Next week, Jon Jones defends his light heavyweight championship against Anthony Smith, but Saturday’s show in Prague could determine who is next to challenge for that title.
Though UFC Prague is flying under the radar in the midst of this dense stretch of UFC shows, the main event between Jan Blachowicz and Thiago Santos has the potential to be both an entertaining striking match and a fight with legitimate stakes. Blachowicz is on one of the hottest streaks at 205 pounds, having won four straight including a thrilling rematch against Jimi Manuwa last March that thrust the 35-year-old up the rankings.
On the other side, Santos has looked like a new man at 205 pounds. The bomb-throwing Brazilian has always been a respected fighter at middleweight (and even holds a recent knockout win over Smith in that division), but his last two wins over Manuwa and Eryk Anders at light heavyweight had tongues wagging about his potential as a title contender.
In the co-main event, heavyweight veteran Stefan Struve makes his 22nd walk to the Octagon with an expiring contract and a three-fight losing skid looming overhead. He fights the unpredictable Marcos Rogerio de Lima, who recently returned to heavyweight with a unanimous decision win over Adam Wieczorek.
Also on the main card, light heavyweight slugger Gian Villante throws down with Michal Oleksiejczuk, Liz Carmouche looks to stay in the flyweight title hunt when she fights the Czech Republic’s own Lucie Pudilova, two-time flyweight title challenger John Dodson takes on top bantamweight prospect Petr Yan, and Magomed Ankalaev takes on Klidson Abreu in a 209-pound catchweight bout.
What: UFC on ESPN+ 3
Where: O2 Arena in Prague, Czech Republic
When: Saturday, Feb. 23. The seven-fight preliminary card begins at 11 a.m. ET on ESPN2, with the six-fight main card starting at 2 p.m. ET on the ESPN+ streaming service.
Jan Blachowicz vs. Thiago Santos
Jan Blachowicz is definitely the more well-rounded fighter in this matchup. But Thiago Santos is definitely the more “I’m going to knock your face off of your face with a spinning kick” fighter in this matchup. Pardon the technical talk.
You have to believe that Blachowicz, a skilled striker in his own right, will decide that discretion is the better part of valor here and look to stuff Santos against the cage and take him down. Because the alternative is standing and banging with one of the most respected knockout artists in all of MMA.
Not that Santos is invincible. He’s been knocked out on the feet a couple of times in the UFC, though that probably says more about the dangers of his approach than any glaring defensive deficiencies. “Marreta” is an elite striker, but it’s not like he mystifies his opponents with Anderson Silva-like movement. He makes it clear from the onset that he has you in his sights and he’s coming forward to get you whether you’re ready or not.
It’s hard to shake the vision of Blachowicz dropping Santos with a perfect counter-punch or timing his takedowns to slow Santos’s assault at key points in the fight. Your faith in Santos depends on whether you think he respects Blachowicz enough to not just try and rush him, and whether you believe he’s genuinely rejuvenated at light heavyweight or if that’s a smokescreen for his past shortcomings. I favor the rejuvenation theory.
Santos is going to knock Blachowicz out and emerge as the dark horse for a light heavyweight title shot.
Stefan Struve vs. Marcos Rogerio de Lima
Stefan Struve is way too experienced and way too physically gifted to lose to Marcos Rogerio de Lima.
That’s pretty much the same song supporters of Struve have heard in regards to various opponents for years now, but it has to ring true this time, right? Especially with so much on the line for Struve. He’s going to have a massive height and reach advantage over “Pezao” and skill-for-skill, there shouldn’t be any areas that de Lima is much better in.
As far as the problems that Struve has had with shorter, stockier foes in the past, de Lima doesn’t have the potent one-punch power of a Roy Nelson or a Mark Hunt, nor should his wrestling allow him to pin the gigantic Struve to the mat. That said, if Struve isn’t careful, de Lima will be adding himself to the list of Davids who have put “Skyscraper” down for the count.
I’m drinking the Struve kool-aid one more time and picking him to win by TKO via ground-and-pound in the first or second.
Gian Villante vs. Michal Oleksiejczuk
Don’t sleep on Michal Oleksiejczuk. Gian Villante is the more well-known property to most UFC fans having fought in the Octagon 14 times, but Michal Oleksiejczuk looked like a seasoned vet in his debut win over Khalil Rountree.
Based on that last matchup, you can bet that Oleksiejczuk will be prepared for an opening blitz from Villante. Oleksiejczuk is blessed with a young chin and solid defensive fundamentals, which are attributes you need to go three rounds with Villante, an aggressive veteran. He has good wrestling too, but Villante has a strong base and excellent athleticism. Few have been able to smother Villante for any extended period of time.
Villante’s last four fights have ended in split calls and he’s 2-2 during that stretch, so it’s literally been a coin toss predicting his fights lately. I expect that split streak to end, though not in his favor. Oleksiejczuk takes a round to size Villante up before comfortably winning the last two for a unanimous decision.
Liz Carmouche vs. Lucie Pudilova
All the credit in the world to Lucie Pudilova, who at 24 years old is already proving to have a fan-friendly style that will serve her well as she advances in her career. She also showed a ton of heart in her last fight, a split-decision loss to Irene Aldana. She’s going to bring the heat against Liz Carmouche.
It’s Carmouche’s experience that has me leaning in her direction. The one-time bantamweight title challenger is an absolute pit bull inside the Octagon and she’s more than happy to eat a few punches if it means closing the distance and getting right in the face of her opponent. She’ll be looking to take this fight to the mat early and often.
Pudilova has yet to be finished and I don’t know if Carmouche has that extra gear needed to put the Czech fighter away, but I do see Carmouche punishing her with ground-and-pound for three rounds. That’s not to take anything away from Pudilova, who will scrap to the final bell, it’s just not her time yet.
John Dodson vs. Petr Yan
Is it possible to book a faster matchup than this at 135 pounds?
Every fight with John Dodson is a potentially frustrating one for his opponents as he goes into the Octagon looking to bewitch and befuddle as his “Magician” nickname suggests. It’s an act that can also be frustrating for viewers and has only received a mixed response from the judges since Dodson moved up from flyweight. It does seem that his knockout power did not translate between weight classes.
Petr Yan has exactly the kind of skill set to counter Dodson’s style. He has the finishing ability to make Dodson think twice about taking a risk and also the precision to match Dodson strike-for-strike. One of Yan’s greatest strengths is his composure, which will serve him well against the elusive Dodson.
Dodson will always have the advantage in volume striking, but Yan will land the harder, more impressive-looking shots and do so with consistency. Fighting smart and patient will get him the decision win here.
Magomed Ankalaev vs. Klidson Abreu
This is a battle between two strong grapplers and if that results in a stalemate in that department and turns this into a standup match, I have to favor Magomed Ankalaev.
Outside of getting tapped in the final second of his fight with Paul Craig in his UFC debut, Ankalaev has lived up to the billing of a top Dagestani prospect. He has great wrestling, a strong top game, and sharp standup skills. The latter was evident in his win over Marcin Prachnio in which Ankalaev looked comfortable leading the action with an effective jab before rocking Prachnio with a devastating counter-punch.
At this point in his career, Klidson Abreu is straightforward striker. He’s shown he has power and isn’t afraid to stand in the pocket and throw hard, but for the most part it’s all single shots and he’ll need more than that if he wants to trade with Ankalaev. On the ground, he’s extraordinarily dangerous and creative and if Ankalaev leaves an opening as he did against Craig, Abreu is a legitimate threat to catch him with a submission from bottom position.
If Abreu can force the action and make Ankalaev roll with him, this could be an intriguing back-and-forth battle; as it is, I like Ankalaev to use his wrestling defensively and win this one on the feet.
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