The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday returns to the UFC Apex in Las Vegas with a surprisingly strong main card. A potential light heavyweight title eliminator between Dominick Reyes and Jiri Prochazka in the UFC on ESPN 23 headliner obviously carries the highest stakes, but there are fighters with upward momentum dotting this six-bout slate. Giga Chikadze gets by far the toughest test of his career against reliable veteran Cub Swanson in the co-main event, where the Georgian can quickly establish himself as a future featherweight contender with a win. Add in some high-upside talents like Sean Strickland and Merab Dvalishvili in difficult but winnable assignments, and this should be an entertaining watch.
Now to the preview for the UFC on ESPN “Reyes vs. Prochazka” main card:
Light Heavyweights#3 LHW | Dominick Reyes (12-2, 6-2 UFC) vs. #5 LHW | Jiri Prochazka (27-3-1, 1-0 UFC)
ODDS: Prochazka (-130), Reyes (+110)
Reyes’ 2020 campaign certainly did not work out as expected. “The Devastator” entered last year as the clear next coming man at light heavyweight. Volkan Oezdemir took him to a split decision, but the former Stony Brook University Seawolf otherwise ran up the divisional ranks with little issue, finishing most of his opponents in quick and brutal fashion. That lined up Reyes for a title shot against Jon Jones. Given Jones’ relatively flat performance against Thiago Santos in the fight prior, there was some thought that Reyes could be the man to affirmatively unseat “Bones” as light heavyweight champion. The fight itself was an affair that easily could have gone either way on the scorecards, but Jones walked away with the narrow victory, leaving many to consider Reyes as the uncrowned champion of the division; and with how things shook out afterwards, Reyes’ disappointment figured to be short-lived. Jones eventually vacated the title to ply his trade at heavyweight, leading to Reyes getting a winnable fight against Jan Blachowicz to determine the new 205-pound kingpin. That September bout figured to be a defining moment in Reyes’ career, but if it winds up being such, it will not be in a positive aspect. Reyes turned in a flat performance, seemingly getting thrown off by Blachowicz’s power before getting picked apart in a knockout loss. With one result, the tenor of Reyes’ career has completely changed. Instead of being an inevitable future champion, he now finds himself having to defend his contender status against a rising young talent in Prochazka.
Prochazka is the type of fighter who can only succeed in a heavier weight class, not that it makes his stylings any less entertaining to watch. Prochazka was relatively unknown when he joined the initial roster of Rizin Fighting Federation, at which point it became apparent that he was one of the most interesting prospects in the world. Prochazka’s frame and athleticism are what jump off the page first and foremost. The Czech has a ridiculously long reach and fluidity to his movement that makes him dangerous to any opponent. Everything else is a bit of a mess, however, as Prochazka is generally the type of fighter who loses a bout up until he uncorks one or two fight-ending moments. Add in the nature of his competition—Rizin typically matched Prochazka against less athletic grapplers or UFC veterans clearly past their prime—and it was hard to know exactly how “Denisa” would fare once he made his way to the Octagon. Early returns look good, as his UFC debut against Oezdemir essentially provided the full Prochazka experience, with an uncontrolled pace leading to a ton of violence and a brutal knockout win. It is difficult to imagine Prochazka ever refining his game much, so now is as good a time as any to see how far he can take his approach. A win here could make him the next challenger for UFC light heavyweight gold.
Prochazka’s reliance on athleticism and power over any sort of process figures to hit a wall at some point, but no one knows when that will occur. Reyes’ loss to Blachowicz raised a number of concerns about the former title contender, namely his ability to respond to power that can remain a constant threat. Opponents like Jared Cannonier and Ovince St. Preux have one-shot knockout ability, but they were technically and strategically outclassed by Reyes; and while Jones has some bothersome reach, he is not much of a knockout threat and is just as uncomfortable against a long opponent. Meanwhile, Blachowicz stayed consistent and exploited all the defensive holes in Reyes’ style without much issue, and the Californian did not respond particularly well, starting slow and eventually getting knocked out once he tried to open up on offense. Prochazka will not have anywhere near that level of consistency, but the Czech’s combination of reach and power alone figures to find some sort of horrific knockout blow given 25 minutes with which to work. Prochazka will definitely give Reyes some defensive openings of his own to exploit, so there is a chance he can run into some issues. Not that Prochazka seems to ever have any fear of what is coming at him in return, but Reyes could wind up having the combination of size and power to which the former Rizin champion just cannot defensively stand up. This almost comes down to a question of who is bothered most by what his opponent brings to the table. We have seen Reyes struggle before, and while Prochazka is a complete question mark against someone of Reyes’ talent, he seems much more likely to just power through things and eventually find a finish. The pick is Prochazka via second-round knockout.
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