After one paltry event since the turn of the new year, Saturday’s UFC on Fox event in Denver, Colorado, kick-starts four consecutive weekends of UFC action. If you were expecting some big-name value you’re not going to find it here, but all the same this is a fun, well-matched card with some serious implications for multiple divisions going forward into the rest of 2017.

Without further ado…

Fight Pass Prelims

3

Jason Gonzales vs. J.C. Cottrell

Two low-level lightweights open the prelims in what is almost certainly a loser-leaves-town match. Both are coming off losses in their promotional debuts (Gonzales by knockout in September; Cottrell by decision in July) and desperately need a win here to keep their careers on track. You’d think that would make for a barn-burner, but these two might not have the technical acumen to provide one.

At 6’2” with a 76” reach, Gonzales is huge for the division, and he puts those physical attributes to decent-enough use with a high-output kickboxing game. He has a sharp jab, a deep arsenal of kicks, and puts a lot of pepper on everything he throws. His size and southpaw stance make him a bit awkward, but he’s very hittable and can’t take much of a crack. He generally grapples well enough to implement his preferred game, and his guard is active without being particularly threatening, but staving off takedowns is not his strong suit and if he’s pressed he’ll end up on the mat.

Cottrell isn’t a specialist in any area, but he’s more well-rounded and brings to the cage a solid wrestling background that could be genuinely threatening here. He isn’t the same calibre of technical striker as Gonzales, but he has decent boxing fundamentals and sneaky power in his hooks. If he can implement his front-headlock game and secure positional control, this is his fight to win, regardless of his physical deficiencies.

Alexandre Pantoja vs. Eric Shelton

This fight is essentially the opposite of the previous one: two talented flyweights battling for every chance to become a permanent fixture in the talent-starved 125lb ranks. Pantoja has been a blue-chip prospect forever and his only loss in the last seven years was to UFC mainstay Jussier Formiga. He’s dangerous everywhere, especially in the clinch and on the ground, but his 70” reach lets him wade in effectively behind potent punches and low kicks. He’s not afraid to exchange in the pocket either. The only real question mark hovering around Pantoja at this point is where, after a ten-year professional career, his ceiling might be. He’s only 26, but with a lot of miles on the clock (he also fights out of Nova Uniao – not exactly a gym known for careful training) there’s a real chance that his long-term value to the promotion might be slightly less than his opponent’s, despite his superior experience and skill.

And his opponent, Eric Shelton, is an exciting prospect. A tremendous athlete with a seemingly-infinite gas tank, a solid chin and excellent, explosive grappling skills, Shelton is one to watch. Sure, he’s ropey on his feet. His counter-punching is improving and he has decently crisp combinations inside, but his technique does tend to break down a little bit when he starts to open up. He’s the lesser fighter of the two right now, and I think he loses here, but his upside is practically limitless in a division that is desperately crying out for new blood.

Televised Prelims

5

Marcos Rogerio de Lima vs. Jeremy Kimball

Highly technical mixed martial arts is all well and good, but sometimes the beauty of this sport is that we get to see two big dudes have an old-fashioned scrap, which, with any luck, is exactly what this light-heavyweight contest will be. De Lima has had an inconsistent UFC career, mostly because he tends to blow his load in the first few minutes of a fight, but the Brazilian is an all-or-nothing fighter who throws everything with intent to kill. He can throw bombs on his feet, wrangle people in the clinch, and finish from top position with either strikes or submissions. He might not have the best stamina, but he makes it count.

Kimball is a last-minute replacement and is making his promotional debut, but he’s coming off of four consecutive wins on the regional scene, and his last loss was to a high-level opponent in Chris Camozzi. He might not have much of a grappling game, but he’s a mean, durable brawler who isn’t afraid to bite down on his mouthpiece and exchange in the pocket. If he can survive the opening minutes, don’t be surprised if a crisp combination puts de Lima in serious trouble.

Eric Spicely vs. Alessio Di Chirico

This is superb matchmaking in the middleweight division as the American Spicely (9-1 as a pro; 1-1 in the UFC) takes on Italy’s Di Chirico (10-1 as a pro; 1-1 in the UFC). Both are well-rounded and work a solid pace, and both are coming off of wins in their previous outings.

Spicely’s huge upset of Thiago Santos in September might have positioned him as more of a contender than his skillset can support at this stage of his career. He’s the less-dangerous, less-athletic fighter here, and his usual game of working to the inside and securing a takedown might be risky against a grappler as opportunistic as Di Chirico. On the feet Spicely is competent, but he doesn’t have the smooth combinations of the Italian. It’s a dangerous fight for him, and I’d be surprised if he survives the distance.

Luis Henrique da Silva vs. Jordan Johnson

Denver hosts another debutant as the undefeated former RFA light-heavyweight champion, Jordan Johnson, takes on Brazil’s da Silva, who’s turning around just a month after his submission loss to Paul Craig. That fight might tell the story of this one, too. Da Silva was repeatedly taken down and controlled by Craig, displaying limited wrestling and cardio, and Craig doesn’t have half the pedigree of Jordan Johnson, who wrestled both at Iowa State and Grand Canyon University.

That isn’t to say that da Silva doesn’t present serious problems. His recent loss (the first of his professional career) came after finishing his two previous UFC opponents, and he has serious power. His outside kicking game is nasty, his clinch work is brutal, and he’ll chase a submission when put on his back. The problem is, he’s almost certainly going to be put on his back here, and unless he manages to catch that submission he’s going to feel the grind. Johnson takes a decision or a late finish for me.

Bobby Nash vs. Li Jingliang

In the 170lbs division, Bobby Nash makes his short-notice promotional debut against the wild and dangerous offense of China’s Li Jingliang. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a mismatch: despite only two years as a professional and no prior big-leagues experience, Nash is a talented young fighter who beat UFC veteran Lewis Gonzales in his last outing. He’s a powerful, rhythmic striker with a pumping jab and hard low kicks, and at Michigan State he was a Division I wrestler. His success here will depend on whether he can use his strikes to effectively set up his takedowns, but he has every chance of doing that against someone as defensively-lacking as Li.

That being said, when he’s on the offensive Li is a dangerous fighter with a diverse range of strikes, sneaky clinch work and a naughty guillotine choke. He has more experience and keeps a better pace, and as long as he is able to avoid being controlled on the mat I see him picking up another win here.

Raphael Assuncao vs. Aljamain Sterling

Returning for the first time since his close split-decision loss to Bryan Caraway last May, bantamweight prospect Aljamain Sterling draws longtime contender Raphael Assuncao in a fight with plenty of implications for the increasingly-competitive 135lbs top 10. Sterling is looking to regain some momentum and re-establish himself as one of the UFC’s hotter prospects, while Assuncao wants to get back into the win column after TJ Dillashaw snapped his 7-fight streak in July.

The outcome of this fight will largely depend on how much Sterling has improved since his loss to Caraway. With young fighters, extended periods of time spent solely in the gym generally reap huge rewards; they can develop their skills without risking career-derailing losses or putting too many miles on the clock. Sterling has always been fast, athletic and unorthodox, with diverse striking and solid grappling, but the holes in his game were obvious: he isn’t great at boxing range, and he’s susceptible to being taken down.

Assuncao, conversely, does everything well, and while he isn’t exceptional in any particular area he’s a crisp enough striker and a solid enough wrestler to make Sterling pay heavily for his weaknesses. It’s difficult to call. An athlete of Sterling’s calibre should, theoretically, have improved a great deal in the time since his last outing, and he’s surrounded by very talented coaches and teammates. If that’s the case, he should have enough tools to impress the judges here.

Nate Marquardt vs. Sam Alvey

I’m worried about this one.

Do I think it’ll be a bad fight? Not really. Both Nate Marquardt and Sam Alvey are powerful knockout artists with the potential to deliver great performances, and the diversity of options possessed by Marquardt especially means the fight could go anywhere and end up as any kind of contest. What I’m worried about is Marquardt being killed.

That might seem a bit hyperbolic, but for a while now I’ve been silently begging someone to save Marquardt from himself. He was a top-level fighter for a long time (let’s not forget he knocked out current welterweight king Tyron Woodley in devastating fashion) but at 37-years-old age has definitely caught up with him, and his chin has long since lost the capacity to deal with a significant shot. He has been badly knocked out in four of his last eight fights, and even though he’s managed to score a knockout or two of his own in that time, I’m constantly panicking about this guy getting seriously hurt. Sam Alvey, a patient, heavy-handed southpaw counter-striker, is just the guy to put out Marquardt’s lights yet again, and I just have no interest in seeing it.

Main Card

4

Alex Caceres vs. Jason Knight

I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m struggling to imagine a scenario in which this isn’t a great fight. The ever-inconsistent Caceres has shown real improvements in his game across his recent fights, and looked intermittently excellent during his last outing against uber-prospect Yair Rodriguez. Although still primarily a striker, he’s steadily developing better takedown defence and more tools for grounding the fight on his own terms – including some sneaky trips from the clinch. He’ll likely always be an unorthodox kickboxer, but the more tools he adds to his belt the more confident he’ll be to really let his wilder techniques go. And, really, that’s the core of Caceres’s appeal. He’s a fun, wild striker with a great outside kicking game and surprisingly sharp boxing who’ll likely never be a champion but who’ll probably always be fun to watch.

In the opposite corner: Jason Knight, a surging upstart who’s out to make a statement by steaming through a UFC veteran like Caceres, and all available evidence seems to suggest he might do just that. He’s aggressive, with great footwork and hard head-body punching combinations. He has a great jab that he can use to stick Caceres in place and limit his capacity for unusual movement. He has an explosive takedown game and an active guard. If there’s a hole in his skillset it’s takedown defence, but his ability to threaten with armbars and triangle chokes make up for that, and it’s unlikely Caceres will want to take the fight in that direction anyway. Whatever way you slice it, this is a great, well-matched contest between two exciting athletes.

Prediction? Well, both guys are surprisingly durable, so I’m leaning more towards a decision. And if I’m being honest, I think Knight has more tools here. He obviously lacks the dynamic repertoire of Caceres, which could cause him frustration early, but he certainly has more firepower when it comes to an exchange. Couple that with a notable grappling advantage and you get, I think, an exciting split decision for Knight.

Andrei Arlovski vs. Francis Ngannou

With Cain Velasquez on the shelf, Alistair Overeem fresh off a loss, Mark Hunt sulking, Brock Lesnar juiced to the gills, Fabricio Werdum kicking boxing coaches, Travis Browne a shadow of his former self and Junior Dos Santos AWOL, the heavyweight division is desperately in need of a title contender, and Francis Ngannou might well be it. The French giant is a terrifying powerhouse with a surprisingly advanced understanding of movement, timing and range, a developing clinch and, according to his last fight, a sly submission game. He’s 260lbs of lean muscle and a legitimate threat in every second of every fight.

It’s common for a legend like Andrei Arlovski to be fed to hungry upstarts as his career starts to decline, but you’d be a fool to think he’s lost it completely. Big heavyweights don’t seem to suffer the same depreciation in skills as lighter fighters because their styles are predicated less on speed and athleticism and more on sheer physical power. Arlovski hasn’t lost that. He’ll probably have that big right hand until the day he dies, and given the right set of circumstances it can knock anyone out, including Ngannou. He throws it with versatility and measures range well with his left, while he can resort to a grinding clinch game if he needs to and has the occasional trip from that position to mix things up.

There’s also the fact that Arlovski has been in the game for almost 20 years. He’s been in there against the best in the world; he’s won and lost every kind of fight imaginable. You can’t quantify that kind of experience. He can put Ngannou in situations that he hasn’t been in before, and there’s no way you can say the same about the Frenchman. Will this matter? Maybe not. But it’s worth considering.

Arlovski’s biggest problem is his ability to take a punch, which has never been all that great but is arguably getting worse. And unfortunately, that plays directly into Ngannou’s wheelhouse. Arlovski winning wouldn’t be the weirdest thing to ever happen in MMA, and I don’t think it would harm Ngannou all that much given his reputation, but the likeliest outcome here is Arlovski getting knocked out.

Donald Cerrone vs. Jorge Masvidal

Here’s a fun fact: Donald Cerrone has only lost once in his last 13 fights. This is something that isn’t brought up as often as it should be, largely thanks to Cerrone’s willingness to fight so regularly – and against any opponent. Whereas most fighters would campaign for title shots, pay-per-view points and paydays, Cerrone just wants to scrap. It’s why he’s a fan favourite. It’s also a large part of why he’s so good. He’s very experienced, and over all the years he’s been competing, he’s managed to develop his kick-heavy style into something he can adapt for any opponent. Earlier in his career he needed space in which to operate and set up fight-ending techniques. These days, he creates that space for himself, and those techniques come a lot more suddenly. He’s an expert at programming his opponent with a series of leg, body and head kicks; baiting them into defensive patterns that he can exploit whenever he chooses.

This has always been Cowboy’s bread-and-butter, along with a submission-hunting ground game (of his 24 finishes, 16 are from tap-outs). But in recent years (particularly his last four fights at welterweight, all of which he’s finished inside the distance) his game has evolved much more rapidly. He’s started to incorporate reactive takedowns with exceptional timing, and use his hands to much greater effect, pivoting, planting his feet and moving his head as he throws tight combinations on the inside. He’ll always be much more comfortable at range, but he’s becoming more and more dangerous in the pocket, too. All of this matters a great deal against an opponent like Jorge Masvidal, who has spent a long time on the fringes of the welterweight division and has only recently developed a killer finishing instinct that has rightly earned him more attention. Although primarily a boxer, Masvidal is exceedingly well-rounded, and his stellar defence makes it incredibly difficult to catch him clean.

This is a great fight, no doubt about that. The fact that both competitors can fight everywhere and work best at opposing ranges makes for a stylistically fascinating bout, and one with serious implications for the welterweight title picture. The slick and technical game of Masvidal doesn’t make for highlight-reel finishes like Cerrone’s, but he’s able to compete effectively with anyone and I suspect we won’t find much different here. He can work a quick enough pace to keep Cowboy on his toes, and his effectiveness in all phases will ensure no time off from the action. Ultimately, though, I think Cerrone’s better outside work and lethal kicking game will be the difference-makers here. It won’t be easy, and it could easily go the distance, but I’m leaning towards Cowboy extending his welterweight streak to five.

Valentina Shevchenko vs. Julianna Pena

After Ronda Rousey’s 48-second destruction at the hands of current queen Amanda Nunes, the top ranks of the women’s bantamweight division are once again in flux. Ronda’s return represented the re-establishing of the division’s figurehead for a lot of people, and that she got so comprehensively demolished opens a lot of avenues for contenders like Valentina Shevchenko and Julianna Pena to step into her spot. Both are potential stars. Shevchenko is a well-travelled kickboxer with highly impressive credentials, having beaten current straw-weight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk thrice under muay thai rules, and the likes of former champion Holly Holm in MMA. Her only loss under the UFC banner was a tight decision to Nunes, so that fight sells itself. And make no mistake: this is a title eliminator bout without question.

To her credit, the “Venezuelan Vixen” is one of the more marketable women the UFC have, given both how she looks and how she fights. She’s aggressive, and her functional striking is best-served as a cover to close distance and secure a takedown, where she’s arguably the best top-position grappler in the division. Her positional control is astounding and her mean streak is never far from the surface; she’s exceptional at landing vicious strikes while still maintaining dominance. Her kryptonite is striking, which is what makes this fight particularly interesting.

Shevchenko is a slow, patient fighter with a great command of timing and distance. This is often to her detriment – she’s a little too willing to hang around and wait for the shots she wants to present themselves, but when an opponent plays her game she’s vicious. A wide array of striking martial arts form the core of her game, and because of this she has three or four potential counters for any given approach. She can just as easily throw a right hook or a left wheel kick, and her constant stream of hard inside and outside leg kicks force her opponent to commit one way or the other. She’d always prefer they come forward, but her issues arise when they continue to come forward, eating her shots in order to secure a clinch. That isn’t to say Valentina’s bad in the clinch – on the contrary, she has nasty strikes from the position, a deceptive amount of physical strength and a nifty array of trips and throws. But she is capable of being taken down and controlled.

It’s a striker vs. grappler matchup, obviously. Pena’s success is dependent on being able to breach Shevchenko’s tight defences and force a grappling exchange where she can achieve positional control. Failing that, she’s in trouble. Shevchenko likely lacks the power to put Pena out completely, but she can easily counter-fight for five rounds, and if she’s able to keep her feet moving and maintain distance that’s exactly what she’ll do. Providing Shevchenko doesn’t concede takedowns and drop unnecessary rounds, she should take a decision here.

Official Predictions

2

Fight Pass Prelims

J.C. Cottrell via unanimous decision

Alexandre Pantoja via TKO

Televised Prelims

Jeremy Kimball via KO

Alessio Di Chirico via submission

Jordan Johnson via unanimous decision

Li Jingliang via submission

Aljamain Sterling via split decision

Sam Alvey via knockout

Main Card

Jason Knight via split decision

Francis Ngannou via KO

Donald Cerrone via unanimous decision

Valentina Shevchenko via unanimous decision

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