Top-15 middleweight contenders Brendan Allen and Paul Craig collide in an explosive main event clash at UFC Vegas 82 on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Michael Morales looks to keep his undefeated record intact when he takes on Jake Matthews in the co-headliner at the UFC APEX, while lightweights Chase Hooper and Jordan Leavitt hook ‘em up in the featured bout.
Plus, Payton Talbott and Nick Aguirre battle it out in a bantamweight brawl and Luana Pinheiro and Amanda Ribas rumble in a strawweight scrap.
MAIN CARD (from 3 AM Sunday SA time):
Brendan Allen (1.23) v Paul Craig (3.40) (Middleweight)
Fierce finishers face off in the final main event of the month in Sin City.
Allen (22-5) has always been dangerous but has been putting it all together in his current hot streak of five successive victories with four finishes.
Ranked 10th, “All In” lives up to his moniker with an all-action, kill-or-be-killed style and aims to make it 3-0 for the year after picking up back-to-back submission wins over Andre Muniz and, most recently, Bruno Silva in June. Athletic and highly skilled, he has five knockouts and 13 submissions to his credit.
Craig (17-6-1), who holds notable wins at light heavyweight over the likes of former champions Jamahal Hill and Mauricio Rua, made an immediate splash with an upset victory over Andre Muniz in his middleweight debut in July, which catapulted the Scot straight into the top 15 in his new division.
One of the nastiest submission artists in the business with power in his hands to boot, 13th ranked “Bearjew” is an absolute savage with a 100% finish rate (four knockouts and 13 submissions). There’s no more intense fighter on the UFC roster than Craig.
Both men will be at their predatory peak in what’s set to be their maiden UFC main event. Allen does have five-round experience back in his LFA days, where he ruled as middleweight champion, and the longer the fight goes, the more it’ll favour him as Craig has a tough weight cut to make it to 185 pounds. That said, this is a duel destined to finish inside the distance.
For as lethal as Craig is, he’s still one-dimensional and we’ve seen him run out of options and ideas when he’s unable to get the fight to the ground. His American adversary has more weapons and thus more ways to win. Allen has a significant advantage in the striking department and that’s where he should be able to close the show.
Michael Morales (1.34) v Jake Matthews (3.35) (Welterweight)
Boasting a flawless record of 15-0 with 12 finishes (including 11 knockouts), Ecuador’s Morales enters this co-main event encounter with a fair amount of hype and intrigue to see how he fares against a battle-tested veteran.
An excellent athlete and exciting, hard-hitting striker, the 23-year-old has already rattled off three wins in the UFC. He has poise beyond his years, a solid chin and good takedown defence, all of which will be tested by his Australian adversary.
Matthews (19-6) is a 10-year UFC veteran who has made 18 walks to the Octagon, the most recent of which saw him secure a submission win over Darrius Flowers in July.
Well-rounded, he has the ability to finish the fight on the feet and the ground (five knockouts and eight submissions) and we should see him mix things up against the striking-centric Morales.
“The Celtic Kid” is a good test for Morales but considering he’s 2-2 in his last four fights, he’s too inconsistent to back as the underdog for my liking, although I do see there being two-way action on the betting front.
In a hard-fought battle, Morales’ athleticism and higher output should see him stay undefeated.
Chase Hooper (1.45) v Jordan Leavitt (2.80) (Lightweight)
Developing lightweights duke, it out in the featured bout.
Formerly competing at featherweight, Hooper (12-3-1) made his UFC lightweight debut last time out and looked as if he found his fighting home. The 24-year-old, who’s big for the smaller weight classes at 6’1″, showcased his full array of skills to defeat Nick Fiore by decision.
As a young fighter, “The Dream” – whose nine finishes include five submissions – is a work in progress as he’s alternated wins and losses in his last six fights and is seeking successive victories inside the Octagon for the first time.
Leavitt (11-2 with two knockouts and six submissions) isn’t as risk-taking or dangerous as Hooper but as the older fighter by four years, he’s more mature in every sense and has the consistency his opponent lacks, having won three of his last four fights.
His lone loss in the last two years came against the much-hyped Paddy Pimblett, a setback he bounced back from with his best performance to date, which saw him make quick work of Victor Martinez.
Both men are best known for their grappling, which should make for an interesting scrap with exciting scrambles. Hooper probably has slightly better striking, which is why he’s the favourite, but this is close to a pick ‘em in my view.
With his superior fight IQ, I fancy “The Monkey King” and will sprinkle a few bucks on him as the underdog.
Payton Talbott (1.12) v Nick Aguirre (6.50) (Bantamweight)
Hot prospect Talbott makes his UFC debut in this battle of bantamweights.
Undefeated at 6-0 with five knockouts, he’s a heat-seeker without being reckless and is being teed up for a successful maiden outing here.
Aguirre (7-1) is making his second trip to the Octagon. He stepped up on short notice only to suffer his first professional loss in his promotional debut in January.
As the odds suggest, this is a bad match-up for “Slick Nick”, so expect Talbott to signal his arrival in style. With such short odds, take him by knockout.
Luana Pinheiro (3.00) v Amanda Ribas (1.40) (Strawweight)
Top-10 strawweight’s square off in an all-Brazilian affair.
After being sidelined for all of 2022 due to a knee injury, Pinheiro (11-1) reminded everyone of her potential with a split decision victory over women’s mixed martial arts pioneer Michelle Waterson-Gomez in April.
The victory took her UFC record to 4-0, stretched her current win streak to nine and landed her in ninth place in the rankings, one place above her opponent.
Ribas (11-4) returns to the 115-pound ranks after a two-year detour at 125 that saw her go 1-2 against the cream of the crop in that division. Strawweight is where she belongs and where she’s had notable success in the past, including beating Mackenzie Dern, Randa Markos and Paige VanZant.
It’s because of her proven record against high-calibre opponents, the likes of which Pinheiro’s yet to face, that she’s poised to get her hand raised.