LightweightsIslam Makhachev (16-1) vs. Arman Tsarukyan (13-1)
ODDS: Makhachev (-470), Tsarukyan (+375)
It has gotten a bit lost in the shuffle between injuries, visa issues and more prominent fighters out of the Caucuses, but Makhachev has had a quietly successful UFC tenure. A longtime friend of lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, Makhachev uses a lot of the same sambo stylings, even if he is not quite a complete shutdown grappler. However, Makhachev can still take care of himself when it comes to taking things to the mat, and what he lacks in control he makes up for in finishing ability. He managed to finish Kajan Johnson with an armbar last time out, this after he showed off some newfound power against a shopworn Gleison Tibau. Makhachev’s UFC career was briefly in jeopardy after he was involved in the brawl that ended UFC 229, but he instead was awarded with a co-main event assignment.
Makhachev takes on the debuting Tsarukyan, who has a big opportunity here, both in terms of prominence and difficulty of the challenge. Having this fight this high on the card is a bit odd, but it is easy to see why the UFC might see Tsarukyan as worthy of the spot. At 22, he already beaten a solid slate of competition -- including UFC vets Junior Assuncao and Felipe Olivieri -- and possesses the ability to score impressive knockouts. Those highlight-reel finishes are a bit of false advertising, as at his best Tsarukyan is as strong a wrestler as he is a dynamic striker, but in a general sense, he should fit right in among the ex-Soviet fighters taking over the lightweight division. It is just a matter of whether or not this is too much too soon.
Makhachev can be caught cold -- his lone loss was a quick knockout suffered against Adriano Martins -- but he is basically a better version of Tsarukyan at this point. Makhachev can go punch for punch and takedown for takedown against Tsarukyan, particularly since the latter’s defensive wrestling seems a bit spotty for someone who has looked solid on the mat offensively. Tsarukyan should be able to make this a fun fight, unless Makhachev decides to take that failsafe and go to the mat. At any rate, the pick here is a clear Makhachev decision.
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