After four weeks without UFC fights to occupy my thoughts every waking moment, I, for one, am certainly looking forward to the world’s premier MMA organization’s return in 2021.
They’re not skimping by any means, as we have three straight events lined up at Fight Island, before (I assume) returning to the APEX facility in Las Vegas.
Our first event of the new year will be headlined by a top-notch Featherweight showdown, as former champion Max Holloway makes his return after a controversial defeat opposite hard-hitting New Englander Calvin Kattar. The rest of our main card is stacked as well. featuring the likes of Carlos Condit, Joaquin Buckley, and the long awaited return of Santiago Ponzinibbio.
Max Holloway vs. Calvin Kattar (FTW)
After Max Holloway (21-6, 17-6 UFC) lost his belt to Alexander Volkanovski last December, he was given an immediate rematch, which he lost in an incredibly controversial split decision. Though he has proved his knockout ability with ten career KO wins, Max doesn’t exactly have one-shot power and he doesn’t have stellar submission skills, but he kickboxes like no one else can. He just dances in and out of range, never letting his opponent get a shot off. He can work well from both southpaw and orthodox and fires leg kicks too to soften his opponent. What sets Max apart is the cardio and pace that he forces his opponent to try to maintain for five rounds, which is a task few are able to maintain when he takes away their power with his movement and their grappling with his takedown defense.
Calvin Kattar (21-4, 5-2 UFC) performed in a big way at UFC 249, finishing hard-hitting veteran Jeremy Stephens in the second round with a picture perfect elbow. His first main event slotting followed opposite Dan Ige, who he dominated in an entertaining scrap. Kattar is primarily a boxer with some nice power and a stifling jab. He can fight well off of his front foot or back foot and can use or avoid pressure very well, often shifting his pressure and movement to throw off his opponent. The weak spot in Kattar’s game is on the ground, but he can get back to his feet quickly and is difficult to hold down, giving him the perfect ability to keep the fight on the feet. On the feet, he has shown lapses in his leg kick defense and volume, but has some of the most technical hands in the sport.
I expect a through-and-through striking war in this bout with both competitors finding success. The Bostonian Kattar seems to hold a clear power advantage and doubles down on his shots with greater success, but the Hawaiian’s trademark movement and feinting will keep the bout at his preferred range. That will be Kattar’s key struggle, as he has displayed difficulty against longer opponents who can outwork his quick hands. Holloway has the snappy leg kicks, elite movement, and more proven gas tank to wear down his opponent and take over the longer the bout goes. I see Holloway putting on an onslaught of punishment to reenter the win column.
Take the Shot: Max Holloway via Decision
Matt Brown vs. Carlos Condit (WW)
Matt Brown (22-17, 15-11 UFC) returned to the premier MMA organization after two years in retirement to KO Ben Saunders. He was unable to capitalize on that momentum against the rising Miguel Baeza, who knocked out the Ultimate Fighter Season 7 contestant in the second round. “The Immortal” is a brawler with a ruthless penchant for violence, loving to throw elbows and high-amplitude kicks along with his powerful boxing. Finishing all but two of his pro victories with fourteen of those by knockout, Brown is a dangerous opponent to be standing across from. However, his durability has waned in recent years, rocked in both of his two bouts post-retirement and his notorious weakness to body shots an ever pressing matter.
On the heels of a five-fight losing streak kicked off with his split decision loss to Robbie Lawler for the title, Carlos Condit (31-13, 8-9 UFC) got back to his winning ways with a decision over Court McGee in October. “The Natural Born Killer” is an exciting fighter who holds an astounding twenty-eight finishes to his name. His high output striking populated with long boxing and powerful kicks combined with his sneaky submission game on the mat makes his dangerous from bell to bell and he has put away a number of elite fighters. Condit’s lapses have primarily come against adept grapplers who can exploit his takedown defense and find success once established in top control, as he has been submitted six times.
I am a little shocked by the co-main slotting of this bout, as cage fighting doesn’t have an old timer’s day, but this is a surprisingly close bout for both fighters. While his defense is not what it once was, Brown’s knockout ability has been on full display in recent years with highlight reel performances against Diego Sanchez and Ben Saunders. However, while Brown has traded wins and losses against spotty competition, Condit has been up against real killers all through the midst of his losing streak. While his ground issues have been fully exposed, he is still a dangerous fighter in every arena who has still been able to find success on the feet, even in his losses. The durability concerns of Brown and his desire to brawl leave Condit with numerous opportunities to ring in the new year with a classic performance.
Take the Shot: Carlos Condit via Knockout
Santiago Ponzinibbio vs. Li Jingliang (WW)
After more than two years away from the cage, Santiago Ponzinibbio (27-3, 9-2 UFC) will be making his long awaited return to the Octagon. Last seen knocking out Neil Many in the fourth round of their main event in Ponzinibbio’s native Argentina, he will be looking to reclaim the hype that surrounded his name. “Gente Boa” is a fearsome knockout artist holding twenty three finishes in his pro career, including seventeen by way of knockout. His striking is based around his pocket entries and long striking, keeping distance and a high defense before unloading with his power punches. Though his wrestling could use some improvement, his grappling skill as well as his ability to reclaim his footing keep the bout in his preferred wheelhouse on the feet.
Li Jingliang (17-6, 9-4 UFC) will be searching for a return to the win column after a decision defeat to Neil Magny (also Ponz’s last opponent) in February. “The Leech” has an entertaining style, waiting for his opening then unloading with power combinations. Though his volume has been a concern at times, he has fight-changing power and deadly precision to instantly end the fight, like he did just last year opposite Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos. He brings in capable groundwork as well, with five of his twelve finishes ending in submission, as well as powerful wrestling entries. Though Li is indeed a powerhouse with a chance to win this bout, I am having difficulty finding an avenue to victory for the Chinese fighter. His striking is more laid back and does not push Ponzinibbio enough, who will be able to find his shot openings with ease. On top of that, his wrestling is not enough to subdue the hulking Argentine, who I expect to cruise over Li en route to a late finish.
Take the Shot: Santiago Ponzinibbio via Knockout
Joaquin Buckley vs. Alessio di Chirico (MW)
After a loss in his UFC debut to the surging Kevin Holland, Joaquin Buckley (12-3) turned around and scored two brutal KO wins. Practically everyone even aware of MMA has seen his jumping back kick KO of Impa Kasanganay, displaying his powerful striking that has earned him nine career knockout wins. Buckley’s struggles have been against complete fighters who can breach his tough takedown defense and subdue him on his back. That said, “New Mansa” has quickly improving technique, furious explosive abilities, and a capable gas tank that grant him numerous opportunities to send his power strikes home.
Italy’s own Alessio di Chirico (12-5, 3-5 UFC) has been pretty successful so far as a mixed martial artist, blending different styles together to make a well-rounded game. Now riding a three-fight losing streak, di Chirico will be making his first appearance since an August defeat to Zak Cummings. “Manzo” has done well against fighters who also use that blended style, relying on his wrestling and power to lend him victories. His best area is definitely his ground game, as he doesn’t piece combos together super well, but does have enough power to get the job done on the feet.
This seems like a step down in competition for Buckley, who took on two capable prospects after his debut and passed with flying colors. That said, di Chirico has powerful wrestling and sneaky submissions in his back pocket, providing a new test to hopefully see more of Buckley’s skillset. Buckley does have impressive takedown defense and while his grappling is a little lackluster, di Chirico is not the level of takedown artist who will be able to secure Buckley on his back. On top of that, his striking volume is too paltry to find the holes between New Mansa’s winging power shots and he keeps his chin too high for the level of one-punch KO power that Buckley holds.
Take the Shot: Joaquin Buckley via Knockout
Punahele Soriano vs. Dusko Todorovic (MW)
A thorough scrap against Jamie Pickett on the Contender Series brought Punahele Soriano (7-0, 1-0 UFC) to the Octagon, where he made short work of Oskar Piechota in his debut to earn a first round knockout. “Story Time” is a massively entertaining fighter who comes prepared to brawl, ending all but one victory inside the first round, but has skilled ground work as well. On the feet, Puna primarily goes to work with his hands, throwing brutal power hooks with bad intentions behind them, which have resulted in four knockout victories over his pro career. He has proficient mat skills, featuring quick takedown entries as well as adept back control, and holds two rear naked chokes to his name.
Dusko Todorovic (10-0, 1-0 UFC) earned his way to the big show with a decision victory on the Contender Series. He followed that up by finishing Dequan Townsend in his Octagon debut, knocking him out in the second round with relentless ground and pound. Dusko does his best work standing, utilizing his ridiculous output and striking variety. Though his lackluster head movement and low hands leave him open to taking his fair share of shots, his slips and chin durability have kept him out of serious danger to this point. He has some wrestling chops in his back pocket as well as doing some real damage in the clinch to diversify his attack.
This is a fantastic scrap between two prospects with developed skillsets, both of whom I believe have a high ceiling in this sport. I am super intrigued as to where this bout takes place, as either has the skill to find success on the mat or the feet. For my money, these fighters are likely to stand and bang. Dusko undeniably has the more slick striking, with a 63% significant strike accuracy, while Puna much prefers to throw bombs and wild hooks. On top of that, Todorovic is the more active striker and is best when pushing the pace against his opponents. That said, his defense has shown lapses and Soriano will have opportunities to find a fight-ending shot. If he cannot, however, he is in for a rough night. The cardio and relentless pacing, as well as controlling clinch, will have Dusko stand out more the longer the fight goes as the hard-charging Soriano begins to gas.
Take the Shot: Dusko Todorovic via Decision
Our first card of the year is pretty stacked as is, and I expect some highlight reel performances on Saturday. Be sure to catch the card going down on ABC for the first time and don’t forget to check out Coby McKinley’s breakdown of the prelims!