UFC Vegas 18 predictions


Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For Alistair Overeem, it’s time to break the pattern of taking two steps forward and one step back.

That’s the plan anyway as Overeem heads into his fifth consecutive headlining opportunity on Saturday at UFC Vegas 18. He’s been down this road before in recent years, winning consecutive bouts to put himself on the cusp of another heavyweight title shot only to catch a loss—often in brutal fashion—that sends him back to the middle of the contenders’ pack.

Former Bellator champion Alexander Volkov is the latest fighter to be placed in Overeem’s way, a perennial contender who has the chops to stand and trade with the 2010 K-1 Grand Prix winner. If this really is the last ride for Overeem, Volkov could be the challenge that presents a reality check for “The Reem” as he approaches his 41st birthday.

The stakes are also high in the co-main event as bantamweight contender Cory Sandhagen takes on former lightweight champion and longtime featherweight contender Frankie Edgar. Sandhagen has proven he’s at the top of the class among the current crop of talented 135ers and now he looks to add a living legend to his resume. Bet against Edgar at your own risk though. The New Jersey native has thrived when the deck is stacked against him.

In other main card action, lightweight veterans Michael Johnson and Clay Guida aim to snap their skids, flyweight contender Alexandre Pantoja welcomes RIZIN champion Manel Kape to the UFC, Cody Stamann meets short-notice replacement Askar Askar in a featherweight bout, and lightweights Diego Ferreira and Beneil Dariush fight for a second time in what could be a potential show-stealer.

What: UFC Vegas 18

Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas

When: Saturday, Feb. 6. The seven-fight preliminary card begins at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN+, with the six-fight main card starting at 8 p.m. ET also on ESPN+.


Alistair Overeem vs. Alexander Volkov

Skill for skill, I favor Alistair Overeem in this matchup.

Striking is Alexander Volkov’s forte to be certain, and he is a formidable fighter in the standup with an 81-inch reach that is impressive even at heavyweight. More importantly, he knows how to use it. Whether he’s peppering opponents with jabs or setting up a straight shot, Volkov knows how to frustrate and then finish his foes.

That said, Overeem is still one of MMA’s most skilled strikers pound-for-pound. He’s been hardened by decades of combat sports experience and there’s nothing he hasn’t seen. It’s simply a matter of executing for him… well, that and avoiding the ever-present threat of the KO that comes with the territory at heavyweight.

I actually like the fact that Volkov is more of a late finisher than a quick hitter because that will serve him well if he happens to fall behind in the early rounds, which is what I expect to happen. Overeem won’t just stick to his striking, he’ll utilize his oft-overlooked grappling skills to stifle Volkov’s attack and take the fight to the ground where Volkov has occasionally struggled. It’s the wrestling that will help Overeem to secure rounds in a fight that I predict goes the distance.

Overeem by decision.

Pick: Overeem

Cory Sandhagen vs. Frankie Edgar

Regular readers of the predictions will know that I’m an unabashed Frankie Edgar fanboy and always, always pick him to win. I picked him to beat The Korean Zombie. I picked him to beat Max Holloway. I’ve been unwavering with this.

Guess what? I’m wavering.

That may seem like a strange pivot given that Cory Sandhagen doesn’t have the name recognition of some of Edgar’s previous opponents, but I think he’s catching Edgar at the right time. Even though Edgar has retained much of his speed and endurance at age 39, the slightest loss of a step can cost you in this game, especially when you have a constant stream of hungry up-and-comers nipping at your heels.

Sandhagen’s long range and unorthodox striking style will be a nightmare for the smaller Edgar to navigate. To Edgar’s credit, he’s always played the David role, and he also has a tool to counter Sandhagen: his wrestling. If Edgar turns this into a battle of scrambles and takedowns, he might just be able to wear Sandhagen down and create openings for his boxing in close.

We’ll find out early how good Sandhagen’s takedown defense is, because if he can avoid being held down, that changes the entire complexion of the matchup. I think he stays upright and keeps this a striking duel, which he’ll win.

Pick: Sandhagen

Michael Johnson vs. Clay Guida

Look, we talk all the time about how Michael Johnson is one of MMA’s greatest enigmas, a talented fighter with a litany of notable names on his win list including Dustin Poirier and Tony Ferguson. His mental lapses and disappointing losses are well-documented. But he should be able to keep it together against Clay Guida.

“The Carpenter” is a fierce competitor and difficult to knock out, but you also know what he’s bringing to the table by now skill-wise. He’s not going to be winning a GLORY kickboxing bout anytime soon and his wrestling, while effective, is also more of a means of gaining control as opposed to doing damage. Johnson also has a strong wrestling background and should be able to avoid having to fight off of his back for long stretches.

That means this should be contested primarily in the standup, and you have to like Johnson’s speed and technique there. He’s going to box Guida up for three rounds, avoid takedowns, and win a comfortable decision.

Pick: Johnson

Alexandre Pantoja vs. Manel Kape

The hype is very real when it comes to Manel Kape. Long viewed as a dangerous, if inconsistent fighter, he went on a tear in 2019 with three straight knockouts that culminated in Kape claiming a vacant RIZIN bantamweight championship with a win over the highly vaunted Kai Asakura. His UFC debut has been twice delayed (and his participation proved to be unnecessary at UFC 256 after successfully weighing in as an alternate for the Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Brandon Moreno flyweight title bout), so he’s definitely rearing to go.

The matchmakers haven’t done Kape any favors matching him up with Alexandre Pantoja. Though Pantoja has just one win in his past three outings, he’s also never been finished and he’s a prolific finisher in his own right. That’s good news for fans expecting action as he won’t shy away from engaging with Kape. However, his game plan also probably involves making use of his excellent grappling skills.

Kape is going to be a guy that nobody wants to fight at 125 for a while, but Pantoja has the skills to nullify his offense. My picking him to win has more to do with how highly I regard Pantoja’s skills than any particular shortcomings on Kape’s end.

Pantoja by submission.

Pick: Pantoja

Cody Stamann vs. Askar Askar

Stepping in on less than a week’s notice for Andre Ewell, Askar Askar is a fun stylistic matchup for Cody Stamann. He brings a near 70-inch reach to his UFC debut, as well as an aggressive attitude that is sure to make Dana White happy. Like Stamann, Askar’s first option will be to get the fight to the ground, which should lead to some entertaining scrambles and tense moments for the bantamweight veteran.

I’m leaning towards Stamann for the athleticism advantage as well as his edge in octagon experience. He’s been on the cusp of a top-10 ranking for some time now and just hasn’t been able to string together the wins, but he’s still a big step up in competition for Askar. Having to compete with so little preparation is also going to hurt Askar’s chances, though the bout being at 145 pounds will make things easier for both men.

Askar will have a good showing and guarantee himself another UFC booking, next time against an opponent closer to his level of experience, but Stamann wins on points this go-around.

Pick: Stamann

Diego Ferreira vs. Beneil Dariush

The first meeting between Diego Ferreira and Beneil Dariush was over six years ago, making it almost irrelevant when assessing each fighter’s chances in the rematch. Still, there’s some data to be gleaned from Dariush’s win over Ferreira, even as both men have improved upon their already considerable strengths.

Their shared grappling expertise led to somewhat of a stalemate on the ground when they fought, with Dariush patiently working from top position and avoiding Ferreira’s submissions. Look for Ferreira to consider being the one who initiates the wrestling this time, if only to give Dariush something to think about. Dariush controlled the striking in the first fight, beating Ferreira to the punch as Ferreira hunted for a kill shot that never came.

Ferreira has become so much more well-rounded, the question is can he win a kickboxing match with Dariush if it comes down to that? He’s made noticeable advances in the striking both in terms of effectiveness and creativity. Then again, Dariush is also more comfortable on the feet and has added genuine knockout power to his arsenal. This is such a close fight.

If I have to pick, I’ll go Dariush, though the margin of victory will be smaller than before.

Pick: Dariush

Preliminaries

Mike Rodriguez def. Danilo Marques

Timur Valiev def. Martin Day

Devonte Smith def. Justin Jaynes

Joselyne Edwards def. Karol Rosa

Lara Procopio def. Molly McCann

Youssef Zalal def. Seung Woo Choi

Ode Osbourne def. Jerome Rivera

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