If you look at Saturday’s UFC Vegas 33 main event in just the right light, you could see a future No. 1 contender by the end of the evening.
Maybe that’s a stretch. Maybe I’m putting too much stock in the most consistent run of Uriah Hall’s roller-coaster career or Sean Strickland’s unexpected surge at 185 pounds. Maybe I’m trying too hard to find a fresh challenger for the UFC middleweight championship once the Israel Adesanya-Robert Whittaker rematch is in the books.
But even if you just want to take tonight’s headliner at face value, it’s a compelling matchup, featuring one of the division’s true knockout artists and an opponent who has developed a reputation for busy standup battles and an even busier mouth. Hall, the No. 10 middleweight in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings, has seen nothing but drama in his past two fights with former champions Chris Weidman and Anderson Silva, and he’s likely looking forward to a matchup that is mostly devoid of any grander narratives.
And Strickland? With another win at middleweight, he could leapfrog Hall in the rankings and continue his strange, winding journey from welterweight castoff to potential UFC title challenger.
In other main card action, strawweights Cheyanne Buys and Gloria de Paula look for their first UFC victory, Niklas Stolze fights last-minute replacement Jared Gooden in a welterweight bout, and welterweight fan favorite Bryan Barberena fights Jason Witt in Barberena’s first fight since undergoing an emergency laparotomy last November.
What: UFC Vegas 33
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
When: Saturday, July 31. The entire event airs on ESPN and ESPN+, beginning with a five-fight preliminary card at 6:30 p.m. ET, followed by a five-fight main card at 9 p.m. ET.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Uriah Hall (10) vs. Sean Strickland (13)
If you’re a Uriah Hall fan, you should like this matchup.
Hall is a counter-striker of the highest order and that’s exactly what’s necessary to defuse the active and accurate Sean Strickland. Since moving up to 185 pounds, Strickland has been relentless with his striking and he looks like a different fighter unhindered by extreme weight cutting. Strickland has made a habit of pushing a pace that most middleweights can’t keep up with.
That should be just fine for Hall, who is almost incapable of being rushed. Yes, his passivity has cost him decisions in the past and that’s a risk here, but Hall has shown in recent years that he’s found a balance between staying busy enough on the feet to win rounds while also still waiting for that perfect opening for one of his unreal finishing techniques.
Strickland’s non-stop stream of trash talk isn’t going to shake Hall either. Hall has made it a point to avoid getting into verbal brouhahas in his fights and the more Strickland talks, the more Hall is going to ignore it. He’s tougher mentally now than he’s ever been.
Strickland is a joy to watch, but I’m struggling to envision a scenario where he overwhelms Hall as he has his past three opponents. If it goes to a decision it will probably be a close one, which is why if I’m picking Hall I expect him to win by knockout.
Kyung Ho Kang vs. Rani Yahya — cancelled
As usual with Rani Yahya fights, we get to see how the Brazilian’s incredible jiu-jitsu and guile stack up against an athletically superior opponent.
Kyung Ho Kang has always brought impressive physicality to the cage that he utilizes to ragdoll his opponents to the ground and keep them there. He’s quick and rangy and were it not for his lengthy layoff, we’d be talking about him as yet another killer at 135 pounds. Look for him to come out fast against Yahya in an effort to make up for lost time before the two settle into a more methodical battle.
If I had more confidence in Kang’s standup, I’d pick him to win this one on the feet, but he’ll be inclined to take this to the ground at some point (if only to prevent Yahya from initiating his own takedowns) and it’s there that he’ll be in the danger zone. Yahya has a hundred different ways to sweep and reverse and counter down there and Kang has to have an answer for all of them or just get the hell out of there.
My brain is telling me that the younger Kang’s physical tools will be too much for Yahya, but I’ve seen Yahya work around his limitations too many times to pick against him here.
Yahya by submission.
Cheyanne Buys vs. Gloria de Paula
Despite both fighters coming off of losses, the UFC clearly sees something in Cheyanne Buys and Gloria de Paula as they’ve been given a main card spot (De Paula actually lost to Jinh Yu Frey, who competes on the preliminaries). Both seek their first UFC win after dropping decisions in their debuts.
De Paula, a muay Thai expert, should be excited at the prospect of trading shots with the similarly striking-minded Buys. The Brazilian’s grappling is a work in progress and she didn’t get much of a chance to show her strengths in her loss to Frey. Fans will be treated to plenty of exciting exchanges when Buys and de Paula engage early on.
As the fight progresses, de Paula will have to show she can keep pace with Buys as I give the edge in cardio to Buys. I do think de Paula is the sharper striker, so this is a close fight to call.
Let’s go with de Paula surprisingly winning a war of attrition and finishing in the second half of the fight.
Pick: De Paula
Niklas Stolze vs. Jared Gooden
Jared Gooden is going for it.
“Nite Train” signed on the dotted line to fight Niklas Stolze just this week as a result of Stolze’s originally scheduled opponent Mounir Lazzez being forced to withdraw due to visa issues. His first UFC fight was against veteran Alan Jouban and his second was against blue chip prospect Abubakar Nurmagomedov, so you get the sense that Gooden is making things harder on himself than they have to be. Still, he’s a talented fighter who has shown flashes of what made him one to watch on the regional scene.
This could be a track meet as both Stolze and Gooden excel at moving laterally and cutting off the cage. Gooden has power in his right hand, while Stolze is adept at biding his time and then firing off combinations. These guys have weapons and they’ll have to be respectful of what the other man is packing.
I predict a competitive fight that goes the distance, with Stolze edging out a decision.
Bryan Barberena vs. Jason Witt
Bryan Barberena is a confirmed wild man and Jason Witt has never lost by decision. This fight has a performance bonus written all over it, one that I expect to go Barberena’s way.
Witt just hasn’t done a great job of avoiding damage in the UFC, as evidenced by a pair of knockout losses to Matthew Semelsberger and Takashi Sato that clocked in at a combined 64 seconds. We know he can dish it out, but if he doesn’t start exhibiting the slightest sense of self-preservation, his UFC run could end shortly.
Unfortunately for Witt, defensive-minded or not, he’s probably not going to have much luck against Barberena. “Bam Bam” is relentless once he gets going and while he’s certainly susceptible to damage himself, his edge in high-level experience leads me to believe that he’ll get the better of a war if it comes down to it. Otherwise, I see Barberena defending Witt’s takedowns and battering him on the feet for three rounds. If it even goes that long.
Jinh Yu Frey def. Ashley Yoder