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It took all of two events in 2021 to reach an Ultimate Fighting Championship event that completely fell apart on late notice. Two of the top three bouts at UFC on ESPN 20 this Saturday in the United Arab Emirates were scrapped in the weeks leading up to the event, including a Leon Edwards-Khamzat Chimaev headliner, the international flavor of which led to this card being booked in an earlier time slot on a Wednesday. Now that the dust has settled, the replacement main event between Michael Chiesa and Neil Magny is a worthy substitute, but there is not much else in terms of relevance, save for the featured prelim: an Omari Akhmedov-Tom Breese clash that was pushed back four days on late notice. There are enough action fighters and long-term prospects here to make this a breezy watch, but this should quickly get swept up in the UFC 257 tide to come.
Now to the UFC on ESPN 20 “Chiesa vs. Magny” preview:
WelterweightsNo. 8 | Michael Chiesa (17-4, 10-4 UFC) vs. No. 9 | Neil Magny (24-7, 17-6 UFC)
ODDS: Magny (-140), Chiesa (+120)
Chiesa’s jump to welterweight has already gone better than most expected. His 2012 run through “The Ultimate Fighter” was one of the better individual journeys in the history of the show. Chiesa’s father passed away during the course of the show’s lone live season, and he ran through a series of more-hyped prospects to take home the season’s crown in his honor. Once the season was over, the worry was that Chiesa’s one-dimensional approach—based mostly on getting things to the mat and hunting for a choke—would stall out quickly at a true UFC level. Chiesa did in fact wind up losing his second post-“Ultimate Fighter” bout, a submission defeat against Jorge Masvidal that has aged much better in retrospect, but “Maverick” rebounded with five wins in his next six bouts to move to the fringes of contender status. However, back-to-back losses against Kevin Lee and Anthony Pettis robbed Chiesa of much of his momentum, and after a particularly rough weight cut for the Pettis fight, he announced plans to move to 170 pounds. Given the weight cutting issues, it made sense, but it figured to be a worrying change. While his striking has become functional, Chiesa is still a grappler at heart, and the concern was that he would not get much done against even larger opponents. At welterweight, however, Chiesa has looked like a brand-new fighter; he still has the same approach, but without draining himself to drop to lightweight, he is a much more powerful fighter who has been able to bully around his opponents without much issue. A one-sided win over Carlos Condit was not that much of a surprise and a subsequent victory over Diego Sanchez was cause for some further optimism, but there was still the worry that said more about Sanchez’s skill deterioration than anything else. Then Chiesa kicked off his 2020 campaign with a clear decision victory over Rafael dos Anjos, affirming that he needs to be talked about as a potential contender in his new weight class. First, he must dispatch of the welterweight division’s gatekeepers to the elite in Magny.
There is an alternate universe where Magny’s run in the UFC ends before it ever truly begins. Magny made it to the semifinals of a lackluster sixteenth season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” and after taking care of fellow semifinalist Jon Manley to stay in the UFC, he did not show much in two subsequent losses. At most times in the UFC’s history, that would have been it for Magny, but he had the good fortune of timing his losses just as the UFC was running a much more expanded schedule in 2014. Such a schedule required more fighters, and so Magny got one more shot, resulting in a career-best performance at that point in a win over Gasan Umalatov. At the time, it was just nice to see Magny get a win to stick in the promotion, so it came as a shock when he just kept winning. The Umalatov victory was the first of seven straight and part of a run of 10 wins in 11 fights that established Magny near the top of the division. Magny has an odd style. Discovering a jab against Umalatov to leverage his long frame was the huge breakthrough in his game, but he is at his best frustrating opponents into engaging with his strong and often grimy clinch. That is how he beat Kelvin Gastelum for a main event win back in 2015, and since coming back from a layoff last year, Magny has seemingly refocused on that grappling, showing a bit more urgency in pressing the best parts of his game. Magny has historically gotten chewed apart by the better and more aggressive athletes in the division, so he likely will not ever truly get over the hump into title contention, but he has at least a few more years left as a reliably effective fighter just short of the welterweight elite—not bad for someone who did not even look like he would stick in the promotion.
Chiesa’s singular approach makes this a fairly simple dynamic, so it is just a matter of how that approach holds up against his stiffest test to date as a welterweight. In the striking phase, this is all Magny’s fight. While Chiesa’s striking has cleared the bar of being functional, it is still far from an effective skill for someone hoping to be a title contender, particularly in terms of defense. While Magny may be guilty of focusing on volume and range rather than any sort of power or finishing potential, he should be able to accumulate a ton of damage on Chiesa over the course of 25 minutes. The good news, particularly for Chiesa, is that this fight figures to take place more in the clinch and on the mat, where each man is at his best. The better news for Chiesa? While Magny is a strong and effective clinch fighter, he can be taken down and, in general, overwhelmed by persistent pressure fighters. At this point, Chiesa seems to be physically strong enough that he should be able to have some moments of success, if not entirely dictate the terms of the bout. There figures to be frustration along the way for Chiesa since Magny is a physically stout fighter and should be able to find his way back to his feet. However, Chiesa has shown that he does not necessarily need full control to find someone’s neck. A less-venomous submission hunter could easily find himself stalled out, but the bet is that Chiesa can continue to force openings and wear out Magny until he eventually finds something to end the fight. The pick is Chiesa via third-round submission in what could be an ugly affair.
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