This Saturday’s UFC Vegas 38 card is sneaky good.
To fully appreciate this lineup, you’re going to want to put aside any talk of title shots and rankings and all that boring stuff. No, the light heavyweight main event between Thiago Santos and Johnny Walker is just a fun matchup with a smattering of stakes on the side.
For Santos, he wants to avoid a four-fight losing streak that could permanently knock him out of the light heavyweight contenders’ circle and also prompt a move back to 185 pounds if that wasn’t in the cards already. Even though he’s only faltered against elite competition, four straight losses is still four straight losses.
For Walker, he’s only begun to rebuild the hype that he generated a few years back when it looked like he would storm his way to a title shot. The time is now for him to prove whether he is serious about being the best or is satisfied simply being a fun fighter to toss out when the UFC matchmakers want to guarantee action.
In other main card action, Alex Oliveira and Niko Price meet in a battle of wild welterweights, Misha Cirkunov drops down to 185 pounds to fight Krzysztof Jotko, and Alexander Hernandez takes on short-notice newcomer Mike Breeden.
What: UFC Vegas 38
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Thiago Santos (8) vs. Johnny Walker
The clock is ticking on Thiago Santos, a 37-year-old kickboxer who has been through some major wars. But it’s not quite time yet to count him out.
As dangerous as Johnny Walker is at all times, the real question in this matchup is whether he’s the better striker. Walker is a great athlete with speed and reach for days, he just has to put it all together. He’s shown flashes, but hasn’t proven that he can conduct a complete 15-minute performance. It’s finish or bust for Walker.
“Marretta” won’t have an easy time dealing with Walker’s physical gifts, but he’s used to giving up size at 205 pounds. Patience is a virtue and Santos has that in spades, which has allowed him to beat some of the best light heavyweights, including current UFC champion Jan Blachowicz. I believe he has a better chance of forcing Walker to play his game than the other way around.
If you’re picking Walker to get a finish in the first or second round, I don’t blame you, but if you think this one is more likely to go the distance then the pick has to be Santos.
Kevin Holland (11) vs. Kyle Daukaus
I’m still a believer in Kevin Holland.
Alright, I get that if there was ever a time to hop off the Holland bandwagon, it would be after watching him suffer back-to-back losses to grapplers that exposed the biggest hole in his game and then getting matched up with another grappling specialist. On paper, this is bad times for Holland and a major opportunity for Kyle Daukaus to leapfrog a few notable names in the middleweight division.
One factor I can’t ignore is how careless Holland was taking the Marvin Vettori fight just three weeks after being wrestled into oblivion by Derek Brunson. He said all the right things about shoring up his takedown defense and then does that? There’s no way he had time to make any substantial improvements.
Fighting Daukaus with a full camp though, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt one more time. A guy with Holland’s talent, if he puts his mind to working on his wrestling, I truly believe he can stifle Daukaus early and keep it where it needs to be on the feet. So I’m going Holland by first-round knockout.
If he drops another uninspiring decision, I swear this is the last time I’ll pick Holland to beat a wrestler. At least until the next time I do.
Alex Oliveira vs. Niko Price
Listen, I could pretend that I know what’s going to happen in a fight between Alex Oliveira and Niko Price, or I could direct you to this story about Oliveira counseling Price on how to avoid ending up with 11 kids. You should definitely read that first before proceeding with the rest of these predictions.
Picking a Price fight is a fool’s errand. He’s so eager to toss caution to the wind that you could talk me into him knocking out Kamar Usman on the right day, that’s how highly I think of Price’s upside. Add in Oliveira, no stranger to wild fights himself, and you have a delightful recipe for chaos.
Call it a coin flip, but I’m going with Price as I like his potential for the knockout. Oliveira, as sharp as his muay Thai skills are, isn’t always the best at fighting strategically. If Price tags him, his first instinct won’t be to reset, but to keep coming forward. Such is the “Cowboy” way.
Your guess—and yes, it’s a guess—is as good as mine, if not better, but I’ll go Price by knockout.
Misha Cirkunov vs. Krzysztof Jotko
You might disagree if you’re a fan of Misha Cirkunov, but I actually like this matchmaking.
Though Cirkunov had his moments at light heavyweight, if he can consistently make the middleweight limit comfortably then I see no reason why this move can’t yield instant results. Krzysztof Jotko is no push-over though. He’s about as tough a first test as they could reasonably give Cirkunov in his new weight class.
Still, Cirkunov has a lot to gain here and I think he gets it done. The smaller APEX octagon will help him to close the distance and as rangy as Jotko is, he’s not evasive enough to avoid Cirkunov’s grappling forever. Cirkunov’s submission game is good enough for him to make a run at 185 pounds and that run starts on Saturday.
Alexander Hernandez vs. Mike Breeden
This should be one-way traffic for Alexander Hernandez, with respect to Mike Breeden, who is stepping in as a replacement opponent on less than a week’s notice.
Breeden is just so upright when he fights, which will leave him vulnerable to Hernandez’s wrestling if he decides to go that route or open to Hernandez’s power shots. The speed of Hernandez can’t be discounted here and you can expect him to push the pace early.
Where Breeden could surprise Hernandez is with his counter-striking. At times, Breeden looks like he’s hardly moving, then he explodes with a combination or a flying strike. If he relies on his boxing too heavily at times, it’s for good reason. His hands are sharp and once he finds the range, he’s not afraid to let them fly.
Hernandez’s big show experience is the key factor here. As long as he fights smart, this is his fight to lose.
Hernandez by knockout.