Two standout strikers in a division chock-full of them do battle this Saturday (Dec. 4, 2021) when Bantamweight bruiser Rob Font puts his four-fight win streak on the line against the legendary Jose Aldo. The ESPN broadcast will also see Brad Riddell meet Rafael Fiziev in a potential “Fight of the Year” candidate and Clay Guida square off with fellow veteran Leonardo Santos.
UFC Vegas 44 features a hefty nine “Prelims” undercard bouts beforehand, so let’s get the first batch out of the way …
205 lbs.: Alonzo Menifield vs. William Knight
Alonzo Menifield (11-2) built up quite a head of steam with three straight UFC knockout wins, only to drop consecutive bouts to Devin Clark and Ovince St. Preux. He has since returned to form by choking out late replacement Fabio Cherant and battering the venerable Ed Herman.
“Atomic” will enjoy two inches of height and three inches of reach on Knight.
A successful UFC debut saw William Knight (10-2) out-last fellow “Contender Series” contestant Aleksa Camur, though he failed to overcome Da Un Jung’s wrestling onslaught his next time out. His third Octagon bout pitted him against the aforementioned Cherant, whom Knight annihilated with a counter hook late in the first round.
“Knightmare” has scored nine knockouts as a professional.
The first time these two were supposed to fight, I picked Knight to wear Menifield down for a late ground-and-pound finish. They’ve both fought twice since then, and my opinion has definitely changed. Knight’s boxing remains remarkably poor, and though Menifield isn’t exactly a sharpshooter, he still has by far the more cohesive and destructive striking attack.
While that’s pretty much always been the case, I don’t see Knight having as much success getting into range as I originally envisioned. Menifield’s still doomed if he willingly engages in the clinch, of course, but he fought quite well on the outside against Herman. I expect him to do the same here, picking at Knight’s lead leg until he’s stationary enough to eat one of Menifield’s monster right hands.
Prediction: Menifield def. Knight via second round technical knockout
155 lbs.: Claudio Puelles vs. Chris Gruetzemacher
Peru’s Claudio Puelles (10-2) hasn’t been the busiest UFC fighter, competing just four times in the last five years, but he’s amassed three victories in that span. The most recent of those saw him net his second Octagon upset by outlasting Contender Series graduate Jordan Leavitt in June 2021.
“El Nino” has scored five submission victories as a professional.
The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) veteran Chris Gruetzemacher (15-4) struggled to find his footing in the Octagon, as injuries and tough match ups held him to 2-4 over the span of seven years. He came up big with his back against the wall in July 2021, out-lasting Rafa Garcia for a sizable upset win.
He is the shorter of the two by three inches and faces a four-inch reach disadvantage.
I’ll admit that I don’t give him enough credit in general, but Puelles’ UFC record really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Felipe Silva beat him half to death before tapping to a leglock, Marcos Mariano was among the worst UFC signees in recent memory and now sits at .500, and Leavitt was dead weight after the first round. While Gruetzemacher isn’t a world-beater, he’s got solid wrestling and terrific cardio, which is all he really needs to grind Puelles down.
Puelles’ only shot at victory lies in dragging Gruetzemacher to the mat and getting his top game going, but he’s just not a strong enough takedown artist to make that work. Gruetzemacher batters him on the feet for a late finish.
Prediction: Gruetzemacher via third round technical knockout
265 lbs.: Azamat Murzakanov vs. Jared Vanderaa
After injury scrapped a planned UFC debut against Joachim Christensen in 2017, Azamat Murzakanov (10-0) took his talents to Brave CF, where he fought Octagon veteran Guto Inocente and Mohammad Fakhreddine in one night to win its Openweight title. This set up a “Contender Series” clash with Matheus Scheffel, whom Murzakanov knocked out in three minutes to secure a UFC contract.
That win marked his seven (technical) knockout finish and eighth stoppage overall.
Though he fell well short against Sergey Spivak in his UFC debut, Jared Vanderaa (12-6) made his way into UFC’s win column with a terrific “Fight of the Night” decision over Justin Tafa. He then faced unbeaten Alexander Romanov, who toppled “The Mountain” with ground-and-pound.
He steps in for Philipe Lins on less than one week’s notice.
This is honestly something of a toss up on the feet. Though Murzakanov has a clear edge in footwork, speed, and one-shot power, Vanderaa has six inches of height, nine inches of reach, and somewhere around 40 pounds on him. “The Mountain” also showed remarkable fluidity and volume for his size against Tafa, meaning Murzakanov can’t necessarily run circles around him.
Unfortunately for Vanderaa, Murzakanov has a stout wrestling attack in his back pocket, and the big man’s takedown defense has consistently failed him on the world stage. While he could theoretically outlast Murzakanov in a pure striking battle, “The Professional’s” ground game looks like a deciding factor that Vanderaa can’t overcome. Murzakanov hands him his third UFC loss via ground-and-pound before the third round.
Prediction: Murzakanov via second round technical knockout
170 lbs.: Alex Morono vs. Mickey Gall
Alex Morono (20-7) put a 1-2 (1 NC) skid behind him to win six of his next eight and take home two post-fight bonuses along the way. His current two-fight win streak includes a stoppage of Donald Cerrone and a unanimous decision over David Zawada.
“The Great White” gives up three inches of height and two inches of reach to Mickey Gall (7-3).
Gall — who had just one prior fight under his belt — started his UFC career strong with three straight wins and an upset of Sage Northcutt. He’s since alternated losses and wins, most recently choking out Jordan Williams in July 2021.
All but one of his professional wins have come by rear-naked choke.
I regularly underestimate Morono, whose predilection for looping punches belies some very solid timing, and my knee-jerk reaction was to pick Gall here. On further consideration, however, the case for Gall falls apart. Morono’s never been submitted as a professional, and while he’s not terribly difficult to take down, nobody’s managed to hold him down for extended periods of time. Even if Gall does manage to find early success, it’s inevitable that Morono will get it back to the feet and take over with raw aggression once Gall’s gas tank starts to empty.
Morono will never be a truly elite fighter, but he’s got the right toolbox to wear down Gall and put the hurt on him. In the end, he snowballs his way to an increasingly one-sided win.
Prediction: Morono via unanimous decision
135 lbs.: Louis Smolka vs. Vince Morales
Louis Smolka’s (17-7) once-promising UFC run came to an end when a stunning upset loss to Brandon Moreno kicked off a four-fight losing streak. Three straight finishes on the regional circuit brought him back to the Octagon, where he’s won three of his last five.
He has scored eight professional knockouts and seven submissions.
Vince Morales (10-5) had Domingo Pilarte in all sorts of trouble on “Contender Series,” but fell victim to a comeback submission midway through the second round. He nonetheless found his way to UFC later that year, and has since amassed a 2-3 record.
“Vandetta” will be the shorter man by two inches.
This is one of those match ups that’s “close” in the sense that each of them have gigantic advantages in different areas, meaning it all boils down to where it takes place. On the feet, Smolka’s all-offense approach leaves him dreadfully vulnerable to Morales’ missile of a right hand. On the ground, Morales is no match for “Da Last Samurai’s” beautifully kinetic submission attack.
While Smolka can turn things around in an instant, I favor Morales to keep it in his wheelhouse. Smolka is a historically poor takedown artist who capitalized on Jose Alberto Quinonez’s own takedown attempt to get it to the ground last time. Morales doesn’t figure to give him that same sort of opportunity. An early knockout wouldn’t surprise me, but considering how difficult it is to put Smolka away on the feet, expect Morales to piece him up for a wide decision.
Prediction: Morales via unanimous decision
Four more UFC Vegas 44 “Prelims” undercard bouts remain to preview and predict, including a potentially fiery Flyweight scrap between Manel Kape and Zhalgas Zhumagulov. Same time tomorrow, Maniacs.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 44 fight card right here, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ESPN at 10 p.m. ET.
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