In recent times, we have seen the UFC Apex play host to some fight cards with little name recognition, but that isn’t the case this Saturday as two top middleweight contenders meet in the main event of UFC Fight Night: Vettori vs. Cannonier. Third-ranked Marvin Vettori comes into this clash after picking up a win over hard-charging Roman Dolidze back at UFC 286 in London. He squares off against fourth-ranked Jared Cannonier, who notched a split decision victory over Sean Strickland the last time that he fought.
The co-main event also features a top-ten fighter as lightweight-prospect-turned-contender Arman Tsarukyan puts his No. 8 ranking on the line against longtime UFC veteran Joaquim Silva. Silva has fought sparingly over the past eight years since joining the UFC, with only eight fights over that stretch. He certainly didn’t look rusty in his last bout, as he picked up a Performance of the Night bonus in his knockout victory over Jesse Ronson. A win over the highly-touted Tsarukyan would go a long way towards catapulting “Netto BJJ” back into the conversation at lightweight, and he could use the win to make one solid run at contendership in the sport’s deepest division.
The event airs live in its entirety on ESPN+ starting at 7 p.m. ET. The preliminary card also airs on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. ET, followed by the main card on ESPN at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela preview the card in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Two top middleweights Marvin Vettori and Jared Cannonier will throw down in the main event; which of these former title challengers comes away victorious?
Kuhl: Going with the low-hanging fruit, Jared Cannonier vs. Marvin Vettori is an interesting match-up on paper. In the last five years, each man has only lost three fights, and that is out of a combined 19 fights. Each man has lost to middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, and Cannoncier also lost to Dominick Reyes five years ago. In that time, they have combined to win victories over Jack Hermansson, Sean Strickland, Roman Dolidze and Derek Brunson. Needless to say, these two gentlemen are currently the two best middleweights who have never held a title.
Stylistically, also on paper, Cannonier and Vettori have nearly identical striking statistics, with negligible differences. The big differences are that Cannonier is longer and nine years older, and Vettori attempts more takedowns with mediocre accuracy. The most glaring statistic is that Cannonier actually finishes opponents at the highest level of the game, and, while Vettori has never been finished, he can also be very dominant for a full fight and almost always drags his opponents to the final bell.
Honestly, this is one of those fights where the statistics tell the story. Styles make fights, and this one will certainly be a battle of styles.
Vettori is a thick dude, and a bit of a bulldog. He will come in putting on the pressure early and often. He marches forward and will stay in his opponent’s face, but not with reckless abandon. Hr also hits hard for a guy with few knockouts. Cannonier, on the other hand, is a more calculated striker. He stays mobile, manages distance, has decent takedown defense, and, most importantly, is a sharp counter-striker.
I see this one going down very simply. Vettori is going to move forward, stay on his front foot and maintain pressure. Cannonier is going to keep up his lateral movement, slipping his head often, and he will pick Vettori apart with counter-strikes. If Vettori gets him to the mat, he likely won’t be able to keep him there very long, but will inflict damage. As Vettori gets confident, he could get a little too confident and get caught. It may not be enough damage to put him out, but it could very well slow him down. I’m going against the very, very thin betting odds on this one and taking Cannonier on the judges’ scorecards.
Petela: These two middleweights have shown that they are just half a notch below the best of the best but that they can beat just about anyone else, as Dan pointed out. Dan’s also not incorrect about Marvin Vettori being the less refined, but more aggressive, striker, and Jared Cannonier taking a more measured approach, but they both have a tendency to continuously do substantial damage once they get rolling. The most important number going into this fight is 39. Cannonier is nearing age 40 and coming to the end of a successful career. He didn’t look bad in his last outing, and he did pick up a victory over Sean Strickland, but, as we have seen time and time before, when a fighter gets old, it can happen overnight.
One of the biggest signs that a fighter is getting old is that they are unable to pull the trigger and let their hands go at the same pace. Looking back to the Strickland fight, while Cannonier had enough big moments to pick up the win, his volume seemed to wane, compared to his previous bouts. Something tells me that in this fight we will see a big drop off, and Cannonier will be willing, but his body just won’t be able.
Vettori picks up the win in this one, probably, by lopsided decision. This fight will be reminiscent of the Colby Covington-vs.-Tyron Woodley fight, where Covington’s pace was able to just shut down Woodley and keep him puzzled throughout. I don’t expect a freak rib injury to end this one, but the scorecards won’t be close.
Arman Tsarukyan takes a major risk taking on unranked veteran Joaquim Silva; does the rising star keep his momentum going by besting “Netto BJJ”?
Petela: Every time Arman Tsarukyan fights, I am sure to remind everyone that, prior to his UFC debut, I said that he would be a UFC champion at some point. As his career has progressed, I am more confident in that prediction, and this fight will be another step on his path towards gold.
This fight is especially intriguing because of the style matchup. This one should be full of fun scrambles, which I expect Tsarukyan to win and wind up in advantageous positions. This one will probably go the distance, but the scorecards will be lopsided. Tsarukyan by unanimous decision with a 10-8 round sprinkled in. He continues his march towards the title.
Kuhl: Joaquim Silva is a fun guy to watch, because his fights are never boring. The Brazilian very much lives and dies by the sword, and, win or lose, he rarely sees the judges’ scorecards. The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 4 semi-finalist has not done well as of late, because of this – which is discussed below -, but he could prove to be a tough out for the surging Arman Tsarukyan.
As my colleague mentioned, Tsarukyan is a fantastic talent. That being said, I’m not quite a sure that he will be an eventual UFC champ. The Armenian athlete has taken out a couple guys in the bottom half of the top-15 lightweight rankings, and his only promotional losses have been to current champ Islam Makhachev and Mateusz Gamrot last year, both of which went the distance. That being said, the top six contenders is a who’s who of former and future champions, and that landscape is light years away from the lower half of the rankings. He will be swimming through shark-infested waters to get a sniff at a title shot. So, yes, this weekend’s fight is a big risk for him.
While Silva is not currently in the UFC rankings, he could prove to be a problem for Tsarukyan. It is of utmost importance not to underestimate his next opponent.
Silva is a black belt in BJJ and a black sash in Muay Thai under Andre Dida at Evolucao Thai. Needless to say, he is a well-rounded fighter who can win anywhere the fight goes. He will stand and trade, is not afraid to take shots, and has a decent, albeit not great, takedown defense. Not only does a loss to Silva dash any chances of a Tsarukyan title run in the near future, but it could set him back years. Do I think that will happen? Probably not.
Tsarukyan is young and hungry, trains out of solid camps in Russia and Thailand, and doesn’t seem to underestimate any opponent, regardless of where they are ranked. I’m not 100-percent sure he will pull off a finish, but I can see him out-pointing Silva with smothering wrestling over three rounds.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Kuhl: This card is pretty unique for a smaller Fight Night card, as there aren’t really many fighters whose backs are glaringly against the wall. However, the one that stands out most to me is Joaquim Silva. The TUF: Brazil 4 alum came into the UFC with no losses on his pro record, outside of his loss on the show. After a three-fight winning streak shot him up to some tough fights, he is now 2-3 in his last five fights. While a loss to Arman Tsarukyan is nothing to scoff at, it could get him one step closer to release, even with a 12-4 pr record.
Petela: I agree that there probably won’t be any pink slips handed out after this card, but Jimmy Flick will be in a precarious position if he comes up short. Flick stormed onto the UFC scene with an arm-triangle choke in his Dana White’s Contender Series bout, followed by a flying triangle choke in his official UFC debut. He then came up very short in his sophomore appearance, being finished in the first round by Charles Johnson. If he drops two in a row at the highest level, the hype train will be firmly derailed, and he will be looked at as more of a flash in the pan than a legitimate threat in the flyweight division.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: The light heavyweight fight that opens the show, Modestas Bukauksas vs. Zac Pauga. Bukauksas is undefeated since the horrific knee injury he suffered against Khalil Rountree. He won two fights in Cage Warriors and then scored a win in his return to the UFC. Pauga is also coming into this fight off a win as he defeated Jordan Wright the last time he fought. This one might go the distance but it will be fan-friendly throughout, whether it hits the canvas or the fighters stay standing and turn it into a slugfest.
Kuhl: I’m liking the battle of the two elders on the card, as Dagestan’s 39-year-old Muslim Salikhov faces Norway’s 38-year-old Nicolas Dalby. Both of these guys are on the tail end of their respective careers, but are still putting on complete bangers. As well-rounded veterans, I expect this one to be a complete brawl.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Kuhl: I’m thinking the Englishman Christian Leroy Duncan might stun the crowd with a knockout of Armenian-Italian kickboxer Armen Petrosyan. The accomplished Muay Thai stylist, who is essentially part of kickboxing royalty in Europe, was on a big downward slide in his striking career, before switching to MMA. While he continued to kickbox, his MMA career was going well until he hit the Octagon, where he has gone 2-1 with all of those fights going the distance.
Duncan, on the other hand, blazed a trail through Cage Warriors, earning and defending the middleweight crown, before winning his UFC debut by first-round injury TKO last March. Coming in with an 8-0 record and all of the momentum, I expect the 27-year-old Duncan to finish the 36-year-old Petrosyan in the first two rounds, earning some extra cash along the way.
Petela: Pat Sabatini. The Philadelphia product is coming off of his first promotional loss and will be looking to rebuild his momentum in a big way. Unfortunately, for newcomer Lucas Almeida, that means that Sabatini will be notching his eleventh career submission and spoiling the Brazilian’s debut. Second-round submission via rear-naked choke for Sabatini and expect a big callout in his post-fight interview.
Pair this card with…
Petela: Dogfish Head 120 minute IPA. It’s as strong as this card. Not only will fans be treated to a showdown of top middleweight contenders but one of the best lightweights in the world. Just remember to drink them slow and steady so you’re awake for the main card.
Kuhl: As we move toward summer, and the Mexican lagers are flowing, why not throw together something like a taco bar. It’s simple and easy and doesn’t require much time away from the television. This is one of the more stacked Fight Night cards we’ve seen in recent history, and fans will not want to miss most of these fights. Keep it simple with some seasoned ground beef and chicken strips, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, sour cream, salsa, and crunchy shells. Easy to throw together and easy to clean up.
Main Card (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET)
MW: Marvin Vettori vs. Jared Cannonier
LW: Arman Tsarukyan vs. Joaquim Silva
MW: Christian Leroy Duncan vs. Armen Petrosyan
FW: Pat Sabatini vs. Lucas Almeida
LW: Nikolas Motta vs. Manuel Torres
WW: Muslim Salikhov vs. Nicolas Dalby
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 4 p.m. ET)
BW: Raoni Barcelos vs. Miles Johns
FlyW: Jimmy Flick vs. Alessandro Costa
BW: Kyung Ho Kang vs. Cristian Quinonez
FlyW: Carlos Hernandez vs. Denys Bondar
FlyW: Felipe Bunes vs. Zhalgas Zhumagulov
FlyW: Tereza Bleda vs. Gabriella Fernandes
BW: Ronnie Lawrence vs. Daniel Argueta
LHW: Modestas Bukauskas vs. Zac Pauga
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