UFC 292: Main Card Picks and Analysis

Aljamain Sterling, UFC 292
Aljamain Sterling, UFC 292 Press Conference. Credit: Jake Noecker/Cageside Press

Cageside Press’ Val Dewar teamed up with CombatSportsUK writer Ollie Gadd to break down and predict the main card fights ahead of UFC 292, a pay-per-view event taking place in Boston on Saturday, August 19th.

The show features two title fights and three other match-ups relevant to their divisions, with Aljamain Sterling looking to defend his bantamweight title (perhaps for the last time, with a move to featherweight possible) against Sean O’Malley.

Aljamain Sterling vs Sean O’Malley

Val: Aljamain Sterling is on the verge of bantamweight ‘GOAT’ status as he heads into the third defense of his belt, this time against budding superstar and striking specialist ‘Suga’ Sean O’Malley. O’Malley and Sterling both hold signature wins over former champion Petr Yan, both by split decision. However, the path to their victories was much different.

Despite the Russian’s excellent takedown defense, Aljo was able to take down and use his signature move, the backpack, in rounds two and three of the second fight against Yan. He lost the final two rounds clearly, leaving the low-output, stand-up first round as the difference maker. Two judges gave it to Sterling, and he won the fight, mostly on the strength of his grappling despite going 2 for 22 on takedowns. Being an elite backpacker means one takedown is all he needed to secure entire rounds, even against a skilful wrestler like Petr.

Of course, their first fight was going much worse for Aljamain before Yan fouled him and got disqualified. Sterling went 1 for 17 on takedown in that fight, was not able to secure his favorite position, and was almost entirely gassed out at the time of the fight ending foul. It is a testament to Sterling and his team, led by coach Ray Longo, that he was able to adapt and beat a fighter whom many thought to be an impossible matchup for him in that second fight.

Aljamain defeated another tough stylistic matchup in his most recent title defense, even at times outwrestling Olympic champion Henry Cejudo. On paper, O’Malley does not bring the wrestling capabilities that Cejudo or Yan do. When ‘Sugar Sean’ fought Petr Yan he was taken down six times on thirteen attempts; that does not bode well for a bout against Aljo. Of course, O’Malley got up from underneath Petr for the most part. However he had to turn and give up his back to do so. Yan is a great wrestler but does not possess the slick jiu-jitsu, namely the back takes, of someone like Sterling.

It seems to me that in this matchup O’Malley will be damned if he does and damned if he does not; turning his back to stand up will allow Aljamain Sterling into his favorite fight ending position while not doing so will make it hard to stand up from underneath a wrestler with such a heavy top game. O’Malley’s knockout power is a threat, but it will be impossible to avoid grappling exchanges forever and Sean has shown weaknesses to exactly what Sterling is good at. Improvements can always be made, but with the information available currently, Aljo is the pick.

Val’s Pick: Aljamain Sterling by Submission, Round 2

Ollie: On the surface, and indeed upon looking any deeper, Bantamweight Champion Aljamain Sterling appears to be the worst possible matchup in the division for ‘Suga’ Sean O’Malley.

Sean’s grappling has been relatively untested, only genuinely exploited by Petr Yan to middling success. Whilst Yan was able to pressure and take Sean down along the fence, which Aljamain will look to replicate, he was largely unable to make much happen from there. This is because Sean consistently got up by giving up his back and fighting the body-lock, a get-up method that fellow lanky boy Cory Sandhagen prefers too, to Aljo’s delight. Against a striker with some wrestling capability, like Yan, this let him back into the fight and against some of the other less deadly grapplers in the division, I would lean towards this being functional enough to keep him in the fight.

However, against one of the best back takers in the sport in Sterling, who is rivalled in that department only by newly minted flyweight king Alexandre Pantoja, this approach seems like a guaranteed losing strategy. Even without O’Malley willingly sacrificing his back it is hard not to predict Sterling will find his way there by hook or by crook. Aljo is also a dedicated kick-catcher which bodes poorly for dedicated kicker O’Malley. With O’Malley’s relatively untested grappling, which has seemed middling when tested in MMA, it seems silly to lean any way than an Aljamain Sterling submission or my preferred pick, a ground-and-pound stoppage.

Taking off the analyst hat and placing on more of a ‘just vibes’ hat, O’Malley has that aura and has a few tools that could trouble Sterling. In particular, O’Malley is good at drawing out and subsequently punishing level changes with feints, knees, and kicks. He upset Yan’s dipping defence with a well-timed knee in the third round of their bout and punished Thomas Almeida’s level changes likewise. Sterling lacks much of a guard, instead relying on tall-man defence accompanied by exaggerated lunging head movement, may bite him against a fighter with a reach advantage who utilises his long weapons and feints wonderfully. O’Malley is also an opportunistic submission threat and Sterling’s tendency to give up the front headlock position could provide danger against the long arms of O’Malley. It’s unlikely he gets it, and even likely that he ends up in greater danger as a result of trying, but I believe that if O’Malley sees the opportunity to attack the submission, he’ll take it.

Therefore, and acknowledging that it makes little sense analytically, I’m going to pick The Suga Show by knockout. A combination of good luck and sharp striking have pushed him this far and, despite my better judgement, I can see it taking him all the way to gold against a champion deadest on retiring from the division after this bout.

Ollie’s Pick: Sean O’Malley by Round 2 Knockout

Weili Zhang vs Amanda Lemos

Val: Ever since losing her belt to Rose Namajunas and the ensuing rematch, it’s seemed that Zhang Weili has taken the next step in her evolution as a martial artist. The Sanda specialist levelled up her wrestling, training with Henry Cejudo to prepare for the Namajunas rematch, and since then has been able to implement it effectively against other opponents as well. Weili took down the notoriously hard to wrestle Joanna Jedrzejczyk and dominated the division’s most prolific wrestler, Carla Esparza, on the mat as well.

This newfound wrestling prowess could prove useful against Amanda Lemos, an explosive striking specialist who has shown weaknesses in fights where she is not able to find early finishes. A smart gameplan from Weili would be to wear down the Brazilian early on while she’s at her most dangerous and to strike with her later on when the threat is lesser.

Still, even without that gameplan Weili is probably the better fighter everywhere. Lemos’ striking is based on pure athleticism while Weili builds her offense with layers. Amanda could always catch her, but Weili should dominate this fight.

Val’s Pick: Weili Zhang by TKO, Round 3

Ollie: Weili Zhang has cemented herself quite convincingly as the best Strawweight in the world, especially with the recent divisional departure of Rose Namajunas. Amanda Lemos does, however, pose some stylistic questions that we’ll see answered this weekend.

If both ladies keep their usual pace, this should be somewhat of a car crash. Zhang has shown to be a front-runner as of late, coming at both Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Carla Esparza with quite a pace after the opening minutes. She’ll most likely be looking to blow Lemos out of the water early, a feat achieved just last year by fellow physical specimen Jessica Andrade. It’s quite easy to see a similar fate befall Lemos against Zhang, with the champion’s recently developed ground and pound and solid striking acumen. Lemos’ bottom game did not particularly impress against Michelle Waterson, looking slow and flat on her back in her attempts to stand up. Against an aggressive grappler like Zhang, it seems likely she’ll find herself somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer pace put upon her in transitions and submission attempts.

Lemos is a traditionally slow starter, instead choosing to conserve her energy and swing heavy counters to the point of swinging wildly out of position on a miss. Despite her slow pace, she does do a few things that Zhang traditionally isn’t fond of. For one, she’s a nasty low kicker when she fancies and, although Zhang’s in-and-out footwork has sharpened up as of late, she’s still often there for low kicks when she plants herself. Indeed, Zhang’s answer to low kicks is more often than not a counter-right hand rather than a discouraging check. Zhang’s other major shortcoming is that she’s quite hittable in the pocket, something to expect Lemos to take full advantage of. By far the easiest path to victory for Amanda should be countering Weili’s more drawn-out exchanges and finding the knockout she lands so often.

That being said, this is not a reliable path to victory. Zhang has momentum and is actively improving between performances, looking better every time we see her. It’s hard to have faith in a 36-year-old strawweight who looks to fight a slow kickboxing match punctuated by explosivity. Lemos is absolutely in this fight if she can get going, but I’d expect the champion to finish this one sooner rather than later.

Ollie’s Pick: Weili Zhang by Round 2 Submission

Neil Magny vs Ian Garry

Val: Despite Neil Magny being the traditional test for up-and-coming welterweight prospects, and despite many wanting to see the undefeated Irish prospect Ian Garry tested against a competent wrestler, Garry should not have any problems with the all-time UFC welterweight wins leader in this bout. Once upon a time Magny was truly a force to be reckoned with for almost any welterweight in the world but these days is only able to scrape by in wins over unranked competition like Max Griffin and Phil Rowe. That Rowe bout is particularly startling when evaluating the thirty-six year-old’s current form; Rowe carried only a 52% career takedown defense rate into that fight yet was able to defend all three takedowns he faced and even take ‘The Haitian Sensation’ down once.

It is true that Ian Garry has not had to face a concentrated wrestling attack in the UFC and it is also true that Magny does not necessarily need to ground his opponents to enforce his game; Neil’s clinch hypnosis has worked on many a young welterweight including Garry’s original opponent, Geoff Neal, in a win that has aged remarkably well given what Geoff was able to do against Vicente Luque and Shavkat Rahkmonov. Yes, Garry has been taken down four times in the UFC by competition well below what Magny brings to the table, but those opponents are not known as wrestlers – it is much different for an athlete to face a wrestling-heavy attack that they are prepared for than it is to face surprise takedowns from strikers like Kenan Song and Gabe Green – and he got up from beneath each of those opponents in relatively short order. Even with only a week’s notice for this opponent, it is a massive help to know what your opponent will be trying to do. Ian can keep his hands relatively low to prepare for takedowns, knowing that he does not really have to worry about knockout power.

Further, in his championship run with Cage Warriors before joining the UFC Ian Garry was as much of a wrestler/grappler as he was a striker. Many fans who only have seen him on the biggest stage may not know this, but the Irishman has demonstrated a solid offensive and defensive wrestling and grappling skillset numerous times, such as in the Mateusz Figlak fight, another of CW’s more prominent names of the modern era.

A powerful, technically sound hitter like Geoff Neal poses a much tougher test for Ian Garry at this stage in his growth as a fighter who has been clocked clean by lesser punchers in the past; it is a shame that fight could not happen and hopefully the two still compete at some point.

Val’s Pick: Ian Garry by TKO, Round 1

 Ollie: Ian Garry’s callout of Neil Magny showed maturity. Magny is a slog to fight, somebody with a unique ability to force his preferred, slow, grinding fight on his opponents. A perennially ranked fighter, Magny is not the type of entry to the upper echelon that most rising contenders wish for, instead being an unfortunate necessity to overcome, or lose a tedious clinch battle against.

A large part of my faith in Ian Garry in this bout stems from my faith in his mentality. Most recently we saw Garry call his shot against Daniel Rodriguez, a right high kick, which he was able to set up by exploiting Rodriguez’s tendency to drop his hands to block body kicks. Likewise, against Song Kenan, a counter left hook which dropped Garry in the first round was being avoided in round two. By round three Garry was deliberately drawing out the hook in order to land over the top of it. Garry’s desire to organically grow, alongside his willingness to travel and train with the best camps across the world, makes me believe he would not have called out an opponent as predictable yet hypnotic as Magny if he did not have absolute faith in earning victory.

Garry, of course, wants to avoid the clinch at all costs. Magny’s length provides a trap for almost all of his opponents, who need to get in on him to land. Only then do they find themselves pulled into a clinch, often for the rest of the round. Garry benefits somewhat from being a relatively tall, long fighter for the weight class himself; he has the attributes to keep Magny at bay with long punches and kicks if he fights smart. He may find himself entering the pocket, but I trust Garry’s ability to gameplan enough to hope he will not find himself dragged into clinch exchanges with Magny. Whilst I don’t think he will be able to pull out a finish in this one, I believe Garry to be the type of prospect with the right tools to pass The Magny Test.

Ollie’s Pick: Ian Garry by Decision

Mario Bautista vs Da’Mon Blackshear

Val: Mario Bautista was scheduled for the biggest fight of his professional career against former champion Cody Garbrandt at UFC 292. Unfortunately Cody withdrew from the bout, leaving the streaking Bautista to face fellow submission specialist Da’Mon Blackshear only a week after the former CFFC bantamweight champion notched only the third twister submission in UFC history. Blackshear has a chance to etch his name into the record books again by breaking Khamzat Chimaev’s record for shortest time to tally two victories; Khamzat did it in ten days while Blackshear could do it in only seven.

It will be an uphill battle however; Mario Bautista is one of the most in-form bantamweights outside of the top-15 and seemingly has the ability to counter Blackshear’s grappling-heavy game. Blackshear’s jits is not wrestling-based and he has struggled against skilled wrestlers in the past like Danny Sabatello and Farid Basharat. He even went to a split draw with Youssef Zalal, a kickboxing specialist, when Zalal’s takedown defense held up on four of Da’Mon’s five attempts.

Bautista should be able to choose where engagements take place; if Mario wants to engage in the grappling then he will be able to end up on top with his superior wrestling, but it could be smarter to focus on defending takedowns and using his superior striking to his advantage. This is the toughest test for Blackshear since his loss to Basharat and he will be at a physical disadvantage due to the short notice bout. Blackshear has never beaten a fighter on the level of Mario Bautista while Mario has fought in the UFC for years and finished fighters, like Brian Kelleher and Miles Johns, who are comparable to Da’Mon. Blackshear has never been finished in his career, but the first time may come now, against the most skilled finisher he has seen to date.

Val’s Pick: Mario Bautista by TKO, Round 2

Ollie: The most important dynamic in this bout, to me, is that Blackshear fought just last week. Whilst he was able to submit Jose Johnson within the opening round and thus took little damage, he also has to repeat what he said was a “difficult cut” in under a week’s time. With the easiest of weight cuts, this is sure to deplete a fighter, so Blackshear seems unlikely to come in looking his best.

Even discounting this factor I would lean towards Bautista, who looks ten times the fighter now that he did when he last lost. In particular his hands look greatly improved with body punches now being an effective tool for him alongside a comfortable southpaw/shifting game. Despite this, Blackshear’s questionable takedown defence raises concerns against a transitionally brilliant grappler and great shooter in Bautista. Therefore, I see Mario continuing his submissions streak of dominance against the short-notice, likely compromised version of Blackshear.

Ollie’s Pick: Mario Bautista by Round 1 Submission 

Chito Vera vs Pedro Munhoz

Val: On paper many may count Pedro Munhoz out against Marlon ‘Chito’ Vera in his somewhat short notice opportunity at UFC 292. Munhoz is, after all, turning thirty-seven in just three weeks and has a record of 2-4 (1 NC) in his last seven fights going back to 2019. That is the worst form of his professional career by far. Chito Vera, on the other hand, was in the best form of his career prior to being dominated by Cory Sandhagen at UFC San Antonio earlier this year. Chito’s four-fight win streak of pure violence saw him rack up $200,000 in performance bonuses alone (before taxes) and put him in a title eliminator with the Sandman.

Sandhagen of course has a completely different game to ‘The Young Punisher.’ He is all finesse where Pedro is all brute force, has developed a dominant and proactive wrestling game where Munhoz only brings out his grappling prowess when an opponent initiates. Yet the Brazilian knockout artist has developed an ability to patiently outfight as shown against Sean O’Malley and Chris Gutierrez. Whether or not that always maximizes his skillset is another matter, but it cannot be denied that Chito Vera has trouble tracking down opponents who use lateral movement and stay on the outside of the cage against him.

Chito has the physical tools to cut the cage better, but for one reason or another he has not developed that ability thus far. His round kicks are thunderous and well-timed, as seen in his knockout of Dominick Cruz, but he needs to be more proactive about using them when forced to fight on the front foot. Pedro’s leg kicks could also disrupt his rhythm, something Chito takes time to build into throughout a fight.

Despite all of this, Chito Vera is in his athletic prime while Munhoz seems to be fading. It should be a close, hard fight between two men who are impossible to finish, or at least they have never been thus far in their careers. However, Chito’s size, youth, and diverse kicking offense give him slight advantages physically despite a potential tactical and stylistic disadvantage if Munhoz fights the way he has recently. Vera will likely allow it to be closer than it should be, but the Ecuadorian should win and stay in the title picture at 135-lbs.

Val’s Pick: Chito Vera by Split Decision

Ollie: After an utterly stagnant loss to Cory Sandhagen, Marlon ‘Chito’ Vera will be looking to prove he’s still in the title picture, especially in the case of  O’Malley winning the belt in Saturday’s main event. On paper Pedro Munhoz serves as a somewhat favorable opponent for Vera to prove this against.

As a long and heavy-hitting bantamweight, Chito will be looking to work his longest weapons against Munhoz. His jab and his long front kicks should be flung out at every opportunity to dissuade Munhoz from closing the distance and getting inside on him. When he wakes up, Vera is one of the most dangerous strikers at that weight and a heavy hitter also. His uppercuts and knees should likewise be there against the smaller opponent if he manages to crash in past Vera’s first layer of offence.

Munhoz may be encouraged to try to replicate Sandhagen’s plan of taking Vera down and smushing him against the fence, taking advantage of Vera’s complacency to sit in bottom positions whilst making it difficult for him to mount any significant offence off of his back. However, Munhoz is not half the mirrorball of jabs and feints that Sandhagen is and I find it hard to see him dulling Vera’s reactions to his offence enough to effectively pressure him early and subsequently take him down.

Perhaps the biggest X-factor in this bout is Vera’s willingness to get going early. Time and time again, Vera has made fights far closer than they ought to be with an unwillingness to truly start fighting until the opening five minutes have subsided. Against Sandhagen, he seemed utterly unable to get going for the entire twenty-five minutes, outside of desperation blitzes in the closing seconds of rounds. One would like to believe that this showing in the biggest bout of his career has lit a new acknowledgement within Vera that, especially in bouts that only last three rounds, he needs to be working early in order to ensure his own victory and not throw away precious minutes. With that said, it is hard to see Munhoz being able to overwhelm and land a great deal of offence on his man despite the potential for early success. Whilst I don’t expect Vera to finish the ever-durable Munhoz, I do expect him to have big moments that clearly define rounds as his own.

Ollie’s Pick: Marlon Vera by Decision