PHOENIX- The UFC bantamweight division reads like a guidebook on MMA versatility with chapters and footnotes on styles, speeds, techniques, distances and a range of fight IQ.
Local bantamweights Kyler Phillips (7-1) and Casey Kenney (14-2-1), who are fighting on Saturday’s 39th UFC event of the year on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, offer no less than the aforementioned skills.
Phillips trains under the watchful eye of veteran coach John Crouch at The MMA Lab in Phoenix. Kenney splits time between his home gym in Tucson at Rise Combat Sports and The MMA Lab.
Phillips is still a relative newborn in the UFC, debuting in February with a decision win over unranked Gabriel Silva. In his debut, Phillips acted as a Michelin-level chef cooking for a critic as he served up Silva with a versatile array of entrees that ranged from textbook one-two combinations to getting a little funky with spinning back kicks.
The chef earned his paycheck by cashing in a $50,000 “Fight of the Night” bonus with his performance.
“You guys saw a little bit of me and there’s a lot more left to show,” Phillips said during the post-fight presser.
If what he displayed seven months ago was just “a little bit,” then MMA fans are craving a larger serving for Saturday’s bout.
If Phillips is a newborn, then Kenney is a toddler with four fights in the UFC (3-1). After suffering his first UFC loss in February, Kenney came back strong with a rebound victory via guillotine choke in the first round over unranked Louis Smolka. The southpaw displayed strong leg kicks from both legs and crisp boxing that included a well-timed right hand that dropped Smolka and led to the choke.
“If you fight me like Smolka, that’s what’s going to happen,” Kenney said after the victory.
Fight Island party? Who’s invited?
Phillips will be looking across the octagon at England’s Cameron Else (10-4), who is making his UFC debut on short notice. Really short notice — 10 days.
“A body is a body,” Phillips said in his pre-fight presser. “They’re not going to catch me slipping.”
Slipping is something Phillips can’t afford to do in this fight as Else has scored a finish in all 10 of his victories, six by knockout. Else throws big-time power shots with his hands and he has an overhand right that is a bomb if it lands.
Because it’s a bomb and not a guided missile, it doesn’t have the best accuracy and it’s often thrown without a proper setup. This leaves the Englishman vulnerable to counterstrikes and takedowns.
Else gambles a lot and it doesn’t always end in his favor as he has been knocked out twice in his four losses. While Phillips doesn’t have one-punch knockout power in his hands, he does have great technique. This technique can guide him to a counter left hook on Else when he throws the overhand right that leaves him overextended and often exposed.
Else is coming into this fight on short notice and like most short-notice fighters isn’t in optimal shape and will have to endure a weight cut.
Things look to be falling in Phillips’ favor for fight weekend as he should cruise to an easy win. Phillips is currently a -440 favorite, according to William Hill sportsbook.
Kenney likely will have a tougher task.
Kenney’s dance partner is a 22-fight veteran in Heili Alateng (14-7-1). Alateng is from China and trains at the world’s largest MMA facility, the UFC Performance Institute Shanghai.
“I’m looking to put the pace on him and put him away,” Kenney said in an interview with All Access MMA.
Pushing a high pace from the sound of the bell will be the key to victory for Kenney.
Alateng doesn’t have the best gas tank in a division where fuel burns fast and never runs out. Kenney’s gas tank is bottomless as he thrives in the chaos of a high-output fight. Alateng likes to come forward with pressure but the pressure is calculated and not chaos driven. He has good power in both of his hands, so he can hurt Kenney if he gets lethargic.
However, lethargic is just not a word that Kenney has in his fight vocabulary. He is great at advancing the fight forward and he rarely stays in one position, even if it’s dominant. Kenney is always looking for a checkmate, though he does tend to lose some of his pieces on the board by getting taken down (53% takedown defense).
However, when Kenney is on the ground he is almost always involved in a high-pace scramble, looking for a dominant position. He is a black belt in Judo and uses his hips well enough to throw his opponents or manipulate their weight to his favor.
Look for Kenney to win a competitive decision victory. Kenney is -290 favorite, according to William Hill sportsbook.
If Phillips wins he may have a step-up fight in his next bout, most likely against a ranked opponent.
If Kenney gets the job done he will definitely have a number next to his name as he is currently unranked. A victory would give him four wins in the UFC in just two years.