Saturday’s heavyweight headliner isn’t so much about moving up the rankings as it is avoiding a pitfall.
Curtis Blaydes fights Chris Daukaus tonight in the main event of UFC Columbus, the promotion’s first visit to Ohio in over five years. It’s not the most compelling matchup from a storyline standpoint, but both men have plenty of motivation going in.
For Blaydes, he can’t afford to have Daukaus pass him in the contenders’ line after he’s spent the past few years establishing himself as a legitimate threat to fight for the UFC title. A pair of losses to Francis Ngannou have seemingly put a ceiling on his progress and to earn a third fight someday he can’t afford any slip-ups. Even a lackluster decision win over Daukaus could dent Blaydes’ championship hopes.
Daukaus is coming off of the first loss of his UFC career, an ugly knockout at the hands of Derrick Lewis. The thought at the time was that Daukaus was essentially playing with house money, getting to main event against an established name that would look great on his resume if he could get past him. He didn’t and now he risks losing to another perennial contender and being relegated to second-tier status in the eyes of the fans especially with peers like Tai Tuivasa, Tom Aspinall, and Sergei Pavlovich excelling.
In other main card action, flyweight veteran Joanne Wood looks to stop the streaking Alexa Grasso, Ohio’s own Matt Brown throws down with Bryan Barberena in a welterweight contest, flyweights Askar Askarov and Kai Kara-France potentially battle for a No. 1 contender’s spot, heavyweight lifer Aleksei Oleinik continues his hunt for his 60th win when he faces Ilir Latifi, and lightweights Marc Diakiese and Viacheslav Borshchev meet in an opener expected to produce fireworks.
What: UFC Columbus
Where: Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Curtis Blaydes (5) vs. Chris Daukaus (13)
Sometimes the most obvious answer is the correct one.
Curtis Blaydes is here to wrestle. He’s here to take Chris Daukaus down. He’s here to batter him with ground-and-pound. He’s here to win fights. It’s what he does.
There are traps that Blaydes will have to avoid. Daukaus has excellent jiu-jitsu and while Blaydes has never been submitted, he certainly doesn’t want Saturday to be a first. So he may temper his aggression in the first couple of rounds so as not to risk making a mistake and then crank up the offense once Daukaus is worn down or frustrated. Blaydes should also mind his Ps and Qs on the feet as Daukaus has knockout power and it’s not as if we haven’t seen Blaydes get caught in the standup before.
But this fight should be right up Blaydes’ alley. Daukaus is a good, not great athlete, and he’ll defend against Blaydes’ takedowns for as long as he can. Eventually, the dam will break and after a couple of rounds, so will Daukaus.
Blaydes finishes with ground-and-pound in Round 3.
Joanne Wood (10) vs. Alexa Grasso (14)
Alexa Grasso’s hand speed is a problem for any flyweight to deal with, especially someone like Joanne Wood who looks to have lost a step in recent years. Wood’s muay Thai is still an effective weapon, but we’ve reached the point where it’s unclear if she can effectively pull the trigger. The athleticism gap between her and the rest of the division is widening and Grasso is exactly the kind of opponent that can take advantage of that.
Boxing has always been one of Grasso’s strengths, plus she’s physically matured into her 125-pound frame and brings a ton of confidence into all of her outings now. She’s no longer just the talented neophyte, she’s a legitimate contender.
It will be a surprise if this plays out as anything but a standup scrap and if that’s the case, then Grasso should win on the scorecards after a competitive three rounds.
Matt Brown vs. Bryan Barberena
Get those Fight of the Night bonus checks ready.
That had to be what the matchmakers were thinking when they paired up Matt Brown — second-all time in UFC knockout wins — and Bryan Barberena, an absolute wild man with three Fight of the Night awards on his mantle. There’s no guarantee that either of these guys is going to sleep, but it’s the safest bet of the card that they’re both going to do their damndest to send the other guy out on a stretcher.
Give me the more experienced Brown here, spurred on by a rabid Ohio crowd that will surely appreciate what could be one of the last times they get to see “The Immortal” in action live. He’ll invite Barberena to brawl, an offer that will take Barberena about half a second to accept, and from there it’s just a matter of who can consistently hit harder.
There’s few welterweights in MMA history who can top Brown in that department and I’m not putting Barberena in that category just yet. After a fiery two rounds, I like Brown to find another gear to put Barberena away in the third.
Askar Askarov (5) vs. Kai Kara-France (9)
Askar Askarov has all the tools to be champion at 125 pounds. But I think his title hopes hit a snag here against Kai Kara-France.
In four UFC appearances, Askarov has shown few holes in his game. He’s a patient and accurate striker, a powerful wrestler, and a threat to score submissions from a number of angles. Kara-France’s plan has to be to avoid prolonged grappling exchanges with Askarov because anytime this goes to the ground, Kara-France will be in grave danger.
Sprawl, sprawl, sprawl, and sprawl some more. And if Kara-France goes down, bend, but don’t break. It’s doable. There’s going to be some scary moments for him, but it’s doable.
As well-rounded as Askarov is, I like Kara-France’s chances of winning a striking duel and I believe he can keep the fight where he needs it to be. He’s peaking right now, while Askarov could be a little rusty after a year away from the cage. That might be the edge Askarov needs to pull off the upset and claim his stake for a title shot.
Kara-France by knockout.
Ilir Latifi vs. Aleksei Oleinik
Aleksei Oleinik needs one more win to hit 60. This was true one fight ago. This has been true for his past three fights and he hasn’t won since May 2020.
Ilir Latifi hasn’t looked bad since moving up to heavyweight, even if his fights tend to be a bit of a slog. He’s what he is: a light heavyweight who is tired of dehydrating himself and has decided to see if his skills can make up for any size or strength disadvantage he might have at heavyweight. Results have been mixed.
I don’t see Latifi avoiding Oleinik’s clutches for three rounds and while he’s a good grappler, he’s going to have a nightmarish time dealing with the larger Oleinik on the mat. I also expect that he could run into the same trick Oleinik has pulled on so many others, believing that he can attack Oleinik from top position when that only leads to calamity.
That calamity has a name too: Ezekiel. Add another one to the collection and one more win for the big six-zero.
Marc Diakiese vs. Viacheslav Borshchev
Marc Diakiese can be maddeningly inconsistent, but he still presents a real challenge for the inexperienced Viacheslav Borshchev. This is a sizable step-up for Borshchev, even taking into account that he competed in a variety of combat sports before focusing on MMA.
Though his recent results leave something to be desired, Diakiese has shown marked improvements in his game over the years, even if it hasn’t been enough to make a strong run up the rankings. He’s become more patient, been better at mixing in wrestling, and he still shows flashes of the knockout power that once made him a can’t-miss lightweight prospect.
It’s Borshchev who has to live up to the prospect label now and he’s off to a great start with four straight knockout wins heading into this one. He is scary accurate with his strikes and isn’t a turtle on his back either, he knows how to get up and out of trouble. Working at Team Alpha Male can do wonders for you there.
Borshchev will be tested, but he’s going to show the poise that’s made him such an intriguing name in the lower half of the 155-pound roster. He’ll fight a smart fight and keep fans buzzing with a convincing decision win over “Bonecrusher.”