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UFC 222: New Blood - Yana Kunitskaya, Mackenzie Dern and Alex Hernandez

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

When I started this series, I really didn’t expect to be covering a title challenger. I at least figured it would be Megan Anderson, if anyone, but nope.

UFC 222 hits T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, tomorrow night (Sat., March 3, 2018) with Cris “Cyborg’s” latest title defense in the starring role, plus a quality Featherweight showdown between Frankie Edgar and Brian Ortega and some “Fight of the Night” fodder pitting Andre Soukhamthath against Sean O’Malley.

We’ve got three newbies this time around, up from the original two thanks to Bobby Green getting injured, and you’re going to want to pay attention to at least one of them.

Name: Yana Kunitskaya
Weight Class: Featherweight/Bantamweight
Age: 28
Record: 10-3 (7 KO, 1 SUB)
Notable Victories: Cindy Dandois, Yanan Wu, Raquel Pa’aluhi

Kunitskaya, one half of your main event, kind of won the Invicta Bantamweight title twice. In Dec. 2016, she caught reigning champ Tonya Evinger in an early armbar. Evinger put her foot on Kunitskaya’s face to defend, only to be (incorrectly) told by the referee that this was illegal. She was forced to tap, but the fight was overturned to a no-contest and rebooked for the subsequent March, where Evinger waded through a bevy of submission attempts to finish Kunitskaya via RNC.

When Evinger moved to the UFC to fight “Cyborg,” Kunitskaya faced Pa’aluhi for the vacant title and handily shut down her wrestling for a wide decision victory.

Though billed as a Taekwondo specialist, she’s not the sort of crazy-kicking dynamo you might expect. She works behind a solid front kick and stiff jab that she always angles off after throwing. Unless swarming for the finish, she’s generally content to potshot rather than put together combinations.

I’m genuinely more impressed by her clinch and ground game than by her distance striking, oddly enough. She’s skilled at fighting for grips and sneaking in knees on the inside and used this to wear Pa’aluhi down in their fight. On her back, she relentlessly looks for submissions, displaying a nice armbar-leglock transition in particular. On top, she’s looking to pass to mount and drop bombs until the ref steps in.

There are plenty of holes in her game, sadly. She never sets up her kicks, which opens her up for easy takedowns, and her hand speed isn’t great when she’s not swarming. She’s also a bit too into the “submission over position” mindset, a tendency that both cost her against Zaira Dyshekova in a fight she was dominating and allowed Evinger to take the back and finish her in the rematch. The lack of combination striking is a concern as well; she’s shown some furious flurries before, but that was against 0-0 or 0-1 opponents, who comprise fully half of her professional victories.

Opponent: It’s Cyborg. Cyborg is going to obliterate her.

There’s really nothing Kunitskaya does that makes me think, “Wow, how will Cris deal with that?” Cyborg has mauled quality strikers and submission artists before, and worse, Kunitskaya’s general strategy of clinch attrition seems doomed to failure against a bigger, stronger striker who generally doesn’t gas. Her only real hope is if Cyborg decides to wrestle and falls into an armbar, because otherwise, Cyborg is going to slip past her telegraphed kicks and smash bricks into her face until she goes down.

Tape: You can find all three of her Invicta matches on Fight Pass.


Name: Mackenzie Dern
Weight Class: Strawweight
Age: 24
Record: 5-0, 3 SUB (MMA), 75-25, 45 SUB (BJJ)
Notable Victories: Montana De La Rosa, Kaline Medeiros, Gabi Garcia (BJJ)

Dern is one of the most decorated female Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners on planet Earth. She’s won two gold medals each at the gi- and no-gi world championships, including one in the Absolute division, ADCC gold, and many, many more accolades.

Her mixed martial arts (MMA) run has been a wee bit bumpier. Dern missed weight in two of her first three fights, by rather startling margins each time. After a fight at 125 pounds, she squeaked under the limit at 115.9 pounds in her sole Invicta appearance, a last-second submission of Kaline Medeiros.

Her jiu-jitsu speaks for itself. You want guard passing? She’s got that. You want submissions? She’s got that. You want ground-and-pound? She’s ... kinda got that. She’s got a good mount, but she hasn’t really gotten the hang of putting her weight behind her punches from there. To get it to the ground, she has a couple of nifty trips and has hit at least one nice double-leg.

Her striking has come a long way in a short amount of time. The core is a stiff jab and surprisingly heavy overhand right, and while she still overcommits to the right hand and has yet to learn the Emelianenko Special (overhand right->outside trip), she can certainly hold her own on the feet. Her kicks are solid, if unspectacular.

Honestly, the biggest concerns with her (aside from her work-in-progress takedown game) are entirely outside the cage. On the mats, Dern ended 2017 on a three-fight losing streak, including one-and-done performances at Worlds and ADCC and her first submission loss in approximately 60 matches. The weight is also a significant issue — UFC has a women’s Flyweight division if she needs it, but it really isn’t a good sign for her to nuke the scales like she has.

Opponent: Dern faces Ashley “The Spider Monkey” Yoder, a dedicated grappler whose overall skillset plays directly into Dern’s hands. Dern ought to be able to control the striking with her jab and ultimately wrangle Yoder down for the finish before long.

Tape: Her Invicta fight is on Fight Pass and, unlike the next fighter, Legacy was nice enough to put some of her fights on YouTube.


Name: Alex Hernandez
Weight Class: Lightweight
Age: 25
Record: 8-1 (3 KO, 2 SUB)
Notable Victories: Chris Pecero, Derrick Adkins

San Antonio’s Hernandez actually trains at OHANA BJJ, which is not too far from my house, so I’ve got a wee bit of local pride welling up in me. Hernandez has won six straight bouts, four by stoppage. He steps in on short notice, replacing the injured Bobby Green.

I’m going to level with you all: I cannot, for the life of me, find full fight footage on Hernandez from the last four years, so I’m going by highlights. Yes, this is a terrible way to assess a fighter’s capabilities, but it’s the only method I’ve got.

What I see is an athletic switch-hitter with a quality takedown game and some pop in his hands. There’s nothing super eye-catching in his style, but it’s entertaining and he generally gets the finish. He’ll need more to stand out in this hyper-crowded division, though.

I can’t exactly point out his weaknesses because the highlights, by design, don’t show them. Whattayagonnado.

Opponent: Beneil Dariush, a grappler cut from the same Kings MMA mold as Rafael dos Anjos. Much as my San Antonian heritage supports Hernandez, Dariush really doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses and his wrestling is rock-solid, so I expect him to control the fight wherever it goes before ultimately locking up a late finish.

Tape: Like I said, just highlights.

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 222 fight card, starting with the Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on FOX Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET.