Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC
Barring any MMA weirdness (there’s a phrase one should never utter), we’re going to have a new UFC light heavyweight champion on Saturday, but the crowning is unlikely to come with the usual pomp and circumstance.
With respect to Jan Blachowicz and Magomed Ankalaev, two excellent fighters who have been tossed into the UFC 282 main event to battle for a vacant belt, this isn’t how the UFC expected to close out 2022. In a perfect world, Jiri Prochazka and Glover Teixeira would be running back one of the wildest championship fights in UFC history (imagine Prochazka and Teixeira claiming the No. 1 and 2 spots in the Fight of the Year rankings? Alas) tonight; in an even more perfect world, Francis Ngannou would be welcoming Jon Jones to the heavyweight division.
Instead, we have… not that.
Will the winner of Saturday’s headliner be recognized as the No. 1 light heavyweight in the business? Prochazka could return from injury before the end of 2023, meaning that bumping him from the top spot could be premature, and then there’s Bellator’s Vadim Nemkov making a case for himself with a convincing win over Corey Anderson. We’re about to find out how much weight UFC gold really holds this weekend.
In other main card action, the polarizing Paddy Pimblett fights Jared Gordon in the lightweight co-main event, Santiago Ponzinibbio faces short-notice replacement Alex Morono in a 180-pound catchweight bout, Darren Till looks to slow charge of fast-rising middleweight Dricus Du Plessis, and Bryce Mitchell and Ilia Topuria meet in what could be a duel of future featherweight title challengers.
What: UFC 282
Where: T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas
When: Saturday, Dec. 10. The card begins with a three-fight early prelims portion on ESPN+ at 6:30 p.m. ET, with continuing coverage of the four-fight prelim card on ESPN+ and ESPN2 beginning at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Jan Blachowicz (4) vs. Magomed Ankalaev (6)
Let me start with three interconnected takes here:
There shouldn’t be a vacant light heavyweight title fight without Glover Teixeira involved. He’s earned that.
The UFC couldn’t wait for Teixeira, so they had to elevate Jan Blachowicz and Magomed Ankalaev into the main event and put a title on the line (I vehemently disagree that pay-per-view headliners are required to have a title on the line, but that is the UFC decree with few exceptions).
It’s reasonable to believe that Ankalaev — he of the nine-fight win streak — has been the best light heavyweight in the world for some time.
All of that is to background what could be a terrible take: Blachowicz is going to win Saturday and become champion again.
I get it. Ankalaev has looked untouchable since a loss to Paul Craig in his UFC debut (a fight that Ankalaev was literally one second away from winning before getting caught by a submission). He’s shown few weaknesses, with a superb striking game and the ability to take the fight to the ground when necessary. He’s the younger fighter too, with Blachowicz nine years his elder.
But I like Blachowicz’s chances to hang in there and weather an early storm as he has in so many of his fights. He won’t be discouraged by Ankalaev picking him apart early, nor will he panic if Ankalaev puts him on his backside. Blachowicz is nothing if not persistent.
Ankalaev has occasionally been too patient, which concerns me, because if you let someone with Blachowicz’s finishing power hang around in a 25-minute fight, it could come back to bite you. I’d love to see Ankalaev go for the kill early and leave no doubt that he’s MMA’s best 205er, but I’m sensing an upset here. I’m sensing a Blachowicz knockout win, against my better judgement.
Because let’s be real: I’ve never picked a Blachowicz fight correctly before, so why start now?
Paddy Pimblett vs. Jared Gordon
I’m seeing plenty of talk about Jared Gordon being the man to slow the Paddy Pimblett hype, but I actually think this is another well-done piece of UFC matchmaking to keep “The Baddy” train rolling.
Gordon is as tough as they come and his octagon experience is a major factor, but I don’t know if he has an A-plus skill to truly overwhelm Pimblett. On the other side, I give Pimblett a significant advantage in grappling so if this goes to the ground, Gordon could have his hands full. He fared well against Leonardo Santos, but with respect to Santos, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert had one foot out the door going into that fight. I also think Pimblett’s more chaotic style presents a different challenge.
Pimblett also has a size and reach advantage that can’t be ignored. Again, Gordon has shown he can navigate an opponent’s longer limbs, but I like the pace that Pimblett brings to his fights. I fully expect Gordon to bang Pimblett up, only for Pimblett to power through and score takedowns.
We’ll see some fun scrambles and Gordon will have plenty of chances to show his heart, but Pimblett wins by submission.
Santiago Ponzinibbio vs. Alex Morono
Props to Alex Morono for stepping in on short notice for Robbie Lawler here. It’s a smart business decision too as this the most distinguished fighter he’s faced since a first-round knockout win over Donald Cerrone 17 months ago. Unfortunately for Morono, he’s exactly the kind of opponent that Ponzinibbio does well against.
Ponzinibbio makes great use of his jab and lateral movement to confuse his opponents, which is in stark contrast to Morono’s more straightforward style. That’s not to say that Morono can’t be effective as he’s a consistent and accurate puncher, but cutting Ponzinibbio off without taking damage is a difficult task. Morono might have to show caution to the wind to advance on Ponzinibbio, which might only hasten his demise.
I’m predicting Ponzinibbio puts him down via strikes in the first or second round.
Darren Till vs. Dricus Du Plessis (15)
I’m a fan of this matchup for both fighters.
While there’s certainly something to be said about giving Darren Till a step back in competition to rebuild his confidence and correct course after having him face nothing but ranked competition for the past few years, that’s not how the UFC does things, so at the very least he’s been booked against a name on a win streak that would give him instant credibility should he pull off an upset.
For Dricus Du Plessis, he runs the risk of a fighter on a skid stealing his shine, but Till is also a bigger name than him so he has a lot to gain if he can add the one-time UFC welterweight title challenger to his list of Ws. Beat Till and a top 10 opponent is likely next.
This is a winnable fight for Till given how hittable Du Plessis has proven to be, but Du Plessis’ durability should get him out of some rough stretches and his aggression should prevent Till from getting comfortable. Till is notoriously skimpy with his striking output, which means Du Plessis has the opportunity to set the tone of this fight.
It’s also possible that Du Plessis looks to exploit Till’s grappling deficiencies and should this end up on the ground somehow, that scenario is definitely in the former KSW champion’s favor especially if he hurts Till first. Give me Du Plessis via club and sub.
Pick: Du Plessis
Bryce Mitchell (13) vs. Ilia Topuria (14)
I can’t lie, Ilia Topuria getting sidetracked by Paddy Pimblett has me a little worried.
By now, we’re used to side feuds occasionally taking over UFC press conferences, but the spite between Topuria and Paddy Pimblett has been building for a while and this past fight week it boiled over in an ugly way. Topuria is about to face the biggest challenge of his career in Bryce Mitchell and he’s actively engaging with that nonsense? Seems unwise.
Not to mention the fact that Mitchell might just be the better fighter anyway. His grappling is no joke and his striking is coming along, though it would be unwise to trade hammers with the hard-hitting Topuria. Mitchell will want to mix in strikes judiciously while putting a heavy emphasis on wrestling and neutralizing offense.
Topuria can wrestle too, so this could be a chess match in the early going as both fighters figure out the best angle of attack. I’m liking Mitchell’s chances because I think he’s going to be single-minded in his approach and frustrate Topuria with non-stop takedown attempts and exhausting scrambles. He’ll earn a decision, but a late finish is a possibility too.