Two years after their post-The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) clash fell through, former Middleweight champion Robert Whittaker and one-time title challenger Kelvin Gastelum finally settle their score this Saturday (April 17, 2021) inside UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada. In addition, Drakkar Klose welcomes Jeremy Stephens back to the Lightweight division and Abdul Razak Alhassan look for a fresh start at Middleweight against Aussie prospect Jacob Malkoun.
Three more UFC Vegas 23 “Prelims” undercard bouts remain to be examined (check out the first batch here), so let’s get on that ...
125 lbs.: Tracy Cortez vs. Justine Kish
Tracy Cortez (8-1) went from losing her professional debut fighting her way to “Contender Series,” where she claimed a UFC contract with a decision over Mariya Agapova. She’s been similarly successful in the Octagon itself, defeating Vanessa Melo and Stephanie Egger in successive appearances.
She’ll have a two-inch reach advantage over Justine Kish (7-3).
Kish put her injury-shortened Ultimate Fighter run behind her to win her first two Octagon bouts, including a decision over Nina Nunes in her debut. She has since dropped three of four, most recently tapping to a Sabina Mazo rear-naked choke in Sept. 2020.
Her two professional finishes, which came in her first two bouts, came by submission.
The last time Kish had to fight off of her back, Felice Herrig dominated her so thoroughly that Kish actually pooped herself trying to brute-force her way out of a choke. While she’s almost certainly improved in the four years since, it’s a bad sign against a takedown artist as prolific as Cortez. Worse, Kish seemingly lacks the power to make Cortez hesitate before shooting in, meaning she can keep threatening her hips all night.
The one “X-Factor” here is the weight cut — Cortez shouldn’t have any issues going back to 125 pounds, as she fought there her entire pre-UFC career, but Kish definitely puts on enough pressure to turn the tides late if something goes wrong. Still, expect Cortez’s wrestling to carry the day.
Prediction: Cortez via unanimous decision
265 lbs.: Alexander Romanov vs. Juan Espino
After multiple false starts, Moldova’s Alexander Romanov (13-0) finally got the chance to make his UFC debut in Sept. 2020, dominating Roque Martinez en route to a second-round submission win. Next came Marcos Rogerio de Lima, whom Romanov dispatched with an old-school forearm choke to earn “Performance of the Night.”
He’s ended all 13 of his professional bouts inside the distance, nine of them by submission.
Spain’s Juan Espino (10-1) ran the table on TUF 28, defeating Ben Sosoli and Maurice Greene before tapping Juan Frazier with a bonus-winning armbar at the Finale. A nearly two-year absence followed, after which “El Guapo” made up for lost time by submitting Jeff Hughes on “Fight Island.”
He’ll have one inch of height and five inches of reach on “King Kong.”
Even though he had more trouble with Rogerio de Lima than I expected, I have to go with Romanov here. That’s because he’s younger, more effective on the feet, and actually seems to be the faster of the two despite being a former sumo wrestler. Plus, he’s got a deceptively deep gas tank, so even if Espino does manage to get the better of him early, “King Kong” will likely be the fresher fighter down the stretch.
This is, of course, all moot if Romanov’s heretofore untested takedown defense winds up failing him. Inactive and old though he may be, Espino’s absolutely skilled enough to end the night early if he ends up on top.
Prediction: Romanov via second round technical knockout
115 lbs.: Jessica Penne vs. Lupita Godinez
Jessica Penne (12-5) — the former Invicta Atomweight champ — went 2-1 on TUF 20 before defeating season Cinderella Randa Markos at the Finale. She hasn’t tasted victory since, falling to Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Jessica Andrade and Danielle Taylor sequentially.
This will be her first fight in almost exactly four years due to issues with United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
The Mexico-born, Canada-based Lupita Godinez (5-0) went 4-4-1 as an amateur before her professional debut in 2018. After four wins on the regional circuit, she squared off with “Contender Series” veteran Vanessa Demopoulos, building an insurmountable lead to claim the LFA Strawweight title in Oct. 2020.
She replaces Hannah Goldy on little more than two weeks’ notice.
While I do believe Penne is significantly better than her UFC record would suggest, as two of her losses came to champion-caliber opponents and the third was a robbery, Godinez is all wrong for her. Penne has historically wilted under the sort of furious boxing onslaught that “Loopy” brings to the table, and Godinez’s wrestling is sufficiently stout to take Penne’s quality top game out of the equation.
We’ve seen fighters make massive strides after years on the shelf before, but Penne turned 38 this year and is up against a much younger, much more powerful prospect. In the end, Godinez overwhelms her with combinations within the first five minutes.
Prediction: Godinez via first-round technical knockout
There are some seriously violent match ups slated for UFC Vegas 23 that you don’t want to miss — hope you’ll be there with us to enjoy them. See you Saturday, Maniacs.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 24 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.
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