With a possible title shot as added incentive, top-five light heavyweights Dominick Reyes and Jiri Prochazka will leave it all in the Octagon in the main event of UFC Vegas 25 on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Featherweights face-off in what’s set to be a thrilling co-headliner inside the UFC APEX as UFC stalwart Cub Swanson takes on Giga Chikadze. Ion Cutelaba and Dustin Jacoby will bring the heat in a second main card showdown at 205 pounds (93kg), Sean Strickland and Krzysztof Jotko collide at middleweight and Merab Dvalishvili and Cody Stamann do battle in the bantamweight division.
It’s ladies first, though, as Poliana Botelho and Luana Carolina kick-off the card in what should be an all-action flyweight affair.
MAIN CARD (From Sunday 4 AM SA Time):
Dominick Reyes v Jiri Prochazka (Light Heavyweight)
Pure savagery is on deck in this pivotal light heavyweight headliner. Reyes’ world came crashing down in 2020, which he entered with a perfect 12-0 record. He took Jon Jones to the limit at UFC 247 in a title tilt many experts felt he won but ended up on the wrong side of a split decision. Seven months later, he was heavily favoured to win the belt vacated by “Bones” but was knocked out in the second round by Jan Blachowicz.
“The Devastator” now meets a rising star looking to use him as a springboard to secure a shot at the winner of September’s championship showdown between Blachowicz and Glover Teixeira. Prochazka (27-3-1) is the new kid on the block in the UFC but has twice as much experience as Reyes.
The former RIZIN champion kicked the door down in his UFC debut last July, knocking ex-title challenger Volkan Oezdemir out cold at UFC 251. A fast starter with 15 first-round finishes, Prochazka fell victim to the notorious Octagon jitters in the opening round but found his footing in the second as he slept “No Time”, who laid motionless for a frightening period.
It was his 11th straight win and saw him shoot up to fifth in the rankings right away, positioning him for a clash with third-ranked Reyes. Given their contrasting fortunes of late, Prochazka heads into his first UFC headliner as the favourite.
In 31 fights, “Denisa” has only gone the distance once. Twenty-four of his 27 wins are by knockout (the scalp of former Bellator champion “King Mo” Muhammed Lawal is among his collection) and two by submission. Reyes is a finisher in his own right; nine of his 12 victories are by stoppage (seven KOs and two submissions), so I don’t see it going the full five rounds.
After the brutal knockout by Blachowicz, key to the outcome of this fight will be whether or not Reyes is gun-shy. Hesitation leads to devastation inside the Octagon, especially against a bloodthirsty Muay Thai predator like Prochazka, who’ll have a three-inch reach advantage.
Reyes’ greatest attribute is his athleticism. He’s the best pure athlete in the light heavyweight division. Secondly, he’s a southpaw, which is always a tricky puzzle to solve for an orthodox fighter like Prochazka. I’m banking on the Reyes of old, who went tit-for-tat with Jones and knocked out Chris Weidman without breaking a sweat, to return and halt the rise of the surging Czech.
Cub Swanson v Giga Chikadze (Featherweight)
The co-main event is a case of old lion versus young lion. Swanson (27-11) has been battling inside the Octagon for a decade and this clash against Chikadze is his 20th in the UFC.
The veteran slugger looked to be on his last legs when he lost four on the trot from 2017 to 2019, but he proved there’s life in him yet with back-to-back wins over Kron Gracie and Daniel Pineda. He defeated the former by decision and the latter by knockout (his 12th) in December.
At 37, his best days are behind him, but he showed last time out he still has stopping power, and he’s as tough as they come at 145 pounds (66kg). He can be technical or he can brawl, is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt (with four submission wins) and has invaluable experience.
He’s fought the very best and is 12-7 in the UFC with notable wins over Charles Oliveira, who’s fighting for the lightweight title in June, and former interim lightweight champion Dustin Poirier, who’s coming off a massive win over Conor McGregor.
Chikadze (12-2) made a name for himself last year. He racked up four wins in an eight-month span, punctuated by a head kick knockout in his last fight, and is 5-0 in the UFC. The stylish stoppage of Jamey Simmons in November was his seventh career-KO but his first inside the Octagon.
The 32-year-old from Georgia won all four of his previous appearances in the promotion on the judges’ scorecards and if he is to win, that’s the most likely scenario as Swanson is super durable. Swanson is a big step up in competition for “Ninja” and while he’s the slower of the two, he’s a wily veteran. I’m backing the seasoned Swanson to use his street-smarts and skill to catch Chikadze and cause the upset.
Ion Cutelaba v Dustin Jacoby (Light Heavyweight)
Jacoby (14-5) jumped in on short notice after Cutelaba’s original opponent, Devin Clark, was forced out of the fight through injury last Tuesday. The late change complicates matters even further for Cutelaba (15-6-1NC), who’s 3-3 in his last six and coming off back-to-back losses to Magomed Ankalaev.
“The Hulk” is a renowned finisher with all but one of his wins coming by stoppage (12 knockouts and two submissions). He has a sambo base, which could make Jacoby think twice about throwing leg kicks, which he did so well to cut down and stop Justin Ledet.
Jacoby’s more of a pure striker (nine KOs and one submission) and the fact that he’s riding a four-fight win streak (two in the UFC) is why he opened as the favourite (the tables have since turned). Moldova’s Cutelaba and has more top-calibre experience, having shared the Octagon with the likes of Jared Cannonier and Glover Teixeira, and more tools, so he’s the better bet.
Sean Strickland v Krzysztof Jotko (Middleweight)
A mirror match at middleweight. These two are similar in many ways, most strikingly in terms of size, style, experience and momentum. Both are 6’1″, well-rounded and on a three-fight win streak, while overall, Strickland is 22-3 and Jotko 22-4.
The two main and what should prove decisive differences are 15th-ranked Strickland’s tools are sharper (for example, he’s a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt whereas Jotko’s a brown belt) and he’s a finisher by nature. “Tarzan” boasts 10 knockouts and four submission wins, while his unranked Polish foe has six KOs and a sole submission victory.
Jotko effectively has double the amount of decision victories (15), including his last four on the trot and 11 of his last 12. Strickland, meanwhile, is coming off a TKO win over Brendan Allen and should get his hand raised as the crisper and nastier competitor.
Merab Dvalishvili v Cody Stamann (Bantamweight)
No.12 meets No.13 at 135 pounds (61kg). Dvalishvili (12-4) has lived up to his moniker of “The Machine”, winning five in a row with his dominant, Khabib Nurmagomedov-like wrestling. The Georgian is an out-and-out grappler and solidified himself as a rising star when he steamrolled former title challenger John Dobson last August to pick up the biggest win of his career.
Stamann (19-3-1) is coming off a loss but don’t look too much into that as he took the fight on five days’ notice and flew halfway across the world. That he was able to take Jimmie Rivera to a decision was a victory in itself. This boils down to Stamann via stoppage or Dvalishvili via decision.
Stamann will have a significant advantage on the feet and has six knockouts to his name, but the last came back in 2017. He has solid takedown defence as he most memorably showed against Bryan Caraway, but Dvalishvili is a different beast altogether and should grind out another win.
Poliana Botelho v Luana Carolina (Flyweight)
A battle of Brazilians. Much will depend on the mental state of Carolina (6-2), who’s been sidelined since last July when she fell victim to a nasty kneebar. The painful loss to Ariane Lipski snapped a six-fight win streak (last three by decision), one of which came in the UFC, and it remains to be seen if she’ll be the “Dread” of old.
At least she won’t have to worry about being trapped in another kneebar. While Botelho (8-3) is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt, she’s in love with that knockout life, and with good reason. With six of her eight wins coming by KO, she’s one of the most prolific power punchers in the flyweight division. The smart bet is on her, either by KO/TKO or decision.