With Jon Jones sidelined due to a pectoral injury, UFC 295 has undergone a dramatic reshuffle, thrusting Sergei Pavlovich and Tom Aspinall into the co-main event. Their clash promises a bloody affair, setting the tone for the main event showdown between Jiri Prochazka and Alex Pereira at Madison Square Garden this Sunday.
As we delve into the prelims, the star power may not be blinding, but the matchups promise an undercard worthy of attention. This is evident in the Featherweight opening act between Dennis Buzukja and Jamall Emmers, two strikers with a point to prove in snapping their losing skids.
Pintsized’s pick of the prelims involves a wrestling-centric battle between UFC veteran Jared Gordon and former Olympic wrestler Mark Madsen. Both fighters have been treading water in the Lightweight rankings for some time now and an emphatic win at MSG could propel their career towards the next level.
Steve Erceg vs Alessandro Costa
Steve Erceg earned the right to headline the UFC 295 prelims following his shock debut victory over David Dvorak at UFC 289. The Australian unveiled a patient striking clinic on the outside that bamboozled his highly-rated opponent with sharp counters. While the pace was one-note throughout, Erceg’s ‘performance of the night’ win announced his entry to a stacked UFC Flyweight division.
Standing in Erceg’s way to the top is Brazilian ground specialist Alessandro Costa. After succumbing late in the fight to Amir Albazi, Costa rebounded with a resounding second-round ground and pound victory over Jimmy Flick. The Brazilian showcased excellent TDD against a game wrestler, allowing him to punish Flick’s extended lead leg during the first round. Costa’s smart gameplan forced Flick into panic wrestling, burning extensive energy and eventually setting up the finish in the next round.
Erceg vs Costa Prediction: Costa Decision
Tabatha Ricci vs Lupita Godinez
Tabatha Ricci has raced to a four-fight streak since being sent to the shadow realm in her UFC debut against Manon Fiorot. The submission specialist may have only picked up one stoppage victory along the way, a second-round armbar against Jessica Penne, but Ricci has impressively controlled her opponents on the mat. With each win showcasing increasingly sharpened wrestling, it suggests her late-notice loss to Fiorot was a risk to enter the UFC.
While Lupita Godinez will be more than happy to grapple with ‘Baby Shark’ on the mat, the 30-year-old will do so with a significant size disadvantage. ‘Loopy’ carries greater power on the feet, providing a clear edge between two rudimentary strikers, however, she has shown herself unable to fight to her advantage in the past when pressured by Angela Hill and Luana Carolina. Now sitting on a three-fight win streak, Godinez appears to have joined the pieces together and will present a more well-rounded skillset than Ricci can match.
Ricci vs Godinez Prediction: Godinez Decision
Mateusz Rebecki vs Roosevelt Roberts
The UFC remain patient in building up former FEN Lightweight champion, Mateusz Rebecki. Since his first-round submission victory on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2022, the Pole has beaten Nick Fiore and Loik Radzhabov across 2023. Rebecki adopts a shifty front-foot striking style that is begging to be head-kicked into next week. By using pressure on the feet, however, ‘Rebeasti’ avoids being punished for his inferior reach as well as closing the distance for takedowns.
A similar intensity to close the distance will be required if Rebecki wishes to avoid Roosevelt Roberts‘ sniping straight counters. After Ignacio Bahamondes had sent the prospect back to the regionals in 2021, Roberts returns to the Octagon this Sunday following a strong showing on The Ultimate Fighter 31. Regular stance switches prevent opponents from diving into takedowns, as does ‘The Predator’s low volume. While Roberts possesses the firepower to produce eye-catching single strikes, his inactivity lends itself to scorecard troubles, as seen in his split decision loss to Austin Hubbard.
Rebecki vs Roberts Prediction: Rebecki TKO Round 3
Nazim Sadykhov vs Viacheslav Borshchev
After starting his career with a first-round submission loss, Nazim Sadykhov has burnt through a nine-win streak, including eight finishes. While ‘The Black Wolf’ was fortunate to earn a UFC debut win over Evan Elder via a headbutt-induced cut, his second-round submission win over Terrance McKinney underlined his credentials. Fighting through adversity on the mat during a torturous first round, Sadykhov entered round two with greater aggression on the feet before reversing McKinney’s takedown and submitting him.
He will face an entirely different style on Sunday, however, when he meets the ice-cool striking of Viacheslav Borschev. Despite falling to back-to-back decision losses in 2022, ‘Slava Claus’ went back to the drawing room and patched up his leaky TDD. While his last opponent, Maheshate, isn’t the strongest wrestler, Borschev was able to deny both takedown attempts. With greater confidence in his ability to keep the fight on the feet, Borschev picked apart his opponent with ease, utilising his trademark straight-right-to-liver-shot combo throughout.
Sadykhov vs Borshchev Prediction: Borschev TKO Round 2
Jared Gordon vs Mark Madsen
Jared Gordon may have had eleven fights in the UFC before facing Paddy Pimblett, but it was only in that defeat to close out 2022 that people took notice of the Lightweight. Dana was unwilling to risk his scouse cash cow in an immediate rematch with Gordon, instead pushing the ageing veteran into an unenviable fight against veteran striker Bobby Green. The end result was a first-round no-contest following an accidental clash of heads, leaving Gordon stranded in Lightweight purgatory.
While no one can deny the technical and athletic prowess of Mark Madsen, the Dane’s fatal flaws were brutally exposed last time out against Grant Dawson. The 39-year-old’s lightning-fast starts enabled him to tear away to a 4-0 start in his UFC career, though, this approach was proven a necessity to patch over later round gas tank troubles. If Gordon can survive the first round on the mat, as he has capably shown over the years, then a late-round stoppage is imminent.
Gordon vs Madsen Prediction: Gordon Submission Round 3
Kyung Ho Kang vs John Castaneda
Rather than hang up his gloves after an all-veteran affair against Rani Yahya in 2021, the 36-year-old Kyung Ho Kang has picked up a pair of wins against competent opposition. Across a stop-start career with military conscription, the Korean continues to present powerful wrestling and a strong top control. His striking, while still serviceable, has lost whatever pop there used to be as his athleticism wanes.
Whether John Castaneda possesses the firepower to benefit from Kang’s striking shortcomings is up for debate. ‘Sexi Mexi’ has just one knockout win across five UFC fights, which itself came against a thoroughly weathered Eddie Wineland. While Castenda could struggle to survive if he finds himself on his back, the 31-year-old showcased exceptional TDD last time out – stuffing all six takedown attempts by Muin Gafurov. As the fresher fighter of the two, I’m edging Castaneda to keep this standing long enough to secure the scorecards.
Kang vs Castaneda Prediction: Castaneda Decision
Joshua Van vs Kevin Borjas
On paper, Joshua Van‘s UFC debut victory over Zhalgas Zhumagulov doesn’t scream ‘hot prospect’. Zhumagluv’s 14-8 record is deceiving, however, as his granite chin and tough pace forced Van to work through all fifteen minutes. The 22-year-old passed the test on the scorecards, remaining calm when backed onto the cage, before piecing together scoring combinations in the centre of the octagon.
Van will face a different threat on Sunday as Kevin Borjas brings his fearsome firepower to the UFC. The former Inka FC Flyweight champion earned his UFC debut after cruising to a decision victory on the feet against Victor Dias on DWCS. Not only do both men prefer to keep things standing, but they lean on offence more than defence. Dias’ head-hunting presents a real threat in the opening round, however, Van’s variation should be favoured in a back-and-forth affair.
Van vs Borjas Prediction: Van TKO Round 2
Dennis Buzukja vs Jamall Emmers
Dennis Buzukja didn’t earn himself any brownie points when he missed weight in his UFC debut loss against Sean Woodson, although the late-notice call-up likely cut him some slack. The 26-year-old is a game striker who flies out of the blocks in an attempt to set his preferred pace. Unfortunately, Buzukja lacks a consistent jab, so oftentimes, he finds himself standing in the pocket as a sitting duck.
It could prove a fatal flaw against the fleet footwork of Jamall Emmers. While ‘Pretty Boy’ finds himself 1-2 in his last three fights, a combination of shoddy scoring and poor decision-making are to blame. Technically, Emmers is a pleasure to watch, consistently keeping a strong base beneath him to stick and move. With regular kicks through the middle, he has the potential to catch Buzukja sleeping in the pocket.
Buzukja vs Emmers Prediction: Emmers TKO Round 1