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'UFC on ESPN 40: Santos vs. Hill' fight-by-fight preview

Take a look at every fight taking place at Saturday's event at the UFC Apex, including 'The Ultimate Fighter 30' finale fights.

A week after UFC 277 set the American Airlines Arena in Dallas, Texas ablaze, the action returns home to Las Vegas for a card headlined by a pair of critical matchups between ranked competitors and the two bouts that will determine the new inductees into the roll call of "The Ultimate Fighter" winners.

Here's a closer look at what's on tap this weekend at the UFC Apex at UFC on ESPN 40.

Thiago Santos vs. Jamahal Hill


It's a battle between light heavyweights coming at the same goal from opposite directions as Thiago Santos (22-10 MMA, 14-9 UFC) and Jamahal Hill (10-1 MMA, 4-1 UFC) cross paths on their shared quest to challenge for championship gold.

Santos has already fought for the UFC title once before, pushing Jon Jones to his limits at UFC 239. He lost that bout by split decision while dealing with multiple knee injuries, and has struggled to find much success since returning. Entering off a loss to Magomed Ankalaev and sporting just a single victory since before he faced Jones, "Marreta" is a facing a must-win situation this weekend if he wants to make another run towards the top of the division.

A Dana White's Contender Series grad, Hill is looking to scale the light heavyweight mountain for the first time and enters having earned back-to-back first-round stoppage wins and sporting a 10-1 record with one no contest verdict overall. "Sweet Dreams" has looked sharp in dispatching Jimmy Crute and Johnny Walker in his last two outings, and can position himself as the unquestioned top ascending talent in the division with a win over the Brazilian veteran this weekend.

Mohammed Usman vs. Zac Pauga


The top two selections by Julianna Peña face off to determine which one will join the fraternity of Ultimate Fighter winners on Saturday as Mohammed Usman (8-2 MMA, 0-0 UFC) and Zac Pauga (6-0 MMA, 0-0 UFC) square off in the heavyweight finale.

Usman, the younger brother of welterweight champ Kamaru Usman, earned hard-fought decision wins over Mitchell Sipe and Eduardo Perez to advance to the final pairing. A massive physical specimen with a gentle spirit and an 8-2 record, the 33-year-old looks to follow the path his brother traveled to claim UFC gold, with the first step coming this weekend.

A former professional football player who traditionally competes at light heavyweight, Pauga collected a dominant decision win to advance to the semifinals where he stopped fellow Team Peña fighter Jordan Heiderman to reach the finale. The Elevation Fight Team member is 6-0 in his career, and owns a unanimous decision victory over former UFC competitor Markus Perez.

This is a compelling stylistic battle, as Usman has clear advantages in terms of size and pure physicality, but Pauga is the more fluid, more dynamic athlete, so it will be interesting to see which of those two wins out and who will get their hand raised this weekend.

Vicente Luque vs. Geoff Neal

Vicente Luque (21-8-1 MMA, 14-4 UFC) and Geoff Neal (14-4 MMA, 6-2 UFC) face off in this meeting of ranked welterweights looking to position themselves for bigger challenges down the 2022 home stretch and into next year.

Luque returns after landing on the business end of a lopsided decision in April against Belal Muhammad, where the ascending grappler was able to neutralize his myriad weapons. One of the most skilled finishers in the division – if not the UFC as a whole – Luque has never lost two straight and has followed each setback inside the octagon with a string of stoppage victories.

Fortis MMA's Neal got back in the win column, halting a two-fight skid last December, earning a split-decision win over Santiago Ponzinibbio at UFC 269. It was a good victory to get the Dana White's Contender Series graduate moving in the right direction again, and a victory over Luque this weekend could carry him higher up the welterweight rankings than he's been before.

There is very little chance of this being anything but a wildly entertaining fight, as Luque always looks to attack and can finish in any phase, while Neal has hellacious power and renewed confidence after shaking out of his mini-funk to close out last year. Expect fireworks for as long as it lasts.

Brogan Walker vs. Juliana Miller


It's Team Nunes versus Team Peña in the flyweight finale as veteran Brogan Walker (8-2 MMA, 0-0 UFC) takes on prospect Juliana Miller (3-1 MMA, 0-0 UFC) in a battle to determine who will become the sixth woman to earn the title of The Ultimate Fighter.

Walker was one of the favorites heading into Season 30 of the reality TV tournament as an Invicta FC vet who had shared the cage with quality competition throughout her career. She dealt with an injury while on the show, surviving a hard fight against Hannah Guy in the quarterfinals before out-classing Laura Gallardo to advance to the finale this weekend.

The 26-year-old Miller had just three professional appearances heading into the show, but avenged her most recent setback by rallying to score a unanimous decision win over Claire Guthrie in her quarterfinal appearance. In the semis, she dominated Kaytlin Neil on the canvas, submitting the Team Nunes representative to punch her ticket to Saturday's matchup with Walker.

Augusto Sakai vs. Serghei Spivac


Augusto Sakai (15-4-1 MMA, 4-3 UFC) and Serghei Spivac (14-3 MMA, 5-3 UFC) clash in this meeting of tenured heavyweights looking to build a head of steam heading into the final quarter of the 2022 campaign.

After beginning his UFC run with four consecutive victories, Sakai has run into hard times of late, entering Saturday's contest on a three-fight slide, having been stopped in all three outings. Now, those bouts have come against Alistair Overeem, Jairzinho Rozenstruik, and Tai Tuivasa, so no shame in getting bested by those men, but if the Brazilian wants to ascend the divisional ranks once more, he's got to have a return to form, beginning this weekend.

Spivac ran afoul of Tom Aspinall last September but rebounded nicely with a first-round stoppage win over Greg Hardy in March. The 27-year-old from Moldova is quietly 4-1 over his last five fights and owns a first-round submission win over the surging Tuivasa as well, which makes him one to keep tabs on this weekend and long term.

Sakai is the larger, more experienced of the two, but Spivac has clearly been in the best form, so it will be curious to see if the Brazilian's physicality and superior overall strength of schedule will carry him to victory or if "The Polar Bear" can pick up another quality win in Las Vegas.

Sam Alvey vs. Michal Oleksiejczuk


Veteran Sam Alvey (33-17-1 MMA, 10-12-1 UFC) squares off with Polish prospect Michal Oleksiejczuk (16-5 MMA, 4-3 UFC) in what should be a spirited middleweight scrap on Saturday.

Fifty-two fights deep into his career, the 36-year-old Alvey has been in the midst of a cold spell, but his string of unfavorable results have included some close decisions and competitive fights.

Oleksiejczuk had his modest two-fight run of success halted by Dustin Jacoby at UFC 272 in March, dropping his record to 4-3 with one no contest verdict inside the octagon. The 27-year-old has showcased outstanding boxing skills – in particular crisp body work – throughout his UFC run, but has struggled to dial up his best efforts each time out.

Ariane Lipski vs. Priscila Cachoeira


Ariane Lipski (14-7 MMA, 3-4 UFC) and Priscila Cachoeira (11-4 MMA, 3-4 UFC) collide in this meeting of Brazilians looking to build on recent victories this weekend in Las Vegas.

Last time out, Lipski halted a two-fight skid with a unanimous decision win over Mandy Bohm, bringing her record to 14-7 overall and 2-3 inside the octagon. The former KSW standout is still only 28 and has flashed tremendous upside, so it will be intriguing to see if her victory over Bohm is the start of something bigger or simply just a much-needed win.

Cachoeira followed up her UFC 262 rally against Gina Mazany by missing weight and getting submitted by Gillian Robertson at UFC 269, but she quickly responded with a hard-fought victory over Ji Yeon Kim in a "Fight of the Night"-winning battle in February. The enigmatic "Zombie Girl" is both 3-4 inside the octagon and 3-1 over her last four at the same time, making her one of the more challenging fighters to project at the moment.

One of these women will collect a second 2022 victory and take a step forward in the divisional ranks, while the other will once again get backed into a corner. Figuring out who does what should be all kinds of fun on Saturday.

Bryan Battle vs. Takashi Sato

"TUF 29" middleweight winner Bryan Battle (7-1 MMA, 2-0 UFC) drops down a division and squares off with Japanese veteran Takashi Sato (16-5 MMA, 1-3 UFC) in his first UFC appearance in the 170-pound weight class.

Battle defeated Gilbert Urbina to win the middleweight competition on Season 29 of "The Ultimate Fighter" 11 months ago, and followed it up with a win over his originally scheduled opponent, Tresean Gore, in February. Now 7-1 as a pro, the 27-year-old Battle looks to move down in order to maximize his physical traits while maintaining his steady work rate and tenacious approach inside the octagon.

Sato enters Saturday's contest having dropped two straight and three of his last four, but a decision loss to Gunnar Nelson after 18 months on the sidelines with additional setbacks against Miguel Baeza and Belal Muhammad aren't exactly terrible losses. The 32-year-old veteran has flashed some power in the past and will have a distinct experience advantage over Battle, which he'll surely look to rely on.

This is a proper initial welterweight test for the recent "TUF" winner, as Sato is the most experienced opponent he's faced to date, while also being the kind of guy an ascending talent with dreams of making headway in the division should beat. Saturday night will answer a lot of questions about where Battle's floor sits and where his ceiling may stand.

Terrance McKinney vs. Erick Gonzalez


Terrance McKinney (12-4 MMA, 2-1 UFC) and Erick Gonzalez (14-6 MMA, 0-1 UFC) square off in this lightweight clash between fighters looking to rebound after being on the wrong side of stoppages last time out.

After making quick work of Fares Ziam, McKinney made a rapid return to action and took a giant step up in competition, volunteering to face Drew Dober on short notice. He started fast and had Dober on skates, but the Nebraska native weathered the storm and rallied to put "T.Wrecks" away before the opening stanza ended.

Gonzalez was tasked with facing the man with the most appearances in UFC history in his promotional debut, and it didn't go particularly well, as he was stopped by Jim Miller just 14 seconds into the middle frame. He's in a "win two, lose one" pattern over his last 15 fights, which means if the pattern were to hold, "The Ghost Pepper" would get his hand raised this weekend.

This is the right type of matchup for each of these guys at this moment, as McKinney needs to reset after trying to rush into the rankings and having some of his shortcomings exposed, while Gonzalez faces someone with comparable experience, as opposed to a polished veteran. Each man has something to prove here, and both should come out of the gates hot on Saturday.

Jason Witt vs. Josh Quinlan


Jason Witt (19-8 MMA, 2-3 UFC) is tasked with welcoming Josh Quinlan (5-0 MMA, 0-0 UFC) to the UFC octagon for the first time on Saturday's preliminary card.

The 35-year-old Witt has alternated losses and victories through five UFC starts, landing on the wrong side of things last time out against Phil Rowe. A member of the Glory MMA & Fitness squad, Witt had a great performance in his sophomore appearance against Cole Williams and battled hard to edge out Bryan Barberena two fights back, and if he can tap into that form, he could make it a long night at the office for the promotional newcomer.

Quinlan scored an impressive first-round stoppage win last fall on Dana White's Contender Series before testing positive for a banned substance following the contest. Now back from suspension and eager to prove himself, all eyes will be on Quinlan early in this one to see how he handles sharing the cage with a 27-fight veteran like Witt.

Cory McKenna vs. Miranda Granger


Strawweight hopefuls Cory McKenna (6-2 MMA, 1-1 UFC) and Miranda Granger (7-2 MMA, 1-2 UFC) cross paths early in Saturday's festivities as each looks to get back into the win column and start pushing towards the top of the division.

One of the youngest fighters on roster, McKenna returned from a 16-month absence in March, dropping a split decision to Elise Reed in London in a fight where she just couldn't get going until it was too late. The Welsh DWCS grad has been stationed at Team Alpha Male throughout her UFC tenure and will look to get back to the form that produced consecutive victories over Vanessa Demopoulos and Kay Hansen in 2020.

Fighting for the first time since the birth of her daughter just under a year ago, Granger enters on a two-fight skid, focused on getting back to her pre-UFC form. She won her debut opposite Hannah Goldy three years back before dropping consecutive contests to Amanda Lemos and Ashley Yoder, but went 6-0 with six finishes on the regional circuit, including a CFFC title win.

McKenna is making a relatively quick turnaround with designs on getting the sour taste of defeat out of her mouth sooner rather than later, while Granger is primed to start the next chapter of her professional career following major shifts in her personal life. This should be a competitive scrap where whoever dictates the terms of engagement and where the battle is fought emerges victorious.

Mayra Bueno Silva vs. Stephanie Egger


Mayra Bueno Silva (8-2-1 MMA, 3-2-1 UFC) and Stephanie Egger (7-2 MMA, 2-1 UFC) open the show this weekend in a clash between intriguing veterans in the bantamweight division.

Bueno Silva made her first appearance in the 135-pound weight class last time out, collecting a unanimous decision win over Wu Yanan. She did reasonably well at flyweight, but is a better physical fit at bantamweight, where her size and power are greater assets and she won't be taxing her body as much to hit the divisional limit on Fridays.

After losing her debut to Tracy Cortez on short notice, Egger has put together a tidy two-fight winning streak with a pair of finishes. Last October, she pounded out Shanna Young on the canvas, and in February, she submitted Jessica-Rose Clark, hitting an armbar following a beautiful judo throw, sending her into this one as a potential dark horse contender in the wide-open bantamweight division.

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