The upper echelon of the light-heavyweight division will be on full display as we head into the UFC’s fall schedule. This kicks off on Saturday night, when Anthony “Lionheart” Smith squares off against Aleksandar Rakić in a three-round main event at UFC on ESPN+ 33.
Smith returns to action just three and a half months after his last fight, a brutal TKO loss to Glover Teixeira where he took a tremendous amount of damage while more than living up to his “Lionheart” moniker. Rakić is also coming into this fight off a loss, though his came in the form of a quasi-controversial split decision to Volkan Oezdemir in December. With Jon Jones vacating his title and Dominick Reyes set to square off against Jan Blachowicz for the belt at UFC 253, the victor in this weekend’s main event will be one giant leap closer to a shot at the championship.
In the co-headlining slot, the UFC has put together a clash of striking styles in the welterweight division, where bruising marauder “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler meets the elusive and nimble Neil Magny. Lawler has fallen on hard times with three consecutive losses for the first time in his nearly 20-year career. It has been over a year since he’s made the walk to the Octagon, and he is hoping that the time off can lead to a career rejuvenation and one more run at gold before all is said and done. Magny, on the other hand, has won four out of his last five fights, including back-to-back impressive unanimous-decision victories over Li Jingliang and Anthony Rocco Martin.
In a bout originally scheduled for June that had to be delayed due to travel restrictions, Alexa Grasso makes her flyweight debut against Ji Yeon Kim. Grasso last competed in September, when she lost a majority decision to Carla Esparza in a thrilling back-and-forth contest that earned both women some extra cash for “Fight of the Night” honors. Kim has had her share of struggles on the scale and has missed the flyweight limit in her last two bouts. She enters this fight off of her first UFC victory, in which she stopped Nadia Kassem with a body shot.
Last-minute replacement Bill Algeo joins the card. He steps in to face Ricardo Lamas in place of an injured Ryan Hall in a featherweight contest. Lamas hasn’t seen the Octagon in over a year, since his first-round knockout loss to Calvin Kattar. The Chicago native has shown flashes of brilliance over his 16-fight UFC career and even challenged José Aldo for the title in 2014. Since then, Lamas has had mixed results and hasn’t notched back-to-back victories since 2017. Algeo fights out of King of Prussia, Pa., in the Philadelphia suburbs and made his bones on the regional circuit within the Ring of Combat promotion that produced former middleweight champion Chris Weidman and Cage Fury Fighting Championships, which is where lightweight-star-turned-commentator Paul Felder got his start.
Several bouts have had to be postponed and rescheduled due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and perhaps no rescheduled bout holds more anticipation than the rematch between Magomed Ankalaev and Ion Cutelaba. The controversial stoppage in their first fight had everyone calling for a rematch, which has been scheduled twice since and yet has never materialized. First, travel restrictions halted their April 18 date and then Cutelaba tested positive for the virus and was forced out of the fight set for UFC 252. Perhaps the third time’s the charm and these two hard-throwing light heavyweights will be able to settle things inside the cage without any controversy.
The 25-foot Octagon inside the UFC Apex in Las Vegas will once again serve as the venue for this event. The preliminary action gets underway at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+, followed immediately thereafter at 9 p.m. ET by the main card on ESPN+. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action this week as they go Toe-to-Toe.
Anthony Smith has had a rough ride since he earned a light-heavyweight title bid against Jon Jones in early 2019. He lost to Jones and won just one of his next two fights. Will his fortunes turn when he meets Aleksandar Rakić?
Sumian: This fight is certainly not getting enough attention. It has the potential to become an instant light-heavyweight classic if both Smith and Rakić are all systems go on fight night.
Say what you want about Smith’s last couple performances, but the man was dominating — and I do mean dominating — Glover Teixeira in their bout a few months ago before he was stopped. That fight was the closest thing to a real-life recreation of the Clubber Lang and Rocky Balboa fight. Teixeira came back to win in incredible fashion after he endured considerable punishment in the early rounds. Prior to this loss, Smith faced Alexander Gustafsson and was winning decisively before securing a rear-naked choke over the former two-time title challenger. Smith’s stock as a top contender may have dropped slightly after the loss to Teixeira, but he is truly one memorable performance away from getting right back into the mix, especially with Jones officially vacating the belt and possibly moving up to heavyweight.
On the other side of this exciting clash is the surging Rakić, who is coming off a questionable split-decision loss to Volkan Oezdemir. If you have not seen Rakić’s head-kick knockout of Jimi Manuwa, please prepare to cringe in shock and awe at one of the most devastating knockouts in light-heavyweight history. Rakić has been on a tear since his arrival to the UFC and has compiled a 4-1 UFC record. His only loss so far was the aforementioned split decision. He is a superb striker who boasts thunderous power, daunting strength, and a habit of finding the knockout, which is apparent from his nine career knockout finishes. Rakić is one of the most exciting light-heavyweight prospects to watch as we head into the back half of 2020.
The majority of this fight will take place on the feet, where both men will look to dictate the pace through aggression and volume. Smith is probably the more accurate striker and has a knack for landing his darting jab in the middle of his opponent’s face prior to launching powerful straight rights and leg kicks. This will be Rakić’s toughest test to date, and he will have to stay calm and composed as he uses his stellar Muay Thai to withstand Smith’s attack and establish one of his own. He’ll work to find his range with a variety of kicks to the feet and body of Smith in effort to tire him out.
The only way Smith pulls this off is if he can drag Rakić into the fourth and fifth rounds and pull off a slick submission, which he is certainly capable of doing. However, it’s more likely that Rakić will find the finish somewhere between rounds two and three and earn a top-five spot in the rankings. The difference-maker in this fight is that Smith takes a lot more damage than Rakić in terms of significant strikes. Smith absorbs five significant strikers per minute, and any one of those from Rakić could be a knockout blow. Rakić, on the other hand, averages 5.25 significant strikes per minute while only absorbing 1.63 significant strikes.
Petela: Smith hasn’t had enough time to recover from the nearly immeasurable amount of unanswered strikes he took at the end of his fight with Teixeira in May. Smith will carry the damage he took in that fight into the cage with him against Rakić, which is a recipe for disaster.
This match-up would be much more competitive if it was to take place a few months from now after Smith had the proper time to recover before jumping into another training camp. Smith may be dismissive of any lingering effects, but it’s hard to take him at his word. Kudos to “Lionheart” for making his way back to action so soon; his courage and tenacity are admirable. However, it just has all the makings for a short night where he falls in devastating fashion.
Rakić is an absolute monster. His head kick for the finish against Manuwa is the perfect example of how destructive he can be in the striking department. This one indeed ends with Rakić winning by some form of knockout, but it won’t last longer than a round. This will set Smith back a long way in his quest for gold.
Former welterweight champion Robbie Lawler, who meets Neil Magny in the co-main event, is on a three-fight skid. Does he have anything left in the tank?
Petela: Unfortunately, no. We shouldn’t have expected him to have anything left after his second slugfest with Rory MacDonald, but “Ruthless” went out and spoiled fans again at UFC 195 when he and Carlos Condit took turns beating the hell out of each other. In hindsight, it is clear that the Condit fight was the last time we’ll ever see greatness out of Lawler. He subsequently lost his title to Tyron Woodley and Lawler’s only winning effort since then came in a fairly entertaining fight with Donald Cerrone at UFC 214.
There is no doubt that Lawler is one of the last of a dying breed in MMA. He made his UFC debut 18 years ago at age 20. Lawler had mixed results inside the promotion and then left to fight all over the world before settling in at Strikeforce. Ultimately, he returned to the UFC. It’s a resume that will never be duplicated under the current MMA landscape. The names that he fought are truly a who’s who of monsters from across several eras: Jason “Mayhem” Miller, Renato “Babalu” Sobral, Nick Diaz, Matt Lindland and the late Evan Tanner. Those fights all came before his second stint with the UFC, where he finally captured welterweight gold.
If there is one thing you need to beat Magny, it is a full gas tank. Sadly, Lawler just doesn’t have it. This will be his fourth consecutive loss and a clear sign that the glory days are long gone.
Sumian: We have seen Magny face an extremely similar yet younger opponent that matches the type of fighter Lawler is in many ways. That fight happened in March, when Magny fought brutal knockout artist Li Jingliang.
Jingliang is a stellar finisher who pummels opponents with powerful strikers before finding the finish. Magny negated the Chinese prospect’s offense for three straight rounds and dominated him in every minute of their bout. Magny is an incredible volume striker who has successfully learned to use his reach to establish a pestering jab before firing combinations that begin to wear away at his opponent at range. In addition to his ever-improving stand-up, the 6-foot-3 welterweight has a very good ground game and averages 2.55 takedowns per bout, which allows him to keep his opponent guessing.
Lawler certainly has the ability to land the punch that can put anyone in the welterweight division away, but it is difficult to imagine that happening against the calculated and technical Magny.
Impa Kasanganay and Bill Algeo — do we need to know these names?
Sumian: Kasanganay, an undefeated middleweight through seven fights, makes his Octagon debut against Maki Pitolo. He definitely has some hype around him, but two of his wins have come by way of split decision. It’s hard to tell what he is made of, but surely a trip to the Octagon against Pitolo, a 19-fight veteran whose record stands at 13-6, will reveal whether he belongs or not. Watch that one with interest.
Petela: It says something about a fighter’s determination when they get a win on Dana White’s Contender Series, don’t get offered a contract, and come back to do it again to finally earn their shot inside the organization. Combine this with an unblemished record and the 26-year-old Kasanganay seems likely to be a name to remember as he starts his UFC journey.
Meanwhile, this card gained Algeo at the last minute. He finds himself in quite the unique situation. He’s set to fight the ultra-talented Ricardo Lamas. Lamas was preparing to take on Ryan Hall, who presents a very unique challenge with his grappling skill set. Algeo may be able to capitalize on Lamas, who likely spent his camp getting ready to defend Imanari rolls and unorthodox leg locks.
Even if Algeo stumbles out of the gates, he is a fighter that fans should keep an eye on. His last loss came in the Contender Series against Professional Fighters League standout Brendan Loughnane. Talented UFC veterans Jared Gordon and Shane Burgos account for two of Algeo’s other setbacks from his time inside the well-respected Cage Fury promotion. The confidence from a good showing against someone of Lamas’ caliber, even in defeat, could very well be the missing piece for Algeo to put it all together and begin a successful career inside the UFC.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Petela: Polyana Viana. She has lost three in a row heading into her rescheduled match-up with Emily Whitmire. Had their initial contest ended up happening, Viana might have been granted a stay of execution, even in defeat, since Whitmire missed weight. If “Spitfire” doesn’t lose the fight on the scale this time and is ultimately able to make the walk to the cage, there will be no excuses for Viana. A fourth straight in the loss column is surely going to earn her walking papers.
Sumian: Hannah Cifers. She is always willing to step up and take fights on short notice, but she has failed to be competitive in a majority of those contests. Cifers is on a three-fight skid and is likely heading to a new home if she suffers another loss.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Sumian: Magomed Ankalaev and Ion Cutelaba. These two men stood and banged for a brief 38 seconds prior to a questionable stoppage in their first encounter. They have since been clawing to get back into the cage to settle the score. Expect fireworks and many haymakers thrown in this potential “Fight of the Year” candidate.
Petela: Alex Caceres and Giga Chikadze. Caceres has put together back-to-back wins for the first time since 2016. In his last fight, he welcomed Chase Hooper to the big time by dominating him en route to victory. After squeaking out two split decisions to start his UFC run, Chikadze managed to get the nod in unanimous fashion his last time out. These two men have worlds of talent in their strikes, which should make for an all-out barn-burner from bell to bell.
Pair this card with…
Petela: Downeast Cider’s Native Peach unfiltered cider. It’s pleasant right from the start and gets more enjoyable the closer you get to the end. In that way, it mirrors what this card has in store for fans. The prelims will kick off with a few thoroughly entertaining bouts, while the main card is chock-full of fun fights leading up to the main event, which will deliver.
Sumian: Unlike last weekend’s card, this lineup is fairly loaded from top to bottom. After the insane heatwave that swept the country last week, things should be somewhat cooler this weekend. So, grab an extension cord, set up the TV outside (if you can), and fire up some tasty seafood, such as grilled shrimp or scallops. Perhaps add a glass of Diplomatico Rum on the rocks, too. A bottle goes for 35 bucks at most liquor stores and is surely one of the most delicious rums to enjoy for the price.
Main Card (ESPN+, 9 p.m. ET)
LHW: Anthony Smith vs. Aleksandar Rakić
WW: Robbie Lawler vs. Neil Magny
Women’s FlyW: Ji Yeon Kim vs. Alexa Grasso
FW: Ricardo Lamas vs. Bill Algeo
LHW: Ion Cutelaba vs. Magomed Ankalaev
Preliminary Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET)
MW: Maki Pitolo vs. Impa Kasanganay
Women’s StrawW: Mallory Martin vs. Hannah Cifers
MW: Zak Cummings vs. Alessio Di Chirico
FW: Alex Caceres vs. Giga Chikadze
Women’s StrawW: Emily Whitmire vs. Polyana Viana
WW: Sean Brady vs. Christian Aguilera
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