In this week’s “Understanding the Undercard”, we preview the prelims for UFC 266. UFC 266 takes place on Saturday, September 25, 2021. The preliminary card begins at 6:00 PM EST on ESPN+.

Marlon Moraes vs Merab Dvalishvili

The Skinny 

Merab Dvalishvili has become one of those guys who despite where he’s ranked in the UFC’s official rankings, comes in as a massive betting favorite for every fight. This is largely due to the way he chains relentless takedown attempts together. He averages nearly 7.5 takedowns per 15 minutes of fighting. Some of that is inflated by his back-to-back performances against Casey Kenney and Gustavo Lopez, where he scored 12 and 13 respectively. On the feet, he’s much more of a rote striker but seems to be finding his legs there as time goes.

Moraes is really on the opposite side of the Dvalishvili spectrum. Once a title challenger, it seems like nobody believes in him to get it done anymore due to 3 losses in his last 4 fights. Those losses come at the hands of Henry Cejudo, Cory Sandhagen, and Rob Font. The crazy thing about all of that though, is that against those 3 opponents, he out-landed them in takedowns 3-to-1. Former champ-champ Henry Cejudo was the only one to get him down and he went 1 of 4 doing so.

The Final Word

I’m a big fan of the takedown game of Merab Dvalishvili. However, he did not seem to be able to hold his opponents down in his last two fights, nor did he score at a high rate. My concern here is that if he cannot have any sustained success with the grappling, that he should be heavily outmatched on the feet. As a result, I’m going with the upset here. Moraes by decision.

Dan Hooker vs Nasrat Haqparast

The Skinny

Perhaps the oddest part of breaking down this fight is whether the fight will happen, and if it does, how will the circumstances of arrival to the US affect the outcome. Hooker had to take to Twitter to pressure the embassy to get him a Visa and now will arrive less than 24 hours before weigh-ins. Haqparast is only hoping for such a situation. He sent additional information to his governmental body on Tuesday and still is holding on to faith that this will happen. If it does, both men will essentially be cutting weight in the air.

As far as who all of this affects more, I would imagine it’s Haqparast. He enjoys implementing a grinding style that may be less sustainable should his weight cut become compromised. Additionally, the height and range advantage for Hooker is already going to make Haqparast work harder to get on the inside.

The Final Word

Even if these two were not affected by the insanity surrounding their travel, I would still like Hooker here as a more consistent threat on the feet. He’s faced very high-level strikers and hung with them. I believe that’s where his advantage will shine brightest and likely pile up on Haqparast. Hooker by decision.

Shamil Abdurakhimov vs Chris Daukaus

The Skinny

It’s been over two years since we saw Abdurakhimov in the cage. However, when he was in there, he looked every bit the top 10 heavyweight that he is. His lone two losses in his last seven fights come to Curtis Blaydes and Derrick Lewis. In the Lewis fight, I was surprised by how well he hung on the feet with “The Black Beast” and he even managed to trip into some takedowns. If you look back at the wins, that seems to be the common thread – the ability to hang on the feet and get his opponent down.

There isn’t much we can say about Daukaus thus far in the UFC. That’s mostly because he’s knocking out opponents at an insane pace that doesn’t really let us see much of his game. He did manage to stuff the only attempt at a takedown from Aleksei Oleinik, but that was more due to the striking threat than the wrestling defense.

The Final Word

It’ll be interesting to see if Abdurakhimov goes to the wrestling early – both in that he would be showing his game plan right out of the gate and to see how Daukaus defends. Ultimately, I think Daukaus is going to have enough time and success on the feet here that even the tough chin of the Russian will not hold up. Daukaus by (T)KO.

Roxanne Modafferi vs Taila Santos

The Skinny

One of the ‘OG’s of women’s MMA, Roxanne Modafferi has made a career by proving people wrong. She has never been the most imposing, the fastest, or even the most skilled. However, she’s always made up for that with the will and a grinding style that has a way of finding the openings needed to work into quality positions.

Taila Santos has shown that she can be imposing and particularly against fighters who want to get physical with her. Molly McCann tried to get in her face and brawl and Santos turned it into a grappling match – seemingly at will. With the exception of her UFC debut, that has been how she’s handled pretty much all of her fights.

The Final Word

Modafferi has been able to will her way through opponents who might not have the physical strength or stamina as her. Taila should be able to not only match those things, but also exceed them. Furthermore, should Santos try to avoid the ground altogether and turn this into a striking match, she should land at will and have an easy time there too. Santos by decision.

Uros Medic vs Jalin Turner

The Skinny

In the limited amount we’ve seen Medic, he’s shown just what a dynamic striker he is. While everyone is enamoured with his KO power. What stands out more to me is his ability to accelerate forward during combinations without jeopardizing his head movement. This makes him uniquely dangerous for that KO power, because it is hard to counter given the speed and angles it is coming from.

Turner has shown glimpses of some solid striking as well. However, his bread and butter has been top control and any number of threats when he gets there. His positioning is designed to create openings both for strikes and for submission attempts. The lone drawback is that those who have been able to squelch his grappling, or even use some of their own, have had a much easier time with him.

The Final Word

The grappling defense is a bit of an unknown from Medic. I assume Turner is going to want to turn to that, as I doubt he’ll find a ton of success on the feet. While it’s a little risky to assume that Medic is going to be able to avoid the counter double leg, I think he has a better chance at landing his big shot than he does failing in those other moments. Medic by (T)KO.

Manon Fiorot vs Mayra Bueno Silva

The Skinny

Manon Fiorot appears to be a darling of the UFC. Prior to her last fight, there was a hype video package dedicated to her specifically. And it makes perfect sense why they would be. In just two UFC fights she has two incredible finishes. Her striking is incredibly quick and comes without any telegraphing. She also possesses really solid wrestling, although it has yet to need to be showcased yet.

Mayra Bueno Silva has one of the oddest runs of success in the UFC and Contender Series. Despite having never shot a single takedown herself, she has three submission victories. That includes a pair of armbars off of her back and an anaconda choke off a sprawl. Those submission skills are great, but she’d much rather be swinging, which at times can work. It is definitely a far less dangerous weapon for her.

The Final Word

There is no reason on Earth that Fiorot would shoot a takedown in this fight. That means it should take place entirely on the feet. Silva does not have the speed or the tactical approach to be able to challenge the much more talented Fiorot in that realm. She’d do herself a favor if she tried to get the fight down, but I just don’t think she will. Fiorot by (T)KO.

Karl Roberson vs Nick Maximov

The Skinny

Since coming to the UFC, Roberson has been a very easy person to get a read on. When he can go toe-to-toe with someone in the clinch, he has a great time. It comes at the hands of his elbows primarily, but he works some excellent knees as well. The downfall is that when he is in the clinch, he’s at risk of being taken down, which has been the primary issue in all of his losses. He does a good job of landing elbows during takedown attempts against the cage, but unless that stuns the opponent, it just leads to an easier finish of the attempt.

Nick Maximov is a little bit of a question mark. On one hand, his wrestling looked great on The Contender Series. Not only did he plow through his opponent easily, but he did so on short notice up two weight classes. However, before that bout, his opponents were a combined 2-14. So that is really the only fight that serves as a baseline for what he’s capable of, and it’s a shoddy one at that.

The Final Word

While we can’t be too sure of what Maximov brings in an MMA fight, I do like what I have seen from him on the submission grappling circuit as well. Ultimately, I think that it will be good enough to give some people in this division trouble. The fact that it tends to be the weakness of Roberson gives me reason to believe he can get it done. Maximov by submission.

Matthew Semelsberger vs Martin Sano Jr.

The Skinny

Matthew Semelsberger has shown a wide range of skills in his short time in the UFC. In his first fight, he showed off a quality range striking game and then turned to his takedowns late. Those takedowns included a big, blast double – something you’d imagine with a wrestling background he might use more. Then in his second fight, he came out with big power shots and put Jason Witt out in just 16 seconds. He faltered a bit in his third fight, but showed he could take a shot and wasn’t afraid to mix it up.

If you didn’t know Sano Jr. was a protege of Nick Diaz, you would be very confused as to why he is on this card. He comes in at 0-2-1 in his last 3 and hasn’t won a fight since April of 2014. His last fight, which took place in Bellator saw him get taken down quickly and he looked like a fish out of water on the mat.

The Final Word

Semelsberger is probably the safest pick on this entire card. Sano leans way in with his head when he strikes and is liable to get KOed by Semelsberger. However, I think the smarter route for him would be to take Sano down, where he seems leagues behind him too. Semelsberger by (T)KO.

Omar Morales vs Jonathan Pearce

The Skinny

Omar Morales made his name and earned his contract through his big punching power. He certainly does have some explosive hands, but he occasionally doesn’t push enough to get to use them. He throws a lot of strikes regardless, but many of them are well out of range and seem perfunctory rather than with a purpose. That’s why he sports a very low striking accuracy rate of 37%. It is also likely why his KOs have begun to escape him in his last few fights.

Jonathan Pearce is a guy who was well known for his ground work prior to the UFC. He has solid submissions and some dangerous ground and pound. However, he has also recently developed some really nice striking that mixes in with his takedowns. You can likely credit his work at Fight Ready MMA for that. The comfortability and success on the feet is leading to more output and more openings to bring the fight where he actually prefers it.

The Final Word

Morales tends to be just a little too complacent for me. He misses with a lot of strikes and he is facing someone who doesn’t. He’s also facing someone who throws nearly three-times as many strikes as he does. I think Pearce may eventually get this down thanks to openings he makes in the striking, but even if he doesn’t I think he can take this one in volume alone on the feet. Pearce by decision.

Daniel "Gumby" Vreeland has been an MMA writer for over a decade. He currently hosts The Top Turtle Podcast and is a member of the UFC's ranking panel.