Tim Elliott punching Jordan Espinosa at UFC 259 | Jeff Bottari/Handout Photo via USA TODAY Sports
Get the low down on the early contests of UFC 272, featuring a pair of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s proteges, including Tagir Ulanbekov hoping to topple fan favorite Tim Elliott.
I’ve been harsh towards the quality of the early fights of the UFC’s first two PPV’s of 2022. Given the standard they set in 2021, I feel justified in my criticism. Well, UFC 272 is a return to form. The early prelims features one former title challenger (it was two before injuries removed Jessica Eye), one of the hottest bantamweight prospects in the sport, and a fighter on a five-fight undefeated streak within the confines of the Octagon. That’s some damned good quality. They would have been even better if the injury to Eye hadn’t occurred as her scheduled opponent, Manon Fiorot appears to be one of the best up-and-comers on the roster.
There have been several fighters with the name Nurmagomedov who have entered the UFC since Khabib made the name household in the MMA community. Out of all those with the surname sNurmagomedov not named Khabib, Umar Nurmagomedov is the most stylistically similar to his cousin, the former lightweight champion. That doesn’t mean he’s a reflection of his namesake, but he’s a better comparison than either Abubakar or Said. Where Umar is reminiscent of Khabib is his relentless wrestling and brutal GnP. While not on the level of Khabib – but who is? — Umar has proven to be plenty dominant in that department. What puts Umar over the top is his diverse striking arsenal, regularly throwing kicks as opposed to Khabib’s boxing-centric attack. Umar is getting a hell of a test in his sophomore effort in one of the most opportunistic members of the roster in Brian Kelleher. With one of the tightest guillotines in the sport and a knack for landing haymakers, Kelleher has proven to be one of the most dangerous members of the bantamweight division. On top of that, Kelleher has made a renewed effort to make his wrestling a consistent part of his attack, rounding out his previously rough edges. Unfortunately for him, he’s an average athlete at best and it’s unlikely he’ll be able to outwrestle Nurmagomedov. It’s impossible to discount the possibility of Kelleher finding a finish, but Nurmagomedov looks like he has a rocket up his ass. Nurmagomedov via decision
Despite having a less than stellar 6-10 UFC record, Tim Elliott maintains his roster spot due to his consistent ability to put on fan-friendly fights. For most of his UFC career, Elliott has fought like a man possessed, attacking his opponent with a consistent pursuit of takedowns and once the fight hits the mat, submissions. That aggressiveness has created its share of problems as Elliott has been submitted four times in his UFC run, but Elliott has also adopted a more mature approach in recent years. It has resulted in less herky-jerky movement on the feet and longer lasting gas tank. He’s probably going to need every last bit of that stamina given Tagir Ulanbekov tends to utilize the type of aggressive style Elliott prefers… and he’s about 5 years younger than Elliott with a lot less mileage on his body. Elliott may be durable as hell, but chins inevitably crack if one sticks around long enough. Ulanbekov entered the UFC with a reputation as a strong wrestler and grappler, but he appears to have stepped things up a notch in his time in the organization, executing a dominant ground performance against a solid grappler in Allen Nascimento. Ulanbekov still has a patched together striking game, which may give Elliott the opening he needs to find the win. Even more troubling, Ulanbekov did catch himself in some bad spots against Nascimento. It’s likely Elliott would be able to do the same thing. However, I favor Ulanbekov to do just enough to squeeze out a narrow victory. Ulanbekov via decision
The shine has disappeared from Devonte Smith following two KO losses in his last three contests. Well, at the very least, it has dimmed. If Smith can avoid having his chin touched up, he still has all the talent in the world to make a rapid ascent up the lightweight ladder. Despite standing at 5’9”, he possesses a 76” reach and as much punching power as anyone else at 155. The power is abundant enough he scored a stoppage on the strength of his jab, blistering Justin Jaynes. Smith even showed off a little bit of his wrestling base in that Jaynes win. It looked like the UFC was attempting to set him up for a rebound against Erick Gonzalez before Gonzalez was felled by injury. Now, Smith needs to be wary of L’udovit Klein’s trademark high kicks as the Slovakian fighter has opted to step in on short notice. Klein has struggles on the mat against physically imposing mat practitioners, but he’s extremely dangerous on the feet, having a hairpin trigger with both his fists and feet. Klein alternates between being wild on the feet and not letting his fists fly, so there is an opening for Smith to land a power shot and put the normally durable Klein to sleep. It’s a tough one to call, but Klein’s more diverse attack and Smith’s questionable chin has me favoring the Slovakian fighter. Klein via KO of RD2
Five fights into his UFC return and Dustin Jacoby has yet to taste defeat. The former professional kickboxer has developed into one of the most technically sound strikers at 205, making excellent use of his lanky frame to piece up the opposition from the outside. Though he was overly aggressive in his DWCS showing, Jacoby hasn’t been chasing KO’s but they’ve come anyway due to his impressive accuracy. What is still questionable is his takedown defense, anyone with an inkling of desire to get the fight to the mat generally finding success. Jacoby’s in luck as it’s unlikely Michel Oleksiejczuk will pursue the takedown. Not only is Oleksiejczuk an average wrestler at best, the last time he pursued takedowns aggressively resulted in him gassing out in a hurry. That’s due to Oleksiejczuk is undersized at light heavyweight, lacking the technique to muscle around the larger bodies without draining himself. What Oleksiejczuk does have is surprising pop in his punches, does an excellent job of working the body, and an underrated jab. However, Oleksiejczuk is fairly one-dimensional, abandoning the pursuit of takedowns in recent fights and rarely throws kicks. Plus, he has struggled with disciplined outside strikers… much like Jacoby. Though Oleksiejczuk has solid power, Jacoby is pretty damned durable, so I feel comfortable predicting a Jacoby win. Jacoby via decision