Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Islam Makhachev’s path to a UFC title shot just took a strange turn.

The plan was simple enough. All Makhachev had to do was defeat Beneil Dariush, which would’ve given him his first win over a top-5 ranked opponent (Makhachev and Dariush are currently tied at No. 4 in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings) and a 10th consecutive victory. Charles Oliveira (or Justin Gaethje), here we come.

Unfortunately for both fighters, Dariush was forced to withdraw from Saturday’s UFC Vegas 49 main event due to an ankle injury, and now stepping into his place is veteran lightweight Bobby Green, fresh off of a one-sided decision win over Nasrat Haqparast at UFC 271 two weeks ago. Suddenly, instead of a high-stakes fight against another contender, Makhachev finds himself against a cagey lifer with nothing to lose.

Even if Makhachev runs through Green as he has most of his competition, will it be enough to vault him into that lightweight title shot, or does he need another statement win? And if Green pulls off the upset, it could turn the whole division upside down.

Also on the main card, Misha Cirkunov gets another shot at his first middleweight win when he fights Wellington Turman, Ji Yeon Kim meets Priscila Cachoeira in a bout featuring two flyweights in need of a victory, lightweights Arman Tsarukyan and Joel Alvarez put their four-fight win streaks on the line, and Contender Series prospect Armen Petrosyan makes his UFC debut in a middleweight bout against Gregory Rodrigues.

What: UFC Vegas 49

Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas

When: Saturday, Feb. 26. The six-fight preliminary card begins on ESPN+ at 4 p.m. ET, followed by a five-fight main card on ESPN+ at 7 p.m. ET.

Islam Makhachev vs. Bobby Green

Bobby Green can win this fight!

OK, that might not be the boldest claim since we’re talking about MMA and it’s not like Green is some WCW Thunder jobber, but he’s not far from it in the eyes of many, at least if the early reaction to the matchup and current odds are any indication. The way it’s being framed, Green is barely a comma in the Islam Makhachev story that is seemingly destined to end in a UFC title win at some point.

You have to wonder if Makhachev would have been better served just holding out for a higher-ranked opponent later in the year or chilling on the sidelines and staying ready in case the upcoming Charles Oliveira vs. Justin Gaethje title fight needs a reserve. He’s doing the UFC a favor by not leaving them high and dry with a Fight Night card that’s already devoid of star power.

He also probably sees Green as an easier fight compared to Beneil Dariush, and that’s fair. Green has good — not elite — takedown defense, and without a full camp to focus entirely on preparing for Makhachev, it’s fair to assume that his wrestling won’t be as sharp as it needs to be. The takedowns will come early and often, and Green is going to spend plenty of time on his back.

However, Green is a problem for anyone on the feet and he’s shown that he knows how to survive on the ground. He won’t panic as time ticks down with Makhachev on top of him threatening with submissions and scoring with ground-and-pound. He’ll make Makhachev work to keep him down. It’s a lot to ask of Green to keep that defense up for 25 minutes on a two-week turnaround, though.

What I see happening is Green putting a scare in Makhachev early, catching Makhachev off-balance with some sharp counters and combinations before Makhachev finds the range in Round 2. Once Makhachev cuts off the cage, he’ll have Green right where he wants him and the takedowns will soon be unavoidable.

Makhachev by decision.

Pick: Makhachev

Misha Cirkunov vs. Wellington Turman

This is about a friendly of a matchup as you could make for these fighters given that they’re both inclined to grapple. Unfortunately, that could result in a stalemate in that department, meaning we could be in for some lukewarm striking. Buckle up!

With that grim prediction in mind, who has the edge if they end up standing and banging? I’ve always thought Misha Cirkunov had the potential to be an effective striker, even if his many knockout losses tell a different story. But he’ll have the size and reach advantage here, and when you add in his natural power, he could surprise us.

That or he and Wellington Turman will feint and clinch for three rounds and this will be another reminder why you can’t just throw any two fighters in the penultimate bout of a card and call it a co-main event. Edge to Cirkunov.

Pick: Cirkunov

Ji Yeon Kim vs. Priscila Cachoeira

Ji Yeon Kim gets another pressure fighter after having to deal with an aggressive Molly McCann in a recent loss. Priscila Cachoeira isn’t as skilled of a striker as McCann is, but she’s got more pop in those gloves.

Though I’ve questioned putting what’s likely a “Loser Leaves Town” match on a UFC main card, this one certainly has the potential to become a fun standup scrap. Neither woman is afraid to let their hands go, and if Cachoeira can lure Kim into a brawl, she could actually put her down.

It’s that power edge that has me leaning towards Cachoeira. Kim could make things interesting if she mixes in some takedowns, but I don’t trust her grappling game enough to predict that she can control the fight in that manner. More likely we’ll see several uneventful underhook battles against the cage end with Cachoeira scoring on the separations. So the pressure will be on Kim to show that she can do enough damage to win this fight, and I’m not convinced she’s capable.

Cachoeira by decision.

Pick: Cachoeira

Arman Tsarukyan vs. Joel Alvarez

Outside of the main event, this is the fight that has everyone talking, as it features two talented fighters who could be factors in the loaded lightweight division going forward (especially if Joel Alvarez can consistently make weight).

Just 25 years old, Arman Tsarukyan is the real deal as far as prospects go. His wrestling is outstanding and his striking is rapidly catching up to his primary discipline. He’s not just looking to set up his takedowns with his standup game, he’s becoming a legitimate threat to put down solid competition as Christos Giagos learned the hard way. He’s a nightmare opponent right now for any lightweight outside of the top 20.

Any lightweight except possibly Alvarez. Like Tsarukyan, Alvarez is starting to round out his game, showing improving kickboxing to go along with his deadly submission skills. A towering 155er, Alvarez uses every inch of those powerful limbs to set up chokes and joint locks. He is not someone that Tsarukyan can just take down and lay in his guard. Alvarez is arguably more dangerous off of his back than he is on his feet.

A tactical mixing of the martial arts is in order if Tsarukyan is to topple his taller foe, and I think he’s up to the task. Alvarez’s long frame might actually be to his detriment, as that’s a lot of area to defend when Tsarukyan is driving in and going for those hips. Look for Tsarukyan to use his takedowns to break Alvarez’s rhythm and set up ground-and-pound opportunities. As long as he minds those long legs of Alvarez, he should do enough over three rounds to win on points.

Pick: Tsarukyan

Armen Petrosyan vs. Gregory Rodrigues

As enjoyable as it is to see Gregory Rodrigues throw hands with such glee, he may want to leave the boxing at home for this one.

Standing across from Rodrigues on Saturday night is Armen Petrosyan, a skilled striker with some serious finishing instincts. He’ll just be waiting for Rodrigues to make a mistake or get careless with his approach. One good opening and Rodrigues will get lit up, as Petrosyan doesn’t just go for one-shot bombs; instead, he creates explosive sequences by stringing together all of his techniques.

The good news for Rodrigues is that he just so happens to have elite jiu-jitsu in his back pocket, and that’s going to be the difference here. I have Rodrigues as one of my sleepers at 185 pounds, so I’m all in on him shutting down Petrosyan in his debut. As long as he doesn’t go full Jorge Gurgel, Rodrigues will eventually close the distance, get Petrosyan down, and take his back. From there, it’s a matter of time until he finds a submission.

Pick: Rodrigues

Preliminaries

Ignacio Bahamondes def. Rong Zhu

Josiane Nunes def. Ramona Pascual

Terrance McKinney def. Fares Ziam

Alejandro Perez def. Jonathan Martinez

Ramiz Brahimaj def. Michael Gillmore

Victor Altamirano def. Carlos Hernandez

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