The road to flyweight stability has been a rockier one than anyone could have expected.
When it became clear last year that Henry Cejudo was more interested in chasing a second title than defending the 125-pound belt, the next step was clear: Match up top contenders Deiveson Figueiredo and Joseph Benavidez for the title and move on.
If only it were that simple. Ahead of their first crack at the vacant title in February, Figueiredo missed weight, meaning only Benavidez was eligible to win it. Then Figueiredo beat Benavidez, meaning the title would remain vacant, and to further muddy up matters, there was evidence that an accidental headbutt contributed to Figueiredo finishing Benavidez.
No problem, just book the rematch, right? Done and done, UFC Fight Island 2 here we come. Except it was revealed the weekend before Saturday’s bout that Figueiredo had tested positive for COVID-19. We know now that he tested positive for antibodies and not the active virus, but there was still the matter of flying to Abu Dhabi, getting more tests, and somehow making weight through all that.
The good news is that Figueiredo made weight, as did Benavidez, so we have ourselves a title fight – and at last a new champion come Sunday morning. Unless of course, someone lands a cup-shattering kick at some point, and then we start this whole cycle over again.
In other main card action: middleweight contenders Jack Hermansson and Kelvin Gastelum look to get back in the win column; Marc Diakiese takes on lightweight prospect Rafael Fiziev; former Konfrontacja Sztuk Walki flyweight champion Ariane Lipski fights Luana Carolina; and Alexandre Pantoja defends his spot in the flyweight rankings against unbeaten Askar Askarov.
What: UFC Fight Island 2
Where: Yas Island in Abu Dhabi
When: Saturday, July 18. 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.
The second meeting between Deiveson Figueiredo and Joseph Benavidez shouldn’t look all that different from the first as far as their approach. Figueiredo proved in the first fight that he’s a finisher without parallel at 125 pounds, while Benavidez played his part of crafty and resilient vet to a tee.
Conventional wisdom states that the longer the fight goes, it should benefit Benavidez if only because of how gifted he is at adapting to his opponents. Until that fateful collision of skulls, Benavidez looked to be finding his rhythm against Figueiredo. He had the greatest respect for Figueiredo’s power and made sure to stick and move rather than brawl. Keeping Figueiredo off of him will be paramount to his success.
On the other hand, Benavidez has always had exceptional punching power for his size, which is why he’d probably be willing to bang it out if the fight goes in that direction. That’s exactly what Figueiredo would want, though, because he’ll be hunting for nothing less than a finish, especially if he can become the first fighter to submit Benavidez.
If you expect the rematch to end before the final bell, then Figueiredo is the smart choice. But I’m leaning toward a decision this time around, and in that scenario, I see Benavidez finally wrapping UFC gold around his waist.
On paper, Jack Hermansson is a nightmarish matchup for Kelvin Gastelum, isn’t he? The rangy Swede is going to keep Gastelum at bay with that sharp jab, and he’s a strong enough grappler to counter Gastelum’s wrestling. If all goes well for Hermansson, he could become just the second fighter to finish Gastelum.
But here comes the classic “A.K. Swerve,” where I finish explaining why one fighter will win only to pick their opponent for no discernible reason.
In this case, it’s not difficult to explain how Gastelum can get the nod here. Yes, he’s at a perpetual size disadvantage, but his endless gas tank keeps him in every fight, and he has a way of drawing his opponents into straightforward striking battles. It’s a formula that hasn’t paid dividends for him in his past two outings, but there’s no shame in falling short in the standup against Israel Adesanya and Darren Till. In both those fights, Gastelum was one or two moments away from changing the narrative.
In a five-round fight, I’d favor Gastelum even more. As it is, I still like him to pressure Hermansson early and stay in his face for 15 minutes en route to a decision and a possible “Fight of the Night” award for both men.
The most dangerous addition to Marc Diakiese’s game in the past two years might be patience. A fundamentally solid striker to begin with, Diakiese has learned a lot in his seven UFC fights thus far and appears to have turned a corner as far as consistently putting together winning three-round performances.
In Fiziev, Diakiese faces an aggressive prospect with fast hands. As soon as Fiziev gets in range he’s going to throw haymakers, and Diakiese will have to show that his defensive improvements are legitimate. The opening for a counter will be there for Diakiese if he can figure Fiziev out. Until he does, though, the threat of a Fiziev knockout blow looms.
The best strategy for Diakiese will be to slow Fiziev with leg kicks and mix in takedown attempts to throw Fiziev off of his game. Fiziev is one to watch at 155 pounds, he’s just not well-rounded enough yet to outpoint Diakiese.
There’s a lot to like about the relatively raw Luana Carolina. The 27-year-old doesn’t always look the most coordinated, but she’s got a good motor and a creative mind when it comes to experimenting with techniques in the middle of a fight. She’s a good pairing for Lipski, herself an active fighter on the feet.
In her most recent outing, “The Violence Queen” finally flashed the hands that earned her that moniker, and she’ll have ample opportunity to do so against Carolina as well. Lipski can get a little wild, but she’s still far more experienced against quality competition than Carolina, and that’s going to pay off here. These two are going to tee off, and when the dust clears, it’s Lipski who will emerge victorious.
Up until Friday morning, Alexandre Pantoja thought there was a chance he’d be fighting for the flyweight title should Figueiredo or Benavidez fail to make weight. Now he has to mentally shift gears back to Askar Askarov, a dangerous prospect who can match Pantoja’s finishing ability.
Pantoja is the definition of explosive. There’s no wasted motion when he’s feeling out his opponents, which can lead to some moments of inactivity, but also excitement once he uncoils his hands. He has a killer instinct that can’t be taught.
Askarov hasn’t been able to find his finishing touch in the UFC so far, but you get the sense that he’s a highlight waiting to happen. His fast hands robbed Tim Elliott of his senses in his previous fight, and were it not for Elliott’s toughness, Askarov likely would have put him away. Askarov is also incredibly strong, and if he chooses to turn this into a wrestling contest, that could be a major problem for Pantoja.
This will be a back-and-forth battle that could go either way, but I’m leaning toward Pantoja to be slightly better on the feet and get the job done.