Four sleeper bouts you don’t want to miss at UFC 249

This weekend at UFC 249, Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje will battle it out to determine the interim lightweight champion, with the winner poised to face the division’s king, Khabib Nurmagomedov. The fight itself is expected to be a war, which is anticipated considering the set of highlights each man possesses. If you can find a boring fight from either of their resumes, I’d be surprised.

Aside from the main event, there are numerous other high-level bouts that have fans drooling at the mouth in suspense, with Henry Cejudo vs. Dominick Cruz being a fine example of this. However, due to the overall talent in the event’s lineup, many fights are flying under the radar in the eyes of fans and media members alike, and undeservingly so.

Here is our list of fights you do not want to miss come fight night.

Vicente Luque vs. Niko Price 2

Arguably two of the most exciting fighters on the roster, Vicente Luque and Niko Price will be throwing down for the second time in the Octagon.

During their first encounter in 2017, Luque proved to get the better in the exchanges, forcing Price to fight his fight while keeping him on the backfoot. Luque was ultimately victorious via d’arce choke in the second round, after flattening his opponent with a solid left hand.

Since this fight, both men have improved profoundly, with the Brazilian racking six straight wins before meeting former title contender Stephen Thompson. The rematch is highly anticipated by hardcore fans and for good reason, as the two love nothing more than a good old-fashioned fistfight. Price is known for his fan-friendly, brawling style which has seen him acquire some rather unusual highlight-reel knockouts. In his last outing, he defeated James Vick via up-kick (while laying on his back), and just a year prior beat Randy Brown by hammerfists off his back – two rather strange and scarce knockouts.

In the rematch I expect Vicente Luque to once again own the overall advantage. He is a better technician, puncher, grappler and has faced a higher level of competition, thus why he walks into the bout a -300 favorite. When remaining patient, he is an excellent striker with the ability to render most welterweights in the world unconscious. However, trying to stay patient is one thing, doing it, another.

Niko Price has a niche of drawing the opposition into a firefight, where he more often than not walks away as the victor. Take his fight with Tim Means for example, where he was visibly losing and on the verge of potentially being dropped – he was able to land a rocket of a right hook to the chin en route to a stoppage win. He is living proof that the technical fighters don’t always win. Rough around the edges, but insanely fun to watch.

Although I believe Niko Price could catch his opponent coming in and claim a knockout victory, I cannot look past Vicente Luque. I believe Luque will keep his range, pick his shots nicely and enter the pocket when danger is minimised, consequently earning him another knockout victory.

Prediction: Vicente Luque via TKO, R3. 

Carla Esparza vs. Michelle Waterson

In the preliminary portion of the card, top strawweight’s Carla Esparza and Michelle Waterson will battle it out to determine who belongs in the division’s top 5, in a time where contenders are so desperately needed.

Starting off with Esparza, the promotions inaugural strawweight queen, 2019 was an extremely positive year, as she bounced back into the win column with two decent victories. Her strengths lie within her wrestling, where she excels at taking her opponent to the mat with either a single or double leg takedown. When on the mat, her preference is to rain down ground-and-pound, which has been a key asset in many of her career wins. She may not be the most polished kickboxer, but she is competent and her ability to score takedowns undoubtedly allows her to relax more than her opponents while standing up.

Michelle Waterson is one of, if not the divisions most popular athletes, due her to fun-loving, caring and overall genuine personality. Albeit when she steps in the cage, the switch flips. “The Karate Hottie” loves to use her kicking game, which she uses to create space and outpoint her opponent. The kicks often draw the attention from her counterpart, which is perfect, as she is great at putting her undervalued boxing to good use. Waterson favors the jab, which she enjoys flicking rapidly.

This fight is going to be won in the grappling facet – can Esparza drag the opposition to the mat and score repeated damage, or will Waterson use her karate to keep the former champion at distance and deny the takedown attempts?

Personally, I feel like the threat of Esparza’s takedowns will affect how Waterson performs; strikers tend to be wary when competing against wrestlers as being taken down is a very real and dangerous predicament. I fully expect Esparza to control the fight with her wrestling and ground-and-pound to score the unanimous decision win.

Prediction: Carla Esparza via UD.

Aleksei Olenik vs. Fabricio Werdum

It has been over two years since former heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum last stepped foot in the Octagon, after a positive drug test following his defeat to Alexander Volkov.

Now set on his May 9 return, the Brazilian is scheduled to face fellow veteran Alexsei Oleinik in a fight that flaunts fantastic jiu-jitsu abilities. As a two-time ADCC gold medalist, Werdum unquestionably has the advantage on the ground, and particularly excels fighting off of his back. His guillotines and armbars are immensely wicked, with the outcome of his Cain Velasquez and Walt Harris fights showing this. When on the feet Werdum remains a serious threat to most of the division, as he knows well how to handle himself.

On the contrary, Russia’s Aleksei Oleinik possesses an equally fierce submission game, with 46 of his 58 career wins coming by way of submission; I believe he has a wider array of tools in his arsenal when it comes to jiu-jitsu. The Ezekial choke and scarf-hold headlock are just a pair of unique chokeholds he has at his disposal.

Fabricio Werdum is the more well rounded mixed martial artist out of the two. His striking is superior and ground game dangerously polished, which is why I think he walks away from this weekend’s event as the victor.

Oleinik is vastly out of depth when on the feet, no matter who the opponent is, and for this reason, I think he will find himself in a fistfight with Werdum. The former champion has the ability to control him wherever the fight goes.

Prediction: Fabricio Werdum via TKO, R2. 

Greg Hardy vs. Yorgan de Castro

When heavyweights perform, the whole world tunes in to watch. This will be the case for Greg Hardy vs. Yorgan de Castro, which opens up the main card of UFC 249.

Greg Hardy is a former NFL defensive end, who made nationwide news in early 2014 after allegedly assaulting an ex-girlfriend. Despite escaping a jail sentence the 6ft 5, 265-pounder was unable to stay clear of the law, being arrested just two years later for possession of cocaine. After his football career came to an abrupt end, Hardy decided to try his hand at MMA, making his professional debut on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. He won the fight via knockout in the first round. Since then he has collected four wins, two of which under the UFC banner.

All five of his professional victories have come by knockout, which is expected considering his stature and willingness to march forward and trade. His last fight against the highly experienced Alexander Volkov deemed to be essential in his development, as mistakes were made and lessons were learned. Due to this, I think Hardy will enter his upcoming bout with newfound patience, opting to pick his shots wisely but remain reckless when needed. He packs one hell of a punch and will be looking to knock out his May 9 opponent early on.

However his opponent, Yorgan de Castro, is not one to trade punches with. The Cape Verdean native made his UFC debut in October, silencing the Aussie crowd with an unforeseen knockout in the very first round. The punch itself was a thing of beauty, and I personally could watch it over and over again in slow motion. One area where de Castro has an advantage is in the counter striking. If he is able to catch Hardy coming in, it’ll be a short night for the former footballer.

This fight could quite literally be over with one shot and that’s what makes it so intriguing. I believe that the first stanza favors both men equally, therefore the latter portions of the contest are where the bout could be won or lost. For me, it’s a genuine coin flip as to who’ll walk away with the W. Prior to writing this I had been leaning towards de Castro, albeit my stance has now changed, and I predict Hardy to claim his sixth professional victory.

Prediction: Greg Hardy via UD. 

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