We could have two new No. 1 contenders after this Saturday and yet it doesn’t feel that way, does it?
Perhaps it’s because we’re hitting the end of a seven-week stretch of UFC events, but the UFC Vegas 27 main event between top bantamweight contender Rob Font and former UFC champion Cody Garbrandt hasn’t exactly had the MMA world buzzing. That’s not even mentioning the co-main event between Yan Xiaonan and Carla Esparza, the winner of which has to be considered the rightful next challenger for strawweight champion Rose Namajunas.
Font and Garbrandt have a longer line to jump given the depth of the bantamweight division, with a rematch between champion Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan looming whenever Sterling returns from injury and the winner of a postponed meeting between Cory Sandhagen and T.J. Dillashaw potentially calling next. But it’s not out of the question that an explosive effort from either Font or Garbrandt puts them at the front of the conversation.
Yan and Esparza presumably just have to win and they’re in. China’s Yan could follow in the footsteps of her countrywoman Zhang Weili, riding a lengthy unbeaten streak into a UFC title opportunity, while Esparza is grinding her way to a chance to reclaim the title from Namajunas, the woman she beat to become the UFC’s inaugural 115-pound champion over six years ago.
Nothing is guaranteed in MMA, but don’t be surprised if by year’s end we look at this seemingly overlooked card as one that was integral to the title pictures of two UFC division.
In other main card action, heavyweights Justin Tafa and Jared Vanderaa get their chance to shine, Felicia Spencer and Norma Dumont meet in featherweight action, Ricardo Ramos looks to right the ship at 145 pounds when he faces Bill Algeo, and middleweight contender Jack Hermansson welcomes blue chip prospect Edmen Shahbazyan back to the octagon.
What: UFC Vegas 27
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
When: Saturday, May 22. The event begins with a seven-fight preliminary card on ESPN+ at 4 p.m. ET, followed by a six-fight main card at 7 p.m. ET also on ESPN+.
Rob Font vs. Cody Garbrandt
On his best day, Cody Garbrandt can beat anyone in the bantamweight division. Being the eternal optimist, I’m expecting the best from “No Love” and that means he’s my pick here.
That means the Garbrandt that outmaneuvered the great Dominick Cruz once upon a time, showing both his natural speed and agility as well as an underrated tactical approach. It means being the Garbrandt that patiently set up the kill shot that leveled Raphael Assuncao. It means not being the Garbrandt that insists on trying to slug his way to victory and ends up being floored for it.
And all of that assumes that the best version of Rob Font doesn’t get the job done anyway. Font has long been a respected name in the crowded featherweight division, but his recent results suggest he’s ready to break away from the pack. Finishing a former title challenger in Marlon Moraes inside of a round is nothing to sneeze at. The book on Font was that he regularly faltered against the best of the division, which hasn’t been the case in his past three fights.
In a straight boxing battle, Font all the way. He’s so fundamentally sound and smart on the feet that he’d be happy to trade punches with Garbrandt for three rounds. It’s on Garbrandt to mix things up, not just staying out of the pocket, but using his dormant wrestling game to keep Font on his toes (or off of them, as it were). He’s got the tools, he always has, so now it’s just on Garbrandt to get the job done and keep his resurgence going.
Yan Xiaonan vs. Carla Esparza
Both Yan Xiaonan and Carla Esparza are used to going to the scorecards and you get the sense someone will end up on the wrong end of a close one on Saturday.
Yan has been better at definitively winning decisions, with only her UFC 238 fight against Angela Hill standing out as one that could have gone either way. Esparza, on the other hand, has developed a reputation for being involved in controversial split nods. Her past two wins have both been split calls and she’s also been on the other side of it with all three of the decision losses in her career coming by way of split. Don’t ever bet on Esparza fights is the most important takeaway here.
It’s no secret that Yan wants to keep this one standing and Esparza wants to put Yan on her back early and often. I feel like Yan will fare better on the ground should it go there, while Esparza’s striking has always been serviceable, if unspectacular, so it’s Yan’s ability to escape and get back to the feet that will give her the slightest of edges here. There’s no telling how the judges might view the fight if Esparza racks up ground control time though or if they fall for the dreaded “late takedown steals the round” trick.
Yan by decision and I say this with little confidence.
Justin Tafa vs. Jared Vanderaa
This heavyweight main card slot should have been filled by Ben Rothwell and Chris Barnett. But I digress.
The good news for Jared Vanderaa is that he doesn’t have to worry about being stuck to the mat as he was in his recent loss to Serghei Spivac. In fact, he may want to consider taking Justin Tafa down if he wants to avoid a slugfest that could end poorly for him. Vanderaa has great reach, but he shouldn’t mess around with a heavy hitter like Tafa.
Tafa is going to see a big target when he has Vanderaa standing across from him. The former rugby league player is raw, but has a knack for stringing together fun combinations. His speed is what will allow him to stop Vanderaa from establishing any sort of grappling game.
Should his takedowns be stifled, Vanderaa will just have to throw caution to the wind and that scenario favors Tafa. He’ll eventually land enough to hurt the sturdy Vanderaa before finishing with a highlight-reel knockout.
Felicia Spencer vs. Norma Dumont
Roll your eyes if you must, but I think this fight has the potential to be one of the best of the night.
True, Felicia Spencer could end this one quickly if she gets her dominant ground game going. She’s proven to be coldly efficient when she has time to work from top position and though Norma Dumont considers herself to be a strong grappler, Spencer is a notch above.
Dumont showed her potential in her win over Ashlee Evans-Smith (even though Dumont failed to make the bantamweight limit). She has good striking, she’s tough, and knows how to manage her gas tank. Those might sound like unspectacular attributes, but at 145 pounds, they make her a contender and a reasonably difficult opponent for Spencer.
I predict we’ll see some fun back-and-forth striking through the first half of the fight before Spencer figures out Dumont’s timing and finds an opening for takedowns. Then Spencer snags a submission or ground-and-pound finish late in the second or sometime in the third.
Ricardo Ramos vs. Bill Algeo
Love this matchup getting bumped up to the main card.
Physically, there are a lot of similarities between Ricardo Ramos and Bill Algeo. They’re both long and rangy fighters who move with fluidity and who like to keep their hands down, occasionally to their detriment. They also have serious ground games. I give the edge to Ramos on the ground, but all it will take is one mistake for either man to snag a submission.
More likely, their shared grappling acumen will lead to a stalemate in that department, turning this into a kickboxing match. Ramos strikes me as having more potential there, but he also has defensive deficiencies that are cause for concern. Give me the more steady approach of Algeo, as boring as that sounds.
Algeo wins a decision in a fight filled with fun scrambles and entertaining standup exchanges.
Jack Hermansson vs. Edmen Shahbazyan
When this matchup was first made, I hated that young Edmen Shahbazyan was being thrown right back into the flames after a telling loss to Derek Brunson. I’m viewing it in a more positive light now, almost as if the matchmakers are hoping a big win over Jack Hermansson will erase that bitter defeat and get “The Golden Boy” right back on track.
I’ll bite on the best-case scenario here. Shahbazyan looked great before running into the more experienced Brunson, showing a promising combination of speed and patience with the ability to land a knockout strike at any moment. Hopefully he’s learned a lot from the Brunson fight though because Hermansson has proven that he knows how to deal with fast starters. If Shahbazyan can’t end this fight early, will he succumb to another more battle-tested opponent?
We know Hermansson can excel in deep waters while Shahbazyan still has much to work on in that area. So this pick is somewhat of a leap of faith as I’m predicting that the 23-year-old will have matured enormously in the past eight months, benefiting from the kind of loss that molds future champions. Fingers crossed.
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Bruno Silva def. Victor Rodriguez
Joshua Culibao def. Shayilan Nuerdanbieke
David Dvorak def. Juancamilo Ronderos
Damir Hadzovic def. Yancy Medeiros - fight cancelled