Two Light Heavyweights with a long-standing disdain for going to the judges scorecards collide this Saturday (Sept. 18, 2021) when Anthony Smith and Ryan Spann headline UFC Vegas 37, which will take place inside UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada. The event will also see fierce puncher Ion Cutelaba meet top wrestler Devin Clark and top Lightweight prospect Arman Tsarukyan take on the resurgent Christos Giagos.
Four more UFC Vegas 37 “Prelims” undercard bouts remain to preview and predict (check out the first batch here); shall we have a look?
205 lbs.: Mike Rodriguez vs. Tafon Nchukwi
Mike Rodriguez (11-6) made quick work of Jamelle Jones on “Contender Series,” stopping the future PFL competitor with a flying knee just over two minutes into the first round. Things haven’t gone quite as well for him in the UFC, where he’s gone 2-4 with one No Contest.
“Slow Mike” is the taller man by four inches and boasts a 5.5-inch reach advantage.
Having dispatched all three of his amateur foes and his first four professional opponents by knockout — including Al Matavao on “Contender Series” — Tafon Nchukwi (5-1) proved he could last the distance in a UFC debut win over Jamie Pickett.
All four of his professional knockouts came within two rounds.
It’s become clear that Rodriguez’s grappling just isn’t UFC-caliber. He’s stopped a measly 41 percent of the takedowns that have come his way, failing to stay on his feet against a standup specialist in John Allan and an undersized, shopworn Ed Herman. Anyone with the skills and willingness to shoot a double-leg is going to have a field day with him.
It’s a good thing, then, that Nchukwi is a striker. And a flawed one, at that. In fact, despite Rodriguez’s nickname, I actually think he’s the faster of the two by a decent margin. Nchukwi’s complete inability to deal with Park’s jab bodes ill against someone with this sort of reach advantage, and if he does try to bully his way inside to get those body shots going, Rodriguez’s knees and elbows are lethal. Nchukwi did show a willingness to attempt takedowns against Park, so he could just grind Rodriguez out, but I think he eats something unpleasant at range or the pocket before that happens.
Prediction: Rodriguez via first round technical knockout
135 lbs.: Pannie Kianzad vs. Raquel Pennington
Despite fighting her way to The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 28 Finale, Pannie Kianzad (15-5) struggled out of the UFC gate with two consecutive defeats. Subsequent efforts proved more successful, and she enters the cage this weekend having won four straight.
She gives up 1.5 inches of reach to “Rocky.”
A 5-1 run that saw her beat Jessica Andrade, Bethe Correia and Miesha Tate carried Raquel Pennington (11-8) to a title shot. Though she wound up dropping that bout and two of her next three, she got back in the win column in June 2020 with a decision over Marion Reneau.
This will be her first fight in nearly 15 months.
I’ll admit a bit of bias toward Kianzad. That’s because I get legitimately sad when fighters fail to live up to their potential, and watching her go from hyped prospect to afterthought to contender has been quite the ride. While I don’t think she’s championship material, I do think she’s got the goods to win this, largely thanks to her much-improved takedown defense and ability to get up off of her back. She’s the cleaner and more active boxer by a decent margin, meaning Pennington’s in trouble if she can’t get a proper grind going.
Pennington’s grit isn’t to be underestimated, and it wouldn’t be too outlandish to see her plant Kianzad against the cage and control her way to an ugly decision. Still, Kianzad’s looked solid enough in recent outings to earn my confidence. She controls the standup at range to claim a comfortable decision.
Prediction: Kianzad via unanimous decision
135 lbs.: Nathan Maness vs. Tony Gravely
Just two fights after losing his TKO Bantamweight title to UFC veteran Taylor Lapilus, Nathan Maness (13-1) out-lasted grappling ace Johnny Munoz Jr. to claim his first Octagon victory. Then came Luke Sanders, whom Maness tapped midway through the second round with a “Performance of the Night”-winning rear-naked choke.
“Mayhem” will have five inches of height and three inches of reach on Tony Gravely (21-6).
Gravely — the CES Bantamweight champion — earned a UFC contract and extended his finishing streak to seven by stopping Ray Rodriguez on “Contender Series.” Though he suffered a submission loss to Brett Johns in his Octagon debut, he’s since gotten back on track with consecutive wins over Geraldo de Freitas and Anthony Birchak.
He has knocked out nine professional foes and submitted another three.
So long as Gravely’s gas tank holds up, he’s a problem for virtually any Bantamweight below the Top 10. Indeed, he’s a spectacular wrestler with dangerous submissions and, as we saw against Birchak, some deceptively solid stand up. If he’s got the motor to go 15 minutes, he’s too much for Maness, who struggled early with Munoz’s grappling before the late-notice debutante began to fade.
While Gravely’s narrow escape from de Freitas was cause for concern, the stylistic clash is favorable enough to assuage my worries. In the end, relentless chain-wrestling and high-level scrambles will carry him to a third consecutive UFC victory.
Prediction: Gravely via unanimous decision
155 lbs.: Dakota Bush vs. Rongzhu
Less than three months after a 57-second head kick finish of Austin Clem, Dakota Bush (8-3) stepped up on short notice to meet Austin Hubbard at the APEX. Though Bush started well, Hubbard’s pressure ultimately resulted in the former’s first loss since 2019.
“Hairy” will enjoy one inch of height and two inches of reach on Rongzhu (17-4).
Rongzhu — who cut his teeth in China’s Wu Lin Feng promotion — put together a 10-fight win streak and claimed its Lightweight title en route to UFC. His debut proved a disappointing one, turning in an uncharacteristically tepid performance in a losing effort against “Kazula” Vargas.
His 15 finishes include 11 by form of knockout.
What’s so frustrating about this match up is that if both men fought to the best of their abilities, Rongzhu would dominate. He’s the cleaner, more dangerous puncher and sports more than enough wrestling chops to keep Bush from dragging him to the mat. Thing is, he threw away a very winnable matchup against Vargas by simply refusing to attack; Vargas out-landed him more than two to one despite fading down the stretch.
If Rongzhu sleepwalks through this match up in similar fashion, Bush will out-work him. Maybe it’s an attempt to cover my ass after hyping the Chinese youngster up before his debut, but I think he’ll learn from this. I’m willing to chalk that debacle up to Octagon jitters, as he’s historically much more aggressive, and just a slight uptick in output should be sufficient to earn him a sprawl-and-brawl win.
Prediction: Rongzhu via unanimous decision
UFC Vegas 37 isn’t the most conventional card you’ll ever see, but there’s some nice matchmaking to be found. See you Saturday, Maniacs.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 37 fight card right here, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ESPN+ at 7 p.m. ET.
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