No disrespect to Justin Tafa and Parker Porter, but there’s no wasted space on the main card of UFC 285. Sure, there’s a fighter making his UFC debut on the card, but I’m having a hard time thinking of a more entertaining prospect to debut them by Bo Nickal. Not even Alex Pereira – the current middleweight champion – seemed to have as much excitement around him as Nickal. That says something.
The other two non-title fights on the card have significant meaning in their divisions as well. Many believe that Shavkat Rakhmonov is a champion in waiting. He has yet to face an opponent as dangerous as Geoff Neal. Like Rakhmonov, many believe Jalin Turner will have gold strapped to his waist soon. He has yet to face someone with the experience and discipline of Mateusz Gamrot. Given how excited fans are for Nickal, it doesn’t matter who he faces. The fans just want to see him finally touch down in the UFC.
To preview the first qualifiers, click here. To preview the qualifiers, click here.
Geoff Neal vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov, Welterweight
It’s amazing how quickly Neil became persona non grata. It wasn’t long before he was believed to be one of the UFC’s rising stars. Remember him headlining a Fight Night with Stephen Thompson… and it was a pick ’em contest? Neal’s performance against Thompson was weak, but his performance against Neal Magni was Really languid. Add in that Neal had an interesting DUI situation right before his contest with Santiago Ponzinibbio and everyone chose to write him off. Even though Neal has looked great since that incident, the stench hasn’t completely washed off him.
It’s too bad, at least for Neal’s opponents. Neil seems to be at his best when everyone doubts him. Well, at least he’s been fighting a bad streak since everyone was jumping on his bandwagon. It doesn’t change, as he’s never been a bigger underdog than he is against Rahmonov. For many, Rakhmonov is the next big thing in welterweight
It’s not hard to see why so many believe this. Rahmonov has secured a stoppage over all of his UFC opponents thus far. The Kazakh fighter fights with the type of unwavering confidence that tends to shake the confidence of his opponents. So far, no one has been able to bring him down, and Rachmanov has proven that he has the power and dynamism not to be underestimated. Given the accuracy and precision with which he throws, no one was willing to engage in a firefight with Rakhmonov.
Admittedly, none of Rachmanov’s opponents were Neal. It’s hard to believe that any of Rakhmonov’s opponents so far have been able to match the power that Neal can produce. Only in the last few races has Neil proven that he can retain his power slowly while pushing a beat. Perhaps most importantly, Neal proved he’s not just a one-dimensional boxer on the feet. Not to say it wouldn’t hurt if he could diversify his offense, but he surprised many when he proved to be the most effective clinch fighter against Vicente Luque. Given Rakhmonov’s willingness to fight in this area, it may be worth noting.
Then again, some will argue that it doesn’t matter where Rachmanov fights. he is comfortable everywhere. While I agree that Rachmanov was effective throughout, it’s hard to believe he’ll want to mess with Neal’s power more than he has to. Where Rachmanov seems to have the biggest advantage would be on the mat. It’s not just that he’s proven to be a powerful force on the mat with his fights. He has proven to be quite technical on the mat as well. Just ask Magny how easy it is to get out from under the rising star. Plus, he might have one of the tightest guillotines on the roster.
However, the question is how effective Rachmanov will be to take the fight to the mat. While Rachmanov had no problem knocking Magni to the ground, he struggles with some of his other opponents. Neal hasn’t exactly proven himself to be a skilled grappler, but he has proven to be extremely difficult to take down. Even with his back on the mat, Neal tends to bounce back to his feet quickly. It will be difficult for Rachmanov to submit Neal if he can’t take him down. Not impossible – just ask Alex Oliveira – but difficult.
While I understand the sentiment that Rachmanov is the favorite, he shouldn’t be as much of a favorite as he is. Neal has legitimate fight-ending power and has proven to be the busiest fighter. If Rakhmonov has as much trouble as I expect to put Neal on his back, it makes Neal more likely to secure a finish if it goes to the decision. After all, it’s not like Rachmanoff ever won a decision. That said, Rachmanoff tends to read his opponents, spotting their weaknesses and exposing them. Neil is resilient, he hasn’t faced someone with the level of discipline and strength that Rachmanov has. All the value of the bet is on Neal, but Rakhmonov is the most likely to walk away with his hand raised. Rakhmonov via TKO of RD3
Mateusz Gamrot vs. Jalin Turner, Lightweight boxer
Make no mistake, the size dichotomy between Gamrot and Turner will cut the optics quite a bit. Turner is one of the greatest—if not the greatest—lightweights in the Octagon’s history. On the other hand, Gamrot has cut down to 145 with success in his career. He’s not the smallest lightweight, but you’d be excused for thinking he is when he fights Turner.
Despite the size difference, Gamrot enters the competition as the favorite. The former KSW two division champion is a smart fighter and an underrated athlete. Since he hasn’t scored too many highlight reel finishes combined with his high volume of decision wins prior to coming to the UFC, his natural gifts tend to be overlooked. That he doesn’t necessarily excel at one thing doesn’t exactly help his standards. Regardless, he has the fundamentals, like his jab, one of the best in the class. If you’ve watched his competition with Arman Tsarukyan, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what a fantastic scrambler he is as well.
It’s more than likely we’ll see mixed up look of his game. For how technically perfect is its impressive, size does material. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Turner isn’t exactly an expert at keeping opponents on the outside with his range — his impressive save is a horrible 44% — but he’s improving. More importantly, he tends to make his opponents hesitant, allowing him to find the shots he’s looking for. It’s not like he’s helpless if he gets inside. Turner’s clinch is also dangerous. Think of the leverage he can get with his knees given his massive frame….
While we know Gamrot won’t want to spend long periods of time hitting, it’s hard to know how much success he’ll find on the mat. Turner isn’t necessarily impossible to take down, but he tends to make his opponent work hard to complete the takedown. Additionally, while the threat of a guillotine isn’t generally a good defense to avoid disaster, Turner’s natural gifts add a level of danger that most don’t have. And while there’s no doubt that Gamrot is the more technical grappler, Turner has surprised many opponents with his own shuffling ability. What he has accomplished most with his long limbs is the ability to do so closes his opposition.
I had a very hard to understand this contest. Turner has looked unstoppable in his recent contests, but he hasn’t faced someone with the combination of intelligence, skill and versatility that Gamrot possesses. Additionally, the one time Turner faced an opponent who was primarily a wrestler in the UFC, he ended up with his only loss at 155 in the competition. I also question Turner’s ability to consistently get off his back. Again, part of the reason Gamrot has so many takedowns in his UFC career is due to his inability to keep his opponents down. What I expect is that Gamrot will take the fight right to Turner, force the massive lightweight to expend a lot of energy, and see what he has next. It’s hard to believe Turner has a deep gas tank given what he has to cut to make weight. Still, Turner has some of the best finishing instincts on the roster. Gamrot may not get a chance to see what Turner has deep in a match. Even if he does, a knockdown or two from Turner could put Gamrot back incredibly on the scoresheets. I will say that the durable Gamrot goes for takedown after takedown, wears down the up-and-comer, before finding a late finish. Gamrot via RD3 submission
- For wrestling purists, Bo Nickal‘small The UFC debut is the main event. One of the best freestyle wrestlers on the planet, Nickal has overcome his opposition on his way to the UFC… all three of them. It’s rare that the UFC fast-tracks someone of Nickal’s caliber, but Nickal seems to be a worthy exception. While there are plenty of wrestlers with credentials who have been swept under the MMA spotlight – Steve Mocco and Ed Ruth come to mind – Nickal has fully embraced being the center of attention. Additionally, while he only made his MMA debut last year, he has been preparing for his post-Olympic career for some time now. Perhaps most importantly, Nickal shows no fear of punching in the face that has held many wrestlers back from matching their achievements in the club ranks. He better be prepared like Jamie Pickett it’s a HUGE step up from what Nickal has dealt with in the past. That said, Nickal is a stylistic nightmare for Pickett. Pickett has great range and some good power, but he hasn’t been able to use his length on the counter. In fact, Pickett tends to wilt under pressure. Pressure is all he’s going to get from Nickal. Additionally, while Pickett is a good clinch fighter, fighting at that range allows Nickal to get his hands on him, the last thing Pickett wants. This may be MMA, but Pickett’s MMA wrestling hasn’t been one to show that he can stop Nickal from doing whatever he wants. Nickal via RD1 submission