Three champions with a history of nasty finishes under their belts take on dangerous contenders this Saturday (March 6, 2021) when Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to pay-per-view (PPV).
Up at 205 pounds, Jan Blachowicz looks to punish Middleweight roost-ruler Israel Adesanya’s ambitions in UFC 259’s PPV main event. Sixty pounds south, former Invicta champ Megan Anderson gets her shot at the most dangerous woman in the world, Amanda Nunes. And, another 10 pounds down, Aljamain “Funk Master” Sterling attempts to be the first man to topple champion Petr Yan in the Octagon.
ESPN hosts the latter five “Prelims” undercard bouts (check out the ESPN+ early portion here), which we’ve broken down for you below. Let’s get to it!
135 lbs.: Dominick Cruz vs. Casey Kenney
Once the undisputed emperor of the Bantamweight division, Dominick Cruz (22-3) enters the cage this weekend winless since 2016. Injury kept “The Dominator” on the shelf for nearly 3.5 years after his loss to Cody Garbrandt, and his return to action in May 2020 saw him stopped in two by Henry Cejudo.
He gives up two inches of reach despite standing one inch taller than Kenney.
Casey Kenney (16-2-1) — a former LFA double champ — started his Octagon run by upsetting Ray Borg on just eight days’ notice. He’s won five of six in the Octagon, including a “Fight of the Night” decision over Nathaniel Wood in Oct. 2020 that completed a 21-day turnaround.
He’s tapped five professional foes and knocked out another two.
Not to denigrate Kenney’s abilities, as I’m quite the fan of his and recognize him as a top-tier Bantamweight, but this is a referendum on what Cruz has left in the tank. Cruz’s takedown defense is too potent for Kenney’s lethal grappling to have any impact and the latter’s striking toolbox isn’t deep enough to handle Cruz’s legendarily offbeat offense.
In other words, a peak-condition Cruz — or even a functional one — should run circles around him.
This may be nostalgia talking, but losing to the best Cody Garbrandt that ever stepped into the cage and a genuine beast in Cejudo isn’t enough to convince me that we’ve seen the last of “The Dominator.” Kenney pushes forward as always, but Cruz’s lateral movement short-circuits his offense and carries him back to the win column.
Prediction: Cruz via unanimous decision
135 lbs.: Song Yadong vs. Kyler Phillips
Team Alpha Male’s Song Song (16-4-1) has yet to taste defeat in the Octagon, amassing a 5-0-1 record and claiming three post-fight bonuses in the process. His last two efforts saw him draw with Cody Stamann in 2019 and subsequently take a narrow decision over Marlon Vera five months later.
He faces a 3.5-inch reach disadvantage.
A rapid knockout of James Gray on “Contender Series” sent Kyler Phillips (8-1) to The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), where he fell to eventual winner Brad Katona in the opening round. He’s found more success in UFC itself, debuting with a late-notice decision over Gabriel Silva and earning “Performance of the Night” for his mauling of Cameron Else.
He has scored five professional knockouts and one win via calf slicer.
Though he managed to keep his unbeaten UFC record intact, Song’s fights with Stamann and Vera showed that he’s still got work to do before he can mount a real assault on the Bantamweight division’s elite. That said, the 23-year-old’s crisp, powerful boxing should be sufficient to carry him past Phillips, who boasts comparable knockout power but can get overeager and leave himself open to return fire from a tighter puncher.
Song’s cardio figures to be his biggest concern — he still put up a great fight well into the third round against Vera, but he was clearly having issues with the Ecuadorian’s refusal to stay out of his face. Phillips is going to give him a firefight, and if Song starts to wilt, that technical advantage will quickly cease to make a difference. After that learning experience last time out, though, I’ll be an optimist and say Song manages his gas tank enough to claim a highly entertaining decision.
Prediction: Song via unanimous decision
125 lbs.: Joseph Benavidez vs. Askar Askarov
Joseph Benavidez (28-7) rebounded from his second loss to Demetrious Johnson by winning nine of his next 10 bouts, including a decision over Cejudo and knockouts of both Alex Perez and Jussier Formiga. The fun wasn’t to last, as he subsequently suffered a pair of gruesome stoppage losses to Deiveson Figueiredo.
He faces two-inch disadvantages in both height and reach.
Askar Askarov (13-0-1) ruled the Flyweight roost in ACB, winning and defending its Flyweight title en route to the Octagon. He’s perfect (2-0) since starting his UFC run with a split draw against Brandon Moreno, dominating Tim Elliott and wearing down Alexandre Pantoja during his 2020 campaign.
All of his pre-UFC bouts ended inside the distance, including seven by submissions.
Before the Figueiredo debacles, I’d have picked Benavidez to win this 10 out of 10 times. “Joe B” has spent his whole career dismantling scrambling specialists, and it’s not like Askarov is invincible on the ground. In fact, Moreno arguably got the better of him and he struggled with Pantoja until the attrition took effect.
The question, then, is whether that Benavidez still exists. Figueiredo handed him two life-changing beatings in the span of five months. And while Askarov’s striking is nowhere near as lethal as “Deus da Guerra’s,” that damage could very easily degrade the rest of Benavidez’s game. Still, Benavidez has beaten too many members of Askarov’s archetype for me to pick against him here. He racks up enough top control to end his career in the winner’s circle.
Prediction: Benavidez via unanimous decision
125 lbs.: Rogerio Bontorin vs. Kai Kara-France
Rogerio Bontorin (16-2) followed his impressive comeback submission “Contender Series” with an upset of Magomed Bibulatov in his Octagon debut, then opened a gruesome cut to stop Raulian Paiva his second time out. An overweight Ray Borg proved more than he could handle, however, defeating the Brazilian by decision in Feb. 2020.
He’s dispatched 11 professional opponents via submission.
Kai Kara-France (21-9) — the only man to score a knockout on TUF 24 — extended his win streak to eight with UFC victories over Elias Garcia, Raulian Paiva and Mark De La Rosa. He’s since dropped two of three, though he walked away with a Fight of the Night bonus for his war with Brandon Royval in Nov. 2020.
He gives up one inch of height and a half-inch of reach to Bontorin.
This isn’t as clear-cut as the surface-level “grappler vs. striker-with-great-takedown-defense” vibes would suggest. Though neither Moreno nor Royval managed to land an official takedown on him, both overwhelmed him on the feet, and Bontorin had a ton of success against another lethal striker in Paiva. He might not be as ridiculous as Royval in the striking, but Bontorin’s tough as hell and absolutely relentless when he puts his mind to it.
While Kara-France likely still wins this if he can keep it standing, his striking just hasn’t wowed me enough. In the end, Bontorin smothers Kara-France’s offense with sheer relentlessness and wears him down for a decision.
Prediction: Bontorin via unanimous decision
If you’re an MMA fan, I don’t need to sell you on this one. See you Saturday, Maniacs!
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 259 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “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+ PPV.
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