UFC Fight Night is back on the road and makes its first stop in Columbus, Ohio, where top heavyweight contenders Curtis Blaydes and Chris Daukaus collide in the main event on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Breaking out after being boxed in at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas since the start of the pandemic, the world’s pre-eminent mixed martial arts promotion’s Fight Night roadshow finally restarts with a stacked card at the Nationwide Arena.
The co-headliner is one of two pivotal flyweight bouts with highly-ranked contenders Joanne Wood and Alexa Grasso going toe-to-toe. The other will likely determine the next title challenger as the undefeated Askar Askarov faces Kai Kara-France.
Plus, hometown hero and Octagon legend Matt Brown battles Bryan Barberena in what’s set to be a welterweight war, Ilir Latifi and Aleksei Oleinik bring extra heavyweight heat and lightweight strikers Viacheslav Borshchev and Marc Diakiese duke it out.
MAIN CARD (from 1 AM Sunday SA time):
Curtis Blaydes (1.23) v Chris Daukaus (4.00) (Heavyweight)
Top-10 heavyweights determined to start their 2022 surge with a bang battle it out in the main event.
Fourth-ranked Blaydes (15-3-1NC) bounced back from a brutal knockout loss against Derrick Lewis with a dominant decision win over Jairzinho Rozenstruik last September.
Eighth-ranked Daukaus (12-3) suffered the same fate when he fought Lewis last December, the loss snapping his perfect 4-0 run inside the Octagon and crowning “The Black Beast” the most prolific knockout artist in UFC history.
On a collision course in Columbus, only one can leave with their career heading in the right direction and a step closer to the title.
Blaydes is the best wrestler in the 265-pound division. Only two men have been able to overcome his power, pressure and explosiveness, the aforementioned two-time title challenger Lewis and reigning champion Francis Ngannou.
Everyone else has been mauled by “Razor”, including the most decorated striker in UFC history, Alistair Overeem, and former champion Junior dos Santos.
His striking is merely to mask takedown attempts, which he mostly lands at will, and once he has his prey on the ground, he unleashes hellacious ground-and-pound, the gnarliest of his 10 knockouts being his bludgeoning of Overeem.
Daukaus is an up-and-coming star in the land of the leviathans. A crisp striker, all but one of his wins are by knockout. He has great jiu-jitsu as well but hasn’t had to show it yet as he doesn’t initiate grappling situations and has never been taken down inside the Octagon.
It’s vital to note that the fight against Lewis last time out was his first taste of elite competition, with the loss leading to the police officer handing in his badge to focus on his MMA career full-time.
Blaydes has lived and thrived in the heavyweight elite for years. That experience, along with his exceptional athleticism and unrivalled wrestling should see him neutralise Daukaus on the ground, where he’ll get the finish in the later rounds.
Joanne Wood (2.80) v Alexa Grasso (1.43) (Flyweight)
The seventh and 11th-ranked flyweights will finally handle their business four months after Grasso (13-3) had to pull out of their originally scheduled bout because of injury.
It’s a fascinating fight on two levels as Wood (15-7) is a seasoned veteran who mixes things up, while Grasso is a rising star with excellent striking. The higher-ranked Scot is in a slump, losing her last two, while Grasso has won two on the trot.
At 36, “JoJo” is past her prime and will have to pull out all the tricks she’s learned over the years to outfox her Mexican foe. Grasso’s just beginning to hit her straps and at 28, she’ll have a significant speed advantage.
She’ll be able to keep the fight standing and with both ladies being decision machines, Grasso will win it on the scorecards.
Askar Askarov (1.25) v Kai Kara-France (3.80) (Flyweight)
The two hottest and brightest stars in the flyweight division square off with the winner expected to punch his ticket to a title shot.
A steamrolling, suffocating wrestler, Askarov is undefeated. He fought former champion Brandon Moreno to a draw in his UFC debut and marched to three dominant decision wins, the last over perennial title challenger Joseph Benavidez last March, to move into second place in the rankings.
Sixth-ranked Kara-France (22-9-1NC) set up this crunch clash with a spectacular knockout of former bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt in December. It was the heavy-handed New Zealander’s second successive KO win and 11th of his career.
“Don’t Blink” is the better striker and will benefit from a two-inch reach advantage. He does get taken down, though, and with his Russian rival being a different breed of grappler, we should see Askarov control things on the mat to remain unbeaten.
Matt Brown (1.90) v Bryan Barberena (1.90) (Welterweight)
We have ourselves a pick’em. At 41, Brown (23-18) is living up to his “Immortal” moniker. In his last Octagon outing, the legendary brawler decimated Dhiego Lima with a stunning one-punch knockout, the 15th of his career.
He’s both a judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt but prefers to throw hands and has a willing dance partner in Barberena (16-8), who’s coming off a decision win over Darian Week.
The 32-year-old has 10 knockout wins but isn’t quite as prolific as Brown, his last stoppage by strikes coming against Jake Ellenberger in 2018.
Fuelled by his home crowd and aided by a two-and-a-half-inch reach advantage, Brown should score a popular KO in what’ll be a striking duel.
Ilir Latifi (1.47) v Aleksei Oleinik (2.65) (Heavyweight)
Don’t sleep on this compelling clash of veterans. Polar opposites, 38-year-old Latifi (16-8-1NC) makes his living on the feet, while 44-year-old Oleinik (59-16-1) is a submission artist unlike any other.
A fourth-degree Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, the man known as “The Boa Constrictor” boasts an unprecedented 46 tap out wins. It’s been a while since he’s had his hand raised, his last win coming over former champion Fabricio Werdum in 2020, but the sambo master remains a unique threat.
The stocky stature of 5’10” Latifi has always put him at a disadvantage in the heavyweight division. At long last, it’s now set to help rather than hinder his cause as his only concern is getting dragged down into Oleinik’s world.
The Swede is a solid wrestler and his low centre of gravity should allow him to dig in underhooks and stuff Oleinik’s takedown attempts.
Moreover, as a strongman type, he has no real neck for his foe to snap on a standing guillotine, so I see “The Sledgehammer” keeping the fight standing and cleaning Oleinik’s clock.
Marc Diakiese (2.30) v Viacheslav Borshchev (1.62) (Lightweight)
A desperate Diakiese (14-5) will be feeling the pressure in the fan-friendly main card opener. He’s lost five of his last seven, including his two most recent fights, to find himself on the chopping block.
“Bonecrusher” will fancy facing a fellow striker and will have a four-inch reach advantage, however, Borshchev (6-1) has more power and a bigger tool kit.
The Russian is on a four-fight knockout streak, none of them entering the third round, and throws twice the number of strikes than Diakiese.
His power, output and greater variation, particularly in terms of his kicking game, should see “Slava Clause” KO the Congolese-born battler.