In this week’s “Understanding the Undercard”, we preview the prelims for UFC Vegas 37: Smith vs Spann. UFC Vegas 37 takes place on Saturday, September 18, 2021. The preliminary card begins at 4:00 PM EST on ESPN+.

Montel Jackson vs JP Buys

The Skinny 

Since coming to the UFC, Jackson has easily handled any fighter who couldn’t simply take him down and control him there. Ricky Simon and Brett Johns managed to pick up wins that way, but outside of their success, each of his opponents have dealt with a nightmare combination of long reach (75.5 inches) and solid wrestling in his own right. 

JP Buys came into the UFC with a fair amount of hype, having won a contract on Contender Series alongside his wife. Buys does like to go to the well with his wrestling. Although he didn’t have much time to in his debut, he does have above-average wrestling and should be successful in the UFC with it.

The Final Word

Although the strength of Buys just happens to be the area that Jackson has had trouble with in the past, I expect Jackson to deal with it just fine here. Buys may be able to get in on the legs of a lot of guys in this division, but he’s going to have to avoid those long arms of Jackson – which isn’t easy to do. And I think he’ll have to avoid them when it comes to strikes, but also chokes. The latter of which is where I think this one ends. Jackson by submission.

Impa Kasanganay vs Carlston Harris

The Skinny

For a lot of people, sadly, Impa Kasanganay will always be that guy that Joaquin Buckley KOed. What people are missing is that he’s arguably a better prospect. Not only is he a calm and tactical striker, but last time out he showed some real wrestling and submission skills that scored him a rear-naked choke over Sasha Palatnikov. While I don’t expect that to ever be his go-to style, the developments in the short time he’s been working with Sandford MMA are clear. 

Standing across from Kasanganay is Carlston Harris, a Guyanese fighter with a lot of raw power and great submissions. His d’arce and anaconda chokes particularly stick out as deadly, but he’s dangerous with whatever move he uses when he makes it to the ground.

The Final Word

Although I’m a big fan of the submission skills of Harris, I’m less sold on his ability to take it to the floor. He’s a guy who gets in on a lot of body locks, but perhaps relies a bit more on muscle than technique to finish it. That doesn’t bode well in a fight with Kasanganay, who can match some of that strength and has all the defense to go along with it. This means that the fight will likely take place mostly on the feet. It’s worth keeping an eye on Harris’ power there, but I’ll take Kasanganay’s methodical work to win the day. Kasanganay by decision.

Tony Gravely vs Nate Maness

The Skinny

The fascinating aspect of this fight is in what will transpire in the wrestling department. Both men come from wrestling backgrounds, but have employed those skills completely different (at least in the UFC). Gravely shoots in heavy volume averaging over 11 attempts per 15 minutes. His success percentage is low, but that’s largely because he isn’t afraid to back away and shoot again if he doesn’t get the entry he likes. Maness, on the other hand, uses wrestling in negation. He prefers to strike and has mostly used it to keep his feet, which has been successful.

It’ll also be noteworthy how the wrestling exchanges affect cardio of both men, but particularly of Gravely. His multiple shots are not an issue if he’s getting a lot of control out of them, but if he isn’t it could wear on him in a way that would affect all parts of his game.

The Final Word

I believe that Maness has the defense to at least make Gravely work early for the takedowns. Although I expect Gravely to have some early success, Maness’ jiu-jitsu paired with that defensive wrestling should keep him in the fight. With Gravely slowing down late, I expect Maness to go in for the kill. Maness by (T)KO.

Tafon Nchukwi vs Mike Rodriguez

The Skinny

Nchukwi and Rodriguez make up one of the most interesting pairings in terms of striking on this card. On one hand you have Nchukwi, who is an absolute powerhouse. He throws absolute bombs that resulted in KOs in each of his 4 fights before getting his contract on the Contender Series. Rodriguez is much more refined in his striking. He’s much longer (he’ll have a 5.5” reach advantage) and fights a much more disciplined and safe style. Although that’s not to say that he doesn’t have power. In addition to getting a flying knee KO on Contender Series to get the contract, he’s also picked up a pair of finishes in the UFC as well. 

Another facet that makes this fight interesting is what the clinch would look like. Rodriguez most certainly has the more dangerous attacks from there with his knees, but is also probably safer if he keeps his distance in this fight. Nchukwi is stronger, but being that much shorter is in danger of the knees.

The Final Word

While you can’t doubt that the power exists for Nchukwi, he has shown some real issues landing any of it since stepping up in competition. Both Jun Yong Park and Jamie Pickett avoided the majority of it and made it the 15 minutes with him. Each of those two opponents are less experienced strikers than Mike Rodriguez, both offensively and defensively. For those reasons, I think Rodriguez avoids the big blow and simply wears Nchukwi out with his diverse striking game. Rodriguez by decision.

Raquel Pennington vs Pannie Kianzad

The Skinny

Pennington has been a stalwart of the top of the bantamweight division for years now. While she’s come up short against Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes in her two biggest fights, a win over Miesha Tate as well as other high-profile fighters has her still wandering close to a title shot. Her grinding style has always been what sticks out best about her. She’s got solid takedowns that she mixes in just enough to not be predictable, and those are a big part of winning rounds for her. 

Kianzad started off as a little bit of a grinder like Pennington, but her hands have really begun to develop as her best tool. She doesn’t have the most power in the division, but the output alone is something to keep an eye on. In each of the 4 fights on her recent win streak, she has amassed at least 90 landed strikes, while twice going over 100.

The Final Word

I expect that Pennington is going to want this fight in close quarters. Although she may look for takedowns, she may settle just for cage control time. The problem is that I just don’t see Pennington doing enough with that time to win rounds. The advantage and the optics of Kianzad piecing her up on the feet ultimately will be too much for judges to overlook. Kianzad by decision.

Erin Blanchfield vs Sarah Alpar

The Skinny

Erin Blanchfield is the lone newcomer on the undercard this weekend. She is only 22-year old, but sports an impressive resume in both jiu-jitsu and MMA. In 2017, when Blanchfield was just 18-years old, she was invited to the 16-woman field of EBI 12. Not only did she participate, but she subbed all 4 of her opponents en route to the belt. On the MMA side, she’s a veteran of Invicta with wins over UFC veterans Victoria Leonardo and Kay Hansen

Alpar takes this fight as her first at flyweight since joining the UFC off the Contender Series in 2019. Alpar was TKOed by Jessica-Rose Clark in her debut, but showed the pressure and control that Dana came to love on the Tuesday staple.

The Final Word

While I think the pressure Alpar brings could make this interesting, I have a tough time believing that she’s going to be able to deal with the grappling of Blanchfield. I expect that pressure to start nearly immediately, but fade with both the threats of Blanchfield and with the possible issues with the new weight class. Alpar has only been submitted once before in her career, but this is clearly the most polished grappler she’s ever faced. Blanchfield by submission.

Emily Whitmire vs Hannah Goldy

The Skinny

Coming off of TUF 26, it was pretty clear what Whitmire was good at. She quickly submitted Christina Marks in the first round of the tournament and showed off not just the submission skills, but the ability to take the fight to the mat as well. Shortly into her UFC career, we saw more of the same. She dropped down to strawweight and found much success with her grappling against the likes of Jamie Moyle and Aleksandra Albu. However, since then she’s run into two solid submission threats in their own right that were just a little too much for ‘Spitfire’ on the mat. It doesn’t change that she is still very good in that facet, but just shows that she may need to level up to compete with the division’s most elite grapplers.

After losing her UFC debut in August of 2019, Goldy spent a lot of time on the shelf. Various obstacles kept her away for the better part of two years, only finally allowing her back in the cage this past July. In that fight, she looked to get some of her own wrestling going. However, she was pretty badly outmatched on the feet by Diana Belbita, making it do that the takedowns she did get didn’t amount to much in terms of winning rounds. Her physicality continues to be her best trait as she attempts to outwork her opponents in closed quarters.

The Final Word

Goldy, as she will in nearly every fight, is going to be the physically stronger fighter. However, I think the choice to come back to flyweight was a good one for Whitmire. It’ll make it so that she has more energy and I think the technical aspects of her clinch game are strong enough to give Goldy problems. In addition, no matter who is on top if this hits the mat, I think Whitmire will have a distinct advantage and could potentially pick up a submission. I’ll play it safe with the prediction, but I do think Whitmire is the smart pick here. Whitmire by decision.

Gustavo Lopez vs Heili Alateng

The Skinny

The UFC has done very little favors for Lopez since he came over from Combate Global. The Xtreme Couture product got a match-up with Merab Dvalishvili straight out of the gate. Then, after picking up one win over Anthony Birchak, was then set up with Adrian Yanez. The results are about as expected – outwrestled by Dvalishvili, tagged by Yanez. With that being said, there is a lot of promise for Lopez. His forward-moving style makes a lot of opponents uncomfortable and he has an uncanny ability to turn lights off in a violent way.

Alateng is a fighter who largely does his best work with takedowns. He has a number of trips that he uses after catching a leg but also has strong double leg and body clinch games as well. The problem with his takedown game is that he usually struggles to get it going until his opponent wears out. 100% of his successful takedown attempts have come in the third round since joining the UFC. On the feet, he likes to work mostly as a counter puncher, with a nice lead hook.

The Final Word

With not a lot of grappling working for Alateng until his opponent gets tired, I expect this fight to also be contested mostly on the feet in the early going. Furthermore, Lopez has a great gas tank and it’s hard to imagine him being tired even in the third round. More importantly, with the power that Lopez brings and Alateng’s willingness to mix it up with counters, I just can’t imagine it getting to the third round anyways. Lopez by KO.

Dakota Bush vs Zhu Rong

The Skinny

For his UFC debut, Dakota Bush got the tall task of fighting Austin Hubbard on short notice. Although it got him to the dance, it did not go as planned. Hubbard turned up the pressure the way that Hubbard typically does and had Bush on the back foot for nearly all of the fight. For Bush’s style of fighting, that’s less than ideal. He likes to have the forward momentum when he does strike, but more importantly, he likes it because he is a talented grappler, particularly against the cage. He’s got a slew of submissions and his counters and sweeps are a big part of setting those up.

Rong was one of the handful of hyped Chinese prospects the UFC signed ahead of UFC 261. He clearly has a lot of power in his hands (and legs) judging by some of the shows he’s put on during his time on the regional circuit. However, in his UFC debut, the 21-year old looks hesitant to engage. That may have been in part because the exchanges he was having with Rodrigo Vargas were mostly not going his way. With such reduced volume from his norm, it really negated a lot of the chance he had to land the big blow. Add in that he looked pretty tired towards the end of the fight and it’s easy to see why his best weapons never came into play.

The Final Word

I expect Bush to move forward and try to get Rong up against the cage for a lot of this fight. This will allow him to work in some of that wrestling I spoke of, but will also make Rong work. Tiring him out will take away some of that big power he possesses – as will putting him on the back leg for the majority of the fight. Rong will need to look for a big shot countering Bush, but that’s not really his game. As a result, I like Bush here. Bush by submission.

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.