After producing one of the most dramatic highlights in recent mixed martial arts (MMA) memory last year, Welterweight champion, Leon Edwards, and former titlist, Kamaru Usman, will settle the score inside The O2 in London, England, this Saturday (March 18, 2023 atop UFC 286’s pay-per-view (PPV) show. The ESPN+-streamed event will also see Justin Gaethje battle Rafael Fiziev in a pivotal Lightweight battle and Gunnar Nelson return to action against late replacement, Bryan Barberena.
Before that, though, the first six (of 10) “Prelims” undercard bouts will stream on ESPN+; here’s what the subscription service has to offer ...
145 lbs.: Lerone Murphy vs. Gabriel Santos
Lerone Murphy (11-0-1 ) defied the odds and a disastrous start to force Zubaira Tukhugov to a draw in his UFC debut. Subsequent efforts proved more decisive, and he enters the cage this Saturday in the midst of a three-fight winning streak.
“The Miracle” fights for the first time in 17.5 months.
Gabriel Santos’ (10-0) run on the Brazilian circuit culminated in a decision over Elvis Silva to win the Future MMA Featherweight title. He then took his talent to LFA, knocking out Marcio Barbosa in his debut before claiming its Featherweight title with a third-round finish of Jose Delano.
He steps in for the gruesomely injured Nathaniel Wood on just over a week’s notice.
This really is just a question of how much the layoff took out of Murphy. If he’s firing on all cylinders, it’s his fight to lose; he’s a faster and more dynamic striker than Santos, who lacks the wrestling to overpower Murphy on the mat the way Tukhugov and Makwan Amirkhani did. What Santos does have, however, is impressive grit and pressure that could give “The Miracle” hell if too much rust piled up.
I feel like being an optimist this time around. Murphy’s just too athletic and destructive for Santos’ decent-but-unspectacular offense to overcome. He’ll find the finish before the third.
Prediction: Murphy via second round technical knockout
185 lbs.: Christian Leroy Duncan vs. Dusko Todorovic
Christian Leroy Duncan (7-0) put together a four-year, 17-6 amateur career before turning professional in 2020. He’s since fought exclusively in Cage Warriors, ultimately knocking out Djati Melan for its Middleweight title in April 2022 and defending it against Marian Dimitrov seven months later.
His five professional knockouts include two via spinning techniques and one via flying knee.
After knocking out Michel Pereira, Dusko Todorovic (12-3) Todorovic capped off a perfect (9-0) professional start by grinding out Teddy Ash on Contender Series. He currently sits at 3-3 in the Octagon, most recently stopping Jordan Wright in their Oct. 2022 “Fight of the Night.”
He is one inch shorter than Duncan at 6’1.”
On paper, Todorovic’s grueling slog is a decent counter to Duncan’s free-flowing style, which leaves plenty of openings for “Thunder” to get in on his hips and take the Englishman’s athleticism out of the equation. In practice, I’m not convinced; Todorovic went 0-for-4 on takedowns against a notoriously poor grappler in Wright, and though Duncan did have some early issues with Melan’s takedowns, his power and dynamism ultimately won out.
I just don’t trust Todorovic to not get overwhelmed by Duncan’s offbeat offense before he can get some proper attrition going. Duncan clips him with a flying and/or spinning thingamajig late in the first.
Prediction: Duncan via first round technical knockout
125 lbs.: Jake Hadley vs. Malcolm Gordon
Despite missing weight on Contender Series and reportedly butting heads with the staff, Jake Hadley’s (9-1) rear-naked choke finish of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) veteran, Mitch Raposo, earned him a UFC contract. Though he fell to the resurgent Allan Nascimento in his Octagon debut, he returned to the win column six months later by choking out Carlos Candelario.
His pro finishes are split 5/2 between submissions and knockouts.
Malcolm Gordon (14-6) rebounded from two straight Octagon defeats with sizable upsets of Francisco Figueiredo and Denys Bondar. Then came top prospect, Muhammad Mokaev, who handed Gordon his second career submission defeat.
“X” will enjoy a one-inch reach advantage.
This one comes down to whether Hadley can stay composed. He figures to have the edge in boxing and offensive wrestling, but Gordon has more than proven his ability to turn a single slip-up into disaster. If Hadley leaves himself open to a reactive takedown or gets lazy from the top, he’s in for a rough night.
After that learning experience against Nascimento, I’m willing to give “White Kong” the benefit of the doubt. So long as he doesn’t get overeager, he should outwork Gordon on the feet for a wide decision.
Prediction: Hadley via unanimous decision
125 lbs.: Joanne Wood vs. Luana Carolina
After more than half a decade in the Octagon, a 4-1 run capped by a split decision over Andrea Lee put Joanne Wood (15-8) on the brink of a title shot. She’s just 1-4 since, including consecutive rear naked choke losses in her last two bouts.
Five of her six stoppage wins have come by (T)KO.
Luana Carolina (8-3), an early Contender Series graduate, began her UFC tenure with a unanimous decision over Priscila Cachoeira. Her Octagon record has since evened out at 3-2, wins over Poliana Botelho and Lupita Godinez sandwiched between stoppage losses to Ariane Lipski and Molly McCann.
She’ll enjoy a 3.5-inch reach advantage.
The question here is whether Wood is done as a top Flyweight or as a fighter in general. As ugly as her recent record is, none of those losses came against poor opposition; the worst was that questionable decision over Lauren Murphy, whom I’d still rate well above Carolina.
Considering Carolina’s performance against Molly McCann, I’d say Wood still has enough left in the tank to get past her. “Meatball’s” consistent ability to both land on Carolina and hit takedowns despite the height and reach difference suggests that the much more technically adept Wood can do the same. If “Jojo” can still pull the trigger, she should cruise to victory with combination striking and top control.
Prediction: Wood via unanimous decision
155 lbs.: Jai Herbert vs. Ludovit Klein
Jai Herbert (12-4) finished his Cage Warriors tenure with four straight knockout wins, only to suffer stoppage losses to Francisco Trinaldo and Renato Moicano in his first two Octagon bouts. He’s since rebounded with a 2-1 run, a comeback knockout loss to Ilia Topuria sandwiched between losses to Khama Worthy and Kyle Nelson.
He’s knocked out nine pro opponents and submitted one other.
Though he started his UFC run strong with a 76-second knockout of Shane Young, consecutive losses to Mike Trizano and Nate Landwehr sent Ludovit Klein (19-4) from Featherweight to Lightweight. The move has paid dividends, as he went on to win decisions over Devonte Smith and Mason Jones.
“Mr. Highlight” gives up six inches of height and five inches of reach to Herbert.
Klein’s last two Featherweight bouts revealed a distinct allergy to pressure, especially if wrestling is involved. Luckily for him, that shouldn’t be an issue here. He’s up against another long-range striking specialist, and with free rein to use his fearsome kicks, Herbert’s in for a rough time against a technically superior kickboxer.
Though Herbert’s height and reach do pose a threat, he failed to consistently keep shorter men in Trinaldo and Topuria off of him, while Klein is no stranger to being the smaller fighter. Add that to Herbert’s historical durability issues and you’ve got the ingredients for “Mr. Highlight” to live up to his name.
Prediction: Klein via first round technical knockout
125 lbs.: Juliana Miller vs. Veronica Hardy
A 2-1 pro start and impressive grappling résumé sent Juliana Miller (3-1) to TUF 30, where she beat Claire Guthrie and Kaytlin Neal to earn a spot on the Finale. There, she pounded out Brogan Walker to finish off Team Nunes and claim tournament victory.
Two of her three finishes have come in the first round.
Veronica Hardy (6-4-1) finally broke out of a three-fight UFC skid by tapping Polyana Viana with a 69-second bonus-winning armbar of Polyana Viana. She then moved up to 135 to fight Bea Malecki, turning in an admirable effort but ultimately falling to her much larger foe.
She fights for the first time in almost exactly three years.
Unless Hardy has fundamentally reinvented herself as a fighter during her time away, she’s short on options. She’s long struggled with determined takedown artists and lacks the power to decisively punish Miller’s awkward standup. Miller’s jiu-jitsu pedigree means Hardy can’t rely on a repeat of the Viana reversal.
While Miller’s unlikely to make a dent in the increasingly competitive Flyweight elite due to her striking issues, she’s got more than enough tools in her arsenal to overwhelm the historically underwhelming Hardy. Long stretches of top control secure her second UFC victory.
Prediction: Miller via unanimous decision
Four more UFC 286 “Prelims” undercard bouts remain to preview and predict, including Jack Shore’s Featherweight debut and the latest from top prospect Muhammad Mokaev. Same time tomorrow, Maniacs.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 286 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard on ESPN2/ESPN+ at 3 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.
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