A Welterweight crossroads fight headlines the UFC’s return to Las Vegas, Nevada, this Saturday (May 30, 2020) when former champion Tyron Woodley looks to rebound from defeat against the fast-rising Gilbert Burns on ESPN/ESPN+. Up at Heavyweight, Russian sambo ace Blagoy Ivanov throws down with hulking knockout artist Augusto Sakai, prior to which Kevin Holland will have his second fight in 14 days opposite fellow finisher Daniel Rodriguez.
UFC on ESPN 9 features half-dozen “Prelims” undercard bouts this time around, sharing the stage on ESPN and ESPN+. On we go ...
125 lbs.: Tim Elliott vs. Brandon Royval
Despite falling short against Demetrious Johnson after running the table on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 24, Tim Elliott (15-10-1) went on to win two of his next three, earning post-fight bonuses for his victories over Louis Smolka and Mark De La Rosa. He enters the cage on a two-fight skid, however, losing to Deiveson Figueiredo and Askar Askarov.
He gives up 3.5 inches of reach to “Raw Dawg.”
Brandon Royval (10-4) stepped up on short notice to fight Casey Kenney for the LFA Interim Flyweight title, resulting in the end of his three-fight winning streak. He came back with a vengeance in 2019, though, following a first-round finish of UFC vet Joby Sanchez with a 23-second armbar of Nate Williams to claim the belt. All but one of his nine stoppage wins have come in the first round.
I feel like the only way this doesn’t wind up being Fight of the Night is if one of them hits a Submission of the Night too early. The ground transitions between these two are going to be utterly ludicrous, and Elliott’s face-first slugging should mesh well with Royval’s improvisational striking to keep it fun for however long it stays on the feet.
Watching Royval get manhandled by Kenney had me leaning towards Elliott, who dragged Smolka to the mat a dozen times. At the same time, Elliott’s fights with Ben Nguyen and Figueiredo showed that his submission defense isn’t impregnable, and Royval is a complete nightmare off of his back. Still, Elliott’s wrestling edge is just too significant for me to bank on Royval, who isn’t winning this by decision, landing the submission he needs. Elliott out-wrestles and out-scrambles Royval in a truly phenomenal grappling battle.
Prediction: Elliott via unanimous decision
135 lbs.: Casey Kenney vs. Louis Smolka
After failing to secure an Octagon contract in two “Contender Series” appearances, Casey Kenney (13-2-1) returned to LFA, where he claimed the interim Flyweight and Bantamweight titles. His UFC career has seen him edge out Ray Borg on an eight-day turnaround, upset the overweight Manny Bermudez, and most recently lose a decision to Merab Dvalishvili in February.
He is the shorter man by two inches.
A four-fight skid led to Louis Smolka’s (16-6) exit from UFC, only for a three-fight winning streak to bring him back last year. He’s 2-1 in his latest stint, stoppage wins over Sumudaerji and Ryan MacDonald sandwiching a submission loss to Matt Schnell.
He has knocked out and submitted seven pro foes apiece.
Luckily for those of us keen on making predictions, we’ve already gotten to see Kenney in action against Brandon Royval, who shares Smolka’s blend of free-flowing striking and absolutely lethal submissions. Kenney handily overpowered “Raw Dog” on the feet and on the mat for five rounds, constantly scoring with counter punches, landing easy takedowns, and maintaining position without ever being in submission danger.
I expect something similar here. Kenney’s boxing is good enough to control the standup and he can both put Smolka on his back at will and shut down his grappling attack. Dominant top control and clean left hands carry Kenney to a comfortable decision.
Prediction: Kenney via unanimous decision
135 lbs.: Chris Gutierrez vs. Vince Morales
Chris Gutierrez (14-4-1) took on Raoni Barcelos in a clash of UFC debutants in Nov. 2018, tapping to a second-round choke to snap a three-fight winning streak. He’s since demolished Ryan MacDonald and taken a controversial split decision over Geraldo de Freitas. He’ll give up an inch of reach to the shorter Morales.
Vince Morales (9-4) — who succumbed to a comeback submission against Domingo Pilarte on “Contender Series” — fell to Song Yadong in his short-notice debut four months later. He went on to upset Aiemann Zahabi before dropping a highly questionable decision to Benito Lopez in his most recent effort.
“Vandetta” has knocked out five pro opponents and submitted two others.
Weirdly enough, Morales’ technical prowess may be what ultimately does him in. de Freitas repeatedly found the mark on the kick-happy Gutierrez by damning the torpedoes and straight-up chasing him down with haymakers, a stratagem that I can’t imagine Morales utilizing. It’s also worth noting that Lopez was having plenty of success chewing up the patient Morales’ lead leg before “Vandetta’s” counter right knocked the confidence out of him.
In short, Morales will have to fight a very atypical fight to get through Gutierrez’s kicks, especially since “El Guapo” likely won’t have to worry about takedowns. I don’t see Morales consistently getting inside without having his leg compromised, and though that right hand of his can end the fight in an instant, Gutierrez should be able to steer clear. Gutierrez pieces him up at range for a decision.
Prediction: Gutierrez via unanimous decision
Three more UFC on ESPN 9 “Prelims” undercard bouts remain to preview and predict, among them what looks to be an absolute banger at Featherweight between Billy Quarantillo and Spiky Carlyle. Same time tomorrow, Maniacs.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC on ESPN 9 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN/ESPN+ “Prelims” that are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then remaining main card portion that will air on ESPN/ESPN+ proper at 9 p.m. ET.
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