Derrick Lewis, one of the most popular fighters in the UFC, will take center stage in the Fight Night main event on Saturday as he tries to climb back into the heavyweight title picture at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas.
But Lewis will be in for a potentially difficult battle — stylistically — against veteran Aleksei Oleinik, 43, who is seeking his 60th career win and has 48 career submission wins.
Will Lewis be able to keep the fight standing in the smaller Apex cage and utilize his superior striking, or will Oleinik — nicknamed “The Boa Constrictor” — take it to the mat, where he would have a decisive advantage?
The co-main event features one fighter trying to work his way into the middleweight rankings and a former champ looking to stop a downward slide. Omari Akhmedov is vying for his seventh straight win and a chance to be a factor in the middleweight division, and he’ll have to beat his most noteworthy opponent in order to become one — former champion Chris Weidman.
Weidman hasn’t won in three years and he’s been knocked out in five of his past six fights, all coming against elite competition. Akhmedov has been on a tear, but he isn’t considered to be in the elite class at 185. Can Weidman use Saturday’s matchup as a springboard to another title run?
ESPN’s expert panel of Ariel Helwani, Phil Murphy, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim breaks down those fights and more.
Derrick Lewis has two wins in the past nine months after a two-fight skid. What would a win over Aleksei Oleinik do for him in the heavyweight top 10?
Helwani: I think it sets him up for a fight against either Curtis Blaydes or the winner of next month’s Alistair Overeem-Augusto Sakai fight. A part of me is surprised Lewis hasn’t already fought either Blaydes or Overeem yet, because it feels like he’s been booked against every major heavyweight in the UFC, so I like both of those options for him. In fact, after Overeem’s recent win over Walt Harris, there was some talk of booking Overeem vs. Lewis, but I’m told that was too quick of a turnaround for Overeem, who fights next month.
Murphy: A bottleneck frustrates the heavyweight hierarchy, and Lewis beating Oleinik would only intensify the traffic jam. Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier cap a tremendous trilogy in two weeks. But below them, Francis Ngannou has two wins over Blaydes; Lewis checks in immediately thereafter.
Despite a head-to-head win, Lewis won’t skip Ngannou in the queue for two reasons: Their UFC 226 square dance ranks among the most unwatchable fights in promotion history, and there’s too much public backing for Ngannou to face the Miocic-Cormier winner next.
Assuming Ngannou gets that shot, Blaydes remains an interesting option for a victorious Lewis. At 35 and having publicly mulled retirement three years ago, time is not on Lewis’ side. Consecutive wins over Oleinik and the surging Blaydes would all but guarantee No. 1 contender status. But if Blaydes beats Lewis, that would justify a title fight for the 29-year-old, even if it’s yet another Ngannou rematch.
Raimondi: If Lewis wins here, there’s nowhere else to go for him except against a top-tier opponent. I could see the UFC booking him against Blaydes. Miocic vs. Cormier is set for the heavyweight title a week later and Ngannou is likely next for the winner of that bout. Blaydes is the next man in line behind that trio. Lewis has done enough to earn another contender fight if he can beat the surging Oleinik.
Wagenheim: For Lewis, there’s no real opportunity for upward mobility Saturday. He’s No. 6 in the ESPN heavyweight rankings, stuck behind a logjam of big bodies, and beating the unranked Oleinik would not elevate his standing even if there were room to advance. But the man has to fight in order to put food — lots of food — on his table. And when he fights, he needs to win and do so impressively simply to maintain his top-10 position. On Saturday, Lewis would be wise to put his thunderous fists right to work and try to make it an early night. Twenty-five minutes is a long, treacherous time to have to steer clear of an Ezekiel choke.
How do you like the chances Oleinik getting a tapout against Lewis, who has 31 career fights and just one submission loss?
Helwani: There’s no doubt Lewis’ biggest weakness is his ground game/submission skills. I think he’d admit that, too. Cormier, who beat Lewis in November 2018, can attest to this as well. However, there is a reason he’s only been subbed once in 31 fights: He’s really, really strong. But, if there is one guy who is strong enough to get Lewis to the mat, it is Oleinik, who is incredibly strong, as well, and proficient in the grappling department. Also of note, Oleinik appears to be in the best shape of his life. Look at his physique for the Fabricio Werdum fight in May compared to some of his earlier fights. Big difference. He appears to be slimmer and stronger. So yeah, I could see it happening. I think Oleinik’s best chances of winning are via submission or decision. He doesn’t want to stand with Lewis.
Murphy: Lewis has only tapped once — thank you, Daniel Cormier — but that low number is not exactly a result of Lewis’ Mundial-level jiu-jitsu. Since becoming a ranked heavyweight, very few of his opponents have boasted robust submission pedigrees, until now. Lewis’ takedown defense is a mediocre 53 percent. Even fighters with a striking base had little trouble getting Lewis to the mat. In the opposite corner, only jiu-jitsu black belt and former champion Frank Mir has more UFC submission wins than Oleinik among heavyweights.
What makes the Oleinik particularly dangerous is his famed Ezekiel choke, the only UFC fighter with that submission on a résumé — and Oleinik has two. Deployed from a defensive half-guard, opponents with top position are lulled into vulnerability and choked out with the forearm. It’s completely foreseeable that Lewis could knock down Oleinik and go hunting for a ground-and-pound finish, only to get surprised with unbearable pressure on his throat.
Raimondi: Oleinik is one of the greatest submission artists in the history of heavyweight MMA. But he doesn’t have incredible wrestling. What will be a big advantage for him is the smaller cage at the UFC Apex. There will be less real estate for Lewis to move away and it’ll be easier for Oleinik to get him against the cage. If Oleinik can get Lewis down and get in dominant position, there’s no doubt Oleinik can find a submission. But that remains a big if.
Wagenheim: The odds of Oleinik adding to his gaudy submission total are approximately equal to Lewis’ chances of making Aleksei his 19th knockout victim. Each man’s strength is the other’s weakness, and that makes for an intriguing dance inside the Octagon. Every punch or kick thrown and every shift of position must be measured in terms of risk vs. reward. Each of these finishers knows what he must do and must not do in order to avoid being the one finished, and each has been around long enough to have imposed his will on many a night. Can’t wait to see whose command performance this turns out to be.
Chris Weidman is the A-side of the co-main event, but would Omari Akhmedov become a player at middleweight with a win?
Helwani: I guess it depends on what we mean by player. If we mean someone in the Israel Adesanya/Paulo Costa/Robert Whittaker/Jared Cannonier territory, no, I don’t think he’d enter that group, despite a win. But he would certainly hold a spot in the Darren Till/Yoel Romero/Uriah Hall/Derek Brunson/Edmen Shahbazyan group, and that’s not a bad place to be. Akhmedov has flown under the radar thus far, but extending his unbeaten streak to seven, including five at 185, should get him some more attention, especially considering he’s never been in a high-profile fight like this before.
Murphy: Weidman’s name carries weight. He’s destined for Hall of Fame induction upon retirement. But no one confuses him with the same caliber of fighter who spent more than two years with the middleweight belt on his shoulder. One could argue Akhmedov is the least-established opponent for Weidman since Tom Lawlor at UFC 139. That’s not a knock on Akhmedov or Lawlor; Weidman has only fought bona fide stars for nearly a decade. Even with a 1-5 record since losing his title, Weidman would be easily Akhmedov’s biggest win in a 13-fight UFC career.
The matchup after beating Weidman, though, would be the one that makes the Dagestani fighter a true player at 185. Whether it’s Kelvin Gastelum off a 78-second loss on Fight Island, Derek Brunson or either Yoel Romero or Uriah Hall after they share the Octagon in three weeks, no shortage of appetizing, statement-making options for Akhmedov lie ahead.
Raimondi: Akhmedov has looked great recently, but is still in search of that signature win. A victory over Weidman, the former middleweight champ, would more than fit that bill. Akhmedov has not lost since 2016, but it still feels like he’s mostly anonymous in the middleweight division, where he has yet to lose in the UFC. A win over Weidman would change that in a big way and boost his stock exponentially. Akhmedov could put himself in position to fight someone like Jack Hermansson next or maybe a rematch with Marvin Vettori, who he fought to a draw with in 2017.
Wagenheim: A victory over Weidman does not hold the sway that it once did. The former champion has lost five of his last six fights, all by knockout. But Weidman’s defeats have come against top guys in two divisions: Dominick Reyes, Jacare Souza, Gegard Mousasi, Yoel Romero and Luke Rockhold. So, if Akhmedov is able to add his name to that elite club, it sure would be an attention-grabber. The 32-year-old from Dagestan Is unbeaten in his past six bouts, but there’s no name on his list of conquests that jumps off the page like Weidman’s would. A victory, no matter how explosive or dominant, would not boost Akhmedov right into a title fight, but it would turn some heads in the top 10.
Can Weidman make another title run?
Helwani: I refuse to believe Weidman is done. Yes, I know he has lost five of six. And yes, I know his last victory came more than three years ago. I also concede his move to 205 was ill-advised, more so because he shouldn’t have been booked against Reyes in his divisional debut. But alas, here we are. Has he taken a lot of damage recently? Yes. And that is concerning, especially considering he’s 36. But I think if he gets back to his bread and butter — his ground game — he could still be a player at 185. Will he be a contender or champion again? I think we’re a ways from there and that’s OK. He just has to worry about beating Akhmedov by any means necessary, and I think he can do so. Also of note, he spent the majority of this training camp in South Carolina with Stephen Thompson and his team, and I think the change of scenery could help refine his skills a bit.
Murphy: It’s still unsettling to not see a number next to Weidman’s name in promos. Since starching Mark Muñoz with one of the cleanest counter elbows you’ll ever see, Weidman spent almost seven years on the middleweight A-list. The memory remains fresh, but the 185 ladder has a steeper pitch. At age 36, with five knockout losses in the last five years, it seems all but certain Weidman’s best days are behind him. A loss to Akhmedov would cement that. A win leaves the door ajar for one last climb.
If Weidman turns back the clock Saturday, maybe some contender perceives him an easy résumé booster, and Weidman can cobble together a twilight title run. His reputation would accelerate the path. While I’m a sucker for nostalgia and beating Akhmedov would surprise no one, I highly doubt a Hail Mary return to a belt is in the cards.
Raimondi: Injuries have been a huge issue for Weidman since he dropped the middleweight title. The Long Island, New York, native worked his way up the ladder at 185 pounds with a physical style. He took some damage en route to the belt and that has only continued. Weidman has been finished in his last five losses and is only 1-5 since 2015. There was a time when Weidman was considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, a dominant wrestler with slick boxing and power. At 36 years old, Weidman has a lot of work to get back to that prominence. He’s a tough-minded individual whose mental strength was among his best attributes. Weidman can do it, but it absolutely has to start Saturday. He cannot afford a loss to somewhat of an unknown name in Akhmedov.
Wagenheim: A brilliant performance on Saturday might change my mind (a little), but as I sit here today assessing where Weidman stands 4½ years after losing the middleweight title, I have serious doubts that he still has championship mettle in him. Ever since falling from the ranks of the undefeated in surrendering his belt to Luke Rockhold in December 2015, Weidman has been knocked out in all but one of his five trips back into the Octagon. It hasn’t been pretty. Back in 2013, when he shocked the world with a knockout of the untouchable Anderson Silva, Weidman looked like a champion who might reign forever. But, of course, no one reigns forever. And few who tumble down the mountain so dizzyingly manage to climb back to the top.
Outside of the main and co-main events, which under-the-radar fight are you most excited to see?
Helwani: I’ll pick two: Beneil Dariush vs. Scott Holtzman and Gavin Tucker vs. Justin Jaynes. The former because Dariush is always a tough out and has looked good as of late, winning four in a row with his last three victories coming via impressive finishes. Holtzman, on the other hand, has won two straight and five of six. His most recent win, against Jim Miller, was definitely the highest-profile of his career. It’s good to see “Hot Sauce” get a big fight like this. Meanwhile, Jaynes, if you recall, won his UFC debut in 41 seconds in June in a fight that he accepted on just days’ notice, and this is Gavin Tucker’s first fight since last July, which he won, after a two-year layoff. I’m curious to see if Jaynes can catch lightning in a bottle again, this time against a gritty Canadian.
Murphy: The main card opens with two lightweights who have strung together impressive runs in the UFC’s deepest weight class: Dariush and Holtzman. Dariush has won four straight, with finishes and attached performance bonuses in each of the last three. In his most recent appearance at UFC 248, Dariush abandoned a submission when Drakkar Klose attempted small-digit manipulation. Dariush changed course, walked through shots and flattened Klose with a clean left hook.
Holtzman is 5-1 since the calendar flipped to 2017, including a Fight of the Night win over Jim Miller in the latest. Holtzman’s two wins before that were both knockouts. He seems to have developed an affinity for fighting on the front foot. It’s two well-rounded opponents with significant career consequence hanging overhead. Make sure you don’t miss Saturday’s main-card opener.
Raimondi: Dariush has been excellent lately. Not only has he won four straight, he has earned a Performance of the Night bonus in each of his last three fights. Dariush is a finisher, whether it be with his improving power or his excellent grappling. He’s almost always a fun watch. So is his opponent here in Holtzman, who has won two straight and five of six. The winner of this bout will get a significant step up in the UFC’s stacked lightweight division.
Wagenheim: Dariush (18-4-1, 12-4-1 in the UFC) has won four fights in a row, the last three by finish. Holtzman (14-3, 7-3 UFC) has been victorious in five of his last six, most recently a win over the tough Miller. This matchup of lightweights with double-digit appearances inside the Octagon promises to open Saturday’s main card by setting the bar high for all who follow. And you can be sure I’ll be following this one.