Typically, the UFC tries end the year on a bang, or start a new one the same way. Despite the last-minute change of location, the UFC is delivering — at least to those fans who didn’t have tickets to Las Vegas. The contests on the Fight Pass prelims offer a crop of exciting young talents that could make a bang in their respective divisions. In fact, it could be argued each contest has at least one potential difference-maker in its midst. And for those eternal optimists, I’m not referring to Uriah Hall…
The Fight Pass prelims begin at 6:30 PM ET/3:30 PM PT on Saturday.
Nathaniel Wood (14-3) vs. Andre Ewell (14-4), Bantamweight
Known as The Prospect, what in the hell will we call Wood when he’s a grizzled veteran? Perhaps a worry for another day as the nickname still fits him for now. The Englishman surprised many in his UFC debut when he sunk in a brabo choke to submit Johnny Eduardo, one of the most experienced fighters on the roster. The surprising part was the submission victory as Wood developed a reputation as a brawler on the European scene. A stuffed takedown on the part of Wood set up the finishing sequence, indicating Wood has been working to shore up the more questionable aspects of his game.
No matter how much Ewell shores up his takedown defense, it’s almost certainly going to be the weakest aspect possessed by either fighter in the cage. That doesn’t mean Ewell is helpless. In fact, Ewell’s guard has proven to be very active. Nonetheless, Ewell is very tall for bantamweight, clocking in at 5’11” and knowing very well how to use his length to his advantage with a busy jab. The American’s lithe frame belies the power possessed in his fists, securing half of his wins via KO/TKO stoppage.
Remember when a win over Renan Barao meant something? It doesn’t now as most are picking Wood to emerge victorious despite Ewell having picked up a win over the former UFC champion in his UFC debut. It isn’t due to a lack of toughness on Ewell’s part – he’s never been KO’d – nor is it Wood’s grappling. It’s that Wood has found his success against a higher level of competition, leaving prognosticators feeling safer going with Wood. I’m one of those prognosticators. Regardless of who wins, it should be fun. Wood via TKO of RD2
Uriah Hall (13-9) vs. Bevon Lewis (6-0), Middleweight
It appears the UFC has accepted that Hall will never live up to his potential… at least on a consistent basis. The dangerous kickboxer will always be a threat to deliver a flying knee or spinning back kick out of nowhere to put his opponent on Dream Street, but expecting him to put together complete performances every fight is asking too much out of him at this juncture. Nonetheless, the likes of Gegard Mousasi know sleeping on Hall for even a second can be a pivotal mistake. His boxing has improved to make his fists far more dangerous than they were when he first entered the UFC, he’s tough as nails, and is always well conditioned.
It’s difficult to look at Lewis and not see some semblance of Hall in him. Sporting a taller frame with a similar 79” reach, Lewis looks as though he could be just as explosive as his opponent. However, Lewis’ fighting style is more reminiscent of his teammate – and headliner of this card – Jon Jones. Well… at least his clinch as Lewis has yet to master the intricacies of using his length defensively. Nonetheless, with a strong Thai clinch, Lewis’ elbows and knees from close quarters are devastating.
Hall may be the most inconsistent fighter on the roster, but he’s also a BIG step up in competition for the inexperienced Lewis. Lewis may not have faced a fighter with a losing record, but he also hasn’t stepped into the cage with anyone with more than five professional contests under their belt. Hall has been in there with the likes of Mousasi, Robert Whittaker, and Kelvin Gastelum. He’s tested. If Hall can find an opening – a strong likelihood given Lewis’ inexperience – there’s a strong chance Hall gets the finish. Hall via TKO of RD2
Curtis Millender (16-3) vs. Siyar Bahadurzada (24-6-1), Welterweight
It’s a shame Millender didn’t make his professional debut until he was already 25. Now 31, his age kept him from being a prospect many MMA pundits were excited about. Nonetheless, Millender has blossomed into a fighter on the fringe of the official UFC rankings after just two UFC appearances. By far, his biggest advantage is his large 6’2” frame complimented by a 76” reach which he knows how to use very well with jabs and front kicks. His grappling skills are very questionable, but he is top heavy and throws vicious GnP that regularly threatens to put an end to the bout.
Though he hasn’t been the busiest fighter in recent years due to a slew of injuries, Bahadurzada has been getting his footing back under him in the last year or so, securing finishes due to his punching prowess. He may not be the cleanest technical striker, but Bahadurzada’s accuracy with his hooks tends to catch his opposition by surprise despite their wild appearance. Given he tends to opt for a fist fight, many often forget Bahadurzada’s roots rest in his wrestling ability, though he has shown a tendency to be overwhelmed by fighters larger than him in that same department.
If I hadn’t seen Millender keep Thiago Alves on the outside with ease, I’d be far more willing to give credence to Bahadurzada’s experience and veteran savvy leading the Afghani to victory. Sure, Alves is shopworn, but Bahadurzada is currently at a similar level to the former title contender. Bahadurzada is as tough as they come – he’s never been finished by any form of strikes – so Millender will likely rely on keeping his shorter opponent on the outside and outpointing him. Millender via decision
Brian Kelleher (19-9) vs. Montel Jackson (6-1), Bantamweight
Displaying the anyone, anywhere, anytime attitude that so many fighters claim to live by, Kelleher racked up five cage appearances before a calendar year was completed from his UFC debut. Aside from being pulled from this fight the first time these two were scheduled about two months ago, the only thing that probably stopped him from stepping into the cage since May was having his lights put out by John Lineker. His willingness to slug it out with Lineker isn’t a credit to his fight IQ, but it speaks volumes to his guts. While he isn’t the most technical fighter and doesn’t excel in a single area, Kelleher will not be outworked and he has a knack for finding submissions in the most unlikely of positions.
Jackson is by far the superior athlete in this contest in addition to possessing a 9” reach advantage. It’s only natural to expect the 26-year old to look to stay on the outside and exploit his speed and power selectively. However, he’s still young in his career and has suffered some major brain cramps at inopportune times. Nonetheless, Jackson should continue to improve and showed heart in his refusal to stay down in his UFC debut against Ricky Simon despite being taken down relentlessly.
Kelleher is a far more favorable matchup for Jackson than Simon was as Kelleher will welcome an opportunity to stand and bang. However, Kelleher is also a far trickier fighter than Simon as it’s impossible to predict what Kelleher will do next. Jackson doesn’t mind going to the ground from time to time. There’s a strong likelihood the opportunistic Kelleher catches him in a compromising position during one of those occasions. Kelleher via submission of RD2