Saturday, December 3, 2022

UFC Vegas 64 Sleeper Scrap: Mario Bautista vs. Benito Lopez

Welcome to the MMA News’ Sleeper Scrap! The relentless schedule of the MMA world means that some fans often don’t have a full look at a fight card until days before the event, leaving the promoters to decide which bouts you should be paying the most attention to.

Everyone wants to tune in for main events and fights that feature popular names, but that means meaningful or potentially action-packed matchups from elsewhere on fight cards sometimes get lost in the shuffle. A Sleeper Scrap might highlight interesting style matchups, fighters with notable storylines, or bouts that simply have the chance to be a Fight of the Night contender.

UFC Vegas 64 is one of those cards that has the unfortunate fate of being the week before a major PPV event, as next week’s UFC 281 includes two title fights and will likely be one of the promotion’s biggest cards this year.

This event does include a pair of solid bouts in the main and co-main events, but at first glance there’s not a ton of matchups that jump out as must-watch action. That makes UFC Vegas 64 a perfect card for highlighting a Sleeper Scrap, and this week’s pick is a bantamweight tilt between Mario Bautista and Benito Lopez.

The Matchup

Benito Lopez arrived in the UFC following a split decision win on the inaugural season of Dana White’s Contender Series in 2017.

“The Golden Boy” had an exciting debut in a back-and-forth fight against Albert Morales, but lost his undefeated record to Manny Bermudez courtesy of a first-round guillotine choke before rebounding with a unanimous decision over Vince Morales in 2019.

Although he earned 29-28 scorecards from all three judges, Lopez relied almost exclusively on leg kicks and jabs during his last fight with Vince Morales. “The Golden Boy” is admittedly very adept with those strikes and loves to swing his full weight into outside leg kicks, but it was still surprising to see a lack of any right hands or power punches.

Lopez’s leg kicks could be a valuable weapon against Bautista. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Lopez did mix in some flashy kicks during that bout, which was much more along the lines of what he showed off in his debut with Albert Morales. He was actually dropped in the first rounds of his fights with both Albert and Vince, but in the former bout he responded by immediately landing a flying knee that helped set off what turned out to be a wild opening round for his UFC debut.

While Lopez was victorious in his own UFC debut, Mario Bautista had a brutal welcome to the promotion in 2019.

Bautista took on Cory Sandhagen in a short notice fight and was arm barred in the first round, but he’s gone 4-1 since then and has looked impressive on his current two-fight winning streak.

It was mentioned that Lopez flashed a few flying knees in his UFC debut, but that particular technique is a staple of Bautista’s striking arsenal. It could be argued that he throws it a little bit too much at times, but when you’ve brutally finished someone with it the way he did Miles Johns, it’s understandable why he uses it so frequently.

Bautista is also very confident on the feet, and while he does sometimes leave himself open for counters, he’ll always throw his punches hard and in combination. The 29-year-old also mixes in some kicks now and again, but he’s arguably at his most dangerous when he can tie up with opponents and work elbows and knees in the clinch.

Bautista finished Miles Johns with a flying knee and follow-up strikes in 2020. (Zuffa LLC)

His only UFC loss aside from Sandhagen was when he got countered by an uppercut from Trevin Jones, but Bautista has displayed some finishing instincts of his own when he landed that flying knee on Johns and with his most recent submission win against Brian Kelleher.

If Lopez comes into this fight as reliant on leg kicks as he was in his last bout, it could definitely be an avenue for him to have success against Bautista. The 29-year-old is fairly heavy on his lead leg and has been susceptible to leg kicks during his UFC run, particularly against Jones prior to being finished in the second round.

Even if he does have success chopping away at the legs, Lopez will need to be wary of the counter strikes coming back from Bautista. “The Golden Boy” has been dropped in the first round of two of his three UFC bouts, and although he recovered quickly it’s not a risk he needs to be taking against someone with Bautista’s finishing instincts.

The Stakes

One of the things that can make a fight a Sleeper Scrap is an interesting storyline, and there’s no doubt that Lopez’s return and all of the question marks that come with it will be one of major talking points of this event.

UFC viewers are used to seeing multiple Contender Series fighters on any given card at this point, but the winners from early seasons like Lopez legitimately seemed to have a bit of hype and promotional push behind them when they first arrived.

His debut against Albert Morales was exciting, but he had to rally from getting dropped early and seemed to fade a bit later in the fight. Bermudez stopped him early in his second bout, and there’s a strong argument that he lost his most recent bout to Vince Morales even if he battered his opponent’s legs for 15 minutes.

Lopez hasn’t fought since defeating Vince Morales in 2019. (Zuffa LLC)

Lopez did arrive in the UFC quite young and is still only 28-years-old, so if he can shake off the ring rust quickly and get a victory in his return “The Golden Boy” might still have a chance to remind UFC fans about why they were excited about him a few years ago.

From Bautista’s perspective, you could look at being given this matchup with Lopez in a couple different ways.

If the UFC are still invested in trying to promote Lopez, it could be taken as an insult that he’s the one that was booked for his return fight. Alternatively, the UFC might have decided that after such a long layoff it’s up to Lopez to prove himself against a dangerous opponent in one of the UFC’s most dangerous divisions.

Aside from that debut against Sandhagen and getting caught by Jones, Bautista has looked very solid during his UFC career and has made noticeable improvements from fight to fight.

Bautista will look to add to his current winning streak against Lopez. (Zuffa LLC)

His exciting striking style and love of flying knees make it easy for him to appeal to fans, but arguably no performance was more impressive than that last bout with Kelleher where he snatched a rear-naked choke the moment he saw the opportunity for a finish.

Three-straight wins in the UFC’s stacked bantamweight division would put Bautista in a great spot, and at 29-years-old he could be poised for a higher-profile matchup if he spoils Lopez’s return.

The interest in seeing how Lopez looks after his layoff is already enough to make this fight worth watching, but the improvements Bautista has shown in his last few bouts mean this could be a significant matchup for him as well.

Fans can cross their fingers that the two bantamweights decide to trade flying knees once the cage door closes, but either way this fight definitely stands out as a Sleeper Scrap from UFC Vegas 64.

How do you think this bout between Bautista and Lopez will turn out? Are there any other fights from UFC Vegas 64 that you feel deserve more attention?