Greatness beckons at UFC 259, a fight card for the ages featuring a titanic title triple-header in Las Vegas on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Double champion Amanda Nunes puts her featherweight championship on the line against Megan Anderson in the co-headliner, while Petr Yan is primed for the first defence of his bantamweight belt in an animosity-fuelled affair against Aljamain Sterling.
But first, Thiago Santos and Aleksandar Rakić collide in a crucial clash that could earn the victor the next crack at the light heavyweight crown and ranked lightweights Islam Makhachev and Drew Dober do battle.
Amanda Nunes v Megan Anderson (Featherweight Championship)
Since women entered the UFC in 2012, the GOAT debate centred on transcendent superstar Ronda Rousey, the promotion’s inaugural bantamweight champion, and Brazilian legend Cris Cyborg, who dominated all comers to win the Strikeforce and Invicta featherweight belts before she joined MMA’s pre-eminent promotion and was crowned UFC featherweight queen following a TKO win over Tonya Evinger in 2017.
Unbeknownst to them, “The Lioness” lurked in the shadows. Debuting in the UFC in 2013, Nunes won five of six – which included impressive victories over future champions Germaine de Randamie and Valentina Shevchenko – to earn a shot at bantamweight champion Miesha Tate.
It was on the grand stage of UFC 200 where the Nunes era began as the Brazilian busted up and submitted a shell-shocked Tate in the opening round of the historic main event showdown to solidify her status as the queen of the jungle. Then she changed the game.
Nunes ripped through a returning Rousey in just 48 seconds, racked up wins over Shevchenko and Raquel Pennington and defied the odds, in devastating fashion, by conquering the conqueror, the feared Cyborg, in just 51 seconds in 2018 to cement her place in history as a dual champion and the undisputed GOAT of women’s MMA.
She’s added three more wins to her legacy since them, beating former bantamweight champion Holly Holm, De Randamie for the second time and most recently, the durable Felicia Spencer by unanimous decision last June to remain the most successful champ champ in MMA history.
That’s why Nunes (20-4) is such an overwhelming favourite to continue her winning ways. The 32-year-old’s a predator – powerful and aggressive – but what sets her apart is her well-roundedness. She’s the prototype of a complete fighter, dangerous on the feet (13 knockouts) and on the ground, where her black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu has scored her three submission wins.
In Anderson (11-4), she faces a true featherweight. In fact, the imposing Australian has to cut weight to make 145, whereas Nunes is a natural 135-pounder. At six-foot, Anderson’s four inches taller than the two-division champion and will have a three-inch reach advantage. That size will be the former Invicta featherweight champion’s biggest strength when it comes to striking and grappling.
The 31-year-old possesses the power to shock the world – six of her 11 wins have come by knockout – but she’s not polished enough yet to dethrone the dominant Nunes. She’s undoubtedly a legitimate threat and may well be the one to slay Nunes down the line, but as her 3-2 record in the UFC suggests, she’s not at the elite level just yet. Two of Anderson’s four career losses came via submission and I see Nunes latching onto one of her long limbs and forcing her to tap.
Prediction: Nunes via submission.
Petr Yan v Aljamain Sterling (Bantamweight Championship)
Every card needs a scrap with some spice to it and these two have been jaw-jacking for months. They were originally scheduled to throw down in December but the champion pulled out, citing “personal reasons.” This, of course, only added fuel to the fire and the two best bantamweights in the world are brimming to finally prove who the better man is.
Expect the animosity to add another level of excitement and intensity to what’s an intriguing styles clash. The champion’s a brutal boxer, while Sterling’s a great grappler and submission specialist. Few bantamweights boast the knockout power Yan (15-1) possesses. He’s unbeaten since joining the UFC in 2018, with four of his seven KOs coming inside the Octagon.
His vicious destruction of the legendary Urijah Faber in 2019 skyrocketed his career and he dismantled another all-time great, Jose Aldo, at UFC 251 last June to seize the bantamweight belt vacated by Cejudo. The Russian was at his ruthless best against Aldo in Abu Dhabi, leaving the former featherweight champion in a pool of his own blood to claim the crown.
He’s bloodthirsty – hence the moniker “No Mercy” – and one of the best finishers in the business once he has his opponent hurt. However, he’s not reckless. As he showed against Aldo, he’s calculated. He’s not a freight train on a single track, he’s an advanced heat-seeking missile, which makes him unpredictable and a threat throughout.
Sterling (19-3), conversely, only has two knockouts on his résumé. He’s a world-class wrestler and a submission magician, which is no surprise given he trains under Matt Serra and Ray Longo. “Funkmaster”, who has tapped out eight opponents, believes he only needs one takedown to finish the champion. That might sound arrogant, but that’s exactly what it took for him to submit the surging Cory Sandhagen in their number one contender clash last June.
The markets reflect how evenly matched the champion and challenger is. Whoever dictates where the fight takes place – on the feet or the ground – will come out with the gold. Sterling, who’s on a five-fight win streak, will come out fast, looking to lock in a submission before sweat makes for a far more slippery task. He’ll hang tough, however, Yan has the strength and smarts to stave off the challenger and retain his championship.
Prediction: Yan via decision
Islam Makhachev v Drew Dober (Lightweight Bout)
Another striker versus grappler battle. Makhachev (18-1) is seen by many as “the next Khabib Nurmagomedov.” He has the same dominant grappling game as and has a close bond with “The Eagle.” The two are friends and were training partners before Nurmagomedov retired as the only undefeated UFC champion in history following his 29th career win over Justin Gaethje last October.
The 14th-ranked Russian is a combat sambo world champion, meaning he doesn’t just take opponents down, he uses a plethora of throws to floor his foes. As if that’s not enough, he has one-punch knockout power as he showed against Gleison Tibau, who nibbled on a feint ever so slightly.
Knockouts is 15th-ranked Dober’s (23-9, 1NC) forte. He has a sledgehammer of a left hand. Like McGregor, if he lands flush, it’s all she wrote and like the Irish superstar, he utilises his most dangerous weapon from various angles. He has the power to sleep Makhachev coming in, like Derick Lewis did to Curtis Blaydes recently, but I believe the sambo savant has too many strings to his bow.
He isn’t the finisher Nurmagomedov was on the ground, though. Four of his six wins inside the Octagon have come by decision, including his last two, which is why I suspect Makhachev will grind out another dominant decision win.
Prediction: Makhachev via decision
Alternative Bet: Makhachev does have seven submission finishes to his name and even though just one of them was in the UFC, it will still entice plenty of punters to opt for under 2.5 rounds at 2.33 to have some decent skin in the fight.
Thiago Santos v Aleksandar Rakić (Light Heavyweight)
I love Santos (21-8) as the underdog in this one. Yes, he’s coming off back-to-back losses, but the calibre of competition and time between the bouts have to be reviewed. “Marreta” took Jon Jones to the limit in their five-round title tilt in 2019, with “Bones” escaping with the belt by the skin of his teeth. He remains the only man to push Jones to a split decision.
The Brazilian powerhouse had to undergo double knee surgery after the championship bout, leaving him sidelined for over a year. His comeback fight was against the surging Glover Teixeira, who submitted him in the third round. With the returning rumble out of the way, second-ranked Santos should be much sharper.
Rakić (13-2) is a rising star. He’s won five of his six UFC fights to move up to fourth place in the rankings. His most recent victory was also the biggest of his career as he beat former title challenger Anthony Smith by decision last August. Prior to that, he suffered a split decision loss to another former title challenger Volkan Oezdemir, who Santos stopped back in 2018.
This is a big step up for the Austrian ace, whereas Santos’ fought the who’s who at 205 pounds, and 185 for that matter. One of his 15 knockout victims happens to be headlining defending light heavyweight champion Blachowicz. I expect all of that experience will translate to success for Santos.
Prediction: Santos via decision