On Saturday, May 14, former UFC light heavyweight champion Jan Błachowicz returns to action for the first time since losing his title to Glover Teixeira at UFC 267. His opponent will Aleksandar Rakić, who has been out of action for over a year after racking up back-to-back wins over Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos. Currently, Błachowicz sits as the number-one ranked contender in the light heavyweight division and Rakić is the third ranked fighter. With the division’s title slated to be contested at UFC 275 between champion Glover Teixeira and Jiri Procházka, the winner of this weekend’s main event could find himself on the inside track for the next title shot.
The co-main event stays in the light heavyweight division as Ryan Spann takes on Ion Cutelaba. After rattling off four straight wins to begin his tenure with the UFC, Spann has sputtered as of late. He has gone just 1-2 over his last three contests and has been finished in each of those losses. First, he lost by knockout to Johnny Walker, and then, most recently, he was submitted by Anthony Smith under four minutes into their showdown. Cutelaba also finds himself in a tough position as he sports just a 1-2-1 record over his last four bouts. He got back on the right track in his last outing, defeating Devin Clark by unanimous decision. Both of these heavy-handed veterans need to pick up a win in order to maintain their relevance amongst the upper echelon of the light heavyweight division.
The promotion returns to its home turf this weekend as the event will take place inside the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. The preliminary card will air on ESPN2 and ESPN+ starting at 7:30 p.m. ET with the main card following on ESPN2 at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
The last time Jan Błachowicz stepped foot in the Octagon he lost his light heavyweight title; does the Polish fighter get back on track against Aleksandar Rakić?
Sumian: No, he does not. Unfortunately for Błachowicz fans, “Polish Power” peaked, and his time as a top light-heavyweight contender is coming to an end. Błachowicz’s five-fight winning streak, which consisted of winning the title and defending his belt against Israel Adesanya, was undoubtedly impressive. The former champion was utterly dominated by Glover Teixeira when he lost the title and continues to struggle with above-average grapplers. The 39-year-old Błachowicz is not in desperate need of a win, but a loss to Rakić will surely shatter his chances of fighting for a title again by the time his career is over.
Behind Jiri Procházka and Magomed Ankalaev, Rakić is the third-best light heavyweight on the UFC roster. He has phenomenal striking, thunderous power and is constantly evolving with every Octagon performance. Rakić has shown the ability to thoroughly dominate his opponents from start to finish while also displaying his ability to finish opponents with utter force. Expect to see him fighting for a title in the back half of 2022.
Unless Błachowicz lands a devastating punch, he will likely suffer a lop-sided defeat to the surging Rakić. Rakić is the better fighter and poised to make a statement come Saturday night. Rakić wins by unanimous decision and earns a title shot at some point before the end of the year.
Petela: This fight will be all about one thing: Legendary Polish Power. In his last fight, Jan Błachowicz said that he must have left it at home, because he certainly didn’t bring it with him to the Octagon. While Polish punching power isn’t a new phenomenon – Andrew Golata is probably the most famous example of a hard-hitting Polish fighter – it is something that Błachowicz picked up later in his career. He has picked up three knockouts in his last five wins, and all three of those finishes were devastating. The one-punch knockouts over Luke Rockhold and Corey Anderson were brutal, but the cumulation of damage that Dominick Reyes took in their title fight may have been the most impressive.
His opponent, Aleksandar Rakić, has kind of taken the reverse course when it comes to finishing fights. He burst into contendership with a stunning head-kick knockout over Jimi Manuwa, but his last two wins have come via decision. Neither of those victories were particularly impressive, as they lacked a ton of activity throughout. That won’t be the case in this contest, because Błachowicz will bring the fight to Rakić, as he looks to end the fight and get back to his winning ways with a statement win. That will lead to a second-round knockout for Błachowicz, and it will earn him another crack at the 205-pound title that he lost last October to Glover Teixeira.
Ion Cutelaba and Ryan Spann were both once rising stars at 205 pounds who have had mixed results recently; which one of these men comes away victorious this weekend?
Petela: This fight was originally slated to take place back in February, but an injury forced Spann out of the contest. It’s been nearly three months since then, so he should have had plenty of time to recover. With that in mind, a healthy Ryan Spann will fall short against Ion Cutelaba. The last time Spann got into an elongated firefight, he got knocked out by Johnny Walker. After hurting Walker early in that fight, Spann over-committed and wound up looking up at the ceiling after absorbing vicious elbows and punches. That is the type of fight to expect this weekend against a wild, frenetic puncher like Ion Cutelaba, and the result will be the same as the Spann vs. Walker clash.
It’s worth noting that Cutelaba is not immune to being knocked out. He got finished by Magomed Ankalaev, trying to force that fight into becoming a slugfest. For me, it comes down to whose chin shows to be more durable, and that will be Cutelaba’s. He walked through Hell in his fight with Dustin Jacoby that ended in a draw. Spann will probably catch Cutelaba with something heavy early and then find himself out of place when he looks for the finish. Cutelaba will land a huge counter shot that stops Spann in his tracks and ends the fight in an instant.
Sumian: This will be an extremely fun, yet sloppy, light heavyweight clash. Both men are susceptible to the knockout. Spann is definitely the better fighter of the two, but has made costly mistakes in the past. There is certainly a reality where Cutelaba lands a prolific punch that puts the lights out on Spann. However, expect Spann to return to the Octagon more experienced and much wiser. He will take this fight to the ground and lock up a submission victory in Round 2. Cutelaba’s aggression and willingness to get into wild exchanges is his biggest weakness.
Manuel Torres and Jake Hadley – do we need to know these names?
Sumian: It is difficult to gauge either combatant coming into their UFC debuts. Both have impressive records, and Hadley is undefeated at 8-0. They are facing vastly more experienced opponents and will be tested. Of the two, Hadley is the more intriguing newcomer, since he is a flyweight and undefeated. A win over Allan Nascimento won’t turn any heads but will definitely earn him a step-up in competition.
Petela: The fighter out of this incoming class that most intrigues me is actually Manuel Torres. He sports a 12-2 record, and, after rewatching his first-round knockout from Dana White’s Contender Series, he certainly passed the “eye test.” He doesn’t come out of one of the premier feeder programs like LFA or Cage Fury but the 27-year-old Mexican fighter could make some noise at either featherweight or lightweight.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Petela: Michael Johnson. The last time he won a fight was back in 2018. Since then he has lost four straight, bouncing between featherweight and lightweight. He desperately needs a win this weekend. It seems like in every fight, Johnson shows off a tremendous level of talent before falling apart. That trend isn’t new to his losing streak, as the same thing happened to him in the Darren Elkins fight in his featherweight debut. If Johnson doesn’t pick up a win against Alan Patrick, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where he remains on the UFC roster.
Sumian: Jan Błachowicz as a light-heavyweight contender. A loss to Rakić should drop Błachowicz out of the top four as the former champion approaches 40 years of age. It is hard to imagine Błachowicz beating the likes of Jiri Procházka, Magomed Ankalaev and Anthony Smith going forward. If he hopes to pull off one last run at the belt, a victory is absolutely essential.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Sumian: This card features three really fun women’s fights. The one that will steal the show is Viviane Araujo versus Andrea Lee. Both are scrappy fighters capable of putting on an entertaining three rounds of action.
Petela: I agree that the women’s fights will be some of the best of the night. The one that stands out to me though is the Virna Jandiroba vs. Angela Hill showdown. Jandiroba is a nasty submission threat, and Angela Hill pushes a pace almost unmatched in any weight class. This will be an interesting stylistic showdown that promises to be a lot more exciting than the co-main event of UFC 274.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Petela: Louis Smolka. He has had mixed results since moving back to bantamweight, but he is in position to pick up a big win this weekend. The last time that Smolka went to a decision, win or loss, was at UFC 219. Since then, he has fought nine times, going 6-3. He will make it 7-3 by defeating Davey Grant, who has notched post-fight bonuses in his last four contests.
Sumian: Aleksandar Rakić. Whether he finishes Błachowicz or not, Rakić’s performance will be so dominant and impressive that the UFC will have to give him a bonus.
Pair this card with…
Sumian: A party platter. Like a party platter that features various foods for snacking, this card has a little bit of everything for everyone. The card is headlined by a pair of fun light heavyweight fights while the remainder of the card features intriguing women’s matchups. Don’t expect a ton of finishes, but the action will be engaging enough to stay tuned for a majority of the card.
Petela: As a person of Polish descent, this one is easy. It’s going to be the legendary Polish power of Jan Błachowicz that caps off the main event so the only logical pairing for this fight card is a heaping plate of pierogies. Best case scenario, you can get your dad to make them from scratch for the occasion (hint, hint), but there are other options as well. Any deli worth its salt will have freshly made pierogies on hand, and, if that fails, you can always go with Mrs. T’s, your choice of filling. It is certainly a meal worth breaking your gluten-free diet.
Main Card (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET)
LHW: Jan Błachowicz vs. Aleksandar Rakić
LHW: Ion Cutelaba vs. Ryan Spann
BW: Davey Grant vs. Louis Smolka
Women’s FlyW: Katlyn Chookagian vs. Amanda Ribas
LW: Frank Camacho vs. Manuel Torres
FlyW: Jake Hadley vs. Allan Nascimento
Preliminary Card (ESPN2 and ESPN+, 7:30 p.m. ET)
Women’s FlyW: Viviane Araujo vs. Andrea Lee
LW: Michael Johnson vs. Alan Patrick
Women’s StrawW: Virna Jandiroba vs. Angela Hill
FlyW: Tatsuro Taira vs. Carlos Candelario
MW: Nick Maximov vs. Andre Petroski
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