Vicente Luque faces Belal Muhammad in the main event of this Saturday’s UFC Fight Night card. This bout is a rematch of a fight that took place in 2016, when Luque knocked Muhammad out in the first round.
The two fighters are now both highly-ranked in the welterweight division and this contest could have title implications Luque has won four fights in a row. Is he peaking at exactly the right time?
On the two previous occasions that Luque put a substantial winning streak together, he fell short when he faced a step up in competition against one of the best fighters in the world. His last defeat came against former two-time UFC title challenger Stephen Thompson, and the loss before that was against Leon Edwards, who is expected to compete for the title in his next bout. This is why it was vital that Luque was able to secure wins in his last two contests, against Michael Chiesa and former Champion Tyron Woodley. Getting over the hurdle in big fights has now put Luque in a position where he is perhaps just one victory away from competing for the UFC Welterweight Championship.
Luque’s finishing ability, in conjunction with his toughness, has led many to predict that he will be the man to dethrone the champion, and pound-for-pound number one, Kamaru Usman. The Brazilian has secured finishes in 19 of his 21 victories. His vicious knockout of Muhammad in their first encounter was one of the best examples of the raw power that he possesses. The 30-year-old can feasibly claim to be the hardest puncher in the UFC welterweight division.
Luque’s finishing ability is not just restricted to knockouts, as he also has eight career submission victories. He rarely initiates takedowns, but he can end fights very quickly if they do get to the ground. His most recent victory against Michael Chiesa occurred just like this. In the opening round, Chiesa took Luque down and appeared to have him in danger with a rear-naked choke attempt. However, Luque escaped and expertly cinched in a D’Arce choke which brought a tap from Chiesa. The D’Arce choke has become Luque’s trademark, as he has four victories by this method, which is the most in UFC history.
An area where Luque could improve is his offensive wrestling. Despite having the capability to execute difficult submissions, he does not have an elite-level offensive wrestling game to fully exploit this. Instead, the Brazilian prefers to keep his fights standing. This is understandable, as he possesses the power to knock out anyone in the division, but, by fighting like this, Luque is not making the most of his skills. This was most evident in his losing effort to Stephen Thompson.
Luque put up a good fight against Thompson on the feet early on, but was ultimately out-classed and was on the receiving end of a beatdown. He did not attempt a single takedown, even in the latter stages of the contest when it was clear that he was second best on the feet. Luque’s reluctance to mix in takedowns may cost him against the very elite of the weight class. These athletes will likely be more adept at avoiding Luque’s power punches and will try to neutralize him with their own wrestling. Implementing wrestling of his own will make him a more difficult opponent to prepare for and will provide him with more paths to victory.
Luque has earned the reputation of being one of the most durable fighters in the welterweight division. He has never been knocked out in 28 career fights, which is an impressive feat considering he has been in several grueling, back-and-forth stand-up battles. Luque has momentum behind him and will be confident heading into a bout against an opponent he has knocked out before. However, he must not look past Muhammad this weekend.
Muhammad is on a similar career trajectory as Luque. He has won six out of his last seven contests since their first meeting, with the other bout being a no-contest. He is somewhat of a one-dimensional fighter, relying heavily on his wrestling to bring him success. Wrestling Luque to a decision seems to be the Chicago native’s only path to victory. Only five of Muhammad’s 20 career wins have come by stoppage. As a result, Luque’s strategy for the bout seems fairly simple. Preventing Muhammad from taking him down and controlling him for long periods should enable him to get the win, considering he has superior striking and has fight-ending power. In spite of this, Luque must recognize that his opponent is coming off signature wins of his own and will be in a confident mood heading into Saturday. Muhammad dominated the aforementioned Thompson in his last contest and also beat another former UFC title challenger in Demian Maia.
While Luque does possess a strong submission threat, it is unlikely to deter Muhammad from pursuing a grappling-heavy approach. Muhammad will be aware that Luque was controlled on the ground for a decent amount of time in his loss to Leon Edwards. Edwards is primarily a striker and is not renowned for his grappling. Luque has developed significantly as a fighter since then but this suggests that he does have a weakness that could be exploited by a strong wrestler like Muhammad.
The recent developments in the UFC welterweight division appear to have helped Luque’s quest to fight for the UFC title soon. Heading into UFC 273, Khamzat Chimaev was a heavy favorite in his contest against Gilbert Burns, who is a close friend and team-mate of Luque at Sanford MMA. Chimaev had completely dominated his first four opponents in the UFC, deploying a relentless grappling style, while also displaying one-punch knockout power. Despite Burns being vastly more experienced, Chimaev’s skillset and physicality caused many to predict that he would secure a quick finish against the Brazilian. What actually transpired surprised many, with Burns ultimately falling short but pushing Chimaev to the limit.
Burns had Chimaev hurt on multiple occasions and took away the aura of invincibility that was around the 27-year-old. If Chimaev had finished Burns quickly, then there undoubtedly would have been many within the MMA community who would have campaigned for the Swede to receive a title shot. There is a possibility that he would have overtaken number-one contender Leon Edwards and received the opportunity to challenge Kamaru Usman. The fact that this did not materialize, means that the winner of this Saturday’s bout has not been pushed further back in line in title contention.
With many fans still speaking about the “Fight of the Year” contender that took place between Burns and Chimaev, Luque has a chance to capitalize on the hype around the division. It is somewhat of a surprise that this weekend will be the first time that Luque will headline a UFC card, given how action-packed his contests have been inside the Octagon. Luque is a quiet and mild-mannered individual outside of the cage and this has seemed to be to his detriment. He has not received the fanfare and attention that his performances have merited. However, the stars now seem to be aligning for the Brazilian and this Saturday could be the beginning of his title push.
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