UFC Fight Night — Why a small Octagon could decide Curtis Blaydes vs. Alexander Volkov

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Dana White doesn’t believe that the smaller cage the UFC is using at its Apex facility has factored into more stoppages, but the numbers might disagree.

During three events at the Apex — with the 25-foot Octagon, as opposed to a 30-footer — the finish rate is 54.5% (18 finishes in 33 fights). In comparison, the three events in Jacksonville, Florida, with the bigger cage had a finish rate of 46.9% (15 finishes in 32 fights), according to ESPN Stats & Information. It might not be a huge difference, but it seems like a significant uptick. Then again, it could be a coincidence having more to do with the types of fighters than the size of the cage.

Either way, the topic is sure to resurface Saturday, when former collegiate wrestling champ Curtis Blaydes takes on lanky striker Alexander Volkov in the Fight Night main event. Wrestlers like close quarters, though Blades isn’t confined to a ground game and has knocked out his past two opponents. Blaydes is ranked No. 3 by the UFC and is firmly entrenched in the title picture. Francis Ngannou, who has twice beaten Blaydes, is first in line to face the winner of the title fight between champion Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier, but as Gilbert Burns proved, title shots aren’t always determined by rankings.

ESPN’s panel of Ariel Helwani, Phil Murphy, Brett Okamoto and Jeff Wagenheim debate Saturday’s card, including which bout is destined for the fight-of-the-night bonus.

Do you expect the smaller cage to favor either fighter in the main event?

Okamoto: Yes. The smaller cage favors Blaydes, without a doubt. It’s always going to favor wrestlers. You know what would favor Volkov? A technical, standup battle. It’s much harder to have one of those in a significantly smaller space. The smaller cage is going to have an impact on some fights and not on others. Those it does impact, it will be to varying degrees. But this one is pretty high in my opinion. You have heavyweights, one of whom wants to get the fight to the ground, so a small cage is great for Blaydes.

Helwani: Yes. It definitely favors Blaydes. Volkov likes to box. He likes to move around. He likes to use his long reach to keep opponents at bay. It’s much harder to do that in the smaller cage. On the other hand, Blaydes likes to keep the fight close, he likes to clinch, he likes to wrestle, and he likes to ground-and-pound. It’s very clear, in my opinion, that Volkov is at a disadvantage in the smaller cage. Will that result in a Volkov loss? Not necessarily, but Blaydes is at an advantage here.

Murphy: Calling Saturday’s main event a “classic striker vs. grappler fight” might be a bit of an oversimplification, but there is a semblance of truth to that.

Blaydes, cast as “The Grappler,” has serious hands. Our striker, Volkov, is the proud owner of a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt. But Blaydes knows that using his impressive wrestling skills, spending time in top position and bludgeoning Volkov with ground-and-pound will offer the most direct path to getting his hand raised.

The smaller Octagon — and its 44% smaller area — neutralizes the ability of rangier fighters to move laterally, both in generating offense and in evading defensively. Volkov and Blaydes have similar reach, but I picture Volkov needing more space to operate on the feet.

It suits Blaydes to get inside, press Volkov against the fence and bring him to the mat. The smaller Octagon will help Blaydes to that end.

Wagenheim: Conventional wisdom says the smaller cage favors the fighter who wants to close distance and wrap his hands around his opponent. That means Blaydes and his wrestling pedigree will benefit. However, let’s not ignore the possibility of Volkov, a slick striker, connecting with a punch that rocks Blaydes and sends him into retreat — with not much room to run. Still, Blaydes will gladly chance that peril for the opportunity to fight his fight while covering less acreage. (Kudos to my man Phil for doing the math. A 44% smaller Octagon? Yikes. I never could have figured that out.)

Which fighter on Saturday’s card are you most eager to see?

Wagenheim: Jim Miller. For me, it’s always Jim Miller. But we’re going to get to him (see below), so I’ll give a different fighter some shine here. That has to be Roxanne Modafferi, who is an inspiration for her martial artist spirit and her stick-to-itiveness. She has been in this game since 2003 and, over the course of 40 pro fights, has willed herself beyond her limited athletic ability to become a practitioner of the highest level of MMA. A win over Maycee Barber in January boosted Modafferi into the ESPN women’s flyweight rankings, where she is No. 8. Saturday’s fight against 10th-ranked Lauren Murphy would get the 37-year-old Modafferi closer to a title shot. No one in the sport is more deserving of good things happening to them.

Okamoto: I’ll go with Roosevelt Roberts, who’s fighting Jim Miller at lightweight. Roberts just fought Brok Weaver three weeks ago and looked great. I’ve said this before about the 26-year-old: He has some intangibles that make him a very interesting prospect to me. Roosevelt has tremendous speed, he’s long for the division, and he has an obvious confidence that not all fighters have. I don’t think Roberts has a problem performing, but he needs to continue to develop and evolve his skills. Miller is a good test.

Murphy: After his first-round knockout win over Mirsad Bektic as an underdog last summer, it was exciting to consider what might be next for Josh Emmett.

He was booked against British prospect Arnold Allen in January. Then Emmett withdrew because of an injury. Then he drew would-be featherweight debutant Edson Barboza in April — before the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the event.

Now Emmett gets Shane Burgos, who will be making the first appearance under his new UFC contract. Burgos’ only loss in 14 pro fights came to Calvin Kattar. The third time has proven the charm for a deserved step up for Emmett against a slight underdog.

Emmett’s past four fights finished by knockout, and he went 3-1. A promising featherweight with a propensity for knockouts in a small Octagon against a skilled opponent? Sign me up.

Helwani: I feel like it would be a cop-out if I said Blaydes, but honestly, it’s him. Simply because he has looked so good in his past three fights and has emerged as a serious heavyweight contender. If that doesn’t count, I’ll go with Emmett and Cortney Casey: the former because he has won two in a row, both by vicious knockout, and the latter because I think her move to 125 was a smart decision, and I’m curious to see if she can build on the momentum of her impressive win last month against Mara Romero Borella.

Jim Miller will fight in his record-tying 35th UFC bout. What’s your favorite Miller moment?

Murphy: I want so badly to be the MMA dork looking to yesteryear, not influenced by recency bias. Miller’s Fight of the Year win over Joe Lauzon at UFC 155 was such a good fight. But my favorite Miller moment has to be his most recent win, a technical submission over Clay Guida in August. Miller is an Octagon lifer, someone who appeared on both UFC 100 and 200. No UFC lightweight has more submission wins than Miller.

To finish a contemporary in Guida in front of a home crowd in New Jersey was such a deserved, cool moment. Because it happened so quickly — in less than a minute — the buzz of Miller’s introduction had not yet worn off for the audience. The energy and emotion of that win stand alone for me in his 12-year UFC career.

Okamoto: It’s always a good time when Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” hits the arena speakers for a Miller walkout. The fight that first comes to mind for me is Miller’s first meeting against Lauzon in 2012, which was a Fight of the Year candidate. They met again in 2016, in a rematch that wasn’t quite as good as the original but still won Fight of the Night. Miller is just old-school and game. I remember talking to a UFC matchmaker once about Miller. There was a situation in which the UFC offered him a fight on short notice, and he responded via text immediately that he was in. The matchmaker wrote back, “Of course you are. You’re Jim Miller.” That sums him up pretty well.

Helwani: Man, so many moments to choose from. What a rock Miller has been throughout his 12(!)-year UFC run. I’ll go with two. His kneebar win over Charles Oliveira at UFC 124 in 2010 was an absolute beaut, one of the best submissions of that particular year. I’ll never forget him telling me afterward that the WEC lightweights who were about to enter the UFC wouldn’t amount to much, and, well, he was off about that one. Also, his win over Takanori Gomi at UFC 200 in 2016 was significant because he entered that fight after losing four of his previous five. After beating Gomi in the first round via TKO, he revealed that he had been battling Lyme disease, which had been affecting his performance. It was impressive to see him open up about that and get back on track after it looked like his UFC run was coming to an end.

Wagenheim: My favorite Jim Miller moment occurs every time he emerges from the tunnel and heads to the cage, especially on those nights when “Bad Moon Rising” is booming in the arena. I. Never. Miss. A. Jim. Miller. Fight. Why is he my favorite fighter? Maybe it’s a Jersey thing, exemplified by Miller’s no-nonsense blend of butt-kicking and respectful decency, with no fake beefs needed to sell us on what he will deliver. Never was that ethos more evident than in his ferocious 2012 win over Lauzon (my No. 2 favorite fighter), which was an exhilarating 15 minutes, with a bloody Lauzon nearly pulling off a last-second submission. What I remember most was the postfight news conference, with Miller and Lauzon sitting alongside each other and sharing a microphone, each giving the other kudos for having put him through hell. The word “love” was spoken freely that night, so I’ll use it here: I love watching Jim Miller and am thrilled to have a 35th opportunity to do so on Saturday.

What under-the-radar bout do you think could contend for fight of the night?

Helwani: Josh Emmett vs. Shane Burgos was my first choice, but because that is technically the co-main, I’ll go with Lyman Good vs. Belal Muhammad. Both tend to produce fun fights, and both looked good in their most recent fights. Also, I don’t think it will be the fight of the night, but it is worth mentioning that — besides the main event — the Roxanne Modaferri vs. Lauren Murphy fight might have the biggest impact on its respective division (flyweight in this case). Modafferi is coming off that inspiring win over Maycee Barber in January, and Murphy has won two in a row. Flyweight needs contenders, and the winner would definitely be in that conversation.

Okamoto: It isn’t really under the radar, but I’m convinced that Emmett vs. Burgos will win Fight of the Night. That’s the best fight on the card, by far, in my opinion. I’ve been shouting it from the rooftops: The best division in MMA right now is 145 pounds, and it’s not even that close. Virtually any matchup between any of the top 10 is amazing. Beyond that obvious choice, I think Lyman Good vs. Belal Muhammad is a candidate for a very entertaining fight.

Wagenheim: In normal times, a co-main event typically wouldn’t fly under the radar. But these days, with the UFC booking fight cards on the fly with little time for promotional buildup, everything other than the headline bout runs the risk of being overlooked. But don’t dare step away for a snack when Emmett and Burgos take over the Octagon. Emmett (15-2, 6-2 in the UFC) has two straight knockout wins, and Burgos is 13-1 (6-1 UFC), with his lone loss coming against a ranked featherweight (Calvin Kattar). Speaking of rankings, Emmett is No. 9 in ESPN’s 145-pound top 10, and Burgos is ranked 10th. The winner here will be primed for a move upward.

Murphy: For the record, the co-main event is the obvious choice. But I’ve already sung the praises of Emmett and Burgos sharing an Octagon, and I want to go further under the radar.

Marc-André Barriault and Oskar Piechota have each lost three consecutive fights. It feels cruel to label this a win-or-get-cut scenario for both, but it feels intellectually dishonest to ignore that reality.

Barriault’s 2019 was about as enjoyable as 2020 has been for the rest of us: 0-3 in the Octagon, all pretty clear decision losses. He did not reflect his knockout-ready reputation developed on the regional scene around Quebec. Piechota, meanwhile, entered the UFC as Cage Warriors middleweight champion. He promptly won his first two bouts, including a first-round knockout of Tim Williams with a beautifully timed counter-right.

Desperation, mutually heavy hands and a small Octagon could be a sneaky recipe for Fight of the Night midway through the prelims.

My one bold prediction for Saturday is …

Helwani: Blaydes wins and becomes a serious contender at heavyweight, and Francis Ngannou considers fighting him (for a third time), but Ngannou waits to see how Miocic vs. Cormier 3 plays out.

Murphy: Is picking Barriault-Pechota — a combined 0-6 in their past six fights — as Fight of the Night not bold enough? Fine. While we’re here on the undercard, I predict UFC debutant Max Rohskopf — signed on six days’ notice — will submit Austin Hubbard in the curtain-raiser.

Rohskopf is a Division I wrestler who has developed a really slick submission game under jiu-jitsu ace Robert Drysdale. No live audience and Rohskopf’s training experience alongside UFC regulars at Xtreme Couture should mitigate Octagon jitters.

Defensive wrestling was a severe issue in Hubbard’s two UFC losses, particularly his most recent fight at UFC 248. He allowed eight of 12 takedowns and multiple guard passes in a decision loss to Mark Madsen.

Rohskopf is no Olympian like Madsen, but he has a smaller Octagon. That will help get Hubbard to the mat to sink in a submission — of which he has a variety — to make a statement in a promotional debut.

Wagenheim: It wouldn’t be bold at all to predict a Blaydes win in the main event — he’s a -380 favorite — but I’m going to take the forecast a bit further and say he gets the job done not with his wrestling but with an increasingly potent standup attack. Training with Alistair Overeem for the past couple of years has rounded out Blaydes’ game. Although Volkov remains the more technically sound striker, Blaydes has incorporated into his boxing the same explosiveness that has long fueled his wrestling game. Blaydes will unleash thunder, and Volkov won’t know what hit him.

Okamoto: Blaydes makes a statement in the main event and demands a title shot is next, which he absolutely deserves, but he ends up fighting again before a title shot because of a logjam at the top and his two prior losses to Francis Ngannou.

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