D. FOX: Preliminary card preview for UFC Fight Night 86 “Rothwell vs. Dos Santos”

Let’s be honest: there are a lot of fighters on this UFC Fight Night 86 card that you’ve never heard of. And I’m not just referring to the preliminary card. Names like Francis Ngannou and Cristina Stanciu take their place on the main card, while the likes of Damir Hadzovic and Bojan Velickovic scatter the prelims.

I know what you’re thinking. Without much name recognition, why should you watch? I can’t fault you too much for that line of thinking, but I forewarn you that this could be a deceptively good card, as there are a number of fights that appear to be exceptionally competitive. Then again, there are also five heavyweight fights on the card and there is no division more schizophrenic in terms of entertainment value. Maybe the fact that it is taking place on a Sunday morning/early afternoon should be enough to entice you, especially with no football to compete for viewing. What else are you gonna do? Go to church?

Nicolas Dalby vs. Zak Cummings (Welterweight)

Originally scheduled to face Bartosz Fabinski, Dalby now faces injury replacement Cummings as these two middling welterweights try to distinguish themselves in the middle of a crowded welterweight division.

Just Dalby’s luck that he puts on one of the best fights of the year against Darren Till in 2015 only for it to take place on a Fight Pass card that casual fans had zero chance of seeing, which would have raised his profile considerably. Alas, it did earn him further cred in the hardcore community which had cooled on him after once being seen as a top prospect. While it is clear he’ll never rise to the top of the division as some once thought possible, he is very well rounded with enough talent to hang around the UFC for a considerable amount of time, likely as a mid-tier gatekeeper… the type of role Cummings is currently filling.

Make no mistake that the UFC would rather see Dalby emerge victorious, and not because he is the younger fighter (only by three months, so it really is a moot point). Cummings has made strides as a striker but is and always will be a grinder when it comes right down to it. With his absolutely massive frame for 170, it is a massive recipe for success for the former junior college wrestler as only Gunnar Nelson has been able to overcome his size and strength since he moved down in weight.

Because of grinders traditionally going the distance in their bouts, Cummings doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his success in finishing fights as only 4 of his 18 victories have gone to the judges. He isn’t the smoothest grappler by any means, but he gets the job done as he has the know-how if not the slickness with exactly half his wins coming by way of forcing his opponent to tap. Cummings is mostly a boxer on the feet. He is kind of awkward if forced to strike with distance, though he makes it work by mixing in a steady diet of leg kicks along with his surprising power.

Because of his well-rounded game (in addition to his durability) and Cummings grappling and overall physical strength, look for Dalby to keep the fight standing and at a distance where Cummings can’t manhandle him. Mixing stinging kicks in with his punching combinations, Dalby doesn’t have a lot of power. What usually happens is he’ll mix in some well-timed takedowns, wearing out his opponent in the process as his gas tank may be his greatest strength… just ask Darren Till.

What limits Cummings is a lack of athletic ability and quickness which is exactly what the smaller Nelson was able to exploit. Dalby isn’t quite the athlete Nelson is (and far from the caliber of grappler either), but he does have the advantage by far over Cummings. Cummings will probably jump ahead early before Dalby surges ahead in the end similar to what he did to Till. It will get him the win this time. Dalby via decision

Mairbek Taisumov vs. Damir Hadzovic (Lightweight)

What the hell is Joe Silva thinking? Taisumov is one of the rising talents of the division who was scheduled to fight Beneil Dariush earlier this year, and now he gets Hadzovic, a veteran of the European scene making his promotional debut? Really?

Though the fight with Dariush never materialized due to injury, it indicated that the UFC felt Taisumov was ready for a big step up, and most pundits agreed. Since a foul-plagued loss to Michel Prazeres two years ago, Taisumov has finished off every opponent he has faced since then with seemingly relative ease as he has found his niche as a striker. He’s always been fundamentally sound with a good (not great) amount of volume and that still pretty much describes him. The difference is that he has been able to increase the amount of power he throws which opponents have to take seriously at this point.

While Taisumov’s wrestling and grappling isn’t quite up to par with his striking, it isn’t far behind. Only Michel Prazeres has been able to take him down thus far in the UFC and make no mistake that his opponents have certainly tried to get him down. He doesn’t actively look for takedowns himself, but will certainly go for it when the well-timed opportunity to do so is there. While his BJJ skills haven’t been on display much in the UFC, he has sound guard passing skills with the ability to nab the occasional submission.

As for Hadzovic, this is going to be a hell of a tough debut even if he is able to pull off the upset. Largely a striker himself, Hadzovic has proven to be a fairly slow starter as he gauges distance and movement with a lot of feints and pawing jabs. Most of his offense tends to come in flurries whether it be in the clinch (probably his strongest suit) or a blitz of punches. That also means he has long periods of inactivity where opponents can rack up points, making it no surprise that he struggles to impress judges if he can’t get the finish.

Though his takedown defense has been solid thus far, Hadzovic’s wrestling isn’t a strong suit and he hasn’t shown the grappling chops to offer much of a threat on the ground to finish a fight outside of strikes. On the flip side, he has been able to avoid being finished by more than capable grapplers (former UFC fighter John Maguire for instance) while showing a good gas tank and outstanding durability.

I hate bringing the “puncher’s chance” into the conversation, but it really feels like that is about all that Hadzovic really has. He doesn’t throw enough volume and doesn’t have the grappling or wrestling to catch Taisumov in a compromising position on the ground. Rather than asking who is going to win, the real question is whether or not Taisumov gets a finish. Taisumov via TKO in the second round

Ian Entwistle vs. Alejandro Perez (Bantamweight)

While it may be fair to say there is no such thing as a true softball in the UFC (outside of CM Punk of course), the UFC is still trying to develop some Mexican mainstays to make inroads to the USA’s neighbors to the south by offering the young Perez a very winnable bout.

Perhaps I’m being harsh on Entwistle, but it is difficult to like much about his game. He’s a good submission artist. In fact, that may even be a disservice to him to simply refer to him as good. The problem is that is about all that Entwistle has to offer and he needs to get the sub in the opening minutes of the bout or he isn’t going win.

Entwistle has opened each of his UFC bouts by diving at his opponent’s feet searching for a heel hook. He didn’t get it against Daniel Hooker and lost whereas he succeeded against Anthony Birchak and pulled off the upset. He has yet to have a single fight leave the first round and if he does, it is doubtful he would have much of a gas tank left as he goes all-out searching for the finish in the opening minutes. The small amounts of striking he has shown hasn’t exactly been encouraging either.

Perez is one of the original TUF Latin America winners, but I can’t help but seriously question his potential considering he struggled to put away a one-legged opponent in Scott Jorgensen after Jorgensen suffered an injury in the first round of their fight. Most like to point to his youth at 26 while I look at his professional debut coming over ten years ago. How much more can he improve after that long in the sport? Despite that, Perez is a superior athlete to Entwistle with a much more well-rounded skill set which makes him the favorite.

The real question that needs to be answered is whether or not Perez can withstand Entwistle’s early attack. Not how his hands are (decent). Not his stamina (very good). Simply whether he has the takedown defense and grappling skills to avoid Entwistle. Perez lost to Patrick Williams less than a year ago by submission 23 seconds into their fight which raises serious questions about whether he can survive Entwistle. However, Williams overwhelmed him with his superior athleticism… nothing remotely close to the chain submission onslaught Entwistle will provide.

Because Perez knows exactly what is coming and he is the better athlete, I’m picking him to survive Entwistle early on and get the finish. I don’t pick that with any confidence though and if the odds have Entwistle as a moderate underdog, I’d consider a small bet on him… if I did bet. Perez via TKO in the second round

Filip Pejic vs. Damian Stasiak (Bantamweight)

Pejic is making his UFC debut, being signed simply because he is from Croatia and the UFC needs a few Croatian fighters for their UFC debut, right? Stasiak represents a winnable fight for him. Yeah… it’s hard to get excited about this one.

Pejic is a long range project that is actually a long shot to develop the way that the UFC would hope. He flashes his athleticism from time to time that gives his followers a realistic hope of becoming a keeper, though I’d keep my expectations tempered. He offers a sound variety of strikes as his kickboxing is sound if not the sharpest. The holes in Pejic’s technique are easily correctable and hardly glaring, shows a good gas tank, and shows some enthusiasm for the ground even though it is worlds behind his striking abilities.

Stasiak is a noted karateka on the European scene, but most are expecting him to look to take Pejic to the ground based on Pejic’s struggles. Not that he is a standout grappler or wrestler, but he has shown more than Pejic by far in both departments. Defensively he is sound enough that Pejic shouldn’t be able to catch him off-guard while Stasiak owns a strong enough shot to take the fight to the ground from time to time in addition to being a sneaky submission artist.

The fight on the feet is much more equal. Pejic is a slow starter and can be wild at times. Once he gets into his groove, he starts throwing looping punches along with kicks and can start to overwhelm. Stasiak is more of a one-off striker, throwing fluid kicks with a serious KO power. As a result he doesn’t throw a whole lot of volume, but is able to make up for that in the judges eyes by mixing in the wrestling that we’ve already discussed.

Pejic is one of the harder prospects to judge since he hasn’t fought much notable competition and is still young at the age of 23. I fear that his wrestling will never be good enough to keep him hanging around the UFC for a long period of time. Stasiak is the perfect fighter to judge where Pejic is at since he isn’t a great wrestler either while having shown enough chops to those at the bottom of the wrestling rung. I think that will be the difference. Stasiak via decision

Rob Whiteford vs. Lucas Martins (Featherweight)

Hey… some names that are a bit more familiar. There is a possibility that the UFC could cut the loser as Whiteford and Martins have both struggled when given a step up in competition with only one of their combined five UFC wins coming over fighters currently on the roster. Not a good sign.

In terms of long term value, Whiteford clearly has less value than his Brazilian counterpart. At 32 with without a standout wrestling or striking game, Whiteford just finds a way to hang around. A noted judoka, Whiteford isn’t the flashy trip artist that Ronda Rousey is as he uses his background to keep the fight on the feet where he can grind out his opponent in the clinch against the cage. Superior wrestlers have been able to take him down at will, but he won’t need to fear that aspect from Martins who has yet to land a single takedown in the UFC.

Knowing he won’t have to worry about the takedown from Martins could very well open up Whiteford’s striking. He has taken a more disciplined approach in his last couple of fights after going over a year between fights taking a less-is-more approach, simplifying his attack with basic boxing combinations without looking for the KO blow. The discipline has also allowed him to time his takedown attempts better.

Most will expect Martins to have a significant advantage on the feet for numerous reasons. He’ll own a three inch reach advantage with the ability from the outside to utilize his reach. He’ll be the superior athlete by far. And he has a deep arsenal of combinations and kicks that have real fight ending potential. What allows him to tie all of this together is his surprisingly strong takedown defense with athletic super-freak Mirsad Bektic being the only opponent who has been able to take him down consistently.

However, Martins is coming off of a devastating loss to Bektic and his mental state of mind is something that can be called into question as he couldn’t make the fight competitive on any level. He has also struggled in the clinch as he couldn’t find the space to operate against the aforementioned Elkins (a common opponent for these two). Considering Whiteford’s strength from there, a win for Martins isn’t as clear cut as many would like to predict.

Maybe I’m the only one, but I think this was some sneaky good matchmaking. Martins is clearly more talented with a brighter future, but Whiteford is a bad stylistic matchup for him which gives pause for thought. I’m still picking Martins to win, but I don’t think it will be as easy as most expect it to be for him. Martins via decision

Jared Cannonier vs. Cyril Asker (Heavyweight)

Wasn’t Cannonier dropping down to light heavyweight? I guess he didn’t like the diet. He’ll be gone if he loses here to a debuting Asker as the UFC tries to unearth young hidden gems in the aging heavyweight division.

Even though Asker is the newcomer, Cannonier is just as much of an unknown quantity as he has just under three minutes of Octagon time in his lone UFC appearance, a loss to Shawn Jordan that occurred over a year ago. His stout 5’11” frame seemed to make him a good candidate for the drop to 205 (he weighed in at 235 against Jordan) and he was even scheduled to fight there in August before injury required him pulling out.

What he has shown is solid athleticism and surprisingly light feet for a man his size which helps make up for his lack of height (along with his 77″ reach) and allows him to dart in and out of his opponents range. Though he puts together quick combinations and mixes in leg kicks, Cannonier often keeps his hands low and doesn’t offer much head movement which makes him very hittable. Grappling and wrestling aren’t a big part of his repertoire though he has shown a bit of promise.

Asker has shown promise by securing the heavyweight title in Africa’s premier MMA organization. That comes with a major asterisk as the last heavyweight to make the UFC from there was Ruan Potts who had one of the more forgettable UFC runs in recent memory. Younger, more athletic, and exhibiting a more diverse game than Potts, it doesn’t seem likely Asker will be as disappointing, though Potts did set a low bar to clear.

Asker found a lot of success thanks to his powerful shot as there isn’t much of a wrestling or grappling scene in Africa. It would be foolish to think he’ll be able to find similar success this side of the pond, but if he can continue to time his shots well he should be able to maintain himself as a threat to take Cannonier to the ground. Relying almost exclusively on boxing, Asker is a very technical striker who can be a bit too selective looking for the right opening. He doesn’t seem to be very skilled at countering so he’d be well served to step up his aggression.

This is very much a crapshoot. Neither has defeated many notable names, with Asker’s win over Potts being the only win over a UFC vet for either. Asker is the easy pick if the fight goes to decision thanks to his wrestling, but it’s doubtful the fight will get that far. Asker has also shown a good chin, so I’ll pick him based on that. Asker via KO in the second round

Alessio Di Chirico vs. Bojan Velickovic (Middleweight)

Like the Cannonier-Asker fight, there is a lot of mystery in this fight as both youngsters are making their UFC debuts. Neither are blue-chippers, but they’ve shown enough flashes that it is worth seeing what they have to offer.

Di Chirico, out of Italy, will have a size advantage having fought at middleweight throughout his tenure (Velickovic has been fighting at welterweight, probably something to do with the IV ban) on the European circuit while having caught the attention of most journalists scouting for prospects. He’s been getting by on his physical gifts thus far as he shows above average speed and power. He’s shown flashes of efficiently using those skills in each phase of the sport, he just needs to learn how to fluidly put them together.

Like most non-Russian European prospects, Di Chirico flashes most of his potential in his striking thanks to his power. He’s still very raw there though as he is incredibly wild and he wings punches with poor technique rarely putting together technical combinations. His wrestling is similarly raw, initiating most of his attempts on body locks and single legs out of the clinch. Even if he doesn’t finish the takedown, he’s skilled enough in transitions that he can snag a submission if he can at least initiate a scramble. At this point, calling him an enthusiastic wrestler is more accurate than calling him a skilled one.

Though originally out of Serbia, Velickovic has been fighting in the states out of Colorado with the likes of T.J. Dillashaw and Matt Brown. Having received the superior coaching, Velickovic is able to piece together the parts of his game together more efficiently than Di Chirico, he just doesn’t have the same athletic skills. While he’s been fighting at welterweight, he’s usually had a noticeable size advantage on most opponents, so the move up in weight shouldn’t affect him against Velickovic.

Doing a little bit of everything without exceling at anything, Velickovic has often used his size advantage at 170 to grind on his opponents and wear them out, mostly from the clinch. He probably won’t be able to do that at middleweight, but all hope isn’t lost. He shows a Muay Thai base (which he also uses in the clinch) with good technique on his kicks and punches from distance. While his grappling hasn’t been impressive, he is similar to DiChirico in that he has shown a knack for snatching a submission.

Both of these guys are sneaky prospects who most will overlook due to being the curtain jerker on a European card which is understandable as it is usually courtesy prospects serving as home country representatives. That could ultimately be the case, but I like what I see out of these two. Velickovic has the experience advantage while Di Chirico is the superior athlete. It’s a coin flip from my view. Velickovic via decision

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