Top light heavyweight contenders Thiago Santos and Jamahal Hill serve as headliners and two new Ultimate Fighter winners will be crowned at UFC Vegas 59 on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The co-main event at the MMA leader’s Apex facility in Las Vegas is a barn-burning welterweight battle between Vicente Luque and Geoff Neal.
Whereas the card-topping quartet are out to climb closer to title contention, four rising stars will be fighting for bragging rights and a UFC contract in the finals of season 30 of The Ultimate Fighter. Mohammed Usman and Zac Pauga will slug it out for the heavyweight honours and Brogan Walker and Juliana Miller will vie for the flyweight prize.
Staying in these divisions, titans Augusto Sakai and Sergey Spivak square off and Ariane Lipski clashes with Priscila Cachoeira.
MAIN CARD (from 4 AM Sunday SA time):
Thiago Santos (3.10) v Jamahal Hill (1.36) (Light Heavyweight)
The weekend’s main event is a scrap between an old, grizzled lion and a young, hungry lion in the light heavyweight top 10.
A veteran of 32 fights, sixth-ranked Santos (22-10) has just about three times the experience of up-and-coming Hill, who’s only 11 fights into his pro career. Seasoned Santos’ elite-level experience is even more significant. He’s fought the best of the best at 185 and 205 pounds and boasts a win over former light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz.
“Marreta” has already main-evented five UFC cards and challenged for the 205-pound gold in 2019. His career-best performance came in that title bout at UFC 239 when he fought a perfect fight and came the closest yet to defeating the consensus GOAT, Jon Jones, ultimately succumbing by split decision.
Tenth-ranked Hill, on the other hand, has only headlined one card before, in his previous fight in February, and the showdown with Santos marks his first venture into the light heavyweight elite. “Sweet Dreams” maximised his maiden main event, bludgeoning Johnny Walker to pick up his second successive first-round knockout and improve to 10-1.
An intimidating marauder with a massive sledgehammer tattooed on his chest, Santos had similar killer instinct to Hill earlier in his career. Sixteen of his 22 wins are by stoppage, all but one of those being knockouts. However, he hasn’t been the same since his near-title triumph against “Bones”.
He had to undergo double knee surgery after that championship war and returned without the intensity and explosiveness that made him the monster he was in his prime. Extremely tentative from that point on, he’s managed just one win in his last four fights and went the distance in his last two lacklustre outings, a win over Walker and a loss to Magomed Ankalaev in March.
Hill is a tall, long and athletic striker, who’s seven years younger than 38-year-old Santos. His only loss came on the ground to submission specialist Paul Craig and with neither he nor his Brazilian foe being fond of grappling, it’s set to be a stand-up battle where southpaw Hill holds the cards.
On top of being significantly faster and more agile, the 31-year-old has a two-inch height and three-inch reach advantage and, just as crucially, throws almost twice the volume of strikes Santos does. That combination of pressure, pace and power will see Hill secure his seventh and most significant knockout win.
Vicente Luque (1.54) v Geoff Neal (2.45) (Middleweight)
One of the most entertaining fighters around, Luque (21-8-1) is guaranteed to bring the heat in the co-headliner. A multi-faceted destroyer, he is always in kill mode and has claimed all but two of his wins by stoppage (11 knockouts and eight submissions).
“The Silent Assassin” strung together four consecutive finishes, which he capped off with submission victories over former champion Tyron Woodley and Michael Chiesa, to break into the top five before he had his momentum halted by Belal Muhammad in their main event meeting in April.
It was a frustrating night for Luque as Muhammad used his strong wrestling to grind out a lacklustre decision. That won’t be the case in this clash as he has a willing dance partner looking to break through.
Neal (14-4) is fond of fire-fights and finishes, “Handz of Steel” having eight knockouts and two submissions to his name. Ranked 13th, he has good explosions but still has a way to go to reach the next level.
Given his ranking and the fact that he eked out a split decision win over Santiago Ponzinibbio (as opposed to winning decisively) to snap a two-fight losing streak last time out, he’s very fortunate that Luque’s risking his No 6 spot.
Luque, though, has lived on the top tier of the division for some time and is too big and too quick of a step up for Neal. With Luque, a finish is never far away, but Neal is tough enough to last the full 15 minutes.
Mohammed Usman (2.90) v Zac Pauga (1.40) (TUF 30 Heavyweight Final)
The biggest and baddest members of team Julianna Peña collide in the heavyweight final of season 30 of The Ultimate Fighter.
Usman (8-2) will look to follow in the footsteps of his brother Kamaru, whose journey to becoming the reigning welterweight champion and pound-for-pound king started with him winning season 21 of the UFC’s reality show competition in 2015.
A muscle-bound behemoth, Mohammed had a tough trek to the final, earning hard-fought decision wins over Mitchell Sipe and Eduardo Perez. Pauga (6-0), on the other hand, has been dominant, picking up a clear-cut decision win over Nyle Bartling and stopping teammate Jordan Heiderman via second-round TKO.
The road to the final showed that Pauga is far more polished than Usman at this early point of their careers. His striking is crisper, he’s significantly faster as a traditional light heavyweight and more well-rounded, so I fully expect him to take out the title.
With his brother in his corner, Usman will undoubtedly have a great game plan but executing it is another story altogether. He has heart but not the conditioning to go three rounds at the pace Pauga will be pushing, so a finish is most likely on the cards. That said, I’m content with taking what’s a safe outright bet.
Brogan Walker (2.00) v Juliana Miller (1.80) (TUF 30 Flyweight Final)
It’s team Peña’s Miller (2-1) against team Amanda Nunes’ last remaining representative in the flyweight final. Walker (7-2) proved her class as an Invicta veteran on the show by outpointing Hannah Guy and Laura Gallardo despite dealing with an injury.
Meanwhile, Miller emerged as the tough-as-nails, all-action scrapper of the season as she avenged her only career loss by outgunning Claire Guthrie in the fight of the season and submitted Kaytlin Neil to go from unlikely finalist to slight favourite on Saturday.
She’s like a female Diaz brother – willing to walk through fire i.e. eat heavy shots to make it a brawl where opponents aren’t prepared to go to the dark depths that she is. She’s willing to die to earn the life-changing UFC contract, has a granite chin and exceptional jiu-jitsu.
Whereas Miller is the epitome of a fighter, Walker is the better and more experienced mixed martial artist. With her history of high-level competition and the odds as they are, Walker’s the pick. As she’s a tactician rather than the finisher her opponent is, look to Walker to win on the scorecards.
Augusto Sakai (3.10) v Sergey Spivak (1.36) (Heavyweight)
In the heavyweight division where everyone carries knockout power, grappling abilities are particularly handy in giving an athlete an advantage.
That’s the case in this bout as Spivak (14-3) is a high-level grappler whose dozen finishes are evenly split between submissions and knockouts, while Sakai (15-4-1) is a one-dimensional striker (11 knockouts).
Winner of four of his last five and coming off a TKO victory over Greg Hardy, Spivak is well worth his favourite tag against his Brazilian adversary, who’s been knocked out in his last three fights.
Granted, those came against top-10 staples Alistair Overeem, Jairzinho Rozenstruik and Tai Tuivasa, but “The Polar Bear” should be too skilled for him, as Spivak’s submission victory over the now No 3-ranked Tuivasa stresses.
Ariane Lipski (1.55) v Priscila Cachoeira (2.45) (Flyweight)
The battle of Brazilians will ensure the main card starts with a bang. Two of the more aggressive and lethal fighters in all of women’s MMA, this is going to be a thriller.
Both ladies are fearless strikers with six knockouts, but they go about punishing their opponents differently. Lipski (14-7) is machine gun-like in her output and accuracy while Cachoeira (11-4) is more like a shotgun with her power.
While she possesses that stoppage power, Cachoeira tends to load up and leaves herself open to counter strikes. That’s a double whammy against “The Queen of Violence”, who’s known for piecing up her foes.
Lipski also has a dangerous ground game in her back pocket that gives her more paths to victory, however, her faster hands and feet – along with her two-inch reach advantage – will see her out-strike Cachoeira. Considering “Zombie Girl” has never been knocked out, Lipski will most likely get it done by decision.
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.