Stop the presses: You will see Leon Edwards inside the octagon tonight.
Sure, as our own Jose Youngs always reminds us, nothing is official until both fighters are in the cage (and as we saw with Chas Skelly and Jamall Emmers recently, we do mean both fighters), but this is the closest Edwards has been to returning to competition since July 20, 2019. Even though it’s not one of the big names Edwards has been asking for nor is it even originally scheduled opponent Khamzat Chimaev, you have to imagine the would-be No. 1 welterweight contender is thrilled that Belal Muhammad has stepped up to face him in the UFC Vegas 21 main event.
While it would be nice to believe UFC President Dana White when he says Edwards is “100 percent” next to challenge Kamaru Usman with a win Saturday, “Rocky” should be content to shake off the ring rust and extend his current win streak to nine. Or who knows? Maybe he wins in dominant fashion and follows with a scintillating post-fight promo that makes it impossible to overlook him. Stranger things have happened.
With that in mind, let’s not rule out the possibility of Muhammad stealing Edwards’ thunder. “Remember the Name” has been scraping and clawing his way up the welterweight ranks and a win over Edwards would make it five straight and nine in his last 10 for Muhammad. We’re an upset away from Muhammad jumping to the front of the line for a UFC title shot.
In other main card action, light heavyweights Misha Cirkunov and Ryan Spann compete to get closer to a top-10 ranking, featherweight contender Dan Ige looks to slow the roll of a surging Gavin Tucker, Jonathan Martinez meets Davey Grant in a bantamweight bout, flyweights Manel Kape and Matheus Nicolau seek redemption, and middleweights Eryk Anders and Darren Stewart look to get back in the win column.
What: UFC Vegas 21
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
This should be a nice opportunity for Belal Muhammad to show that he deserves to be fighting top-10 competition. It should also be a win for Leon Edwards.
Edwards is better than Muhammad in every phase of the game, whether we’re talking striking, wrestling, or the oft-overlooked clinch game. He’s as well-rounded as anyone at 170 pounds and were he a more potent finisher he’d have earned a title shot a long time ago. As it is, he’s the guy nobody at welterweight has wanted to fight and for good reason.
Nobody, that is, except for Muhammad. When it was announced that Muhammad would be fighting for the second in a month, it came as little surprise given the opportunity in front of him. One more win and the top-5 spot he’s coveted for so long is his. He doesn’t have one elite skill, but he has cardio for days and that’s an area that could be a major problem for Edwards.
Keep in mind, it’s been almost 20 months since Edwards’ last fight and it’s not as if he’s been able to train optimally during all that time. He had a bout with COVID-19 late last year and we have no way of knowing if will have any lingering effects on his breathing and lung capacity. This isn’t making excuses for Edwards, it’s just something to look out for in a fight that seems destined to go the full five rounds.
I favor Edwards’ overall skill set, and even if he’s not at 100 percent this time around, he has the skills to work through an off-night and get past Muhammad.
Speaking of fighters coming off of long layoffs, Misha Cirkunov competes for the first time since September 2019. The hulking Latvian-Canadian picked up a highlight-reel Peruvian necktie submission win against Jimmy Crute that likely saved his UFC career, then missed all of 2020. He now faces Ryan Spann, another highly touted light heavyweight contender who seeks to wash out the bitter taste of his first UFC loss.
The old adage of “be first” will decide this one. Cirkunov is the superior grappler and a submission will come quickly if he can take Spann down in round one. On the flipside, Spann has the superior hand speed, and if he tags Cirkunov early, he should be able to follow up and put Cirkunov away.
Spann’s quickness has me leaning his direction for this pick. Watch for Spann to keep his distance to make it difficult for Cirkunov to set up his takedowns, then use smart counters to score a first-round knockout.
This could be the most fascinating and frenetic fight on the card. Dan Ige will want to get in-and-out with Tucker and hunt for opportunities to put Gavin Tucker on his back, while Tucker will also be looking for openings to score takedowns and power punches. Ige has faced much stronger competition, but the late-blooming Tucker could be peaking at just the right time.
I’m a believer that Tucker’s three-fight surge is real. So if he sets the tone in this fight with Ige, it won’t be due to any shortcomings on Ige’s part; rather, Tucker has a pressuring style that’s needed to keep Ige from implementing his best tools. If Ige can turn this into a pure grappling battle though, I give him the nod in that department.
Tucker also has to show that he can maintain a high pace through three rounds, something that hasn’t been an issue for Ige. It’s imperative that Tucker gets up early on the scorecards lest he find himself in survival mode once Ige ramps up the offense in the final round.
I have Tucker edging out a close contest.
Jonathan Martinez’s confidence is through the roof right now, and if he has his weight issues under control, he’s going to be a problem at 135 pounds for long time. He was an absolute sniper in his win over Thomas Almeida, one of the division’s best strikers.
Davey Grant is the right test for the 26-year-old at this stage of his career. The experienced Englishman is a grappling specialist, which Martinez hasn’t had to deal with in the UFC. He can take a hit too and he’s going to put pressure on Martinez as he looks to get his submission game going.
Unless Grant can vary his approach on the feet though, he’ll be a sitting duck for Martinez’s timely striking. Martinez is rapidly improving and as long as he and his team put an increased emphasis on takedown defense for this fight, he should avoid too many hairy situations on the ground. Once he gets going, he could become the first fighter to hand Grant a knockout loss.
Manel Kape’s UFC debut was a bit of letdown given the hype that he had coming off of a successful run with RIZIN, but he gets a second chance to make a first impression here. The same could be said of Matheus Nicolau who’s getting a second shot of his own after being part of the UFC’s flyweight cut in 2018 despite a strong octagon resume.
I like Nicolau’s submission skills a lot and he’s not shy to throw leather on the feet either. He’ll probably want to stick to his grappling against Kape though. Where Nicolau will run into trouble is when his defense is put to the test as Kape has shown that he’s both a power-striker and a patient one at that. He’s not going to rush in and let Nicolau get an easy takedown. Kape also has the athleticism and agility to slip free if Nicolau latches onto him.
With respect to Nicolau, who I expect to be a factor in the flyweight division going forward, I see him struggling to get a bead on Kape and by the time he does he’ll find that Kape is one step ahead of him on the feet.
Kape by knockout.
I don’t know how much longer I can wait for Eryk Anders to happen.
What I mean by that is the former college football standout has shown plenty of potential since debuting with the UFC in 2017, but for one reason or another his impressive physical gifts haven’t translated into in-cage consistency. Officials have put a lot of faith in him, as evidenced by him frequently being featured on main cards including two headlining opportunities, and the results have been mixed.
This is one situation where I think Darren Stewart’s steadiness will be the key to victory. He’s not the most exciting middleweight, but his effectiveness striking from distance and his defense will serve him well against the explosive Anders. I expect Anders to show his usual flashes of offense, which won’t be enough to seriously threaten Stewart unless Anders shifts into an extra gear. As it is, Stewart should be able to weather the storm and pull out a decision.