Every time an athlete steps into the UFC Octagon, ardent observers are provided with the opportunity to gain a clearer understanding of where that individual fits in terms of the hierarchy in their respective division.
Each contest is a chance to test hypotheses — to see how the ideas, theories, and projections we’ve crafted for a given competitor stand up against rigorous testing in the form of another skilled, dangerous fighter.
As these athletes matriculate up the rankings, closer to the top of their weight classes, those projections become more refined, the theories tightened up and more nuanced, and the tests increasingly more difficult.
And there is nothing more captivating than watching someone whose limits have yet to be determined take that next subsequent step, which is what is set to happen with Jailton Almeida on Saturday night in Charlotte, North Carolina.
A BREAKOUT BRAZILIAN
It’s difficult to comprehend given all he accomplished in his first 12 months as an member of the UFC’s active roster, but the 31-year-old from Salvador, Bahia was an underdog going into his appearance on Season 5 of Dana White’s Contender Series.
Despite an eight-fight winning streak that included a submission win over former UFC fighter Ildemar Alcantara two fights earlier, Almeida was a slightly ‘dog against undefeated Russian light heavyweight NasrudinNasrudinov when they met at the UFC APEX on September 14, 2021.
Less than two minutes into the second round, Almeida had secured a submission win and a contract to compete on the biggest stage in the sport.
Almeida made his UFC debut on February 5, 2022, submitting fellow Brazilian Danilo Marques in the opening round of their light heavyweight pairing. He was slated to face Russian veteran Maxim Grishin next, but when Grishin was forced to withdraw, Almeida opted to accept a short notice fight at heavyweight against Connecticut native Parker Porter.
Jumping up a division isn’t generally that big of a deal in mixed martial arts, as there is usually between 10 and 20 pounds separating weight classes. But going from light heavyweight — where the divisional limit is 206 pounds for non-title fights — and heavyweight is a whole different ball game, as fighters can tip the scales the day before they step into the Octagon as high as 266 pounds.
Porter came in one pound south of that limit. Almeida weighed 224 pounds, which is why it was somewhat surprising to see the ease with which the Brazilian was able to hoist his American counterpart into the air before depositing him on the canvas, climbing on his back, and securing a fight-ending rear-naked choke finish, all of which he did before time expired in the first round.
While it was an impromptu shift to heavyweight, Almeida opted to stick around the big boys ranks, recognizing a shorter road to contention through less daunting competition, while also not having to deal with meticulously maintaining his body in order to make the cut to compete at light heavyweight.
He registered a third consecutive first-round stoppage win over late replacement and UFC newcomer Anton Turkalj in September, his 3-0 record with as many first-round finishes good enough to earn him second place in the Top Newcomers category of the https://www.ufc.com/news/newcomers-2022-ufc-com-awards Awards last year.
As if that weren’t enough, Almeida picked up a fourth win in his first 12 months on the roster in January, venturing into the second round for the first time in beating Russian bear Shamil Abdurakhimov. The victory elevated the streaking newcomer into the Top 15 for the first time and put him on the map as a genuine person of interest in the heavyweight division, setting up this weekend’s main event showdown on ABC with Jairzinho Rozenstruik.
THE NEXT TEST
When we talk about rankings and the position fighters hold in their respective divisions, I’ve often used the analogy of there being a bouncer at the main door of the club and then another with the guest list for the VIP.
The big body at the front door is the individual that determines who enters the Top 15 and who doesn’t — they’re skilled, experienced, but either never reached championship heights or are so far removed from those glory days that no one expects them to make a return.
In Almeida’s case, that guy was Abdurakhimov — a 41-year-old Russian with a 20-7 record overall who maintained a spot in the lower third of the rankings for years on end, but never climbed much further than No. 9 or No. 10 in the division.
The guy with the clipboard manning the velvet rope at the front of the VIP is the one who determines who is ready to compete against and perhaps contend with the best fighters in the division. It’s again someone that has either never been champ or is no longer in the running to do so, but they’ve enjoyed greater success than their friend who is standing at the front door.
And that’s who Rozenstruik is this weekend.
The 35-year-old from Suriname occupied the position Almeida is in back in 2019, rattling off four straight stoppage victories at the outset of his UFC run, capped by a last-second win over Alistair Overeem that earned him passage into the VIP.
But the first person to greet Rozenstruik in that exclusive area was former champ Francis Ngannou, and it didn’t go well. Since then, all of his interactions with top-tier talents have resulted in losses, while he’s turned back folks what were either not yet ready to join the upper echelon, were never going to be ready to join the upper echelon, or had been there and were no longer capable to maintaining residency there.
Last time out, “Bigi Boy” bounced Chris Daukaus from the entrance of the VIP in rapid fashion, dispatching the former Philadelphia police officer in 23 seconds to collect his seventh stoppage win in the UFC.
He is the perfect test for Almeida at this point of his career in terms of his experience and the obvious power threat he carries on the feet, but also isn’t so challenging an assignment that it’s inconceivable that the Brazilian will be able to get the job done tomorrow in Charlotte.
Almeida is the favorite, as the stylistic matchup between the two favors his grappling-based attack over Rozenstruik’s kickboxing, but it’s still a difficult test and one that he absolutely needs to be taking at this exact moment.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
If we operate on the forecast that Almeida gets the win this weekend, what comes next is extremely interesting, as getting through Rozenstruik would propel him into the Top 10 and an number of increasingly challenging matchups, at least in terms of experience and profile.
I add that last bit — the “in terms of experience and profile” piece — because from a skill, approach, and weaponry standpoint, I’m not sure there are many particularly dangerous matchups for “Malhadinho” until he’s mixing things up with the apex predators of the division, namely Jon Jones or Sergei Pavlovich.
When I spoke with Almeida ahead of this contest for the UFC website, he spoke about the stylistic pairing with Rozenstruik, saying, “I’m much more mobile than most heavyweights. I’m quicker, more limber, and I’m just as strong as everybody else, and I’m more finish-driven than most grapplers in the division. I think I pose a tough test for him, for sure.”
He’s correct, but also think that applies to just about everyone else in front of him in the division as well.
Would matchups with the likes of Tai Tuivasa (whom he’d like to face next, for the record, should he win on Saturday), Alexander Volkov, or Curtis Blaydes are all challenging, I like his chances as the quicker, more athletic, more explosive fighter, plus his ability to bring things to the canvas goes a long way to neutralize the offensive threats those three (and most other heavyweights) present.
Even a fight with former interim champ Ciryl Gane, while daunting, doesn’t feel like a bad matchup at the moment, given how easily Jones deposited the Frenchman on the mat and choked him out in their championship fight in March. Jones is undeniably one of the most skilled and cerebral talents to ever grace the Octagon, but that was as much about “you can’t stop me from doing this” than anything else, and Almeida could potentially do something similar.
So what am I saying?
I’m saying Jailton Almeida profiles as a championship threat to me, and that I wouldn’t be surprised to see him challenging for the UFC heavyweight title in the next 18-24 months, perhaps even earlier.
Saturday in Charlotte, that hypothesis gets put to the test again, and I can’t wait to see the results.