Get the inside scoop on the early action in MSG for UFC 217, featuring a glut of prospects, including impressive heavyweight phenom Curtis Blaydes testing his mettle against Aleksei Olenik.
What is arguably the biggest card of the year in UFC 217 opens up with a plethora of prospects trying to make headway. Generally, what we’ve come to expect on Fight Pass: young names that have yet to establish themselves that only hardcore fans have an interest in watching. Admittedly, many of those fans – myself included – have a bit of a hipster vibe to them in wanting to tell people “I knew who he was before he made it big!” Yeah… I have to admit I’ve done that more than once. Now that I’ve given myself a swift kick in the ass, here’s the lowdown.
The Fight Pass prelims begin at 6:30 PM ET/3:30 PM PT on Saturday.
Aleksei Olenik (52-10-1) vs. Curtis Blaydes (7-1, 1 NC), Heavyweight
Outside of the freakish Frenchman, Francis Ngannou – who happens to be responsible for Blaydes lone career loss – there isn’t a heavyweight prospect MMA analysts have been more excited about than Blaydes in a very long time. His combination of physicality, athleticism, and wrestling technique could very well be unrivaled given Cain Velasquez’s inability to remain healthy. Experience is what is holding him back. Some steam was lost following his lackluster win over Daniel Omielanczuk in July as Omielanczuk stuffed all 13 of Blaydes takedown attempts, but the youngster learned he’s not going to be able to use his raw physical skills to bowl over his opponents. Varying his wrestling attack would help too.
Olenik is the perfect test for the youngster to vary things as Olenik may be the savviest vet on the roster, much less the division. Clocking in at 40-years old, he’s slow, about as athletic as your average dad from suburbia, and extremely awkward in his standup. Despite that, he sports a 4-1 record in the UFC, including a win over Ronda Rousey’s hubby Travis Browne. Olenik’s knowledge of neck submissions is unparalleled. I’m not just referring to chokes either as he has secured numerous neck cranks for the win. He’s the owner of the only submission in UFC history while on the bottom of the mount position.
Blaydes has been working on a jab in recent contests, though calling it a reliable weapon at this point would be a stretch. Nonetheless, he’s got a more varied attack than Olenik – largely due to his athletic edge – and his raw power is apparent even if it hasn’t been fully unleashed yet. Olenik’s awkward hooks don’t look too damaging until he lands one on the temple of his opponent, showing a surprising level of accuracy. More than doing damage though, he uses them to cover distance to clinch up where he can use his various tricks of the trade to get the fight to the ground.
I do believe Blaydes has a very bright future. But I also think Olenik represents a massive challenge for the 26-year old. Olenik tends to feast on youngsters as he can offer them challenges they’ve never even thought of, much less seen. What really pushes me over the edge on selecting the old man is his durability, showing an ability to take a hell of a beating. He’ll find a way to get the job done, though I acknowledge there is a reason Blaydes is favored. Olenik via submission of RD2
Michael Oleksiejzcuk (12-2) vs. Ion Cutelaba (13-3, 1 NC), Light Heavyweight
Originally signed to face Gadzhimurad Antigulov in a clash of rising European light heavyweights, Cutelaba now faces a debuting – and unknown – Oleksiejzcuk. Seriously, I don’t know how to set it up better.
Cutelaba has quickly made himself a name to be known in a division desperate for young talent on the up-and-up. His style isn’t difficult to figure out as Cutelaba is constantly moving forward, swarming his opponents with hooks in hopes of putting them to sleep. It isn’t the most technical approach, but his iron chin has allowed him to walk through what offense the opposition can throw back at him. Fortunately for Cutelaba, 205 doesn’t have too many experienced strikers with the ability to make him pay for his recklessness. If his striking isn’t finding a home, he’s happy to resort to his takedowns, hitting his opponents with a powerful double-leg before looking to dish out some heavy ground strikes.
Oleksiejzcuk has some similarities to Cutelaba, besides stating the obvious that they are both Europena. Also possessing an iron chin with a tendency to brawl – resulting in him getting tagged more than his fair share — Oleksiejzcuk doesn’t possess the same raw power possessed by Cutelaba. Instead, Oleksiejzcuk offers a surprising level of accuracy with a varied punch selection. He may not be able to secure a finish with one punch as Cutelaba can, but Oleksiejzcuk’s killer instinct is no less adept than Cutelaba’s. It just takes him a few more punches to finish the job.
Oleksiejzcuk does offer some promise… at middleweight. The young Pole has yet to fill out his frame and would probably be best served plying his trade at a smaller weight. He may yet become a full-fledged 205er as he is still only 22-years old with plenty of time to grow into himself, but that is a good distance away. Cutelaba will likely have his choice to either ragdoll his smaller opponent in the wrestling department or look to overwhelm him with strikes. The latter would be my guess as there is nothing he loves more than a highlight reel finish. Cutelaba has already broken a seemingly uncrackable chin once before when he did in Henrique da Silva. He’ll do so again here. Cutelaba via TKO of RD2
Aiemann Zahabi (7-0) vs. Ricardo Ramos (10-1), Bantamweight
The brother of well-renowned Tristar trainer Firas Zahabi, the younger Zahabi’s career has been handled with extreme care. Having turned pro in late 2012, he has fought infrequently and against non-credible opponents before making it to the UFC. His UFC debut against Reginaldo Vieira was his first pro contest to leave the first round, giving an indication of his level of competition. Nonetheless, he exhibits all the traits of fighters trained by his brother: a steady jab, great conditioning, and a lot of patience… sometimes too much patience. Vieira outlanded Zahabi by a comfortable margin, though Zahabi made up for it by hurting Vieira on multiple occasions at opportune times.
At 5’9″, Ramos is massive for the division. He doesn’t appear to be very strong at first glance, but the Brazilian’s wiry frame is far more powerful than you’d expect. He’s recently made strides to become a skilled counter striker, a far cry from the reckless hooks he used to rely on. You’ll still see those hooks at some point from Ramos, but he’s become wise enough to know when they are appropriate… no longer making them reckless. Ramos knows how to leverage his frame in the clinch too, though he tends to do more stalling against the cage rather than engaging in effective offense. However, it is his aggressive submission game that he is best known for. Not a great wrestler, Ramos usually catches his opponent in a scramble and entangling them with his long limbs for his signature RNC.
Zahabi isn’t much known for his wrestling either, but he did show some excellent takedown defense, fighting off the majority of Vieira’s repeated takedown attempts, but Ramos’ trips from the clinch are a bit of a different beast to deal with than Vieira’s telegraphed shots.
It’s hard to predict this contest. Ramos appears more likely to pick up a stoppage with his developing power and skilled BJJ skills, but Zahabi’s measured and strategic approach is designed to pick up a decision. However, Ramos’ has shown major growth in his own strategic approach. I’m hardly confident in my pick, but I’m picking the 22-year old to pick up a late stoppage. Ramos via submission of RD3