An Ultimate Fighter Finale by any other name would smell just as sweet.
Okay, that might not be exactly how that old adage goes, and the finalists of The Ultimate Fighter 29 probably aren’t the main reason folks are tuning in to Saturday’s UFC event, but with the UFC hyping the #ReturnOfTUF this year it’s a little disappointing that this card isn’t being billed as a traditional finale card.
Instead, we find ourselves with UFC Vegas 35, a nondescript title that risks being lost in the shuffle of UFC APEX cards that have become the norm during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately for the UFC, the main event is anything but nondescript as we have one of the best strikers in the promotion’s history facing off with an unbeaten contender.
Edson Barboza, the No. 9-ranked featherweight in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings, fights No. 12-ranked Giga Chikadze in Saturday’s headliner and the stakes are clear: A win for Barboza pushes him closer to a UFC title shot that has eluded him for over a decade, while a win for Chikadze would make him one of the few fighters to begin a UFC run with seven consecutive victories. This has all the makings of a chess match on the feet.
In other main card action, longtime lightweight contender Kevin Lee moves up to 170 pounds to face Daniel Rodriguez, TUF 29 cast members Andre Petroski and Micheal Gillmore get a second chance to make a first impression, and middleweight Makhmud Muradov puts his 14-fight win streak on the line against Gerald Meerschaert.
What: UFC Vegas 35
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
Edson Barboza vs. Giga Chikadze
I’m breaking a longstanding rule here: I’m picking against Edson Barboza in fight that will primarily be contested in the standup.
Going with Barboza to out-strike his opponents has been one of MMA’s safer bets for years, though he had some poor luck with the judges recently before bouncing back with consecutive victories. Simply put, there are few fighters in UFC history with Barboza’s level of speed, expertise, creativity, and confidence.
So how can I pick Giga Chikadze here?
I think Chikadze has the technical skill to match Barboza blow-for-blow and I doubt that Barboza can force him to rush anything. Chikadze is as patient as they come and accurate as well. If Barboza leaves any openings, Chikadze will find them. The same is likely true the other way, which is what makes this matchup so compelling on paper.
There’s just no way to predict this fight with any confidence, though Chikadze will surprise people with how successful he’ll be in his exchanges with Barboza. He’s got great defense, so the question is whether or not he can match Barboza’s firepower.
I see this fight going the distance with the eventual winner taking a narrow decision win.
Bryan Battle vs. Gilbert Urbina
Gilbert Urbina should look for a fast start here because if he lets the rangier Bryan Battle get into a rhythm, Battle will cruise to a decision.
All eyes will be on Battle to deliver a strong performance here as Urbina is essentially playing with house money after replacing original finalist Tresean Gore. Battle has come up the hard way, toiling away in the amateurs before turning pro in 2019, and eventually putting together a streak of four straight wins by finish. He has long limbs that are ideal for setting up chokes.
Urbina is well-rounded, but may favor his grappling in this matchup so as not to be caught in a brawl with Battle. He’s hittable, so a prolonged standup war would go Battle’s way.
I actually like Battle’s chances of hurting Urbina on the feet and finishing with a submission or ground-and-pound on the mat.
Ricky Turcios vs. Brady Hiestand
Of the two TUF finals, this is the one with greater upset potential.
Ricky Turcios looked like a 135-pound version of Diego Sanchez during his time in the TUF house, making it understandable that he’s garnered plenty of fans who expect him to win the show. He has fast hands, great cardio, and he can wrestle, a good formula for any fighter wanting to make an impact in the increasingly crowded bantamweight division.
The younger Hiestand is still very much an unknown property at this stage of his career, so I’m going out on a limb here with this pick. He has an excellent wrestling base and should lean on that with a UFC contract on the line. By that I mean Plan A, B, and C for Hiestand should be to take Turcios down and wear him down.
It won’t be pretty, but I like Hiestand to win a decision.
Kevin Lee vs. Daniel Rodriguez
Say what you want about Kevin Lee, he never takes the easy fight. For his second UFC appearance at 170 pounds, he was originally paired up with Sean Brady, a fighter many have pegged as a future champion. Though that booking fell through (twice), Lee is hardly taking a step back with Daniel Rodriguez.
If we’re being objective, Rodriguez’s resume (boosted by wins over Tim Means and Mike Perry) stacks up nicely next to Brady’s, which means there’s still a decent risk-reward return here for Lee. But beating Rodriguez is going to be a tall order given his striking ability, size, and takedown defense.
I just can’t picture Lee dominating Rodriguez with his wrestling, though he is the strongest wrestler that Rodriguez has faced in the UFC thus far. We’ll know early on what kind of fight this will be and how much of an advantage Lee’s grappling gives him. With 15 less pounds to cut, don’t expect Lee to suffer from any of the cardio issues that occasionally tripped him up at lightweight.
I like the idea of Lee making a permanent move to welterweight, but Rodriguez is a stiff welcoming test. Rodriguez by decision.
Andre Petroski vs. Micheal Gillmore
It could be one and done for Micheal Gillmore.
The UFC hopeful made a great first impression with UFC President Dana White during his appearance on TUF 29, telling his prospective boss that he had quit his job just so he could be available to be an alternate should any of the middleweights on the show bow out of the competition for whatever reason. Sure enough, Miles Hunsinger suffered a knee injury in training that rendered him unable to fight and Gillmore got his shot in the tournament. He was defeated swiftly by Gilbert Urbina, but his willingness to lay it all on the line earned him another call from the matchmakers.
He’s in tough against Andre Petroski, coach Brian Ortega’s top middleweight pick on the show. Petroski is a strong wrestler with a nose for the finish and grappling defense just so happens to be one of Gillmore’s glaring weaknesses. Expect Petroski to put Gillmore on his back early and either find a finish or go on to win a dominant decision.
Makhmud Muradov vs. Gerald Meerschaert
Makhmud Muradov has dealt well with pressure in his 3-0 start in the UFC and I don’t think Gerald Meerschaert will be the one to break that streak. As tough and as single-minded as Meerschaert is when it comes to staying on the offensive, Muradov specializes in making aggressive opponents pay the price for getting too close.
The speed advantage goes to Muradov, which is why Meerschaert will struggle to get this to the ground where he needs it to be if he wants to have a chance of pulling off this upset. Muradov won’t give Meerschaert a proper angle with which to shoot in and eventually Meerschaert will waste a lot of energy going for takedowns or have to pull guard in desperation. Either way, it’s unlikely that Muradov falls for those tricks.
Muradov will frustrate Meerschaert while using the first five minutes to find his range before finishing early in Round 2.