Stand and Deliver: UFC on ESPN 30
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In some ways, a win is a win and a loss is a loss. But while it is true that every fight matters, some feel as though they matter more, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, the elevated stakes are easy to define. Picture the fighter on a losing streak who knows he or she is likely fighting for their job; or conversely, any matchup on Dana White's Contender Series, where two hopefuls know that the brass ring is within their reach if they can win impressively. At other times, a fight feels especially important for reasons that are harder to quantify, but no less real. Whether it’s the symbolic heft of being a pioneer in MMA from one’s country, or the simple added spice of two fighters who really hate each other’s guts, that fight means just a little more.
This week, the Ultimate Fighting Championship offers up UFC on ESPN 30, a 12-fight slate topped by one of the most attractive striker-versus-striker matchups imaginable, as Edson Barboza takes on surging sensation Giga Chikadze. “UFC Vegas 35” is also notable for serving as the vehicle for the middleweight and bantamweight tournament finals of Season 29 of “The Ultimate Fighter.”
Outside of the Barboza-Chikadze headliner and the “TUF” finals, UFC on ESPN 30 features the accustomed assortment of prospects and veterans — with an extra helping of desperation. Frankly, the card is jammed with fighters on losing streaks who might reasonably expect to be cut from the UFC if they lose on Saturday. In this column, however, we just call that extra incentive to stand and deliver. You know the drill.
Are There or Are There Not Levels to This, Edson Barboza?
As of the middle of fight week, Barboza is the barest of favorites against Chikadze, and the line is inching towards a true pick ‘em. I have no idea whether the Brazilian pays attention to such matters, but if he does, he must be bristling. Yes, by the eyeball test Chikadze has dazzled in winning his first six UFC fights, culminating in a vicious liver kick of Cub Swanson in May. However, there is a world of difference between a highlight-reel stoppage of Swanson, a longtime former contender in the final act of his career, and the kind of résumé Barboza has compiled as one of the greatest pure strikers in MMA history. Simply put, Barboza has fought almost exclusively ranked fighters in two of the best divisions in the UFC over the last seven or eight years, while Chikadze has yet to face a single fighter with a number next to his name. Of Chikadze’s six UFC victims, only Swanson and Omar Morales are over .500 with the promotion.
The gulf in strength of schedule between Barboza and Chikadze is not necessarily an indicator of what will happen in Saturday’s main event. Chikadze is one of the UFC’s fastest-rising stars for a reason, and while Barboza looked sensational in sniping Shane Burgos in May, at 35 he must surely begin to decline one of these days. However, the list of men who have outstruck Barboza without a clear and present threat of the takedown is still incredibly short. If Barboza is still anything resembling his prime self, Chikadze joining that club should not be an even-money proposition, and the onus is on Barboza to remind us why.
Abdul Razak Alhassan: The Worst Year Ever Just Keeps on Going
Of the several hundred fighters who were on UFC roster for all of 2020, none had a worse year at the office than Alhassan. The Fortis MMA representative went 0-2, including suffering the first stoppage loss of his career in just 30 seconds at the hands of Kalinn Williams. Even worse, he missed weight for both fights, costing himself not only a percentage of his purses, but a “Fight of the Night” bonus against Mounir Lazzez. At a conservative estimate, Alhassan’s scale issues lightened his bank account by six figures. Alhassan returned to action this April having wisely elected to move up to middleweight, and while he made weight against Jacob Malkoun, he lost decisively for the third time in a row.
That brings us to Saturday and Alhassan’s bout with Alessio Di Chirico. The good news for Alhassan is that di Chirico has had a rough UFC run of late as well; it was mildly surprising that he was re-signed after a three-fight skid, and his head-kick knockout of Joaquin Buckley in his return fight was one of the more surprising fight outcomes of the year. The bad news is that Alhassan is almost certainly fighting for his job this weekend, and he is the underdog. At his best, “Judo Thunder” is more notable for his lightning fists, as all 10 of his career wins are first-round knockouts. The 36-year-old could use a jolt of that power against di Chirico.
Sam Alvey vs. Wellington Turman: Two Men Enter, One Man Leaves the UFC?
Alvey and Turman’s middleweight meeting on Saturday is probably a pink-slip derby; Turman is 1-3 in the UFC, while smiles have been few and far between for Alvey over the course of a dismal 0-5-1 skid stretching back three years. It isn’t absolutely guaranteed that the loser will be cut — Turman is just 25 years old and his fights have generally been entertaining, while Alvey has the intangibles and his split draw with Da Un Jung probably should have been a win — but both men are hopefully approaching the fight as if their jobs are on the line.