Marlon Vera vs. Cory Sandhagen is a certified banger, but we have the same lingering question that we asked two weeks ago: What are these bantamweight contenders fighting for?
Much like UFC Las Vegas headliners Petr Yan and Merab Dvalishvili, no matter who wins Saturday’s UFC San Antonio main event, there’s no guarantee that either Vera or Sandhagen — No. 6 and No. 5 respectively in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings — will fight for a title anytime soon. That’s what happens when you keep handing out title shots based on name value (I’m looking at you, T.J. Dillashaw and Henry Cejudo) rather than rewarding the fighters who have actually been putting in work in one of the best divisions in all of MMA.
But I digress.
We can appreciate Vera vs. Sandhagen for what it is, one of the best matchups you can make pound-for-pound right now based on merit and entertainment value. And neither fighter has made much of a stink about being passed over, which should continue to ingratiate them with the matchmakers. Let’s hope that tonight’s winner gets the respect they deserve coming out of what is sure to be a brutal battle.
In other main card action, Holly Holm welcomes Yana Santos back to the octagon, Nate Landwehr meets Austin Lingo in a featherweight slugfest, flyweight veteran Andrea Lee looks to snap Maycee Barber’s win streak, Alex Perez and Manel Kape meet in a key flyweight contest, and middleweights Chidi Njokuani and Albert Duraev open the show.
What: UFC San Antonio
Where: AT&T Center in San Antonio
When: Saturday, March 25. The five-fight preliminary card begins at 4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+, followed by a six-fight main card at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings)
Marlon Vera (6) vs. Cory Sandhagen (5)
This is about as evenly matched as it gets in the loaded men’s bantamweight division, so if you have a surefire pick, you’re a smarter person than I am.
My mind tilted towards Marlon Vera when this fight was announced and I’m sticking to it, if only because considering all the possible permutations that could arise from this meeting of well-rounded competitors is enough to make my tiny head explode. So let’s predict that this one stays primarily on the feet and that Vera’s edge in power is what makes the difference here.
I use “edge” in the strictest sense of the phrase because Cory Sandhagen is also more than capable of generating explosive finishes out of nowhere. These two will be walking a fine line for as long as this one lasts, with any mistake possibly opening the door to a fight-changing strike. First-round finish? Entirely possible. One guy turns up the gas and ends it in the later rounds? Sure. Both men collapse after an epic five-round duel? Sign me up.
If I have to choose, I’m going with the second option, with Vera working to set up a power shot for three rounds before finally catching Sandhagen in the fourth and then swarming for the finish. Sandhagen won’t go down easy, but I trust a relentless “Chito” to force the referee to step in for the save.
Holly Holm (5) vs. Yana Santos (7)
It says a lot about the women’s bantamweight division that Holly Holm and Yana Santos are firmly entrenched in the top 10 despite the fact that Holm hasn’t won a fight since 2020 and Santos hasn’t fought in 20 months (she was still Yana Kunitskaya when we last saw her!). It says even more that one of these women could be fighting for the title next if they perform well enough on Saturday.
So who gets it done? Though she didn’t have much luck on the scorecards in her most recent outing against Ketlen Vieira, Holm’s grinding style has produced results in the past. Holm has made a habit out of frustrating her opponents with her wall-and-stall style, which suits her due to her impressive strength and balance and her proclivity to avoid damage. It might not be pretty, but this is how you extend a career, folks.
Can Santos muck this one up a bit and force Holm into a fight? She’ll have to be at her most disruptive, which is a lot to ask given that she’s coming back from such a long layoff, but youth is on her side and if it comes down to striking she has a much better chance than if Holm just smothers her.
I’m actually going out on a limb here and predicting that Holm opens up some, which she shouldn’t be too hesitant to do given that Santos’ defense is suspect. When Santos loses, it’s usually in dramatic fashion, so let’s go with Holm getting her striking going late and finding her first finish since 2017.
Nate Landwehr vs. Austin Lingo
The Human Embodiment of Tennesee vs. The Man From The Mean Streets Of Mesquite? Let’s go.
File this one under people’s main event, because Nate Landwehr never fails to deliver and Austin Lingo deserves major props for stepping in here on less than two weeks’ notice as a replacement for Alex Caceres. Landwehr vs. Caceres would have been great and I still hope to see it, but this one is special in its own way.
While Lingo hasn’t recaptured the pre-UFC magic that saw him record three straight sub-30 second finishes before joining the promotion in 2020, he has shown something else: That he can put together an effective three-round performance. He may need to do so again Saturday because Landwehr is likely to drag Lingo to Hell if he doesn’t put Landwehr away in Round 1.
Those are the only two options as far as I’m concerned: Lingo first-round finish or Landwehr wins a war and since I’m not inclined to pick against “The Train,” then it’s Landwehr by decision for me and an extra $50,000 for both men after delivering the Fight of the Night.
Andrea Lee vs. Maycee Barber (15)
The oddsmakers have Maycee Barber as a healthy favorite (hovering around -250 on DraftKings) over Andrea Lee, which tells you how much Barber has improved in her past two fights, and also how pundits are viewing Lee at this stage of her career. It’s fair to ask if the ship has sailed on Lee as a championship contender.
Where Barber has excelled is in outmuscling opponents in the clinch, a position in which she can both stifle their offense and score points herself. She has spark in those hands, but her standup remains a work in progress. If Lee is on point, she could not only pick Barber apart on the feet, but also give her headaches on the mat if she can take the fight there.
I’m trusting Barber’s athleticism and quickness to keep her out of gnarly predicaments on the ground, while her pressure game will keep Lee on the defensive for the majority of the contest.
Barber by decision.
Alex Perez (10) vs. Manel Kape (11)
Alex Perez’s wrestling should be a major factor in this one, because if he decides to just stand and trade with Manel Kape, it could end poorly for him. He has the movement and boxing to make things interesting, but simply put, Kape might be the most dangerous striker in the flyweight division.
So it will come down to whether or not Kape can suss out Perez’s takedown timing and make him pay for his attempts. Kape has excellent patience, which has hurt him on the scorecards in the past, but will be a virtue against Perez. Aside from the main event, this is the biggest chess match on the card and every round could be decided by one key moment. A Perez takedown could open the door for him to ground-and-pound his way to a 10-9 or a Kape knockdown could erase all of Perez’s output in a flash.
Super fun matchup, I’m going Kape by knockout.
Chidi Njokuani vs. Albert Duraev
What better way to start a UFC Fight Night in 2023 with a classic striker vs. grappler matchup?
Everyone knows how this one will go: Chidi Njokuani will find his rhythm and scorch Albert Duraev on the feet, or Duraev will get his wrestling going and punish Njokuani on the ground. If we get something out of left field like Njokuani catching Duraev with a flying armbar or Duraev blasting Njokuani with a one-hitter quitter, then you just throw your hands up and say, “Hey, that’s MMA.”
Assuming everything goes according to script, I like Njokuani to avoid takedowns for the better part of three rounds while battering Duraev with counters. Once Duraev starts to crack in Round 3, Njokuani will pick up the pace and end it inside the distance.
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