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Guide to UFC on ESPN 36: Blachowicz vs. Rakic

Getting prepared for UFC action this coming Saturday? Here is everything you need to know with our Guide to UFC on ESPN 36: Blachowicz vs. Rakic.

UFC on ESPN 36
Date: May 14, 2022
Location: UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada

Main Card
Start Time: 10 p.m. ET, 7:00 p.m. PT
Where To Watch: ESPN2 & ESPN+

Light Heavyweights: #1 Jan Blachowicz vs. #3 Aleksandar Rakic

Official Records: Blachowicz 28-9, Rakic 14-2
UFC Records: Blachowicz 11-6, Rakic 6-1
Last Fight: Teixeira def. Blachowicz (title fight)–R2 SUB–UFC 267 (10/30/21), Rakic def. Santos–UDec–UFC 259 (3/6/21)
Last Five Fights: Blachowicz 4-1, Rakic 4-1
Betting Odds: Blachowicz +165, Rakic -195
Background: The main event sees the return of a former champion looking to get a shot at re-gaining the title he just lost as Blachowicz battles one of the top contenders in the light heavyweight division, Rakic, in a pivotal main event. These two were originally scheduled to fight in March, but a neck injury for Blachowicz pushed the fight back seven weeks. Blachowicz is fighting for the first time since losing the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship at UFC 267 in October when he was submitted by Glover Teixeira in the second round. Blachowicz said he had an off night that night and it just wasn’t his night, and it ended a streak that had seen him score five consecutive wins and wins in nine of ten fights. He was once a gatekeeper of the division, but he broke free of that designation to become an unlikely champion, and he wants another crack at it. Rakic returns to action for the first time in over 14 months as he’s looking to extend his two-fight win streak. He started his professional career with a loss, but has gone 14-1 over his last 15 fights, including a 6-1 mark since his UFC signing. He started his UFC run off with four straight wins before losing a split decision to Volkan Oezdemir in December 2019. He’s since bounced back with decision wins over Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos and is staring a title shot right in the face with another win.

How they match up: Blachowicz has a very effective striking game where he utilizes a sharp jab and he also has a strong wrestling game to back that up. He doesn’t mind fighting at a slow pace because he’s very good at picking his opponents apart. His conditioning had shown to improve, but it failed him in the fight against Teixeira. He admitted to having an off night, but he can’t afford another one here. Rakic has speed in his striking to go with an underrated wrestling game. He also will fight at a slow pace, but he does have the explosive power to end it with one shot. Blachowicz is the harder hitter of the two and he has really strong counters. It’ll be up to Rakic to be the one pressing the action and pressuring, but his recent fights with Santos and Smith didn’t see him do that much of either. If he allows Blachowicz to find the jab and get comfortable on the feet to where he can time the takedown, Rakic will give away the fight. This could turn into an uneventful fight. If Blachowicz is still having lingering neck issues, it will mess with his wrestling ability. I do see Blachowicz using that wrestling to control the fight, and I’m just not sold on Rakic as a top contender despite his last two wins. It might get ugly, but Blachowicz taking the decision is how I see it going down.

What’s at stake: A shot at the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship very well could be on the line here, especially depending on the outcome and how the fight transpires. Current champion Glover Teixeira defends against Jiri Prochazka next month, so another title fight at 205 lbs. could easily take place during the 2022 calendar year. I see Blachowicz getting a chance to win back the title with a win, regardless of how he wins, especially if Teixeira retains, but even so if Prochazka wins. For Rakic, I would say it’s likely he gets a title shot with a win. It would be more of a guarantee if he is to finish Blachowicz, but I also see a scenario where if he scores a boring decision win, much like his wins over Smith and Santos, the door could open up for someone else to slide in. The stakes are high in this one.

Pick: Blachowicz

Light Heavyweights: #13 Ryan Spann vs. Ion Cutelaba

Official Records: Spann 19-7, Cutelaba 16-6-1 1 NC
UFC Records: Spann 5-2, Cutelaba 5-5-1
Last Fight: Smith def. Spann–R1 SUB–UFC On ESPN+ 50 (9/18/21), Cutelaba def. Clark–UDec–UFC On ESPN+ 50 (9/18/21)
Last Five Fights: Spann 3-2, Cutelaba 2-2-1
Betting Odds: Spann +180, Cutelaba -220
Background: The co-main event is also a light heavyweight bout that was pushed back as Spann and Cutelaba square off in a re-booking of a fight that was scheduled for February. Spann had to pull out of that scheduled bout due to injury, and there was no one willing to fight Cutelaba on short notice, so he had to end up waiting for Spann to recover as both are eager to get back to action. Spann is looking to bounce back from a loss to Anthony Smith in September in his first UFC main event outing. Spann started his UFC career off with four straight wins and looked primed to get into title contention, but he’s lost two of his last three and has slipped down in the rankings. He has scored 16 of his 19 career wins by stoppage. Cutelaba also last fought on that same card in September, but he had a better outcome as he scored a decision win over Devin Clark. That ended a three-fight winless skid Cutelaba was on, and he’s looking for some consistency after scoring wins in less than half of his UFC outings. Cutelaba is dangerous, though, as 14 of his 16 wins have been via a finish, with 12 wins coming by knockout.

How they match up: Cutelaba is a wild, action-packed fighter with dynamite in his fists and strong takedowns in his arsenal. His biggest flaw in the past has been gassing himself out quickly looking for the knockout early and using the big slam takedowns early. Spann also has power in his hands and a solid wrestling game, and he’s often quicker on the feet than most other light heavyweights. He’s going to have four inches in height and reach over Cutelaba, which means he’ll likely utilize the leg kick to keep Cutelaba out of both punching and takedown range. Cutelaba was able to avoid gassing out in the fight against Clark, but if Spann decides to use a solid boxing game and attack the body, it’ll wear down the cardio of Cutelaba. Cutelaba might be a little more durable than Spann, but we’ve also seen him do some weird things inside the Octagon. This will come down to whether Cutelaba can dominate with his wrestling as he is better there than Spann. Spann does defend 60% of takedowns attempted on him and he does go for submissions, so he’ll be a threat on the mat. I see it staying on the feet mostly and Spann wearing Cutelaba down with a nice mixture of punches and kicks to the head, body and legs, which will drain Cutelaba down to where Spann finishes it.

What’s at stake: Spann’s spot in the rankings could be on the line in this one. He’s ranked 13th, while Cutelaba is unranked. A win by Cutelaba could see him slide into the rankings and Spann slide out, so that is the main thing on the line. Also, a loss for Spann would put him at 1-3 over his last four, while a loss for Cutelaba with put him at 1-3 with a no contest over his last five. I doubt either would be cut, but they would be near the chopping block, especially with a wave of new fighters set to join the roster over the summer. This is a very important fight for both.

Pick: Spann

Bantamweights: Davey Grant vs. Louis Smolka

Official Records: Grant 13-6, Smolka 17-8
UFC Records: Grant 4-5, Smolka 8-8
Last Fight: Yanez def. Grant–UDec–UFC On ESPN+ 56 (11/20/21), Morales def. Smolka–R1 KO–UFC On ESPN 31 (12/4/21)
Last Five Fights: Grant 3-2, Smolka 2-3
Betting Odds: Grant -300, Smolka +235
Background: A bantamweight bout featuring two long-time veterans who like to slug it out takes place here as Grant and Smolka are both looking to get back into the win column. Grant, a former finalist on The Ultimate Fighter, is looking to erase a rough end to 2021 and end a two-fight losing skid. He started the year off strong with a knockout of Jonathan Martinez in March, which was his third straight win at the time, but he then dropped decisions to Marlon Vera and Adrian Yanez. He did pick up post-fight bonuses in all three fights, and he is looking for his 12th finish in this one. Smolka is in his second UFC stint and he’s trying to get some consistency as he’s rotated wins-and-losses over his six fights since returning. He’s coming off a first-round knockout loss to Vince Morales in December, so history says he’s due for a win here, which would be his first win since December 2020. Smolka is also looking to add to his finishes, as he’s scored 15 of them in his 17 professional wins.

How they match up: Both are high-volume strikers and this is going to be a wild battle on the feet. Both hit hard, though Grant may be the harder hitter, and Grant has the better defense on the feet. Both are also very durable and tough to knock out, but they both can be submitted if the fight goes to the mat. Smolka does like to wear down his opponents with constant pressure and constant activity, but Grant is scrappy and attacks at unorthodox angles. Smolka did suffer his first knockout loss in his last fight, and it came rather quickly, so this fight is going to prove whether than was an anomaly or whether his chin is starting to turn on him after years of hard battles. The size and power of Grant is going to be the key difference in this one as long as it stays standing. I don’t discount Smolka being able to find a submission if the fight hits the mat, but I see it staying on the feet and ending in the first round with the Englishman getting back in the win column.

What’s at stake: This could be a potential loser gets cut fight. Both are exciting fighters, but a loss would leave both as fighters who tend to lose more than they win. I wouldn’t get rid of either, as they’re both exciting fighters, and this could be an exciting fight, but it is a real must-win fight for both.

Pick: Grant

Women’s Flyweights: #1 Katlyn Chookagian vs. #9 (WSW) Amanda Ribas

Official Records: Chookagian 17-4, Ribas 11-2
UFC Records: Chookagian 10-4, Ribas 5-1
Last Fight: Chookagian def. Maia–UDec–UFC On ESPN 32 (1/15/22), Ribas def. Jandiroba–UDec–UFC 267 (10/30/21)
Last Five Fights: Chookagian 4-1, Ribas 4-1
Betting Odds: Chookagian -180, Ribas +155
Background: An interesting battle in the women’s flyweight division takes place as former title challenger Chookagian welcomes Ribas back to 125 lbs. in this one. Chookagian, fresh off of signing a new UFC contract, comes into this fight still the top-ranked contender at flyweight and riding a three-fight win streak. She’s scored decisions over Cynthia Calvillo, Viviane Araujo and Jennifer Maia during that streak and has set her sights on getting another shot at Valentina Shevchenko and the UFC Women’s Flyweight Championship. Ribas is fighting for the second time at flyweight, moving back up in an effort to find a more clear path towards title contention. Her one fight at 125 lbs. was successful, as she scored a submission win over Paige VanZant in July 2020. She’s coming into this fight looking for her second straight win after scoring a decision win over Virna Jandiroba at UFC 267 in Abu Dhabi in October. Ribas has scored seven of her eleven wins by stoppage, with three knockouts and four submissions.

How they match up: Chookagian is a rangy kickboxer who is very good on the feet and mixes her punches and kicks well. She also tends to exhale loudly when throwing which can make her striking sound more effective than it actually is. Ribas is a very well-rounded fighter with a really strong grappling and submission game, but she’s also sneaky good on the feet. She might give up a little bit of size to Chookagian, but she’ll make that up with speed and athleticism. Chookagian does have solid takedown defense, but she can be taken down and held down. Chookagian won’t be much of a takedown threat against Ribas, and a battle in the clinch would favor Ribas due to her grappling strengths. Chookagian is going to have some height on Ribas, but only two inches in reach, so I don’t see that playing much of a factor. This is going to be a tough and grueling fight for both, and it’s really a fight that can go either way. I’m leaning towards Ribas due to her grappling advantages, but it’s going to be close.

What’s at stake: I’m actually honestly surprised that they signed Chookagian to a new contract. She’s a very good fighter, but she’s also a fighter than tends to be involved in fairly boring fights. She’s also someone who can knock off potential title challengers, and there’s no upside in her getting another shot as long as Shevchenko is still at the top of the division. It’s a head-scratcher, for sure. Ribas would easily put herself into the title mix with a win here, and if she does win and things fall her way, it’s entirely possible a win would secure her the next shot. She’s got tons of personality and tons of potential and this is a big fight for her.

Pick: Ribas

Lightweights: Frank Camacho vs. Manuel Torres

Official Records: Camacho 22-9, Torres 12-2
UFC Records: Camacho 2-5, Torres 0-0
Last Fight: Jaynes def. Camacho–R1 TKO–UFC On ESPN 11 (6/20/20), Torres def. Englund–R1 TKO–Dana White’s Contender Series 45 (10/26/21)
Last Five Fights: Camacho 1-4, Torres 4-1
Betting Odds: Camacho +105, Torres -125
Background: A lightweight bout pitting a fighter we haven’t seen in a while making his return against a UFC newcomer takes place here as Camacho returns to action against the debuting Torres. Camacho is fighting for the first time since June 2020 as he looks to end a two-fight losing skid. He’s coming off a 41-second knockout loss to Justin Jaynes in his last fight, and things haven’t gone the best for him since then. He was removed from a September 2020 bout after testing positive for COVID-19 during fight week, and then had to pull out of a fight during fight week in June 2021 when he was involved in a car wreck where he suffered non-life threatening injuries to his back and neck. Now fully recovered, he’s looking to shake off a string that’s seen him lose four of his last five. Torres is a signing from the most recent edition of Dana White’s Contender Series, earning a contract with a first-round submission of Kolton Englund in October. That was the third straight win for Torres, who looks to continue the momentum here. Eleven of his 12 career wins have come via a finish.

How they match up: Camacho has never been in a brawl that he doesn’t like, but it has cost him quite a bit. He lands with a lot of volume, but he also gets hit quite a bit and his chin is very questionable after recent knockout losses. Torres doesn’t mind getting into a brawl, either, and he has very good power in his fists. His precision striking is very good and he’s also aggressive on the feet. He does have a very strong grappling game as well and looks like a strong signing off of the Contender Series. Camacho tends to get off to slow starts, and it’s no telling how his long layoff is going to affect him, as well as coming back from that horrible car crash. Camacho’s chin and durability is just too much of a liability at this point, and I see Torres and his aggressive style catching Camacho early and finishing it early.

What’s at stake: Even though he’s been through a lot, this is a must-win fight for Camacho if he wants to remain on the roster. A loss would make him 2-6 during his UFC career and 1-5 over his last six, but a win could keep him a part of the roster. Torres is in his debut and will get another fight whether he wins or loses, but a win would likely guarantee him at least his first four fights of his first UFC contract.

Pick: Torres

Flyweights: Jake Hadley vs. Allan Nascimento

Official Records: Hadley 8-0, Nascimento 18-6
UFC Records: Hadley 0-0, Nascimento 0-1
Last Fight: Hadley def. Raposo–R2 SUB–Dana White’s Contender Series 43 (10/12/21), Ulanbekov def. Nascimento–SpDec–UFC 267 (10/30/21)
Last Five Fights: Hadley 5-0, Nascimento 2-3
Betting Odds: Hadley -220, Nascimento +180
Background: One of the best flyweight prospects in the world makes his UFC debut in the main card opener as Hadley debuts against the tough Nascimento in this bout. Hadley comes into the promotion with an undefeated record at 8-0 as he earned his contract with a second-round submission of Mitch Raposo on Dana White’s Contender Series in October. It wasn’t the prettiest week for him as he did miss weight for the fight and he had several issues with a bunch of UFC staff members, but White couldn’t pass on him as he has tons of talent and really should’ve been signed without having to go on the show. Six of his eight wins have been finishes. Nascimento, who will have Charles Oliveira in his corner, makes his second UFC appearance as he searches for his first win. He debuted in October and suffered a split decision loss to Tagir Ulanbekov in a close fight at UFC 267. Nascimento has struggled to gain consistency in his career as he’s just 4-4 over his last eight fights, but perhaps the surge of Oliveira will rub off on him. He has 15 finishes, with 14 of those finishes coming by submission.

How they match up: This is a tough match-up for Hadley in his debut and much of that is likely due to the attitude he had during his week when he was on the Contender Series. The strongest part of his attack is his wrestling game and his submissions on the mat. He is a danger on the mat and very crafty, though Nascimento trains alongside the best in that department in Oliveira. Nascimento does have weak takedown defense and I do see Hadley getting him down to the mat. Nascimento’s experience will come into play, but he does tend to give up positions in order to hunt for submissions and Hadley is strong from the top. There could be lots of scrambles, but Hadley is also a big flyweight and Nascimento willingly gives up positions too often. Hadley also is likely the better fighter on the feet. He has all of the talent in the world and it’ll be good enough to get past this tough test as I see Hadley scoring a submission win here.

What’s at stake: Hadley is 25-years-old and is arguably the top flyweight prospect in the world, let alone on UFC’s roster. He has all of the makings of not only a future title contender, but a future champion, and he’ll be looking to show that off here and keep his undefeated record in tact. A loss would set him back, but he could bounce back. A loss wouldn’t be bad for Nascimento, as he is the underdog, but he’d like to avoid starting his UFC career with an 0-2 mark. This is a big one for both.

Pick: Hadley

Preliminary Card
Start Time: 7:30 p.m. ET, 4:30 p.m. PT
Where to watch: ESPN2 & ESPN+

Women’s Flyweights: #8 Viviane Araujo vs. #9 Andrea Lee

Official Records: Araujo 10-3, Lee 13-5
UFC Records: Araujo 4-2, Lee 5-3
Last Fight: Chookagian def. Araujo–UDec–UFC 262 (5/15/21), Lee def. Calvillo–R2 TKO–UFC On ESPN+ 55 (11/13/21)
Last Five Fights: Araujo 3-2, Lee 2-3
Betting Odds: Araujo -105, Lee -115
Background: A battle between ranked flyweights in the women’s division headlines the prelims as Araujo looks to derail the title hopes of Lee. Araujo returns to action nearly a year-to-the-day of her last fight as she looks to get back into the win column. She dropped a decision to Katlyn Chookagian at UFC 262 in May 2021, ending a two-fight win streak and halting her momentum towards title contention. She had won four of her first five UFC outings, but she can take solace in knowing her two UFC losses have come to former title challengers. Lee has had a nice career turnaround as she comes into this fight on a two-fight win streak and on the heels of a possible title shot. She started her UFC career off with three straight wins, which put her in a seven-fight win streak overall, and she looked primed to get into title contention early. However, she then lost three straight, putting her UFC run in jeopardy. Her bounce back has seen her score two finishes as she submitted Antonina Shevchenko and got a doctor stoppage of Cynthia Calvillo in her last fight in November.

How they match up: Both women are high-volume strikers, with Araujo landing just over five significant strikes per minute, and Lee landing just under six significant strikes per minute. However, Araujo gets hit significantly more than Lee does and Lee has better defense on the feet. Lee has a muscular frame and she likes to attack with leg kicks, and she’s very adept at mixing it up on the feet and with the takedowns. Araujo has strong takedown defense, but her weakness has been her cardio, and I could see Lee pressuring often with strikes and takedown attempts looking to drain Araujo’s gas tank. Araujo does have the power to finish with one shot, and she’s going to need to use that power against the pace and pressure of Lee. Lee looked better than ever in her last fight, while Araujo has been out of action for a while. Lee has all of the momentum coming in, and I see the pace, aggression and her striking wearing down Araujo’s gas tank and Lee taking it on the scorecards.

What’s at stake: An impressive win for Lee could put her at the top of the list when it comes to next in line for a shot at the UFC Women’s Flyweight Championship. She’s been ever improving and this is a pivotal moment for her in her career. A win for Araujo would put her back in the mix, but she would also need a few more wins to get in the hunt. She’s trying to avoid losing back-to-back fights for the first time in her career.

Pick: Lee

Lightweights: Michael Johnson vs. Alan Patrick

Official Records: Johnson 19-17, Patrick 15-3 1 NC
UFC Records: Johnson 11-13, Patrick 5-3 1 NC
Last Fight: Guida def. Johnson–UDec–UFC On ESPN+ 42 (2/6/21), Patrick NC Jones–UFC On ESPN+ 47 (6/5/21)
Last Five Fights: Johnson 1-4, Patrick 2-2 1 NC
Betting Odds: Johnson -145, Patrick +125
Background: A pair of lightweight veterans square off as former TUF finalist Johnson returns to action against Patrick in a fight where both are looking to get back into the win column. Johnson was on season 12 of The Ultimate Fighter all the way back in the fall of 2010, and he made it all the way to the finals, losing to Jonathan Brookins. He’s had a long UFC career since then as this will be his 25th UFC bout. He’s looking to end a four-fight losing skid after suffering a loss to Clay Guida in his last fight in February 2021. He holds UFC wins over the likes of Dustin Poirier, Tony Ferguson, Edson Barboza and Joe Lauzon, and has also fought opponents including Khabib Nurmagomedov, Beneil Dariush, Nate Diaz and Justin Gaethje. Patrick comes into this fight looking to end a three-fight winless skid. He started his career with a perfect 12-0 record, including two straight wins to start his UFC career, before suffering his first loss in June 2015. He bounced back with three straight wins, then lost two straight before a no contest result with Mason Jones in his last fight in June. Patrick is in search of his first finish since his UFC debut in October 2013.

How they match up: These are two fighters well past their prime and this sets up to potentially be an uneventful fight. Patrick is a low output fighter who just doesn’t do much inside the Octagon any longer. His only attack is basically his wrestling game, and even that isn’t as strong as it once was. He could take Johnson down, and Johnson has an absolutely terrible bottom game. Johnson does have a 77% takedown defense rate, so getting him down will be a challenge. Johnson is the better striker, but he tends to start falling apart on the feet when his opponents threaten him with takedowns. I don’t see Patrick really testing Johnson on the feet or with the takedown, and Patrick’s horrible defense on the feet and suspect chin give the advantage to Johnson. The only way Johnson loses this fight is if he underachieves, though he has a history of doing exactly that.

What’s at stake: This is a must-win for both as it likely is a loser leaves town match. Johnson has four straight losses and is 3-9 over his last 12 fights, so, yes, he needs a win to keep his roster spot. He’s been around forever, but his peak has long passed. A win would save his job. Patrick is in the same boat as another loss would mean four straight fights without a win. His best days also look to be behind him and he doesn’t really seem to pose a threat to any of the tough lightweights out here. He’s likely gone with a loss, but a win gives him life to fight another day.

Pick: Johnson

Women’s Strawweights: #12 Virna Jandiroba vs. #13 Angela Hill

Official Records: Jandiroba 17-3, Hill 13-11
UFC Records: Jandiroba 3-3, Hill 8-11
Last Fight: Ribas def. Jandiroba–UDec–UFC 267 (10/30/21), Lemos def. Hill–SpDec–UFC On ESPN+ 57 (12/18/21)
Last Five Fights: Jandiroba 3-2, Hill 1-4
Betting Odds: Jandiroba -180, Hill +155
Background: A women’s strawweight battle that features a pair of ranked fighters takes place here as Jandiroba and Hill both look to get back into the win column. Jandiroba is looking to bounce back from a decision loss to Amanda Ribas at UFC 267 in October. She started her career with a perfect 14-0 record, leading her to sign a UFC deal. She had a tough debut, losing a decision to now two-time strawweight champion Carla Esparza. She then won two straight, but has since lost two of her last three. She has scored 14 of her 17 wins by stoppage, with 13 wins coming by submission. Hill is going to become the first strawweight to hit 20 UFC fights as she looks to end a two-fight losing skid. She’s had a real roller coaster of a UFC career with an 8-11 record inside the Octagon, but she looked like she had put everything together in early 2020 just before the pandemic with a three-fight win streak. However, she’s now lost four of her last five and is looking to bounce back from a loss to Amanda Lemos in December.

How they match up: Hill is a really solid fighter who has improved in the times we’ve seen her inside the Octagon as she’s really shored up all of the holes in her game. She’s good on the feet, but isn’t the strongest wrestler and often lets her opponents do too much, which makes for close fights that don’t go her way. She lands with a lot of volume, but she lets opponents land too much despite having good defense on the feet. Jandiroba doesn’t ever match the output of a Hill on the feet, but she’s much stronger in the wrestling department. Hill does have very good takedown defense, but it has kind of failed her in recent fights. Jandiroba does have issues with her cardio, but she has the skills to dominate Hill on the mat if she can get it there. Hill has to keep the fight standing and really utilize a calf kick strategy to keep Jandiroba from finding the takedown range. Jandiroba has some power on the feet but I don’t see her keeping up with the volume of Hill. This is likely to go the distance, and while Hill has been on the wrong end of a lot of decisions, I actually see her doing enough to pull off the upset in this one.

What’s at stake: They both need a win if they’re going to stay inside the strawweight rankings as the loser could easily fall out of the top 15. Neither is going anywhere with a loss, but both want to avoid remaining on losing skids. Hill definitely shouldn’t worry even with her record and recent record as they love her for her willingness to fight any time and taking short-notice fights, but she is still in more need of a win here.

Pick: Hill

Flyweights: Tatsuro Taira vs. Carlos Candelario

Official Records: Taira 10-0, Candelario 8-1
UFC Records: Taira 0-0, Candelario 0-0
Last Fight: Taira def. Muaiad–R1 SUB–VTJ 2021 (11/6/21), Altamirano def. Candelario–SpDec–Dana White’s Contender Series 37 (8/31/21)
Last Five Fights: Taira 5-0, Candelario 4-1
Betting Odds: Taira -240, Candelario +195
Background: A pair of flyweight newcomers battle two weeks later than anticipated as undefeated Taira debuts against Candelario. They were supposed to fight on the 4/30 card, but an illness for Candelario on fight day saw the fight scratched and re-scheduled for here. Taira is a highly-touted prospect who signed with UFC in early 2022, and he comes in with a lot of hype. He’s only 22-years-old, but he boasts a perfect 10-0 record, along with a perfect 9-0 amateur record prior to turning professional. His career is barely four years in, and he’s scored eight of his ten wins by finish, with three knockout wins and five submission wins. Candelario is a rare case in a fighter who got signed after a loss on Dana White’s Contender Series. He dropped a close decision to Victor Altamirano on the show in August in a great fight, and White was impressed enough that he decided to give him an opportunity, especially since he took that fight on just a few days’ notice. It was his second outing on the show, as he won during an August 2017 outing on there. The loss signaled his first career loss, and he’s still getting his wheels back in motion after being out of action for just over four years.

How they match up: Taira is still young in his career, but what he’s shown so far is that he’s accurate and patient on his feet, and that he’s an absolutely talented grappler. Candelario is a well-rounded fighter who has some solid experience, but he’s also been a victim of inactivity. Taira has fought ten times since he made his professional debut, and Candelario has just two fights in that same time frame. Candelario could easily outwork Taira on the feet, but his takedown defense leaves a lot to be desired, and Taira is going to exploit that. Taira has tons of potential and is going to show that as I see him getting Candelario down to the mat early and finding a submission, as that is his strong suit.

What’s at stake: Taira is an excellent signing, and the fact they signed him outright without putting him through the Contender Series shows there are high expectations for him. He’s only 22 and will have many years of development ahead of him, but this is a solid first test. Candelario was impressive in his last fight and benefitted from Dana White being in a great mood that night, but this is a tall order for his debut. He’s got good skills, and even if he comes up short here, he’s a solid addition to the flyweight roster.

Pick: Taira

Middleweights: Nick Maximov vs. Andre Petroski

Official Records: Maximov 8-0, Petroski 7-1
UFC Records: Maximov 2-0, Petroski 2-0
Last Fight: Maximov def. Soriano–SpDec–UFC On ESPN+ 58 (2/5/22), Petroski def. Yaozong–R3 SUB–UFC 267 (10/30/21)
Last Five Fights: Maximov 5-0, Petroski 4-1
Betting Odds: Maximov -350, Petroski +260
Background: A pair of middleweight prospects looking to build themselves up kicks off the show as the training partner of the Diaz Brothers, Maximov, puts his perfect record on the line against Petroski. It might be a weird feeling for Maximov going from a co-main event slot in his last fight to the opener, but he’s looking to make it 3-0 inside the Octagon after a split decision win over Punahele Soriano in February. That followed a debut win over Cody Brundage, and Maximov has scored five finishes in the eight wins he’s collected to start his MMA career. Like Maximov, Petroski is also looking for a 3-0 start to his UFC career as he fights for the first time in 2022. He’s coming off a third-round submission win over Hu Yaozong at UFC 267 in October. That followed a third-round finish of Michael Gillmore in his UFC debut, which came after appearing on season 28 of The Ultimate Fighter. Petroski has scored all seven of his wins by stoppage.

How they match up: These guys love the takedown and they’re almost both assuredly going to be looking for it. Maximov has scored 15 takedowns in his first two UFC outings, including eleven in his last fight, while Petroski has scored eight over his two UFC bouts. Petroski is better on the feet as Maximov’s striking attack is definitely in need of a lot of improvement, but Maximov has an iron chin and the ability to walk through punches to score the takedown. I don’t know if Petroski can get Maximov down. I like his chances better than Maximov’s other two opponents. This is going to be a real grind of a fight that is going to zap the gas tanks of both men, but Maximov has been in this position before and fought through it. Petroski has fought through it as well, but hasn’t looked comfortable in doing so. This is probably going to have a lot of ugly stretches, but in a battle of grapplers, I’m taking the superior grappler to grind out a tough decision.

What’s at stake: Both men are solid prospects at 185 lbs., but, unfortunately, one of them is going to suffer their first UFC loss. They’re kind of mirror images of one another and the loser is definitely going to see things they need to improve on. The winner raises their stock a little and moves up the ladder, but I don’t see the loser losing much of their stock outside of an atrocious performance. This is a good test to see where both stand while both are still inside of the first year of UFC competition.

Pick: Maximov

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