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UFC 221 DraftKings Picks and Preview

AP - John Locher
UFC 221 DraftKings Picks and Preview
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UFC 221: Let’s Rock-N-Yoel All Night Baby!

AUSSIE AUSSIE AUSSIE OI OI OI! The UFC has returned to Australia, giving the city of Perth a rather lackluster PPV card that was doomed due to several (and strange) injuries to current middleweight champion Robert Whittaker. In place of Whittaker will be Yoel Romero, receiving yet another interim title shot despite having already lost to the aforementioned champion in his last fight. It’s still an intriguing, if not a tougher test for the elder Romero since Luke Rockhold is actually a former MW champion as well. Outside of that fight, there aren’t many eye-catching matchups, as it’s mostly riddled with homegrown talent and the always popular Mark Hunt. There’s plenty of violence potential on the card, especially at the bigger weights, with Tai Tuivasa and Tyson Pedro heading the main card.

There are going to be very contrasting stylistic differences in several fights, so understanding specific strengths and weaknesses will be crucial in lineup building. Remember to minimize the importance of fight odds in roster construction, as there are several low-priced fighters on DraftKings with better win probabilities than the odds indicate. Off we go to the Land Down Under for UFC 221!

Daichi Abe vs Luke Jumeau

Abe had a great octagon debut in a surprising win over veteran Hyun Gyu Lim, showcasing a very crisp counter right that cracked Lim time and time again. He’ll get the first of many hometown guys in Luke Jumeau, coming off a rather disappointing loss to Shinsho Anzai. It’s going to be a battle between two counter-strikers with different preferences on how to lead striking exchanges.

Abe is a willing instigator who won’t just sit back and wait to fire a counter-attack. Jumeau is the latter, which cost him the fight against a more active Anzai, who was willing to delve into Jumeau’s pocket. Jumeau was clearly uncomfortable with that strategy, misfiring several times and struggling with bouts of inaccuracy. Abe likely will employ the same strategy as Anzai, but with more emphasis on creating counter windows in an effort at landing the counter-right.

Abe likes to roll with the punches in order to set the right hand up, which did cause some damage against Lim. But of course, like most stereotypical fighters hailing from the land of the Rising Sun, Abe has a granite chin to withstand such punishment. This should be a relatively simple win for Abe as long as he doesn’t just run into Jumeau’s hands, and controls the pace of the fight as the leader.

Prediction – Abe via unanimous decision

Jose Quinonez vs Teruto Ishihara

The matchup between Quinonez and Ishihara is a classic tale of two fighters on different career arcs. Quinonez started his UFC career with a loss to Alejandro Perez, but he’s reeled off three straight wins since. Ishihara started his with a bang, knocking out two of his first three UFC opponents. He dropped two straight to opponents that honestly shouldn’t have beaten him and hasn’t looked the same since. Can Ishihara reignite the flame that made him a budding superstar against a surging Quinonez?

Both men are southpaws with different methods at counter-striking. Ishihara very rarely pushes forward and is very reliant on active opponents who are willing to essentially run into him. He’s excellent at timing the quick left straight for a flash KO just like his early UFC wins. Outside of that, Ishihara is really one-noted with the rest of his offense, lacking any consistent combination work or mixing in the left kick. Quinonez is the complete opposite, utilizing every tool at his disposal to try and create any offensive push. He still will sit back and try and land the counter-left, but he’ll stay active with jabs and various kicks.

What will be the X-factor for Quinonez is his clinch work. Ishihara is allergic to take-down defense and really struggles at checking kicks, both of which Quinonez excels at. Artem Lobov was able to just stand in front of Ishihara without any worry of counter follow-ups, busting up Ishihara’s lead leg in the process. Gray Maynard just decided to go ahead and get 11 take-downs against Ishihara. Quinonez can implement a little bit of those gameplans, attacking early with low kicks and lunging forward into the clinch, where he should be able to hit on a trip take-down. From there, it’s smooth sailing for the better fighter on paper and film.

Prediction – Quinonez via unanimous decision

Mizuto Hirota vs Ross Pearson

In a sense, both of these guys are the same type of fighters. They are always game for a brawl, have considerable skill sets, and won’t back down from their gameplan even if things go awry. It also feels like a loser goes home matchup, which should only further amp up the pressure from both men.

Pearson is known for his boxing ability, sitting in a classical boxing stance with plenty of the usual 1-2 combinations and the well-known counter-left hook. As the years have gone by, Pearson’s accuracy has stayed intact, but his hand-speed and reaction have slowed. Pearson has been getting consistently dropped/countered during one of his combinations, resulting in either a knockout or a barely alive Pearson afterwards. Still, Pearson is always gonna grind his way with his jabs and straights until the day he retires.

Hirota isn’t really known for anything, mostly mixing in anything he can think up on the spot as long as he can create pressure. He’ll toss out an overhand here and drop a head kick there, then dive into a level change for a quick dump take-down. Hirota relishes the presence of chaos both on the feet and on the ground, even if he’s staggering around wondering where the hell he’s at. Is he a good fighter? I don’t know, but he sure is entertaining to watch.

I think what this boils down to is how Hirota handles Pearson early. Pearson has always looked great in the first round outside of a select few fights, hitting tight combinations and really showing off his footwork. Once Pearson’s combos and range get figured out, that’s when he starts getting countered to death and reverts back to spamming the counter-left hook. Hirota needs to get in Pearson’s face early and dig deep on some take-downs, empty Pearson’s gas tank and force him to stay in the pocket with Hirota. I think Hirota can apply enough pressure to expose Pearson’s defensive liabilities on his hooks and steal some rounds with take-downs. This should be a good one regardless of the outcome.

Prediction – Hirota via unanimous decision

Ben Nguyen vs Jussier Formiga

This should be a close battle between two distinct strengths and weaknesses. Nguyen has the upper hand on the feet, with a balanced striking attack that can be overwhelming at times and adds up the longer the fight goes on. Formiga has elite BJJ skills and has tangled with some of the best in the flyweight division, including some top wrestlers/grapplers like Ray Borg, Wilson Reis, Dustin Ortiz, and Zach Makovsky. Nguyen’s struggled against fighters who can neutralize his striking offense with pressure and getting a take-down or two while keeping Nguyen on the ground. Formiga has a wobbly chin with a low volume counter-striking and almost always tries to lunge forward instead of finishing a combination. Whichever fighter can capitalize on their strengths against their opponent’s weakness should win the fight handily. Nguyen can box up Formiga all fight long and potentially finish him late, while Formiga does have a knack of wrapping himself around his opponents with a lightning quick back-take that’s unparalleled in MMA.

It’s a tough call, but considering both Elliott and Smolka eviscerated Nguyen’s defensive wrestling/ground skills in submission victories, I’ll lean on the veteran Formiga in this matchup. Formiga usually keeps himself out of trouble on the feet and has a good sense of when to jump into a take-down to slow down a striking exchange. An elite BJJ black belt with the best back-takes in the biz against a defensively-inept fighter on the ground? Sounds like a choke to me.

Prediction – Formiga via first round RNC

Alex Volkanovski vs Jeremy Kennedy

Volkanovski might be one of the best prospects from Australia, riding a 13 fight win streak with his last three under the bright lights of the UFC. He’ll get his biggest test to date against Canada’s own, the undefeated Jeremy Kennedy (11-0). The reason why I say Kennedy will be Volkanovski’s biggest test is due to Kennedy’s fighting style. Kennedy’s a grinder, relying on his aggressive wrestling and persistence at finishing every take-down attempt from all angles. Volkanovski will also be at a five inch height disadvantage but strangely will have a one inch reach advantage. The matchup will pit Volkanovski’s opportunistic offensive wrestling and stout kick-boxing against Kennedy’s mediocre striking offense, but constant pressure wrestling. Whoever can dictate the pace of the fight likely wins it.

What has made Volkanovski such an impressive fighter is how calm and compact his striking is. He never panics in any situation and always seems to find the right tool for any particular moment. Whether that might be a level change near the fence, a well-timed counter right, or attacking the lead leg with low kicks from range, Volkanovski always keeps himself busy without compromising himself. That’s very impressive for a prospect to have that kind of veteran presence of mind.

Kennedy will try to get Volkanovski out of his comfort zone, pushing forward with a variety of kicks and the occasional right hand that turns into a diving take-down attempt. Even if the take-down attempt is unsuccessful right away, Kennedy has an annoying way of leveraging his way inside his opponent’s hips and swiveling into a successful take-down. It’s the sign of a well-rounded wrestler who doesn’t depend on slams or catching their opponents off guard. There isn’t much to write home about his top control, as it’s just a series of heavy posturing and stifling any defensive advances.

It all comes down to whether or not Kennedy’s wrestling, or rather, his persistence bothers Volkanovski enough that he’s unable to do his usual gameplan. While I do think Volkanovski is clearly the much better fighter with a higher ceiling than Kennedy, it’s always a tough call when a clearly skilled fighter doesn’t get much competition to fully test his abilities and show what else is in his arsenal. That’s the case here with Volkanovski, as I just don’t know how his defensive wrestling can hold up in the UFC.

I’m optimistic that Volkanovski is too strong and fast for Kennedy to be able to overwhelm early, gets going late and starts beating up Kennedy from range with his kick-boxing. Maybe Volkanovski ends up on top and eats away Kennedy’s face with elbows for the finish. Kennedy should be one of the dogs to use on the slate as a Kennedy win will probably mean 4-5 take-downs landed. And you know DK loves themselves some take-downs.

Prediction – Volkanovski via unanimous decision

Israel Adesanya vs Rob Wilkinson

Are you guys ready for the next budding star? Adesanya has all the tools and traits of a superstar if he’s able to continue growing over the upcoming years. He’s currently undefeated with a 11-0 record with all wins by KO/TKO. It’s almost as if Anderson Silva, Michael Page, and Raymond Daniels all had a baby and named it Israel Adesanya. Enough blubbering about the next phenom of MMA, he’s still gotta get past Australia’s own Rob Wilkinson coming off his 1st career loss. It’s style bending time! That’s Adesanya’s nickname if you didn’t know. “Style Bender”. Look it up!

The best way to describe Adesanya’s fighting style is to imagine Anderson Silva with the legs of Edson Barboza. He’s got a smooth stalking style with constant stance switching that flows directly into his strikes. He’s got an insanely fast head kick that looks like it’s going to hit low but ends up right on the face. Adesanya has also learned the way of the Overeem, using cheat punches to slide into a switch kick from the other side. What really separates Adesanya from most atypical explosive kick-boxers is his sense of urgency. He isn’t going to go out of his way for the KO, choosing to use his jabs and switching stances to set up the devastating head kick KOs that’s littered all over his record.

Now about this Wilkinson fella….well, ya know…I mean….I dunno. I’m a little surprised he was undefeated prior to his UFC debut. He’s painfully slow for a middleweight and doesn’t have a complete wrestling offense, relying on the double leg dump take-down from the fence to do the job. Wilkinson’s got a solid stand-up base and isn’t going to just stand there like a dummy, but the speed disparity between him and most middleweights is just going to be too much.

Adesanya is going to have a glaringly obvious speed advantage over Wilkinson, has the style to avoid getting stuck on the fence, and has enough boxing skills to continually jab/prod his way around Wilkinson until he’s ready to light one up. By “light one up”, I mean firing a high-arcing kick from the depths of Hades that shatters the very existence of Wilkinson, possibly even erasing him from the space time continuum.

Prediction – Adesanya via first round KO

Damien Brown vs Dong Hyun Kim

Fake Donger is back! It’s “The Maestro” Dong Hyun Kim, not the better known “Stun Gun” Kim. It’s still a Donger that’s willing to brawl and give the crowd some great entertainment. His opponent is a hometown favorite who also loves crowd-pleasing fights. Brown’s last fight against Frank Camacho had a combined 258 significant strikes landed. In three rounds! Kim also had one of the craziest fights of his own against Polo Reyes, with 218 sig strikes landed. That ended up being a KO loss for poor Fake Donger though. Is this a foreshadowing of things to come between these hardy men? Perhaps.

Both of these guys have their own style of creating chaos, but the end result is generally the same. They pressure, try to close the distance, and always attempt to corner their opponents. Kim has an upright striking style that really opens up his chin to follow-up counters, something Damien Brown loves doing. Still, Kim’s pressure allows him to dictate the flow of the fight even if his defensive striking leaves much to be desired. He’ll try to hit on a level change or a trip take-down from the clinch-ups that his pressure generates. While Kim does have six submission victories in his career, he’s not really an effective top control guy and often loses his position to guys who are willing to scramble out of it.

Brown and Kim are essentially the same – high volume, constant pressure, and always mixing in take-downs. Brown is better at wrestling/top control while Kim might have the edge in pressure and grappling. Brown also has a stronger boxing base, sitting behind a stiff jab and a good counter right. Kim is more flashy and is inconsistent with his combinations. His upright striking style just scares me too much to confidently pick him against a very hittable Brown. Maybe if Kim ends up in top control and gets a back-take, he can notch his seventh career submission victory. I’ll go with my guy and choose Brown for his better defensive skills (even if that’s not saying much) and counters. This should be a fight to hedge, as both of them should bring a frenetic pace with plenty of scoring opportunities.

Prediction – Brown via unanimous decision

Saparbek Safarov vs Tyson Pedro

Dang, it’s been over a year since Giant Villain put a massive beating on Safarov that bordered on animal cruelty. It’s surprising to see the UFC give him one more chance, but they still did him no favors with Tyson Pedro as an opponent. Pedro’s a still-learning LHW prospect coming off his first career loss against Ilir Latifi. He’s got a massive 79 inch reach, which would be one of the longest reaches in the division (think Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson). Pedro generally relies on his heavy kicking game from range, peering with some low kicks to gauge the distance and then mixes in body/head kicks behind a jab or straight. If the striking exchanges ends up closer to Pedro’s pocket than he’d like, that’s when he dives into his single/double leg take-down offense. It’s not pretty but it gets the job done against lower competition.

From there, Pedro actually looks comfortable from top control and has plenty of grappling skill to be a dangerous submission hunter (four of six career victories by submission). Safarov has Sambo roots but prefers phone booth brawls that favors his quicker, more combination-intensive boxing. Against Gian Villante, he was unable to overwhelm him with his boxing combinations and ended up constantly getting beat to the punch by Villante’s counters. Villante also dismantled Safarov’s legs in the process. Considering Villante isn’t exactly Anderson Silva with his striking, it’s worrisome that Safarov struggled so mightily in an area he’s supposed to have an edge in.

While Safarov has the better skills on paper with his Sambo and previous MMA experience, Pedro just seems like the better overall fighter. Pedro does struggle in phone booth brawls and has rather rudimentary boxing, but he’s got more ways to win than Safarov. He can get the fight to the ground and find a way to cut through Safarov’s guard for a submission chance, or he could repeatedly punish Safarov’s boxing (especially his overhand) from long range. He’s also got the option of just bashing Safarov’s lead leg over and over until he collapses. It might be closer than the odds say if Safarov can close the distance on Pedro and ends up out-wrestling him, but it should be Pedro’s fight to lose.

Prediction – Pedro via third round TKO

Jake Matthews vs Li Jingliang

Straight outta Melbourne, Jake Matthews gets another fight at welterweight after fighting mostly at lightweight. Li Jingliang will be Matthews’ strongest foe to date, with eight UFC fights under his belt already while riding a four fight win streak with three KO/TKOs in that span. Jingliang’s been one of the underrated power punchers in the division with four of his six UFC wins by KO/TKO despite not looking the part of a brawler. Jingliang’s a high volume striker with varying degrees of accuracy, but his bread and butter is his counter-hooks at the end of his combinations. He’s also a well-rounded fighter with solid offensive/defensive wrestling and one hell of a chin. Actually, he might have the biggest chin in the division. I mean that literally. He’s the Jay Leno of welterweights! What Jingliang should expect against Matthews is a stalking, quick attack striking offense that helps set up his take-downs so Matthews can go to work from top control with hellbows and hammer fists. The latter part is what should worry Jingliang and likely dictates the flow of the fight.

If Matthews is able to stay away from getting roped into a brawl with Jingliang and gets his offensive wrestling going, it’ll be a long match for Jingliang. Matthews has a very strong top control game, never overexerting himself with his ground and pound or slipping out of position that results in a scramble back to the feet. However, I’m not sure Matthews can create enough opportunities to take down Jingliang to avoid tangling with him on the feet.

Jingliang’s a natural welterweight and has faced several wrestlers before that allowed him to showcase his defensive wrestling and scrambling skills. It’ll likely come down to Matthews’ sporadic flurries against Jingliang’s pressure and counter-striking. I favor Jingliang in most exchanges and I’m also not sold on Matthews’ wrestling yet to pick him against anybody with a semblance of defensive wrestling.

Prediction – Jingliang via third round KO

Cyril Asker vs Tai Tuivasa

It’s a little strange that this fight ended up on the main card considering Asker is just an average heavyweight and Tuivasa only has six fights under his belt. Sure, Tuivasa is a native Aussie and is coming off an incredible flying knee knockout. Sure, he also might be a very exciting heavyweight prospect similar to how Francis Ngannou started his UFC career. The UFC needs to slow their roll when it comes to managing such raw prospects like Tuivasa, as putting too much hype and pressure can stunt a young fighter’s growth in MMA that relies so much on experience. But Asker wants the fight to go to the ground and Tuivasa wants to keep it standing. Fun times!

Asker has some of the worst stand-up in the division, maybe even worse than Alexey Oleinik or whatever his last name is spelled these days. However, he is very similar to Jeremy Kennedy in terms of his persistence and aggressive wrestling. In fact, I’d go as far to say that he is basically a poor heavyweight version of Jeremy Kennedy. He’ll wildly swing overhands in a desperate effort to get into the clinch and start his wrestling offense from there. He’ll grab the legs, twist and torque his way into any conceivable take-down attempt that gives him top control. Asker is proficient in top control with quick guard passes and constant GnP that leads to finishes (seven of nine wins by finish). That’s all you need to know about Asker. Oh, and that he has a questionable chin.

Tuivasa is a damn tank at HW, having even his fellow countryman in Mark Hunt praising his power as the hardest hitter Hunt’s faced. Tuivasa will also have a hefty weight advantage on Asker, possibly even being 40 pounds bigger on fight day. That might be all he needs to stop any Asker take-down attempt, which would be a huge edge coming into the fight. Tuivasa is an intuitive striker who can quickly change stances as he approaches his opponents. He’s athletic enough to have a wide array of strikes at his disposal. The most impressive part about Tuivasa to me is his patience. He doesn’t go crazy unless he’s sure he can either end it right there or land something hard at the very least.

None of that really matters against Asker in reality, as all Tuivasa has to do is not allow Asker to clinch up with him. No one really knows about Tuivasa’s ground skills but I’ll go on a limb and say it’s probably not very good. The added weight advantage and patience from Tuivasa leads me to believe that this should be a walk in the park for a Tuivasa KO. It’s a fight to hedge since it should finish in the first round in some way – a Tuivasa colossal KO or an Asker submission via slicing through Tuivasa’s guard like a hot knife through butter.

Prediction – Tuivasa via first round head kick KO

Curtis Blaydes vs Mark Hunt

Ah, good ol’ Mark Hunt on an Australian/New Zealand card. Never gets old. Kind of like how Hunt never gets old either despite having one of the largest age discrepancies. Hunt is at the prime young age of 43 years old, facing the much older and dilapidated 26 year old Blaydes. Never mind the fact that Hunto is nearly two decades older than his rather large opponent. He’s still Mark Hunt, damn it! And we all know what every Mark Hunt will bring. Yes, it’s the Right Hand of Doom! Will Blaydes be able to avoid that deadly right hand from Hunt that’s devastated the likes of Derrick Lewis, Frank Mir, and Roy Nelson? OK, that’s not a great list but they’re all still big boys that got clobbered by the Right Hand of Doom nonetheless.

It might sound overly simplistic, but the only way Blaydes wins this fight is if he gets Hunt down to the ground. That’s it. That’s all Blaydes has to do to ensure his victory over the legendary Hunt.

Coming into the UFC, Blaydes was dealt with a poor hand to begin with. His first UFC fight was against the behemoth Francis Ngannou, which ended in predictable fashion in a 2nd round TKO loss. Blaydes then went on a four fight winning streak (technically two since he got popped for marijuana, but c’mon who are we kidding?) with three TKO victories that really showcased Blaydes’ potential as a future HW contender. Blaydes brings strong offensive wrestling with elite ground and pound, making his win condition an easy one to diagnose for the majority of his fights. He’ll get the take-down, bash in his opponent’s face, wait until the ref says STOP THE FIGHT YOU’VE BROKEN HIM IN HALF!!!!! That is all he needs to take advantage of Hunt’s biggest weakness that’s continued to haunt him during his prestigious career – the lack of take-down defense or any ground defense in general.

Hunt has the substantial edge on the feet with his surprisingly crisp boxing and obviously the Right Hand of Doom mixed in. He’s not much of a kicker but will at times mix in low kicks just to show that he ain’t afraid to throw down. Other than that, Hunt’s a fairly straightforward matchup for Blaydes, which is why I’m picking Blaydes by ground and pound TKO. His offensive wrestling can be lacking at times if he’s unable to turn his hips quickly on the single/double leg take-downs and ends up stalling up the fence. I don’t think that’s going to be an issue against Hunt, since Hunt basically falls down on any single/double leg take-down attempt.

Blaydes should have no problems setting up any of his usual level changes and powering through it to complete the take-down. It’s all about whether or not Blaydes gets KO’d on a Hunt uppercut if Hunt is able to telegraph a take-down attempt. Possible, but the matchup isn’t in Hunt’s favor at all if Blaydes continues to utilize the wrestling that put him on a four (two?) fight winning streak.

Prediction – Blaydes via first round TKO

Luke Rockhold vs Yoel Romero

While it isn’t a real title fight like many hardcore fans wanted, it’s still a breath of relief to see actual MW contenders duke it out instead of being held hostage by glass-eye Michael Bisping. Thanks, Georges! It’s a battle between southpaws with some very, very intriguing strengths and weaknesses. For starters, Rockhold has a three inch height advantage along with a four inch reach on Romero. That’s a pretty big disparity and could be one of the reasons why Rockhold ends up getting his hand hoisted in the air. Rockhold also has a very kick-centric offense, utilizing the left body kick to set up his other combinations. That might end up hurting Rockhold more than anything, as Romero is a shrewd one-hit missile that explodes on the drop of a dime when there’s an opening. Letting Romero potentially get off a clean straight left as a counter to a body kick could lead to an unconscious Rockhold. I’m sure Luke doesn’t want that to happen.

So what will Rockhold end up doing if he’s unable to effectively use his kicks to set up his boxing combinations? Well, this is where I think the fight eventually heads towards to at some point – the clinch. Romero is a world class wrestler with immense strength and power, but his take-downs are a little basic and heavily based on Romero either catching his opponents off guard or literally throwing them to the ground. He was unable to get Whittaker to the ground or control him in the clinch, ultimately severely handicapping Romero for most of the fight as he expended too much energy and couldn’t do much on his feet.

The same situation could arise against Rockhold but in a different manner. I don’t think Romero will actively try to take down Rockhold, choosing to sit back and hard counter any kicks or see how he handles Rockhold’s pressure. Rockhold’s best performances in the UFC have usually come through clinch-work, either by dominating up the fence with elbows and dirty boxing or hitting on body-lock/trip take-downs. Landing a take-down has almost always guaranteed victory for Rockhold, as he’s just an absolute monster from top control with his tremendous ground and pound, saddled with savvy jiu-jitsu skills that lead to immediate guard advances for dominant positions. Just look at his past fights against Lyoto Machida, Chris Weidman, and most recently David Branch.

Rockhold’s length and pressure may end up not being a major issue for Romero if Rockhold is unable to close the gap without suffering a broken face against Romero’s low volume but incredibly explosive counter-striking offense. That leads me to believe that Rockhold will eventually try to get the fight into the clinch, where he has a decided advantage, especially if he’s able to get on top of Romero on the ground. Romero isn’t impossible to take down, but he’s never stayed on his back for longer than a few seconds.

It’s going to be a chess match between two very competent fighters with different strategies that will make for a very entertaining fight. I’m sticking with what I know about both men – Rockhold is a demon in the clinch and Romero struggled to get any offense going in the clinch against Whittaker. Romero will always be a live dog in any fight he’s involved in due to his ridiculously explosive and unpredictable striking style. Dude even has like….a gazillion third round comeback victories already!

Prediction – Rockhold via second round RNC