TGIFighting: 2 Names You Need to Know at UFC on ESPN 23

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterApril 30, 2021

Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Happy Friday and welcome back to TGIFighting. We'll get you set for this weekend's MMA action and break down the news of the day. Let's get it on.


UFC on ESPN 23: Not a Good Card…But Here Are Two Names You Need to Know

Just about anything would seem pedestrian after the bona fide blockbuster that was UFC 261, but even graded on a curve, this Saturday's card in Las Vegas is not jumping off the screen.

But there are two names that jump out from the miasma of mediocrity: Jiri Prochazka and Giga Chikadze. They're both fun fighters on the up-and-up in their respective divisions. Wins on Saturday would do a lot to put them on fan radars.

The evening's main event is fairly decent. Dominick Reyes (12-2) is an exciting and charismatic fighter best known for pushing Jon Jones (26-1, 1 NC) to the limit last year. On Saturday he'll engage with Prochazka (27-3-1). The 28-year-old Czech bruiser hasn't lost since 2015, though he's only competed once in the UFC. No UFC experience needed to know his take-two-to-give-one style will resonate with any fight fan. That experience deficit also hasn't stopped him from turning heads in the media for his behavior in and out of the cage, and he's been a hot name in prospecting circles for several years now. 

Prochazka isn't just a good fighter; he's an action fighter. An astonishing 24 of his 27 pro wins have come by knockout. That is pretty good. This bout is likely a title eliminator, with Reyes sitting at No. 3 and Prochazka at No. 5 on the official UFC light heavyweight rankings. 

The co-main event also is a matchup between a newcomer and a veteran. The UFC has positioned the beloved but aging Cub Swanson (27-11)—can you believe he's 37 years old?—to serve as a signature belt-notch for the fast-rising Giga Chikadze (12-2), who is a crisp 5-0 since entering the UFC in 2019.

Steve Luciano/Associated Press

That run of success was a bit of a surprise, as critics had pointed to Chikadze's low level of pre-UFC competition and an underwhelming skill set beyond his kickboxing base. But he's elevated his grappling and is finding ways to win, most recently with a head-kick knockout that earned him his first performance bonus. In short, he's getting better every time he steps inside the fencing.

And yet, not even hot newcomers can save this card from itself. Sorry, but the wow factor simply isn't there. Why not be honest about that fact? Just because it's the UFC doesn't automatically make it a good card. There's no magic fairy dust here. After the main and co-main, no main card fighter cracks the top 10 in his or her division.

If you've got something else to do Saturday night, this could be a card worth skipping. But if you do tune in, Prochazka and Chikadze are the two guys worth keeping an eye on.


Trevor Wittman: Best Coach in MMA?

There's been a recent changing of the guard among MMA's top coaches. Historic gurus like Greg Jackson, Firas Zahabi and Rafael Cordeiro are still much respected but don't shine quite as brightly as they did a few years ago.

Ascending to take their place in the pecking order are coaches like Eugene Bareman at City Kickboxing in New Zealand, who trains UFC middleweight champ Israel Adesanya (20-1) and featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski (22-1). There's also Mike Brown at American Top Team in Florida, who coaches women's double-champ Amanda Nunes (21-4), Dustin Poirier (27-6, 1 NC) and Petr Yan (15-2).

Arguably, however, the top coach in the sport is Trevor Wittman. 

Trevor Wittman (left)
Trevor Wittman (left)Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

Wittman is not exactly new to MMA coaching, but a recent shift to a more personalized approach, grounded in fundamentals, has paid big dividends. Among his charges: welterweight champ Kamaru Usman (19-1), Rose Namajunas (10-4), Stipe Miocic (20-4) and Justin Gaethje (22-3). That's four current or recent champions right there.

"When I was with a big team before, I never got that one-on-one time to pay attention to my movement, my footwork or the way I was punching. Now I have to pay attention to that," Usman told me in February. "I like it at this part of my career. This is the kind of attention I need in order to be able to hold on to that belt."

Kamaru Usman (right) his Jorge Masvidal at UFC 261
Kamaru Usman (right) his Jorge Masvidal at UFC 261Gary McCullough/Associated Press

Last weekend's UFC 261 was Wittman's high-water mark, as Usman emphatically defended his welterweight title, and Namajunas captured the strawweight strap from Zhang Weili (21-2). As always we'll see what happens, but for now, Wittman's on top of the MMA coaching heap.


ONE Championship: Reug Reug Swept Under the Rug

When you're brainstorming a solution to an existing challenge, it's often said that you're throwing what you can against the wall to see what sticks.

Well, ONE Championship keeps trying that, but the walls are made of Teflon. And it's not just a string of bad luck. It's more like bizarre luck, if there is such a thing. 

Wednesday night at ONE on TNT 4 was just the latest example. Oumar "Reug Reug" Kane (3-1), the Senegalese fighter whose go-for-broke knockout power turned heads on social media, lost to thoroughly unheralded Kirill Grishenko (4-0) in perhaps the strangest fashion possible.

At the end of the first round, Grishenko appeared to land a punch an instant after the bell, and Reug Reug staggered back to the floor and began writhing in pain. Word came out that the punch had landed on his throat, though the replay was, shall we say, inconclusive. Reug Reug lost by TKO (retirement). Great.

ONE Championship @ONEChampionship

Kirill Grishenko 🇧🇾 beats "Reug Reug" by TKO! Do YOU agree with the ref's call? @tntdrama @BleacherReport @BR_MMA @brlive #WeAreONE #ONEChampionship #ONEonTNT4 https://t.co/LWP62JaKcU

And it continued. Eddie Alvarez (30-9, 1 NC) was supposed to be a tentpole star for the new and improved ONE, but that wasn't in evidence Wednesday. The promotion essentially gave Alvarez a mulligan for the strange DQ loss he suffered earlier this month, and he repaid the gesture by losing to underdog Rae Yoon Ok (13-3) in an action-packed and close contest. 

Can it go on like this? The odds would have to say no. But I would have said the same thing before Wednesday too.


Stone Cold Lead-Pipe Lock of the Week

Record: 8-0

Most of the fights on Saturday's UFC card are relatively even. But one sticks out as quite the live dog. According to DraftKings, Krzysztof Jotko (22-4) is +210 to upset Sean Strickland (22-3), and here's guessing he does it. Jotko is an action fighter with a strong striking base, while Strickland is more of a ground-and-pound guy prone to bouts of inaction. Jotko should be able to take advantage with output and range control. Lock it in.


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