The biggest Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) star helms its first pay-per-view (PPV) event of 2021 this Saturday (Jan. 23, 2021) when Conor McGregor squares off against Dustin Poirier in a rematch that could easily catapult the winner toward a Lightweight title shot. UFC 257 also features the long-awaited Octagon debut of Bellator stalwart Michael Chandler, who faces the ever-dangerous Dan Hooker. In addition, Jessica Eye takes on Joanne Calderwood and Matt Frevola faces Ottman Azaitar in what figures to be an absolutely wild slugfest.
UFC 257 will host seven “Prelims” undercard bouts this time around, split 4:3 between ESPN and ESPN+/Fight Pass. We’ve got the full lot previewed below:
155 lbs.: Arman Tsarukyan vs. Nasrat Haqparast
Arman Tsarukyan (15-2) hopped right into UFC’s deep end for his debut, which saw him put up a strong but losing effort against the surging Islam Makhachev. Subsequent efforts have proven more fruitful, producing decision wins over Olivier Aubin-Mercier and Davi Ramos.
He stands three inches shorter than Nasrat Haqparast (12-3) at 5’7.”
Haqparast’s momentum — built by dominant victories over Marc Diakiese, Thibault Gouti and Joaquim Silva — hit a roadblock in the form of Drew Dober in Jan. 2020. The German slugger returned to action seven months later, handing Alex Munoz the first loss of his career with a wide decision.
He has scored nine professional knockouts overall.
As of this writing, Tsarukyan sits at a nearly a 3:1 favorite ... and I can’t say I agree. While enormously promising, the Armenian youngster looks out-gunned on the feet, and Haqparast’s takedown defense is pretty damn stout. Losing to Dober — who has looked unstoppable during his current three-fight win streak — doesn’t change the fact that Haqparast is an absolutely lethal striker.
Tsarukyan could still win this by carefully blending his striking and takedowns to neutralize Haqparast’s willingness to open up, but I like the German’s power and craft to win the day. In short, Haqparast out-slugs him on the feet and shuts down his takedown attempts to win the upset.
Prediction: Haqparast via unanimous decision
185 lbs.: Brad Tavares vs. Antonio Carlos Junior
A 6-1 Octagon start gave way to three losses in Brad Tavares’ (17-6) next four fights, though he managed to right the ship and put together another four-fight streak. He enters the cage having lost his last two, dropping a decision to Israel Adesanya and subsequently getting head kicked into oblivion by Edmen Shahbazyan.
He gives up one inch of height and five inches of reach to Antonio Carlos Junior (10-4).
The Ultimate Fighter (TUF): “Brazil” winner appeared to finally get over the hump with five consecutive Octagon victories, four of which came inside the distance. Then came an upset loss to Ian Heinisch and another, more controversial, one to Uriah Hall.
Eight of his 10 professional wins have come by submission.
By all rights, Carlos Junior should be knocking on the door of title contention by now. “Cara de Sapato” has got some of the division’s best jiu-jitsu credentials behind Rodolfo Vieira, some sneaky power and impressive reach. Unfortunately, there just seems to be something missing, and without that wayward piece, he’s not getting past Tavares. The Hawaiian may not be the most entertaining sort, but his motor and rock-solid takedown defense could prove a major headache if Carlos Junior continues to struggle.
If “Cara de Sapato” lives up to his sky-high potential, he should run Tavares over. After watching him struggle with the high-octane (but technically limited) Heinisch, however, he’s likely to lose a slow-paced striking battle once the takedowns fail to materialize.
Prediction: Tavares via unanimous decision
135 lbs.: Julianna Pena vs. Sara McMann
Almost 30 months after her submission loss to Valentina Shevchenko, TUF winner Julianna Pena (9-4) returned to action with a decision win over Nicco Montano followed. A 15-month layoff followed, which ended in Oct. 2020 when Germaine de Randamie caught her in a comeback guillotine partway through the third frame.
Her professional wins are split evenly between knockouts, submissions and decisions.
Sara McMann (12-5) — who’d won three straight since losing to Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes — saw her submission defense fail her once again when she tapped to Ketlen Vieira’s and Marion Reneau’s chokes. Last January saw her score her first victory in almost three years by taking a dominant decision over Lina Lansberg in Raleigh.
She faces a three-inch reach disadvantage.
What’s so frustrating about this fight is that McMann absolutely has the tools to win comfortably, but her history of self-sabotage makes it impossible to confidently pick her. She just seems to mentally check out the moment she’s caught in a submission, which allowed Vieira and Reneau to beat her on the ground despite that vaunted Olympic wrestling pedigree.
Pena — though an inferior wrestler on paper — is effective enough on the ground to exploit McMann’s apparent mental fragility and should be able to survive McMann’s powerful-but-unpolished striking. In the end, McMann controls the early going with top control, only to get caught in something unpleasant sometime around the midpoint.
Prediction: Pena via second-round submission
205 lbs.: Khalil Rountree Jr. vs. Marcin Prachnio
Khalil Rountree Jr. (8-4) put his dramatic knockout loss to Johnny Walker behind him with a one-sided mauling of Eryk Anders, a win sufficiently impressive to make him the favorite against Ion Cutelaba five months later. “The Hulk,” unfazed, pounded out Rountree in the first round to drop “War Horse’s” Octagon record to 4-4.
This marks his first fight in almost 16 months.
Poland’s Marcin Prachnio (13-5) joined UFC in the midst of an eight-fight win streak that included five first-round knockouts. He hasn’t been quite as successful in the Octagon itself, suffering knockout losses to Sam Alvey, Magomed Ankalaev and Mike Rodriguez.
Though taller by two inches, he faces a 2.5-inch reach disadvantage.
Prachnio is here to get demolished. His massive defensive lapses are thoroughly well-documented at this point, and his effectiveness at close range is neutered by his inability to actually get into the pocket without leaving himself wide open. For all his faults, Khalil Rountree still hits like a truck ... and Prachnio is not a difficult target.
Even if Rountree never lives up to his considerable potential, he’s good enough to hand Prachnio his fourth first-round knockout loss in a row. Barring a serious implosion on the former’s part, he levels Prachnio with a straight left in the first few minutes.
Prediction: Rountree via first-round knockout
185 lbs.: Andrew Sanchez vs. Makhmud Muradov
Andrew Sanchez (12-5) ran the table on TUF 23, only to fall into a 2-3 slump soon after that saw him suffer two comeback knockout losses. With his back against the wall, he came up huge against Wellington Turman in Aug. 2020, knocking out the Brazilian to claim his first “Performance of the Night” bonus.
“El Dirte” gives up an inch of height and just under two inches of reach to “Mach.”
Makhmud Muradov (24-6) — The Money Team’s sole MMA representative — brought an 11-fight win streak into his Octagon debut and extended it to 12 with a decision over Alessio Di Chirico. His next effort was even more impressive, as he leveled Trevor Smith with a brutal right hand to win “Performance of the Night.”
His 19 stoppage wins include 16 by form of knockout.
Though Muradov still has a lot to prove before he can be labeled a future top contender in this shark tank of a division, he’s perfectly equipped to win this one. Sanchez, though technically sound, struggles when forced to work at a high pace. And between Muradov’s quality footwork and the fact that he lands nearly five strikes per minute, “Mach” certainly fits the bill, and he’s a good enough wrestler to keep Sanchez from grinding things to a halt on the mat.
Muradov’s just too elusive and too active for Sanchez to get his offense going. Even if “El Dirte’s” cardio holds up, he’ll have too much trouble corralling Muradov to bring his power and top control to bear. In short, Muradov takes him apart at range for a wide decision.
Prediction: Muradov via unanimous decision
145 lbs.: Nik Lentz vs. Movsar Evloev
Nik Lentz (30-11-2) returned to Lightweight after hitting a 1-2 skid at Featherweight, winning five of his next seven before running afoul of eternal nemesis Charles Oliveira once again. The loss prompted a return to 145 pounds, where he fell to fast-rising Arnold Allen in Jan. 2020.
He was slated to face Mike Grundy last week, but got bumped back when the Englishman withdrew.
Movsar Evloev (13-0) capped off his dominant run in M-1 with a fifth-round knockout of Rafael Dias, defending his Bantamweight belt for the third time in the process. Though misfortunes to himself and opponents have seen six planned matchups fall through, he finds himself 3-0 in the Octagon with notable wins over Enrique Barzola and Mike Grundy.
He has submitted four professional opponents and knocked out another three.
Lentz had a real shot against Grundy, whose impressive wrestling pedigree hasn’t seamlessly transitioned to the cage, but Evloev is a step too far. Evloev’s takedown and scrambling skills are top-of-the-line, eliminating any chance of Lentz grinding him out, and he’s developed a remarkably stout striking attack with which to blunt Lentz’s plodding standup. The current, worn-down “Carnie” just doesn’t appear to have any consistent avenue of victory.
There are, however, two outside chances: he needs to either catch Evloev in a guillotine, as he did against Will Brooks, or hope that the cardio issues Evloev showed against Barzola flare up again. Neither seems particularly likely, so expect Evloev to control the fight wherever it goes and cruise to comfortable decision victory.
Prediction: Evloev via unanimous decision
125 lbs.: Amir Albazi vs. Zhalgas Zhumagulov
Once again, a rebooked battle I’d already written up the first time ... convenient!
Amir Albazi (13-1) bounced back from his career-first loss to Jose “Shorty” Torres with a first-round submission of Ryan Curtis, setting up an eventual Octagon debut against reigning TKO champion Malcolm Gordon. Albazi’s ground game proved too much for “Malcolm X,” whom he caught in a triangle choke late in the first.
Seven of his 12 professional stoppages have come by submission.
Zhalgas Zhumagulov (13-4) took a narrow decision over top prospect Tagir Ulanbekov to claim the Fight Nights Global Flyweight championship, then did the same to former UFC title challenger Ali Bagautinov in his inaugural defense. Fortune failed him in his Octagon debut, however, as he dropped a controversial decision to Raulian Paiva in July 2020.
He gives up one inch of height and two inches of reach to Albazi.
To his credit, “Zhako” did much better than I anticipated against Paiva, whom I’d tabbed as a terrible stylistic match up. Still, this looks like an Albazi win, as “The Prince” can keep up with him on the feet and has the wrestling chops to recreate Ulanbekov’s largely successful efforts against the fence. As good a scrambler as Zhumagulov is, he’ll struggle to get those haymakers going in the face of Albazi’s pressure and takedown onslaught.
Albazi isn’t the hardest guy to hit, so Zhumagulov definitely has a chance to clip him at any point in the fight, but expect Albazi to rack up enough top control time to secure the win.
Prediction: Albazi via unanimous decision
UFC 257 is a damn fine way to open 2021’s PPV line up, and we hope you’ll join us for it. See you Saturday, Maniacs!
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 257 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:15 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+ PPV.
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