UFC women’s strawweight contenders Mackenzie Dern and Yan Xiaonan look to shake up the rankings as they go head-to-head at the UFC APEX in Las Vegas on Saturday (7 p.m. ET on ESPN+, with prelims at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN+).
Dern, ranked No. 6 in ESPN’s divisional rankings, earned a split decision win over Tecia Torres in her last bout in April. Yan, who is ranked just ahead of Dern at No. 5, is coming off back-to-back losses in her past two fights.
On the same night, Bellator hosts Bellator 286 at Long Beach Arena in Long Beach. The main event features Adam Borics challenging reigning featherweight champion Patricio ‘Pitbull’ Freire. Freire is ranked No. 3 in ESPN’s featherweight rankings.
Brett Okamoto spoke to Xtreme Couture MMA coach Eric Nicksick to get his perspective on the matchup in the UFC main event, and ESPN’s betting experts Ian Parker and Reed Kuhn add their insights and analysis for the main events of both fight cards and other intriguing bets they like.
Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Women’s strawweight: Mackenzie Dern vs. Yan Xiaonan
Eric Nicksick, Xtreme Couture MMA coach
How Dern wins: The obvious answer is getting Yan to the floor and finding a submission. However, taking a fight there hasn’t always been the easiest for Dern. Her striking has significantly improved under coach Jason Parillo, and blending that striking with her wrestling will be very important in this fight. Feinting level changes within sequences will force Yan to respect the potential takedown, which could slow the output of Yan’s striking. That’s where Dern can do her best work and possibly sneak in a takedown off a trip or even go as far as pulling guard. Once it does hit the mat, look for Dern to advance position and work for a finish.
How Yan wins: Yan needs to lean heavily on her footwork and angles to make it difficult for Dern to find those takedowns. She should apply anti-wrestling strikes, meaning strikes up the mid-line, in her combinations. That will deter Dern from changing levels for a takedown.
Equally important for Yan will be attacking Dern’s body, especially in a five-round fight. She needs to try to wear on Dern’s cardio. Those attacks fall well in line with the anti-wrestling strikes as well.
X factor: Yan’s continued training at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento. It’s a great way for Yan to improve wrestling, but will it be enough to stop Dern from taking her down? Looking back at Yan’s loss to Carla Esparza, she really had trouble in the grappling department. If she hasn’t improved a lot in that area, it might be a quick night.
Prediction: Dern via submission, third round
Parker: Yan to win (+200). Dern will have a big advantage on the ground if she can get it there, and it could be a difficult task based on what we saw in her last two fights. The blueprint to defeat Dern was laid out by Marina Rodriguez — keep the fight standing and get the fight back to the feet, even if you have a dominant position on the mat.
At almost a 2-1 underdog, I like Yan here. She will be the superior striker, and I believe she will be the physically stronger athlete of the two. She had a hard time stopping Esparza’s takedowns, but to be fair, Esparza is a fantastic wrestler, and Dern doesn’t have the same entries as her. I expect this fight to be similar to the Rodriguez fight for Dern, and if she can’t get it to the ground, I think Yan boxes her up.
Kuhn: Dern to win (-230). Though a sizable underdog, Yan has clear advantages in striking. She maintains superior precision while utilizing a more aggressive pace. Arguably, Dern is still improving her striking with each fight, but she’s unlikely to win clear rounds without changing levels.
And, that’s where Dern’s base as an elite grappler will kick in. Yan’s takedown defense of 65% probably won’t hold up for long. Once on the ground, Dern will have an advantage in experience, positioning and threat of submissions. Dern should spend plenty of time on the mat, and with five rounds to work, she could find an opening for a submission at some point.
Best bets on the rest of the card
Welterweight: Randy Brown vs. Francisco Trinaldo
Kuhn: Randy Brown to win (-300). With several worthy favorites on the card, finding reliable parlay legs should help make more affordable plays. Consider Brown in the co-main event — he will have several advantages over Trinaldo, who is among the oldest fighters on the roster.
Brown has excellent precision and defense, with an absurd eight-inch reach advantage to help. If he can control range, it might force Trinaldo to chase and overextend. Meanwhile, Trinaldo isn’t an abnormally dangerous takedown threat, having only landed one so far in his three welterweight appearances. Brown should be in the driver’s seat to unleash his striking arsenal.
Light heavyweight: Maxim Grishin vs. Philipe Lins
Kuhn: Lins to win (+135). Now fighting at light heavyweight, Lins will take on a veteran in Grishin. Lins looks to have the sharper hands, and both throw a lot of kicks for big men.
The exchange of big shots is a wild card, but if the fight hits the ground, Lins will likely initiate and get in control. In an otherwise close matchup, Lins presents some value at plus money.
Catchweight: John Castaneda vs. Daniel Santos
Parker: Castaneda to win (-190). Santos is a dangerous fighter no matter where the fight goes, but I believe Castaneda has fought better competition. His last win against Miles Johns showed us he can defend even against a high-level wrestler. I think Castaneda avoids the early onslaught of Santos and eventually wears him down and gets the win.
Lightweight: Mike Davis vs. Viacheslav Borshchev
Parker: Davis to win (-175). Borshchev got tremendously exposed in his fight against Marc Diakiese. Diakiese, who is known for his striking, put on a wrestling clinic for three rounds with zero answers from Borshchev. Davis is an excellent striker, but he would be foolish not to take the path of least resistance against his opponent — wrestling. Davis has spoken about bringing in Brazilian jiu-jitsu experts like Rodolfo Vieira to his camp, so I expect him to use the ground game and for Davis to dominate.
Heavyweight: Ilir Latifi vs. Aleksei Oleinik
Parker: Latifi to win (-175). Oleinik is coming off a comeback submission win over Jared Vanderaa, but I think his luck ends here. Latifi just beat Tanner Boser, and I believe his wrestling and brute strength should be able to tame the submission attempts of Oleinik. Look for Latifi to take Oleinik down early on and get a TKO victory.
Bellator 286 best bets
Bellator featherweight AJ McKee defeats Dominic Mazzotta by knockout with a powerful kick to the head 1:15 into the first round.
Featherweight: Patricio Freire vs. Adam Borics
Parker: Freire to win (-150). I am surprised the odds are so low with Freire not being a huge favorite. I think he is more skilled everywhere, and his experience in going five rounds against higher-level competition should give him a significant edge in this fight. Unless Borics catches Freire with something wild, like a flying knee, I expect Freire to defend his belt in dominating fashion.
Lightweight: AJ McKee vs. Spike Carlyle
Parker: McKee to win (-420) In his last fight, Carlyle almost got finished, but somehow was able to recover and get the finish in exciting fashion. Unfortunately for Carlyle, if he gets dropped by McKee, I can assure you there will be no comeback. McKee is a very smart fighter and he has a skill advantage here. He won’t get sucked into a brawl nor will he allow Carlyle to dictate the pace of the fight. Coming off the lone defeat of his career to the champion, look for McKee to bounce back and get the win.
Featherweight: Aaron Pico vs. Jeremy Kennedy
Parker: Pico to win (-575) Kennedy is coming off one of the best wins of his career, defeating Emmanuel Sanchez last December. He has another tall task in front of him in Pico, the blue chip prospect. For Pico, this is his biggest test to date and a win will give him an opportunity to start getting ranked opponents. He is a special athlete and I believe he will showcase that in this matchup. As long as he doesn’t get too concerned with trying to get the knockout, he should be able to mix in his wrestling and secure the win.