After breathing new life into his career with a move to featherweight, inimitable knockout machine Edson Barboza meets one of the division’s best-credentialed strikers in Giga Chikadze at APEX in Las Vegas this Sat. night (Aug. 28, 2021) on ESPN and ESPN+.
The evening will also see The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 29 crown a pair of tournament winners. The middleweight finals pit Bryan Battle against late replacement Gilbert Urbina, while scrappy veteran Ricky Turcios meets young gun Brady Hiestand at bantamweight.
Our usual main card guy hasn’t been approved by the FDA yet, so the duty falls to me once again. As always, we’ve got UFC Vegas 35 “Prelims” card analysis here and here, as well as a comprehensive odds breakdown for all the “Barboza vs. Chikadze” action here.
145 lbs.: Edson Barboza (22-9) vs. Giga Chikadze (13-2)
Watching Giga’s fights and beholding the depth of his striking pedigree, I’ve had the urge to declare that nobody in the Featherweight division beats him in a pure standup battle. The ease with which he took apart skilled strikers like Omar Morales and Cub Swanson seemed to justify the urge, and even now it’s hard not to picture him steadily dismantling Edson for 25 minutes.
Thing is, Barboza’s a hell of a lot meaner than anyone Chikadze’s yet fought in the cage. Few fighters have been through the sort of hellish torture sessions that Barboza’s endured, but the man simply refuses to give up the fight. We know he can walk through fire, but Chikadze has yet to rise above that sort of adversity; he essentially folded once Jamall Emmers started to put the pace on him, and it was only through questionable judging and Emmers’ early passivity that he managed to earn the win.
He’s since improved massively, sure, but none of the men he beat can destroy a human body the way Edson can. Even if he can take those sorts of blows better than most thanks to his experience, that’s still 25 minutes of attrition against a guy who historically does not slow down.
All of this is to say that while Chikadze will have a clear edge in the early going, his lack of experience in grueling fights plays right into Barboza’s hands. I like the Brazilian to power through a tit-for-tat early battle to snowball and eventually beat a tiring Chikadze into submission.
Prediction: Barboza by fifth-round TKO
185 lbs.: Bryan Battle (5-1) vs. Gilbert Urbina (6-1)
For those unaware, this wasn’t the original Finale matchup. Team Volkanovski’s Battle was originally slated to face Tresean Gore, the last man standing from Team Ortega. Urbina, who fell to Gore in the semifinals, got the call after the latter injured his knee. This wouldn’t be the first time a TUF competitor brought home the gold after losing in the house (see McGee, Court and Hall, Ryan), but as much as I’d like to see Urbina succeed where brothers Elias and Hector fell short, this is a tall order.
Urbina’s greatest strength lies on the ground, where he’s scored all three of his professional finishes and basically ran over Micheal Gillmore in the quarterfinals. Getting Battle there is no mean feat, however; he managed to wear down Andre Petroski, the most skilled and physically imposing wrestler on the show, before ultimately finishing him in the second. I can’t see Urbina having much success in the grappling, especially since he couldn’t even muster the nerve to shoot against Gore.
That leaves the striking, where Battle’s offbeat stylings look to have a clear edge despite Urbina being the taller of the two. If Urbina could blend his standup and wrestling, he could potentially hold his own, but that looks beyond his abilities.
On top of that, Urbina’s spent most of his career at 170, while Battle fought exclusively at or above 185 pounds during his pro and amateur runs. Urbina’s a growing lad and came in at around 176 for his last pro fight, but he’s just not used to dealing with men the size of Battle.
Earlier in the season, Alexander Volkanovski explicitly tabbed Battle as the one to win it all, and I can’t say I disagree. He cruises his way to a sprawl-and-brawl decision for a shiny new contract.
Prediction: Battle by unanimous decision
135 lbs.: Ricky Turcios (10-2) vs. Brady Hiestand (5-1)
Both of these men impressed mightily in the TUF house, turning in some of the grittiest and most entertaining performances of anyone on the show. Turcios’ madcap offense and relentless pace proved way too much for Team Ortega’s best, while young gun Hiestand showed an admirable ability to power through adversity despite barely being old enough to drink. This figures to be a high-pace mess of a fight, one in which I just barely favor Hiestand.
Though Turcios’ cardio is a fearsome weapon, he hasn’t quite developed the technique to utilize it to its fullest. Hiestand is decent enough to handle himself on the feet and, critically, is the stronger wrestler of the two. If both men are fresh, he’s good enough to stay afloat in the striking and drag Turcios to the mat anytime the Contender Series vet starts to build a head of steam.
The question, then, is whether Hiestand can stay fresh. He had to dig deep to get past Josh Rettinghouse, while Turcios overwhelmed the technically superior Dan Argueta as the fight progressed. With the experience of gassing behind him and a cardio monster in Michael Chiesa in his corner, though, I like Hiestand to manage his energy, keep Turcios on the back foot, and eke out the upset.
In the interest of full disclosure, I started really questioning my pick once I started writing, and going back to the footage of their TUF fights didn’t alleviate my concern. Still, picking Hiestand was my first instinct, so I’ll trust it.
Prediction: Hiestand by split decision
170 lbs.: Kevin Lee (18-6) vs. Daniel Rodriguez (15-2)
There’s a frustrating lack of precedent here. We don’t really know how Lee’s game will work at Welterweight since his only fight at 170 pitted him against Rafael Dos Anjos, a natural 155er. Conversely, we’ve yet to see Rodriguez square off against a high-level wrestler, so we’re missing critical information about his takedown defense and ground skills.
From a fan perspective, this adds an enticing few layers of intrigue. From the perspective of someone committing their prediction to metaphorical paper, it’s obnoxious. If only it was still Lee vs. Sean Brady, who would have manhandled “The Motown Phenom” and spared me the task of having to actually think.
I’ve flip-flopped a few times, but I think I’ll go with Rodriguez. The size and pace just look like too much for Lee, who’s seen winnable fights slip through his fingers through sheer attrition. “D-Rod” lands more than twice as many significant strikes per minute as Lee, so if Lee can’t hold him down or find his signature RNC early, things will only get worse for him as the fight progresses.
Lee’s been out for a while and is still just 28 years old, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him . Still, Rodriguez represents an archetype that Lee’s struggled badly with before, so I like him to wear Lee down and take a commanding late lead.
Prediction: Rodriguez by unanimous decision
185 lbs.: Andre Petroski (5-1) vs. Micheal Gillmore (6-3)
If you skipped and/or missed out on this season of TUF, here’s Gillmore’s story. While preparing for a quarterfinal clash with Gilbert Urbina, Team Ortega Middleweight Miles Hunsinger tore his MCL. He tried to train through it, but wisely decided to withdraw rather than risk serious injury once he realized how limited his movement was. Dana White lied to the teams about the severity of the injury, basically accusing Hunsinger of punking out because he couldn’t handle the little pain, and brought in Gillmore, who impressed The Baldfather by admitting that he quit his job to pursue MMA.
Gillmore got taken down in the opening seconds and ultimately submitted. Hunsinger’s teammate, Vince Murdock, tried to fight through an MCL injury later in the season and ended up tearing it completely, requiring surgery.
There’s a lesson there.
In any case, Gillmore’s ground game is woefully underdeveloped, as seen in both the Urbina fight and his three pre-TUF submission losses. Petroski is an overpowering wrestler with solid finishing ability on the mat. You can probably figure things out from here.
The only concern for Petroski is his limited gas tank, but it’s hard to see Gillmore surviving long enough for that to play a factor. Odds are, Petroski just bulldozes him in the opening minute and, depending on how he’s feeling, either taps him or pounds him out not long after.
Prediction: Petroski by first-round submission
185 lbs.: Makhmud Muradov (25-6) vs. Gerald Meerschaert (32-14)
It really is a shame to see Meerschaert’s durability fade so dramatically. At his best, the guy was a terror of relentless volume striking and venomous grappling, but those 46 pro fights seem to have really taken a toll.
While he’s still a handful for a good chunk of the division, Muradov doesn’t number among them. He’s too fleet-footed for Meerschaert to walk down, too skilled a wrestler for Meerschaert to take down, and too heavy a puncher for Meerschaert’s increasingly shaky chin to withstand. It even looks like he’s fixed the cardio issues that hampered him in his debut against Alessio Di Chirico, as seen in his third-round knockouts of Trevor Smith and Andrew Sanchez.
If this were 2017-2018, when Meerschaert could absorb an avalanche of punishment from the likes of Thiago Santos and keep grinding, he’d have a real shot of hunting Muradov down. He’s just not tough enough to survive that long anymore, unfortunately, and he hasn’t developed the striking defense to compensate. Muradov clobbers him with something nasty in the first round.
Prediction: Muradov by first-round TKO
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To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 35 news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archives here and here. For an in-depth look at our TUF 29 coverage go here and to see the finalized “Barboza vs. Chikadze” fight card and ESPN/ESPN+ lineup click here.