Petr Yan and Merab Dvalishvili find themselves in an oddity of a scheduling spot.
Never before has a card been wedged directly between two pay-per-views over a three-week stretch, but that’s exactly the circumstance Saturday’s headliners find themselves in. UFC Las Vegas (a ridiculous event name that only exists to differentiate itself from the countless APEX cards) arrives on the heels of a momentous UFC 285 event that featured the return of Jon Jones and Alexa Grasso’s fantastic upset of Valentina Shevchenko, while Leon Edwards and Kamaru Usman’s welterweight title trilogy bout at UFC 286 is just a week away.
One couldn’t be blamed if they took a break from this weekend’s UFC offering, especially given the unclear stakes of tonight’s main event. What exactly are Petr Yan and Merab Dvalishvili fighting for?
Yan — tied for No. 2 at 135 pounds in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings — has already held UFC gold and is maybe one or two more wins away from another crack at Aljamain Sterling, who has already walked out with his hand raised in their two previous championship bouts. Dvalishvili (No. 5) definitely won’t be fighting Sterling next as the close friends and training partners have vowed to never fight each other.
Then you consider that Sterling is set to face Henry Cejudo in May, with worthy challengers in Sean O’Malley, Marlon Vera, and Cory Sandhagen looming. Yan vs. Dvalishvili is an elite, must-see matchup for sure, but those curious as to what this means for the title picture may be left wanting by night’s end.
In other main card action, top-15 heavyweights collide in the co-headliner with Alexander Volkov taking on Alexandr Romanov, Nikita Krylov and Ryan Spann meet in a postponed contest, bantamweights Said Nurmagomedov, Jonathan Martinez, Mario Bautista, and Guido Cannetti jockey for position in the crowded division, and recent Contender Series signing Vitor Petrino makes his UFC debut against Anton “The Pleasure Man” Turkalj.
What: UFC Las Vegas
Where: The Theater at Virgin Hotels in Las Vegas
When: Saturday, March 11. The seven-fight preliminary card begins at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN+, followed by a six-fight main card at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN+.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings)
Petr Yan (T2) vs. Merab Dvalishvili (5)
Petr Yan has lost two straight and three of his past four fights. That just sounds weird. It also doesn’t reflect the quality of his performances.
The cards haven’t gone his way, but Yan is unequivocally one of the three best fighters in the world competing at 135 pounds. The Sean O’Malley fight was a toss-up, the second Aljamain Sterling fight was a tough loss but by no means was Yan ever out of that one, and the first Sterling fight, well, the less said about the end of that championship bout the better. All that said, even in defeat, it doesn’t look like Yan has lost a step.
That may not matter against Merab Dvalishvili, a legit contender in his own right. He hits hard, has excellent wrestling, and has gas for days. Were this a three-round fight, Dvalishvili might actually have the advantage as Yan is known for being a slow starter that takes time to get his engine running at full steam. Even if Dvalishvili can’t take Yan down, he churns out the kind of volume striking that is appealing to the judges.
Fortunately for Yan, this is a five-round fight and I see that playing into his favor as expected. One thing Dvalishvili doesn’t do is end fights early, so even if he takes a round or two on the scorecards, it will be difficult for him to press that advantage for a full 25 minutes. Once Yan gets locked in, that’s a wrap for most fighters, even the durable Dvalishvili.
Look for Yan to score a late knockout and put Dvalishvili’s BFF on notice.
Alexander Volkov (8) vs. Alexandr Romanov (14)
Alexandr Romanov’s last performance against Marcin Tybura was disappointing, but I’m not giving up on the hulking Moldovan yet. With his strength and wrestling ability, there’s still a good chance that he challenges for the UFC heavyweight title sooner rather than later.
I’m glad they paired him up with Alexander Volkov, a different test than Tybura but an equally vital one. Romanov’s grappling should give him a huge advantage here as Volkov has subpar takedown defense. If Romanov sticks to a wrestling-heavy game plan, this is his fight to lose.
Volkov will give him a ton of problems on the feet though. Romanov has heavy hands and he’s a willing striker, but he’s raw and if he’s not landing big shots then he’s not doing much effectively. He’ll get picked apart if this stays standing for three rounds.
It won’t. Romanov by decision.
Nikita Krylov (10) vs. Ryan Spann (13)
When I first wrote a prediction for this rescheduled fight, I mused that Nikita Krylov and Ryan Spann could emerge as sleeper contenders in the light heavyweight division with a win. Jiri Prochazka is currently out of the picture, Glover Teixeira is retired, and the division’s title resides around the waist of the talented, but unproven Jamahal Hill.
I feel less strongly about the significance of this fight now that it’s no longer a main event and no longer five rounds. Heck, it’s not even a light heavyweight bout anymore with the fighters agreeing to a 215-pound catchweight due to the awkward turnaround. This is still an important fight for both men, I’m just not sure how the matchmakers and the public are viewing it now that it’s stuck in the middle of a main card.
Pick-wise, I’m sticking with what I originally wrote. I favor Spann due to his speed, power, and recent form, keeping in mind that Krylov has plenty of finishing potential himself and the option to grind out a win if it comes to it.
Spann by second-round club-and-sub.
Said Nurmagomedov vs. Jonathan Martinez
Even more than the main event, this is the toughest bantamweight bout on the card to pick.
Said Nurmagomedov has the name, but he’s also shown has the game to be a factor in this division. He’s a good striker who has flashed his finishing instincts since signing with the UFC, ending four of his past six wins before the third round. He also has the size to match up with Jonathan Martinez, one of the bigger 135ers.
On the Martinez side, there’s a lot to like with his striking, which gets better and better every time we see him. His body type lends itself to frustrating opponents from distance and his aforementioned size makes him a constant threat to finish even if the knockouts haven’t piled up yet. In a standup battle, I actually favor Martinez slightly.
We should see Nurmagomedov mixing the martial arts here and after a bunch of fun back-and-forth exchanges, both on the ground and on the feet, I have Nurmagomedov breaking down Martinez’s defenses and finding a submission in the second or third round.
Mario Bautista vs. Guido Cannetti
I’m glad Mario Bautista and Guido Cannetti were bumped up to the main card, even though it took Ricardo Ramos’ disastrous weigh-in miss to make it happen. Not only am I excited about Bautista’s prospects, but I’m curious to see if the 43-year-old Cannetti can keep the good times rolling as he’s coming off back-to-back wins for the first time in his UFC career.
By the time this fight rolls around, Cannetti will also be batting cleanup for the veteran set, with 40-year-old Raphael Assuncao and 39-year-old Tyson Nam in action on the prelims against Davey Grant and Bruno Silva, respectively. Show those whippersnappers how it’s done!
Unfortunately for “Ninja” fans, the rangy Bautista is too big a hill for Cannetti to climb. Bautista will use his kicks to frustrate Cannetti from range and when the action closes in, Bautista will take this fight to the ground and find a submission. I like Bautista to finish in the first.
Vitor Petrino vs. Anton Turkalj
Vitor Petrino and Anton Turkalj both love to come out swinging, but I think this one will settle down after a frantic start, which benefits Turkalj.
From what we’ve seen of Petrino, Plan A, B, and C is to go in there and start tossing haymakers. That said, he’s also shown adaptability, keeping his calm and composure when his opponent is on the offensive. His best bet is to catch Turkalj with something early and pounce on the opportunity.
Turkalj could try to match Petrino’s pace or, more likely, he weathers the early storm before going to his grappling to slow Petrino down. He works well off of the fence and capitalizes with strong ground-and-pound when he gets the fight to the mat. This will be a tense 15 minutes for him though as Petrino has one-shot KO power.
As well-matched as these two are, you know I can’t pick against “The Pleasure Man.” Turkalj by decision.
Karl Williams def. Lukasz Brzeski
Raphael Assuncao def. Davey Grant
Sedriques Dumas def. Josh Fremd
JJ Aldrich def. Ariane Lipski
Victor Henry def. Tony Gravely
Tyson Nam def. Bruno Silva