UFC 286 Preview and Picks

UFC 286 Preview and Picks

UFC 286 Preview and Picks

For perspective and for fun, here's my August 23rd recap of Edwards' KO win: 

"It's interesting to note that in between rounds, you could hear Usman's coach, Trevor Wittman, yelling '"No Mistakes"'. It's like he anticipated this fight going off the rails if Usman got too comfortable... or God forbid, took a shot to the groin. Usman started the round bullying Edwards up against the cage, showing off his superior gas tank, and tucking us in to witness his impending record-tying win. Referee Herb Dean was going to have none of that, he very curiously broke them up and restarted the fight in the center of the octagon, just enough space for Edwards to land that belt-line groin kick. Things had officially started going off the rails. With a minute left in the fight and Usman barely managing to keep a grip on the momentum, Leon Edwards did something spectacular."


In summary, a lot went into that fight-ending sequence, some of it out of either fighter's control and some of it within their control. If your aim to is to reassure Usman that he'll win this upcoming bout, you might tell him that a 5th round as bizarre as that isn't very common, and lightning doesn't strike the same place twice... does it? 




           1. Leon Edwards (20-3-1NC) vs. Kamaru Usman (20-2)


              This is one of those trilogy fights where the first fight was so early in their career that a tightly contested win for either man might not rule out a 4th fight. That being said, if either man dominates then that will probably end their competitive saga. Usman had their last fight going his way for 17 minutes until it wasn't, sealing the deal here would only confirm what we already thought, Leon can catch you but Usman is a different animal with suffocating wrestling and high fight IQ. Leon on the other hand went and head-kicked the guy into oblivion, if he goes back to back with a finish even half as exciting as that it would be hard to argue for a 4th fight. The lead-up to this fight gives me Stipe vs. Cormier 3 vibes, where we saw the younger fighter win the 2nd fight late in dramatic fashion. The younger fighter fully realized their potential where they previously only wondered what could be. That carried over into the next fight where Stipe shut out Cormier for 4 rounds on two judges' scorecards, only giving up 1 takedown to the superior grappler. That newfound level of confidence and momentum is hard to deny. That may have been an anomaly though, we are talking about Kamaru Usman after all, the same stud who was 1 win away from tying Anderson Silva's UFC streak of 16 in a row. Conventional wisdom is on Usman's side, suffocating grappling tends to beat brilliant striking, and with that being said Usman might as well be an honorary Dagestani. 


             Cumulatively Usman lands every other takedown he attempts, and historically he only needs 1 to drown you and take the round. This explains why he averages 3 takedowns per 15 minutes (or 3 total rounds). We might recall that Leon did land the first takedown on Kamaru, but that was the only takedown he landed and therefore could be chalked up as a product of surprise. Usman went on to dominate the next 3 rounds, holding up his average takedown defense of 97%. Yes, you read that correctly. The guy is an almost immovable object and Colby Covington can attest to that, having had all 11 attempts stuffed by Usman in their last fight. So the path looks clear for Usman, go back to the wrestling and avoid the head kick at all costs, which is to say pay attention to the range for all 25 minutes. If you're within striking distance then you have to either commit to the phone booth or get the heck out of dodge. He can't linger on the outside of Leon's jab or take an ill-advised glance at the clock. Stay focused and stay committed, or stay the heck away from this man. And for Christ's sake, don't let the ref get in your head. 


            Hardcore History: Before Leon shook the world and became the latest example of what's possible for British martial artists, he was but another child growing up in 'serious poverty'. Living in a shack in Kingston, Jamaica with his father, mother (who gave birth to Leon at just 15) and younger brother Fabian was just the beginning, it wasn't long before his father's struggles would become his own. Leon notes, "street fighting was the least of my worries as a kid", as he paints a picture of his youth in an interview with Megan Olivi. His father was known as "The General" as he was the leader of a local gang. Due to his risky business, his father would eventually leave his family when Leon was just 6 and move to London, England. 


          Around 3 years later his mother moved them to England, knowing it was time for change and to reunite them with their father. As one might imagine, the adjustment was difficult. The call came around 2am that his Father had been murdered in a London nightclub. At only 13 years old and not sure how to handle his emotion, this tragedy would drive Leon to a life of crime. Working 3 jobs and raising 2 kids on her own would only make his mom's life more difficult as Leon was constantly in and out of jail. The ultimate change in his fortune would come when his mother showed him a new martial arts gym opening up above a Blockbuster video rental store, just down the street from their house. Leon knew absolutely nothing about MMA but was willing to give it a go. Fast forward to modern day, he's the welterweight champion of the world and his brother Fabian is a top 10 middleweight for Bellator MMA. His brother has his own 'fight of his life' coming up as he's set to take on UFC vet Gegard Mousasi in May at Bellator 296. Leon praises his mother as the driving force for his turn around, and for his and his brother's good fortune. Without her grace he's sure he would be on a path toward disaster. 

Kamaru Usman grew up in a small village in Auchi, Nigeria with little access to running water, let alone drinking water. As he tells it, his mother and grandma hustled to make ends meet and provide them with each meal. His father was stateside trying to set them up for a better life. They eventually emigrated from Nigeria to the U.S. when Usman was 8 years old. Similar to Leon's story, the transition was immensely difficult and he wouldn't find his way till he made the high school wrestling team. Which as we now know led to his fighting career. This is where the real tragedy hits, his father started a very successful ambulance company in Texas, living 'the American dream' as we refer to it. When Kamaru was only 21, his father was charged with 14 federal offenses and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Turns out the business partner he hired to run the company 'allegedly' got into some mischievous dealings and ran the company into the ground. Nothing was done to pursue the individuals responsible, even though they admitted fault, instead the courts found it appropriate to solely incarcerate Muhammed Usman because he was the owner. 

Dave’s Pick: Usman comes in at -250 favorite with the total at 4.5 rounds -200 to the over. This is a hard one to chose as I love how everything went down in the last time out. The drama, the emotion, the speech. It’s a big reason why I love this sport - because of everything that was encapsulated inside that 24 minute fight. IDT Edwards gets it done here. Usman was soundly defeating Edwards last time out. He beat him the first time they met. Even though a win for Edwards would be epic for the sport, I have to take Usman. I hate laying anything over 250, and generally it’s a hard rule that I just don’t break. But in this spot, I’ll take Usman to regain his title. Lightning doesn't strike twice.  Usman at -250.


            2. Justin Gaethje (23-4) vs. Rafael Fiziev (12-1)


               By most accounts, this will probably be Justin's last run for the belt. He has title losses to former champions Khabib and Charles, and the path to fight Islam is very saturated with up-and-coming talent who have yet to fight for the belt. With that being said, he has a huge opportunity to play spoiler to Rafael's current run. 4 years younger than Justin, the Azerbaijani Muay-Thai striker is just 30 years old and on a 6 fight win streak, including back-to-back finishes over ex-teammate Brad Riddell and former champion Rafael dos Anjos. A win over Justin is just what the doctor ordered, as he is very popular for his exciting style and long tenure in the sport. As for warfare, both of these men are extremely violent. While Justin has worked tirelessly to make his game more measured, Rafael is still the cleaner technician. His dedication to the craft and his time at Tiger Muay Thai have afforded him the tools to keep up on the feet with any elite lightweight. The difference could be made up by Justin's grappling background, but he hasn't shot a single takedown since joining the UFC. He primarily uses his wrestling foundation to keep the fight standing, sporting a respectable 75% takedown defense. To be fair, he hasn't lost to a pure striker since 2018 and he's cleaned up his game dramatically since then. 


            Rafael is a different animal though, in a recent interview for the UFC Embedded series Rafael romanticized, "I can't wait to go and see him in the cage, just together, just smell blood, smell his heart, yeah and eat his heart after". As one of his coaches noted, ultimately "this fight is a bigger treat for the fans". Regardless of who wins, we will get to see two absolute savages lay it on the line. Core questions include, how long until Rafael hits Justin hard enough to awaken the beast? and when that happens will he be able to tame the beast and stay focused on his game plan? Fighting Rafael with any sort of reckless abandon is sure to result in an involuntary nap on the canvas. This will be one of Justin's toughest tests to date, even despite the long list of veteran strikers he's faced. I would venture to guess that this fight ends before the last buzzer, yeah I know, I'm really going out on a limb with that bet. Collectively the two men have around 27 stoppages in Professional MMA. 


             Hardcore History: Justin Gaethje grew up in Safford, Arizona, playing football but primarily shining as a wrestler for Safford High School where he made it to state finals all 4 years, winning 2 of them. Being part of a multi-generational mining family, he made the obligatory trip an hour northeast to the Morenci copper mine right after graduation. Even his mom worked the mine, so he spent 3 summers there at just 18 years old before he decided he had enough of that experience to suffice his entire life. He promptly accepted an offer to the University of Northern Colorado, despite his desire to stay local, U.N.C. has an NCAA division 1 program he couldn't turn down. From there he learned enough to transfer his skills to MMA and the rest is history. From highly touted World Series of Fighting Champion to UFC title contender, the competitive sports journey was the only life for him. Gaethje currently trains with Kamaru Usman and Head Coach Trevor Whitman at ONX Sports in Denver, Colorado. 


           Rafael Fiziev grew up in a small village in Kazakhstan, helping his father shepherd cows and bulls. When he was still young his family moved to the capital city of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Rafael was bullied as soon as he attended school in the big city and within a month started training in Thai boxing. Primarily training as a means to defend himself, he would later take time off before returning to combat sports in full. It turns out he was meant for this life, fast forward to 2007 when he participated in his first Kyrgyzstan Muay-Thai tournament. He would go on to compete and place multiple times, taking first place in 2011. He eventually moved to Thailand where he's made a home for himself at Tiger Muay Thai, training and coaching. In 2015 he took his first pro-MMA fight and didn't taste defeat until 4 years later in his UFC debut, where he was knocked out by a spinning back fist he never saw coming. He learned from that loss and hasn't lost since. 

Dave’s Pick:  Fiziev is the -235 Favorite with JG paying +180. The total here is 1.5 rounds with the over as -180. Just like you, I can’t wait for the violence. This should be fight of the night for sure. These guys are so, so tough. I do think that Fiziev will most likely win this match, but laying down 250 to win 100 when you’re fight Justin Gaethje?? C’Mon now. No way. I like this fight to make it to the 3rd round. These guys are so tough, I don’t see either of them being stopped early. Fiziev has a 92% takedown defense and Justin doesn’t shoot. Meanwhile, JG is a zombie and you need to stab him in the heart with a wooden cross in order to put him away. The dude just won’t die. Fiziev has gone over 1.5 rounds in his last 3/4 fights. I’m taking the Over at -180


            3. Marvin Vettori (18-6-1) vs. Roman Dolidze (12-1)


             'The Italian Dream' may soon become a nightmare, as we saw with Merab Dvalishvili's career-defining performance last Saturday, these Georgians are out for blood. Roman is riding a 4 fight win streak with KO finishes in his last 3 fights (albeit the Phil Hawes win mostly stemmed from an injury to Phil's knee). He's looked terrifying, but this will be his toughest test to date. Oh yeah, we said the same thing about Merab fighting Petr Yan, look how that turned out. So who knows what will happen in this fight, Marvin may suffocate him with superior grappling and eke out a decision or Roman could catch Marvin driving in for one of his patented double-leg takedowns. Marvin and Roman have a similar ratio of strikes landed to strikes absorbed, but Marvin tends to have a higher output while Roman relies more on single-shot power. The difference in Marvins's grappling, as I stated before, is worth noting. He has a 45% takedown success rate while Roman has a pitiful 33% takedown defense rate. Marvin really can't afford to lose here so I imagine he'll fight very safely. He has two losses to former champ Israel Adesanya and his most recent loss was to former champ Robert Whittaker. Those losses don't help his path back to a title shot, but they are understandable when fighting the elite of the elite. 


            The real damage to your marketability comes when you follow that up with a loss to a guy who's never even sniffed the title. Roman has claimed that a win here would mean the only logical next fight would be for the title, I'm not sure I agree, seeing as Marvin has never held the title, but I understand his mindset as Marvin is very tough and has been in the top 5 for a few years now. At most he would need 1 more win after this, but there are a few roadblocks in his way. Namely, the two kickboxers set to participate in their 4th major combat sports championship, Israel and Alex. Not to mention if Alex wins again then he'll probably have to face Robert seeing as Robert has been "1b" in the rankings since his 2020 win over Jared Cannonier. As you can tell, there's a ton of familiar drama at the top and a couple things need to happen before a path is clear for anyone outside the top 3. 


            Hardcore History: Marvin Vettori comes from a small village in Northern Italy (wait... another guy from a small village, this can't be a coincidence, I'm looking at you UFC scouts). He has stated in multiple interviews that his village offered nothing in the way of MMA training and he basically had to present the sport to his local people. A giant move to London when he was still a teenager and training with the London Shootfighters team for 2 years really kick-started his career. Around 2016 he moved to Southern California and eventually made a home at Kings MMA under Rafael Cordeiro, this was his primary gym for every camp until his most recent loss. He has since made a very necessary and educated move to his current camp training with fellow UFC middleweight Sean Strickland and the team at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas. If he wants to stay on top and fight for another title, he must keep growing and to do that you can't stay stagnant. Coach Eric Nicksick will give Marvin plenty of different looks and the team there should only complement his already elite grappling game. 


            His opponent Roman Dolidze had a bit of a different experience growing up, he played soccer for 8 years, the last 3 as a professional goalkeeper. He was born in Batumi, Georgia., the second largest city and capital of the republic of Adjara. At 20 he decided to move to Ukraine where he studied many grappling arts, including Sambo and Jiu Jitsu. After winning many championships in different grappling promotions, he unsuccessfully tried his hand at ADCC Submission World Championships. It wasn't till he turned 28 that he committed to the sport of MMA, getting his first taste of victory with back-to-back first-round heel hooks in 2 different Ukrainian fight promotions. His UFC career didn't start until 2020 with a 1st round TKO win. For this current fight camp, Roman has been in Thailand training with Tiger Muay Thai. 

Dave’s Pick: Marvin Vettori is the -280 favorite and the total is 2.5 rounds, over -200. Marvin has gone to a decision 6 of his last 7 fights! That’s crazy for a guy that looks and acts so scary. Kinda reminds me of his teammate Sean Strikland in that way. A lot of talk. I like this fight to be very similar to Marvin’s other fights. Not too exciting. The clear path to victory here for Marvin is through the mat, and that’s precisely what’s going to happen. I’m predicting this fight to go the distance (again). I’m taking the over 2.5 rounds.