UFC Fight Night 223 breakdown: Can Ricky Simon put away Song Yadong?

MMA Junkie analyst Dan Tom breaks down the UFC’s top bouts. Today, we look at the main event for UFC Fight Night 223.

UFC Fight Night 223 takes place Saturday at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. The main card streams on ESPN+ following prelims on ESPN2 and ESPN+.

Song Yadong (19-7-1 MMA, 8-2-1 UFC)

Song Yadong

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’8″ Age: 25 Weight: 135 lbs. Reach: 67″

  • Last fight: TKO loss to Cory Sandhagen (Sept. 17, 2022)

  • Camp: Team Alpha Male (California)

  • Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing

  • Risk management: Good

Supplemental info:
+ Chinese kung fu background
+ Regional grappling accolades
+ 8 KO victories
+ 3 submission victories
+ 7 first-round finishes
+ KO power
+ Explosive athlete
^ Deceptive distance closer
+ Dangerous right hand
^ Coming forward or off the counter
+ Serviceable wrestling acumen
^ Defensively and offensively
+ Solid top game
^ Good ground-and-pound

Ricky Simon (20-3 MMA, 8-2 UFC)

Ricky Simon

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’6″ Age: 30 Weight: 135 lbs. Reach: 69″

  • Last fight: Submission win over Jack Shore (July 16, 2022)

  • Camp: American Top Team Portland/Team Oyama (Oregon)

  • Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing

  • Risk management: Good

Supplemental info:
+ Wrestling background
+ Amateur MMA titles
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt
+ 6 KO victories
+ 4 submission wins
+ 6 first-round finishes
+ Aggressive pace and pressure
^ Well-conditioned athlete
+ Improved overall striking
^ Feints, defense, shot selection
+ Excellent takedown ability
^ Chains attempts well off the fence
+ Strong top game
^ Strikes, submissions, transitions

Point of interest: The cost of counters

Aug 7, 2021; Houston, Texas, USA; Song Yadong (red gloves) fights Casey Kenney (blue gloves) during UFC 265 at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The main event in Las Vegas features a potential banger and bantamweight between Song Yadong and Ricky Simon.

Although you’d be forgiven for labeling Simon as just another wrestle-boxer from the Pacific Northwest, there’s a lot more to this mullet-sporting fighter than meets the eye.

Even when going back to watch some of Simon’s earlier fights on the regional scene, it’s apparent that the American has some solid boxing instincts in regard to his head movement and shot selections. And as Simon has continued to accrue experience, he’s gotten better at combining said head movement with footwork, which gives him more options for exits and entries.

Simon, despite being inherently built to pressure, has also improved upon his ability to draw out strikes and counter from the outside when he needs to. Nevertheless, Simon is not beyond being countered himself (due to both his aggression and confidence in his head movement), so he’ll need to be on his best behavior when engaging with a potent puncher like Yadong.

Starting his martial arts journey at the legendary Shaolin temple, Yadong makes for a unique fighter given the historical spectrum of combat arts that he’s been exposed to. That said, there isn’t too much traditional swagger in Yadong’s style to speak of given that the Chinese fighter seems to favor more boxing and kickboxing-centric weapons.

Whether Yadong is staying planted or opting for more fencing-like footwork, the 25-year-old does a decent job of staying on balance and looking for his spots to explode. Yadong has excellent eyes in exchanges that – coupled with his incredible speed – make him a formidable puncher both coming forward and off the counter.

Considering that Yadong can variate his patent right hand into other tools like uppercuts, I wouldn’t be shocked to see more of those shot selections from him this Saturday. The Team Alpha Male fighter also offers quality kicks to all three levels, but I’m not sure how much Yadong will go to those weapons given that countered kicks can lead to takedowns.

Point of interest: Potential grappling threats

Jul 16, 2022; Elmont, New York, USA; Ricky Simon (red gloves) fights Jack Shore (blue gloves) during UFC Fight Night at UBS Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Considering the American’s on-paper edge in closed quarters, no one should be surprised if Simon looks to employ a wrestling-based attack early and often.

An aggressive two-time state placer coming out of Union high school, Simon has continued to build upon his wrestling base since crossing over to mixed martial arts.

Simon possesses quick and explosive shots that can get the job done in the open, but arguably does his most consistent work off of the fence. An excellent chain wrestler, Simon switches up attacks like second nature – almost as if you’re watching water seek its own level.

Still, Yadong is far from a slouch in the grappling department and offers a solid first layer of defense that can be difficult to penetrate. Outside of getting caught out of position while throwing kicks, Yadong is usually good about sniffing out shots and responding with solid sprawls or hoisting underhooks.

When inside the clinch, Yadong appears to have a rock-solid base and is quick to land sneaky hooks and elbows in small spaces. And when the Chinese fighter decides to get offensive with his wrestling, Yadong shows a competent takedown acumen and an excellent ability to generate power on his strikes from topside.

Nevertheless, Yadong has shown that he is not beyond being out-scrambled in past outings and will need to be respectful of Simon’s skills.

As alluded to in the previous section, Simon is more than your average wrestler-boxer. Not only has Simon continued to sharpen his wrestling for MMA, but the American Top Team Portland product has quietly earned his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Fabiano Scherner.

Now, it is not uncommon to see Simon demonstrate much more thoughtfulness to the types of suffocating controls he’s applying, constantly searching for submissions along the way. The 9-year pro is also good about knowing when to play at distance, utilizing the appropriate times to look for strikes or separations.

That said, Simon will still need to be respectful of Yadong’s skills when scrambling and avoid giving the back exposure that wrestlers can sometimes be guilty of.

Yadong may not be the type of fighter to try and blanket with control time against the cage, but he is capable of both taking backs and making people pay with devastating strikes off the breaks.

Point of interest: Odds and opinions

Jul 16, 2022; Elmont, New York, USA; Ricky Simon (red gloves) reacts to fight against Jack Shore (blue gloves) during UFC Fight Night at UBS Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The oddsmakers and the public are ever-so-slightly siding with the American, listing Simon -120 and Yadong +100 as of this writing.

Regardless of who you favor, seeing this betting line settle toward pick’em odds feels right to me.

Simon may have more pathways to victory on paper, but Yadong’s path is an undeniable scenario that Simon has seen before.

In fact, it was Simon’s last and lone knockout loss to Urijah Faber, where Faber credited Team Alpha Male’s “Chinese prospect Yadong Yadong” for teaching him the finishing shot.

The finishing shot in question was a cross-counter to a jab, which is a shot that has traditionally troubled Simon in both victory and defeat. For that reason, Simon will need to be extra careful with his lead-hand commitments within the first two frames of this fight (as hair-trigger counters, no matter who is at the helm, traditionally tend to lose some steam as the rounds wear on).

Yadong’s underrated kicks could also have some play throughout this contest. Aside from the leg kicks that Simon’s stance sometimes invites, front kicks have proven to be an inherent thorn to the dipping propensities of the wrestle-boxing American.

That said, Simon’s improved leg kicks and countering ability should not be overlooked – nor should the fact that this fight is taking place in the smaller octagon of the UFC Apex.

Unless the superior wrestler decides to purposefully strike off the backfoot with a devastating striker (as we sadly saw in last Saturday’s headliner), then the smaller cage generally favors the more dangerous grappler given the kind of action it encourages.

Couple those edges with Yadong’s propensity to fade down the stretch, and I’ll side with Simon to survive the early striking scares and show why he’s an unheralded five-round fighter. A Yadong knockout early won’t shock me in the slightest, but I’ll take Simon to make a statement with a head-and-arm choke submission in round three.

Prediction: Simon inside the distance

Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie