Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC
Belal Muhammad is about to experience some major deja Luque.
“Remember the Name” has been finished just once in his career, five and a half years ago at the hands of Vicente Luque, the man he meets again in the main event of UFC Vegas 51 on Saturday. Back then, both fighters were just starting to make a name for themselves in the always-crowded welterweight division; now, they are legit contenders in spitting distance of a title shot.
The two have 20 wins combined since the first fight and yet they’re both still searching for the signature victory that will make them an undeniable title challenger. Even though they’ve left marquee names like Tyron Woodley, Stephen Thompson, and Demian Maia in their wake, a convincing win in tonight’s rematch could be just what either fighter needs to prove they deserve top-tier consideration.
At the very least, fans will be treated to a matchup between two contenders who have been grinding the old-fashioned way and if Muhammad avenges his loss, we might look back on this as just the second leg of a compelling trilogy.
In other main card action, middleweight Contender Series signings Caio Borralho and Gadzi Omargadzhiev make their UFC debuts, Miguel Baeza fights Andre Fialho in a welterweight strikers’ duel, Mayra Bueno Silva returns to bantamweight to fight Wu Yanan, Pat Sabatini looks to go 4-0 in the UFC when he fights featherweight prospect T.J. Laramie, and Mounir Lazzez welcomes Contender Series welterweight Ange Loosa to the UFC.
What: UFC Vegas 51
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Vicente Luque (5) vs. Belal Muhammad (6)
After crunching the numbers with the help of the obscenely expensive MMA Fighting MMA Math calculator, this pick should be pretty easy: Stephen Thompson beat Vicente Luque + Belal Muhammad beat Stephen Thompson = Belal Muhammad beats Vicente Luque.
Well, maybe it’s not that simple. “Wonderboy” is a matchup nightmare for a lot of welterweights and Luque was no exception. He landed several hard shots, but was never able to pin Thompson down for long enough stretches to put together a winning performance. There aren’t too many fighters like Thompson, so drawing comparisons between Luque and Muhammad’s respective performances against him isn’t particularly helpful (once again, math turns out to be useless).
Looking back at Luque-Muhammad 1 probably isn’t too helpful either, though both have developed on a linear path so it’s not as if they’re different fighters as far as potential strategies go. They’re just superior versions of themselves. If that’s the case, that’s not good for Muhammad.
“Remember the Name” is all about the pressure game and he’s excellent at it, but in Luque he has an opponent who also loves to come forward and cut the distance and land big punches at any cost. Pace isn’t an issue for Muhammad. Firepower is.
The possibility of this one going five rounds could tilt the action in Muhammad’s favor as it gives him more time to weather and recover from an early Luque storm. I don’t trust him to match the kind of damage that Luque can dish out no matter how long the fight lasts.
Luque won the first fight in less than 90 seconds, which I don’t expect to happen this time. Muhammad will push Luque though, until Luque overwhelms him with a flurry and finishes on the ground with a submission.
Caio Borralho vs. Gadzhi Omargadzhiev
Considering my recent crusade against billing fights as “the co-main event” just because they’re the second-last one on the card, this feels like an attack.
Respectfully, there’s nothing about Caio Borralho vs. Gadzhi Omargadzhiev that merits it being called a co-main event. It’s a great fight. It’s the penultimate fight of the night. God willing, we’ll even get to watch their walkouts on television. But it’s not a co-main event and we don’t have to pretend it is because the UFC and ESPN say it’s so.
What we do have here is an excellent opportunity for a couple of talented fighters to immediately announce themselves as impact signings off of the Contender Series. In Borralho, you have a fun standup fighter with strong takedown defense; in Omargadzhiev, we have the next man up on the seemingly endless conveyor belt of powerful Russian grapplers.
On principal, I have to favor Omargadzhiev because I don’t think Borralho can stay off of his back for 15 minutes. Omargadzhiev is comfortable on the feet too, utilizing combinations to score and not just set up his takedowns. That said, when it’s time to take Borralho down you can bet he’ll do it with chilling efficiency.
Borralho isn’t a sitting duck when faced with a wrestler as he has both stout takedown defense and a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Omargadzhiev will have to work to slice through that guard. However, even if he can’t, look for him to stay patient in top position and sprinkle in ground-and-pound when the opportunity arises. He’ll either wrestle his way to a decision or submit a tiring Borralho late.
Miguel Baeza vs. Andre Fialho
Matchmakers, I see what you did here.
On a card lacking starpower, sometimes you’ve got to just throw stuff at the wall until it sticks and the fans are lucky that this matchup ended up on the board. Miguel Baeza vs. Dhiego Lima was a fine matchup, but once Lima made the surprising decision to retire, the door was left open for Andre Fialho to step in and really create some chaos.
Baeza is one of the best attacking welterweights in the UFC. He can be highly technical early and has no issues with brawling late. That’s raised some questions about his defense, which is perfect for Fialho. The former PFL fighter wants to stand and trade, especially if his opponent has a respectable striking pedigree.
So look for Baeza to take the lead in Round 1 and then settle into a scrap in Rounds 2 and 3. Fialho has serious punching power, but I still favor Baeza to snap his skid here.
Baeza wins a decision after some exciting, touch-and-go moments.
Mayra Bueno Silva vs. Wu Yanan
Mayra Bueno Silva and Wu Yanan are primed for a show-stealing scrap. It could get ugly, but when you have two aggressive fighters in need of a win facing off in a main card spot, you know you’re going to get max effort.
There’s a lot to like in Wu’s game and she’s shown how competitive she can be against more experienced competition. But you also get the sense that the 25-year-old’s UFC career has been a case of too much, too soon, and that Silva is another name that fits into that narrative. “Sheetara” is constantly on the attack with her muay Thai and submission skills and I favor here to get the better of Wu in a blow-for-blow contest. I like Wu’s speed, but Silva hits harder and will have the edge on the ground.
Silva by submission.
Pat Sabatini vs. T.J. Laramie
In a battle of wrestlers, give me the more well-rounded grappling game of Pat Sabatini over the untapped potential of T.J. Laramie.
Laramie has that classic fire hydrant build meaning he’s going to be at a length disadvantage against most featherweights but a load on the ground for anyone he can put on their back. He’s got some raw power on the feet, but is still a work-in-progress there. Sabatini will want to initiate the grappling exchanges and wear Laramie out with clinch work against the fence before going for takedowns.
There will be some entertaining clashes and scrambles, but I like Sabatini to get the better of the majority of these exchanges. He’s not going to just sit in top position either, he’ll batter Laramie with ground strikes and attack with submissions en route to a decision win.
Mounir Lazzez vs. Ange Loosa
We’re opening up with a potential banger here as Mounir Lazzez and Ange Loosa bring exciting striking styles to the octagon. For Lazzez, technique and precision are the name of the game and when he’s locked in, he looks as good as anyone in the welterweight division on the feet. For the debuting Loosa, there would be no better way for him to make a first impression than by handing Lazzez a second straight knockout loss.
Loosa utilizes lots of feints and fakes to set up his combinations and he’s shown blistering hand speed in his recent fights, though finishes have eluded him. He’ll also mix in takedowns and while his wrestling skills aren’t exactly Division-I caliber, he’s shown he can use raw power to complete a shot.
It’s tempting to go with the lesser known Loosa here, but he can become predictable with his approach and that’s the last thing you want to be when fighting Lazzez. “The Sniper” feasts on competition who get stuck in a rhythm and I see him picking Loosa apart for three rounds. This is a tough outing for Loosa taking this fight on just days’ notice and while I expect him to put up a spirited effort, it won’t be enough to win the cards.