Fight Island is officially upon us, and what better way to kick things off with a stacked card featuring two insanely competitive title fights.
After the removal of Gilbert Burns in his UFC 251 main event bout vs. Kamaru Usman due to a positive test for COVID-19, Jorge Masvidal has stepped in to save the day. In the co-main event, a rematch between Alexander Volkanovski and former champion Max Holloway will see both warriors go to war once again for the promotion’s featherweight crown.
Aside from the aforementioned title fights, UFC 251 has shaped itself up to be – on paper – a rewarding night for MMA fans; prepare to witness some of the sports most technically sound athletes compete.
From the very first prelim, all the way up to the main card lay three criminally underrated fights, which I have labeled sleeper bouts, that have somehow flown under the radar of fans. Well, fear not, because I am here to walk you through each one of these bouts, and for my betters out there, will be laying predictions, too.
Read on for your UFC 251 sleeper bouts.
Raulian Paiva (19-3) vs. Zhalgas Zhumagulov (13-3)
Any chance to talk about flyweight is a good one, and what better way to kick off today’s article than with a highly interesting fight taking place in that very division.
Brazil’s Raulian Paiva built himself up on the regional scene for many years before receiving his shot on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2018, successfully earning a split decision win and UFC contract in the process.
Despite failing to pick up any early triumph within the promotion, Paiva punched his way to victory in February with a second-round demolition of the formerly ranked Mark De La Rosa. This marked his first success in the UFC; Paiva had officially arrived.
At just 24 years of age, the American Top Team standout has plenty of time to prosper and evolve as an athlete and will be in search of his second promotional win at UFC 251. More often than not, Paiva tends to keep the fight on its feet, opting to stand and trade strikes with his opponents. As a striker, he is technically sound – just like most flyweights – and is very precise, almost always landing his jab or slick right hand. Paiva mixes up his offense well and loves throwing in the odd low kick or two, which helps cripple the opposition over the duration of three rounds. He performs better against strikers and excels when efficiently landing combinations.
Raulian’s striking defense is good, nevertheless needs a software update; in his 2019 bout with Kai Kara-France, the Brazilian was exposed a number of times on the feet mainly due to his left hand, which can often find itself sinking, leaving a nice, big target for his opponents. I believe one of the reasons Paiva ate so many strikes in this fight is down to the fact that Kara-France is a good grappler, meaning he had to remain wary of the Kiwi’s ground game. This naturally prompted him to carry his hands lower as a way to quickly defend incoming takedowns, something which most strikers are guilty of at least once in their career (cue Conor McGregor).
His hands and grappling defense will be put to the test this weekend at UFC 251 when he faces UFC newcomer and grapple-heavy Khazakstani Zhalgas Zhumagulov.
In 16 pro fights, Zhumagulov has already collected a wealth of experience, most notably claiming the Fight Night Global flyweight title years ago. He last competed in October where he earned a controversial split decision over UFC veteran Ali Bagautinov, showcasing his improved striking skillset and wrestling defense (in spite of being taken down multiple times).
Many fans are unaware of the 31-year-old’s arrival in the organization, and I believe he will be a key component in their flyweight division for years to come, comfortably sitting within the No. 5 – 13 positions.
He is the superior offensive grappler and I fully expect him to solidify this statement come Saturday night. To do so, Zhumagulov will have to close the distance on his lengthy opponent by creating angles and disrupting the rhythm; Paiva isn’t a fan of this, so prepare to see it. When in closed range he will exercise his clinch game against the cage, allowing his fists to have their fair share of the fun. Holding the Brazilian firm on the canvas is a difficult task, however, Zhumagulov undoubtedly has the potential to complete this, and by doing so will permit the momentum to shift.
Both men can lose this fight just as easily as the other; Paiva could get clipped by another grappler while standing up and succumb to the oppositions menacing ground game, or Zhumagulov may find himself unable to score the takedown, becoming victim to the vicious straight right that awaits him.
In my eyes, this bout really could go either way, meaning I wouldn’t be shocked if either competitor scored the win. I think Paiva will have the overall advantage on the feet, albeit his grappling defense will be unable to contest with the skills of the Khazakstan native.
Prediction: Zhalgas Zhumagulov via unanimous decision.
Leonardo Santos (17-4-1) vs. Roman Bogatov (10-0)
Leonardo Santos is one of the biggest “what if’s” in MMA. In the last five years alone, the now 40-year-old has only competed three times, making him one of the sports more inactive participants.
Having not tasted defeat in over a decade, Santos enters this upcoming bout on an incredible 12 fight run, dispatching the likes of Kevin Lee, Anthony Rocco Martin, and Stevie Ray (not me, fortunately). Although he has entered the fourth decade of his existence, Santos continues to look like a force to be reckoned with inside of the lightweight division. Look no further than his most recent performance for proof.
In June of last year, Santos battled the tough, gritty Scotsman in Ray. Competing in Stockholm, their fight was one in which many were counting him out; it was his first appearance in almost three years, after all. Rather than pay attention to the naysayers, Santos got on with business and took less than three minutes to knock his opponent out cold, stealing Performance of the Night honors for his efforts.
It doesn’t take a hardcore fan to realize that Santos is one you do not want to challenge on the mat, as his 4th-degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu speaks volumes. While his highly accomplished ground game should be acknowledged (especially considering he is a seven-time world Jiu-Jitsu champion), I am more interested in his strengths and abilities as a striker.
“Lamparao” is a very basic striker, but don’t take that as a bad thing. His fundamentals are solid, and he often finds his timing and range in little to no time, making him a threat to near enough everybody while standing. If you have a hole in your game, Santos will find, exploit, and display it for the world to see. Even though his defense on the feet isn’t excellent, he is yet to be knocked out in the big leagues.
At UFC 251 he fights another promotional newcomer in Roman Bogatov, a former M-1 champion with a lot of steam and hype behind him.
Bogatov has been able to remain undefeated as both an amateur and professional, and will likely be looking to test his scheduled opponent’s Jiu-Jitsu. He is a relentless grappler and loves nothing more than to finish a fight, which he has done so on six occasions, making him one that the fans can easily back. He is one of many grapplers who use striking as a way to close the distance and mask takedowns attempts, often falling into the clinch or garnering a reaction from the crowd with a big double-leg shot.
While Bogatov has the top game and quantity of ground and pound to negate Santos’ Jiu-Jitsu skills, they must be respected. In a matter of seconds, he could find himself slowly fading away in a deep triangle choke, or neck being cranked hard from a painful guillotine. When in the top position from half guard, Roman can frequently be seen leaving one his arms exposed/in a dangerous position; this allows his opposition to work for the kimura, a maneuver focused on the forearm and shoulder. An accredited grappler such as Santos will have no issues seizing this opportunity and leaving Fight Island with another imposing finish.
I predict Santos vs. Bogatov to be an immensely close fight, with the smallest of margins being the deciding factor over who wins, and who loses. The majority of the bout will take place on the ground, however not after Santos asserts his dominance on the feet first. After a sketchy first-round Bogatov will apply his grappling in an attempt to win the fight and will be met with some of the divisions premier Jiu-Jitsu. How that fares out will be an interesting one, but it’s for us fans to discover come Saturday night.
Prediction: Roman Bogatov via split decision.
Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos (22-6) vs. Muslim Salikhov (16-2)
In what has the potential to be the most violent fight of the evening, fan-favorite Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos squares off against Wushu Sanda world champion Muslim Salikhov, who hails from Russia. This welterweight contest will occur on the preliminary portion of the card.
Zaleski dos Santos is an experienced Capoeira practitioner, which is a long-standing Brazilian martial art specializing in the striking element of combat. The Capoeira style of kicking reflects right into Zaleski dos Santos’ game, as he regularly fires his two bottom limbs to the leg, body, and head of the opposition in an attempt to distribute mass amounts of harm. This approach of using his kicks often and well while tieing them into his combinations has worked for him, as he has picked 14 career knockouts. “EZDS” performs best when fighting at range and walking his foe down, which allows him to unload those aforementioned kicks to the body and slowly sap their gas tank. This approach will be necessary for his upcoming bout with Salikhov.
Despite being described as a finisher, the 33-year-old striking machine has no qualms at going the distance and did so in his most recent outing. Zaleski dos Santos decently paces himself throughout the standardized 15 minutes, but has encountered the odd affair with his gas tank; Li JingLiang was able to catch him late in the third round, stealing victory with just nine seconds remaining. All in all, “EZDS” is a fighter that you can depend on. While needlessly throwing himself into the flames on more than one occasion, he remains a solid striker with a good set of skills in the 170-pound division. The top 10 may be too far of a push, but I see no issues with him contesting for a ranked position (11-15) in the near future.
His adversary on June 11 will be none other than Salikhov, a well-established striker with an abundance of combat sports experience. As previously mentioned Salikhov is a multiple-time world champion in Wushu Sanda, a Chinese martial art often referred to as Chinese Kickboxing. He is one of two non-Chinese athletes to win the Wushu Sanda King’s Cup.
When researching Salikhov and watching a handful of his previous fights, I couldn’t help but get drawn to his style; four of his 12 knockouts have come by way of a spinning technique, such as the hook kick, which he used to demolish UFC vet Melvin Guillard prior to joining the promotion.
“The King of Kung Fu” throws these spinning attacks with full torque in an attempt to knock his adversary out – unlike most “flashy” fighters – sometimes finding success. To achieve this he forces his counterpart on the backfoot and cuts off most of their exit paths, leaving them vulnerable against the cage; Salikhov deliberately leaves one escape route open as a trap, tempting them to rush in that direction. This is where he unleashes a spinning attack, which more often than not finds its home.
I do not rate his mobility as high as I do dos Santos’, nonetheless, Salikhov can fight better on the backfoot if needs be. Both have questionable defense striking wise, which, let’s be honest, makes for a very intriguing battle.
The Brazilian has more depth to his game than Salikhov. While I’m not overly confident in my pick due to his reactions with pressure and his opponent’s power, I think he has what it takes to score the win. If victorious at UFC 251, he may only be one fight away from entering the rankings at welterweight.
Prediction: Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos via unanimous decision.
Honorable mention: Volkan Oezdemir (17-4) vs Jiri Prochazka (26-3-1), which headlines the UFC 251 preliminary card.