If a fight card takes place with no fans nor media in attendance, does it make a sound?
OK, we don’t have to go that far into philosophical territory when discussing Saturday’s UFC Vegas 61 event, given that we went through some version of this practice during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But we’re still trying to figure out what is so special about this fight night that Dana White and company decided to close it off to the usual cast of observers.
Whether its Mark Zuckerberg renting out the UFC APEX for one night only so he can have a front row seat to a strawweight contenders’ main event bout between Mackenzie Dern and Yan Xiaonan — No. 6 and No. 7 respectively in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings — or just good ol’ Uncle Dana giving the media an evening off out of the kindness of his heart as he so cleverly quipped earlier this week, it’s fair to say that this is a situation unique to the wonderful world of MMA.
Aside from the apparently Metaverse-approved headliner, Saturday’s card features a smattering of intriguing fights on the main card including budding welterweight contender Randy Brown facing 44-year-old Francisco Trinaldo (somehow not the oldest fighter in the lineup with 45-year-old Aleksei Oleinik competing on the prelims) in the co-main event, featherweight standout Sodiq Yusuff taking on short-notice replacement Don Shainis, and a crowd-pleasing (hypothetically, anyway) main card opener between lightweights Mike Davis and Viacheslav Borshchev.
What: UFC Vegas 61
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
Mackenzie Dern vs. Yan Xiaonan
If this goes to the ground, Mackenzie Dern wins. Simple enough for you?
Yan Xiaonan is at her best when she can pressure her opponents, but that might not be the best strategy against Dern, an elite grappler who would love it if Yan did her a favor and closed the distance. Dern’s strength is in the clinch and her trips, not power doubles from the center of the octagon. Yan has to figure out how to come forward without walking right into a danger zone.
Controlling the range is priority No. 1 for Yan. She’s a volume striker with great cardio, so taking this past the third round should be hugely advantageous to her. Dern is a great athlete, but can she hang with Yan in deep waters if she isn’t able to wear her opponent down earlier in the fight? I’m skeptical.
The good news for Dern is I don’t think that will matter here. Dern’s best skill, her A-plus-plus-plus jiu-jitsu, carries more weight for me than Yan’s more well-rounded skill set and I think she’s developed enough offensively to have the ability to take this fight where she needs it to go. Dern drags Yan into her world and finds a submission in the third round.
Randy Brown vs. Francisco Trinaldo
Francisco Trinaldo remains one of MMA’s inexplicable physical marvels — at 44, he’s almost like the lighter weight version of Yoel Romero — but he is giving up a ton of size to Randy Brown. That was always going to be a concern with the stocky Trinaldo competing at 170 pounds, but it’s particularly pronounced in this matchup. The Brazilian veteran still has the skills he’s always had, there’s just a length and athleticism gap here that will be difficult to overcome.
Were Brown a lesser striker this might not be an issue, but “Rudeboy” is so agile and creative that this is his fight to lose in the standup. He does have defensive issues and a tendency to get wild (translation: he gets hit), so he’ll have to be on his best behavior to avoid eating one of Trinaldo’s power punches. Should he get hurt and have to wrestle, Brown’s size and strength will again be the difference between him controlling Trinaldo from top control and getting caught with a submission.
If anything, I could see Brown surprising a tiring Trinaldo with a submission later in the fight. If that doesn’t happen, I have Brown winning this one on the scorecards.
On one hand, this matchup between Raoni Barcelos and Trevin Jones might seem like an odd choice for a main card feature given that they’re both on two-fight losing streaks, but you can always trust the bantamweights to deliver and this matchup should be no different.
Barcelos and Jones both pack a lot of pop, with Barcelos more likely to lead the dance while Jones is more comfortable timing counters and setting up combinations. The high-octane offense approach of Barcelos should serve him well here as Jones has suffered from slow starts in the past, but it could also work in Jones’ favor if he can coax Barcelos into walking right into his speedy fists.
It’s Jones’ habit of letting his opponents dictate the pace that has me leaning towards Barcelos. The Brazilian is a fierce and accurate striker, which means he won’t be picked apart by Jones’ counter-heavy game. Jones will certainly get his licks in, but Barcelos’ volume will score a lot of points for the judges and after three entertaining rounds he’ll see his hand raised.
Sodiq Yusuff vs. Don Shainis
Sodiq Yusuff is the biggest favorite on this card and for good reason. He’s so steady and consistent in his approach that he it’s unlikely he’ll get caught slipping by a unknown property like Don Shainis. And make no mistake, this has the feel of a trap game, with Yusuff going from a high-profile matchup with Giga Chikadze to a dangerous short-notice opponent with nothing to lose instead.
“Super” has scored a couple of fast finishes at the UFC level, but his 5-1 record with the promotion has as much to do with his smarts as his talent. He won’t be rushed and does a great job of collecting data even when a round looks like it’s not going his way. He’ll have to be at his adaptable best to deal with Shainis, who has wild card written all over him.
So let’s get crazy with it. Shainis has the kind of style that could frustrate Yusuff as he loves to get in your face and make it ugly on the ground. Yusuff has strong ground defense, but I’m curious to see how he deals with a newcomer who could take a balls-to-the-wall approach to his first UFC fight.
A win over Chikadze would have given Yusuff a bump up in the rankings. Let’s hope a surprising decision loss to Shainis doesn’t hurt him too much.
Unfortunately for Daniel Santos, there are no easy fights once you join the UFC’s bantamweight division and he has another tough test in John Castaneda. This could resemble Santos’ debut loss to Julio Arce, with “Willycat” swinging with bad intentions while Castaneda takes his time getting the measure of the Brazilian flamethrower.
Castaneda has strong boxing fundamentals, so keep an eye on how his style contrasts with Santos’ more freewheeling approach. Santos has a young man’s chin and isn’t afraid to take one to land one. His best bet might be to go for broke to finish Castaneda early.
How Santos adapts should Castaneda start mixing the martial arts is also a factor to take into consideration as Castaneda is comfortable hunting for a finish on the feet or on the mat. He has more ways to win this fight and that’s why I like him to hurt Santos on the feet before finishing with ground-and-pound.
Mike Davis vs. Viacheslav Borshchev
Viacheslav Borshchev showed deficiencies in his wrestling defense in his second UFC fight, but I think it had more to do with him not preparing for the greatly improved wrestling of Marc Diakiese (Or “D-I Diakiese” as he should be known now) than that area being a particularly glaring weakness. In his fights before joining the UFC, Borshchev proved that he could at least recover well from being taken down even when he didn’t snuff out the initial shot.
I mention this because Mike Davis may want to consider taking Borshchev to the ground to avoid the kind of scrap he got into in his most recent fight against Mason Jones. Davis came out on top of that 2021 Fight of the Year candidate, but if there’s an easier way to get the job done, he should pursue it. Borshchev has to shore up that takedown defense because even if Davis isn’t the one to exploit it, there plenty in the lightweight division who will.
My prediction? Borshchev keeps this one on the feet and wins the striking battle in impressive fashion, becoming the first fighter to finish Davis with strikes.
Ilir Latifi def. Aleksei Oleinik