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UFC Wichita predictions

Junior dos Santos (pictured) fights Derrick Lewis in the heavyweight main event of UFC Wichita on Saturday
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

One of the heavyweight division’s busiest fighters, Derrick Lewis, has racked up plenty of meaningful of wins inside the Octagon, but one thing he’s never done is knock off a former UFC champion.

“The Black Beast” gets that opportunity on Saturday when he fights Junior dos Santos in the main event of UFC Wichita. Though he fell short in his attempt to become a champion himself at UFC 230 last November, losing by second-round submission to Daniel Cormier, Lewis remains a fan favorite and one of the most devastating punchers in all of MMA. It’s certain he’ll be looking to start off 2019 with a bang.

Not that dos Santos will make that easy for him. “Cigano” has won three of his last four fights, and while his last three losses have come by way of knockout, they’ve come against Stipe Miocic, Alistair Overeem, and Cain Velasquez. Can Lewis add his name to that elite list?

The co-main event sees two red hot welterweights putting their winning streaks on the line. Brazilian striker Elizeu Zaleski has won six straight fights after dropping a split decision in his UFC debut, while his opponent Curtis Millender is 3-0 since joining the promotion and looking for his 10th straight win overall.

In other main card action, welterweight bangers Tim Means and Niko Price face off, former World Series of Fighting/Professional Fighters League heavyweight champion Blagoy Ivanov welcomes Ben Rothwell back to the cage, lightweight Beneil Dariush looks to snap Drew Dober’s three-fight winning streak, and Tim Boetsch aims to keep his Octagon record above .500 as he heads into his 24th UFC fight, a middleweight meeting opposite Omari Akhmedov.

What: UFC Wichita

Where: Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan.

When: Saturday, March 9. The seven-fight ESPN+ preliminary card begins at 5 p.m. ET, and the event continues on ESPN+ with a six-fight main card beginning at 8 p.m. ET.

Junior dos Santos vs. Derrick Lewis

At first glance, there are shades of Derrick Lewis’s ill-fated June 2017 meeting with Mark Hunt here.

Lewis has the raw power advantage over Junior dos Santos, but the technical aspect of his standup is lacking, which should come as no surprise given Lewis’s self-described “swangin’ and bangin’” style. That weakness was evident in the Hunt fight, where Lewis was picked apart by body shots and leg kicks. You can expect “Cigano” to employ a similar strategy.

Dos Santos isn’t blessed with the one-shot KO power that Hunt or Lewis have, nor does he have Hunt’s iron chin. What he does have is the size to match up with the rangy Lewis and with that equal, dos Santos’s sharp boxing gives him the edge in a five-round fight.

It’s impossible to count Lewis out and I can see this playing out similarly to his recent fight with Alexander Volkov, where Volkov dominated for almost a full 15 minutes before Lewis pulled off a miraculous comeback. Dos Santos will have to stay consistent and in control for an extra 10 if he’s to avoid the same fate.

Pick: Dos Santos

Elizeu Zaleski vs. Curtis Millender

Two great strikers, two differing styles.

Appropriately nicknamed “Capoeira”, Elizeu Zaleski uses slick side-to-side movement to mesmerize his opponents before launching into his offense. Curtis Millender also has a patient approach, though he’s more inclined to make efficient use of feints and his wicked jab as a set-up for more dynamic attacks. It will be fascinating to see who blinks first as these two size each other up.

Zaleski has an exciting arsenal of kicks, but then again so does Millender. Keep your eye out for spinning techniques and flying knees once the action gets going.

I’m leaning slightly towards Millender, if only because I feel he’ll have a better chance of winning on the scorecards should this prove to be a methodical affair, and I also see him being able to take advantage of an over-aggressive Zaleski in the later rounds.

Pick: Millender

Tim Means vs. Niko Price

Did someone order a slugfest?

If you’re looking for a fun fight on a random fight night card, you can’t do much better than Tim Means vs. Niko Price. Means lives to come forward and hunt for finishes and Price is willing to take a lot of punishment if it means opening up unorthodox angles for him to exploit. It’s a potentially dangerous game for both men.

I’m favoring the experience of Means in this one and also assuming that his particular form of aggression will win out. Price has been vulnerable to pressure in the past and even though he’s a strong fighter with a good chin, that can only take you so far if you’re not able to mount a strategic defense.

One aspect of the fight to look out for is Price possibly choosing to take Means down and look for ground-and-pound rather than stand and bang with “The Dirty Bird”. Means has deficiencies on the ground and should the fight go there he’ll likely be focused on scrambling to get it back to the feet.

Unless Price shows a dramatic change in game plan to his previous fights, he’s probably planning to go for a Fight of the Night award and while he could very well find himself with an extra 50 Gs after the show, it will be in a losing effort.

Pick: Means

Blagoy Ivanov vs. Ben Rothwell

It’s difficult to say what state Ben Rothwell will be in competing for the first time in over 1,000 days. But he’s always been a reliable finisher and I expect him to get the job done against Blagoy Ivanov.

That’s not meant to slight Ivanov, a hard-headed Bulgarian who showed some grit going five rounds against dos Santos. He’s just going to be at a major size disadvantage against “Big Ben” and he doesn’t have the skill set to overcome that gap. Ivanov is fundamentally sound on the feet and on the ground, which will at least give Rothwell pause.

Once Rothwell finds his sea legs again, it will be trouble for Ivanov. He can be canny and unpredictable, which is not what a fighter like Ivanov wants to see. Look for Rothwell to use his long legs to push Ivanov back and prevent him from closing the distance where he’d be most effective.

The second round is where Rothwell will go for the kill, tying Ivanov up and setting up a fight-ending submission.

Pick: Rothwell

Beneil Dariush vs. Drew Dober

Beneil Dariush is a well-rounded fighter with some pop in the standup, but he went back to his jiu-jitsu roots in his last fight against Thiago Moises and that could be the key to neutralizing Drew Dober.

On the ground, Dariush will have the advantage so long as he can keep Dober down. He knows how to do damage from top position and if he’s feeling froggy, might even risk sacrificing position to hunt for a submission. This is Dober’s toughest fight yet.

Dober is extremely strong and has the wrestling defense to avoid being smothered by Dariush. He’s also an accomplished Muay Thai practitioner who has shown a good sense of when to push the pace and when to lay back. If Dariush gets sloppy looking for power strikes, he’ll find Dober swarming all over him.

This is one of the tougher fights to call, but Dober’s upward trend has been encouraging and in a battle of pace he can out-last Dariush. Dober by decision.

Pick: Dober

Tim Boetsch vs. Omari Akhmedov

At times, Omari Akhmedov seemed like he was on the cusp of being a serious contender at 170 pounds. He moved back up to middleweight for his last fight and a convincing win over Tim Boetsch will inch him closer to getting a number next to his name.

To pull that off, Akhmedov will have to avoid that right hand hammer of “The Barbarian”. Boetsch has never been the fastest nor the most technical fighter, but he’s crafty and usually finds ways to land it if his opponent doesn’t show the proper respect. Akhmedov has to be willing to get Boetsch down to the ground at the first sign of trouble.

He’s well-equipped to do that with his Sambo background, which he puts to good use with excellent timing on his trips and takedowns. Boetsch has proven to be susceptible to sustained ground assaults in the past and if Akhmedov can set the tone early with a few visits to the canvas, it will drain Boetsch quickly.

This fight is all about Akhmedov sticking to a tight game plan and avoiding the temptation to freelance and box with the more experienced Boetsch. If he can do that, the decision is his to lose.

Pick: Akhmedov


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