grind out an easy decision. I don’t want to say this is a soft fight for Klose, but this is a fight he should win unless his injuries took too much out of him.

What’s at stake: For Klose, this is a fight to see where he is at right now in dealing with what he’s been dealing with as far as injuries. If he looks good and wins, he’ll get a better match-up against an opponent of his stature. If he loses, it could be the beginning of the end for him. Jenkins will be looking for the upset, but this is a fight he’s expected to lose. He’ll get a third outing inside the Octagon, which will be a must-win, but he doesn’t strike me as anyone who is going to be more than a journeyman in the promotion.

Pick: Klose

Lightweights: Rafa Garcia vs. Jesse Ronson

Overall Records: Garcia 13-2, Ronson 21-10 1 NC
UFC Records: Garcia 1-2, Ronson 0-3 1 NC
Last Fight: Garcia def. Levy–UDec–UFC On ESPN+ 56 (11/20/21), Dalby NC Ronson–UFC On ESPN 14 (7/25/20)
Last Five Fights: Garcia 3-2, Ronson 2-2 1 NC
Betting Odds: Garcia +100, Ronson -120
Background: A lightweight bout between two veterans who could end up having an exciting fight takes place here as Garcia welcomes Ronson back from a long layoff. Garcia is looking to score his second straight win as he scored his first UFC win in November, taking a decision over Natan Levy. Prior to his UFC signing, Garcia had started his career 12-0, but lost his first two UFC outings during the early part of 2021. Garcia has scored eight of his 13 wins by finish, with seven coming by submission. Ronson fights for the fifth time with the promotion, as he’s in his second UFC tenure. He went 0-3 during his first run, leading to his release, but returned on short-notice in 2020 against Nicolas Dalby. That was originally a successful return, as he finally scored his first UFC win, but it was overturned afterwards after Ronson tested positive for a banned substance. He was handed a 22-month suspension as a result, and returns now looking for his first official UFC win.

How they match up: Garcia is primarily a wrestler, which is the style of opponent that Ronson traditionally struggles against. When it comes to the battle on the feet, Ronson is the better striker, as he’s much more accurate than Garcia, who tends to get hit way more than he should. Garcia is a durable fighter who needs to slow down his pace, as he tends to get off to too quick of starts and zap his cardio early. He gutted it out in his last fight, but if he does the same, Ronson will make him pay on the feet. Ronson will look to attack the body with his combinations, which will also wear Garcia down. If Garcia can get the takedown and establish top control, this fight will be his. It’s a very close match-up and will come down to who gets in a groove. Garcia’s conditioning issues should be watched, and this is a real toss-up fight. I think Ronson edges out a close one.

What’s at stake: The futures of both men are riding on this fight. This appears to be the last fight on the contract of Garcia, and a loss would move him to 1-3 during his UFC career and the high likelihood that his contract won’t be renewed. A win likely secures him a new deal. For Ronson, if he were to lose here, that would be five UFC appearances without a win, plus a drug test failure. He also was signed at one other point for a short-notice fight, but released when he said he wasn’t going to make weight, so this is technically his third stint with the promotion. If he loses, I could easily see them just letting him go again. A win secures his future. This is a must-win for both.

Pick: Ronson

Heavyweights: Chris Barnett vs. Martin Buday

Overall Records: Barnett 22-7, Buday 9-1
UFC Records: Barnett 1-1, Buday 0-0
Last Fight: Barnett def. Villante–R2 TKO–UFC 268 (11/5/21), Buday def. Hood–R1 TKO–Dana White’s Contender Series 43 (10/12/21)
Last Five Fights: Barnett 4-1, Buday 5-0
Betting Odds: Barnett +195, Buday -240
Background: A heavyweight bout featuring one of the most charismatic and entertaining personalities in the division against a newcomer takes place here as “Huggy Bear” welcomes Buday to the Octagon. Barnett is looking to make it two straight wins as he’s coming off his first UFC win. He scored a second-round knockout of Gian Villante at UFC 268 in November in an incredible finish, as he landed a wheel kick that put Villante down before the finish came. Barnett then did a front flip onto his butt and gave a great post-fight interview where he got tons of cheers. That rebounded him from a loss suffered to Ben Rothwell in his UFC debut. Barnett has scored 17 of his 22 wins by knockout. Buday makes his UFC debut after scoring a first-round knockout of Lorenzo Hood on Dana White’s Contender Series in October to earn his UFC deal. It marked the eighth straight win for Buday, and eight of his nine career wins have come by a finish.

How they match up: Buday is going to tower over Barnett, as he’ll have a seven-inch height advantage. However, he’ll only have a two-inch reach advantage, and Barnett knows how to overcome the size disadvantages he consistently has. Barnett is entertainment first, showcasing all sorts of flashy techniques when he fights, but they can be very effective, much like the wheel kick was in November. He will be the toughest test to date for Buday, but the size and clinch work of Buday might be too much for Barnett to overcome. Buday can fight a lot like Rothwell, who Barnett struggled against. Barnett’s best path to winning is to clip Buday coming in or to land something flashy like he did against Villante. That’s not out of the question, and Barnett is the better striker, but Buday will likely bully him against the fence and on the mat to get a late stoppage.

What’s at stake: No matter what, Barnett should have a UFC contract until a time comes where he walks away or he goes on a run where he just can’t win. Something about him connects with the audience, and he is very entertaining. If he can pull off the upset, it would be another crazy moment, and it’s a real shame he’s fighting in front of no fans inside the UFC Apex. Buday is a nice addition to the heavyweight division, and he has real skill and potential. This is a nice first test for him, as a win would move him into higher-profile fights. A loss wouldn’t kill him, as it is his toughest fight so far, but it would be a disappointment.

Pick: Buday

Lightweights: Jordan Leavitt vs. Trey Ogden

Overall Records: Leavitt 9-1, Ogden 15-4
UFC Records: Leavitt 2-1, Ogden 0-0
Last Fight: Leavitt def. Sayles–R2 SUB–UFC On ESPN+ 57 (12/18/21), Ogden def. Okanovich–R2 SUB–Fury FC 53 (11/14/21)
Last Five Fights: Leavitt 4-1, Ogden 4-1
Betting Odds: Leavitt +125, Ogden -145
Background: A lightweight bout featuring a debuting fighter taking a fight on short-notice takes place here as Leavitt welcomes Ogden to the Octagon for the first time. Leavitt was originally scheduled to fight Victor Martinez in this bout, but Martinez pulled out due to unknown reasons. Ogden steps in on about three weeks’ notice. Leavitt is looking to score his second straight win after scoring a submission win over Matt Sayles in December. That bounced him back from suffering his first career loss in June. Leavitt has scored finishes in seven of his nine career wins. Ogden debuts on the heels of three straight wins. He last fought in November for the Fury FC promotion on a card that took place in front of Dana White. He scored a second-round submission win over JJ Okanovich on that show. While he didn’t get signed by White afterwards, he still gets a UFC shot here.

How they match up: Leavitt isn’t going to scare anyone on the feet, and Ogden should know that. Ogden should also know that Leavitt is going to want to get this fight to the mat as quickly as possible, so he better be prepared for that. Ogden’s career has been about outwrestling his opponents and doing better on the mat over them. He is more powerful than Leavitt, but Leavitt might be the better ground fighter of the two. Leavitt can find openings from anywhere, so even if Ogden does get the better of the ground position, he is going to need to be careful. Ogden should just try and keep it on the feet, where his technical striking will light Leavitt up, who is no threat on the feet. I do like Ogden in this one as he has more ways of winning.
What’s at stake: Leavitt will continue his UFC career with a win here, as that would move him to 3-1. If he loses and falls to 2-2 during his UFC tenure, he may or may not get a second deal. This is a fight he really needs to win. Ogden is in his debut and is on short notice, so he’ll get more fights in the future. He’s also very talented and deserving of this opportunity and will look to make the best of it.

Pick: Ogden

Women’s Strawweights: Istela Nunes vs. Sam Hughes

Overall Records: Nunes 6-2 1 NC, Hughes 5-4
UFC Records: Nunes 0-1, Hughes 0-3
Last Fight: Carnelossi def. Nunes–R3 SUB–UFC On ESPN+ 53 (10/16/21), Pinheiro def. Hughes–UDec–UFC On ESPN+ 56 (11/20/21)
Last Five Fights: Nunes 3-2, Hughes 1-4
Betting Odds: Nunes -225, Hughes +185
Background: A strawweight bout featuring two fighters both in search of their first UFC win takes place here as Nunes takes on Hughes. Nunes is making her second UFC appearance after having her debut delayed due to a USADA suspension. She debuted in October, suffering a third-round submission loss to Ariane Carnelossi. She’s still young in her career and is looking for her third stoppage win. Hughes makes her fourth appearance inside the Octagon, and her first three appearances haven’t gone her way. She debuted on short notice against Tecia Torres at UFC 256 in December 2020, a fight that was stopped by the doctors after the first round. Her 2021 didn’t go so well, either, as she dropped decisions to Loma Lookboonmee and Luana Pinheiro. After starting her career with four straight wins, she’s just 1-4 in her last five fights.

How they match up: This is another striker against grappler battle, with Nunes being the striker and Hughes being the wrestler. Nunes is going to outclass Hughes on the feet, as she’s high-volume and accurate with good defense to back it up. Hughes does get hit a lot, which tends to keep her from being able to implement a wrestling attack. Hughes is going to be looking for the takedown, which is her path to winning, and constantly going for them will zap the cardio of Nunes. Nunes did a good job of neutralizing the wrestling of Carnelossi in her last fight, but that went away when she faded in the second. The same could happen here, but Hughes isn’t as powerful as Carnelossi. If Nunes shored up her takedown defense, she is going to be able to pick Hughes apart on the feet. It’s a winnable fight for both, but I favor it going Nunes’ way.

What’s at stake: A first UFC win is at stake and would be a big deal for both. Nunes is trying to score a win for the first time in nearly four years, and would ease some sting from her time away. Her last win came before Hughes even made her debut. A loss for Hughes would make her 0-4 during her UFC stint, which would see her back on the regional scene for her next fight. Even with a win, her contract might not get renewed. Either way, this is a must-win for her.

Pick: Nunes

Bantamweights: Alateng Heili vs. Kevin Croom

Overall Records: Heili 14-8-2, Croom 21-14 1 NC
UFC Records: Heili 2-1-1, Croom 0-2 1 NC
Last Fight: Heili DRAW Lopez–UFC On ESPN+ 50 (9/18/21), Kelleher def. Croom–UDec–UFC On ESPN 32 (1/15/22)
Last Five Fights: Heili 3-1-1, Croom 2-2 1 NC
Betting Odds: Heili -180, Croom +155
Background: The night gets kicked off with a bantamweight bout featuring two exciting fighters looking to get back into the win column. Heili is making his fifth UFC appearance as he looks to end a two-fight winless skid. He started his UFC run out with two straight wins over Danaa Batgerel and Ryan Benoit. He then suffered a loss to Casey Kenney and went to a draw against Gustavo Lopez in his last bout, which saw him deducted a point in the third round. That would’ve given him the win, but now he’s trying to avoid a three-fight winless skid. Croom makes his fourth UFC appearance in search of his first official win. He actually won his debut as he submitted Roosevelt Roberts in 31 seconds, but Nevada’s outdated marijuana laws, at the time, overturned that into a loss. He’s lost his last two fights, dropping decisions to Alex Caceres and Brian Kelleher. He’s dropping to 135 lbs. for the first time in this outing.
How they match up: Croom is going to have a distinct size advantage in this one, as he’ll have a six-inch height advantage and a seven-inch reach advantage. He’s going to need to use it in this one and be the one who pushes the pace. Heili doesn’t fight with much urgency, and he does make mental mistakes in fights. Heili does have power in his hands, but he does get hit quite often. Neither are very accurate on the feet, but Croom mixes everything better. Croom isn’t all that powerful, but he could carry over some power as he drops the weight class. Heili may look to take it down, but Croom is dangerous on the mat and has ten wins by submission. This is a close fight, but if Heili avoids the mistakes he made last time, he has the conditioning and ground attack to win this on the scorecards.
What’s at stake: This is a must-win fight for both men if they want to maintain their roster spots. Heili has more of a leash being from China, but he still needs a win. Croom being officially winless in his three UFC outings means he has to win this if he’s going to get a new deal. A loss signals the end of Croom’s UFC run, even though he’s someone who always takes fights and tends to be in good fights.
Pick: Heili

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