Top-10 bantamweights Rob Font and Marlon Vera face off in a high-stakes headliner at UFC Vegas 53 on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The co-main event at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas sees former two-time heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski collide with Jake Collier, while Andre Fili and Joanderson Brito battle it out in a middleweight match-up.
A second pair of 185 pounders will open the main card in Krzysztof Jotko and veteran submission artist Gerald Meerschaert, with featherweights Darren Elkins and Tristan Connelly and surging lightweights Jared Gordon and Grant Dawson waiting in the wings for their opportunity to steal the show.
MAIN CARD (from 1 AM Sunday SA time):
Rob Font (1.74) v Marlon Vera (2.10) (Bantamweight)
Eight years into his UFC career, eighth-ranked Vera (18-7-1) will finally main event a card. A win over the ultra-popular Sean O’Malley, who’d gone into their 2020 bout unbeaten, was the springboard the stalwart needed to raise his profile and back-to-back wins over Davey Grant and former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar last year earned him a place on the marquee for this weekend’s card.
On the flip side, it’s fifth-ranked Font’s third consecutive main event. He split the first two, bloodying and battering former champion Cody Garbrandt before being outpointed by former featherweight king Jose Aldo in December, which snapped an impressive four-fight win streak.
The headliners are similar in many ways. Aside from being the same size (5’8″), they’re both well-versed in every facet of MMA but rarely shoot for takedowns. They prefer to stand and trade and are both technically top-notch with plenty of pop, Font (19-5) having eight knockout wins and “Chito” seven.
The edge in power goes to Font, whereas Vera’s the more decorated jiu-jitsu player with twice as many submission wins as his opponent (8). As veterans, they are as skillful tacticians as they are dangerous.
As similar as they are, Font has three advantages that should see him get his hand raised. The first two go hand in hand, no pun intended; he throws at a higher volume and with greater accuracy. His piston-like jab is a big reason for this and is set to play a pivotal role in this crunch clash.
The other is Font’s aforementioned main event experience. Having banked the full 10 rounds in those two bouts gives him an excellent understanding of how to stretch out his game plan over a five-round fight while he’s proven his gas tank twice over.
Vera’s only gone 15 minutes, so it remains to be seen how he handles the extra 10 and with both men being super durable, it’s set to go the full 25. Therefore, Font’s primed to take it on points.
Andrei Arlovski (1.68) v Jake Collier (2.15) (Heavyweight)
The epitome of an evergreen fight veteran, 43-year-old Arlovski (30-20-2NC) has strung together three consecutive wins, which is something many in the top 10 can’t say at the moment.
The former two-time heavyweight king has lost the potency he had in his prime; his last finish came in the epic one-round slugfest against Travis Browne back in 2015, but that makes the roll he’s currently on even more impressive as he’s had to outwork, outwit and outlast younger opponents. He’ll be able to do just that against Collier (13-6) in what’s set to be a 15-minute stand-up battle.
Arlovski will be some 20 pounds lighter than his 33-year-old foe and his hand speed is still good, so I see him taking the decision to join Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller at the top of the list for most wins in UFC history with 23.
Andre Fili (1.34) v Joanderson Brito (3.20) (Middleweight)
This middleweight meeting comes down to the elite-level experience and God-given gifts of Fili (21-8-1NC) against the dynamism and danger Brito (12-3-1) brings to the table.
Fili’s a nine-year UFC veteran and you don’t last that long in the world’s leading MMA promotion without a complete skillset (nine KOs and three submissions). He’s struggled to find his groove as of late, an accidental eye poke resulting in his last fight against Daniel Pineda ending in a no-contest, but once he gets going, “Touchy” is tough to handle.
Brito (12-3-1) is more dangerous with all but two of his wins coming by stoppage (evenly split between knockouts and submissions), six of them inside the opening two minutes. However, gassing and losing a decision to Bill Algeo in his UFC debut in January showed the need for more development.
At 5’11”, Fili has a three-inch height and two-inch reach advantage, which along with his seasoned savviness, should allow him to win on points.
Jared Gordon (2.60) v Grant Dawson (1.48) (Lightweight)
Something has to give when these surging 155 pounders meet. Gordon (18-4) is on a three-fight win streak, all by decision, while Dawson (17-1-1) is unbeaten in his six outings inside the Octagon.
Gordon’s a grinder, as his current purple patch and 56% career decision rate highlight, whereas Dawson’s a dominant wrestler with excellent jiu-jitsu. He’s racked up 15 finishes, including 11 submissions.
His lone loss came on the regional scene back in 2016 but after being taken to a majority draw by Rich Glenn in his last fight, he’ll up his output to ensure he gets the W. Gordon has a good-enough guard to avoid getting tapped, so Dawson by decision it is.
Darren Elkins (1.57) v Tristan Connelly (2.40) (Featherweight)
This should be an action-packed affair. There’s an added wrinkle for anyone matched up with Elkins (27-10). The UFC stalwart is known as “The Damage” and prides himself on his ability to dish out and absorb punishment in equal measure, so much so that he has his nickname tattooed across his chest.
There’s thus an added internal impetus that kicks in for opponents to prove they can go toe-to-toe and finish the durable brawler, which often works in Elkins’ favour. Mainly a grappler, Connelly (14-7) showed he can stay calm and stick to his game plan when he upset madman Michel Pereira in his UFC debut in 2019.
However, Elkins should be able to keep the fight standing where he’s more comfortable and proficient and will have a three-inch reach advantage, all of which point to him winning on the scorecards.
Krzysztof Jotko (1.55) v Gerald Meerschaert (2.45) (Middleweight)
The lasting image most have of Meerschaert (34-14) is him getting viciously knocked out by Khamzat Chimaev in 2020 but the veteran has won all three of his fights since then.
An anaconda-like grappler, “GM3” boasts 26 submission wins. His last six victories have all come by tap out as have eight of his nine wins inside the Octagon, making him the most prolific submission artist in middleweight history.
Jotko (23-5), on the other hand, is a decision machine. The Polish fighter has bursts of fury but his MO is mainly lay and pray and has earned him 16 wins on the scorecards.
Meerschaert is the better grappler and with Jotko offering no real power repellent in the stand-up, Meerschaert will march forward and enforce his will to prevail as an excellent underdog pick.
SIGN UP TO OUR BET CENTRAL PLAYBOOK
Get weekly emails packed with the best tips and sports content.
Get ahead of the game now – fill in the contact form below.