Not a dream! Not a hoax! Not an imaginary story!
A non-title flyweight fight is actually headlining a UFC event.
For the first time since August 2017, when Brandon Moreno and Sergio Pettis closed the show in Mexico City, the UFC has graced a pair of 125-pound contenders with the main event spot. On Saturday, that honor falls upon Kai Kara-France and Amir Albazi.
As you might have guessed, this wasn’t the promotion’s first choice for UFC Vegas 74, as middleweights Jack Hermansson and Brendan Allen were originally slotted to headline, but as usual Dana White and co. can only fall upwards as they’ve been blessed with an arguably more compelling show-closer.
Kara-France is looking to avoid being saddled with a reputation of not being able to win the big one after missing out on a vacant interim title at UFC 277 where he lost a rematch to Moreno. On the other side, a big win for Albazi not only sends him rocketing up the ranks, it could put him in pole position for a title shot.
This card also features three of the longest tenured fighters on the UFC roster with Alex Caceres making appearance no. 28 when he meets Alex Pineda in the evening’s penultimate bout, Jim Miller extending his company record of 42 UFC outings when he takes on last-second replacement Jesse Butler, and Andrei Arlovski hitting the 40-fight milestone on the prelims.
What: UFC Vegas 74
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings)
Kai Kara-France (5) vs. Amir Albazi (13)
These two well-rounded fighters have 25 minutes to sort each other out, but I get the sense that this one will end earlier than expected.
Call it a hunch, but I actually like Amir Albazi’s chances of getting his grappling game going to beat Kai Kara-France. That’s not to say that Albazi just floors Kara-France repeatedly with blast doubles, but look for him to have success working against the fence and using those opportunities to take Kara-France’s back.
I also feel that the striking is closer on paper than one would assume. Yes, Kara-France has a well-earned reputation of being the more advanced striker, but Albazi has solid defense, sharp counters, and enough power to keep Kara-France honest. He mixes patience and aggression well, which is key for defusing Kara-France.
Of course, if this exclusively stays a standup contest, then Kara-France will run away with it. He’s so difficult to figure out when he’s effectively darting in and out, landing damaging strikes while leaving his opponents hitting air. He does have some defensive deficiencies, which I see Albazi exploiting.
I’ve got Albazi ending this one before Round 3 via submission.
Alex Caceres vs. Daniel Pineda
Did someone order a finish?
Alex Caceres has plenty of wins by decision on his resume and Daniel Pineda has none, so I’m leaning towards this being more of a Pineda-style fight... except it’s Caceres who will add to his highlight tally.
It’s true that every time Caceres goes on a win streak we start wondering if the veteran has finally hit his stride and while I still doubt that a title shot is in his future, “Bruce Leeroy” has firmly established himself as a top guy in the second tier of the featherweight division. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Pineda hasn’t even sniffed a decision in over seven years and there’s no reason he shouldn’t go for the kill against Caceres, who is no stranger to being finished. Look for him to come out guns blazing to kick off what should be an entertaining back-and-forth scrap for as long as it lasts. In the end, I see Caceres hurting Pineda and pouring it on for a finish via strikes.
Jim Miller vs. Jesse Butler
I don’t know how much time Jim Miller has had to scout Jesse Butler with Butler having taken this fight on two days’ notice (he replaced Jared Gordon, who himself was a replacement for Ludovit Klein), but I’m confident his team had enough time to cram and make this an easy night for “A-10.”
All the credit in the world to Butler for seizing this opportunity, it’s just that his particular style plays right into Miller’s hands. When striking, Butler likes to stay on the outside and grapple if his opponent closes the distance. That’s worked well for him on the regional level, but against the seasoned Miller that simple strategy isn’t going to cut it. Miller’s grappling is too advanced for Butler to assert himself there, so if Miller does get inside, he’s going to just start throwing hands and busting Butler up.
Add in the lack of prep time for Butler and the fact that he’s fighting at a heavier weight class than usual, and I don’t see how he pulls off this upset on Saturday. Miller will drag him into a firefight and scorch him with punches for the win.
Tim Elliott (T15) vs. Victor Altamirano
Thank you MMA Gods for blessing us with this funky flyweight matchup.
On a little over a month’s notice, Victor Altamirano steps in to fight Tim Elliott and I can’t think of a weirder matchup in this division. Altamirano fights like he’s slightly off-balance at all times (and yet, somehow also under complete control?) and Elliott is an absolute demon especially if he gets the fight to the ground. Fun!
This one could be over in a flash if Elliott’s aggression leads him directly into trouble, but I’m picking him to rush Altamirano and take this fight where he wants it to go. Altamirano has a sturdy ground game, just not enough of one to convince me that he can control Elliott or fend off his aggressive submission attempts.
I’m not prepared to suggest that Elliott’s personal drama will fuel him (though Mackenzie Dern’s recent performance suggests that maybe there’s something to be said about venting one’s frustrations inside the cage?), but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the most aggressive version of Elliott that we’ve seen in some time.
Elliott by first-round submission.
Karine Silva vs. Ketlen Souza
The debuting Ketlen Souza has one major attribute on her side: unpredictability. She doesn’t excel in any particular area of MMA, but she uses her athleticism well and fights smart. What concerns me is that her offensive package doesn’t exactly jump off the page, which is the opposite of how I’d describe Karine Silva.
Though Silva has bouts of inconsistency, they’re not enough to deter me from picking her to win this fight and continue her march towards a title shot. The Contender Series signing is such an intriguing prospect due to her finishing ability. Like Daniel Pineda, Silva only knows one way to win and that’s by making sure her opponents want out. All 15 of her pro wins have come by way of knockout or submission.
I like Silva to continue that trend and if I have to forecast a finish, it begins with Silva taking Souza down. Souza is no slouch on the mat, but she’s had difficulties with less dangerous grapplers than Silva. Give Silva a round or two to wear Souza out and find an opening for a choke.
Elizeu Zaleski vs. Abubakar Nurmagomedov
One thing we can say for sure about Abubakar Nurmagomedov is that the man is not in a hurry. He fights at his own pace, which works because he can coax his opponents into fighting at that pace and then he has them right where he wants them. How this approach will work against the wildly creative Elizeu Zaleski is the question.
Zaleski also has his own distinct rhythm, so fans might be disappointed when this welterweight clash gets off to a slow start. Keep in mind that Zaleski has been out of action since October 2021, in part because he had to serve a one-year USADA suspension. At 36, it’s fair to question of the best days of “Capoeira” are behind him.
Even if Zaleski’s striking is in peak form, the wrestling of Nurmagomedov could give him a serious headache. As Nurmagomedov’s famous name suggests, he’s incredibly strong and times his takedown attempts beautifully. He’s not quite as relentless as cousin Khabib nor is his ground game as potent, but he might demoralize Zaleski with his focus on top control.
If Zaleski’s timing is even slightly off, he’ll struggle to take advantage of the rare openings that Nurmagomedov will give him. Meanwhile, Nurmagomedov will methodically close the distance and score with a steady diet of takedowns and ground-and-pound until the final buzzer sounds.
Nurmagomedov by decision.
Andrei Arlovski def. Don’Tale Mayes