“Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, hosts a trio of title fights this Saturday (July 11, 2020), headlined by a late-notice grudge match between powerhouse Welterweight champion, Kamaru Usman, and the inimitable Jorge Masvidal. Meanwhile, 25 pounds south, Featherweight champion, Alexander Volkanovski, squares off against Max Holloway in an immediate rematch. Just before that, Bantamweight finishers Petr Yan and Jose Aldo throw down for Henry Cejudo’s former 135-pound belt.
ESPN will host UFC 251’s top four “Prelims” undercard bouts this time around (check out the first batch here), and there are some doozies among them. Let’s get to it:
205 lbs.: Volkan Oezdemir vs. Jiri Prochazka
The unsuccessful title bid for Volkan Oezdemir (17-4) against Daniel Cormier kicked off a three-fight skid that saw him tap to an Anthony Smith rear-naked choke and drop a razor-thin decision to Dominick Reyes. “No Time” has since gotten back on track, knocking out Ilir Latifi and handing hot prospect Aleksandar Rakic the first loss of his Octagon career.
He stands two inches shorter than his foe at 6’2.”
The Czech Republic’s Jiri Prochazka (26-3-1) made his name in Rizin, where he’s amassed an 11-1 record in brutal fashion. He avenged a knockout loss to “King Mo” Lawal to win the promotion’s Light Heavyweight title in 2019, then flattened Fabio Maldonado and CB Dollaway in under two minutes apiece.
Twenty-three of his professional wins, including his last eight and 16 of his last 17, have come by form of knockout.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I’ve been a fan of Jiri’s since 2015 and was positively giddy when I heard he’d been signed. I’ll also admit that I’ve got a bad habit of underestimating Oezdemir. With all that on the table, here’s why Prochazka will win.
If Oezdemir has a standout weakness, it’s an occasional tendency to fade down the stretch, which is a bad problem to have against a man who boasts one of the deepest gas tanks in Light Heavyweight history. Prochazka pushes a pace higher than Oezdemir is comfortable with and has enough power, speed, and variety to hold his own in striking exchanges with a fresh “No Time.” Though “Denisa” has shown some vulnerability to low kicks in the past, I favor his avalanche of offense to wear Oezdemir down and secure a late finish.
Prediction: Prochazka via second-round technical knockout
170 lbs.: Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos vs. Muslim Salikhov
Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos (22-6) put his narrow UFC debut loss to Nicolas Dalby behind him, embarking on a path of destruction through the Welterweight ranks, winning seven straight and earning three “Fight of the Night” bonuses in the process. A stoppage loss to Li Jingliang halted his rise last August, though he claimed a decision against Alexey Kunchenko this past March.
“Capoeira” will have three inches of reach on “The King of Kung Fu.”
Despite considerable hype and spinning kick knockouts of two UFC veterans under his belt, Muslim Salikhov’s (16-2) Octagon debut went sideways courtesy of an Alex Garcia rear-naked choke. Salikhov got back on track with knockouts of Ricky Rainey and Nordine Taleb, plus a wide decision over the surging Laureano Staropoli in Oct. 2019.
He has knocked out 11 professional opponents and submitted another three.
Zaleski’s recent fights with Li and Kunchenko — the latter of whom I thought he was quite fortunate to get the judges’ nod against — seemed to show the limits of his frantic onslaught against composed strikers. Unfortunately for the Brazilian, Salikhov more than fits that bill. Not only is Salikhov the superior technical kickboxer, he’s even got the edge in the spinning attacks Zaleski so enjoys.
Zaleski’s takedowns could throw a wrench in things, as they did against Kunchenko, but Salikhov’s shown some solid wrestling chops himself recently, taking Staropoli down three times. Salikhov keeps it standing, where he eventually capitalizes on Zaleski’s subpar boxing for a brutal finish.
Prediction: Salikhov via second-round technical knockout
145 lbs.: Makwan Amirkhani vs. Danny Henry
Makwan Amirkhani (15-4) kicked off his Octagon career with two wins in a combined 1:49, ultimately coming out victorious in five of his first six appearances. “Mr. Finland” enjoyed a strong start against Shane Burgos in Nov. 2019, but ultimately succumbed to his foe’s power in the final minute of the third round.
Eight of his 10 professional submissions have come via choke.
Danny Henry (12-3) survived an early onslaught to upset Daniel Teymur in his Octagon debut, then scored an even larger upset by choking out Hakeem Dawodu in just 39 seconds his next time out. He couldn’t make it 3-0 against Dan Ige, whose immediate blitz netted the Hawaiian a 67-second tapout victory.
This will be his first fight in nearly 16 months.
Now this is a two-true-outcome fight if I’ve ever seen one. Henry’s fights with Teymur and Ige showed that he’s vulnerable to early aggression, which Amirkhani’s wrestling attack offers in spades. On the flip side, that Teymur fight proved that Henry can quickly become a nightmare to deal with if that initial onslaught fails to take him out, and watching a gassed Amirkhani get pummeled by Burgos should give “The Hatchet” confidence.
Henry has to survive to make that comeback happen, though, and Amirkhani’s got the submission skills to keep him from doing so. Amirkhani drags him to the mat and chokes him out before he can get his snowball going.
Prediction: Amirkhani via first-round submission
155 lbs.: Leonardo Santos vs. Roman Bogatov
Leonardo Santos (17-3-1) — who turned 40 this past February — has yet to taste defeat inside the Octagon. He’s won five straight since drawing with Norman Parke, earning post-fight bonuses for his knockouts of Kevin Lee and Stevie Ray.
He fights for the first time since June 2019 and for just the second time since 2016.
When M-1 lightweight champion Damir Ismagulov joined UFC in 2010, Roman Bogatov (10-0) faced Rubenilton Pereira for the now-vacant belt, claiming it via grueling five-round decision. He successfully defended it with a submission of Michel Silva and an injury stoppage of UFC veteran Mickael Lebout last August.
He has earned five professional wins by submission.
On the one hand, Santos is 40 years old and painfully inactive. On the other, Bogatov looks tailor-made for him. The Russian relies extensively on his wrestling and smothering top control, which is a mighty dangerous game to play against someone with Santos’ Brazilian jiu-jitsu pedigree. The stand up doesn’t look much safer for him, either — Bogatov is generally easy to hit and Santos has seemingly developed some stunning power lately.
Bogatov will have to bank on Santos’ age and rust catching up to him, which isn’t the worst plan in the world considering how exhausting the former’s takedown attack can be to deal with. Still, the likeliest outcome sees Santos either club-and-sub Bogatov or snatch up his neck on an ill-timed shot.
Prediction: Santos via first-round submission
I don’t think I need a pithy closing statement to sell you on this card — just don’t miss it. See you Saturday, Maniacs.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 251 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+/Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN+/ESPN at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+.
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