Lightweight juggernaut Islam Makhachev’s trail of destruction leads to the UFC Apex where a game Bobby Green will look to steal his thunder in the main event of UFC Vegas 49 on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The co-headliner is a compelling showdown between submission experts Misha Cirkunov and Wellington Turman at middleweight, while flyweights Ji Yeon Kim and Priscila Cachoeira collide in the featured women’s bout.
A foursome of finishers promise to start the main card with a bang as Armen Petrosyan and Gregory Rodrigues rumble at middleweight before Arman Tsarukyan and Joel Alvarez let loose in a lightweight affair.
MAIN CARD (from 2 AM Sunday SA time):
Islam Makhachev (1.10) v Bobby Green (6.75) (Catchweight)
Just two weeks after putting on a striking masterclass against Nasrat Haqparast, Green (29-12-1) steps back inside the Octagon for the biggest fight of his life.
A sold-out Toyota Center in Houston, Texas gave Green – who’s flown under the radar for most of his career – superstar treatment and the veteran put on a show, piecing up Haqparast to score a dominant decision victory in the UFC 271 main card opener.
That perfect storm had fans and pundits alike calling for the seasoned campaigner to be rewarded with his first main event, but no one expected it would come this soon. Makhachev (21-1) was meant to battle Beneil Dariush in a clash of top-five contenders, but a serious injury forced Dariush out of the fight.
Enter “King”, who on 10 days’ notice, looks to ride his momentum to what would be a monumental upset. Given the circumstances, the five-round fight will be at a catchweight of 160 pounds, 10 pounds north of the lightweight limit. This doesn’t favour one particular party as it might in other match-ups but rather benefits both men.
Green’s bravado is admirable and speaks to the confidence he has in his complete skillset. With 10 knockouts and eight submissions to his name, he’s dangerous wherever the fight goes and boasts some of the best head movement in MMA.
He’s never broken into the lightweight elite, though. A man who’s been a mainstay there, Dan Hooker, also saw it as a golden opportunity to take down the surging Makhachev as a short-notice replacement for Rafael dos Anjos last October. Instead, he was forced to tap out in less than three minutes.
As tough as they come and having gone five full rounds in a war with Dustin Poirier, “The Hangman” was no match for Makhachev and became the ominous force from Russia’s highest-profile victim. Makhachev’s run to a title shot mirrors that of close friend and former training partner Khabib Nurmagomedov, who ended up as the division’s dominant ruler until he retired in 2020.
A sambo master, he’s on a nine-fight win streak and mauled them all, which is why he’s such a massive favourite. He overwhelms opponents with the simplest yet near-unstoppable game plan of pinning them to the mat and either pummelling or twisting them until they can’t continue.
The man who’s only suffered one loss, back in 2015, is a skillful bully. Green doesn’t have the one-punch knockout power to shock the world and will instead, wind up on his back where I expect Makhachev to secure a fourth straight and 10th career submission win.
Misha Cirkunov (1.83) v Wellington Turman (2.00) (Middleweight)
The co-headliner is set to be a compelling chess match between two high-level grapplers. Five of Cirkunov’s six wins inside the Octagon came via submission to take his overall tally to eight, while Turman (17-5) has seven submission wins on his record.
It’s been a rocky road for both men in recent times. Cirkunov (15-7) is 1-3 in his last four, most recently losing a split decision to Krzysztof Jotko in his middleweight debut last October.
Turman endured a turbulent period that saw him suffer back-to-back knockout losses but was able to break through the storm with a split decision win over Sam Alvey last August.
Having fought at light heavyweight (205 pounds) for most of his career, Cirkunov is a monster at middleweight (185 pounds). At 6’3″, he’s three inches taller than “The Prodigy” and will have a five-inch reach advantage.
The lessons learned in his first middleweight venture, starting with the weight cut, and fact that he had the stamina to go all three rounds will bolster Cirkunov’s confidence.
Turman has never been taken down but he’s also never fought a beast-like Cirkunov, who has the strength to staple him to the mat and superior skills as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt to tap Turman.
Ji Yeon Kim (1.57) v Priscila Cachoeira (2.40) (Flyweight)
With both fighters looking to rebound from losses, this should be an intense flyweight affair that pits the technique of Kim (9-4-2) against the power of Cachoeira (10-4).
Kim’s a technical striker with good grappling (three submission wins) in her back pocket should she need it. Cachoeira, meanwhile, is an out-and-out striker who packs a considerable punch for the weight class. Her six knockouts compared to Kim’s two highlights the greater firepower she possesses.
She’s been guilty of falling in love with that power too much and not throwing enough combinations. “Firefist” has a much higher output and is lighter on her feet, making her more elusive than Cachoeira, who’s often a stationary target.
In addition to those upsides, Kim will enjoy a massive seven-inch reach advantage, which should see her outpoint “Zombie Girl.”
Arman Tsarukyan (1.43.) v Joel Alvarez (2.80) (Lightweight)
A lightweight clash that commands attention as it could end at any time, on the feet or on the ground. The obvious distinction is the massive size discrepancy. At 6’2″, Tsarukyan will tower over 5’7″ Alvarez and will have a four-and-a-half-inch reach advantage.
Both men have stellar records; Tsarukyan is 17-2 and Alvarez 19-2. The former is well rounded with six knockouts and five submissions. The key in this fight will be his strong wrestling. He’s almost sure to take Alvarez down, and it’s there where things will get really interesting.
Alvarez is an apex predator who’s secured every single one of his wins by stoppage, including 16 submissions. He’s only gone to a decision once, in losing effort against headliner Makhachev. Tsarukyan has a very similar style to Makhachev, particularly when it comes to top control.
As a result, he should be able to blanket Alvarez, avoid his submission attempts and come away with a decision victory.
Armen Petrosyan (2.30) v Gregory Rodrigues (1.62) (Middleweight)
Ferocious finisher Petrosyan will seek to make his UFC debut short and sweet in the main card opener. “Superman” is a kill-or-be-killed striker. Aggressive and heavy-handed, he’s never been to a decision with all six of his wins coming by knockout and his lone loss coming by the same method.
Rodrigues (11-3) doesn’t work by the minute either and has a more diverse pugilistic portfolio. All but two of his wins are by stoppage – five by knockout and four by submission. In an evenly matched pairing, his experience is primarily why “Robocop” is the favourite.
The value lies in Petrosyan and as a former light heavyweight dropping to middleweight, he’ll have the power and strength advantage, which in a fight unlikely to go to the scorecards, makes him my underdog pick of the card.