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The UFC 254 undercard on Saturday at the Flash Forum in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, favors entertainment over relevance, so if nothing else, it should make for a good time. The featured prelim between Stefan Struve and Tai Tuivasa provide what amounts to MMA’s equivalent of empty calories, and a short-notice catchweight clash pitting Nathaniel Wood against Casey Kenney looks to be evenly matched and all but guarantees action. Meanwhile, Da Un Jung, a rare light heavyweight prospect worth getting excited about, will also compete at the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s latest offering on Fight Island.
Now to the preview for the UFC 254 “Khabib vs. Gaethje” prelims:
HeavyweightsStefan Struve (29-12) vs. Tai Tuivasa (9-3)
ODDS: Struve (-115), Tuivasa (-105)
Struve was a perpetual tease for most of his UFC career. His 6-foot-11 frame and youth for the heavyweight division made it tantalizing to think what would happen if the Dutchman ever maximized his physical gifts. That never quite happened, but Struve at least seemed to be turning a corner with a four-fight winning streak in 2011 and 2012 that included a win over Stipe Miocic. However, Struve's momentum was stopped by Mark Hunt, who knocked out the Bob Schrijber protege so brutally that his jaw was split in two, and things have only gone sideways in the ensuing years. Anxiety issues delayed Struve’s return, and while the “Skyscraper” did eventually regain some momentum with wins over old versions of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Antonio Silva, even those days are far back in the rearview mirror. Struve’s size now seems to be a liability on the feet—he has never developed much defense, so there is just more of him to hit—and eventually opponents figured out that, while he is at his best as a submission threat, he can easily be controlled and outwrestled. Struve still managed to tap Marcos Rogerio de Lima in February 2019, and it was a bit heartening to see him retire after the fight. He may have never reached the heights many expected, but the timing felt about right. Naturally, Struve returned by the end of the year for a bout with Ben Rothwell that saw him enjoy some success but mostly get repeatedly kicked in the groin on his way to a second-round knockout loss. Nearly a year later, Struve rides again, this time to take on Tuivasa, a man who has his own issues to figure out.
Hopes were high that Tuivasa, a former rugby player, could become a star in his native Australia; and for the first year of his UFC career, things were going quite well. Tuivasa is a shockingly explosive athlete despite his heavy frame, and at first, he seemed to succeed despite himself. “Bam Bam” is the type of fighter who is willing to throw flying knees and other wild offense without much regard for what comes next, and that alone managed to stun and finish opponents like Rashad Coulter and Cyril Asker. The situation got a bit hairier against Andrei Arlovski, but between Tuivasa’s speed and power, he was still able to separate himself on his way to a decision win. Tuivasa essentially gave all those gains back over the next year thanks to three damaging losses. He actually got the headlining nod for a card in Adelaide, Australia, against Junior dos Santos, and while it went quite well for Tuivasa at first, the former champion eventually turned out the lights for a knockout. Then came a decision loss to Blagoy Ivanov in which the Bulgarian was simply the much sharper counterstriker. It was a disappointing loss, but nothing that sent Tuivasa spiraling too far back down the ladder. Instead, that honor was reserved for his last appearance against Sergey Spivak at UFC 243, where Tuivasa was seemingly handed a bounce-back win and instead showed off his complete lack of grappling defense. Spivak managed to control him with takedown after takedown before choking him unconscious. Tuivasa has suddenly gone from reliable fan favorite and potential star to firmly on the UFC’s cut line, so he badly needs a win here.
Struve is probably a step up in competition from Spivak in aggregate, but the stylistic matchup is such that it would be a shock if Tuivasa lost. Struve can probably catch Tuivasa on the ground, but the worry is exactly how the Dutchman can get the fight there. He is not much of a wrestler, so he seems unlikely to have the same success getting this to the mat that Spivak did. There is a chance that Tuivasa knocks down Struve and chases him to the mat. The flaw in that plan? It relies on Struve to get hit by Tuivasa, which will probably lose him the fight before he gets a chance at a comeback. Tuivasa can hit his opponent really hard if nothing else, and Struve provides enough of a blank defensive canvas that it is difficult to see anything but “Bam Bam” blasting him in relatively quick fashion. The pick is Tuivasa via first-round knockout.
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