Saturday night, the UFC will present its 35th “Vegas” themed fight card with the added bonus of also being the The Ultimate Fighter finale event as well. The 12-fight bout sheet features several “official” debuts. However, if you’ve been keeping up with the show, none of these faces will be new. Two Season 29 winners will be crowned, one at bantamweight and one at middleweight.
Sitting atop the card in the headlining spot is a certified banger of a fight that features two of the most exciting featherweight athletes: Edson Barboza vs. Giga Chikadze. If that contest doesn’t get you amped up, I might have to wonder if you have a pulse. After losing a questionable split-decision to Dan Ige in his featherweight debut, Barboza has rattled off two impressive wins over Makwan Amirkhani and most recently Shane Burgos. Chickadze is undefeated in his UFC tenure and 13-2 in his overall record.
As previously mentioned, we have a pair of The Ultimate Fighter: Season 29 contests that take the two spots immediately preceding the main event. Ricky Turcios will take on Brady Hiestand at 135 pounds, and in the co-main event, Bryan Battle will face off against Gilbert Urbina at 185 pounds. Other fights of real interest on the main card are Kevin Lee vs. Daniel Rodriguez and Gerald Meerschaert’s long awaited matchup with Makhmud Muradov.
Further down the card we have exciting bouts between Abdul Razak Alhassan vs. Alessio Di Chirico, Jamall Emmers vs. Pat Sabatini and a super intriguing bout between highly touted prospect Mana Martinez and Guido Cannetti. This seems like a proper treat on paper, and seems like it will likely deliver in practice, as well.
We’ve selected four fighters from the event that will illustrate why they are worthy of their lofty or budget-conscious price tags in an effort to help you select your DraftKings fantasy lineups. Let’s get started.
Kevin Lee $8,500
Kevin Lee may have hit some bumps along his career path, but he presents the type of challenge that is the perfect foil to Daniel Rodriguez’s aggressive style. Lee fights out of the orthodox stance, as opposed to Daniel’s southpaw stance, and uses his striking quite well to set up his takedowns. His wrestling is outstanding, much better than Nicolas Dalby’s, whose takedown efforts were largely thwarted by Rodriguez when they fought late last year. Dalby was able to beat Rodriguez on the feet, and more importantly, was able to weather the heavy bombs he was eating. Lee is a powerful wrestler with a great blast double and lead-heavy top game. His high kicks are lethal, as Gregor Gillespie found out the hard way, and he’s a quite capable striker, seeing his way to TKO wins over Jake Matthews and Edson Barboza. In the fight with Barboza, Lee punished Edson with elbows, knees and nasty ground-and-pound. There’s a good argument to be made that Rodriguez has earned the step up in competition, but I can’t shake the feeling that he’s not quite ready for the Kevin Lees of the world just yet. “D-Rod” has been matched pretty favorably with strikers for the most part to this point, so facing someone with the kind of well-honed weapons that the “Motown Phenom” has, could end up resulting in his third career loss.
Makhmud Muradov $9,300
Makhmud Muradov has the tools to become a real standout in the middleweight division. Blessed with insane power and speed, “Mach” will be hard to beat come Saturday night, especially for the lumbering Meerschaert. Gerald Meerschaert is a great submission grappler but getting past the hammers that Muradov throws with such speed and accuracy is going to be a monumental task, one that I don’t think he’s up for. To add to Muradov’s impressive tool chest is a deep gas tank and the ability to still be a threat late in a fight, as evidenced by third round knockouts in his last two contests.
“GM3” is dangerous on the ground but getting the fight there will require a significant risk, and Muradov is always poised to dole out punishment to those that would attempt takedowns. Muradov is a pretty active striker, averaging 5.32 SLPM (strikes landed per minute), while only absorbing 2.92 in that same stretch. By comparison, the much slower, less active Meerschaert averages just 3.31 SLPM while absorbing 3.6 in the same timeframe, so it’s safe to assume that his defensive technique is on the porous side, and that can end his night early, considering how hard the Uzbek lands. Sure, Meerschaert could pull a rabbit out of the hat and grab one of Mach’s limbs or his neck, but I wouldn’t bank on it. The smart money is on Muradov.
Giga Chikadze $8,000
Giga Chikadze could be in line for a title eliminator with a win over the ultra-dangerous Edson Barboza. There’s a reason the line between the two is razor-thin, it’s because they are so closely matched. It’s a significant step up for Chikadze, who has literally called out everyone in the top of the division, finally getting his wish for a step up, even if it’s just a single step (Giga is ranked No. 10, Edson is at No. 9). Both men have a kickboxing style with dynamic striking that has led to many knockouts between them. Chikadze is undefeated in his UFC run to date, racking up six wins, most recently against Cub Swanson. He faces his toughest challenge to date in Barboza, who has lit the night on fire with memorable knockouts over Rafaello Oliveira, Evan Dunham, Beneil Dariush, and of course, the highlight reel finish of Terry Etim. To this day, that is the gnarliest head kick knockout I’ve ever seen, and the scariest, considering the way Etim stiffened up when he hit the canvas.
Giga is, in my opinion, the successor to Barboza’s throne of flashy knockouts. Edson can take a beating, but as he gets older and considering the wars he’s been in, I’m left wondering when the inevitable decline will start showing. And while a loss to the surging Chikadze wouldn’t necessarily mean he’s washed, it would be a good indicator that he probably doesn’t have a title run in him at featherweight. It’s a close call, but I’m leaning Chikadze.
Abdul Razak Alhassan $7,300
Abdul Razak Alhassan is in a precarious spot, as he is currently on a three-fight skid. Once a promising prospect, he lost his way, dropping fights to Mounir Lassez, Kalinn Williams and Jacob Malkoun. The only other blemish on his record is a loss to Omari Akhmedov. He faces a tough customer in Alessio Di Chirico, who is likely in the same precarious position with a three-fight skid in his rear-view before finally breaking free with a head kick knockout of Joaquin Buckley this past January. A loss for either man could mean a pink slip, so I expect to see a solid effort from them.
Both men are aggressive strikers, but Chirico arguably has faced — albeit lost — to better competition. When it comes to raw power, I believe Alhassan has the edge, but he’ll need to get the job done early, as the three times he’s gone the distance, have also been three of his four losses. Chirico, by comparison, has gone the distance seven times, with three of them being wins. The longer this contest goes on, the more it favors Alessio. This is a very, very bold call on my part, and one that’s definitely not for the risk-averse crowd. There’s a very good chance Chirico takes the win, but I’m a sucker for a heavy underdog, and Alhassan has the kind of fight-ending power that could plant Chirico and make this crazy pick pay off.
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