Nikita Krylov kicking Magomed Ankalaev at UFC Vegas 20 | Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
Get the scoop on the early UFC action out of London, featuring Ukraine’s Nikita Krylov looking to put away slick submission specialist Paul Craig.
Typically, a Fight Night card’s prelims are full of prospects either at the beginning of their UFC journey or vets looking to hold onto their UFC employment. As the UFC returns to London, these prelims feature more than that. There’s a light heavyweight contest featuring a pair of their more consistent action fighters looking for a chance to fight the elite of the division. There’s also a pair of hyped bantamweights that are looking to prove they should be fighting only those with a number next to their name. There are the typical fights as well, but either the Nikita Krylov/Paul Craig contest or the Timur Valiev/Jack Shore are exceptional preliminary contests as they would have served as superior co-main events to half the Fight Night events for 2022 than what did take place.
Nikita Krylov vs. Paul Craig, Light Heavyweight
I remember when Craig was signed to the UFC. While his submission chops were thought to be exceptional, even at that point, his wonky skillset had people pegging him as a fun novelty act who would pick up some fun wins and probably hit the skids a few years later. Nobody dreamed he’d be knocking on the door of the top ten at some point, especially after his 3-4 start in the organization. And yet, here he is, challenging one of the more established members of the division.
Craig’s skillset is still on the wonky side, but he’s smoothed out some of the rough edges a bit. His wrestling and overall striking are still on the rough side of things – especially given the level of competition he’s been facing as of late – but Craig has a better idea of what works at the highest level and what doesn’t. Don’t think he won’t be beneath a random spinning backfist or two, but Craig welcomes either fighting in the clinch or launching his long limbs from the outside. Regardless, Craig knows where he’s at his strongest and that’s on the mat, even if he’s on his back.
Given Krylov is about the same size – his reach is an inch longer – and a better striker, the expectation must be that Craig probably won’t bother with trying anything from the outside, looking to close the distance and take the fight to the mat as soon as possible. Throw in that more than half of Krylov’s career losses have come via submission coupled with Krylov’s historically low fight IQ and some may have already made up their minds Craig is a shoe-in. However, since Krylov returned to the UFC, he’s exhibited a far better mind for fighting, at least strategically. There’s still plenty of reason to believe he’ll be vulnerable to tactical mistakes, but it seems unlikely Krylov will jump down to the mat at his own volition at this stage of his career.
Krylov is still a bit of a wild man on the feet, but he has a notable advantage in athleticism in addition to a more natural feel on the feet than Craig. Krylov’s striking defense is still porous – I did say he makes tactical mistakes – but he has also been facing superior strikes as of late. Craig’s striking defense is also poor, so provided Krylov doesn’t relent to Craig’s pursuit of trips and takedowns, he should either outpoint or put away the submission specialist. Throw in that Krylov has plenty of motivation given what is happening in his homeland of Ukraine and I think he’ll be the one to emerge on top. Krylov via TKO of RD1
Jack Shore vs. Timur Valiev, Bantamweight
There’s a large swath of fans who circled this contest as the fight to watch on this card, and for good reason. In Shore’s case, he has torn through every opponent the UFC has put in his path, his opponents putting up almost no resistance. Some will point to Shore’s level of competition being on the low end, but he’s also had several opponents fall out for various reasons. In other words, the UFC has tried to match him up appropriately. The Welshman is an absolute wizard on the mat, producing a blend of BJJ and wrestling that is the envy of most fighters. Though he’s a human backpack, Shore is perfectly happy to use his fists to start pounding away to advance his position or just finish them off.
However, while Shore isn’t helpless on the feet, his athletic shortcomings come to light in that department. That’s where Valiev will look to win the fight. Not that Valiev wouldn’t be competitive with Shore on the mat, but the Russian will be able to utilize his speed advantage from there far better than on the mat. Valiev has traditionally pushed an insane pace with punch-kick combinations, plus a willingness to throw high-risk maneuvers with aplomb. No one has ever mistaken Valiev for a power puncher, but he can rack up enough volume with his stinging shots to make an opponent wilt. However, there’s also been cause for concern about Valiev’s chin, having been KO’d in one fight and knocked down twice in another in his last three contests.
Valiev’s wrestling will be the key. If he can stuff the crafty clinch takedowns of Shore – or just avoid the clinch altogether – it’s hard to see how this fight isn’t his for the taking. Shore doesn’t have the skills to outpoint him on the feet, nor does he seem to have the power to turn out the lights. What Shore most definitely has is the wily and craft to get the fight where he wants it, at least at times over the course of 15 minutes. The question is how much he can get the fight in his world. Valiev is a big step up from what Shore has been facing, so while I’m picking the more experienced fighter, I’m not doing so with abounding confidence. Valiev via decision
There’s a degree of surprise the UFC is bringing Mike Grundy back given the English grinder is already 35-years-old and riding a two-fight losing streak. Given the depth of the featherweight division, wouldn’t it make more sense to give a younger fighter a chance to develop? That isn’t me saying Grundy doesn’t stand a chance against Makwan Amirkhani. In fact, they have very similar styles. Both are heavily dependent on their wrestling. Both are stiff on the feet, but have plenty of punching power if able to land cleanly. Durability appears to be a plus for both combatants. And both tend to slow down considerably around the halfway point of the fight. So, what separates them? Amirkhani is a southpaw, which could prove to be problematic for Grundy. Plus, Amirkhani has faced a higher level of competition over the course of his lengthy career. Is that enough to justify picking Amirkhani? Unless Amirkhani’s most recent loss, a KO at the hands of Lerone Murphy, is an indication that his chin has disintegrated, it’s the largest separators that come to mind. Some may point to Amirkhani’s grappling as an advantage, but Grundy’s grappling is an underrated aspect of his skillset. I wouldn’t put money on this contest one way or another, but given the questions of Amirkhani’s durability, I’m going with the less proven Grundy. Grundy via decision
How in the hell is Shamil Abdurakhimov still in the official UFC rankings? He hasn’t won a fight since April 2019! An even bigger miscarriage of justice is that the Russian is somehow ranked ahead of Tom Aspinall. You know, they hyped up-and-comer in the main event. I’m not saying Abdurakhimov is garbage, but age appears to have taken its toll on the big man and while it may have been justifiable to have him in the top ten in 2019, he’s done nothing to warrant it in 2022. While Abdurakhimov was a solid boxer with plus wrestling for the division, he’s lost a step and he couldn’t afford to lose one in the first place. Sergei Pavlovich isn’t the most fleet-footed fighter himself, but he does move faster than you’d expect from looking at him. Just as bricked up as Abdurakhimov, Pavlovich also possesses a freakish 84” reach and plenty of power. After his UFC debut – when the organization threw him in the deep end with Alistair Overeem – Pavlovich blew through his next two opponents without even needing to show off his vaunted sambo abilities. I have my doubts he’ll use them against Abdurakhimov either, largely because Abdurakhimov is a skilled sambo practitioner himself. Abdurakhimov is a smart fighter, so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility he finds a way to blast the younger fighter with a counter or his heavy GnP, but far and away, the most likely scenario sees Pavlovich putting away the elder statesman. Pavlovich via TKO of RD2
Is it just me, or is everyone sleeping on Elise Reed? I’m not saying she’s a world-beater or a top prospect, but she looks like the type of fighter that makes people pay for underestimating her. Possessing a taekwondo background, Reed utilizes hit-and-run approach with lots of lateral movement to find the openings to pounce. When she has her opponent hurt, Reed does have a notable killer instinct, letting all eight of her limbs fly to get the job done. However, there is concerns about her ability to stuff takedowns, and not just because a much larger Sijara Eubanks overwhelmed Reed in her UFC debut. The question is whether Cory McKenna will be able to expose that hole. McKenna does have a wrestling background and thrives in making a fight dirty and grimy. Plus, still just 21, it’s hard to believe she isn’t an improved fighter from when we last saw her 16 months ago. However, McKenna struggles on the feet – in part due to her petite 58” reach – and has been dealing with concussion issues. It’s impossible to know if that will be a long-term issue or if they are behind her. Regardless, of how McKenna comes into this contest, Reed’s debut was an inaccurate representation of her abilities. I’ve wavered on this contest, despite McKenna being a heavy favorite, but I’ll go with the younger fighter as I do expect to see improvements. However, if she looks the way she did in her UFC debut, this is Reed’s fight. McKenna via decision
There’s still a lot of believers in Nathaniel Wood. Though he’s been out of action for 17 months, many still expect the Englishman to crash the official UFC rankings in short order. It isn’t hard to see why. Though he’s built like a brickhouse, he never seems to have issues going the distance full bore. Wood is also well-rounded, fully capable of going toe-to-toe on the feet with skilled strikers and hanging on the mat with a dangerous grappler. That’s not to say Wood can’t be exposed in either area. For example, he’s been hit by hard left hooks from several opponents, including when John Dodson put him away. Given that’s the money punch for Vince Morales, perhaps Morales shouldn’t be as big of an underdog as he is. Morales has really come into his own in his last few contests, throwing with confidence and discovering his power in the process. However, there are still two areas of concern with him: his wrestling is worrisome and his boxing-heavy stylings has left him vulnerable to low kicks. Given Wood landed more than 50 low kicks in each of his last two fights, I have a hard time seeing Morales scoring the upset outside of an early KO. I see Wood weakening his legs and putting him away. Wood via submission of RD2
If you aren’t aware of Muhammad Mokaev, most MMA analysts believe you will be shortly. Just 21-years-old, the Dagestani-born Brit isn’t lacking for experience with nearly 30 combined amateur and professional contests. With that amount of experience, it shouldn’t be a surprise he’s as polished as he is… but he is just 21. Regardless, Mokaev is still improving. He’s not a powerhouse striker by any means, but his power is starting to come in nicely as he continues to physically mature. He’ll probably get a chance to show it off as Cody Durden is anything but a defensive savant. In fact, late in fights, Durden’s strategy consists of desperation takedowns to mask his exhaustion as his hard-charging ways early in the fight tend to gas him by the time the final round comes by. Given his effectiveness in the opening round, it’s likely Durden takes the opening round and a near-certainty he drops the third. That leaves the second round as the key. Mokaev’s grappling has impressed thus far, but there is a question how well it’ll hold up against an aggressive wrestler like Durden. Given that all he might need to do is survive the opening round, I think he’ll be just fine. Mokaev via decision