The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday will head back to the UFC Apex with a surprisingly solid show in Las Vegas. UFC on ESPN 36 figures to be a big night for the light heavyweight division in the main and co-main events, led by former champion Jan Blachowicz looking to rebound from a changing-of-the-guard loss by turning back surging contender Aleksandar Rakic. In the co-headliner, Ryan Spann and Ion Cutelaba should combine for an entertaining mess of a matchup that will likely serve as an important step forward for the winner. Beyond that, the other immediately relevant bout sees Amanda Ribas move up to flyweight to take on Katlyn Chookagian. It remains unclear how much of a future Ribas has away from her usual strawweight division, but she gets a significant opportunity to prove herself in her first trip to 125 pounds. From there, the main draw is all about action. Davey Grant and Louis Smolka cannot help but combine for a violent affair, while newcomers Manuel Roberto Torres and Jake Hadley net fun pairings that should pave the way for plenty of offense.
Now to the UFC on ESPN 36 “Blachowicz vs. Rakic” preview:
Light Heavyweights#3 LHW | Aleksandar Rakic (14-2, 6-1 UFC) vs. #1 LHW | Jan Blachowicz (28-9, 11-6 UFC)
ODDS: Rakic (-180), Blachowicz (+155)
Even if he never returns to his previous heights, it is still impressive that Blachowicz found a path to the UFC’s light heavyweight championship. Blachowicz was an excellent pickup by the UFC in 2014, particularly after the Pole announced himself with a quick knockout of Ilir Latifi in his promotional debut, but he spent the first few years of his UFC career attempting to stay above the cut line. Blachowicz followed the Latifi win with four losses in five fights, which felt like a baffling skid at points. Blachowicz was obviously a powerful athlete and seemed technically sound, but he would inevitably gas badly at some point in his fights, regardless of his success up to that point. Once Blachowicz stopped his skid with a 2017 win over Devin Clark, things just suddenly clicked into place. Blachowicz discovered an effective striking game built around a jab, which in turn allowed him to fight within himself and resolve whatever issues had plagued him previously. That led to a march up the light heavyweight ranks, and after a speed bump against Thiago Santos in 2019, Blachowicz capped a four-fight winning streak with a knockout win of Dominick Reyes to become the first post-Jon Jones UFC champ at 205 pounds. Blachowicz seemed set up to be a footnote, as the UFC immediately matched him with middleweight champ Israel Adesanya in an obvious attempt to get “The Last Stylebender” a second belt. However, Blachowicz impressively spoiled those plans, winning a slow-paced striking match before relying on his wrestling to clinch a decision. Naturally, as soon as it seemed like Blachowicz was settling into a championship role, Glover Teixeira took the title from him in an unlikely upset. Teixeira got his type of fight early, and rather than ride out that trouble and stage a comeback, Blachowicz had his old cardio troubles return, looking tired by the second round and getting tapped out shortly thereafter. A neck injury suffered in training has delayed Blachowicz’s return by about a month and a half, and now at 39 years old, it will be interesting to see what form he shows up in against a surging contender in Rakic.
Born in Austria and representing his Serbian heritage, Rakic was a bit of an unknown upon his UFC debut in 2017, as his impressive record to that point mostly took place under the general radar. However, Rakic impressed greatly through his first few trips to the Octagon. Beating Francimar Barroso in his debut was a strong showing against a tough veteran, and he then went about flashing his wrestling and striking in various ways until his breakout win: a 47-second head kick knockout of Jimi Manuwa. Still, it has been a strange path for Rakic since he has gotten close to the championship picture. He lost a controversial decision in a fun scrap against Volkan Oezdemir, and his last two bouts have gotten more notice for their lack of action than anything else. Rakic now seems content to allow his opponent to lead things and react from there. Against Anthony Smith, that meant Rakic winning wrestling exchanges that “Lionheart” initiated and grinding out a win, and his March 2021 showing was the first of a few Thiago Santos fights that saw his opponent consent to a slow kickboxing match. Despite Rakic not setting the world on fire in either performance, he has the necessary speed and athleticism to separate himself from his opponents, even if he would be better served pressing those advantages at times. Given how far he has climbed up the ranks at this point, it is hard to argue with his success.
There is a chance this could be an ugly fight. By default, both seem content to sit back and counter, so this could wind up in the mold of Rakic’s win over Santos or some of Blachowicz’s less-inspiring efforts during this last run. On the plus side, given 25 minutes with which to work, both of these men do at least look to press the action and make something happen in the face of inactivity and lack of success. It has been a while since Rakic got off to a hot start, but if he has any of that mentality left in him, this would be a good time to bring it out. Blachowicz is capable of landing a big counter, but Teixeira’s insistence on pressure brought out the absolute worst in the former champion, and Rakic looks to be a solid enough wrestler to carry out a reasonable facsimile of that gameplan and reap the rewards. Otherwise, this seems relatively even. Blachowicz looks to be the harder shot-for-shot puncher and fights at a slightly higher pace, but Rakic does have a level of hand speed that could get the better of any exchanges when they occur, along with a snappier kicking game. Unless these recent neck troubles greatly diminish Blachowicz, it does not look like time has passed him by, so it does look like it is up to Rakic to bring out some of the old Pole for this not to be a coinflip of a fight. It likely winds up as 25 minutes that hopefully offer more of a simmer than a staring contest, and it is difficult not to favor the younger athlete in a fight in which neither man figures to give up many openings. The pick is Rakic via decision.
Blachowicz vs. Rakic
Cutelaba vs. Spann
Grant vs. Smolka
Chookagian vs. Ribas
Camacho vs. Torres
Hadley vs. Nascimento
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