Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC
Jamahal Hill could be the injection of fresh blood that the light heavyweight title picture has been looking for.
Having made his pro debut in 2017, Hill is the least experienced contender with a number (14) next to their name in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings, but he could also be much closer to a championship opportunity than some of his more seasoned peers. Aleksandar Rakic (7) and Anthony Smith (8) face uncertain timetables for their returns as they recover from injury, Volkan Oezdemir (11) only recently snapped a losing streak, and Hill’s UFC Vegas 59 main event opponent Thiago Santos (12) is closer to exiting the rankings than moving up in them.
All of this is a moot point of Santos can regain some of his former glory on Saturday. The man who was a scorecard away from beating Jon Jones has won just once since that close call and he has struggled to put together the kinds of performances that previously made him one of the most feared knockout threats at both 205 and 185 pounds. On paper, he has the striking skills to give Hill problems; in reality, Father Time could be sending a message to the 32-fight veteran.
In other main card action, Vicente Luque defends his spot in the welterweight rankings against a resurgent Geoff Neal, The Ultimate Fighter 30 finals go down with Mohammed Usman (the younger brother of UFC champion Kamaru Usman) battling Zac Pauga at heavyweight and Invicta FC veteran Brogan Walker fighting Juliana Miller for the flyweight tournament crown, heavyweight veteran Augusto Sakai fights the up-and-coming Serghei Spivac, and Ariane Lipski takes on Priscila Cachoeira in the flyweight opener.
What: UFC Vegas 59
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
Thiago Santos (12) vs. Jamahal Hill (14)
It hurts to say it: Thiago Santos just isn’t the fighter he used to be.
Blame it on age (he turned 38 this past January), blame it on the knee injuries that Santos suffered in his near-upset of Jon Jones, or blame it on the competition he’s had to face as an elite light heavyweight (his losses following the Jones fight were to Magomed Anklaev, Aleksandar Rakic, and Glover Teixeira), but the results simply haven’t been there for “Marreta.” Even his win over Johnny Walker was forgettable, to put it kindly.
So everything is lined up for Jamahal Hill to have another showcase performance. Coming off of back-to-back first-round finishes, he’s been given a name that still has enough luster to elevate him, but most likely not enough left in the tank to threaten him. As long as he’s respectful of Santos’ striking, Hill won’t find himself in too much danger. He’s bigger and faster and at this stage of their careers, more of a knockout threat than Santos.
Onward and upward. Hill by KO.
Vicente Luque (9) vs. Geoff Neal
If the main event is meant to be a showcase for Hill, the co-main is anything but for Vicente Luque. This has the makings of a trap game.
Luque should be the pick against all but the best at 170 pounds (his most recent losses? Belal Muhammad, Stephen Thompson, and Leon Edwards). How you view this fight depends on how high you see Neal’s ceiling. At his best, he’s shown the same kind of explosive finishing ability as Luque, he just doesn’t have Luque’s track record. Yet.
One major point of concern for Neal is the discrepancy in grappling. Luque loves to stand and bang, but he’s such a versatile finisher and if he gets this one to the ground, Neal is toast. It’s that aspect of Luque’s game that is the difference maker in this fight because a standup contest could be a toss-up, even given Luque’s reputation as an assassin on the feet.
I expect an exciting start to this one with Luque eventually taking Neal down or getting the better of a scramble situation and then winning by submission.
Mohammed Usman vs. Zac Pauga
Brogan Walker vs. Juliana Miller
Ah yes, now we can discuss the real main event(s).
Don’t let the corporate hashtag fool you, this isn’t just UFC Vegas whatever, it is THE #TUF30Finale. That’s right, we have two Ultimate Fighter 30 finals on Saturday, starting with the flyweights Brogan Walker and Juliana Miller, followed by heavyweights Mohammed Usman and Zac Pauga.
Let’s start with the big boys.
Yes, Mohammed Usman is Kamaru Usman’s younger brother. No, he doesn’t fight like Kamaru at all. Yes, there’s a reason why he’s the underdog in this one. Those familiar with Usman might recall last seeing him being submitted by Brandon Sayles in the PFL. He bounced back well enough in the TUF house with a pair of decision victories, but his semifinal win was a close split nod over Eduardo Perez that could have gone either way. Usman has the tools and the training but rarely puts it all together on fight night.
That’s not going to fly against Zac Pauga, one of the season’s better strikers. He has strong fundamentals, good takedown defense, and the kind of laid-back attitude that is going to serve him well going forward in the UFC heavyweight division. And he will go forward after winning a convincing decision over Usman.
Walker vs. Miller is a tougher call. Miller was arguably the breakout star of TUF 30, a talented newcomer who wears her heart on her sleeve and fights like a demon in the cage. She had just three fights before TUF, but on the show she avenged her lone pro loss by outpointing Claire Guthrie in one of the season’s best fights and then showed off her potent submission game against Kaytlin Neil to book a ticket to the finals.
That said, it’s hard for me to pick against the experience of Walker. She has a nice-looking win over Miranda Maverick on her resume and has fought a higher level of competition than Miller up to this point. It’s possible Miller is an undiscovered gem like her TUF coach Julianna Peña was when she dominated her own season, but it’s just too early to tell. Walker has the edge on the feet and I’ll be greatly impressed if Miller can dominate her on the ground.
I understand the hype surrounding Miller. Give me Walker for the upset.
Pick: Pauga and Walker
Augusto Sakai vs. Serghei Spivac
I’m high on Serghei Spivac’s chances of joining the likes of Tom Aspinall, Alexandr Romanov, and Sergei Pavlovich in the discussion of top prospects, but he hasn’t been given an easy one here. Even though Sakai is mired in a brutal stretch of knockout losses, he’s tough out on the feet and I’m sure he’d argue that he just keeps ending up on the wrong side of the heavyweight coin flip.
Let’s simplify this and call it a striker vs. grappler matchup because I think Sakai’s muay Thai skills give him the advantage on the feet, while Spivac’s aggressive wrestling gives him the edge on the mat. Whoever can get their tools going first, there’s your winner.
You know what’s throwing me off? Spivac is coming off of a win over Greg Hardy. Greg Hardy is not good. Now he has to re-calibrate and face a top 25 heavyweight? That’s got to scramble your system. This fight feels funny to me.
Sakai sprawls and brawls his way to a decision win.
Ariane Lipski vs. Priscila Cachoeira
Unfortunate weight miss aside, there’s no reason to lose faith in Ariane Lipski in this matchup. She’s a better technical striker than Priscila Cachoeira and she should be able to take Cachoeira down at will. Cachoeira presents a challenge to anyone that accepts a brawl with her, but even then it’s not as if she’s such a high-volume striker that she can just overwhelm Lipski.
The other nod I’ll give to Cachoeira is that she has legitimate power for a 125er, which Lipski has to be mindful of. Lipski doesn’t have a history of getting rocked on the feet, so look for her to avoid Cachoeira’s haymakers and pick her apart with counters or put her on her back if Cachoeira starts to have any success with her hands.
Cachoeira snuck out of the UFC APEX with a decision win in her most recent outing, but Lipski will take the judges out of the equation on Saturday when she scores a submission win.