Following Conor McGregor’s return last week (you may have heard about it), the UFC’s first Fight Night of the year is a relatively low-key affair featuring two Brazilian vets looking to hold on to their spots in the rankings.
UFC Raleigh headliners Curtis Blaydes and Junior dos Santos have at least one thing in common: They’ve both recently had win streaks derailed by Francis Ngannou. While Blaydes has already rebounded from that setback by winning both of his fights in 2019, this will be dos Santos’s first fight since falling to the Cameroonian giant last summer. Since then, “Cigano” has been strutting his stuff on the Brazilian version of Dancing with the Stars, but he can waltz right back into the thick of the heavyweight title picture with a vintage performance against Blaydes.
Another former UFC champion, Rafael dos Anjos co-headlines the show opposite Michael Chiesa. Dos Anjos knows a thing or two about coming up from lightweight having fought his way to an interim welterweight title opportunity in 2018 and now he has to hold off the surging Chiesa, who is 2-0 since moving up to 170 pounds.
In other main card action, flyweights Jordan Espinosa and Alex Perez look to steal the show, Hannah Cifers faces short-notice replacement Angela Hill in a strawweight bout, and light heavyweight Jamahal Hill puts his unbeaten record on the line against Darko Stosic.
What: UFC Raleigh
Where: PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.
When: Saturday, Jan. 25. The entire event will air on ESPN+, with the seven-fight preliminaries starting at 5 p.m. ET, and the five-fight main card starting at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN+.
Junior dos Santos is such a good litmus test for up-and-coming heavyweights. Maybe too good if the UFC is hoping that Curtis Blaydes will finally make the leap from prospect to contender.
Blaydes’s striking is developing and he has as much power as any heavyweight, but it would be foolish of him to try and stand with “JDS.” Even heading into year 14 of his fighting career, dos Santos still has some of the best striking in the business and he’s shown that with recent knockouts of Derrick Lewis and Tai Tuivasa, and a five-round dismantling of Blagoy Ivanov. In a stand-up battle, dos Santos has the clear-cut advantage.
What we could see from Blaydes is a similar strategy employed by that of former champion Cain Velasquez. In his two rematches with dos Santos, Velasquez used relentless pressure and timely wrestling to dominate his rival and Blaydes should follow a similar game plan. Even if he can’t match Velasquez’s pace, Blaydes absolutely has the wrestling ability to take dos Santos down and the ground game to do some serious damage.
This should be a competitive fight that gradually shifts in Blaydes’s favor, resulting in a TKO win for “Razor” in the fourth or fifth round.
The blueprint for beating Rafael dos Anjos was set by Colby Covington and Kamaru Usman: high-volume striking, back him up against the cage, and take him down when you can. Easier said than done, of course.
Does Michael Chiesa have the skill set to replicate Covington and Usman’s success? He’ll have a size advantage, which will help. It’s a wonder that he was able to make the 155-pound limit so many times. What’s concerning is that Chiesa hasn’t shown he can use his length effectively in the striking department and it’s doubtful he’ll be able to do so against an opponent as experienced and technical as dos Anjos unless he’s made some extraordinary strides over the past six months.
More likely Chiesa will have to rely on his grappling to control dos Anjos, which isn’t out of the question. As aggressive as Chiesa can be when hunting for submissions, he’ll show “RDA” the proper respect and if he favors position over offense then it’s possible he beats him on the scorecards. But I see it going the other way, with dos Anjos lighting Chiesa up on the feet and putting his own respected BJJ skills to use en route to earning a unanimous nod.
Pick: Dos Anjos
Alex Perez has some of the fastest hands at 135 pounds, and that’s saying something. At his best, he’s firing combinations and mixing in the occasional takedown. He has a sneaky ground game too and if Jordan Espinosa wants to roll with Perez, he could find himself getting wrapped up in a choke.
Where Espinosa excels is in constant movement and using his length to throw off his opponents. If Perez can’t get a bead on Espinosa, this could be an aggravating 15 minutes for him. Espinosa is not going to stand in front of Perez and let him tee off, he’s tricky.
In the end, I favor Perez’s power and I think he’ll be able to score with more convincing strikes. But don’t be surprised if this one goes to a close split decision that leaves both men feeling like they have an argument that they won.
Hannah Cifers vs. Angela Hill
Compact and powerful, the 27-year-old Cifers is an intriguing prospect with solid striking instincts and an active submission game. She’s not particularly refined as she hasn’t been facing high-level opposition for as long as Angela Hill has. This is why Hill should have the edge.
Cifers has looked much-improved since losing in her debut to Maycee Barber, but she still comes off as somewhat stiff at times. That won’t fly against Hill, who excels at staying busy for 15 minutes. Hill taking this fight on short-notice shouldn’t be a concern either since that’s how she tends to book most of her fights these days.
Look for Hill to simply out-quick Cifers in this matchup, picking her spots and consistently beating Cifers to the punch. This will be a good learning experience for the mild-mannered Cifers.
This is an odd choice for the main card given some of the names on the prelims, but officials must be expecting fireworks from these two. It makes sense, given that Jamahal Hill and Darko Stosic are inclined to keep their fights standing.
Hill is a southpaw fighter with a developing kicking game. He’ll be wise to pepper Stosic’s body early before going for any home run swings and he’ll have to shore up his defense as well. In his Contender Series appearance last July, he had a bad tendency to leave his chin up and if he keeps that approach against Stosic, he’s going to be left staring up at the lights. If anything, Hill may want to close the distance so he can utilize his sharp knees to attack Stosic.
Stosic’s last outing was marred by an inability control his weapons as it were, and he was penalized on two separate occasions for low blows. It was a disappointing effort from Stosic, who has a reputation for being an accurate striker. Assuming that performance was a freak occurrence, Stosic should be able to size Hill up here and consistently find a home for his hard right hand. Stosic also knows his way around a takedown and he could employ a more conservative game plan to slow Hill.
Hill’s defensive deficiencies are worrying and I don’t like his chances of avoiding a Stosic KO blow for three rounds.
Bevon Lewis def. Dequan Townsend