Jan Blachowicz is arguably the unlikeliest champion in UFC history. Can he make an even greater run to the top than he did before?
The No. 4 light heavyweight in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings gets his chance to prove that he’s still a contender when he fights No. 6 Aleksandar Rakic in the main event of UFC Vegas 54 on Saturday. This marks Blachowicz’s first fight since losing his championship to Glover Teixeira in October and while it would be easy to count him out at age 39, he’s made a career out of beating the odds and those wins over Israel Adesanya, Dominick Reyes, and Corey Anderson aren’t that distant in the rear view.
Not that Blachowicz’s resume should matter one iota to Rakic. Outside of a questionable split decision loss to Volkan Oezdemir, the Austrian 205er has looked all the world like a surefire title challenger and a dominant performance against Blachowicz will cement his case to be next in line for the winner of the upcoming UFC 275 title fight between Teixeira and Jiri Prochazka. Rakic is a past champion and has now the chance to knock out another.
In other main card action, light heavyweights Ryan Spann and Ion Cutelaba meet in the evening’s penultimate bout, bantamweight veterans Davey Grant and Louis Smolka clash, one-time UFC title challenger Katlyn Chookagian meets strawweight contender Amanda Ribas in a flyweight bout, Frank Camacho returns from a near two-year layoff to fight lightweight newcomer Manuel Torres, and flyweight Jake Hadley makes his UFC debut against Allan Nascimento.
What: UFC Vegas 54
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Jan Blachowicz (4) vs. Aleksandar Rakic (6)
Surely, Jan Blachowicz can’t shock us all again.
I am notoriously bad at assessing Blachowicz fights (of his past six outings, I only correctly predicted that he would beat Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza), but I’m once again confidently picking against him. Rakic has a nine-year-old opponent who’s peaking in skill and physical development.
After being acclaimed as a striking specialist,
Rakic worked tirelessly to show how broad his skills are. He leverages his impressive 6-foot-5 frame to create advantageous grappling situations while still being a threat to land a knockout shot at any moment. Fans might not love the more methodical style he’s employed as he makes his way through the top 10 of the division, but Rakic is winning fights and he’s not taking much damage doing so.
I think Rakic’s maturity is exactly what he needs to get past Blachowicz, an equally diverse fighter who relishes a good scrap. Blachowicz understands that he has the best shot to defeat Rakic’s younger brother. He must drag Rakic into his fight and take him outside of his comfort zone to see if he really can compete for championship glory.
I’m bullish on Rakic’s chances of fighting for a title sooner rather than later, so that means I expect him to get over this particular hump and to do so impressively. Rakic wins the second round by knockout.
Ryan Spann vs. Ion Cutelaba
First, it should be noted that this co-main event is not approved by Alexander K. Lee. The rankings of neither fighter are correct (Katlyn and Amanda Ribas should be given the spot, on merit), and there is no potential for title contenders. That said, fun fight to lead us into the main event!
Ion Cutelaba and Ryan Spann were booked in this plum spot because they promise sweet, sweet chaos. Cutelaba will be meeting Spann in the middle, and they’ll throw their hands together. Expect both men to have a lot of hard shots. Cutelaba will be the first to draw blood, and rock Spann. However, “Superman” should have enough steel to continue the fight.
Normally, I do not like making predictions that are too specific, but this image of Cutelaba charging into Spann and being submitted by a guillotine choke is a vivid one. He would lose the fight in a manner very Cutelaba.
Davey Grant vs. Louis Smolka
This fight will either end in the first round or it will be the Fight of the Night’s frontrunner. I prefer the latter. There’s a strong chance that Davey Grant and Louis Smolka add another bantamweight barnburner to a list that grows exponentially every year, but I actually like Grant to get the finish here.
It’s hard to overstate the talent of Smolka and his sometimes disappointing results. Smolka is an elite finisher, but his aggression can sometimes get the better of him. We’ve witnessed him lose some first round matches in recent years. Grant would be a good matchup, but Grant could also face another opponent that can put him out of his misery.
Grant has been a joy to watch ever since he embraced a free-swinging style, but I’m predicting that he breaks out his dormant submission skills for this one. As great as clubbing folks is, it’s even more fun to club and sub them, so look for Grant to settle the fight down after a frantic opening and catch Smolka in the standup. He’ll grab a neck, forcing a tap in the first round.
Katlyn Chookagian (3) vs. Amanda Ribas (8, SW)
It’s cool that Amanda Ribas decided to take this as a stay-busy fight after missing out on the chance to face Michelle Waterson in March, but there’s nothing fun about fighting Katlyn Chookagian as the perpetually cheery Brazilian is soon to find out. Chookagian is a lot larger than Ribas, so it will be difficult for her to use her grappling to pull off an upset.
Chookagian was tripped up in a similar circumstance a couple of years back when she welcomed Jessica Andrade to the flyweight division, but Ribas doesn’t have the terrifying power of Andrade nor the sheer physicality needed to bully Chookagian. I see this unfolding a lot more like the typical Chookagian fight as she uses her range striking to frustrate Ribas and outpoint her.
Ribas may be able to get the fight down for a longer time but Chookagian, who has previously faced many strong grapplers, and Valentina Shevchenko, have not imposed their will upon her that way. This should be another decision win for the 125-pound division’s best gatekeeper.
Frank Camacho vs. Manuel Torres
Let’s get a round of applause for Frank Camacho, who returns to action after a car accident forced him out of a UFC 263 clash with Matt Frevola last June. We haven’t seen him in action for almost two years, but he is always entertaining to watch.
Tough call here as Camacho has a major experience advantage over the 27-year-old Manuel Torres, a recent Contender Series signing out of Mexico. Torres, however, has been a legit fighter during his three fight win streak. He shows that he can use his large frame to strike and to tie up his opponents for submissions. He’s also deceptively strong, which will help him if he decides to implement a more wrestling-oriented game plan.
Camacho is the one to admit that he can be offensive-minded. He will abandon any prefight strategies once his opponent has been within his reach. Torres could easily overwhelm him as he is more battle-tested than any Torres has ever faced. However, I trust Torres will keep his cool, maintain control, and ultimately hurt Camacho in a frenzy before he finishes on the floor.
Jake Hadley vs. Allan Nascimento
UFC President Dana White stuck his neck out to bring in Jake Hadley after the former Cage Warriors champion missed weight and allegedly rubbed officials the wrong way ahead of his Contender Series appearance this past October. It’s now that Hadley is ready to repay their faith.
There is a reason Hadley, an undefeated fighter, is so highly regarded in the U.K. He has outstanding wrestling skills, unorthodox striking defense and high motor. The latter is crucial to survival in UFC’s flyweight division. The name of the game for him against Allan Nascimento will be pressure, pressure, pressure.
Nascimento brings great size to the flyweight division and tricky submission skills. Although he didn’t win his fight against Tagir Ulanbekov in the last bout, he did make Ulanbekov work for a split decision. Hadley can catch him if he gets a grip on UFC rookie Hadley.
As long as Hadley is smart and consistent with his approach on Saturday, he can match Ulanbekov’s performance. Although you would like to see him take some punishment on his feet and force the fight to the floor, Nascimento might not allow that. Even if it doesn’t end up being a showcase of his talent, I trust Hadley will make a persuasive decision.
Andrea Lee (13) def. Viviane Araujo (12)
Alan Patrick def. Michael Johnson
Angela Hill (13) def. Virna Jandiroba (14)
Tatsuro Taira def. Carlos Candelario
Nick Maximov def. Andre Petroski