Leading strawweight contenders seek to take one step closer to a title shot when Mackenzie Dern squares off against Yan Xiaonan in the main event of UFC Vegas 61 on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Welterweights fill the co-headliner slot at the UFC APEX in Las Vegas as Randy Brown battles evergreen Francisco Trinaldo while Raoni Barcelos and Trevin Jones, bantamweights looking to get back on track, scrap in the featured bout.
Nigerian-born Sodiq Yusuff, who’s fought his way into the top 15 of the featherweight division, faces dangerous debutant Don Shainis, John Castaneda collides with Daniel Santos in a catchweight bout and Mike Davis and Viacheslav Borshchev open the show in a lightweight banger.
MAIN CARD (from 1 AM Sunday SA time):
Mackenzie Dern (1.43) v Yan Xiaonan (2.95) (Strawweight)
The five-round headliner is a title eliminator of sorts with Dern (12-2) ranked fifth and Xiaonan sixth.
Dern is both a throwback to the early days of the UFC and an anomaly. In the modern era of mixed martial arts, where fighters are versed in all aspects of the sport, Dern is an out-and-out submission specialist, one unlike any women’s MMA has ever seen.
A former Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion, she’s the most gifted women’s submission artist to ever grace the Octagon, making her a unique threat and a special attraction.
A human Venus flytrap, she has several ways to cut down the cage, grab hold of an opponent and get them to the ground. There, her unrivalled transitions mean it’s just a matter of time before she isolates a limb and forces her foe to tap out.
It happens more often than not, with four of her seven wins inside the Octagon and seven of her 12 career victories coming via submission. The rest are by decision, including her latest win over Tecia Torres, which saw her bounce back from a five-round decision loss to Marina Rodriguez. Prior to that setback, she’d won four straight.
The split decision win over Torres in April was ideal preparation for this match-up as Torres and Xiaonan are both fast and energetic volume strikers. This is reflected in the stats with Xiaonan landing 5.66 significant strikes per minute. The average is around four with Dern, being a grappler, landing 3.16.
A dive into Xiaonan’s 15-3 record will show she has seven knockouts, but all of those were before she became the first Chinese female fighter to make it to the UFC in 2017. Since then, she’s exclusively won by decision whenever things have gone her way.
She’s in a rough patch at the moment, suffering a turnaround that saw her go from a five-fight win streak to dropping back-to-back losses to current champion Carla Esparza and, most recently, Rodriguez in March.
Had it not been for the fact that the other top contenders had already been booked to face each other, the struggling Xiaonan wouldn’t have received a top five opponent or a maiden main event and she’ll do everything in her power to maximise the opportunity.
However, being a volume striker with an identical 63-inch reach to Dern is a double-edged sword in this case. By constantly moving forward and throwing plenty of strikes, Xiaonan puts herself in grappling range and Dern’s shown she only needs one takedown to initiate the finish.
Therefore, I’m backing the Brazilian to wrap up another submission win.
Randy Brown (1.31) v Francisco Trinaldo (3.65) (Welterweight)
Fighting is a young athlete’s sport but it seems no one has told Trinaldo (28-8) this. At the tender age of 44, he’s won two fights in a row and five of his last six. The veteran is well-rounded but it’s his craftiness more than anything that’s fuelled his impressive run.
This time around, though, Trinaldo has bit off more than he can chew. Twelve years the Brazilian’s junior, Brown (15-4) is not only faster and more athletic but considerably bigger and on a three-fight win streak.
At 6’3″ the Jamaican will tower over his 5’9″ opponent and will have an enormous eight-inch reach advantage. As wily as Trinaldo is, this is too tall a task as he’ll get out-struck and doesn’t have strong-enough wrestling to get and keep Brown down.
The old warhorse has never been knocked out, so Brown should win on the scorecards.
Raoni Barcelos (1.43) v Trevin Jones (2.95) (Bantamweight)
Desperation will drive this duo with both men having lost their last two bouts. As a Brazilian, you’d expect Barcelos (16-3) to have good grappling and while he’s no slouch, he’s primarily a striker with half of his wins coming by knockout and six by decision.
A jack of all trades and master of none, Jones (13-8) is a grinder. Twelve of the Guamanian’s 21 fights went the distance at a 50% success rate, hardly the odds one wants in a possible loser leaves town fight.
What’s more, Barcelos throws double the amount of strikes Jones does and has excellent takedown defence, so he’ll lead the dance and come away with the decision.
Sodiq Yusuff (1.13) v Don Shainis (6.30) (Featherweight)
Champing at the bit to fight, Nigerian-born Yusuff (12-2) has agreed to welcome Shainis (12-3) to the Octagon after an injury to fellow top 15 standout Giga Chikadze saw their anticipated clash fell through.
Shainis’ a finisher with all but two of his wins coming by stoppage, including eight knockouts, so it’s a risky move by 12th-ranked Yusuff, who has nothing to gain other than a paycheck and possible performance bonus.
Winner of five of his six UFC fights, “Super” is one of the finest emerging featherweight prospects with his power (six knockouts) and explosiveness and as the only ranked fighter on the card aside from the headliners, he’s in a different league than Shainis and it should show with a KO finish.
John Castaneda (1.52) v Daniel Santos (2.60) (Catchweight)
Originally set to be contested at bantamweight (135 pounds), this bout was on Tuesday bumped up to a catchweight contest of 140 pounds.
The combatants are of similar size, so while one party may not look significantly bigger come fight night, the change favours Castaneda (19-5), who’s had weight cutting issues in the past. Already the favourite, the five-pound bonus sets “Sexi Mexi” up for peak performance.
Seeking his third consecutive stoppage win, Castaneda’s a strong grappler with six submission wins, while some of his eight knockouts came via ground and pound.
He’ll have a four-inch reach advantage but with Santos (9-2) being an unpredictable striker who likes spinning attacks, the safest path to victory is to grapple.
Santos lost his UFC debut to Julio Arce in April and I don’t see him landing the special strike he needs to avoid a second straight loss, most likely by decision.
Mike Davis (1.55) v Viacheslav Borshchev (2.55) (Lightweight)
The main card opener has Fight of the Night written all over it. Davis’ (9-2) win over previously unbeaten Mason Jones last time out was his first by decision. “Beast Boy” loves to stand and bang, with seven of his eight stoppages being knockouts.
Likewise, Borshchev (6-2) has claimed all but one of his wins by KO. On the other side of the coin, neither has been stopped by strikes, so expect an exciting slugfest.
“Slava Claus” has stepped up on short notice and is coming off his first UFC loss, but he won’t have to worry about getting outwrestled here.
So evenly matched in the striking department, Davis’ three-and-a-half-inch reach advantage should prove decisive in a 15-minute fire-fight.