After the craziness of Brooklyn and an excellent card last week in Glendale on Fox, the UFC will make its return to one of its old stomping grounds tonight, running its first show at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City since 2005, and its first show in AC since 2014.
While the six-fight main card will feature a good-as-it-gets double-header with top lightweights Kevin Lee and Edson Barboza squaring off and Frankie Edgar rematching with Cub Swanson, the undercard took a severe hit at Friday weigh-ins. A flyweight battle pitting former WSOF bantamweight champion Magomed Bibulatov against Japan’s Ulka Sasaki was cancelled due to a Bibulatov back injury, while the supposed to be Fight Pass Prelim Feature Bout pitting Leslie Smith versus Aspen Ladd was cancelled when Ladd missed weight, and Smith refused to fight.
Now the undercard has been reduced to five bouts, but there is still a solid lineup fights before the main card kicks off tomorrow night at 10 pm Eastern, including a too-good-for-prelims light heavyweight fight, a battle of elite bantamweight prospects, and an important welterweight tussle to finish things to highlight the prelims.
UFC Fight Pass Prelims — 7:30 PM Eastern
170 lbs: Tony Martin (12-4, 4-4 UFC) vs. Keita Nakamura (33-8-2, 3-5 UFC)
One of the more underrated prospects in the lightweight division moves up to welterweight as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt Martin faces Japan’s Nakamura in the lone Fight Pass bout of the night. Starting his career as a submission specialist, Martin began his UFC run with two tough losses to Rashid Magomedov and Beneil Dariush in 2014 but began to hit his stride in more recent years. Mostly on the power of much improved striking, he went on a three-fight winning streak before losing a close split decision Olivier Aubin Mercier last September in Pittsburgh.
Japanese veteran Nakamura, one of the better welterweights to come out of his part of the world, comes into the fight as one of the more experienced fighters in the division, with thirty-three wins, eighteen by submission. After a disastrous UFC run a decade ago, Nakamura returned to the UFC in 2015 and has gone 3-2 since, his last fight being a close win over Alex Morono in his homeland last September. Nakamura won that fight as he does most of them, controlling the pace, using his southpaw style to set up angles and places his shots. For Martin to win this bout, he has to push the pace, hit Nakamura in the body, and most likely, put him on the floor. He must control the pace and not fall into the Sunday morning stroll.
Nakamura is a bit better of a wrestler than you might expect, so putting him down will be easier said than done. The determining factor may end being the weight. Both have fought at 155 and 170 in the past, so they figure to be similar in size, but it’s entirely possible that a Martin who doesn’t have to cut weight will be a dynamic, energetic storm that Nakamura may not be able to survive.
FS1 Prelims — 8 PM Eastern
205 lbs: Corey Anderson (10-4, 7-4 UFC) vs. Patrick Cummins (10-4, 6-4 UFC)
This feels like a much bigger bout than its position on the card, as the tenth ranked Anderson hopes to rebound from two straight losses against the eleventh ranked Cummings, in a fight that was originally scheduled for UFC 217, only for Cummins to pull out with a staph infection. The state of the light heavyweight division is so that one or two big wins can get you into a position for a title shot, so every single fight in this division is significant.
Anderson was looking a serious contender coming into 2017, having won four of a five, with the only loss being a close one to Shogun Rua in Brazil. The year turned out to be a disaster for the former Ultimate Fighter winner, as he was run over by Jimi Manuwa in England in March (and becoming the punchline to a Daniel Cormier joke) and then winning two rounds against Ovince Saint Preux before taking a head kick from hell in the third round at MSG in November. Meanwhile, Cummings won two in a row last year, decisioning Jan Blachowicz and Gian Villante.
This fight comes down to a few factors. While Anderson was an excellent college wrestler himself, Cummins is an elite D1 wrestler out of Penn State, and should be a level above Anderson in that department. Anderson wants to stay standing and use his better hand speed and foot work against Cummins, and do the same thing to Cummins’ face that Villante did (it was GRUESOME). Cummins has to impose the wrestling if he wants to win, but Anderson and his team know that as well. They also know how badly he needs a win. It’s not an easy fight, but it damn sure is simple…
170 lbs: Siyar Bahadurzada (23-6-1, 3-2 UFC) vs. Luan Chagas (15-2-1, 1-1-1 UFC)
One of the sleepers of the night is this fight between two noted strikers. Brazilian Chagas has been a whirlwind on the feet since coming into the UFC in late 2016 and the Afghani-Dutch Siyar brings classic Dutch kickboxing skills to the table. In his three UFC fights Chagas had shown no trepidation in throwing hard strikes and that cool spinning stuff that seems to be more en vogue than ever.
Meanwhile, Siyar is one of the more experienced fighters in the division outside of the UFC, fighting all over the world. He ended a long layoff with a second round TKO of Rob Wilkinson last September, and while we can hope that these two will stand and bang, Siyar would do well to do the same thing he did to Brandon Thatch in March 2016 in a similar style matchup-take him down and submit him. Chagas showed himself vulnerable on the ground in his first two UFC fights against Sergio Moraes and Erick Silva and Siyar will do well to follow that blueprint, especially in the later rounds, as Chagas had also shown signs of conditioning problems.
Coming off two straight wins Siyar looks to be a good position to build a streak and with his experience, he could be a threat to do serious damage in this division.
135 lbs: Merab Dvalishvili (7-3, 0-1 UFC) vs Ricky Simon (12-1, 1-0 UFC)
Originally the first match on Fight Pass Prelims, this matchup has taken well deserved shot up the card, as this is a battle between two of the best prospects in the talent stacked bantamweight division. The Matt Serra-Ray Longo trained Georgian Merab has been talked up in spurts on the UFC Unfiltered podcast for months now and he burst into MMA fans consciousness on the last episode of Dana White: Looking For A Fight, when he halted another top bantamweight prospect, Raufeon Stots in just fifteen seconds! He looked very good in his UFC debut last December, taking down veteran Frankie Saenz repeatedly and continually looking to advance his position, but he somehow lost a decision.
Meanwhile Simon first gained notoriety when Chael Sonnen once said that he was “better than Conor McGregor.” Undeniably talented, Simon has grown into that talent in recent years. After suffering his lone loss in Titan FC title fight in April 2016, Simon has won five in a row. While he was unable to win a UFC contract on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series last summer against the tough Donovan Frelow, he signed with top MMA indy Legacy Fighting Alliance, and won their bantamweight title in his first fight last December. Then just four weeks ago, he retained the title with a fifty-nine second knockout of Vinicius Zani. With a new haircut and a new training camp, Simon looks as UFC ready as he will ever be.
My gut feeling is we are going to see fireworks early. Simon’s biggest weakness was a tendency to be too careful, but he seemed to shed that in his last fight. I sense he’s going to go right after Merab, but I sense that Merab is not going to buckle like Vinicius Zani did. This one will be fun for as long as it lasts.
170 lbs: Ryan LaFlare (13-2, 6-2 UFC) vs Alex Garcia (15-4, 5-3 UFC)
The prelims close out with a battle between two of the most overlooked fighters in the welterweight division, as Long Island’s LaFlare tries to rebound against Garcia, the Dominican-Canadian who seems to be criminally overlooked. LaFlare is looking to rebound from a painful loss, where he was knocked out in the second round by Cowboy Oliveira in his hometown of Long Island. He has a similar style matchup in Garcia, who had one of the most violent knockouts in recent memory over Mike Pyle at UFC 207. After a tough loss to Tim Means in May, Garcia showed his range, using his ground skills to take down and submit Muslim Salikhov, handing the King of Kung Fu his first UFC loss.
Given LaFlare’s wrestling base, his best plan would be to force his ground game on Garcia and try to keep him down. But Garcia has shown improved takedown defense in his recent fights and if he can stay on his feet long enough, he is probably the better striker, and he is definitely the harder puncher. This fight will probably come down to the mental game, how will LaFlare recover from being knocked out in his hometown? What will happen if Garcia finds the same spot on the chin that Cowboy did. While LaFlare continue to be the victim of the East Coast Curse? It should be fun to find out!
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