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While Ultimate Fighting Championship cards rarely stay intact in the COVID-19 era, UFC Fight Night 175 on Saturday in Las Vegas offers a surprisingly strong five-fight main draw. The original headliner—Zabit Magomedsharipov vs. Yair Rodriguez—would have put the show over the top, but in its place, Anthony Smith-Aleksandar Rakic represents a solid fight, even if it seems like a bit of a stretch as a main event. Beyond that, we find interesting depth that has become something of a rarity nowadays, with Robbie Lawler in the co-feature and a barnburner of a rematch between Magomed Ankalaev and Ion Cutelaba. Plus, Alex Grasso makes her move to flyweight with a fun stylistic matchup, and no one will complain about seeing Ricardo Lamas back in action.
Now to the preview for the UFC Fight Night “Smith vs. Rakic” main card:
Light HeavyweightsAnthony Smith (33-15) vs. Aleksandar Rakic (12-2)
ODDS: Rakic (-280), Smith (+240)
This does not feel like a main event so much as the fight that happens to be last, but this should still be a solid affair that helps sort out things in the light heavyweight division. Smith’s rise from middleweight journeyman to light heavyweight contender was a nice story and a pleasant surprise. After coming over from Strikeforce for a one-fight stint in the UFC that saw him lose and get cut, Smith battled his way back onto the roster and earned a series of comeback wins over Elvis Mutapcic, Andrew Sanchez and Hector Lombard. After a fun fight against Thiago Santos resulted in a momentum-stopping loss, Smith decided to move to light heavyweight, where he entered the title picture after just three fights and five months. Smith absolutely ran through faded versions of Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua before outlasting Volkan Oezdemir for a stoppage win. As a result, Smith somehow entered 2018 as a middle-of-the-pack middleweight and ended the calendar year as top contender to Jon Jones. The Jones fight was a disappointing performance. Nobody expected a win, but Smith did not force the action much and Jones was content to coast to his own victory. However, Smith did take advantage of his next opportunity, earning yet another comeback win, this time against Alexander Gustafsson to prove that “Lionheart” still stood among the light heavyweight contenders. It did not end nearly as well for Smith in his last fight, and his May defeat to Glover Teixeira could wind up as a turning point in his career. Smith did well enough early, but Teixeira eventually laid down an extended beating that showed off Smith’s durability in all of the worst ways. Smith even told his corner in between rounds that his teeth were falling out, but he was still sent out there to fight and still did just enough to survive until a merciful fifth-round stoppage. Smith can certainly bounce back, but it was the type of loss that has changed careers in the past, so it is crucial that Smith at least has a strong performance here against Rakic.
Austria’s Rakic essentially came out of nowhere to become one of the brightest young talents at 205 pounds. Heading into his UFC debut, there was not much to suggest that Rakic would succeed, as video on his prior fights was difficult to find and his resume did not look particularly strong. However, he pulled the rare trick of looking good against Francimar Barroso and followed that with a dominant performance over Justin Ledet that saw him flash a surprisingly effective wrestling game. After winning an entertaining sprint over Devin Clark to cap 2018, Rakic’s next performance was the one that made everyone take notice. Put in a co-main event slot opposite Jimi Manuwa, Rakic scored a beautiful head kick knockout in just 42 seconds that sent Manuwa into retirement. Rakic’s last fight against Oezdemir completed a breakout 2019 campaign, as even though it ended in a loss, it was a narrow decision where the consensus was that the Austrian should have taken the scorecards. In that bout, Rakic managed to show a little bit of everything in his range striking game and his solid wrestling, all of which should carry him well going forward. At 28 years old, Rakic figures to find his way into true light heavyweight relevance eventually, and this fight should determine if that happens sooner rather than later.
Smith’s rise through the ranks was enjoyable to watch, but the Teixeira loss does bring about a re-examination of his recent record and how poorly it has aged. Save for Oezdemir, Smith’s light heavyweight resume has been built on the backs of fighters long past their prime, and even looking back to his middleweight run, it reveals a bunch of opponents who were much more well-regarded at the time than they are now. So in regards to this matchup, there is the question of whether or not Smith can beat a young, durable fighter like Rakic. That should get answered fairly quickly, at least if the result is to be positive for Smith. For all his offensive tools, Rakic is essentially a defensive blank slate, and Clark showed that he is capable of getting caught cold in the early going, even if the Austrian did eventually recover from that near-defeat. Otherwise, Rakic is the much more active fighter and should be more effective in every phase of the game. Even moving backwards, he should be able to match Smith shot-for-shot on the feet, and he has shown enough wrestling to take advantage of Smith’s eternally suspect takedown defense. The fact that this is only a three-round main event is another point in Rakic’s favor. Smith usually gets by via outlasting his opponents, and Rakic has already shown that he is a 15-minute fighter. This may be a lukewarm affair, but the pick is Rakic via decision.
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