Smaller cage awaits UFC fighters in Vegas

By Lou Finocchiaro  () 

Last week’s UFC Fight Night was marred by canceled bouts, fainting spells, missed weights and a draw. By the end of the night, eight fights had been completed. In the main event, Derek Brunson manhandled Edmen Shahbazyan as a nice + 330 underdog tipped to those who read this column or tuned in to VSiN’s “Follow the Money.”

My release of Randy Brown failed in comprehensive fashion. That was one large miss, but fortunately we have a card this week, so we’ll look ahead to this slate of opportunity.

Fans will be watching Saturday night’s fights from the Apex in Las Vegas, which uses the smaller 25-foot cage, encouraging confrontation. Fighters whose styles depend on movement, precision striking and distance will find the smaller cage challenging because of the substantial loss of floor space.

Eleven fights featuring athletes from 10 countries are scheduled. In light of the recent rash of shuffling fighters and bouts as well as matchups manipulated by the few fighters who miss weight for advantage, I must again advise how important it is to ensure weigh-ins have transpired before making major bets.

Since the UFC returned May 9, favorites stand 93-40, or 69.9%. Despite that flurry of favorites, Insight the Octagon has remained profitable. The focus is still on uncovering value with underdogs, but that approach must be measured when navigating a run of favorites like we’ve seen.

Insight the Octagon 2020: 21-11 + 12.65u

This week’s main card features welterweight, middleweight and heavyweight fights as well as a highly competitive lightweight bout. Larger men competing in a much smaller space sounds exciting. Let’s dive right in.

Derrick Lewis -215 vs. Aleksei Oleinik + 185, heavyweight (265 pounds), main event

Fascinating matchup here. Lewis, the fourth-ranked heavyweight, is a one-dimensional fighter who needs all the time he can get to make the 265-pound heavyweight limit. A rotund man, Lewis will weigh 30 to 40 pounds more than his opponent. Lewis’ advantages will include having an inch edge in height, almost eight years in age and an abundance of power.

He has won his last two fights, but a closer look shows he greased his way into a split-decision win in his last bout against Ilir Latifi, a 5-foot-7 light-heavyweight who had moved up for a bout at heavyweight. Lewis’ other win, against undersized and glacier-slow Blagoy Ivanov, was almost as unflattering.

Lewis possesses tremendous natural power and incredible strength. And for a man his size, Lewis is quite explosive … for a time.

Across the cage will be the 10th-ranked Oleinik, 43, who looked spectacular in his last outing May 9 against Fabricio Werdum. For that tussle Oleinik stepped off the scales looking lean and cut at 228 pounds. To say there will be a size difference is a complete understatement.

Oleinik (59-13) is no stranger to competing with larger men, though he has fought at heavyweight since 2008 for a 27-8-1 tally. Oleinik’s advantages are clearly his depth of experience, as he’s by far the more well-rounded fighter with great skills on the ground.

A master of sport in combat Sambo and Russian Jiu-Jitsu, Oleinik is also a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The complexity to this fight is that Oleinik has a fragile chin. He has had three defeats since July 2016, and in each case he was finished via KO or TKO.  

Lewis’ one opportunity is to walk Oleinik down, then hammer him on the head. If Lewis touches the cagey Russian with any forceful strike, this fight is over.

Lewis must not allow this fight to get to the mat. He must find a way to strike with the smaller, slighter man and keep this upright. He needs to be aware that his energy is precious and he must finish this bout before becoming vulnerable to the Russian’s trips, slams and tackles. Lewis must go get this man and finish him.

Oleinik must use tactics similar to those he employed in his impressive victory over Werdum. That plan entails using space and distance in the small cage. He’ll have to utilize his awkward, unorthodox striking long enough to take Lewis into the third or fourth round and fatigue him, then transition the fight to the floor, where the “Boa Constrictor” may easily choke the breath out of “The Beast.”

Oleinik has shown recent success, but I believe the UFC is trying to solidify the top six positions in the heavyweight division to keep that most prestigious class relevant and exciting. Nowhere in the UFC’s plan is the name Oleinik.

Lewis opened -280 and is now getting close to the strike zone at -215, but why jump now? Patience …

Chris Weidman -115 vs. Omari Akhmedov -105, middleweight (185 pounds), co-main event

The unranked Weidman used to be this division’s champion. He’s a world-class wrestling talent with precision striking skill who has competed against the elite middleweights. Weidman will have a couple of inches of height on his Dagestani opponent and substantial arm and leg reach advantages.

Weidman has suffered tremendous injuries in his career, causing him to fight inactivity between his lackluster results. Since his championship loss to Luke Rockhold in December 2015, he was 1-4 as a middleweight before jumping to light-heavyweight for his last fight, a KO loss against Dominick Reyes in October.  

Now Weidman returns to the middleweight division facing what his camp believes is a favorable matchup. But fighters zigzagging between divisions who have battled injury and are at the tail end of their careers should be approached very carefully.

Akhmedov, a master of sport in Sambo and hand-to-hand combat, enters this fight on a roll. He is 4-0-1 since 2016, with a draw against 14th-ranked and massively underrated Marvin Vettori.  

Akhmedov, a cardio machine, is a high-IQ, high-output fighter who will have no problem making weight. His path to victory will be to get this fight into the later rounds and test Weidman’s reaction to cutting weight as well as his dedication to get filthy for 15 frenetic minutes. Weidman’s will and ability to go all 15 force me to hesitate when assessing him.

Weidman’s usual advantage, his wrestling prowess, is exemplified by his 3.8 takedowns executed per 15 minutes of fight time. Akhmedov’s grappling also is world-class, as he executes 2.5 takedowns per 15 minutes. When two wrestlers or two ground experts face off, the fight often becomes a striking affair. If that holds true, Weidman, who will have height and reach advantages, could control the pace early.

What happens when this fight enters the second and third rounds is anyone’s guess. Weidman will have some physicality on his side. I’m just not sold on his mental ability to get nasty.

Beneil Dariush -165 vs. Scott Holtzman + 145, lightweight (155 pounds)

This is a fight between a decorated mixed martial artist who has looked razor-sharp in winning his last four UFC bouts and an exceptional athlete who used to play professional hockey before transitioning to MMA.

Holtzman is the ex-hockey player who has improved greatly in each fight. A brown belt in BJJ, Holtzman is a complete striker whose footwork will be a great advantage. He employs unrelenting forward pressure to engage in striking battles, and that is exactly his plan for Saturday. His strikes are straight and exacting, and they carry power alone and especially through accumulation.

Dariush is a mixed martial artist with black belts in BJJ and Muay Thai. The 14th-ranked lightweight is a southpaw with slight reach advantages, plus he’s an inch taller and six years younger.

Dariush has grappling expertise that Holtzman does not possess, but he lacks the wrestling mettle to get Holtzman to the floor, which I believe is the fulcrum to this fight.

Dariush’s power was evident in his last win over Drakkar Klose, but so was his telegraphed, looping striking and relative lack of defense when launching those bombs. Klose actually had Dariush stung when he lost control of his calm and entered into a brawl before one of Dariush’s shots rang up Klose.

Holtzman is the more refined, complete striker whose strength and movement will force Dariush into being somewhat predictable with attempts to force his way inside to engage. This is the fight Holtzman has been grinding for — and a very good opportunity for him.

Holtzman + 145. I like the fighter and the current price, so I’ll buy now. Readers understand that I utilize this approach when I want to invest in a favorite yet do not wish to risk more than just one unit.

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