A prematurely dismissed contender meets one of 2020’s breakout stars this Saturday (March 20, 2021) when Derek Brunson looks to halt Kevin Holland’s unexpected Middleweight rise. Earlier that evening, top Lightweight prospect Gregor Gillespie attempts to bounce back from his first-ever loss against Kiwi striking ace Brad Riddell, while Tai Tuivasa trades hands with fellow big hitter Don’Tale Mayes.
UFC Vegas 22 features seven “Prelims” undercard matches his time around, four of which we’ve examined below. Let’s dig in ...
135 lbs.: Montel Jackson vs. Jesse Strader
Montel Jackson (9-2) put a UFC debut loss to Ricky Simon behind him with three consecutive Octagon victories, including a 100-second submission finish of Brian Kelleher. His efforts set up a July 2020 clash with Brett Johns, who survived an early knockdown to out-wrestle “Quik” en route to a unanimous decision.
He stands two inches taller than Jesse Strader (5-1) at 5’10.”
Strader enjoyed a five-fight amateur career before turning pro in 2017 and, two fights later, joining up with Combate. He went 3-1 under that banner, most recently knocking out Isaiah Batin-Gonzalez in Aug. 2020.
He’s ended four of his five professional victories via knockout.
With John Lineker enjoying himself over in ONE, it falls to Strader to fill the ultra-violent body-punching void he left behind. The SoCal native is pure aggression in the cage, a mindset that will both entertain us immensely and get him absolutely splattered by Jackson. “Quik” is way too big and hits way too damn hard for Strader to just charge at him like he always does, especially since Strader lacks the top-tier takedown offense that Simon and Johns used to shut down Jackson’s offense.
Strader catching Jackson unaware and battering him into submission before the latter gets his bearings isn’t impossible, but it’s far likelier that Strader’s eagerness to mix it up inside gets him flatlined by a counter. Jackson scores his first Octagon knockout to end a short-but-delightful firefight.
Prediction: Jackson via first-round knockout
135 lbs.: Johnny Eduardo vs. Anthony Birchak
Johnny Eduardo (28-12) — a long-time staple of Nova Uniao — started his Octagon career 3-2 with losses to division standouts Raphael Assuncao and Aljamain Sterling. He has since dropped two straights, succumbing to Matthew Lopez’s ground-and-pound and Nathaniel Wood’s submission prowess.
He fights for the first time since June 2018 and for just the sixth time in nearly nine years.
Anthony Birchak (15-7) initially left the Octagon on a win, but proceeded to drop three straight under the Rizin banner. After scoring a few first-round finishes on the regional circuit, “El Toro” returned to UFC in Nov. 2020, falling to Gustavo Lopez on short notice.
He has ended 12 fights inside the distance, seven of them via submission.
This is an absolute nightmare fight to try and predict. Beyond Eduardo’s inactivity, his lack of fight IQ undercuts his excellent striking, as seen when he spent a round dominating Nathaniel Wood on the feet before inexplicably shooting for a takedown and getting choked out for it. Birchak, meanwhile, can’t seem to translate a fairly stout overall game into consistent success.
I think I’ve got to go with Eduardo — he’s without question the superior technician on the feet and Birchak’s offensive wrestling has yet to make a noteworthy impact in the Octagon. The guy’s 40 years old and could very easily make me look like an idiot, but I think he can punish Birchak’s aggression with an early finish.
Prediction: Eduardo via first-round technical knockout
125 lbs.: J.P. Buys vs. Bruno Silva
J.P. Buys’ (9-2) first “Contender Series” appearance back in 2017 went poorly, suffering a technical knockout loss to Joby Sanchez after starting strong. A four-fight win streak brought him back to the show three years later, and he made the most of it with a contract-winning victory over Jacob Silva.
His professional finishes are split 5:3 between submissions and knockouts.
More than four years after a 1-1 run on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF): Brazil 4, Bruno Silva (10-5-2) finally joined the Octagon proper, only to fall to Khalid Taha in his debut. Though that was later overturned when Taha failed a drug test, he enters the cage this weekend on the heels of consecutive losses to David Dvorak and Tagir Ulanbekov.
He gives up two inches of height and an inch of reach to Buys.
He may be winless in the Octagon, but Silva gave two very strong prospects in Dvorak and Ulanbekov everything they could handle, and he’s got the skills to do the same to Buys. Though certainly the stronger wrestler, Buys doesn’t appear to deal with adversity terribly well. Indeed, if Silva can land his calf kicks early and offer enough resistance in the grappling to tax Buys’ gas tank, he’ll have a legitimate shot at the upset.
Still, even with my reservations, I have to favor Buys. Silva’s kicks leave him vulnerable to takedowns and he’ll have a lot more trouble getting out from underneath Buys than he did Ulanbekov. In the end, “Young Savage” drags him to the mat early and often, leaning on long stretches of top control to secure the decision.
Prediction: Buys via unanimous decision
135 lbs.: Julia Avila vs. Julija Stoliarenko
Julia Avila (8-2) smashed her way into Bantamweight contention with dominant UFC victories over Pannie Kianzad and Gina Mazany, stopping the latter in just 22 seconds. Then came Sijara Eubanks, who used an aggressive wrestling attack to neutralize “Raging Panda” and pull off the upset.
She has knocked out four professional opponents and submitted one other.
Julija Stoliarenko (9-4-1) returned to the regional circuit after falling to Leah Letson at TUF 28 Finale, winning four straight before taking a split decision in her Invicta debut. She returned to the Octagon in Aug. 2020, dropping a unanimous decision to contender Yana Kunitskaya.
All nine of her professional stoppage wins have come by armbar.
Even if the Eubanks debacle tempered my expectations, I’m still high on Avila, who remains one of the more entertaining and destructive fighters in the division. She should be way too much for Stoliarenko, at least. That’s because the Lithuanian is badly out-gunned on the feet and lacks the wrestling to drag Avila to the mat, making her submission skills a non-factor.
To her credit, Stoliarenko is likely durable enough to withstand Avila’s power and her various armbar transitions could play a factor should Avila get overeager and leave herself open to a guard pull. Still, expect “Raging Panda” to overpower her in a stand up war, avoiding Stoliarenko’s signature technique in the process.
Prediction: Avila via unanimous decision
Three more UFC Vegas 22 “Prelims” bouts remain to preview and predict, including a super intriguing Lightweight clash between Grant Dawson and Leonardo Santos. Same time tomorrow, Maniacs.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 22 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+/ESPN2 “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ESPN/ESPN+ at 10 p.m. ET.
To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 22: “Brunson vs. Holland” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.