Two weeks after UFC 270: Ngannou vs. Gane, the UFC came back with one of their Fight Night cards. These cards serve as a showcase for young talent and veterans alike who want to rise the ranks. Most prospects make their debuts on these cards, eventually making their way up main event slots on Fight Night or on the main card of a pay-per-view (PPV) event. The main event for these showcase Fight Nights feature rank fighters attempting to use the main event slot and parlay it into a title shot or a No. 1 contender fight.
Jack Hermansson and Sean Strickland vied for a spot in the title picture at the middleweight division, with the champion Israel Adesanya fighting Robert Whittaker in the following week. The title picture at middleweight is confusing, with Whittaker and Adesanya already beating most contenders. At No. 2, Marvin Vettori lost to the champion twice already, making a third fight very far away. No. 3 and No. 4 Derrick Brunson and Jarred Cannoier are fighting for a title shot in UFC 271, but they already lost to the champion and Whittaker. This leaves No. 6, Hermansson and No. 7, Strickland providing fresh blood for whoever wins the middleweight crown at UFC 271: Adesanya vs. Whittaker 2.
The Fight Night card also featured a few interesting prospects fighting each other, trying to work their way up from prospect status to contender.
What was at stake?
Sean Strickland and Jack Hermansson entered with winning streaks. Strickland was riding a 7-fight win streak with him building his way up the rankings into the #7 spot. He fought at welterweight years ago, but after a devastating motorcycle accident, he entered middleweight and has been on a run ever since. Now, Stickland, coming off a main event win against Uriah Hall, tried to continue the momentum going into the Joker.
Hermansson came in following a win against one of my favorite prospects — who may never realize his potential — Edmen Shabazyan. In the fight, Hermansson displayed wrestling chops with good ground-and-pound alongside good control on top. Hermansson has constantly been one fight away from the title, losing against top 5 contenders Marvin Vettori and Jarred Cannonier whenever he got the main event slot.
Such disappointments placed a lot of pressure on the Norwegian, especially considering his unwillingness to garner any attention from a part of the MMA community. Jack is a nice guy, hard working, and committed to his dream of becoming champion, but he does little to market himself as a personality. His personality is similar to any average UFC fighter’s desire of becoming champion. To earn that title shot, it takes either a long, impressive resume of wins or a personality that inspires fans.
Strickland’s polarizing appeal created an opportunity for him to step into a title shot. Hermansson probably needed another win after this one to enter the title picture firmly, given his rollercoaster of contendership.
In the co-main event, Nick Maximov faced Puna Soriano. Maximov trains out of the Nick Diaz Academy in Stockton, California. The Northern California fighter was a credentialed wrestler out of Oregon with a brown belt in jiu jitsu. His alliance with the Diaz brothers makes him a fighter to follow. Soriano, on the other hand, trains out of the same gym as Francis Ngannou, with Xtreme Couture. Soriano won his first two fights in the UFC, notably beating prospect Dusko Tudorovic. Soriano is a power puncher with a good deal of momentum in his favor at the middleweight division. Both Soriano and Maximov entered unranked and with the chance of impressing at the co-main slot.
While these two fights filled out the top of the Fight Night card, the hardcore’s main event featured one of the most promising prospects in the entire UFC; Shavkat Rakhmonov. Rakhmonov faced another prospect, Charleston Harris, not as well-known, but an interesting test nonetheless. Harris packs a mean punch along with a well rounded game as well. While most believers in Rakhmonov felt this fight would end up as a showcase, other experts thought it would be a rough test, not one Rakhmonov or others should simply brush off. A win by either fighter would place them very near the rankings, with Rakhmonov finally fighting a rank fighter and getting tested in a much more serious fashion. Harris had the chance to also enter the rankings or generate some serious momentum against such an established fighter.
Sean Strickland def. Jack Hermansson via split decision (49–46, 47–48, 49–46)
In the first round of the main event, Hermansson peppered Strickland with leg kicks along with a few takedown attempts early on. Strickland defended both attempts very well, getting an underhook and keeping himself balanced. Whenever Sean wanted to hit Jack with a jab, it was open the entire fight. In a close round, Strickland won the round with the jab and the combos as well.
He displayed a good balance of body punches along with targeting the head as well. Throughout all 8 takedowns attempts in the fight, Strickland defended all of them, showcasing a real ability to stuff takedowns at will. The first round was essentially how the rest of the fight played out, with a repeat of failed takedowns and plenty of success for Strickland’s jab. Hermansson was never going to win without taking the fight to the ground; his striking game was just not good enough to hang with Strickland. Not only can Strickland hit fighters, he can also avoid strikes as well. He defended around 70% of Hermansson’s head strikes in the fight. His range control and defense can provide any fighter with problems, Hermansson especially.
Uncharacteristic of Stickland, he never quite turned it on in the fight, doing enough to win all of the rounds with the jab, but he never traded with Hermansson and looked for a knockout. A ho-hum performance which puts him into the title picture, but not necessarily a title contender.
Nick Maximov def. Punahele Soriano via split decision (28–29, 30–27, 29–28)
In the co-main, Nick Maximov squared off against Puna Soriano. The fight was an interesting style match-up which favored Maximov. Nick has a really good ability to take a punch with his zombie-like chin along with his ability to wrestle and grapple. Soriano has a lot of power and can cause damage for an opponent who likes to stand and trade.
In the first round, Soriano landed a few good high knees to the face, one which hurt Maxmiov a good amount. Whenever Soriano landed, Mavmiov did not like it and he immediately shot in for a takedown. Soriano showed really good defense for the takedowns, with flexible hips and good balance, never allowing Maximov to have a controlling position.
In the next two rounds, Maximov continued to get the takedown, never doing much damage, but still doing enough to win the rounds. The first round went to Soriano for landing the most damaging blow in the round and defending the takedowns so well, but rounds 2 and 3 favored Maximov as the damage for Soriano became less and he ended up on the ground for most of the fight.
The fight as a whole was a showcase of Maximov’s ability to continually cause problems with his grappling and Soriano landing his powerful punches. Unfortunately for Soriano, there were just too many takedowns landed, albeit with no damage, to overcome.
Shavkat Rakhmonov def. Carlston Harris via KO (4:10 of Round 1)
What a beautiful setup. Rakhmonov proved all of the doubters wrong and then some. He knocked out Carlston Harris with a spinning high heel kick which hit the side of his head. Harris would blitz in with overhand and hooks throughout the whole fight. Rakhmonov stayed out of range and was able to make Harris miss on most of those attacks. Shavkat hit two devastating spinning body kicks early in the first round, and when he decided to deploy the spinning attack to the head, Harris’ hands were too low. Shavkat caught the side of the head, dropped Harris and finished him off with devastating ground and pound.
Rakhmonov now enters the conversation as the most promising prospect in the welterweight division, with 3 impressive finishes against UFC fighters and now entering the top 15. He is the future of the welterweight division, as an extremely promising striker along with an impressive ground game. All that’s left to see is how his cardio is able to hold up for 15 minutes.
Image courtesy of UFC