Holly Holm could be the beneficiary of a long-awaited shakeup at the top of the bantamweight division.
When we last saw Holm in action it was almost 600 days ago and “The Preacher’s Daughter” didn’t appear to be close to a UFC title shot so long as Amanda Nunes was sitting atop two divisions. Nunes had needed less than a round to defeat Holm at UFC 239 and few fans were clamoring for a rematch.
However, when Holm — No. 3 at bantamweight in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings — returns to fight No. 7 Ketlen Vieira in the UFC Vegas 55 main event, she does so with fresh hope for another championship opportunity. Julianna Peña stunned Nunes at UFC 269 to claim the 135-pound belt and if she beats Nunes in a rematch, the path is open for Holm to potentially reclaim the title.
First she has to get past Vieira, a hungry contender who has championship aspirations of her own and would be a fresh challenger regardless of who walks out of the Peña-Nunes rematch victorious. Should it be Nunes, Vieira may have to wait out a trilogy, but a win over Holm should be enough to get her that elusive title shot regardless.
In other main card action, Santiago Ponzinibbio looks to slow the roll of welterweight wild card Michel Pereira, former Bellator middleweight contender Chidi Njokuani fights Dusko Todorovic, strawweights Polyana Viana and Tabatha Ricci face off, and middleweights Eryk Anders and Jun Yong Park look to rebound from recent losses.
What: UFC Vegas 55
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
When: Saturday, May 21. The entire event airs on ESPN+, with the six-fight preliminary card beginning at 4 p.m. ET, followed by a five-fight main card at 7 p.m. ET.
Holly Holm vs. Ketlen Vieira
Time waits for no woman and while Holly Holm looks as fit and prepared as ever, at age 40 athletic decline is inevitable. That could be the edge Ketlen Vieira needs to get past the durable Holm.
Holm has only ever lost to the best female fighters on the planet, a list that includes GOAT candidates Cris Cyborg, Amanda Nunes, and Valentina Shevchenko, as well as stalwarts Germaine de Randamie and Miesha Tate. It sounds weird to add Vieira to that list, but “Fenomeno” will fight for a world title someday and a win over Holm could mark the moment where we finally saw her make the leap. The Brazilian fighter’s offensive-minded approach will be key to keeping Holm off-balance here and not allowing her to establish the rhythm that has befuddled so many opponents.
It’s difficult for any fighter to put Holm down and I don’t think Vieira has quite that level of firepower, but I do expect her to push the pace, win the exchanges on the ground, and land enough damaging shots to take a convincing decision.
Pick: Vieira (+185 at DraftKings Sportsbook)
Santiago Ponzinibbio vs. Michel Pereira
Fans expecting a surefire Fight of the Night candidate could be in for disappointment. Michel Pereira is on a solid four-fight win streak (his longest run of success in eight years and a streak that would be at five were it not for disqualification loss to Diego Sanchez) and he shouldn’t sacrifice substance for style. We all love it when Pereira is doing backflips and bounding off of the cage, but it’s doubtful he’ll return to that form facing his toughest challenge since joining the UFC.
Santiago Ponzinibbio has the edge in technique and a slight edge in power, so if this goes to a decision, his work on the feet should appeal to the judges more. Pereira can get ahead if he can frustrate Ponzinibbio with his speed and movement, so it could be a fascinating duel to watch as both fighters battle to lead the dance.
I confess I’m still struggling to figure out what Pereira’s ceiling is in the welterweight division. Is he a legitimate title contender who has finally figured out how to channel his prodigious gifts into winning or has he been the beneficiary of favorable stylistic matchup? This is the perfect fight to get a proper gauge of his skills and while I expect him to make a good account of himself, I can’t see him getting past the more seasoned Ponzinibbio just yet.
Pick: Ponzinibbio (+120 at DraftKings Sportsbook)
Chidi Njokuani vs. Dusko Todorovic
Speaking of fighters we’re still getting a gauge on, what do we think of Dusko Todorovic? The talented Serbian fighter has all the tools to be a top 15 fighter, but has yet to string together enough winning performances to break out from the thick of the middleweight pack. His road to respectability doesn’t get any easier with Chidi Njokuani.
Long and lengthy, Njokuani is great at fighting at range, but he’s not just looking to win on points. He’s dangerous when he locks in on the feet and Todorovic could be in serious trouble as he has a habit of leaving his chin out there. One factor to watch in this fight is how much Todorovic goes to his grappling. Njokuani isn’t easy to take down, but Todorovic will have a pronounced advantage on the mat.
I don’t think it gets there, at least not for long. Njokuani is going to make Todorovic’s life difficult as he tries to close the distance and find angles for a takedown and eventually he’s going to eat one counter shot too many.
Njokuani by second-round knockout.
Pick: Njokuani (-275 at DraftKings Sportsbook)
Polyana Viana vs. Tabatha Ricci
Hopefully we get some fun scrambles in this matchup of strawweight scrappers.
If it does turn into an extended jiu-jitsu contest, then the edge should go to the strong and stocky Tabatha Ricci. She’s shown a no-frills ground game so far in the UFC, which could be just what the doctor ordered to deal with the aggressive Polyana Viana. Viana will be thinking sub, sub, sub, and sub, so as long as Ricci is focused on control while mixing in ground-and-pound, this fight can play out in her favor.
On the feet, Ricci has shown a decent right hand and just generally been more comfortable with the striking than Viana. Look for Ricci to be aggressive with her punches as a means to an end, that end being turning this into a ground fight. If Viana can’t score something off of her back, I have Ricci winning by decision.
Pick: Ricci (-120 at DraftKings Sportsbook)
Eryk Anders vs. Jun Yong Park
Now we’re talking sleeper Fight of the Night candidate!
Eryk Anders might not be able to string together wins, but he’s become a reliable source for chaos and that’s a trait that’s always welcome in the main card opener. Mix in the toughness and power punching of Jun Yong Park and you’ve got a stew going here. Anders loves to brawl and Park will be right there with him.
That said, this isn’t a coin toss pick as Park has distinct advantages in the standup. What he lacks in speed, he makes up for in patience and he won’t be deterred if Anders gets ahead on the scorecards early. Park will eventually cut off the cage and make this his fight by battering Anders with straight punches. He might even mix in some takedowns to put Anders’ jiu-jitsu to the test.
This will be a fun one while it lasts and I see Park winning by knockout.
Pick: Park (-205 at DraftKings Sportsbook)