Three months after their first planned meeting fell through at the last second, Heavyweight contenders Curtis Blaydes and Derrick Lewis hit the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada, this Saturday (Feb. 20, 2021) to settle the score. UFC Vegas 19 will also see Top 10-ranked women’s Bantamweight contenders Ketlen Vieira and Yana Kunitskaya duke it out for a potential spot in contention and Charles Rosa face Darrick Minner in a clash of top grapplers.
We’ve a hefty nine “Prelims” undercard bouts this time around, so let’s split ‘em 5:4 and have a look at the first batch below ...
145 lbs.: Nate Landwehr vs. Julian Erosa
Nate Landwehr (14-3) brought a seven-fight win streak and the M-1 Featherweight title with him when he entered the Octagon last year, though neither were enough to save him from a vicious Herbert Burns knee. A hard-fought decision over Darren Elkins put him in the win column four months later, though COVID-19 wound up scrapping a subsequent pair of fights in Sept. and Dec. 2020.
“The Train” gives up four inches of height and 2.5 inches of reach to “Juicy J.”
Two years after exiting the Octagon with a 1-1 record, Julian Erosa (24-8) fought his way back into the promotion with a highlight-reel knockout on “Contender Series,” only to lose three straight and exit the UFC once again. He returned to form in Feb. 2020 with a submission on the regional circuit, then stepped up on short notice to tap Sean Woodson with a comeback “Performance of the Night” D’arce choke.
Twenty one of his professional wins have come inside the distance, 11 of them by form of submission.
Erosa’s remarkable height and length for the division will always be undercut by his willingness to discard them in favor of slugging it out, and his four professional knockout losses have yet to make him realize that he’s just not durable enough to do that. Landwehr, by contrast, absolutely thrives in furious close-quarters exchanges; unless Erosa finally figures out that he’s supposed to fight long, there’s nothing stopping Landwehr from simply marching into the pocket and trading heat until Erosa drops.
That’s not to say that Erosa is totally doomed, as Landwehr is vulnerable to head kicks, but “The Train’s” relentlessness and takedown attack should be enough to neutralize Erosa’s more dangerous bits of offense. Landwehr wears him down for a late finish in a bloody war.
Prediction: Landwehr by third-round technical knockout
145 lbs.: Chas Skelly vs. Jamall Emmers
Chas Skelly (18-3) followed a UFC debut loss to Mirsad Bektic with wins in six of his next seven fights, only to get stopped by Jason Knight and suffer a controversial no contest against Bobby Moffett. His next effort saw a return to form, however, as he took a gritty unanimous decision over Jordan Griffin in Vancouver.
This marks his first fight since Sept. 2019, as two separate attempts to face Grant Dawson fell through last year.
Jamall Emmers (18-5) put a “Contender Series” knockout loss to Julian Erosa behind him with four consecutive stoppage victories, only to drop a narrow split decision to late replacement Giga Chikadze in his Octagon debut. He was slated to welcome Timur Valiev to the Octagon his next time out, but instead took a dominant decision over another late-notice foe in Vince Cachero.
He has ended 10 of his wins inside the distance, seven of them via knockout.
Saying it’s “someone’s fight to lose” is an awful tautological cliché, but it’s actually valid for Emmers in this case. “Pretty Boy” is a top-flight wrestler with the scrambling skills to avoid Skelly’s lethal choke game and gets stronger as the fight goes on, while we’ve seen Skelly burn himself out on multiple occasions in high-paced engagements; by all rights, Emmers should be able to use his speed to win the striking and either shut down or control any grappling engagements. That said, both the Erosa and Chikadze losses were the entirely avoidable byproduct of poor game planning, so his knack for self-sabotage isn’t to be underestimated.
Of course, said “poor game planning” was Emmers electing to trade strikes for too long, and since that’s his actual path to victory here, things should work out. Unless he decides to try and go front-choke-for-front-choke with “The Scrapper, he finds his footing after a rough first round and takes over down the stretch with long-range kickboxing.
Prediction: Emmers via unanimous decision
125 lbs.: Shana Dobson vs. Casey O’Neill
Though Roxanne Modafferi ended her The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 26 run in just 97 seconds, Shana Dobson (4-4) returned at the Finale to knockout the more experienced Ariel Beck. Three straight losses followed, including a one-punch knockout courtesy of Priscila Cachoeira, but Dobson ended 2020 strong with a colossal upset of Mariya Agapova.
Two of her four professional wins have come by form of knockout.
After losing her Eternal MMA Strawweight title on the scale, Casey O’Neill (5-0) moved up to Flyweight, successfully debuting in Feb. 2020 with a dominant decision over Caitlin McEwen. She then took her talents to UAE Warriors, where she pounded out Christina Stelliou seven months later.
She went 5-2 as an amateur before debuting in 2019.
Dobson deserves all the credit in the world for withstanding Agapova’s initial blitz and ultimately turning the tables, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s outgunned here. Her literal 0 percent Octagon takedown defense is a death flag against a grappler of this caliber, and O’Neill’s sharp enough to hold her own even if she gives Dobson the sort of stand up war she craves.
To make matters worse for Dobson, O’Neill is far better at managing her energy than Agapova, so “Danger” can’t bank on “King” fading late. As soon as O’Neill gets her hands on Dobson, she’ll put her through Hell on the mat. The only question is how long Dobson can survive.
Prediction: O’Neill via first-round submission
135 lbs.: Aiemann Zahabi vs. Drako Rodriguez
Aiemann Zahabi (7-2) — brother of legendary trainer Firas Zahabi — entered UFC with six first-round finishes under his belt and enjoyed a successful debut against Reginaldo Vieira. He has yet to taste victory since, suffering a knockout loss to Ricardo Ramos and subsequent decision loss to Vince Morales.
This will be his first fight in 21 months and just his second in the last three years.
Wins in his first three King of the Cage appearances led Drako Rodriguez (7-1) to a title fight against future UFC competitor Tony Gravely, who overpowered him with wrestling for a late finish. Three fights later, he took on prospect Mana Martinez on the Contender Series, catching him in a contract-winning triangle choke midway through the first round.
He went undefeated (13-0) as an amateur before turning pro in 2017.
This would be a difficult task for Zahabi even at the best of times because he lacks the wrestling to grind down Rodriguez the way Gravely did and doesn’t seem to have a notable edge on the feet. To defeat a well-rounded, well-seasoned finisher like Rodriguez after such a layoff looks to be beyond the Canadian’s capabilities.
Zahabi’s got a chin on him and Rodriguez is willing to chase subs off of his back, so the former surviving on the feet and leaning on top control to eke out a decision isn’t totally out of the question. It is, however, far likelier that Rodriguez lands the heavier shots and dictates the ground exchanges to claim a debut victory.
Prediction: Rodriguez via unanimous decision
265 lbs.: Serghei Spivac vs. Jared Vanderaa
Serghei Spivac (11-2) rebounded from a knockout loss in his UFC debut with an upset submission of Tai Tuivasa, but couldn’t do the same to Marcin Tybura his next time out. Five months later, he successfully returned to action with a decision over then-unbeaten Carlos Felipe on “Fight Island.”
He has ended 10 professional fights inside the distance, six of them by submission.
Jared Vanderaa (11-4) knocked out UFC veteran Ruan Potts to claim an EFC Heavyweight title, which he defended with a knockout of Ricky Misholas. After splitting his next two bouts, he joined “Contender Series,” where he pounded out late replacement Harry Hunsucker to claim a contract.
“The Mountain” stands one inch taller than Spivac and will have a two-inch reach advantage.
Don’t come in expecting fireworks from Vanderaa — he’s as lumbering as that nickname would suggest and isn’t much of a factor on the feet, making Spivac the clear winner in a kickboxing match. Where he shines is with his ground-and-pound, and as the considerably larger man, he’ll really only need one takedown to get Spivac out of there.
The question, then, is whether he can get it. I’ll say “probably.” That’s because Spivac was out-wrestled by Tybura and generally isn’t afraid to initiate the grappling. In the end, Vanderaa trips him down sometime in the first round and rains down punches for the finish.
Prediction: Vanderaa via first-round technical knockout
Four more UFC Vegas 19 “Prelims” udnercard bouts remain to preview and predict, including what could be fireworks between Middleweight prospects Phil Hawes and Nassourdine Imavov. Same time tomorrow, Maniacs!
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 19 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET.
To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 19: “Blaydes vs. Lewis” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.