This Saturday night (Nov. 30, 2013) UFC featherweights Rani Yahya and Tom Niinimaki will go to war on the main card of The Ultimate Fighter 18 (TUF) Finale from Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Yahya, a former lightweight and bantamweight, has been on a roll in Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt has the momentum of three straight victories inside the Octagon, his most recent being a decision win over Josh Clopton at UFC 163 in August.
His only UFC loss came at the hands of number one-ranked Chad Mendes. Yahya is looking to claw his way closer to his own spot in the top 10 with a victory over Niinimaki.
The Finnish Niinimaki has a ton of experience in mixed martial arts (MMA). He returned to the sport in early 2010 after taking all of 2008 and 2009 off, going undefeated since. Niinimaki has won an impressive 11 straight bouts but he'll receive a huge step up in competition with Yahya.
UFC isn't wasting any time in feeding Niinimaki to the wolves. His UFC debut will provide a huge opportunity to prove he belongs among the best featherweights in the world.
Let's take a look at the keys to victory for Rani Yahya vs. Tom Niinimaki:
Record: 19-7 overall, 4-1 UFC
Key Losses: Chad Mendes (UFC 133)
Keys to Victory: Yahya is a dangerous submission artist who won gold at the 2007 ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championships in New Jersey. He's parlayed that knowledge into an incredible 15 submission victories inside the cage.
That skillset is going to pay big dividends against the debuting Niinimaki, who has tapped out before. Yahya will be looking to get this fight to the ground from the opening bell. If and when he does, the opportunity for a plethora of potentially fight-ending submissions will open up.
On the other hand, Yahya's submission prowess has left him one-dimensional. He doesn't have a single knockout victory on his record and has been knocked out twice. To win against Niinimaki, Yahya will need to show up having progressed his striking.
Otherwise, the debuting Fin could make his night a short one.
Yahya's Octagon experience is going to help him out a ton here, as well. With his opponent susceptible to the very real Octagon jitters, Yahya will be ready to capitalize on any hesitancy from Niinimaki. That could definitely present a chance to lock up one of his lethal finishing holds.
Record: 20-5-1 overall, 0-0 UFC
Key Wins: Walel Watson (Cage 23)
Key Losses: Hatsu Hioki (Shooto 2005)
Keys to Victory: Although relatively unknown, Niinimaki is a gritty fighter with 26 professional bouts under his belt. That lengthy experience will be instrumental in adjusting to the bright lights of the Octagon. He has the potential to handle the pressure of his UFC debut much better than other fighters who come in with a low number of high-level bouts.
Niinimaki is a well-rounded mixed martial artist, evident by his seven knockout wins, eight submissions, and five decision victories. That makes him dangerous in all facets of MMA, something that can't necessarily be said about his opponent.
To win in Las Vegas, Niinimaki needs to avoid getting caught up in a grappling contest with Yahya. It's true that he's no slouch on the ground, but there's little point in engaging an ADCC champion where he is most comfortable.
For that reason Niinimaki's advantage should be standing. His path to victory will be paved with successful takedown defense. If he can avoid getting dragged down he should find ample opportunity to pick Yahya apart on the feet.
Niinimaki was the Cage featherweight champion and defended his belt four times. His nickname "Stoneface" is an ample one, as Niinimaki is a cold, calculating killer that Yahya cannot take lightly.
He may be fighting his first UFC bout but few come into the UFC with four consecutive title defenses in another promotion. If Niinimaki can join Mendes as the only other man to unseat Yahya in UFC, he'll be well on his way towards making a name for himself in the crowded featherweight division.
Bottom Line from Las Vegas: The bottom line for this fight is that it is an unpredictable one. Yahya has looked great in his UFC tenure. He could be on the verge of cracking the top 10 rankings with a win at this weekend's TUF 18 Finale.
Unfortunately for him, Niinimaki isn't a big name but he still presents a big challenge.
Yahya is in a compromising position right now. He's won three straight UFC bouts and still has to prove that he can beat a debuting fighter. At this point all he can do to further his case is win.
The experience and finishing ability of "Stoneface" will present problems for Yahya, so he has to get this fight to a spot where he can exercise some dominant positions. Obviously that will be on the ground. This bout will largely hinge on how effective Niinimaki's takedown defense is.
Should the fight be kept standing, Niinimaki should have a decided advantage in the striking department. He'll be looking to use the kickboxing that has served him so well in the past. If he can keep a good amount of distance between himself and Yahya, he'll score points in bunches with jabs, kicks, and knees.
But if he allows the constrictor-like Yahya to take him down, his UFC debut could turn sour quickly.
Yahya's submission skills are some of the best at 145 pounds right now. That's saying a lot. Niinimaki isn't exactly weak on the ground, but he has tapped out twice. You can bet Yahya is eager to become the third name on that list.
The winner will fight on toward a bigger bout in a division that is quickly becoming one of the best in all of MMA. Both Yahya and Niinimaki have a huge chance to make a name for themselves at Mandalay Bay Events Center.
This bout could be an under-the-radar candidate for "Fight of the Night," or it could turn out to be a snoozefest. The onus is on Niinimaki to neutralize the ground attack of the smothering Yahya.
We have an interesting clash of styles at TUF 18. Will Tom Niinimaki fall victim to the Octagon jitters and get submitted, or is his vast experience enough to overcome the surging Rani Yahya?