Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to ABC this Saturday (April 10, 2021) with a re-worked main event and tons of promising up-and-comers in tow.
In UFC Vegas 23’s featured attraction, Kevin Holland once again steps up on short notice to take on surging Middleweight contender Marvin Vettori, while the co-feature sees power-punching Sodiq Yusuff welcome fellow Featherweight prospect Arnold Allen back from a 15-month layoff. Plus, “Contender Series” veterans Kyle Daukaus and Aliaskhab Khizriev square off and Sam Alvey tries to end a five-fight winless streak at Julian Marquez’s expense.
We’ve a hefty nine “Prelims” undercard this time around, all on ESPN / ESPN+. Here’s the first batch:
265 lbs.: Yorgan de Castro vs. Jarjis Danho
Yorgan de Castro (6-2) followed his massive upset of Alton Meeks on “Contender Series” with a one-punch knockout of Justin Tafa in the Octagon, securing “Performance of the Night” in the process. Subsequent bouts proved less successful, as both Greg Hardy and Carlos Felipe out-worked “The Mad Titan” down the stretch en route to decision victories.
Five of his six professional victories have come by form of knockout.
Syria’s Jarjis Danho (5-1-1) secured five finishes in five victories en route to the Octagon, where he dropped a technical decision to Daniel Omielanczuk in his debut. Then came Danish kickboxer Christian Columbo, who fought “Man Mountain” to a majority draw in Hamburg.
This will be his first fight in 4.5 years.
Danho was a bottom-of-the-barrel Heavyweight even before his massive layoff, skating by on raw physical strength and functional wrestling in lieu of any technical craft or cardio. All de Castro has to do to win is actually bother to throw punches, which is far from a given; the man threw 41 significant strikes in the first round against Greg Hardy and a combined 28 over the next 10 minutes.
Even with de Castro’s bad habits, this is way too big a “gimme” for me to pick against him. Unless Danho’s spent the last half-decade fundamentally reinventing himself into a contender, de Castro chops him down with low kicks and power punches within five minutes.
Prediction: de Castro via first-round technical knockout
135 lbs.: Hunter Azure vs. Jack Shore
Just two months after earning a UFC contract with a decision over Chris Ocon, Hunter Azure (9-1) started his Octagon career off right by doing the same to The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) winner Brad Katona. Though a subsequent bout with Brian Kelleher didn’t go his way, he grinded his way past Cole Smith to return to the win column in September 2020. He faces the slightest of reach disadvantages against Wales’ “Tank.”
Jack Shore (13-0) battered Mike Ekundayo to claim the Cage Warriors Bantamweight title in 2018, then proved similarly dominant in his inaugural title defense against Scott Malone. His efforts sent him to the Octagon, where he’s choked out Nohelin Hernandez and Aaron Phillips.
His 12 professional finishes are split 8:4 between submissions and knockouts.
I genuinely consider Shore one of the best prospects in a division absolutely choked with talent, and while he hasn’t gotten the chance to prove that against noteworthy foes, that figures to change this weekend. He’s every bit the wrestler Azure is, but with the added bonus of far crisper striking and a much more dangerous submission game. Azure’s only hope is to try and grind him out from the top, and Shore is too damn seasoned and skilled to let that happen.
Frankly, I see this as far more one-sided than the bookies do. In short, expect Shore’s experience, versatility and technical savvy to carry him to a middle-round finish.
Prediction: Shore via second-round submission
145 lbs.: Luis Saldana vs. Jordan Griffin
Luis Saldana (14-6) went from losing five of eight to scoring three consecutive finishes, which set up a “Contender Series” opportunity opposite Vince Murdock. After two dominant rounds, he floored Murdock with a pair of front kicks to secure a spot in UFC.
All of his professional victories have come inside the distance, eight of them by submission.
Jordan Griffin (18-8) proved just as vicious as his nom de guerre would suggest on “Contender Series,” dropping Maurice Mitchell before choking him out in short order. He has struggled to find similar success in UFC, entering the cage this Saturday in the midst of a 1-3 skid.
“Native Psycho” will have a 1.5-inch reach advantage despite being the shorter man.
Watching Griffin struggle with a sharp, lengthy striker in Youssef Zalal, it’s hard to see him having much success against an even more technically savvy boxer. That said, Saldana’s takedown defense is something of an unknown quantity, and while Griffin isn’t the most reliable of takedown artists, he makes up for it with gusto. If Saldana isn’t prepared for 15 minutes of grind, this could go south for him in a hurry.
Still, Saldana’s long-range striking looks sufficient to overcome Griffin’s blitzes and should keep him at too long a range for his wrestling to make an impact. Griffin’s tough enough to last the distance, but he’ll have to settle for that moral victory as Saldana pieces him up.
Prediction: Saldana via unanimous decision
205 lbs.: Da Un Jung vs. William Knight
Da Un Jung (13-2-1) announced his arrival in the Octagon with an upset submission of unbeaten Khadis Ibragimov, then took just 64 seconds to smash Mike Rodriguez his next time out. Sam Alvey proved a tougher nut to crack, holding Jung to a draw in Oct. 2020 and snapping a 12-fight win streak in the process.
He stands six inches taller than William Knight (9-1) and will enjoy a 5.5-inch reach advantage.
Though his initial knockout of Herdem Alacabek on “Contender Series” only earned Knight a developmental contract, he upgraded to the real thing with a first-round mauling of Cody Brundage. He kept his momentum up by defeating fellow series veteran Aleksa Camur in his Octagon debut, making his first trip to the judges in the process.
He steps in for Shamil Gamzatov on short notice after two separate attempts to face Alonzo Menifield fell through.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Knight is a poor striker and a middling offensive wrestler, but makes up for it with this strange ability to make opponents want to initiate the grappling, at which point he wins the scramble and bashes them into submission with ground-and-pound. The boxing-focused Jung should hypothetically be able to avoid this pitfall, which automatically has me leaning his way. He tried for a few takedowns against Sam Alvey, yes, but Knight is a far less potent counter-puncher than Alvey, making it unlikely that “Knightmare” can similarly scare Jung away from the stand up.
That leaves Knight at the mercy of a far taller and far rangier striker, one with serious power and enough craft to make use of it. So long as he doesn’t let Knight tee off on his lead leg with impunity and resists the siren call of takedowns, he boxes Knight into the ground.
Prediction: Jung via first-round technical knockout
170 lbs.: Impa Kasanganay vs. Sasha Palatnikov
Though he left his initial “Contender Series” bout empty-handed despite a major upset of Kailan Hill, Impa Kasanganay (8-1) finally reached the Octagon with a decision over Anthony Adams. “Tshilobo” got off to a strong start by beating Maki Pitolo, but wound up on the wrong end of 2020’s “Knockout of the Year” against Joaquin Buckley.
This will be his Featherweight debut.
Sasha Palatnikov’s (6-2) UFC debut saw him make a two-month turnaround against Louis Cosce, who entered their fight as a colossal favorite after his impressive performance on “Contender series.” Undaunted, Palatnikov survived a wild first round to take over down the stretch and win their “Fight of the Night” via third-round technical knockout.
Half of his professional wins have come by form of knockout.
While Palatnikov deserves all the credit in the world for that impressive comeback, he’s still a very limited fighter who benefitted greatly from his opponent’s lack of a gas tank. He can’t expect the same from Kasanganay, who’s historically had zero issues fighting hard for 15 minutes. On top of that, Kasanganay has the wrestling skills to shut down Palatnikov’s usual takedown-heavy approach and can more than hold his own on the feet, essentially neutralizing all of Palatnikov’s potential avenues of victory.
Kasanganay figures to be better just about everywhere; indeed, provided the weight cut doesn’t compromise his cardio, his usual blend of wrestling and power-punches should be more than enough to earn him a comfortable win.
Prediction: Kasanganay via unanimous decision
Four more UFC Vegas 23 undercard bouts remain to preview and predict, including the Octagon debuts of standout young guns Erin Blanchfield and Ignacio Bahamondes. Same time tomorrow, Maniacs.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 23 fight card this weekend right here, starting with the ESPN / ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 12 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ABC / ESPN+ at 3 p.m. ET.
To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 23: “Vettori vs. Holland” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.