On Saturday, the UFC makes its first stop in promotional history on Russian soil. UFC Fight Night 136 takes place at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Moscow. The historic event is headlined by a battle of top-15 heavyweights Mark Hunt and Aleksei Oleinik.
The eighth-ranked Hunt is coming off a rare decision loss to Curtis Blaydes in February. The Australian-based New Zealander is a fan-favorite and a knockout artist who is always looking to put on a show. Even as a quadragenarian, he was able to pull off a fourth-round TKO of Derrick Lewis just last year. However, Hunt is set to meet a tough grappler.
Ukraine’s Oleinik is as good a choice as any to headline the first card in Russia. He is currently sitting in the 11th spot of the heavyweight rankings. Oleinik is coming off a first-round submission of Junior Albini at UFC 224 in May. With 46 submission wins in 68 pro fights, he possesses a completely different skill set than Hunt. This is a battle for top-10 relevance in the division, and it shapes up to be a classic striker-versus-grappler affair.
The main card also hosts the return of Nikita Krylov to the UFC. Krylov faces Jan Błachowicz. Fans will also be treated to a heavyweight showdown between veteran Andrei Arlovski and Shamil Abdurakhimov. In welterweight action, undefeated Alexey Kunchenko makes his UFC debut against Thiago Alves.
The 12-fight event kicks off with eight preliminary bouts streaming live on UFC Fight Pass at 10:30 a.m. ET. The four-fight main card stays on UFC Fight Pass and starts at 2 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela preview the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Mark Hunt has stepped up to replace Fabricio Werdum and meet Aleksei Oleinik. Meanwhile, veteran Andrei Arlovski has been paired with Shamil Abdurakhimov. Which two heavyweights emerge with victories? How close will the victors be to a title shot?
Petela: Werdum and Oleinik would have been a display of the highest-level grappling that MMA has to offer. That won’t be the case with Hunt, who is not known for his ground game. The New Zealander is difficult to put on his back and rarely initiates the grappling, so expect most of this fight to take place on the feet. Unfortunately, that means the likelihood of seeing Oleinik pull off yet another Ezekiel choke is low. “The Super Samoan” will add to his walk-off knockout highlight reel, catching Oleinik on the way in as the jiu-jitsu and sambo ace tries to close the distance.
Arlovski has won two of his last three fights as he tries to mount another run for UFC gold, but “The Pitbull” hasn’t looked the same this time around. Arlovski looked better in his loss to Tai Tuivasa than he did in recent wins over Junior Albini and Stefan Struve, but age seems to have finally caught up with the former champ and taken away just a bit of the explosiveness that has kept him relevant among the elite heavyweights over his remarkable career. Abdurakhimov showed against Chase Sherman that he can close the show quickly with the power in his hands. Arlovski is an intelligent fighter and won’t overcommit, sending this fight down the same lackluster path as Abdurakhimov’s fight with Derrick Lewis — until Lewis was able to secure full mount and end the fight by TKO in the fourth round. Abdurakhimov will come away with a decision victory in a highly forgettable fight.
Hunt has come up short against most of the fighters ahead of him in the rankings at heavyweight. At age 44, he is rather unlikely to put together a string of victories against the division’s elite, so a title shot seems miles away at this point. A win over an aging Arlovski won’t boost Abdurakhimov’s stock enough to jump the queue, either. Don’t expect to see any of the heavyweights featured on the UFC’s first trip to Russia ascend in the championship picture in the near future.
Kuhl: In the main event, I have to agree with my colleague. Fights always start standing, and if Brock Lesnar, Frank Mir and the aforementioned Werdum couldn’t get Hunt to the ground, why should we expect Oleinik to succeed? It doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but the last of Hunt’s six career submission losses took place eight years ago in his UFC debut. If Oleinik does get Hunt to the ground, then the fight will likely end quickly by submission. However, Hunt has gone up against world-class grapplers before and avoided this fate. He’ll do so again here and bring an end to this one via knockout in his favor.
When it comes to Arlovski, I will have to respectfully disagree with one point made by my fellow writer. Age caught up with Arlovski a long time ago, but when he started this most recent run in the UFC four years ago, he popped off some impressive wins. Granted, he followed those four wins with five losses in a row, but he’s had a lot of finishes, going one way or the other, and his fights can still be exciting. At 39 years of age, he’s still not the eldest fighter on the card, and Abdurakhimov is only two years younger. This one could be exciting, solely because it will be their first respective UFC fight in Russia. Arlovski may have lost to Tuivasa, but that guy is on the better end of the current changing of the guard. Don’t be surprised if Arlovski pulls off a finish in this one.
Regardless of what happens in these two fights, none of these guys are on a fast track to a title shot. Oleinik is in the best position to get there with a win over Hunt, but he would still be a couple bouts away. The others likely won’t see that chance again in their careers.
After four wins outside of the promotion, Nikita Krylov is back. Will he make waves in the light heavyweight division?
Kuhl: When Krylov made his UFC debut five years ago, he was 21 years old and stood at 15-2 as a pro. He was a veteran of the sport when other kids his age were still in college. Over the course of three years, he went 6-3 in the Octagon and then chose to be released between contracts. He wanted to be closer to home so he could get better while he was still young. He comes back to the UFC at only 26 years old. He has still not been to a decision in his 29-fight pro career, which puts him in a unique club with Anthony Smith, who hadn’t seen a scorecard until his 30th fight. At 6-foot-3 with a 77 and one half inch reach, Krylov is nearly as big as Smith, too. With 10 knockout wins and 14 submissions under his belt, Krylov is a very well-rounded fighter who likely hasn’t even hit his prime yet. Long story short: yes, the Ukrainian is in a great position to make big waves in the light heavyweight division.
The promotion must think pretty highly of Krylov as well, because he’s paired with fourth-ranked Jan Błachowicz. The 35-year-old is on a three-fight winning streak, and he will also make his 30th pro appearance here. However, Błachowicz has only finished two opponents inside the Octagon, and he has gone the distance seven times in his four years in the UFC. The Polish fighter is extremely difficult to put away, which makes this a very interesting match-up.
Krylov is the real deal. While his last four fights may not have been at the UFC caliber, he is young, highly experienced, and has a very bright future ahead of him. This fight is in Moscow, and the kid’s a finisher. Błachowicz has a killer ground game, but he won’t be able to hang in the striking game. The youngster takes this one by knockout.
Petela: For as much flak as the light heavyweight division gets for lacking the depth of top contenders that lightweight and welterweight have, the top 10 is packed with interesting match-ups, and adding Krylov to this mix spices things up even more. A lot will hinge on this first fight with Błachowicz, who looked better than ever in his rematch with Jimi Manuwa in March. If Krylov can manage to get by the Polish fighter, then it sets him up for big fights and a potential run at a title shot.
However, this is easier said than done. This fight will end up being too big of a test in Krylov’s UFC return. Błachowicz will keep the fight in boxing range early, dictating the pace by fighting behind his crisp jab and not giving Krylov the space to utilize his Kyokushin background or land any devastating kicks. In the later rounds, Błachowicz should be able to get the fight to the mat and grind out a decision, thereby stifling Krylov’s UFC return.
Krylov will float around the top 10 at light heavyweight for years — and he injects some much needed youth to the weight class — but his future will include a lot of alternating wins and losses against the division’s upper echelon and elite.
Alexey Kunchenko, Jin Soo Son, Adam Yandiev and Stefan Sekulić — do we need to know these names?
Petela: This fight card isn’t getting much attention coming just a week after UFC 228, but the UFC newcomers coming out of Eastern Europe and Asia should be on the fans’ radar. They have the talent to compete — and win — in MMA’s most elite organization.
Son is only 25 and has finished two thirds of his professional bouts. Sekulić doesn’t turn 27 until February 2019 and already has six submissions and three knockout victories. Yandiev is undefeated and has a knack for finding his opponent’s neck and not letting go — five of his six submission wins have been chokes, a combination of rear-naked chokes and guillotines. Kunchenko brings his perfect 18-0 record and an M-1 Global title over to the stacked welterweight division, where he could have an immediate impact and quickly climb toward a top-15 ranking.
These debuting fighters couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the UFC. They make their first walk to the Octagon close to home, which is sure to help with the inevitable UFC jitters so many athletes experience.
Kuhl: Kunchenko is the one to watch. He takes on UFC veteran Thiago Alves. The Russian is undefeated in his five year-career, and he was the top-ranked Russian welterweight prior to his UFC signing. Alves is 1-3 in his last four outings, and the Brazilian is coming off a knockout loss to Curtis Millender. Alves’ back is against the wall, which should make this a fantastic fight.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Kuhl: I always like the pink-slip fights, and that’s how it’s shaping up for Merab Dvalishvili and Terrion Ware. Both men have yet to win inside the Octagon in their combined five contests, yet both were very successful in their regional-circuit careers. They are on the chopping block at this point, and that can lead to a very exciting fight to kick off the evening. Ware seems to be the underdog in the eyes of many, but this one could go either way.
Petela: Dvalishvili and Ware is going to be a fun one, but I’m excited to see the middleweight contest between newcomer Khalid Murtazaliev and UFC veteran C.B. Dollaway. In Dollaway’s last fight, we were left wanting more after Hector Lombard landed a shot after the bell that caused an anticlimactic end to the bout. This is the third scheduled opponent for Dollaway, with Omari Akhmedov and Artem Frolov both forced out due to injury.
Pair this card with…
Petela: A Moscow Mule and some chocolate-covered prunes! The 12 p.m. Eastern start time for the main card might be a little early for alcohol, but the UFC’s first trip to Russia is worth celebrating. Chocolate-covered prunes are a traditional Russian dessert that might not sound appetizing, but they will exceed your low expectations, just like UFC Fight Night 136.
Kuhl: Well, almost every fight has someone from Russia or the former Soviet Republic, so I’m going with my hands-down favorite dish from the region — also one of my favorite foods in general — beef stroganoff. I feel like it is very fitting, because it has a good mix of flavors and textures. It’s rich, creamy, tangy and filling — a very big meal to go with what will likely be a more satisfying card than many are expecting.
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 2 p.m. ET)
HW: Mark Hunt vs. Aleksei Oleinik
LHW: Nikita Krylov vs. Jan Błachowicz
HW: Andrei Arlovski vs. Shamil Abdurakhimov
WW: Thiago Alves vs. Alexey Kunchenko
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 10:30 a.m. ET)
MW: C.B. Dolloway vs. Khalid Murtazaliev
BW: Petr Yan vs. Jin Soo Son
LW: Rustam Khabilov vs. Kajan Johnson
LW: Mairbek Taisumov vs. Des Green
LHW: Magomed Ankalaev vs. Marcin Prachnio
MW: Adam Yandiev vs. Jordan Johnson
WW: Ramazan Emeev vs. Stefan Sekulić
BW: Merab Dvalishvili vs. Terrion Ware
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