Snarling after losing the light heavyweight title, Jan Blachowicz returns for a big-time battle against Aleksandar Rakic at UFC Vegas 54 on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The co-main event at the promotion’s headquarters in Las Vegas is another tussle at 205 pounds as Ryan Spann squares off with Ion Cutelaba, while the next challenger for the flyweight title could emerge when Katlyn Chookagian collides with Amanda Ribas.
Bantamweight finishers Davey Grant and Louis Smolka will slug it out, veteran Frank Camacho faces newcomer Manuel Torres at lightweight and undefeated Jake Hadley makes his UFC bow against Allan Nascimento at flyweight.
MAIN CARD (from 4 AM Sunday SA time):
Jan Blachowicz (2.60) v Aleksandar Rakic (1.48) (Light Heavyweight)
It’s been a brutal last seven months for Blachowicz (28-9). The fighting pride of Poland was dethroned by Glover Teixeira last October and things went from bad to worse earlier this year when he took a shot to the neck during training that left him temporarily paralysed on his left side.
He was forced out of the originally-scheduled March meeting with Rakic but fortunately didn’t require surgery and after several weeks of physiotherapy instead of strenuous training, Blachowicz’s back to 100% and raring to go.
His “legendary Polish power” has seen him crush eight opponents, some with a single sledgehammer-like blow, and his nine submission wins highlight what a well-rounded fighter he is.
He was on a vicious five-fight win streak before his submission loss to Teixeira and will be looking to land a bomb to potentially earn an opportunity to reclaim the crown.
Rising star Rakic (14-2) will have an even greater claim to fight the winner of the title bout between Teixeira and Jiri Prochazka in June if he can get past Blachowicz as he’s coming off major wins over Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos.
Neither was the most exciting performance, but then, third-ranked Rakic has never been a knockout artist, despite having nine KOs to his name. Instead, he’s a sophisticated and calculated striker and a disciplined one at that, all of which saw him outpoint the above-mentioned former title challengers en route to back-to-back decision victories.
At 39 and 37 fights deep in his career, Blachowicz’s best days are behind him. That type of experience is invaluable but comes at a cost, and the worrying recent injury is a serious red flag.
At 30 and entering his 17th fight, the surging Rakic’s best days are ahead of him. Age and athleticism advantages aside, “Rocket” is the more skilled fighter; he throws a tapestry of techniques whereas Blachowicz banks on his hands and a wicked left body kick.
It’s a simple formula that took him to the title but one that’s set to become increasingly less effective against young, multi-skilled opponents like Rakic in this, the twilight of his career.
He’ll have to incorporate takedowns like he did to hand middleweight champion Israel Adesanya his only loss in their super fight last year, but Rakic is no ambitious 185-pounder – he cuts to 205 and stands two inches taller than Blachowicz.
With that in mind, the defensively-sharp Rakic should be able to stick and move and outpoint the former champion.
Ryan Spann (2.80) v Ion Cutelaba (1.42) (Light Heavyweight)
The co-headliner will be the antithesis of the tactical main event. These two love to scrap and will be going for the “kill”, so the judges won’t be needed in this one.
At 6’5″, Spann (21-7) is a towering light heavyweight and will have a four-inch height and reach advantage over “The Hulk.” He does his best work on the ground, where he’s one shy of a dozen submission wins, although, he’s a problem on the feet as well because of his wingspan.
Cutelaba (16-6-1-1NC) is a bulldozing power puncher with 12 knockouts to his credit. He’s a strong wrestler as well but considering Spann’s an Octopus-like threat in the grappling department, it’s unlikely he’ll shoot for a takedown.
Known as “Superman”, Spann’s kryptonite is his chin. The fearlessness and explosiveness of Cutelaba should see him get on the inside and seal the deal with his heavy hands.
Davey Grant (1.31) v Louis Smolka (3.35) (Bantamweight)
This banger of a bantamweight bout will push the co-main event for Fight of the Night honours. It should be all action for however long it lasts as both men are skilled, aggressive and driven to get back in the win column.
Eleven of Grant’s 13 wins are by stoppage, including eight submissions, while 15 of Smolka’s 17 victories came via finish, eight of them by knockout.
Grant has more high-level experience, holds a victory over Marlon Vera and is more durable than Smolka, so “Dangerous” should be the last man standing.
Katlyn Chookagian (1.54) v Amanda Ribas (2.45) (Flyweight)
Looking to make a power play, Ribas (11-2) moves up from strawweight, where she’s ninth in the rankings, to take on the number one contender in the flyweight division.
The Brazilian’s had success at 125 in the past, but she’s a natural 115-pounder and making a major leap here. Chookagian (17-4) is a tall order in every sense; she’s a former title challenger, on a three-fight win streak and a rangy, lanky tactician.
At 5’9″, she’s a full five inches taller than Ribas and will have a two-inch reach advantage. Ribas is a gamer and will look to smother and drag “Blonde Fighter” into her world on the map, but Chookagian’s too big and too skilled of a cyborg-like striker.
With both being decision machines, bank on Chookagian to prevail on points.
Frank Camacho (2.05) v Manuel Torres (1.80) (Lightweight)
Out since the middle of last year due to a car accident, veteran knockout artist Camacho (22-9) plans on turning the page in his return to the Octagon. Chasing his first win since 2019 and 18th KO, his experience will stand him in good stead as he welcomes his opponent to the UFC.
A blue-chip prospect, Torres (12-2) punched his ticket to the big time with a first-round knockout of Kolton Englund that extended his win streak to three. A natural finisher who’s equally dangerous on the feet and the ground, “El Loco” has only gone to a decision once.
Super dynamic, he’ll signal his arrival in style against the rusty Camacho.
Jake Hadley (1.43) v Allan Nascimento (2.80) (Flyweight)
The main card opener will either be a high-level grappling match or a stand-up fight. When grappling wizards are matched up, they invariably end up mainly trading on the feet as their strengths cancel each another out.
With a perfect 8-0 record (50% submission rate), Hadley makes his much-anticipated UFC debut and the pairing with Nascimento (17-6) is an indication that the matchmakers want to see him showcase all of his skills.
Nascimento is also looking for his first UFC win after a questionable split decision spoiled his promotional debut against Tagir Ulanbekov. The Brazilian is in his element on the ground and boasts 13 submission wins.
Being a southpaw will be of great benefit to Hardy against a limited striker like Nascimento. The angles it creates will see the former Cage Warriors champion lead the dance and pick up a decision victory.