Top welterweight contender Leon Edwards makes his much-anticipated return when he battles Belal Muhammad in the main event of UFC Fight Night 187 aka UFC Vegas 21 on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
South African star Don Madge was set to make his long-awaited third Octagon appearance against German Nasrat Haqparast on the preliminary card, however, “Magic Man” has been forced to withdraw from the bout due to visa issues.
Nevertheless, Mzanzi mixed martial arts fans can expect an exciting card featuring a mix of established stars and rising prospects at the UFC APEX in Las Vegas. Edwards will be looking to shake off the rust and move another step closer to a title shot in the headliner, with Muhammad seeking to swoop in and steal his thunder.
Meanwhile, ranked light heavyweights Misha Cirkunov and Ryan Spann are set to thrill in the co-main event. Also on tap is a middleweight match-up between Eryk Anders and Darren Stewart, while speed and skill will be on show in three lighter weight divisions as featherweights Dan Ige and Gavin Tucker, flyweights Manel Kape and Matheus Nicolau and strawweights Angela Hill and Ashley Yoder go toe-to-toe.
The heavyweight clash between Ben Rothwell and Philipe Lins was scratched on Tuesday due to injury. At the time of writing, it was not disclosed which fighter suffered the medical setback.
Leon Edwards v Belal Muhammad (Welterweight)
Headliner Edwards knows Madge’s struggles to re-enter the Octagon. He even had to overcome a Covid-19 battle. Despite boasting the longest win streak in the division bar dominant champion Kamaru Usman, getting his hand raised in his last eight outings, third-ranked “Rocky” remains the odd man out in a weight class full of killers and colourful characters.
He doesn’t have the superstar status of Jorge Masvidal, the knockout power of Gilbert Burns and Tyron Woodley, the flashy striking of Stephen Thompson or the willingness to talk himself into fights like the controversial Colby Covington. The British-Jamaican is just a humble, hard-working fighter who lets his actions do the talking.
The 29-year-old’s as well-rounded as they come. His decision win over former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos last time out, a five-round main event back in July 2019, was the biggest of his career. Since then, all four of his scheduled fights fell through. Edwards, who also has a victory over Donald Cerrone, was originally set to face Khamzat Chimaev this weekend, but the rising star pulled out for a second time due to ongoing Covid-19-related issues.
Enter Belal Muhammad, who’s fresh off outpointing Dhiego Lima at UFC 258 last month, which extended his winning streak to four. Like Edwards, he’s a complete mixed martial artist and similar to Edwards, he’s solid if not spectacular. The main eventers sport an identical 18-3 record, but as his 13th place ranking indicates, Muhammad hasn’t fought the calibre of opponents his fancied foe has.
The Palestinian-American has nothing to lose and everything to gain. The opposite is true for Edwards. If Muhammad finds a way to pull off the upset, it would solidify his moniker “Remember the Name”. All the pressure is on Edwards but he’s a cool, calm and collected competitor. He’s basically a better version of his opponent, so I see “Rocky” notching up a ninth-straight win.
Best Bet: Both fighters are decision machines. Half of Edward’s 18 wins came on the scorecards, including five of his last six. Muhammad went the distance in 13 of his 18 wins, including three of his last four, so I’m banking on Edwards via points at 2.00.
Misha Cirkunov v Ryan Spann (Light Heavyweight)
The co-main event’s set to be the adrenaline-pumping antithesis of the headliner. These two top 15 light heavyweights live by UFC president Dana White’s famous motto, “don’t leave it in the hands of the judges.” They’re both big, strong, superb athletes whose shared killer instinct promises a storm of skilled violence.
Of 11th-ranked Cirkunov’s 15 wins, five came by knockout and eight by submission, including his most recent triumph over Jimmy Crute, who he locked in the rarely seen Peruvian necktie back in September 2019. Spann knocked out four and tapped out 11 of his 18 victims, so wherever the fight goes, don’t blink.
Two places below his opponent in the rankings, Spann’s a massive light heavyweight at 6’5″ – a superhero-like specimen, hence the nickname “Superman.” He even has the famous logo tattooed on his chest. He’s fought three times in the time Latvia’s Cirkunov has been out of action, but the last ended in a stoppage loss to Johnny Walker last September, which snapped his eight-fight win streak.
This, and his lower ranking, is why he’s the underdog. With 65% of Spann’s wins and 53% of Cirkunov’s victories coming by submission, this tantalising tilt seems destined to end via tapout. The long limbs of Spann work against him in this regard on the ground, so I expect Cirkunov will take him down and clamp on a submission.
Dan Ige v Gavin Tucker (Featherweight)
Despite facing an unranked replacement following original foe Ryan Hall’s withdrawal, there’ll be no complacency on the part of Ige (14-3). That’s because the ninth-ranked contender’s coming off his first loss since his UFC debut back in 2018, dropping a decision to red-hot Calvin Kattar in his first UFC main event last July.
The Hawaiian is never in a boring fight and constantly chasing the finish, hence why he’s known as “50K” – the bonus fighters bank for Performance of the Night heroics. He was on a six-fight tear prior to his setback, which included the scalp of Edson Barboza, and he’ll be a massive step-up for Tucker (13-1). As such, I see him getting the Canadian out of there.
Angela Hill v Ashley Yoder (Strawweight)
The featured female bout of the night is a rematch of a 2017 strawweight scrap, which saw Hill outpoint Yoder at the all-women’s Ultimate Fighter finale. It’s natural for fighters to evolve, and both ladies are better versions of themselves heading into the rematch, but I’m expecting the same result.
Hill has gone blow-for-blow with some of the division’s elite and lost razor-thin split decisions to Claudia Gadelha and Michelle Waterson in her last two Octagon outings. Even though she has five knockout wins, “Overkill” isn’t the aptest nickname for the 12th-ranked American. She’s a good striker, but seven of her 12 wins are via decision.
Yoder has won 50% of her fights by decision and the other half by submission. Having won just three of her eight fights in the UFC, she’s simply not on Hill’s level.
Manel Kape v Matheus Nicolau (Flyweight)
Opportunity is the operative word here. For Kape (15-5), it’s an opportunity to erase the disappointment of his deflating defeat to Alexandre Pantoja in his UFC debut last month. For Nicolau (13-3-1), it’s an opportunity to start his second stint in the UFC on the right note.
Kape is the better fighter. He’s a former RIZIN champion who punched his ticket to the MMA leader with consecutive knockouts of Kai Asakura, Takeya Mizugaki and Seiichiro Ito. As such, “Starboy” was matched up with a top 10 contender first up and was outpointed by Pantoja.
The Angola ace slots in as a late replacement for Tagir Ulanbekov, which levels the playing field a bit for Brazilian Nicolau, who’s spent three years working his way back to the big show and will be determined to seize the moment. He’s a submission specialist, but Kape should be able to keep the fight standing where he has a distant and what I believe will prove to be a decisive advantage.
Eryk Anders v Darren Stewart (Middleweight)
With both men looking to return to the win column, will they have a sense of urgency or take a cautious approach? Anders (13-5) is not the type to die wondering. He’s dynamic, the harder hitter and the better athlete as a former NCAA football standout. Stewart (12-6) is the more tactical fighter and technical striker, boasting a black belt in taekwondo, while they’re both well-versed on the ground. Ultimately, Anders’ explosiveness should be too much for Stewart to overcome.