The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Lightweight division continues to churn out quality match ups, the latest of which headlines this Saturday’s (April 21, 2018) UFC Fight Night 128 mixed martial arts (MMA) event on FOX Sports 1 and UFC Fight Pass.
Said main event pits Edson Barboza, fresh off a mauling from newly-crowned division champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, against Kevin Lee, who succumbed to interim titleholder Tony Ferguson’s grappling late last year.
The supporting cast, meanwhile, features a rematch between featherweight veterans Frankie Edgar and Cub Swanson and a top-flight bantamweight showdown between Brett Johns and Aljamain Sterling.
After last week’s 10-Prelim bonanza, we’re back to a more reasonable seven this time. Here are the first three, which take place on UFC Fight Pass.
135 lbs.: Leslie Smith (10-7-1) vs. Aspen Ladd (6-0)
Smith, entering her ninth year as a professional, enters the cage this Saturday on a winning streak for the first time since 2013. Undaunted by her knockout loss to Cris Cyborg, Smith upset Irene Aldana in a Fight of the Night-winning brawl before beating down unbeaten Brazilian Amanda Lemos in Glasgow. “The Peacemaker” stands three inches taller than Ladd at 5’9”, but their reaches are identical.
Ladd went 8-1 as an amateur, losing only to Cynthia Calvillo, before making her Invicta debut in 2015. She beat the likes of Amanda Cooper and Sijara Eubanks on her way to the Octagon, where she pounded out Lina Länsberg midway through the second round. She has stopped four pro opponents with strikes.
Ladd is a quality talent, but the stylistic matchup does not favor her. She’s an aggressive, come-forward striker who absorbs an inordinate amount of strikes until she can lock up a takedown and go to work with ground-and-pound. The problem here is that Smith hits way harder than Ladd does, is inordinately difficult to finish, and does not get tired.
Ladd’s strategy of pushing the pace until opponents succumb is profoundly ill-suited to dealing with the indefatigable Smith. “The Peacemaker” wears her down with body shots for a late stoppage.
Prediction: Smith by third-round TKO
135 lbs.: Merab Dvalishvili (7-3) vs. Ricky Simon (12-1)
Dvalishvili, a product of the vaunted Serra-Longo team, flipped the script on “Lookin’ for a Fight” by knocking out the favored Raufeon Stots in just 15 seconds. This set up a UFC debut against Frankie Saenz, who narrowly edged the Georgian in a grappling-heavy contest. Two of his three pro stoppage wins have come by knockout.
Though Simon emerged victorious on the Tuesday Night Contender Series, his split decision over Donavon Frelow wasn’t enough to earn him a UFC contract. Undeterred, he went on to batter Chico Camus for the vacant LFA Bantamweight title before flattening Vinicius Zani in his first and only defense. He replaces Augusto “Tanquinho” Mendes, who ran afoul of USADA, on around a month’s notice.
Simon looked meh against Frelow, solid against Camus, and looked terrifying against Zani. He’s got great wrestling, great hands, and plenty of time to improve at age 25. The problem is that Dvalishvili is a tank of a bantamweight, incredibly strong and adept in the grappling. His strength and the threat of his takedowns are enough to shut down Simon’s high-octane striking.
It’s also worth noting that Simon slowed down against Camus right around the start of the third round, and Camus was not the sort of suffocating wrestler Dvalishvili is. The Georgian battles back from a rough first round to grind his way to a controversial split decision.
Prediction: Dvalishvili by split decision
170 lbs.: Tony Martin (13-4) vs. Keita Nakamura (33-8-2)
Cardio issues led Martin to start his UFC career 1-3, suffering submission losses to Beneil Dariush and Leonardo Santos despite starting strong in both fights He got back on track with three straight wins, only to lose a split decision to Olivier Aubin-Mercier in his last bout. This will be his first appearance at welterweight since his fourth pro fight in 2012.
“K-Taro” has alternated wins and losses since rejoining the UFC in 2015 with a come-from-behind submission of Li Jingliang that earned him Performance of the Night. Most recently, he rebounded from an entertaining loss to Elizeu Zaleski with a split decision over Alex Morono in Saitama. 15 of his 17 submission wins have come by rear naked choke.
I’m definitely interested in seeing how Martin looks at 170. His sheer physicality was a big part of his success at 155, but it also held him to only a few minutes of quality action. Nakamura is a quality test for him, incredibly savvy on the mat but frustratingly inconsistent with his fight IQ.
Though “K-Taro” is never far from an out-of-nowhere choke, Martin is the cleaner striker and his wrestling figures to be a match for Nakamura’s judo. In addition, I expect Martin’s gas tank to hold up far better at 170, giving him the energy needed to exploit Nakamura’s lapses. Martin grinds out a victory on the feet and the mat.
Prediction: Martin by unanimous decision
Four more UFC Fight Night 128 “Prelims” undercard bouts remain to preview and predict, including the return of Magomed Bibulatov. Same time as always, Maniacs!
Remember, too, that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Fight Night 128 fight card, starting with the Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on FOX Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET, before the FOX Sports 1 main card start time at 10 p.m. ET.