The UFC’s light heavyweight division continues to move on without Jon Jones.
Saturday’s UFC Vegas 37 card might not be filled to the brim with immediate contenders, but it’s never a bad thing to see the wheels turning in a division that is long removed from its glory days when champions like Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua made it arguably MMA’s marquee division. One day Jones came along and cleared out the competition and it’s only recently started to hint at its former intrigue.
With “Bones” out of the picture, there has been some stability at the top as Jan Blachowicz looks to get a run of title defenses going, and it wouldn’t be all that surprising if he ends up taking on the winner of tonight’s headliner sometime in the future. Smith—No. 10 in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings—has already had a shot at the title, falling to Jones in an uneventful bout (outside of a late foul that in a more hilarious timeline would have netted Smith a championship via disqualification), while Spann is looking to work his way to the top-10 and establish himself as a fresh face in the contenders’ circle.
Other 205ers competing on the ESPN+ lineup are Ion Cutelaba, Devin Clark, Tafon Nchukwi, and Mike Rodriguez. None of these names are anywhere close to making an impact on the championship scene, though Nchukwi’s untapped potential makes him a dark horse to someday earn a title shot. Regardless, there will be plenty of moving and shaking in the mid-tier light heavyweight rankings soon.
What: UFC Vegas 37
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
MMA Fighting Global Ranking shown in parentheses
Anthony Smith (10) vs. Ryan Spann
I had my doubts that Anthony Smith would get past Jimmy Crute in his most recent fight and don’t like his chances against Ryan Spann either. Were it not for Crute injuring his leg, I’m confident he would have won that one.
On the other hand, Smith has proven to be an excellent gatekeeper for the top-10 with fighters like Crute and Devin Clark finding out that even with over 50 fights under his belt Smith isn’t just a veteran name waiting to be tacked on to a resume. He’s one of the most well-rounded fighters at 205 pounds and he’s a finisher.
There’s nothing fancy about what Spann wants to do. He’s a straightforward striker who probes with the left, loads up the right, and mixes in takedowns when he has to. His defensive deficiencies are definitely a concern as Smith could crack him at any point and end this one, but I’m expecting Spann to have the hand speed advantage here.
A fast finish either way is a distinct possibility. If it makes it out of the first, I see Spann winning an exciting back-and-forth scrap and finishing in the third or fourth round.
Ion Cutelaba vs. Devin Clark
Saturday’s co-main event is another tough one to pick.
This is a striker vs. grappler fight, but it’s not like Ion Cutelaba is the second-coming of Shogun and Clark isn’t exactly Daniel Cormier. They’re good at what they do, they’re just not great. Based on that, you think it would be wise to pick Cutelaba based on his knockout power, but Clark has shown a lot of grit in his wins and that he can scrape out decisions even when takedowns are hard to come by.
Cutelaba’s emotions tend to get the best of him and I always wonder how he’s going to react if he gets off to a slow start. Will a round on his back frustrate him? Will he gas himself out hunting for a KO? I’m a boring person, so I think Clark avoids ending up on the wrong end of a highlight here despite Cutelaba’s best efforts.
Let’s go Clark by decision.
One aspect of Mandy Bohm’s game that makes her such an intriguing prospect is how well she uses her range. We all know how frustrating it can be to watch long and rangy fighters who never develop a functional jab, but Bohm is already proving to be a patient striker with an educated approach to controlling distance. Whether she can work her game against Ariane Lipski, a huge step up in competition, is another question.
That experience gap is tough to ignore, even given that Lipski hasn’t looked great in her recent outings. If Bohm implements a wrestling-heavy attack, it could be a familiar song for Lipski, who can grapple but struggles defending against top pressure. On the feet, Lipski’s experience gives her the edge.
Bohm has a bright future ahead of her, I’m just not ready to give her the nod over a seasoned vet like Lipski yet.
There are certainly realistic paths to victory for Christos Giagos, an oft-overlooked lightweight veteran, but there’s one clear path to victory for Arman Tsarukyan and it might be the only one that matters.
Tsarukyan has the elite wrestling to be a contender at 155 pounds and the motor to become a champion. Maybe it’s just young man legs, but the 24-year-old Russian get inside for takedowns and doesn’t stop until his man is on his backside. He pressures and scrambles and looks for submissions, he’s an all-around nightmare to deal with on the ground.
There are aspects of Tsarukyan’s game that are still unproven and you can be sure that Giagos will have success in the standup if he can keep Tsarukyan off of him for five seconds (he can’t). Giagos also has the cardio to make Tsarukyan work for three rounds.
All of that said, it’s time for Tsaryukan to have a statement victory and net himself a top-20 opponent next. Tsarukyan by submission.
Nathan Maness looks like a solid addition to the bantamweight division, but Gravely has the makings of a future title challenger.
It’s been fun to see both fighters get that well-deserved call-up to the UFC and you can bet this will be a frontrunner for Fight of the Night. In my eyes, Gravely is sharper in both striking and wrestling, plus he has the speed of a flyweight. He’s also about as tall as a flyweight, but you get what I’m saying.
Maness has good boxing and if he utilizes his range well, this is his fight to lose. I see him having a hard time keeping Gravely on the outside though and while he has a chin on him, he won’t be eager to test it against Gravely. It will be a lot of sticking and moving for Gravely and a lot of swinging at air for Maness.
Gravely wins an entertaining decision.
Like Rodriguez vs. Nchukwi, here’s another matchup that is tailor-made for making a meme-friendly finish.
One thing people need to remember about Joaquin Buckley is that his knockout loss to Alessio Di Chirico shouldn’t have been all that surprising. As exciting as he is to watch, Buckley is a wild card or a glass cannon or a trick-or-treat athlete, whichever moniker you feel like using. He’s unpredictable and he epitomizes the “kill or be killed” mentality.
He’ll have a hard time styling on Antonio Arroyo, a taller fighter with an excellent arsenal of kicks. Buckley might wait to counter and find that opening for a perfect punch, all the while Arroyo will be chopping his legs into mincemeat. This could be a long, painful night for Buckley.
However, Buckley’s power, speed, and creativity are so tantalizing, I can’t pick against him here. He’ll learn from the Di Chirico loss and come out guns blazing here, unleashing a level of firepower that Arroyo won’t match.
Tafon Nchukwi def. Mike Rodriguez