This weekend (Sat., July 1, 2023), Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to its usual haunt inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada, for UFC Vegas 76. Truly, dear readers, we are going to reach new lows in the next three weeks at the Apex. UFC 290 is a shining light dulled by the drudgery that sandwiches it. Another Sean Strickland main event? Who is asking for 25 minutes of Strickland after the last two? The question goes doubly so for another Holly Holm main event in two weeks, an event I fully intend to fake my death in the hopes of escaping its existence.
I will say this: there are fun fighters on this card. Max Griffin, Benoit Saint-Denis and Kevin Lee are always worth watching. Accept this show for what it is, then let’s dig into some main card match ups and hope for the best:
Lightweight: Damir Ismagulov vs. Grant Dawson
Best Win for Ismagulov? Joel Alvarez For Dawson? Mark O. Madsen
Current Streak: Ismagulov lost his last bout, while Dawson is unbeaten in his last ten
X-Factor: How does Ismagulov rebound from his first loss in seven years?
How these two match up: This is hands down the best fight on the card.
Ismagulov is a technician. The former M-1 Global Lightweight champion has excellent boxing, which is his go-to path to victory. If things get hairy, however, he’s also a really slick chain wrestler with great top control too. Dawson has grown to be similarly well-rounded in the last few years. His striking has grown by leaps and bounds, notable for his powerful hands and nasty calf kick.
Still, his best attribute remains great takedowns and a nasty jiu-jitsu game.
This is a simple enough match up largely based on one question: can Dawson get his foe to the canvas? Historically, that’s not an easy task. Just because Arman Tsarukyan managed it doesn’t mean every Lightweight contender will be able to replicate his success — that man has a fairly unique level of physicality. There’s also the chance that Dawson’s athleticism wins the day. He’s the more potent finish overall, which could overpower Ismagulov’s more refined striking.
I’m not buying it, however. Ismagulov’s jab and ability to build combinations are excellent. His fluid boxing should allow him to dictate distance and prevent takedowns, and his wrestling defense is strong enough to exhaust Dawson even if he must first endure some bad positions.
The Russian bounces back with a clean decision win.
Prediction: Ismagulov via decision
Welterweight: Max Griffin vs. Michael Morales
Best Win for Griffin? Carlos Condit For Morales? Trevin Giles
Current Streak: Griffin won his last bout, while Morales has 2-0 in the UFC and 14-0 overall
X-Factor: Griffin is a big step up for Morales
How these two match up: This reads like a surefire Welterweight fire fight.
Max Griffin has been there and done that. A hard-nosed kickboxer who’s willing to grind for doubles along the fence if needed, Griffin has slugged it out with many of Welterweight’s notable scrappers in the last seven years. He’s an easy out for no one, and his last pair of losses were contentious split-decisions.
At 24 years of age, Morales looks to be a future contender at 170 lbs. Great athleticism and a 79 inch reach help explain his knockout prowess, but he’s also proven himself to have pretty decent wrestling.
I expect these two to take lumps out of one another. Both men hit hard and put together their combinations well, a recipe for a war of attrition. It’s one of those fights where a first-round knockout is certainly possible for either, but the more likely outcome seems to be a 15-minute, blood-and-guts battle.
Griffin knows how to win those fights, even if the judges don’t always agree. He’s durable enough and offensively dangerous enough to test Morales unlike any of the Ecuadorian’s past opponents. Plus, when both athletes are bloodied and fatigued, Griffin feels like the more likely man to score his takedown and pull ahead late.
I wouldn’t expect it to be easy, but Griffin’s been fighting very well in the last couple years.
Prediction: Griffin via decision
Women’s Flyweight: Ariane Lipski vs. Melissa Gatto
Best Win for Lipski? JJ Aldrich For Gatto? Sijara Eubanks
Current Streak: Lipski won her last bout, while Gatto suffered her first professional defeat
X-Factor: Both women are better finishers than the average Flyweight
How these two match up: Fringe Flyweight contenders will square off.
Lipski has been on the roster since 2019 but has struggled to build much momentum. She’s at her best when on the feet, attacking opponents with aggressive combinations that can do real damage. The Muay Thai fighter has struggled with getting stuck on her back, however. Gatto, meanwhile, bounced around between Flyweight and Bantamweight on the regional scene before making her mark at 125 lbs. This will only be her fourth UFC fight, but Gatto has already shown surprising power for a woman known as a jiu-jitsu specialist.
This is a considerable step down from the two fights above. Lipski has repeatedly found difficulty in keeping the fight in the areas where she does well, while Gatto is still fairly green.
Lipski probably has the overall technical edge here. However, it’s not a significant one, and Gatto appears to be the far stronger and more physical Flyweight. Without any real standout advantage, I’ll side with the better finisher who is more likely to end up in top position.
Prediction: Gatto via submission
Lightweight: Ismael Bonfim vs. Benoit Saint-Denis
Best Win for Bonfim? Terrance McKinney For Saint-Denis? Niklas Stolze
Current Streak: Bonfim has won his last 13 bouts (including his UFC debut), while Saint-Denis has won two in a row
X-Factor: Saint-Denis is incredibly tough and durable
How these two match up: Back to the good stuff!
Bonfim’s debut earlier this year opposite McKinney showcased his potential. The Brazilian picked his opponent apart, showing technical and powerful kickboxing accompanied by a strong wrestling game. He looked three steps ahead of McKinney, who’s usually extremely dangerous in the first five minutes at a minimum.
Bonfim was never in any trouble.
Saint-Denis is an animal. The French “God Of War” pushes a ridiculous pace, throwing himself into the fire over and over again to force constant action. He’s relentless with his strikes and takedown attempts, which is how he’s been able to produce a 100% finishing rate.
I greatly respect grinders who fight with such an offense-first mindset like Saint-Denis. He fights without fear of his opponent or fatigue, embracing the chaos that is MMA. Unfortunately, that style very often hits a ceiling, as more experience and potent finishers are able to pick and choose their moments to do massive damage from the opportunities provided by their opponent’s aggression.
Bonfim seems like just that mix of experience and finishing threat to really hurt Saint-Denis. I don’t know that he gets the finish — Elizeu Zaleski, a Welterweight, beat the life out of Saint-Denis without stopping him — but Bonfim should be able to do loads of damage and escape to his feet often enough to stay ahead on the cards.
Middleweight: Nursulton Ruziboev vs. Brunno Ferreira
Best Win for Ruziboev? Eduard Arustamyan For Ferreira? Gregory Rodrigues
Current Streak: Ruziboev has won eight in a row ahead of his UFC debut, while 10-0 Ferreira recently won his UFC debut
X-Factor: Ruziboev has 46 pro fights!
How these two match up: There may not be name value here, but this should be a great fight between Middleweight newcomers.
Ruziboev is just 29 years of age despite his massive amount of experience. The Uzbek talent is an excellent ground fighter with a tremendous finishing rate, having stopped all but two of his 35 wins via knockout or submission. Conversely, “The Hulk” is a nasty knockout artist. He has huge power and isn’t afraid to use it, as evidenced by his first-round dusting of the highly durable “Robocop,” Gregory Rodrigues.
Both of these men start the first round intending to avoid ever sitting on the stool. Ruziboev charges opponents in search of the first-round finish on the canvas, while Ferreira is going to whip haymakers as though he’s aiming for a decapitation.
Which all-offensive assault wins out? I’ll side with the Brazilian. He’s clearly a physical force, which means that early takedown isn’t going to come easily. Maybe Ruziboev can outlast him and start finding grappling success later, but that’s not generally his approach. Plus, he’s fighting on short-notice, which only increases the odds that a Ferreira overhand connects early on.
Prediction: Ferreira via knockout
‘X-Factor’ Picks for 2023: 20-16-1 (2)
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 76 fight card right here, starting with the ESPN/ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance (also on ESPN/ESPN+) at 7 p.m. ET.
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