Preview: UFC 259 Prelims - Kenney vs. Cruz

By: Tom Feely
Mar 4, 2021

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The Ultimate Fighting Championship prelims usually have either quantity or quality but typically not both to this degree. A 10-fight slate is more than unusual for a pay-per-view event, but it is difficult to complain when a lineup runs this deep. Basically, this could be UFC Fight Night “Cruz vs. Kenney” and still be stronger than most non-PPV shows. The featured prelim between Dominick Cruz and Casey Kenney should prove whether or not Cruz can still be considered relevant as a contender; two fights down the card, Joseph Benavidez finds himself in a similar position against Askar Askarov. Add in some of the UFC’s brightest prospects, led by Yadong Song, and a series of well-matched and entertaining fights, and this becomes the Event of the Year on paper so far.

Now to the preview for the UFC 259 “Blachowicz vs. Adesanya” prelims:

Bantamweights

NR | Casey Kenney (16-2-1, 5-1 UFC) vs. #11 | Dominick Cruz (22-3, 5-2 UFC)

ODDS: Kenney (-130), Cruz (+110)

Where does Cruz stand relative to the rest of the bantamweight division? The last time that question had to be asked in earnest was 2014, when Cruz was slated to face Takeya Mizugaki at UFC 178. Through 2011, Cruz was clearly the best bantamweight in the UFC, reigning as champion after clear victories over Urijah Faber and Demetrious Johnson. However, in the leadup to another title defense against Faber, Cruz suffered a torn ACL that would basically derail the rest of his career. ACL replacement surgery failed and required Cruz to go under the knife once again, and that recovery only led to a torn groin, which was eventually the last straw that led to his relinquishing his title. It had been nearly three years since Cruz stepped into the Octagon when he faced Mizugaki, and while it was a decidedly un-Cruz-like performance, “The Dominator” certainly proved he was back, blitzing Mizugaki and scoring a knockout finish in just 61 seconds. Cruz was now suddenly the clear top contender for then-champion T.J. Dillashaw, so naturally, Cruz tore his other ACL and was forced to miss all of 2015. That long road made it only all the more stunning when Cruz beat Dillashaw to take back the title in January 2016. It was a close fight that could have gone either way, but Cruz looked more or less like his old self, even after essentially four years on the shelf. After another title defense against eternal rival Faber, Cruz’s reign ended in stunning fashion against Cody Garbrandt. Cruz’s darting and sniping style got him nowhere against Garbrandt, whose fast hands allowed him to counter Cruz effectively every time he tried to start an exchange. After that, Cruz’s body once again started to betray him. There would be rumors or an announcement of Cruz returning to the cage, only to have the fight scuttled due to some sort of injury, this time usually to his upper body. Cruz did eventually wind up in the right place at the right time. Once the COVID-19 pandemic limited the UFC’s options, Cruz found himself getting the call as the highest-profile opponent available for Henry Cejudo, leading to a Cejudo-Cruz title fight at UFC 249. It was a noble effort from Cruz, who looked surprisingly spry given everything he has been through, but a Cejudo win felt inevitable. Cruz was faster and could peck away at the Olympic gold medalist, but Cejudo caused so much more damage when he connected that it was not a surprise when the fight was stopped at the end of the second round. Now, after a relatively short 10-month turnaround, Cruz returns to try and earn another shot at the title; and he gets a surprisingly tough opponent here.

Kenney has consistently been able to play spoiler over the course of his two years in the UFC. He had an impressive UFC debut in March 2019, as just eight days after his most recent appearance, Kenney went three rounds with Ray Borg and outwrestled him for a decision victory. In his next fight, it was much the same story. Manny Bermudez came into the fight as a hyped submission artist, only to get stifled in a clear Kenney decision win. A loss to Merab Dvalishvili—where Dvalishvili was clearly the stronger wrestler—seemed to establish Kenney’s ceiling, but his October win over Heili Alateng saw him surprisingly pivot to being a powerful counterpuncher. He absolutely blasted Alateng for three rounds, and after a fun and impressive win over Nathaniel Wood three weeks later, Kenney is in position to cash in on the biggest win of his career.

Cruz deserved a step back at this point, but this is still some surprisingly tough matchmaking for the former bantamweight champ, as it is hard to think of an opponent who would provide a worse reward-to-risk ratio than Kenney. His powerful and counter-heavy style seems like it will work wonders against Cruz, provided Kenney has the necessary level of hand speed. While Cruz is still surprisingly fast on his feet, his sniping attacks did not look particularly damaging against Cejudo. If Kenney can just react and connect with Cruz at a decent percentage, he should be more than able to take the victory based on damage. There is always the threat of Cruz’s wrestling, which has consistently been his ace in the hole. That is probably still his best path to victory, but it is difficult not to give the benefit of the doubt on the mat to Kenney at this point, given what he has shown thus far in his UFC career. Basically, this all comes down to whether Cruz can still be effective enough to hang as a Top 10 bantamweight in 2021, and given the lack of a track record in the last five years, it is almost impossible to have much faith in him in a particularly rough stylistic matchup. The pick is Kenney via decision.

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