With the memory of the UFC 234 fiasco fresh in mind, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) hits T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, this Saturday (March 2, 2019) with the massively stacked UFC 235. In addition to Anthony Smith and Kamaru Usman challenging Jon Jones and Tyron Woodley for their titles, the pay-per-view (PPV) features the Octagon debut of Ben Askren against Robbie Lawler, top women’s Strawweight prospect Weili Zhang fighting Tecia Torres, and former Bantamweight kingpin Cody Garbrandt returning to action against Pedro Munhoz.
UFC 235 features eight “Prelims” undercard matches this time around, split 4:4 between Fight Pass and ESPN. Let’s start with the former:
185 lbs.: Charles Byrd vs. Edmen Shahbazyan
Charles Byrd (10-5) — despite the nickname “Kid Dynamite” — leaned on his grappling to punch his ticket to UFC, picking up a pair of submissions on “Contender Series.” He did the same to John Phillips in his debut and looked on track to defeat Darren Stewart his next time out, only to suffer a comeback knockout loss.
He’ll give up one inch of height and three inches of reach to Edmen Shahbazyan (8-0).
Shahbazyan scored his seventh consecutive first-round knockout on the Contender Series by dispatching Antonio Jones in just 40 seconds. This led to a November debut against Darren Stewart, whom Shahbazyan outlasted for a decision despite fading late.
Four of those knockouts came in less than one minute.
At the time of writing, Shahbazyan is the favorite, perhaps because of their relative performances against Stewart and the fact that Shahbazyan is the younger of the two by 14 years. I’m not convinced, though. Despite his previous knockout spree, Shabazyan seemed petrified of exchanging with Stewart, and for all the success he had with his takedowns, he’s less proven as a grappler than Byrd is.
Then there’s the cardio.
Byrd can hold his own in the standup, and if anyone’s going to be scoring takedowns, it’s “Kid Dynamite.” Byrd wears Shahbazyan down in the clinch, racks up the top control time, and ultimately forces the tap.
Prediction: Byrd via third-round submission
135 lbs.: Gina Mazany vs. Macy Chiasson
Gina Mazany (5-2) lost to eventual winner Julianna Pena in the elimination bouts of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 18, but got an Octagon shot by stepping up on short notice against Sara McMann, who tapped her with an arm triangle in 74 seconds. She got on the board nine months later with a decision over Wu Yanan, but lost her only 2018 bout to Lina Lansberg in May.
She’ll give up three inches of height and 3.5 inches of reach to Macy Chiasson (3-0).
Chiasson scored the only two knockouts in the women’s bracket on TUF 28, defeating UFC veteran Larissa Pacheco and knockout specialist Leah Letson. She took on teammate Pannie Kianzad at the Finale, where she used strong clinchwork and boxing to wear Kianzad down and choke her out in the second round.
She has scored submissions in two of her three professional fights.
Mazany is a ground specialist without the wrestling to enforce her game on strong opposition, and she’s going up against a woman who can hold her own at Featherweight. Chiasson also looks to be the better striker and can hold her own in the clinch, where a solid chunk of this fight should take place.
There really are no clear avenues of victory for Mazany outside of a freak submission. Chiasson just seems to have her out-gunned everywhere. Expect her to chew up Mazany at range, in the clinch, and perhaps from top position if she feels so inclined.
Prediction: Chiasson via unanimous decision
135 lbs.: Marlon Vera vs. Frankie Saenz
Even though Marlon Vera’s (14-5-1) run on TUF: “Latin America” was cut short by illness and he lost his debut to Marco Beltran, four wins in his next five fights made him a legitimate contender at 135 pounds. His efforts hit a snag thanks to power punchers John Lineker and Douglas Andrade, though he has since finished Wuliji Buren and TUF castmate Guido Cannetti.
“Chito” owns seven professional submission wins, including four by triangle or armbar.
Frankie Saenz (12-5) scored one of the biggest numerical upsets in recent UFC history with his 2015 decision over Iuri Alcantara and followed it up with a decision over Sirwan Kakai, but subsequently lost three straight. A controversial decision over Merab Dvalishvili got him back on track, and he followed that up by beating another of Vera’s castmates in Henry Briones.
He replaces the injured Thomas Almeida on one month’s notice.
As good as Vera is, his wrestling remains an Achilles’ heel he doesn’t seem poised to fix anytime soon. He’s been taken down at least once in all but two of his UFC fights, and he only had to deal with one cumulative attempt in that span. Saenz may not have much to offer outside of grit and decent takedowns, but that’s really all he needs here.
Vera’s options are keeping the fight at range, trying to exploit Saenz’s remarkably porous defensive wrestling, or attempting to catch a submission off of his back. The first one’s unlikely, considering that shorter men in Lineker and Andrade regularly worked their ways into the pocket, and Vera’s generally not a super capable offensive wrestler. That leaves his guard, which I believe Saenz can navigate for 15 minutes.
Prediction: Saenz via unanimous decision
115 lbs.: Polyana Viana vs. Hannah Cifers
Polyana Viana (10-2) brought her grappling chops to bear in her UFC debut, tapping TUF competitor Maia Kahaunaele-Stevenson in the first round at UFC Fight Night 125. She entered her next bout with J.J. Aldrich as a favorite, but difficulty landing takedowns led her to lose a unanimous decision.
“Dama de Ferro” has gotten the finish in all 10 of her professional victories, all but one in the first round.
Hannah Cifers (8-3) won five straight on her way to the Octagon, ultimately stepping up on short notice to fight top prospect Maycee Barber at UFC Fight Night 139. “Shockwave” had few answers for the heavily favored Barber and succumbed to ground-and-pound midway through the second round. She’ll give up five inches of height and reach to Viana.
Cifers had all sorts of trouble staying out of the clinch against Barber, and considering Viana’s good enough on the ground to successfully pull guard, letting the Brazilian get any sort of grip on her is asking for trouble. Cifers is going to have major trouble staying in the pocket long enough to do any real damage.
“Shockwave” does pack a decent punch and Viana’s not much of a striker, admittedly, but the reach disparity means Cifers will have to open herself up to either the clinch or reactive takedowns to close the distance. Viana will get it to the mat one way or another, and from there it’s a matter of time.
Prediction: Viana via first-round submission
Four more UFC 235 “Prelims” undercard bouts to preview and predict, including the latest from top prospects Zabit Magomedsharipov and Johnny Walker. Same time as always, Maniacs!
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 235 fight card on fight night, starting with the Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET.
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