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Uncovering the Hidden Gems at UFC 221

While it may seem that the UFC is pandering to the home Perth crowd with a steady does of Australian and New Zealand no-name fighters, there are some up-and-comers you should be watching.

Jack Slack

Jack Slack

Screen capture via YouTube/UFC

UFC 221 has come to be seen as something of a hit-and-miss card. The main event is one of the most compelling pure fights you could put on, but the rest of the card lacks the name power and high ranking matchups necessary to convince most reasonable fight fans to drop the equivalent of a full tank of gas on the pay-per-view price. In fact the UFC has decided to stock this card almost entirely with Australians and Kiwis in pandering to the Perth crowd.

With the announcement that the UFC expects you to pay that same $60 price for a UFC 222 card headlined by Cris Cyborg and Yana Kunitskaya, and the unveiling of Rockhold and Romero’s official Reebok merchandise, you might come to the conclusion that almost everyone involved with the UFC enterprise at this stage is incompetent and out of touch…

But hold on a second there. UFC 221’s card hides some surprising gems from the Southern hemisphere who are well worth your time and who might just steal the show.

A Little History of Fighting in Oceania

Until pretty recently if you found yourself in Australia or New Zealand you could find a kickboxing gym or a Kyokushin dojo, but grappling and mixed martial arts gyms were pretty thin on the ground. Elvis Sinosic and Chris Haseman were Australia’s first two talents to make it to the world stage. Haseman worked up a record of 18-11 on the way to Japan's RINGS absolute class tournament finals in 2002, where he was stopped by Fedor Emelianenko. Sinosic debuted at Australia’s first MMA event back in 1997, losing to Haseman in his second fight of the night, before going on to become the first Australian in the UFC and challenge Tito Ortiz for his light heavyweight title in June 2001.

Kickboxing was where most Australian and Kiwi success came in combat sports. Ray Sefo, Mark Hunt, Peter Graham, Sam Greco, Stan Longinidis—Australia and New Zealand were known for putting out big, tough lads who put on a great tear-up. Mark Hunt was perhaps the most successful Oceanic representative in MMA for a while despite his checkered record. Hunt held victories over Wanderlei Silva and Mirko Cro Cop back in their best days. After finally building some wrestling chops, Hunt went on a four fight tear from 2011 to 2013 and looked every bit a title contender. The fact that Hunt is being used to prop up this card in the co-main event despite his declining abilities should tell you how much he is still valued in the Australian market.

But over recent years talent has been springing up from Australia and New Zealand far more consistently. Not only are many competent kickboxers crossing over, Australia’s grappling community has grown in leaps and bounds. That much was hinted at when Craig Jones and Lachlan Giles made decent runs in the Eddie Bravo Invitational, and became abundantly clear when Jones rocked up to the ADCC No-Gi worlds and submitted Murilo Santana and Leandro Lo in the same day. Furthermore the new UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker is a New Zealand born Australian citizen, training and fighting out of Sydney—he is also conceivably one of the best all around technicians in MMA history. And Auckland’s Dan Hooker is always going to get name checked in this writer’s articles for the two beautiful gameplans he worked to perfection against Ross Pearson and Marc Diakiese last year.

Names to Remember

Israel Adesanya had a good run as a kickboxer, building a streak of six solid wins over 2016 and challenging Jason Wilnis for Glory’s middleweight title. He’s bested quality fighters like Filip Verlinden and even knocked out Bogdan Stoica. As a pure striker he is competitive with the elite. Just as Gokhan Saki did, Adesanya has seen that—at least for the time being—there is a brighter future for good knockout artists in MMA than there is for even the best fighters in kickboxing. His stance-switching works well for him because he can hunt the open side against any opponent and in MMA especially this seems to be a killer. One of Adesanya’s MMA opponents in China was forced to flop to guard each time Adesanya glanced a connection on his body.

Adesanya’s striking style is one which might well be better suited for MMA than pure kickboxing: a dozen fakes and feints a minute, flicking jabs from below the opponent’s guard, stance switches and beautiful "question mark" or "Brazilian" kicks. Adesanya is also a fairly handsy fighter: he likes to push and pull his opponents around, stiff arming them and nudging them out of stance between strikes. Strikers who like to check and palm their opponent’s head and shoulders anyway can adapt that well into a layer of their takedown defense as Anthony Johnson and Joanna Jedrzejczyk did.

Adesanya’s use of the cross face against Robert Thomas in Glory was tremendous as he checked Thomas at the collar bone, bounced off to the blind angle past the lead shoulder and shellacked in a right hand.

He even did it from a southpaw stance and transitioning to an orthodox stance mid-flow.

Adesanya’s most notable MMA win so far is over Melvin Guillard who, having wasted his enormous potential, continues to take terrible fights and get concussed for pennies. Guillard is not really a middleweight, is dwarfed by everyone he fights there, and hasn’t strung two wins together since 2011. Adesanya did the job as expected, but Rob Wilkinson, Adesanya’s opponent in his UFC debut seems a step up. Wilkinson’s own UFC arrival was dampened by a TKO loss, in a rare sighting of the constantly injured Siyar Bahadurzada. In that fight Wilkinson cut the cage well, and worked for most of the first round with his head pressed against Siyar, attempting to drop in and scoop out his hips. Wilkinson’s cage craft looked good until he tired himself out grinding for the takedown on the fence, and Bahadurzada was able to hammer him with body kicks and counter Wilkinson’s clumsy jabs until he picked up the TKO. As far as first matches go, it seems perfect for Adesanya—if he can withstand the early takedown attempts and fence grinding, he’s likely to pick up another knockout.

Elsewhere on the card Tai Tuivasa makes his second appearance in the UFC. Tuivasa is a long time training partner of Hunt and that becomes apparent within moments of watching him fight. When his man steps in to punch he looks for the cross counter over the top with his right hand, or the counter left hook. When they duck in to shoot or clinch he searches for them with the counter uppercut and the downward elbow strike.

When clinched, he gets to the fence, gets a hand under the chin, and gets his head below it, before slithering his arms out and pushing off. It’s just all so Hunt.

Just like Hunt, his low kicks are thunderous, and it takes him a while to realize just how poor the vast, vast majority of fighters in MMA are at defending them. When he actually started low kicking in his UFC debut, Taivasa sent his man flying and followed up with a jumping knee which won him the fight.

Unlike Mark Hunt, however, he is still young and doesn’t have a hundred thousand miles on the odometer. A 23-year-old, 260-pound heavyweight with a little bit of craft and the wily old Mark Hunt in his ear? Yes, you should be paying attention to this lad.

Alexander Volkanovski had a great 2017. He arrived in the UFC in June and battered the veteran Mizuto Hirota to a convincing decision on the Auckland, New Zealand card. In November he followed it up with another solid victory over Shane Young. As much it is fashionable to call Zabit Magomedsharipov the featherweight Jon Jones based on his build and incredible gift for this business, Volkanovski shares some convincing looks with the troubled light heavyweight great as well. Most notably Volkanovski uses the fence to beat people up.

He’ll cut the cage, enter with a nice right hand, stick to his man and then start working to free his hands and spin for the elbow. Or he’ll catch his man circling out with a good hook, or start throwing his man around until he can hit them while they’re off balance. It’s a treat to watch and if the opponent doesn’t keep up with him the takedowns seem effortless.

Volkanovski also has some crisp looks at range. He's got a good jab and body jab—great for a shorter fighter in that division—and a lovely step up left round kick. Volkanovski uses that lead leg kick to the inside of the lead leg and to the head, and can follow up off it well—making it a distance closer and another string to his bow when pressuring the opponent to the fence. He also owns a decent cross counter, firing his right hand across the top of the opponent’s. While his last two fights have been decisions, the pace that Volkanovski drives on his opponents suggests that if he can get into five round territory (tougher to achieve for the smaller fighters) you will see his opponents wilting badly under the onslaught. At any rate, Volkanovski fights in a way that nicely entertains the people who want to watch the lower weightclasses for pace and technical excellence, but never stops looking to hurt and finish his opponents. A featherweight fighter for the middleweight fan.

The card might lack star power, but there’s some good stuff to be found on UFC 220 for the fight fan with an eye for up-and-comers.

Jack wrote the hit biography Notorious: The Life and Fights of Conor McGregor and scouts prospects at The Fight Primer .