Welcome, folks, to the first fight card of 2017. I’d love to say it’s a can’t-miss show, but frankly I’m struggling to think of some compelling reasons for why you’d want to watch it at all. Everything comes with a caveat. UFC Hall of Fame inductee BJ Penn makes his return, after a 30-month absence and a string of disastrous fights that have been legitimately difficult to watch. He’s spent time training in Albuquerque, California and Hawaii, he’s competing at featherweight, and he’s likely to be cornered by a superstar tag-team of Jason Parillo, Mike Winklejohn and Greg Jackson. There’s a good possibility that a well-trained and motivated BJ Penn could deliver a redemptive performance worthy of his legacy; and he could just as easily get killed by one of the most dynamic and exciting young fighters on the UFC roster. See? Caveats.

Elsewhere, we have a string of well-matched fights that, unfortunately, mostly feature low-level fighters – some of them barely keeping their foot in UFC’s door. The co-main event is interesting and could potentially be excellent, but the bantamweight clash between Jimmie Rivera and Bryan Caraway that it’s replacing had more intriguing title implications. On and on it goes. A lot of these matches have real promise, but their long-term importance is questionable at best and the card overall is a bit of a dud. Still. Happy new year and all that.

Fight Pass Prelims

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Dmitrii Smoliakov vs. Cyril Asker

First on the agenda is a heavyweight bout which is likely to be someone’s last under the UFC banner. Both Russia’s Smoliakov and France’s Asker lost their debuts inside the distance, and you’d assume that a lacklustre performance here won’t do favourable things for either guy’s career. Both men, likewise, are strong wrestlers and do their best work from top position, so given how often similar skillsets nullify each other this will likely become a stand-up fight. In that regard, Asker has an advantage. He strings together crisp combinations and his striking is cleaner and more efficient than the rudimentary boxing of Smoliakov. Considering the weight, I’d take a punt at an Asker knockout.

Bojan Mihajlovic vs. Joachim Christenson

We’re moving down a weight class, but we’re looking at a very similar fight – and likely a similar outcome. Serbia’s Mihajlovic likes the clinch and top position, and has a decent outside kicking game, but he’s a notably inferior striker to Denmark’s Christenson, who should be able to grapple well enough to stave off trips and throws until he can score a TKO.

Walt Harris vs. Chase Sherman

Back up to heavyweight we go, and yet again we should assume careers are on the line as Walt Harris (who has won only one of his last five) draws Chase Sherman in what should be a briefly entertaining striking contest. Both men carry big power in their hands and are willing to stay in the pocket and exchange, but both men are also messy defensively. In a fight like that (especially at this weight) it’s generally a case of who lands clean first, and Sherman is quicker, more athletic and sharper. He’s my pick.

Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger vs. Nina Ansaroff

In a welcome change of pace, straw-weights headline the Fight Pass prelims as Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger takes a shot at Nina Ansaroff, the partner of bantamweight queen Amanda Nunes. The smart promotor would use Nunes’s 48-second demolition of Ronda Rousey (and Ansaroff’s presence in a lot of the marketing for that fight) as a springboard into stardom, and that’s likely what’s happening here – there’s no other reason that two women who have both lost their last two fights would be headlining anything. But for that to work Ansaroff has to make her way past Jones-Lybarger. Helpfully, I think she will.

Jones-Lybarger is decent, and big for the division, but she lacks the power, speed and explosiveness that would allow her to put that size advantage to use. She’s a capable volume striker, but she isn’t much of a threat.

Ansaroff, on the other hand, is fast and powerful, and can land sharp combinations in the pocket. Her kicking game is significantly better, and you have to imagine that her proximity to Nunes can’t hurt either. She has the diversity and power in her arsenal to finish the fight, but I feel that the likelier outcome is an overwhelming unanimous decision.

Televised Prelims

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Devin Powell vs. Drakkar Klose

The televised broadcast opens up with an interesting matchup between two debuting lightweights. Powell is another product of Dana White’s Looking for a Fight series, and he’s a crisp combination striker. But he has his work cut out for him in the menacing form of Michigan’s Drakker Klose, a big, powerful puncher with explosive takedowns and worrying ground-and-pound. There’s a tendency for those who emerge from White’s YouTube series to not do particularly well for themselves (Micky Gall being the obvious exception), and I don’t see any reason for that trend not to continue here. Klose stops Powell inside the distance.

Alex White vs. Tony Martin

Finally, this card is starting to pick up. White, the big, athletic southpaw, is moving up from featherweight to take on another large athlete in Tony Martin. Martin’s a dangerous grappler, but his wrestling isn’t great, his cardio is questionable and he has a tendency to leave his chin lying around a little too long. That should be easy pickings for someone like Martin, who has sharp varieties of the standard left-hander tools: the straight left punch and the left power kick. Not having to deplete himself in order to make 145lbs should also work in White’s favour. He has mediocre wrestling and lacklustre grappling, but if he can make it beyond the first five minutes he should be able to knock Martin out in the second or third rounds.

Aleksei Oleinik vs. Viktor Pesta

At 39-years old, Aleksei Oleinik boasts a staggering 61-fight career, and that’s more than enough experience for a fighter to develop a thorough understanding of their skillset. Oleinik enters every fight with a clear understanding of what he has to do in order to win – which is usually take the fight to the ground and work for a submission. His opponent, Pesta, out of the Czech Republic, usually welcomes the ground, but he might be out of his depth with a grappler of Oleinik’s calibre. There’s a chance, if Oleinik gasses, that Pesta could snatch a win from top position where he’s especially dangerous, but I fancy Oleinik’s submission chances if he can get the fight to the ground early.

Frankie Saenz vs. Augusto Mendes

At the top of the televised prelims is a legitimately fun and interesting bantamweight clash as the talented Saenz (who lost his last two to Urijah Faber and Eddie Wineland – two veterans) draws world-class jiu jitsu player Augusto Mendes, who we haven’t seen in the octagon for almost 11 months after he lost his short-notice promotional debut to current division kingpin Cody Garbrandt.

Stylistically this fight is fairly well-matched; Saenz has an advantage on the feet, and he’s probably a superior wrestler, but Mendes is a physically-gifted high-level black belt. For that reason, it’s tough to call. Given that each round begins standing, it would be silly to disregard the advantage Saenz has in combination punching, speed and pace. He’s in and out efficiently and cuts good angles; Mendes, while technically okay, does favour single shots. Mendes doesn’t want to stay on the outside here, but he’s likely to leave himself vulnerable in trying to reach the mat. He has a tendency to shoot from too far outside, and another to leave his chin hanging when he throws.

What works in Mendes’ favour is his lay-off. At his age, fighters who spend a lot of consistent time in the gym are often unrecognisable when they return to competition. It wouldn’t be all that surprising if he had some things to offer that Saenz isn’t expecting and hasn’t game-planned for. I’m sure grappling will still form the core of his approach, but if he has papered over some holes in his striking defence and polished his takedown entries, his BJJ base is so strong that he could easily win this fight by submission.

Still, I try not to make a habit of basing these predictions on unknown quantities, and after a knockout loss and almost a year, I don’t feel confident in insisting that Mendes will have developed his overall game enough to keep someone like Saenz off him. Tentatively, my pick is Saenz by decision.

Main Card

4

John Moraga vs. Sergio Pettis

As Anthony Pettis’s career has taken a downslide in recent years, that of his younger brother, Sergio, has followed the opposite trajectory. Despite two blemishes on his record (one by submission to Alex Caceres; another by knockout to Ryan Benoit) he has managed to rack up five wins in the UFC, including his last two in a row, and here he finally finds himself opposite a legitimate name in former title challenger John Moraga.

This is Pettis’ fight to lose. Don’t get me wrong: Moraga is dangerous, and he’s well-rounded enough to be an opportunist either standing or grappling. There’s power in his hands and he has a slick submission game. I just think Pettis has the tools to counter or avoid everything Moraga has in his bag.

Although he lacks the power, unpredictability and sneaky submission game of his brother, Sergio has slick fundamentals with excellent footwork, angles and punch-kick combinations. He throws with more volume than Moraga and has the defensive acumen to get away from his counters. On the mat he isn’t spectacular, but he defends well enough to avoid submissions and has the athleticism and balance to stave off takedowns in the first place. If he makes a mistake Moraga is the type of fighter to quickly capitalise and finish the young upstart, but the most likely outcome is a Pettis decision win.

Court McGee vs. Ben Saunders

This is another fun bout between two veteran welterweights. Court McGee won The Ultimate Fighter 11 and has been around ever since, and this will be Ben Saunders’ third stint in the UFC. They’re solid mid-tier 170lbers and match up well against each other.

McGee isn’t a particularly dangerous fighter. He isn’t all that fast or explosive. Where he excels is in being rugged and durable, technically-sound, an above-average wrestler, and incredibly well-conditioned. He fights at a gradually steepening pace that tends to overwhelm his opponent during the later rounds.

Saunders isn’t as crisp or fundamentally solid, but he brings more to the table. At 6’3, he’s able to work well on the outside with a diverse kicking arsenal and decent straight punches. His height gives him tremendous leverage in the clinch, and he’s very slick on the ground – especially from his back.

If this fight features a finish, it will likely be in favour of Saunders, who’s a little more dangerous standing and on the mat. McGee is often able to smother opponents with his wrestling, but he needs to be wary of that approach when dealing with the slick guard of Saunders. An ideal night for him would be to score in the pocket where Saunders is less comfortable and secure takedowns to win rounds on the way to a decision. Could happen. But I think Saunders has the sharper tools here and should be able to find a finish over 15 minutes.

Joe Lauzon vs. Marcin Held

This should be a good one. Veteran Joe Lauzon and up-and-comer Marcin Held are both known as action fighters – they both press forward constantly, and they both look to use their striking in order to set up high-level grappling. Both are very limited defensively, and both have questionable cardio. Stylistically, it’s about even. Lauzon gets a slight nod in the striking, and Held gets one on the mat.

So, how do you work out a prediction? The betting lines are thin, and for good reason. This is a dangerous fight for both men. Held is a so-so striker but a tremendous grappler – a leg-lock specialist, of all things, which allows him to ground the fight in unconventional ways by rolling for knees and ankles instead of diving for double- and single-leg takedowns. In the first frame he’s exceptionally dangerous, but he can be neutralized. Diego Sanchez was able to do it in Held’s promotional debut, and Lauzon beat the brakes off Sanchez fairly recently. MMA math rarely works, but that’s worth keeping in mind.

Ultimately, I’m giving the nod to Lauzon based less on skillset and more on physicality. He’s bigger and stronger, and he’s generally the more aggressive fighter. If he finds himself in the pocket, he unleashes stinging and accurate punch combinations at a very fast pace. He’s hittable while he’s doing it, but I’m not entirely convinced that Held has the striking acumen to do much about it. Lauzon via TKO.

Yair Rodriguez vs. BJ Penn

BJ Penn is a legend of MMA: a legitimate Hall of Famer, and one of only three fighters to ever hold titles in multiple divisions (the others being Randy Couture and, of course, Conor McGregor). It’s hard for me to talk disparagingly about someone like that, and I suspect it’s the same for most people, so if you’re upset by that kind of chatter maybe cover your eyes and put your fingers in your ears or something, because the fact remains that BJ is probably shot. I know, I know, it’s hard to hear. But it’s been even harder to watch over the years. He hasn’t won a fight since 2010, and hasn’t been at his best since a few years before that. His last few losses have been appalling, especially the last, against Frankie Edgar, where he displayed a weird, hopping, upright stand-up style and got comprehensively mauled. If he fights like that against Yair Rodriguez, he’s probably going to end up dead.

Still, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. In his prime, BJ was a freak of athleticism who managed to amass a litany of achievements while being famously unmotivated and undertrained for much of his career. He’s a sharp, powerful boxer, an excellent takedown artist (even against much bigger opponents), and one of the greatest mat grapplers the sport has ever seen. To suggest he doesn’t have the tools would be ridiculous. The question is whether his body and brain are still in good enough shape to put them to use, and I suspect that they’re not.

At 38-years old and after having been on the shelf for 30 months, it’s ridiculous to side with BJ here. Unless he manages to crack Rodriguez coming in or take him to the ground, he’s in big, big trouble. And his chances to do either of those things are slim. Rodriguez has okay hands – he can throw, although not with much pop, but he controls range and angles so well that he’s rarely there to be caught. His head movement and close-range footwork leave something to be desired, but his speed should compensate for deficiencies there. Defensive wrestling isn’t Rodriguez’s wheelhouse either, but his tendency to operate at extreme range makes it difficult to find his hips, and Penn likely lacks the speed or explosiveness to secure a takedown.

At 5’11” Rodriguez is huge for the division, and he uses that to his advantage in every area. His kicks are lethal, he has a lot of control and leverage in the clinch, and he can string together sweeps and submission attempts from his back. Unless BJ manages to take his back during a scramble or feed him a heavy punch on the inside, it’s going to be a long night. Rodriguez via TKO.

Official Predictions

5

Fight Pass Prelims

Cyril Asker via knockout

Joachim Christenson via TKO

Chase Sherman via knockout

Nina Ansaroff via unanimous decision

Televised Prelims

Drakkar Klose via TKO

Alex White via TKO

Aleksei Oleinik via submission

Frankie Saenz via split decision

Main Card

Sergio Pettis via unanimous decision

Ben Saunders via TKO

Joe Lauzon via TKO

Yair Rodriguez via TKO

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