The UFC bantamweight contender picture will gain some clarity Saturday night.
Marlon Moraes meets Cory Sandhagen in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The card will take place at the Flash Forum on Yas Island, which the UFC has dubbed “Fight Island,” the promotion’s international home during the coronavirus pandemic.
Going in, ESPN has Moraes ranked No. 2 in the world at bantamweight and Sandhagen at No. 6. The winner could be a future title contender.
Moraes (23-6-1) has won five of his past six fights, with the only loss in that time coming to Henry Cejudo in a bout for the then-vacant bantamweight title. Moraes, a 32-year-old Brazilian, is coming off a split-decision win over former featherweight champ Jose Aldo at UFC 245 last December. Moraes is the former World Series of Fighting bantamweight champion, and he already owns wins over UFC bantamweight contenders Aljamain Sterling and Jimmie Rivera.
Sandhagen (12-2) lost for the first time during his UFC run at UFC 250 in June, a submission defeat to Sterling. Sandhagen, a Colorado resident, was on a seven-fight winning streak prior to that. The 28-year-old is thought to be a future star in the division, with precision striking and unorthodox footwork somewhat reminiscent of former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz.
In the co-main event Saturday, Edson Barboza and Makwan Amirkhani meet in a clash of featherweights. Barboza (20-9), a 34-year-old Brazilian, has lost five of six. Amirkhani (16-4), a 31-year-old from Finland, has won three of four.
Also on the card, Ben Rothwell meets Marcin Tybura in a heavyweight battle; Markus Perez faces South African prospect Dricus Du Plessis at middleweight; and Youssef Zalal tries to win his fourth UFC fight of the year, against Ilia Topuria in a featherweight bout.
Fight in progress: Middleweight: Impa Kasanganay (8-0, 1-0 UFC, -240) vs. Joaquin Buckley (10-3, 0-1 UFC, +200)
Men’s bantamweight: Tony Kelley (7-2, 1-1 UFC) def. Ali AlQaisi (8-5, 0-2 UFC) by unanimous decision (Watch this fight on ESPN+)
These two went at it for the full 15 minutes and then an additional 10 seconds. Yes, even after the horn sounded to end Round 3 of a fight that featured some wild striking exchanges and in-and-out-of-danger grappling scrambles, they were still in each other’s faces and shoving.
In the end, Kelley got the nod from all three judges — 29-28 on two scorecards and 30-27 on the other — and secured his first UFC victory.
Round 1 was one long grappling scramble. Kelley, a 33-year-old out of Shreveport, Louisiana, briefly locked up a triangle early, and when AlQaisi fought his way out of trouble, the Jordanian ended up securing a guillotine, a choke he has used to win three of his previous fights. But Kelley remained calm, escaped the position and ended the round threatening to end the fight with a triangle armbar.
The other two rounds had grappling scrambles as well, but there was more standup fighting, with Kelley landing the more damaging blows but AlQaisi, 30, showing that he is dangerous as well. At one point, he connected with two straight spinning backfists.
But it was not enough for AlQaisi, who lost for the second straight time — both of his UFC bouts — after coming to the promotion riding a five-fight winning streak.
Men’s featherweight: Giga Chikadze (11-2, 4-0 UFC) def. Omar Morales (10-1, 2-1 UFC) by unanimous decision (Watch this fight on ESPN+)
Chikadze clearly wanted the knockout, swinging for the fences throughout the fight. And he almost got it in the third round.
Chikadze dropped Morales with a missile-like overhand right, then pounced and attempted to land big ground-and-pound strikes. The previously undefeated Morales somehow survived, but Chikadze still picked up a unanimous-decision victory (30-27, 30-27, 30-27) in a featherweight bout.
Morales was extremely game. He pushed forward for most of the fight, but Chikadze, a Glory Kickboxing veteran and karate black belt, showed his superior technical striking chops, landing straight lefts from southpaw stance and cracking body kicks. When Chikadze saw openings, he swung with everything he had, but never quite connected until the third.
Chikadze, 32, has won six straight, including his first four in the UFC. The Republic of Georgia native is still seeking his first UFC finish. Morales, a 34-year-old Venezuela native, was 2-0 in the UFC coming in.
Women’s bantamweight: Tracy Cortez (8-1, 2-0 UFC) def. Stephanie Egger (5-2, 0-1 UFC) by unanimous decision (Watch this fight on ESPN+)
Cortez continued her roll in her second UFC bout. She won her eighth straight with a strong performance over Egger, beating her to the punch in the fight’s rare striking exchanges and controlling her on the canvas for nearly the entire time.
The 26-year-old from Scottsdale, Arizona, had nearly 10 minutes of control time on the canvas during her 15 minutes in the cage with Eggers, who was making her UFC debut.
All three judges scored the bout 30-27 for Cortez.
“It’s quite an experience to say the least, I’m just really grateful that I can say that I’m part of this history, so I’m very grateful for that and very happy that I got to experience it,” said Cortez. “Would I want to come back? Probably not. I want to go fight in Vegas, in my back yard, have my family there to support me for once. A lot of my fights haven’t been in the States, so hopefully the next one can be in town.”
Egger, who is 32 and from Switzerland, had won three fights in a row.
Men’s flyweight: Tagir Ulanbekov (11-1, 1-0 UFC) def. Bruno Silva (10-5-2, 0-3 UFC) by unanimous decision (Watch this fight on ESPN+)
Silva, the significantly shorter man, had to make it a brawl. He succeeded in doing so, but it still wasn’t enough.
Ulanbekov kept Silva at bay in a unanimous-decision win (30-27, 29-28, 29-28) to open UFC Fight Night: Moraes vs. Sandhagen. Silva made things ugly. He closed the distance, created scrambles and roped Ulanbekov into wild exchanges.
But Ulanbekov still did more damage, opening up a cut to the side of Silva’s right eye in the second round. Ulanbekov was also able to out-wrestle Silva in spots, though Silva refused to go away. The fight finished with Silva pushing ahead and throwing haphazard hooks. He landed two hard left ones and Ulanbekov landed a hard right. It was a fun way to end an entertaining, back-and-forth battle.
Ulanbekov, 29, has now won four straight. This was the Russia native’s UFC debut. Silva, a 30-year-old Brazil native, has dropped all three of his UFC fights since debuting in 2019.
Still to come:
Men’s bantamweight: Marlon Moraes (23-6-1, 5-2 UFC, +120) vs. Cory Sandhagen (12-2, 5-1 UFC, -140)
Men’s featherweight: Edson Barboza (20-9, 14-9 UFC, -260) vs. Makwan Amirkhani (16-4, 6-2 UFC, +220)
Heavyweight: Ben Rothwell (38-12, 8-6 UFC, -150) vs. Marcin Tybura (19-6, 6-5 UFC, +130)
Middleweight: Markus Perez (12-3, 2-3 UFC, +140) vs. Dricus Du Plessis (14-2, 0-0 UFC, -160)
Heavyweight: Tom Aspinall (8-2, 1-0 UFC, -625) vs. Alan Baudot (8-1, 0-0 UFC, +450)
Men’s featherweight: Youssef Zalal (10-2, 3-0 UFC, -160) vs. llia Topuria (8-0, 0-0 UFC, +130)
Middleweight: Tom Breese (11-2, 4-2 UFC, -250) vs. KB Bhullar (8-0, 0-0 UFC, +210)
Heavyweight: Chris Daukaus (9-3, 1-0 UFC, +230) vs. Rodrigo Nascimento (8-0, 1-0 UFC, -270)
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