It’s not a stretch at all to say that we are witnessing a pivotal moment for a handful of future UFC title contenders — and possibly champions — on Saturday.
By now, the narrative surrounding the UFC Vegas 57 main event has shifted from it being a hardcore fan’s delight to a must-see matchup of two can’t-miss lightweight killers. Arman Tsarukyan, still four months shy of his 26th birthday, has been on a tear since debuting in the promotion with hard-fought decision loss to likely No. 1 contender Islam Makhachev. On the other side, Mateusz Gamrot carries a three-fight win streak and the mystique of a two-division KSW champion into the contest.
Neither man will be derailed by a defeat (if anything, how the losing fighter rebounds will give us an even better gauge of their future prospects), but the winner will definitely take a jump up the rankings, possibly into the top 10 of one of MMA’s deepest divisions. Tsarukyan and Gamrot are currently tied at No. 11 at lightweight in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings.
Also poised to jump up the rankings with a win is the undefeated Shavkat Rakhmonov. The Kazakh sensation has finished all 15 of his pro fights, including his first three UFC outings, and he gets a step up in competition tonight when he takes on perennial welterweight contender Neil Magny. A convincing win over Magny would move him out of a tie for our No. 13 spot and possibly into the top 10, while Magny is fighting to hold onto his No. 12 spot for the most part.
Oh, that and getting win No. 20 to jump ahead of Georges St-Pierre for the most wins at 170 pounds in UFC history.
Don’t forget that Umar Nurmagomedov is also fighting. He has a stiff test ahead of him in Nate Maness, who is yet to taste defeat inside the octagon, but all signs point to Nurmagomedov living up to his famous name and if he can get past Maness then he’ll become the bantamweight contender that nobody wants to face.
In other main card action, heavyweights Josh Parisian and Alan Baudot meet in a bout that feels like it should be happening at UFC Paris (h/t Jed Meshew), submission specialist Thiago Moises meets Christos Giagos in a lightweight contest, and “The Action Man” Chris Curtis looks to go 3-0 in the UFC when he fights Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Rodolfo Vieira in a middleweight clash of styles.
What: UFC Vegas 57
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
Arman Tsarukyan vs. Mateusz Gamrot
No matter what happens Saturday, Arman Tsarukyan and Matesuz Gamrot are — as the cool kids say — as real as it gets.
It feels like we’re getting a pay-per-view championship fight a couple of years early. How else to describe the privilege of watching an unbelievable blue chip project like Tsarukyan go up against Gamrot, a fighter that has already proven he can win high level title fights? The matchmakers could have held off on this one and waited to see both men fulfill their potential more before pairing them off. I’m glad they didn’t.
Someday, we might view this fight in the same light as the first meeting between Georges St-Pierre and B.J. Penn, Jon Jones’ statement performance against Ryan Bader, and Dustin Poirier and Max Holloway clashing in their early 20s. The level of talent is that high and it’s not hyperbole at all to suggest that Tsarukyan and/or Gamrot could hold UFC gold some day.
They have to get through one another first and on this day I’m favoring Tsarukyan. Just. He has great size for the division, an all-world takedown game, and he is fast on his feet. Gamrot is no slouch either, with reach, plus-athleticism, an aggressive submission game, and power in both hands. As confident as I am in picking Tsarukyan, this also feels like a matchup that neither man would dominate if you ran it back a hundred times.
So it’s the quickness and relative youth of Tsarukyan that has me leaning in his direction. I fully expect the fight to go the full five rounds and for both competitors to have their moments, showing off their offensive brilliance and toughness all at once. Look for Tsarukyan to spend more time on top, more time on the offensive, and more time stifling Gamrot’s takedown attempts en route to a convincing decision win.
Neil Magny vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov
I’m not confident that Neil Magny can drag Shavkat Rakhmonov into deep waters.
That’s presumably where this one has to go if Magny is to have the advantage. The veteran welterweight excels at pushing the pace for five rounds and exposing holes in his opponent’s gas tank, which is a legitimate concern for Rakhmonov. We just don’t know how Rakhmonov will perform late in the game as he’s only gone to a third round once. He could be bouncing around like Clay Guida or be completely stuck in the mud.
On the other hand, Magny is also vulnerable in the early stages of a fight and that’s where Rakhmonov excels. He’s 15-0 with 15 finishes for a reason. As much as I respect Magny and believe that he is truly the right opponent to gauge Rakhmonov’s potential, I predict that he won’t be able to get out of the way of this particular hype train.
Rakhmonov will beat him to the punch, put him on the back foot early, and not give him a second to get his bearings. Then he’ll sink his hooks in and before Magny knows it, he’ll be caught with a fight-ending choke.
Josh Parisian vs. Alan Baudot
This is an odd choice for the main card.
I understand wanting to throw a heavyweight fight on there for the knockout/chaos potential, but Josh Parisian and Alan Baudot haven’t exactly been finishing machines in the UFC (which is to say, they have zero finishes in six combined UFC appearances so far). That’s probably more due to who they’ve been matched up with, so there’s reason for optimism that they’ll just get at it once the bell rings and this turns into The Bout to Knock the Other Guy Out.
If not, we could still be in store for some fun big man striking as both can be fun to watch when they have room to operate. However, Parisian should consider mixing the martial arts here and using his weight advantage to bully Baudot. Any prolonged grappling will take the wind out of Baudot’s sales and make him easier to deal with in the later rounds.
Let’s hope one of these fighters breaks recent precedent and gets back to the finishing ways that put them on the UFC’s radar in the first place. Parisian by knockout.
Thiago Moises vs. Christos Giagos
Thiago Moises’ submission game is so nasty, he just hasn’t had the kinds of matchups that have allowed him to style on the ground. Respectfully, Christos Giagos could be that matchup.
Giagos is a classic wrestler with pop in his hands, a formula that can take you far in this business, but is often foiled by Brazilian jiu-jitsu beasts like Moises. In this instance, Giagos may want to eschew his usual takedowns in favor of sprawling and brawling. Not that Moises isn’t comfortable throwing hands. Nobody is going to mistake him for Petr Yan in there, but Moises enjoys a good scrap, even if sticking to his base will probably serve him better in the long run.
I always want to assume that these grappling guys will figure things out and just get back to the business of snatching necks (I’m looking at YOU, Gregory Rodrigues!), so my prediction is that Moises will mess around on the feet some before winning a ground battle. Maybe he shoots in himself, maybe he takes advantage of an ill-advised Giagos takedown, but I would love to see Moises do what he does best and score a submission win here.
Nate Maness vs. Umar Nurmagomedov
Nate Maness enters this bout as one of the biggest underdogs in a non-title fight in recent memory (around +650 according to DraftKings), which is a tad absurd when you realize Umar Nurmagomedov is making just his third UFC appearance and Maness himself is 3-0 in the UFC against good competition.
That said, I understand the urge to cram into the Nurmagomedov bandwagon. In just over five years as a pro, he’s shown that he is one of the most technically sound fighters in the bantamweight division, maybe in any division. Don’t let Nurmagomedov’s flashy kicks fool you, he fires them with purpose and he’s rarely off-balance. In the event that his opponent thinks he’s figured out his timing, Nurmagomedov can always go to his wrestling, as you’d expect given his background.
One factor to watch for in this matchup is the gap in striking defense. Nurmagomedov expertly gets in and out and controls distance with the best of them, while Maness is more of the take-one-to-land-one mentality. If Maness can force the action and get inside to box up Nurmagomedov, he could find an edge, but that’s a big if because that puts you in grappling range and as we just mentioned, you never want to be in that range with a Nurmagomedov.
In the past, I’ve warned not to underestimate Nurmagomedov’s more experienced opponents; after tonight, I’m warning everyone not to underestimate Nurmagomedov’s chances of becoming the best bantamweight in the world.
Chris Curtis vs. Rodolfo Vieira
“The Action Man” doesn’t tap.
True, Chris Curtis has never faced a grappler the caliber of Rodolfo Vieira. Since making the move to MMA in 2017, the decorated Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion has lived up to the billing, subbing fools left and right so long as his gas tank holds up. Simply put, Vieira is as good as any active fighter today if we’re talking straight submission skills.
A strict standup fight would end poorly for Vieira, just as a prolonged grappling contest would for Curtis, so this outcome likely depends on who can get the fight where they need it to go. I favor Curtis here. He has so much more experience when it comes to the mixing of the martial arts, he can defend takedowns against all but the most elite wrestlers, and again, he has a history of avoiding submissions.
None of that bodes well for Vieira, who I still like as a future top 10 contender based on his one elite skill, it’s just that someone as experienced as Curtis knows all the tricks that Vieira will employ to take him down. He’ll keep this one on the feet and take out a frustrated Vieira in the second round.