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The Ultimate Fighting Championship waits for no man after a massive pay-per-view card, carrying on with an uneven ESPN offering this Saturday that provides a solid main draw and a lackluster preliminary portion. The lines for UFC on ESPN 23 provide for a little action, but instead of selecting any particular winners, this edition of Prime Picks focuses on time. A pair of light heavyweight clashes on this card appear to be destined for finishes, while two featherweight tilts have the makings of 15-minute affairs that may be no less exciting.
Dominick Reyes-Jiri Prochazka Lasts Under 1.5 Rounds (+130)
Mayhem and madness should greet fans in a headliner that has major stakes at 205 pounds, as it features two sluggers who would like nothing more than to figuratively take the other’s head off. Prochazka has not reached the 15-minute mark since a battle with Mark Tanios in 2016, while Reyes has done so just three times since the same span of time. They combine for 17 finishes in those 20 appearances, with all but one of those 17 coming by knockout. No matter how you slice it, these two present all-action styles that will almost certainly result in someone getting his chin checked, which brings confidence that this fight will end sooner than 7:30.
“Denisa” stamped his place in the division in the UFC by posterizing Volkan Oezdemir early into the second round of their 2020 pairing. Some fighters may enter the UFC and see their reckless styles slow down when higher level opponents are more defensively minded and less susceptible to wild moves. This was not the case for Prochazka, who waded through the fire, took some damage from a fighter in Oezdemir who has a penchant for shutting the lights out and put the Swiss striker out cold. The finish made it nine knockouts in a row for Prochazka, whose stoppage rate rose to a sky-high 96%. Twenty four of Prochazka’s 27 career wins have hit the under, and Reyes may gladly meet him in the middle of the cage and throw down.
Fighters can react differently when suffering their first knockout. Some can get gun-shy, others preemptively overreact to strikes coming their way and a few can even bail on their past approaches and just sling leather. It remains anyone’s guess as to how Reyes will approach this contest against a man no less dangerous than Jan Blachowicz—in fact, the Polish champ is historically far less of a knockout threat than Prochazka—as he will find himself under fire in the early going. Reyes’ kicks will likely be his most important asset, as he can disable opponents by putting a head kick up in the blink of an eye. Jordan Powell paid dearly when he taunted Reyes, as “The Devastator” devastated him in less than a minute and punched his ticket to the Octagon. In a proverbial kill-or-be-killed matchup, Reyes also has the firepower to end the night quickly, as all of his career finishes have come in the opening round.
If one wishes to be safer in his or her play, the under of 2.5 rounds—the bout concluding before the 12:30 mark—would most likely hit at -165 assuming this fight does not somehow go the distance. The difference is a serious risk versus reward play that depends on the durability of both men. Reyes’ last outing saw him get taken out late in the second round, which passed this proposed 1.5 under. On the other hand, every one of Prochazka’s career defeats has come in the opening frame. Reyes has shown to have three solid rounds of cardio, while Prochazka’s aggression may not hold up should it reach the later rounds. This should be a headliner that ends early and dramatically, either with the two-time failed title challenger returning to contention or a fresh name in prime position for a shot at gold.
Cub Swanson vs. Giga Chikadze Goes to Decision (-155)
Swanson and Chikadze most recently snapped lengthy stretches where they exclusively won on the scorecards by scorching their opponents relatively early. Chikadze, who finds himself on a seven-fight winnings streak that includes five victories in the UFC, demolished James Krause-Simmons with a head kick in November. A month later, Swanson put himself on his first winning streak since 2017 by blasting Daniel Pineda with a few fierce right hands. Both men have the power to put many opponents down, but they have each displayed durability that can take what the other dishes out. To wit, the only one who has been knocked out is Swanson, which only happened when Jose Aldo hit him with a double flying knee back in 2009.
This is a massive step up in MMA competition for the Georgian, who has taken on multiple short-notice opponents and UFC newcomers to amass his winning streak. This will unquestionably be the toughest test of his career, as Swanson looks to get back to his lofty heights of being a ranked featherweight—a place where he resided for years. On the other hand, Chikadze is eyeing a spot among the Top 15 in the crowded 145-pound category. Although each of Chikadze’s wins before joining the UFC came by stoppage, his level of competition was extremely underwhelming. After reaching the UFC, his finishes have grinded to a halt. While the former kickboxer displays fast hands and feet, especially with body kicks, he may find himself crowded by his opponent and unable to display the footwork necessary to get off his counter shots effectively.
Swanson, for all his skills, has transformed into a technical brawler. When facing a superior grappler, the longtime World Extreme Cagefighting standout can find himself at a serious disadvantage. For the 37-year-old, Chikadze is not one such submission or wrestling threat. This fight should play out on the feet, with Swanson likely to be the one willing to push the pace and trade hands. If Swanson takes his foot off the gas and lets Chikadze get comfortable in his own kickboxing range, he could be in danger. Otherwise, a fun fight that may be worthy of “Fight of the Night” accolades should reach the final bell.
Ion Cutelaba-Dustin Jacoby Lasts Under 1.5 Rounds (-120)
Back to the light heavyweight category, a pair of proud strikers come to blows—one who charges into the fray and another who would like to pick you apart with kicks. Cutelaba, who actually holds a background in Greco-Roman wrestling and sambo, has practically abandoned his training entirely to throw bombs. Jacoby left the sport entirely to join the kickboxing realm, where he marched his way through a tournament to vie for the Glory middleweight crown, only to fall short against Simon Marcus. Even as Jacoby has gone the distance in three of his last four outings, taking this fight on short notice against a man who will charge at him like his hair is on fire should produce fireworks for as long as it lasts. It should not last long.
Jacoby is an unlikely story as he builds his way to contention, even though his last win proved to be a catchweight in the heavyweight territory when Maxim Grishin came in several pounds heavy. His volume-heavy kicking game served him well, not only on the Glory ring but also in his return to the Octagon. All three of his bouts on the major stage since 2020 have seen either Jacoby or his opponent get dropped, and Cutelaba maintains a berserker style that leaves his chin in the air so he can throw with everything he has to offer. Whether Cutelaba flattens Jacoby with a “Hulk”-esque rampage, or “The Hanyak” chops him down with kicks and scorches him with an uppercut, this fight should not last terribly long.
Kai Kamaka III-T.J. Brown Goes to Decision (-175)
Hawaii’s Kamaka broke a streak of seven consecutive bouts that ended in the hands of the judges when fellow UFC on ESPN 23 competitor Jonathan Pearce pounded him out on the ground. On the other hand, Brown snapped his own stretch of 10 straight fights featuring a finish, win or lose, by going the distance with Danny Chavez. Both fighters have a lot of questions going into this featherweight pairing, and each may be a disappointing loss away from becoming a free agent. Even though Brown posts a stellar finish rate of 93%, his strength of schedule leaves a lot to be desired, with past wins over opponents celebrating records of 8-18, 0-5, 0-8 and 1-7 as he bounced around smaller-scale leagues. Kamaka may yet be too tough of a cliff to face, but just as easily, “The Fighting Hawaiian” could get put on his back for all three rounds.
When it comes to getting their man out of there, the featherweights almost could not be more different. Kamaka’s accurate but less powerful strikes are bolstered by a relatively well-rounded skillset, and all but one of his wins have needed judicial intervention. Both men have shown that hey can land takedowns en masse, but they also have displayed that they are susceptible to being grounded by a better grappler. None of the takedowns that Brown landed on Jordan Griffin were enough to make the difference, as “The Native Psycho” snatched up his neck and ended his night early. Kamaka has not displayed those same finishing instincts—his only stoppage win came over a 1-8 fighter with seven previous submission losses—and Brown has not displayed his skills against tougher opposition, either. In what could become a grinding affair that may have Brown spamming takedowns to take Kamaka’s hands out of the equation, this fight should go to a decision.