Let us not forget, just four months ago Sean Strickland won a seemingly inconsequential headliner against Abus Magomedov that snowballed into Strickland going on to handle champion Israel Adesanya at UFC 293 in one of the UFC’s greatest upsets. Now, Strickland was at least hovering around the title conversation due to his activity, growing following, and having previously traded verbal shots with Adesanya, but Allen or Craig could work their way to their own unexpected opportunity with a standout performance Saturday.
Allen—currently No. 11 in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings—is closer than most think. He’s riding a five-fight win streak with four of those wins coming by way of rear-naked choke submission and he has a history with Strickland dating back to 2020. Strickland defeated Allen in a 195-pound catchweight bout and Allen has been calling for a rematch ever since. A UFC title being on the line would only make it sweeter.
A former light heavyweight, Craig has gone from being a dark horse at 205 pounds to a dark horse at 185 pounds after making a successful drop down this past July. Craig hammered Andre Muniz, stealing thunder from a fighter who not long ago had title buzz himself, and could leapfrog several middleweight veterans in the rankings if he takes Allen out.
In other main card action, undefeated welterweight prospect Michael Morales fights Jake Matthews, Chase Hooper looks to make a run at lightweight when he faces Jordan Leavitt, Contender Series bantamweight signing Payton Talbott debuts against Nick Aguirre, strawweight contender Luana Pinheiro puts her nine-fight win streak on the line against two-division threat Amanda Ribas, and Uros Medic fights dangerous short-notice threat Myktybek Orolbai.
What: UFC Vegas 82
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Brendan Allen (11) vs. Paul Craig
Before we begin, it’s important to note that I’m continuing my tradition of wrongly picking against Brendan Allen in the hopes of furthering his career. Ever since I picked Andre Muniz to run through him a couple of fights ago, Allen has done nothing but expose me as a false prophet since and I’m genuinely curious to see how far this trend can go.
So this is an easy Paul Craig pick for me and not without justification. Craig made the smart move going from light heavyweight to middleweight as he wasn’t quite big enough to consistently deal with the top fighters in that division, even given past wins over Jamahal Hill and Magomed Ankalaev. Earlier, I wrote that Craig has been a dark horse in the past but perhaps wild card is more accurate.
He’ll have to put up with a lot of pressure from Allen, who is bristling with confidence as he enters the prime of his career. Allen has, quite simply, been putting it on the opposition, always pushing forward and always searching for a finish. Fortunately for Craig, he has no issues with battling back from a deficit.
That’s how expect this one to play out. Allen will hurt Craig early and constantly threaten to end it until Craig conjures up some of that late-round magic and pulls a finish out of nowhere.
You’re welcome, Brendan.
Michael Morales vs. Jake Matthews
The fight game waits for no man. One second you’re the new kid on the block with the whole world in front of you, the next you’re 25 fights into your career and being lined up against a hot prospect that’s expected to run through you.
Michael Morales, 25, is about as blue chip as prospects come at 170 pounds. He’s technically sharp, a power puncher, and he’s a heck of an athlete. The Ecuadorian is just so mature for his age and he’s been showing out against more experienced competition. Add in some stout grappling defense and you can see why pundits are so high on Morales.
These were the kinds of things we wrote about Jake Matthews once upon a time. At 29, it’s not as if Matthews is some over-the-hill geezer, but it does feel as though he’s hit his ceiling, which is to say that he’s a fine UFC fighter who is unlikely to ascend up the rankings anytime soon.
There’s always a chance that Matthews has one of those nights where he puts it all together, but the safe bet is to go with the fast-rising Morales. This kid is going to fight for a title someday.
Chase Hooper vs. Jordan Leavitt
Props to Chase Hooper for continuing to gut it out in the UFC, despite being called up to the big show at such a young age. Moving up in weight was a smart move as he now has one less thing to worry about and that showed in his lightweight debut as he looked sharp, confident, and consistent for three rounds. I’d argue that he’d still be better served with a return to the regional scene, but as long as the matchmakers aren’t throwing him in there with killers every time, maybe this will all work out.
Jordan Leavitt has been solid and just short of the level of competition I’d keep Hooper away from at this stage, so I like this pairing. He’s a well-rounded fighter who’s going to be giving up size and strength to Hooper, while likely having the edge in the striking department. Hooper has definitely improved there and you can tell he’s working to establish himself as an aggressive volume striker, the skill just isn’t quite there yet.
I hesitate to call this a showcase fight for Hooper because there’s a good chance Leavitt pulls off the upset here. Leavitt has faced slightly stronger competition and he’s a little further along in his development. He fights with intention while Hooper still looks like he’s figuring it out as he goes along. That’s not always a bad thing, it’s just not going to work out against Leavitt this time around.
Payton Talbott vs. Nick Aguirre
Payton Talbott enters Saturday’s card as the biggest favorite according to DraftKings, a whopping -700 in his UFC debut and just his seventh pro bout. That’s a lot of faith they’re putting in this young man and a lot of pressure they’re putting on him too. Then again, there must be a reason that he’s been granted a main card spot (other than this lineup being, uh, not great).
Though he didn’t run through his opposition to earn his Contender Series contract, the fact that Talbott actually had to fight through adversity is encouraging. Every prospect looks good when they’re on the winning end of a one-way traffic, it takes guts and poise to keep your composure when you’re opponent isn’t rolling over for you, which is often the case on the regional scene.
Talbott has the striking advantage over Nick Aguirre, a rangy fighter in his own right who is more comfortable using his long limbs to grapple than to snipe from distance. Aguirre will want to shoot, shoot, and shoot again on the taller Talbott, whose ground game remains unproven. It’s for this reason that I have Aguirre as another upset pick.
Aguirre’s tape doesn’t wow you, but I could say the same about Talbott. I’m still not quite sure why Talbott is being pegged as such a sure thing. In all likelihood, I’ll have egg on my face when Talbott leaves Aguirre out cold in 10 seconds. As it stands though, I’m comfortable throwing a wild Aguirre by submission pick out there (WARNING: DO NOT BET THIS).
Luana Pinheiro (15) vs. Amanda Ribas (T13, FLW)
Luana Pinheiro, 3-0 in the UFC so far and coming off a hard-fought win over veteran Michelle Waterson-Gomez, is poised to break into the top 10 of the strawweight division. They did not give her a layup for her fourth fight as she takes on the ever-dangerous Amanda Ribas.
It’s difficult to get a gauge on Ribas’ potential at 115 pounds given that she’s been more than happy to create chaos in two divisions, stifling contenders while failing to string together enough wins to become one herself. Her bubbly personality and fun fighting style have made her a fan favorite, but is she more than just a road block for Pinheiro?
As talented as Pinheiro is, her performances have still lacked a certain spark. She’s a solid striker and an excellent grappler, but lacks precision. Her standup strategy is mostly composed of single shots to set up rushing flurries. That’s not going to cut it against Ribas, who throws strikes with real intent.
I’m a believer that if Ribas sticks to one weight class, she can actually challenge for a title someday, and I’m hoping that an earnest run at 115 pounds starts now. Ribas by decision.
Myktybek Orolbai vs. Uros Medic
Forget picking a winner here, if there’s one lock I’m comfortable calling out it’s taking the under in Myktybek Orolbai vs. Uros Medic. Orolbai is an absolute hitter who has finished all but one of his 10 victories. Medic has never gone to the scorecards.
It’s about to go down.
With defense a secondary concern (probably even a third or fourth concern with these two), expect Orolbai and Medic to start throwing heavy leather early. Medic might be the more well-known fighter heading into this one, but I’m going with Orolbai to surprise on less than a week’s notice. He’ll have to navigate Medic’s reach and tricky lateral movement, a puzzle that has proven difficult for Medic’s past opponents to solve.
To sum up Orolbai’s game in one word: Physicality. The Kyrgyz fighter’s raw talents have only been sharpened by his work with Team Alpha Male and though he has a lot to improve on technique-wise, he has finishing instincts you can’t teach. I think he finds his knockout touch against Medic.