Destructive forces collide in a titanic title double-header as the MMA returns to the iconic Madison Square Garden for UFC 295 on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Jiri Prochazka and Alex Pereira, two of the best strikers in MMA, battle it out for the vacant light heavyweight title in the main event, while the two biggest rising giants in the game go at it for the interim heavyweight title in the co-headliner in Sergei Pavlovich and Tom Aspinall.
Plus, former strawweight queen Jessica Andrade meets Mackenzie Dern in the featured bout, lethal lightweights Matt Frevola and Benoit Saint-Denis get their chance to shine and all-action featherweights Diego Lopes and Pat Sabatini square off.
MAIN CARD (from 5 AM Sunday SA time):
Jiri Prochazka (2.02) v Alex Pereira (1.81) (Light Heavyweight Championship)
The main event is a mouth-watering meeting of former champions for the lightweight championship of the world.
Described by UFC president Dana White as the “most exciting” and “scariest” fighters on the roster, the pair promise to put on a showcase of scintillating violence as they scrap for the strap in the world’s most famous arena.
They are warriors to their core, Prochazka (29-3-1) an intense, savage samurai and Pereira (8-2) an imposing hunter who haunts opponents’ dreams. Highly skilled, blood-thirsty battlers, theirs will be a war for the ages that’s unlikely to go the distance.
Prochazka has been lurking in the shadows. Living in isolation, he’s been sharpening his tools and preparing for battle for over a year. The Czech was crowned 205-pound king when he submitted Pereira’s good friend Glover Teixeira in a barnburner last June but was forced to vacate the title after suffering a serious shoulder injury ahead of the scheduled rematch.
Now ready to make his much-anticipated return, he’s hell-bent on reclaiming the title he never lost inside the Octagon. Super athletic and animalistic, Prochazka fights with a kill-or-be-killed mindset that’s only seen him go the distance twice in 33 fights.
With all but three of his 28 finishes being knockouts, including an all-time great spinning elbow KO of Dominick Reyes, “Denisa”is a multi-layered buzzsaw. He throws hands, kicks, elbows and knees and does so dynamically and creatively. Ultra-unpredictable and not afraid to take chances, he’s on a 13-fight win streak with 11 straight stoppages.
Pereira, who’s secured six of his eight wins by knockout, is downright terrifying. A huge, cerebral vessel of violence, he’s a freak athlete with a superhuman aura. The former Glory middleweight and light heavyweight champion is one of the best kickboxers to ever grace the Octagon and possesses frightening power that saw him flat-line Israel Adesanya in their second kickboxing bout back in 2017.
Not content with two kickboxing wins over “The Last Stylebender”, Pereira followed him to the UFC and rallied to TKO and dethrone him as middleweight champion at the very Madison Square Garden last November. As a 6’4″ beast, the Brazilian’s time at 185 pounds was always going to be limited and after dropping the belt back to Adesanya in the rematch in April, he announced his move to 205 pounds.
Jumping straight into the deep end, “Poatan” made a big splash by scoring a hard-fought win over former light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz in July and with reigning king Jamahal Hill relinquishing the belt due to injury, Pereira can become the fastest fighter to capture gold in two divisions in what’ll be just his seventh UFC fight.
In the striking sphere, the decorated Pereira is the more sophisticated fighter. He’s technical and tactical, a hunter who sets traps and manoeuvres his prey into deadly positions, often without them realising it. Prochazka, in turn, is wilder and more unpredictable, which will aid him as he’d be daft to attempt to win a straight-up kickboxing bout.
Prochazka is the master of chaos and, crucially, has more ways to win. Pereira’s takedown defence has rapidly improved and held up well against Blachowicz, but he’s still one-dimensional. Prochazka has very good grappling he can go to, and you’d expect him to incorporate it into his game plan in this fight.
Inactivity could be an issue, but I’m leaning towards the far more experienced and well-rounded Prochazka – who’s 4-0 as an underdog – to pull out the win in a tense tilt to return to the throne.
Sergei Pavlovich (2.02) Tom Aspinall (1.81) (Interim Heavyweight Championship)
The future is now.
Heavyweight champion Jon Jones and fellow great Stipe Miocic were originally scheduled to headline the event in a legacy fight, but “Bones” was forced to withdraw after suffering a serious injury in training.
Instead, Prochazka and Pereira have been bumped up to the main event and next-generation juggernauts will now slug it out for the interim heavyweight title in the co-headliner.
The violence will come thick and fast as these are two primal powerhouses. Aspinall boasts a 100% finish rate while Pavlovich has an 83% stoppage rate, so don’t blink.
The two brightest rising stars in the division, these destructive forces have torn through opponents with next-level power, speed and skills.
Pavlovich is the epitome of a knockout artist. The Russian, who’s 18-1, has stormed to six straight first-round finishes (15 in all), including high-profile wins over Derrick Lewis, Curtis Blaydes and Tai Tuivasa. His power is out of this world and so is his massive 84-inch reach, a combination that’s proven deadly inside the Octagon.
Aspinall is the total package. He can do it all and has 10 knockouts and three submissions to his name. His only loss in the UFC was down to injury as he suffered a torn ACL against Blaydes in 2022.
The Brit, who’d won five straight before then including squashing Sergey Spivak and Alexander Volkov, returned in a big way with a quick KO of Marcin Tybura in July and now finds himself in his first title fight.
His greatest asset is his speed. He moves like a middleweight and showed in his rapid win over Tybura that he hasn’t lost a step. His first-step explosion allows him to get off on or takedown his opponent and should enable him to close the six-inch reach disadvantage he has.
His hand speed will also serve him well but the longer he stands with Pavlovich, the more he opens himself up to getting caught with a bomb. I expect him to play it smart, mix it up and find the finish – all in short order – to join Hall of Famer Michael Bisping as a British-born UFC champion.
Jessica Andrade (2.64) v Mackenzie Dern (1.50) (Strawweight)
Former strawweight queen Andrade (24-12) takes on a fighter long touted as a future champion in Dern (13-3).
While she’s well-rounded, Andrade is best known and feared for her concussive striking prowess while Dern’s a former Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion, setting the stage for an ultra-compelling and crunch clash of styles between members of the 115-pound elite.
Andrade is one of the best female MMA fighters of all time. A sure-fire future Hall of Famer, she has nine knockouts and eight submissions under her belt but finds herself in the worst slump of her career.
“Bate Estaca” has lost her last three fights to top contenders, all three of whom are firmly in the title conversation. She was first submitted by Erin Blanchfield, then knocked out by Yan Xiaonan before being submitted by the undefeated Tatiana Suarez in August.
At her best, she’s a heavy-handed pit bull of a striker and crocodile of a grappler but with this being her fifth fight of the year, the 32-year-old might be overdoing it in her quest to get back to the belt.
Fellow Brazilian Dern is determined to build on her victory over veteran Angela Hill in May. She looked excellent in all areas against “Overkill” but it’s no secret that she’ll look to take the fight to the ground early and often.
That is what this fight boils down to, whether Andrade can defend the waves of takedown attempts coming her way. If she can, she’s likely to score a knockout. If not, she’ll be in a world of trouble against the most decorated and prolific submission artist in strawweight history.
I’m not willing to write off Andrade. It’s understandable why she’s the underdog, but she only needs to land flush once to turn her fortunes around. Dern has had trouble with elite strikers in her past and is 2-2 in her last four, so I’m backing Andrade as the dog.
Matt Frevola (2.80) v Benoit Saint-Denis (1.45) (Lightweight)
Expect nonstop action in this scrap between surging lightweights. Local favourite Frevola (11-3-1) has hit peak form and posted three consecutive first-round TKO wins to earn a place in the top 15.
Ranked 14th, “The Steamrolla” is a solid and at times wild striker who returns to Madison Square Garden where he knocked out Ottman Azaitar last November and is coming off the biggest win of his career over Drew Dober in May.
Since suffering his only loss at welterweight, Saint-Denis (12-1) has gone 4-0 at lightweight with four finishes (two knockouts and two submissions), making light work of Niklas Stolze, Gabriel Miranda, Ismael Bonfim and Thiago Moises.
The former French Army Special Forces paratrooper lives up to his “God of War” moniker with a 100% finish rate and while he’s well-rounded, he’ll have a significant advantage in the grappling department.
Big for the weight class and super strong, the 27-year-old should be able to move Frevola around and continue his stoppage streak.
Diego Lopes (2.00) v Pat Sabatini (1.83) (Featherweight)
Budding featherweight contenders and contrasting grappling aces get the main card action underway.
Lopes (22-6) has flair, both on the feet and on the ground. Aggressive by nature, he’s secured all but two of his wins by finish (eight knockouts and 12 submissions), including tapping out Gavin Tucker in tremendous fashion last time out.
Sabatini (18-4) is coming off a submission win of his own over Lucas Almeida, his 11th by tapout, to take his UFC record to 5-1. He’s an out-and-out grappler and more traditional in his set-ups than the younger Lopes, who throws up attacks from everywhere.
Add his superior striking to the equation and Lopes should get his hand raised in a captivating clash.