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UFC Vegas 50 predictions

There’s plenty of time to get on the bandwagon of Magomed Ankalaev, the man who could be UFC light heavyweight champion before the year is through.

Ankalaev — No. 7 in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings — has a stiff test ahead of him in Saturday’s UFC Vegas 50 main event as he takes on one-time title challenger Thiago Santos (9). “Marreta” remains one of the most feared strikers in the UFC and one good shot from the veteran could spoil Ankalaev’s plans. It wouldn’t be the first time that Ankalaev has faced the odd hurdle.

In his very first UFC fight, the heavily hyped Dagestani fighter was expected to decimate Paul Craig and for 14:59 he was as advertised; however, in the final second, Craig forced a tap with a miraculous triangle choke and Ankalaev saw his undefeated record go up in smoke. He rebounded with three straight wins then found himself embroiled in a bizarre two-fight feud with Ion Cutelaba that comprised his entire 2020 campaign and now, three years after his UFC debut, he’s finally right where many experts predicted he would be.

He goes for an eighth consecutive win against Santos and if he takes care of business, in all likelihood he will face the winner of Glover Teixeira vs. Jiri Prochazka, which goes down at UFC 274 in May.

The stakes are high for the co-main event as well, with bantamweight stalwart Marlon Moraes looking to avoid a fourth straight loss. “Magic” has to deal with 24-year-old blue chipper Song Yadong, a prospect that coach Urijah Faber has predicted will someday become UFC champion. This is either Moraes’ chance to right the ship against a strong competitor or the final nail in what has been an eventful UFC run.

In other main card action, Sodiq Yusuff takes on streaking featherweight veteran Alex Caceres, Khalil Rountree fights Karl Roberson in a light heavyweight bout, budding lightweight contender Terrance McKinney looks to make it two wins in two weeks when he steps in on short notice to fight Drew Dober, and heavy-handed Brazilian middleweights Alex Pereira and Bruno Silva face off.

What: UFC Vegas 50

Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas

When: Saturday, March 12. The eight-fight preliminary card begins on ESPN+ at 4 p.m. ET, followed by a six-fight main card on ESPN+ at 7 p.m. ET.


(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)

Thiago Santos (9) vs. Magomed Ankalaev (7)

I’m all in on Magomed Ankalaev.

There just hasn’t been much anyone has been able to do with him now that he’s hit his stride. He’s either wiping out his opposition in under a round or showing off the diversity of his game to take convincing decisions. It’s everything you want from a future champion.

Ideally, you also want to see how they fare against top-ranked competition. He’s already taken out one past title challenger in Volkan Oezdemir and the matchmakers have given him the next logical step in Thiago Santos. As strongly as I favor Ankalaev here, Santos is anything but an easy night at the office.

Marreta can take Ankalaev’s head off in a second if he’s not sharp and he’s also shown in recent years that he can excel with a steadier, more tactical approach. The question is which way he should go on Saturday. Does Santos come out headhunting and risk gassing out or does he draw Ankalaev into a more measured contest that could still end up favoring the younger Ankalaev?

Ankalaev has the striking to hang with Marreta on the feet and the grappling to pull away once Santos starts to slow down. I see Santos putting on a competitive effort in the first two rounds before Ankalaev takes him down in the third, mounts him, and finishes with ground-and-pound.

Pick: Ankalaev

Marlon Moraes (11) vs. Song Yadong

Song Yadong has developed a reputation for coming out on the right end of decisions, so its imperative that Marlon Moraes find a finish here. Don’t let his recent results fool you, Moraes is one of the best finishers in the bantamweight division. He just hasn’t had much luck putting a stamp on his performances like he has in the past.

It won’t be much easier against the hardy Song, who brings a youthful chin and good defense to the contest. Still, I think Moraes can hurt him and then put him away with a submission. That might be the best case scenario for Moraes seeing as how he’s had a few bad fights where he’s run out of gas chasing knockouts. He still has the tools of an elite bantamweight.

Song hasn’t established himself in that same way. He’s been competitive and had luck on the scorecards, which is a credit to his speed, punching power, and stamina. His ideal route to victory is surviving Moraes’ early sprint and turning the fight into a marathon.

It’s still Moraes’ fight to lose in my eyes though. I’m going with a risky pick here and guessing that he becomes the first fighter to force a tap from Song.

Pick: Moraes

Sodiq Yusuff vs. Alex Caceres

The stage is set for a game of cat and mouse.

Sodiq Yusuff backs up his heavy hands with an amazing jab that he’ll have to make good use of to catch the rangy Alex Caceres. Lateral movement and his ability to cut off the cage will also be essential for Yusuff to win this fight. If he doesn’t give Caceres a reason to slow down, “Bruce Leeroy” will pick him apart for three rounds.

This is the best version of Caceres we’ve seen and it feels like his 25 UFC appearances have built him into a sleeper contender at 145 pounds. At 33, he hasn’t lost much of a step and he still has an effective submission game to fall back on if the striking isn’t going his way.

Yusuff is the favorite for a reason, but this is a closer fight on paper than the oddsmakers would have you believe. I’m expecting the result to be a hard-fought decision, with Yusuff’s power advantage giving him the edge on the scorecards.

Pick: Yusuff

Khalil Rountree vs. Karl Roberson

Which Khalil Rountree will we get on Saturday? Will it be the flighty Ultimate Fighter runner-up who lets his opponents dictate the action? Or will it be the gifted striker that can make absolute mincemeat out of the competition?

As “The Prince of Positivity,” I’m obligated to assume that Rountree will be in top form and if that’s the case, he’s knocking Karl Roberson out. Roberson is an excellent striker in his own right and more seasoned on the feet, but he hasn’t shown the same finishing instinct as Rountree. He might want to turn this into a point fight while Rountree will be working to knock his block off.

As impressive as it was to see Rountree chop Modestas Bukauskas down in his most recent outing, he’ll want to avoid playing the kicking game with Roberson and instead focus on boxing and pressure. Rountree packs more power in those fists and he should employ it judiciously.

If Rountree is patient, the finish will be there, though he might need to use the first five minutes to figure out Roberson’s rhythm. Once he does, a knockout will follow.

Pick: Rountree

Drew Dober vs. Terrance McKinney

Remember what I said about being all in on Magomed Ankalaev? Well, that goes double for Terrance McKinney.

I’m buying up whatever McKinney stock is left, especially after seeing him throw out that classic fighter boast of “I’ll fight anyone, anywhere, anytime” and actually doing it! Two weeks to prepare for a formerly ranked lightweight in Drew Dober is a big risk with a potentially big reward.

Dober is in a rough stretch right now, but he’s still the toughest test that McKinney has faced yet. If this stays a standup battle, Dober has the hand speed and experience to block McKinney’s fast track to the top of the division. McKinney’s wrestling will be a key factor here if he chooses to deploy it as Dober has shown some holes in his takedown defense.

None of McKinney’s past five opponents have made it past the halfway mark of Round 1 and I expect the same to happen here as he’ll come out swinging to take advantage of the chaos created by his short-notice booking. An exciting —and brief — firefight will end with Dober getting dropped and submitted.

Pick: McKinney

Alex Pereira vs. Bruno Silva

Alex Pereira, the would-be Israel Adesanya slayer, is ready to make a statement.

Appearing in just his sixth MMA contest, the former two-division Glory Kickboxing champion has the kind of striking that can have him rising up the rankings in a hurry. He’s light on his feet, accurate, and can knock you out with any of his limbs. There’s a reason everyone wants to see him face Adesanya again.

Bruno Silva has had a tendency to get off to slow starts in his UFC fights, but that’s usually because his opponents are looking to grapple. Against Jordan Wright, another striker, it took less than 90 seconds for Silva to add to his highlight reel. He won’t have to worry about Pereira shooting for a double leg either.

Still, as potent as Silva is once he gets going, I doubt Pereira will give him much of a chance to start lobbing “Blindado” bombs. He’s the best striker Silva has faced since Alexander Shlemenko four years ago and Pereira is a level above Shlemenko if we’re strictly talking standup. Silva will want to make this one ugly, but I believe that’s just going to lead to a beautiful knockout for Pereira.

Pick: Pereira

Preliminaries

A.J. Fletcher def. Matthew Semelsberger

Gillian Robertson def. JJ Aldrich

Trevin Jones def. Javid Basharat

Damon Jackson def. Kamuela Kirk

Sabina Mazo def. Miranda Maverick

Dalcha Lungiambula def. Cody Brundage

Kris Moutinho def. Guido Cannetti

Azamat Murzakanov def. Tafon Nchukwi