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The mission for Curtis Blaydes at UFC Vegas 19 should be simple: win and you’re in the next heavyweight championship bout.

Then again, that’s exactly what I wrote eight months ago when I thought Blaydes’ fight with Alexander Volkov would put him in line for a title shot. Blaydes took care of business, but all it got him was a long wait for his next fight and a date with Derrick Lewis, one of the most dangerous opponents in the division. Thanks for showing up, Curtis!

It seems odd to say, but this feels like a no-lose situation for Lewis. Yes, he’d hate to see his three-fight win streak snapped, but he’s also the least stressed human being on the planet and popular enough that he’s never more than one big knockout away from the top-5 of the heavyweight rankings. He doesn’t need this win as much as Blaydes does.

Either way, both men have to wait to see what happens between Stipe Miocic and Francis Ngannou when they rematch one another next month and then any potential title opportunity after that depends on whether the UFC can work out a deal with Jon Jones to challenge for the belt or not. Just try to have fun on Saturday night, fellas.

Bantamweights Ketlen Vieira and Yana Kunitskaya find themselves in a similar position, seemingly working towards a title shot that may never come depending on what two-division champion Amanda Nunes decides to do with the rest of her year. “The Lioness” defends her featherweight belt at UFC 259, but after that it’s unclear whether she’ll book a bantamweight title defense next or even possibly retire. All Vieira and Kunitskaya can do is keep themselves in the conversation.

In other main card action, featherweights Charles Rosa and Darrick Minner look to build win streaks, heavyweight veteran Aleksei Oleinik fights Chris Daukaus, Phil Hawes meets Nassourdine Imavov in a clash of fast-rising middleweights, and former heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski makes his 34th walk to the octagon when he takes on Tom Aspinall.

What: UFC Vegas 19

Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas

When: Saturday, Feb. 20. The eight-fight preliminary card begins at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN+, with the six-fight main card starting at 8 p.m. ET also on ESPN+.


Curtis Blaydes vs. Derrick Lewis

As long as Curtis Blaydes sticks with his plan to wrestle all day and all night, he should be fine.

Derrick Lewis isn’t the fish out of water on the ground that conventional wisdom seems to think he is. While he’s certainly had issues with wrestlers, Daniel Cormier is really the only fighter that’s been able to put Lewis down and secure a win there. “The Black Beast” might not have the most conventional takedown defense, but somehow he finds ways to survive on the ground and, more often than not, turn the tables on his grappling-minded opponents.

Fortunately for Blaydes, he’s shown he’s more than just a one-dimensional wrestler. Everything he does should start with the threat of a takedown, but he has shown constant improvement as a striker and has fast hands that Lewis can’t just shrug off. Mixing takedown attempts with cage control and the occasional striking flurry should keep Blaydes ahead on the scorecards. He’ll be wise not to stand and bang with the master of swangin’ and bangin’, of course.

You have to stay on Lewis for five full rounds as he’s more than capable of a comeback win. I expect Blaydes to outwork Lewis en route to a convincing, if not necessarily dominant decision victory.

Pick: Blaydes

Ketlen Vieira vs. Yana Kunitskaya

I’m liking a lot of the improvements I’ve seen in Ketlen Vieira, who hasn’t rested on her laurels when it comes to rounding out her game. Even though she can just rely on her elite grappling to carry her to wins, she’s absolutely shown she can get the better of striking exchanges against decent opponents.

What happens when she runs into a fighter known for their standup game though? That’s the challenge she’s facing Saturday. With respect to previous Vieira opponents Sijara Eubanks, Cat Zingano, and Sara McMann, they’re all better known for their ground skills than their striking, so I don’t know if Vieira was truly tested on the feet in those matchups. Kunitskaya is closer in style to Irene Aldana—the only woman to defeat Vieira so far—than those three fighters.

It would be best for Vieira to stick to her roots here and force the issue on the mat, even if it means initiating some grueling grappling against the cage that won’t do much for fans hoping for action after sitting through a dozen fights. But style points don’t count with the judges and while Vieira would surely love to score a statement win here, scoring a win of any kind has to be her first priority.

Vieira by submission. Shame she missed weight though.

Pick: Vieira

Charles Rosa vs. Darrick Minner

Darrick Minner early, Charles Rosa late is the story heading into this one, but don’t underestimate Rosa’s ability to finish.

Rosa is a killer on the ground. The issue for him has been consistently getting fights to the mat at the UFC level. That shouldn’t be as much of an issue against Minner, who has a ton of experience with 36 pro bouts under his belt, but has been inconsistent when it comes to solving other fighters’ submission attacks. He’s dangerous himself especially when it comes to chokes, so this could be the grappling equivalent of a brawl with the winner being the man who is quicker to the proverbial punch.

I’m torn here. On the one hand, Rosa is the older fighter, but he’s considerably younger in fight years than Minner and so far is less prone to making mistakes. That might be what this comes down to, not necessarily who’s more aggressive, but who can push the pace without leaving their neck out. I see Rosa’s creativity and athleticism giving him the edge here, and he’ll surprise people by finding a submission in round one or early in round two.

Pick: Rosa

Aleksei Oleinik vs. Chris Daukaus

Chris Daukaus is never going to have a size advantage at heavyweight. That said, he’s fast and deceptively strong. His first two UFC opponents both seemed to overlook his capabilities and paid for it by being felled in the first round by strikes.

You know who else is deceptively strong? Aleksei Oleinik. Actually, at this point, people should know he’s pretty freaking strong, but being the UFC’s oldest active heavyweight leads to you being overlooked from time to time. Folks just don’t respect the dad strength.

Daukaus won’t overlook Oleinik, but I’m still not sure what he plans to do once Oleinik drags him to the ground. Top, bottom, 50/50, Oleinik can operate from any position and he has an encyclopedia of submissions to throw at Daukaus. It’s not as if Daukaus is some defensive wizard either. All of his losses have come by way of knockout or submission.

Oleinik has finished 17 of his last 18 victories, so you get the sense something has to give here and I’m leaning toward Daukaus getting caught after a promising start. He needs another first-round finish and I can’t see that happening before Oleinik finds a way to work his submission sorcery and conjure up win No. 60.

Pick: Oleinik

Phil Hawes vs. Nassourdine Imavov

When you have a fighter with the talent and physical gifts of Phil Hawes and combine that with confidence and maturity, you have yourself one heck of a middleweight prospect. Credit to the matchmakers here, because Nassourdine Imavov is the right kind of test for Hawes in the early stages of his UFC career.

There aren’t too many fighters who have started their careers like Hawes. This will be just his 12th fight in seven years as a pro, but he’s competed almost exclusively for upper tier North American and international promotions. He’s also trained with some of the most well-recognized camps in the game, including Sanford MMA and Jackson’s MMA (now the Jackson Wink MMA Academy). He appeared to turn a corner in 2019 and hasn’t looked back since, finishing his past five opponents in the first round.

Imavov has the skills to avoid a similar fate. He’s a good counter-puncher who can take fights to the ground if it calls for it, plus he moves well in the cage. However, there are some defensive deficiencies that are cause for concern, particularly when dealing with a power puncher like Hawes.

The right hand of Hawes has emerged as a fearsome weapon and I don’t expect Imavov to be able to avoid it for three rounds. I don’t expect him to be able to avoid in the first five minutes, actually.

Hawes by knockout.

Pick: Hawes

Andrei Arlovski vs. Tom Aspinall

You have no idea how tempted I am to pick Andrei Arlovski here. Though the former heavyweight champion has been labeled as a veteran gatekeeper at this point, he’s rarely been dominated. In fact, the only prospects to completely blow him out of the water in the past four years are Jairzinho Rozenstruik and Francis Ngannou, two fighters who are now at the top of the division.

Is that status in Tom Aspinall’s future? It certainly could be. The 27-year-old Englishman has displayed all the attributes you want to see in a top shelf heavyweight prospect: Speed, poise, and serious knockout power. Again, on paper this is a showcase fight for Aspinall.

That said, Arlovski is a massive step up from Aspinall’s previous opponents. There’s simply no substitute for experience, and Arlovski has that in spades at the highest level of the sport. Compare Arlovski to Aspinall’s first two UFC conquests, Alan Baudot and Jake Collier, and you can understand why this matchup has major upset potential.

I can’t in good conscience pick Arlovski to win, but I can predict that he’ll put on a better showing than people expect and give Aspinall a lot to think about even as Aspinall goes on to take the decision.

Pick: Aspinall

Preliminaries

Danny Chavez def. Jared Gordon

Drakkar Klose def. Luis Pena

John Castaneda def. Eddie Wineland

Nate Landwehr def. Julian Erosa

Casey O’Neill def. Shana Dobson

Chas Skelly def. Jamall Emmers

Aiemann Zahabi def. Drako Rodriguez

Serghei Spivac def. Jared Vanderaa