Well, UFC’s biggest card of the year has historically fallen in July, but in a twist, this year it comes on a somewhat random show in Anaheim rather than the big International Fight Week in Vegas. Between a bunch of factors like injuries, cancelled cards, and UFC planning out the rest of the year’s schedule, they kind of fell into the most stacked card that they may have ever put on, even after some injuries, with three title fights – including one of the biggest grudge matches in company history – and top contenders and prospects going eight-deep on the card.
And we have a little bit of everything; the grudge match storyline with Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier, a funky style matchup between Tyron Woodley and Demian Maia, plus the potentially brutal, in a good way…I think, sideshow that is Cris Cyborg and Tonya Evinger. Robbie Lawler and Donald Cerrone clash in a battle of violent fan favorites! Volkan Oezdemir and Hick Diaz try to further prove themselves! Renan Barao looks to turn his career around! Drew Dober! This card has pretty much everything; though, can someone please tell me exactly what “FXX” is? [editor: I think it’s just Fucking eXtra eXtreme, bro.]
- Light Heavyweight Championship: (C) Daniel Cormier vs. (#1) Jon Jones
- Welterweight Championship: (C) Tyron Woodley vs. (#1) Demian Maia
- Women’s Featherweight Championship: Cris Cyborg vs. Tonya Evinger
- Welterweight: (#3) Robbie Lawler vs. (#6) Donald Cerrone
- Light Heavyweight: (#3) Jimi Manuwa vs. (#5) Volkan Oezdemir
PRELIMINARY CARD (FXX – 8:00 PM ET):
- Featherweight: (#3) Ricardo Lamas vs. (#15) Jason Knight
- Catchweight (140 lbs.): (#8 Bantamweight) Aljamain Sterling vs. (#13 Featherweight) Renan Barao
- Featherweight: (#8) Brian Ortega vs. (#9) Renato Moicano
- Featherweight: Andre Fili vs. Calvin Kattar
PRELIMINARY CARD (UFC Fight Pass – 6:15 PM ET):
- Women’s Strawweight: Aleksandra Albu vs. Kailin Curran
- Flyweight: Jarred Brooks vs. Eric Shelton
- Lightweight: Joshua Burkman vs. Drew Dober
So…is it safe? Somehow this rematch has only fallen apart twice, but it feels like MMA’s white whale, as Jon Jones has struggled to get the fight that will, at the very least, redeem his career. It’s easy to forget, particularly since it’s somehow been almost a decade since, how crazy Jones’s rise up the sport was. A former junior college wrestling champion, Jones was in UFC within four months of his pro MMA debut, less than a month after his 21st birthday, and just pretty much destroyed everyone in his path. Save his one controversial disqualification loss to Matt Hamill thanks to some illegal elbows (thrown long after the fight should’ve been stopped), Jones passed every test in front of him with flying colors, and by 2011, Jones was essentially a real-life superhero. At UFC 126, Jones choked out Ryan Bader, his only other competition for top prospect at light heavyweight, without much trouble, and was told that just a month later, he’d be stepping in for injured teammate Rashad Evans to take on Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for what was then UFC’s marquee title. And that day not only saw Jones pretty much blow through Rua to win the belt, but earlier in the day, chase down a robber that had stolen an elderly woman’s handbag in a local park; basically, on every level, Jones looked too good to be true, and set to be the face of the next generation of top MMA fighters.
Now champion, Jones beat Rampage Jackson and Lyoto Machida – the latter with an impressively brutal submission, dropping Machida like a sack of potatoes – and then came a grudge match with Evans, who had a falling out with Jones in the aftermath of Jones taking his spot and becoming champion. This was the first sign that things weren’t quite what they seemed with Jones, as Evans basically portrayed him as a snake and a fake, and shortly after the eventual one-sided Jones win, there was an incident in upstate New York where Jones was arrested for driving under the influence and crashing his car into a telephone pole. But things mostly remained whispers, as Jones’s excellence in the cage overshadowed everything else; there were moments of danger, like Vitor Belfort getting a deep armbar in on Jones, and Jones’s absolute war with Alexander Gustafsson, but it was just win after win as Jones continued to establish himself as one of the greatest fighters of all time. And then came the Daniel Cormier feud. It’s amusing to think back to 2014, since it was actually initially a disappointment that Gustafsson had to pull out of his rematch with Jones due to injury, and Cormier stepped into the challenger’s spot. But it soon became apparent that Jones and Cormier mixed like oil and water, and one of MMA’s great rivalries was off to the races. Apparently this all stemmed from a backstage incident years past, where Jones, not knowing that Cormier was the former captain of America’s Olympic wrestling team, basically bragged that he could outwrestle Cormier.
And from that, things blew up, culminating in a memorable day that saw Jones and Cormier get into a shoving match during a pre-fight press event, as backdrops got knocked over, shoes were thrown, and basically chaos ensued as people tried to separate the two from each other. But while that’s the more memorable clip, for my money, the best stuff came later; the two were slated to do a split-screen face to face on ESPN, but someone leaked footage of the two going at it verbally while the cameras were off. And that’s where we got to see Jones with, essentially, the mask off, talking trash and demeaning Cormier, a complete 180 from his typical clean-cut, nice-guy public persona. But, at the end of the day – and a little bit later than expected thanks to a Jones injury pushing the fight back – Jones pretty much did everything he said he was going to do, winning the fight fairly handily and once again establishing himself as MMA’s most unbeatable fighter. And then the floodgates opened. First, just days after the fight, it came out that Jones had failed a pre-fight drug test for cocaine; from a disciplinary standpoint, this meant nothing, as cocaine is actually not a punishable offense as long as it’s out of competition, but it did open the way for a whole bunch of stories about Jones’s partying, with the most interesting anecdotes being about how the Gustafsson fight was so close simply because Jones decided to party rather than take his opponent seriously. But then things got way more severe; that April, with Jones scheduled to defend his title against Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, Jones was charged in a hit-and-run accident where he ran a red light, crashed into the car of a pregnant woman, then decided to run off, come back to grab some cash he had left in his rental car, and then leave the car, the victim, and the marijuana inside the vehicle behind. This was enough for UFC to strip Jones of the title (as Cormier stepped in and wound up beating Johnson), and it’d be about a year until we saw Jones again. Initially, he was supposed to face Cormier in April of last year, but thanks to Cormier getting injured this time around, Jones instead won the interim title in a fight against Ovince Saint Preux, where Jones looked rusty and won a glorified sparring match. But it all worked out; with UFC feuding with Conor McGregor and pulling him from the UFC 200 main event, Jones/Cormier was now slated to headline the biggest MMA card of all time, now with an additional three months of trash talk. And we finally hit fight week…only for things to fall apart once again, this time just three days before the bout. Jones failed another drug test, which wound up being, in Jones’s own words, thanks to some tainted “dick pills”; essentially, Jones was having dinner with friends when a friend of a friend talked about some, well, performance enhancers that were…enhancing his performance, and Jones, in a fairly stupid move, just decided to take some from the guy and use them with no regard for his drug tests. What the heck, dude. If anything else, at least it’s a more amusing coda than Jones’s other troubles, but it’s yet another reminder that Jones still needs to get his life in order, part of which, at least in his mind, includes winning his title back from Cormier.
So, Daniel Cormier. Cormier’s road to the title seems fairly boring and quaint compared to Jones’s rollercoaster ride, but no less impressive; after a decorated wrestling career that included representing the United States in two Olympics (though Cormier wound up not competing in 2008 due to complications from a weight cut), Cormier moved into MMA in 2009 and was shooting up the Strikeforce ranks in short order, improving fight after fight and cashing in on his status as a blue-chip heavyweight prospect. But once UFC absorbed Strikeforce, and with Cormier’s close friend and training partner Cain Velasquez reigning over UFC’s heavyweight division, come 2014, Cormier decided to cut down to light heavyweight, a move he was loathe to do thanks to his weight cutting issues at the Olympics. But Cormier looked even better at 205, knocking out Patrick Cummins and memorably throwing around Dan Henderson before the fight with Jones happened. Since then, it’s been a weird deal; during the initial Jones fight, Cormier was the obvious good guy in the feud, and Jones rubbing it in after the fact that Cormier basically lives just outside the winner’s circle (as Cormier was a NCAA runner-up, finished fourth in the 2004 Olympics, and lost to Jones) only cemented that fact. But once Jones was stripped of his belt and Cormier became champion, that flipped on its head a bit, as the fanbase seemingly resented Cormier calling himself the true champion when he never actually beat Jones for the belt. And as a consequence, Cormier’s reign hasn’t exactly set the world on fire; while his first defense saw Cormier have his own war with Alexander Gustafsson, it’s become sort of a forgotten great fight that tanked at the box office, and that was followed up with an understandably flat performance against Anderson Silva in the post-Jones UFC 200 aftermath, and a fight last April with Anthony Johnson that was more notable for Johnson crumbling than anything else. A win over Jones would not only redeem the reign of one of MMA’s true nice guys, but in a way sort of validate Cormier’s whole career, MMA and otherwise; as Jones himself said, Cormier’s basically made a habit out of living in second place, so this would finally mark Cormier ascending to the top of the mountain, and against his most bitter rival to boot.
So, the fight. Watching the first fight back, it wasn’t quite the one-sided shellacking I remembered, but was still a clear Jones win; Cormier was able to get inside and clinch up with Jones a lot, but the issue was that he wasn’t really able to do a whole hell of a lot when he got there. Then, after a few close rounds, things got much more one-sided in the championship rounds, as Cormier tired and just seemed focused on, if nothing else, taking Jones down to get a moral victory as Jones took over the fight. You could use this fight, combined with Jones’s fight against Saint Preux, to convince yourself that Cormier has a chance here; again, the early rounds were close, and Jones did look terribly rusty in his last fight after a similarly long layoff. But the rust seemed to be more mental than physical; Jones looked as in shape as ever, but just struggled to pull the trigger against Saint Preux, and I’m not really sure any of that helps Cormier; I suppose DC could choose to fight a striking match and could probably win some early rounds, but Cormier is at his best when he’s grinding, and unless turning thirty has taken a sudden toll on Jones, I’m not really sure how Cormier improves his success there from the last fight. Plus, this is all assuming we see the same Cormier; I do think the talk of him slowing down, at least in the cage, is a bit overblown, with only the Silva performance after all the exhausting drama of UFC 200 being a particularly poor showing, but Cormier is now 38 years old, after years of abuse through wrestling and MMA, and has had some recent issues cutting weight, all of which suggests that, while Cormier may not have fallen off just yet, the cliff might be coming, and at the very least, the champion has plateaued. I do think this will be a closer fight than the first one, since, for everything I just said about Cormier, I think between age, long layoffs, and the general evolution of the game, we’ve also probably already seen the best Jon Jones, and he’ll probably take a round or two to get into a groove. But I don’t see Cormier having much more success wrestling than he did last time, and with that this primarily becomes a striking match, and as soon as Jones finds his reflexes and triggers, he’ll be well on his way to getting his belt back. So my pick is Jones via decision, and if the commercials for UFC 214 are to believed, that means he’s fixed his entire life, right?
Tyron Woodley (17-3-1 overall, 7-2-1 UFC, 8-1 Strikeforce) vs. Demian Maia (25-6 overall, 19-6 UFC):
Tyron Woodley must thank his lucky stars for Michael Bisping’s middleweight title reign, since without him, Woodley might have the title of UFC champion most loathed by the fanbase. And while I don’t doubt race does play at least some part of a factor in that, as Woodley’s seemingly taken over for Rashad Evans as the black champion who can’t quite connect with the crowd at large, part of it also has to do with Woodley’s rise to the top being so…uninspiring. A former standout wrestler at the University of Missouri, Woodley was mostly a blanket in the early stages of his career before developing a quick, explosive one-shot kill striking game that made him a future contender to watch. But once Woodley got into the mix of actual contenders, things, again, just kind of got uninspiring; his big win over Carlos Condit was marred a bit by the fight ending via knee injury to Condit, even though Woodley was winning up to that point, and that momentum was negated by a one-sided loss to Rory MacDonald just three months later. From there, Woodley got two wins more notable for his opponents’ failings than anything – Dong Hyun Kim got annihilated after trying a high-risk spinning elbow attack, and Kelvin Gastelum had such a bad weight cut he spent time in the hospital, yet was somehow cleared to fight – and after Johny Hendricks backed out of their slated number-one contender’s fight with weight cut issues of his own, Woodley just basically deemed himself top contender and refused to take any more fights, earning the ire of fans who felt Woodley hadn’t earned a title shot. Somewhat surprisingly, Woodley’s gambit worked, as he got a shot at UFC 201, and it was a situation where Woodley couldn’t win for losing; he looked great in knocking Robbie Lawler out in just a shade over two minutes, but ending the title reign of a fan favorite like Lawler didn’t exactly endear Woodley to the fans, either. And from there, we had Woodley’s two defenses against Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, which were…a mixed bag to say the least. Since the MacDonald loss, Woodley has been a much more conservative fighter, focusing on preserving his gas tank and basically only springing into action when he has a huge opening. This happened a bit in their first fight, which went to a draw, which resulted in some excellent rounds where Woodley laid on a beating and Thompson tried to survive, but their rematch at UFC 209 was one of the worst fights of the year, a staring contest where Woodley tried to expend as little energy as possible and Thompson was basically too cautious to actually do anything. But thankfully, a Woodley win allowed us to move on to another fight that looks interesting on paper – and hopefully is so in practice – against Demian Maia.
Demian Maia is an absolutely delightful throwback fighter, and it’s nice to see him finally earn his welterweight title shot just months before his fortieth birthday. Maia is essentially a human Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructional video; he might be the best pure submission specialist in all of MMA, maybe even MMA history, and even better, Maia possesses some of the most underratedly great wrestling in the game, which unlike a lot of his top-tier BJJ peers, allows him to dictate the terms of his MMA fights. Maia initially came into UFC as a middleweight submission machine, eventually earning a title shot at Anderson Silva that quickly turned into a gong show; Silva, then at the peak of his powers, basically used the fight as an opportunity to just troll Maia on the feet for five straight rounds, as Silva felt no threat standing from such a one-dimensional BJJ artist. And, well, Maia learned that lesson, and we got the infamous run of what was sarcastically called “K-1 Maia”, as Maia just sort of reinvented himself as a plodding striker that wound up not accomplishing much of anything. But a loss to Chris Weidman in 2012 eventually convinced Maia to drop to welterweight and retool, and the results were amazing, particularly as Maia also just decided to go back to what brought him to the dance. And Maia’s first three fights at welterweight were memorably dominant, as he basically squeezed Dong Hyun Kim so hard on a takedown that Kim had to give up due to muscle spasms, then followed that up by squeezing Rick Story’s head so tight on a choke that his nose was a faucet of blood, and, well, just straight out-grappling Jon Fitch. Losses to Jake Shields and Rory MacDonald seemingly stopped Maia’s momentum, particularly given the Brazilian’s age, but instead, that just set the table for a crazy seven-fight win streak that saw Maia just out-grapple all comers, with a dominating decision of Gunnar Nelson and a sub-two minute submission win over Carlos Condit being the highlights. But being a one-dimensional, 40-year old submission specialist does have its drawbacks, as one would imagine; again, Maia’s striking isn’t the best, and a consequence of the grappling-heavy style and big weight cut Maia puts himself through is that his gas tank is quite limited – after about two rounds of hard grappling, Maia’s pretty much done, essentially trying to use his ground control and other tricks of the trade to buy time and get back his energy. All of that came to roost a bit in his last fight, a narrow win over Jorge Masvidal that pinged back and forth between Maia’s dominant grappling and Masvidal causing damage on the feet and with ground-and-pound, but it was also a reminder that for both Maia and his opponent, the margins are exceedingly thin.
Man, this fight is gonna be weird. There are a few guys who bend all their fights into a certain way, and Maia’s one of them, thanks to his…Demian Maia-ness; it basically comes down to if Maia can get a quick submission or top control in general, and when you add in Woodley’s boom-or-bust conservative approach, the calculus just gets super-funky. There’s the possibility of a quick finish on either side here; if you needed any MMA fighter to get a first-round tap, it’d be Maia, and on the feet, particularly in this fight, Woodley’s capable of just covering a bunch of ground really quickly and obliterating his opponent into next week. But I don’t think either is going to happen; Woodley, with with his squat, muscular frame and background in wrestling, might be the hardest opponent yet for Maia to take down, and given how much Woodley’s approach seems to focus on conserving energy, I don’t see him making any sudden moves that could open himself up to an exhausting grappling match with Maia. So, sadly, I kind of expect a staring match, with Maia unable to get Woodley to the ground and possibly too cautious about getting his head knocked off to even try much, and with Woodley just sort of standing back and waiting for Maia to provide some sort of opening. So, basically, I expect a lot of PTSD, for both fans and the fighter alike, to Woodley’s last title defense against Thompson, and Maia’s title fight with Silva – just five rounds of pretty much nothing. I’d love to be wrong, and I hope I’m wrong, but I’ll say Woodley wins yet another boring decision, though thankfully this time around, we’ll have Jones and Cormier to save us.
Cris Cyborg (17-1  overall, 2-0 UFC, 5-0 Invicta, 4-0  Strikeforce) vs. Tonya Evinger (19-6  overall, 7-0  Invicta):
Let’s get stupid. I wouldn’t call the fight that stupid, even if it is exceedingly weird, but how we got here is just downright dumb. Where to start with Cris Cyborg? I suppose at the beginning is probably the best place. Cyborg burst her way onto the stateside scene in EliteXC back in 2008 as an absolute powerhouse, overwhelming all comers with her physicality, including Gina Carano, who she stopped in the first round in a Strikeforce fight in 2009. That Carano/Cyborg was the first fight that showed a high-level women’s MMA fight could really be an event, but after that, Cyborg was kind of left without a foil; women’s MMA pioneer Marloes Coenen lasted a bit with Cyborg, but past that, well, nothing. And after a failed drug test that basically turned all the subtext surrounding Cyborg into text and caused her to miss all of 2012, Cyborg was left fairly directionless, a sideshow without a real spot on the MMA landscape. And then UFC added women. And so the dance between Cyborg and UFC began. Apparently, Ronda Rousey fighting Cyborg was UFC’s first choice to kick off women’s MMA in the promotion, but things quickly hit an impasse; Cyborg insisted she was unable to make 135, and Rousey refused to move up in weight for someone who had failed a drug test; Rousey argued, somewhat rightfully so, that Cyborg could just get off the gas, and that as the champion, Cyborg would basically have to come to her if she wanted the validation of being the best in the world. And so that went on for a few years, whispers of Cyborg entering the UFC to face Rousey then quickly getting dashed, before Bellator basically forced everyone’s hand by announcing the start of a women’s featherweight division. This was obviously a play for Cyborg, and so UFC pounced, signing Cyborg to a unique deal for the promotion; she’d fight a few times for Invicta, with UFC paying her a big-money contract, with the agreement that UFC would pay for a nutritionist and all sorts of aid to help Cyborg cut down to 135, at which point she could come in for a superfight against Rousey. And that…never really happened, for a few reasons. Cyborg was announced for a fight at 140 pounds, but pulled out with an injury before an opponent was even set, and when she came back, she was at 145, muscular than ever. And so that became a new dance, with Cyborg remaining non-committal about ever dropping weight, complaining that she couldn’t make 135, while, at the same time, appearing more muscular than ever every time we saw her. So things already weren’t looking good for a fight with Rousey, and then Holly Holm went and put a nail in that coffin with her upset win over the UFC champ, once again leaving Cyborg as a woman without an island. At this point, UFC basically said screw it and just decided to bring Cyborg in, given that she was a viable attraction, fighting converted bantamweights at a catchweight of 140 pounds, since UFC basically had to get their pound of flesh. Cyborg then posted a series of videos chronicling how difficult her weight cut was, earning her some sympathy from the public, but it’s once again a situation where it’s hard to root for either party; UFC obviously had no real reason to have Cyborg cut more additional weight, but at the same time, given that Cyborg doesn’t really seem to make good-faith efforts to stay lean, getting more muscular through either natural or unnatural means, it’s kind of hard to tell what Cyborg’s actual weight class is. Somehow, things got even more ridiculously dramatic when UFC gave into Cyborg’s demands and decided to establish a women’s featherweight division that November, and offered her a title fight in either January or February. And Cyborg’s response was to say that…she needed at least three months to make 145. UFC was understandably pissed, as it’s fairly ridiculous for Cyborg to ask for a title in weight class that she needs that much notice to actually make, though at the same time, the idea of a featherweight division is a farce, so UFC probably would’ve been better off had they just decided to make a weight class at whatever class Cyborg can actually make, since she’s the division anyway. Anyways, that all got thrown out the window when, out of spite, UFC decided to make Holly Holm and Germaine de Randamie fight for the 145 belt, and then, of course, Cyborg failed another drug test. She soon got cleared, but under fairly shady circumstances, as the test failure was traced back to some testosterone treatments for depression that Cyborg had received, even though she didn’t disclose it on any of her paperwork, and there hadn’t been any mention of these depression issues prior. So, while that looks from the outside as Cyborg gaming the system to find a legal way to use testosterone, she’s now in the free and clear, and with de Randamie deciding to vacate her newly-won featherweight belt rather than fight Cyborg, citing all her drug test issues, we’re back to where we should’ve started in the first place, with Cyborg fighting to win the vacant belt she deserves. Just in time for her contract to expire in October, and start the whole cycle anew. Whee.
Cyborg was initially supposed to face hard-hitting Invicta featherweight champion Megan Anderson, but with Anderson pulling out due to personal issues, Cyborg now faces Invicta bantamweight champ Tonya Evinger, who’s had her own weird route to UFC. Evinger’s a well-traveled vet, and seemed destined to be a journeywoman after she lost to Raquel Pennington to get into the Ultimate Fighter house back in 2013. But instead, that started a sudden late-career run that saw Evinger suddenly send back all comers and become one of the top bantamweights in the world. Inside the cage, Evinger lives up to her “Triple Threat” nickname, dangerous in pretty much all aspects of the fight, but outside the cage…where to start. I don’t remember where I saw it, outside of that it was on Twitter, but someone mentioned that Evinger once got into a bar fight with their bus driver aunt at about 11 AM on a weekday, and that seems about right. And she’s the type of person who, to signify her “Triple Threat” nickname, uses a hand giving the shocker as a logo. Stop me once you get the picture. And there’s also the fact that Evinger is, well, probably the thirstiest lesbian you’ll ever come across, as her social media presence is pretty much full of her appreciation of the female form, a trait that’s gotten her into trouble a few times. First, after one of her title defenses, Evinger continued her running…gag? of sorts with Invicta interviewer Laura Sanko, who Evinger obviously wants to sleep with, shooting her shot and deciding to just french Sanko in the middle of the interview, despite Evinger having just puked due to exhaustion. That was all fun between friends, but then there was her Twitter interaction with Paige VanZant, where VanZant posted a picture of her posed in a leotard, and Evinger, once again shooting her shot, asked for another version of the picture, only this time without the leotard. There were always rumors Evinger wasn’t ever getting a UFC contract due to some things she had said behind closed doors to matchmaker Sean Shelby, and I’d imagine that would’ve cinched it; except, well, Cyborg needs opponents, and desperation makes for strange bedfellows. So now, amazingly, Evinger is finally getting her UFC shot, albeit in less than ideal circumstances; and please, keep her away from Paige VanZant.
Well, I suppose this is a more interesting Cyborg fight than usual, particularly since Evinger does theoretically have a path to victory. While Cyborg’s always been a powerhouse, it’s been a bit underreported about just how much she’s improved as a striker in recent years; where she’s just been a berserker for most of her career, her last few fights have seen Cyborg get fairly technical, which is horribly frightening when combined with her physical gifts. That’s made finding interesting competition for Cyborg even more difficult; women’s featherweight is basically the female version of heavyweight, so the few viable opponents out there are pretty much all women who like to stand and trade, which, well, is pretty much a no-win proposition against Cyborg. So, theoretically, Evinger presents a new challenge in that she has submission skill, so if Evinger can get Cyborg to the ground, we might have an interesting fight on our hands. But, well, that’s a huge if, as Evinger not only has to get Cyborg down, she has to not get hit, keep Cyborg down, and basically assume that Cyborg doesn’t have much in the way of submission skills, all while being an undersized and not a particularly explosive athlete. It really does say something that I think Evinger has a better chance of beating Cyborg than most other opponents, but that’s all on a sliding scale, and basically five things need to go perfectly before we can even think about that happening. So, Cyborg via first-round knockout is the obvious pick here, and I’m morbidly curious to see what happens when Cyborg hits free agency in a few months.
Robbie Lawler (27-11  overall, 12-5 UFC, 3-5 Strikeforce, 1-0 PRIDE) vs. Donald Cerrone (32-8  overall, 19-5 UFC, 6-3  WEC):
Violence! And thankfully, it looks like the third time will be the charm for two of UFC’s most beloved bringers of pain to square off, after this fell through for both UFC 205 and UFC 213. And speaking of thirds, let’s take another moment to appreciate the third life of Robbie Lawler, who’s had a long and winding road to get here. As MMA was slowly re-entering the public sphere after being decried as human cockfighting and basically taken off of pay-per-view, Lawler seemed poised to be one of UFC’s breakout stars, a violent Iowan with a penchant for brutal knockouts. But, unfortunately, Lawler also turned out to be of the first in a line of many when it comes to a common MMA trope: the guy who can score a quick first-round knockout, but doesn’t really have a whole hell of a lot past that. After losing three out of four, UFC and Lawler parted ways, and from there we got phase number two, as Lawler moved up to middleweight and, after some years as sort of an itinerant big name, found some success in EliteXC, becoming that promotion’s middleweight champion and getting some featured fights on CBS. But as soon as EliteXC folded and Lawler moved onto Strikeforce, his career sort of flatlined yet again, and after a string of flat losses, admittedly against good competition like Jacare Souza, Tim Kennedy, and Lorenz Larkin, Lawler appeared to be done. But then things got sort of crazy, as Lawler came back to UFC once Strikeforce was absorbed, cut to welterweight, and suddenly, out of nowhere, became a legit title contender. Wins over a then-shot Josh Koscheck and Bobby Voelker were fun bits of violence, but then Lawler got a win over assumed heir to the welterweight throne Rory MacDonald, and that’s when it became apparent that Lawler’s move to American Top Team had paid huge dividends. Lawler then faced Johny Hendricks to establish the first post-GSP champion at welterweight, and while he lost that fight in what was 2014’s consensus fight of the year, Lawler turned around and earned two quick wins to earn another title shot, this time beating Hendricks and completing his fairy-tale comeback. From there, Lawler’s reign may not have been the most dominant, but it was by far the best title reign in history in terms of fight-by-fight excitement, as Lawler’s two successful title defenses were both absolutely hellacious wars that were the best fights in their respective years, beating Rory MacDonald via fifth-round stoppage and Carlos Condit via decision. That made it all the more disappointing when Lawler lost his title and rather quick and ignominious fashion, getting dropped by Tyron Woodley in a shade over two minutes, and there are some signs that the wheels might be falling off a bit; there was that quick loss, then a long, nearly year-long recovery between fights, plus Lawler has apparently cut ties with American Top Team, the camp that brought him back to prominence. We’ll see how the former champ looks here, but he doesn’t have much margin for error if he’s trying to retool against Donald Cerrone.
It’s almost weird, in a way, to have a Cerrone fight marinate, since he typically fights so damn much; in just a shade under six years, Cerrone managed to put together nineteen UFC wins, just one behind Michael Bisping (who’s been in UFC eleven years and running) for the all-time UFC record. And that’s probably been for the best; for one thing, Cerrone has back taxes to pay, and for another, he doesn’t seem to be a guy who does well with prolonged fight camps. Cerrone’s always just been a guy who fights as frequently as possible as an exciting addition to pretty much any card, but after racking up eight wins in under two years, Cerrone just kind of fell into a title shot against Rafael dos Anjos, where, well, Cerrone pretty much crapped the bed. Cerrone’s always had a rep as a slow starter, but here he just never got on track, looking flat and then getting annihilated by dos Anjos in just 66 seconds. But, in a way, the aftermath was almost a relief, as it allowed “Cowboy” to do “Cowboy” things and just take whatever fight was available, which, as it turns out, entailed a move up to welterweight. And not only was Cowboy up to his usual pace of fights, but he was also suddenly in career-best form, fine-tuning his already strong striking game and just annihilating tough opponents like Patrick Cote, Rick Story and Matt Brown. But things crashed pretty hard this past January, as in Cerrone’s hometown of Denver, Jorge Masvidal essentially knocked him out twice, doing so once right at the first-round buzzer before finishing the job in the second. Surprisingly, Dana White actually showed regard for one of his fighters and actually basically forced Cerrone to stay on the shelf for a few months, so it’ll be interesting to see how Cerrone looks here; hopefully he hasn’t gotten too much into his own head.
This is a really fascinating fight, and really feels like a bit of a crossroads bout, with both Lawler and Cerrone coming off brutal, sudden losses. And there’s a bunch of questions about how each will recover; Lawler’s had a long career full of wars and is moving away from the camp that gave him his most success, while Cerrone’s never been a guy who’s done well with a long layoff, instead being at his best just always moving towards the next fight and letting things flow. Plus, Cerrone may be a bit nearer to the end than you’d think, as he’s somewhat surprisingly already 34 years old, which particularly stands out since Lawler’s somehow just only 35. This really could go either way, given that both guys have fight-ending power, but I’ll favor Cerrone; while I’m not sure how great the trendline is going forward, he was also doing fine in that fight against Masvidal until things started to turn, and he has had a few fights where he’s just gotten melted – it’s just that he usually has a quick enough turnaround that those losses get forgotten about in fairly short order. Plus, Lawler’s change in camps worries me a bit; it reeks a bit of late-career desperation, though again, Lawler’s a guy who’s had many different lives. I’ll say Cerrone gets a second-round knockout, but really, I’m just hoping for a war, and hopefully this isn’t just a depressing loss for either of these fan favorites.
Such is the state of light heavyweight, as this may just be a number-one contender’s bout in what was once UFC’s marquee division, even though Alexander Gustafsson is also lurking as a possible contender. Jimi Manuwa’s had a strange little run, though I guess he’s sort of cashed in on his status as a former blue-chip prospect. Manuwa came into UFC back in 2012, riding an undefeated 11-0 record with 11 finishes, and he soon became a mainstay of UFC’s European cards, continuing that finishing streak in more or less the weirdest way possible, winning his first three UFC bouts via injury. But then things sort of flattened out for Manuwa, as one-sided losses to Gustafsson and Anthony Johnson, sandwiched around a flat win over Jan Blachowicz, more or less consigned Manuwa to the scrap heap of guys who couldn’t quite get over the hump. And, well, Manuwa hasn’t exactly redeemed himself from those losses, but he’s suddenly found his way back into the conversation, starching fellow fringe contenders Ovince Saint Preux and Corey Anderson without a ton of trouble. So, here we are, with Manuwa being talked about as a contender again, but he finally has to win the big one, against…Volkan Oezdemir?
The rise of Volkan Oezdemir has been one of the stranger subplots of UFC in 2017. Oezdemir is…just a guy. A Swiss guy, UFC’s first, which is novel, but he’s just sort of decent at everything; he’s primarily a striker, and pretty good at that, and at the regional level he showed some wrestling, even if that hasn’t manifested itself to date against stronger competition. Being a guy who’s fairly decent everywhere with no real weaknesses is actually enough to be a top ten light heavyweight nowadays, but thanks to some luck and happenstance, Oezdemir’s found himself in the title picture after just two UFC fights. Oezdemir looked fine in his UFC debut, a late-notice call-up to face Saint Preux, but it was still surprising when Oezdemir was awarded the split decision, and with it, a top-ten ranking that quickly became a bit of a running joke. Oezdemir figured to get smoked by legitimate top prospect Misha Cirkunov in his follow-up, but then that one got weird, too, as Cirkunov charged in with punches to try and get into the clinch, and Oezdemir just nailed him upside the head for the 28-second knockout. So Oezdemir suddenly has two big UFC wins and a top-five ranking; not bad for a guy who was getting tapped out by Kelly Anundson in Bellator just three years ago.
You know, as much as his rise up the ranks is just sort of a funny fluke, Oezdemir does have a chance here; he’s a fairly solid kickboxer with some good fundamentals, and it’s not like Manuwa’s defenses are so impenetrable that he can’t be caught and knocked out. But I really can’t bring myself to make that pick, as Manuwa just has a ton of horsepower, and his boxing game seems to fully be clicking at this point into his career. I’m done dismissing Oezdemir as a joke, so I think this is actually a close fight while it lasts, but I have to imagine at some point Manuwa catches Oezdemir with a solid shot, and at that point it should be over. My pick is Manuwa by second-round knockout.
You never exactly know where the next breakthrough prospect is going to come from, and Jason Knight is a pretty stark example of that. An Alan Belcher protege out of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Knight showed little in his UFC debut; he was advertised as pretty much a pure jiu-jitsu player, and his fight against Tatsuya Kawajiri was just a lot of Kawajiri holding Knight down as Knight tried a bunch of ineffective submissions from the bottom. But about eight months later, in his sophomore effort against Jim Alers, Knight looked unexpectedly great, showing an unexpectedly sharp volume striking game and penchant for trash talking that soon affectionately earned him the nickname “Hick Diaz.” (Which, as a sidenote, as the man who coined “Hick Diaz,” seeing my offhand tweet become an actual MMA thing has been weird. God help me if it makes UFC television.) Knight then beat fellow top prospect Daniel Hooker in similar fashion, but come 2017, Knight’s moved a bit more towards showcasing what brought him to the dance, showing off his venomous submission skills and ground-and-pound in wins over Alex Caceres and Chas Skelly. With Doo Ho Choi injured, Knight steps in here for the biggest test of his career, and he’s got a good chance, an amazing turnaround for a guy who was a solid bet to be two losses and out in the UFC just a year ago.
That all said, Ricardo Lamas is easily the kind of guy who could stop all of Knight’s momentum, as he’s settled into a nice little niche as the gatekeeper for the elite of the featherweight division. Lamas was a fairly unremarkable lightweight in WEC, but when that promotion got folded into UFC, Lamas cut to featherweight and pretty much hit the ground running, getting wins over then-contenders like Cub Swanson, Hatsu Hioki and Erik Koch. Lamas has a funky, well-rounded game, as he’s a solid striker and a particularly strong wrestler, but he’s mostly defined by his ability as an opportunist able to exploit his opponents’ mistakes; so, sadly, it was no surprise when Lamas was pretty much unable to do much of anything once he got his title shot against Jose Aldo, one of the stronger defensive fighters there’s ever been. Since then, Lamas has just kind of hung around at the top of the division; one-sided losses to Chad Mendes and Max Holloway have pretty much closed the door in the short-term on a title shot, particularly with Holloway as the current champ, but Lamas has otherwise turned away all comers and looked pretty good in doing so.
It’s a really fascinating fight, and a solid benchmark of exactly where each guy is at; this is obviously Knight’s best opponent to date, but it’s also a solid test to see exactly how Lamas’s game will hold up against the next generation of rising featherweights. I don’t typically look at betting odds before these write-ups, since I like to think about each fight independently before seeing what the consensus is, but I was a bit surprised to see that Knight is the betting favorite. But I figured out where that’s coming from; Lamas had a ton of trouble with the game of Max Holloway, and Knight is a similarly lanky striker who can throw a ton of volume and basically overload Lamas’s brain to prevent him from countering. But the question is, is this a flaw in Lamas’s game that simply can’t be overcome at this point in his career, or is this just a case of Max Holloway being really freaking good? I tend to think it’s more the latter than the former at this point, unless Lamas is starting to fall off, which at age 35 is entirely possible. Knight has that strong striking game, and that strong grappling, but it’s the latter in particular that I think Lamas can shut down; Lamas is both a powerful wrestler and an opportunist, and Knight can get quite over-aggressive with his submissions, so if this goes to the mat, I just see Lamas being able to take advantage of openings and basically keep Knight held to the mat. If Knight just decides to keep things standing, I could see him pulling this off – though it’s still sort of a toss-up, as I do think Knight, for all his skills, is still a level or two below Holloway on the feet – but I actually see this being a lot like the Knight/Kawajiri fight, where Knight decides to go for low-risk submissions rather than get up off his back. So my pick is Lamas by decision, though I’m really curious to see how this turns out, as it’s a bit of a crossroads fight in the division.
A really interesting bout here, as former bantamweight kingpin Renan Barao returns to the division that he once dominated…sort of. It’s a bit bizarre to think that, just three years or so ago, Barao was talked about as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, riding a 32-fight, nine-year long undefeated streak and dominating everyone in his path. But like teammate Jose Aldo’s loss to Max Holloway, Barao fell hard once he faced the next evolution of the sport, as T.J. Dillashaw basically made him look foolish, outpacing Barao and knocking him out in both of their fights. Between that, and issues with cutting weight – Barao memorably passed out while cutting weight when the rematch with Dillashaw was initially set for UFC 177 – Barao decided to move up to featherweight, and, frankly, just kind of became more of a non-factor. While he no longer looked as plodding as he did against quick bantamweights like Dillashaw, Barao had some trouble dealing with the power of his first opponent at 145, Jeremy Stephens; admittedly, Stephens is a big featherweight himself, but starting his run at featherweight with a loss just pretty much killed all of Barao’s momentum. Barao rebounded with a win over Phillipe Nover that wasn’t as impressive as it probably should’ve been, and after dropping off the radar for a bit, Barao announced he was moving back down to 135; but, given his weight-cutting issues at UFC 177, which took place in Sacramento, the state of California is forcing Barao to compete at 140 pounds here.
And for his return(?) to bantamweight(-ish), Barao will take on Long Island’s Aljamain Sterling, who’s in a bit of a weird spot himself. With all the new blood succeeding at bantamweight, it’s a bit easy to forget that Sterling was, as recently as early 2016, considered the best of the bunch, as he’d already racked up wins over Takeya Mizugaki and Johnny Eduardo while showing off a pretty innovative submission game. In fact, some people were calling Sterling the bantamweight Jon Jones; admittedly, a bit of a lazy comparison given that they’re both black New Yorkers who started at the same camp, but a sign nonetheless of the potential that Sterling possessed. Instead, Sterling became sort of a cautionary tale about the need for a well put-together game. You see, Sterling, as he needed to do, added a striking game, and given his long, lanky frame, he added one based around using kicks to keep his opponent at a distance. And while this is fine in isolation, it just kind of wound up wrecking Sterling’s entire flow, as it didn’t really gel strongly with the strong grappling game that brought him to the dance. Sterling had an excellent showing in the first round against Bryan Caraway by just focusing on his grappling, but the rest of that fight, as well as his subsequent bout against Raphael Assuncao, both turned into close decision losses simply because Sterling was content just pecking away from a distance with kicks, preventing either guy from doing much of anything rather than putting his stamp on the fight. Thankfully, in his last fight against Augusto Mendes, Sterling seemed to be figuring things out, adding more boxing to that striking game and mixing in his wrestling – which looked excellent even against a top-level BJJ guy like Mendes – fairly well, so at age 27, the sky’s still the limit for Aljo.
Unfortunately, this is a pretty horrible style matchup for Sterling. Sterling’s at his best when he gets that grappling game going, and as excellent of a wrestler as he is, Barao is probably the hardest guy in the division to take down; in his entire UFC career, pretty much all against top-flight competition, nobody’s taken Barao down yet. So, this is probably going to be a striking match, and that definitely favors Barao; Sterling can probably set the range, but again, Sterling hasn’t really been able to do a ton with it once he does. There’s a chance Sterling could take it on the feet, but it’s more based off projection than any kind of evidence, and simply because Sterling seems to be figuring out how to make his striking work in a cohesive game while Barao has kind of plateaued; but based off what each has shown to date, this basically looks like a plodding kickboxing match where Barao’s strikes are more powerful and more effective. I feel really bad doing this, since Sterling could very easily be undefeated and in the title picture given how close his two losses were, but with Sterling unlikely able to get his wrestling game going here, I kind of have to call for him to get his third loss in four fights; my pick is Barao by decision.
I think this is probably the fight that shows how stacked this card is; while this could even by a FS1 headliner nowadays between two top featherweight prospects, instead it’s just an afterthought eight fights down on the card. Brian Ortega is quite fun as hell; nicknamed “T-City” due to his love of the triangle choke, Ortega can be a vicious submission artist when he wants to be, and showed that off pretty much immediately, choking out Mike De La Torre in about a minute and a half in his UFC debut. (And then, well, failing a drug test for steroids – whoops.) And then Ortega kept showing off his ground skills, beating Diego Brandao by submission, and while be beat Thiago Tavares by knockout, the balance of that fight was a back-and-forth war that saw Ortega do a bunch of damage from his back. But Ortega’s last fight, a win over Clay Guida, was a bit of a mixed bag; Ortega pretty much chose to keep the whole fight standing, and while he may have lost a decision if it had gone all three rounds, Ortega did show a fairly solid striking game and a toughness that can allow him to win out due to attrition, as he eventually knocked Guida out in the last twenty seconds of the fight. Between the strange decision-making there and a torn labrum that forced Ortega out of a bout in October, it’ll be interesting to see how Ortega looks against fellow top prospect Renato Moicano.
Moicano came into UFC as a fairly hyped talent, but it still feels like his rise into a top-ten featherweight has pretty much come out of nowhere. The Brazilian looked every bit the top prospect in a fairly dominant debut win over Tom Niinimaki, but injuries kind of prevented Moicano from getting any sort of momentum. It was about a year and a half before we saw Moicano again, when he got a win over Zubaira Tukhugov that didn’t exactly light the world on fire, and it was a bit of a surprise when Moicano got a spot against Jeremy Stephens on a Fox card this past April, about another year after Moicano’s last fight. It seemed to be UFC throwing a prospect in over his head too soon, since Gilbert Melendez had apparently pulled out of the fight before it was announced, but instead Moicano suddenly flashed the best striking of his career, outquicking Stephens and basically throwing him off his game, earning a decision win that basically took Moicano’s career from 0 to 100. So now Moicano’s suddenly a top prospect once again, which, strangely, would’ve been expected in 2014, but would’ve been a bit more surprising in 2016.
I’m really curious to see how this plays out, given Ortega’s hit-or-miss gameplanning and recent injuries, combined with Moicano suddenly coming off an unexpectedly big win. If Ortega chooses to keep it on the feet, I think Moicano probably picks him apart; while Ortega showed in the Guida fight that he can take a punch and try to win a war of attrition, Moicano just seems too quick and too lanky and should be able to win the first two rounds, even if he gasses a bit in the third. If it goes to the ground, that’s where things get interesting; while Moicano came into UFC advertised as more of a BJJ artist, we haven’t seen a ton of that outside of his submission over Niinimaki – instead, Moicano’s mostly just used defensive wrestling to keep things standing. But I think Moicano would, at the least, be able to survive on the ground with Ortega, and it may not even come to that; again, Moicano’s shown some solid takedown defense, and based off the Guida fight, there’s also the chance Ortega just never looks to take things to the mat to begin with. Fights like these, where both guys are obviously on the ascent and fleshing out their games, are always a bit hard to call, but given how the styles match up, I favor Moicano to take a pretty fun back-and-forth decision.
It’s a bit of a step back competition-wise, as Andre Fili faces a late injury replacement rather than “The Korean Superboy” Doo Ho Choi, but it should be an interesting opportunity to see if Fili can keep showing career-best form. The Team Alpha Male product came into UFC with a solid record and a bunch of hype, which kept rolling after his impressive UFC debut with over Jeremy Larsen. But from there, Fili kind of stagnated, alternating wins and losses against mid-card fighters and fellow rising prospects, and basically looking like someone with a bunch of talent who was too sort of flighty and reckless to ever piece it together into anything solid. But last October, Fili was a late replacement himself against perennial tough out Hacran Dias, and surprisingly fired on all cylinders, shutting down Dias’s grinding wrestling game and showing some powerful, athletic striking that would’ve put away most other opponents. That fight was the last on Fili’s contract, so there was some worry UFC wouldn’t want to pay the man, but now Fili’s back in the fold; it’ll be interesting to see if he keeps living up to the hype of a few years ago, since that kind of form could easily make Fili a title contender.
Choi got injured fairly on in training camp, so I’m surprised UFC didn’t find someone else on the roster willing to face Fili, though Calvin Kattar’s a fine addition to the roster. At least, that’s based on footage from 2013; sadly, Kattar’s two bouts from 2016 that earned him this UFC shot don’t seem to be readily available. Anyway, Kattar’s an interesting story; the reason the Boston native took those three years off is that he decided to buy New England-based promotion Combat Zone, and took three years off to basically work as a promoter. If I saw his more recent fights, I’d have a better sense of how much success Kattar is going to have, but based off what’s there, he should at least be pretty fun, showing off a solid wrestle-boxing game based a bunch around aggression, even if the “Boston Finisher” nickname he runs with is a bit of a misnomer, given that Kattar’s last finish was in 2010.
I would’ve loved to see Fili take on Choi, and while saying this is a worthy replacement severely underplays how awesome Choi is, this should at least be a fun fight. Kattar could be something, but with the limited film out there, I’m not really comfortable saying that he has a shot to beat someone like Fili, whose game seems to finally be clicking. But I am comfortable saying that Kattar should be able to give Fili a fun, back-and-forth fight, particularly since Fili does have the tendency to get reckless and give his opponents openings. I’ll say Fili gets the third-round knockout in a fight that, while not as relevant as a lot of fights on this card, could be a sleeper for fight of the night if it goes on for any length of time.
Well, this is a strange little outlier of a fight, between two women I wasn’t sure we’d ever see in the UFC again. People rag on Paige VanZant as not being much of a prospect and a UFC creation, but as a counterpoint, I offer Kailin Curran; the two debuted against each other and a had a fairly even fight that VanZant put away late, but while Paige at least developed into a top-fifteen or so fighter that can set a good pace and put away some tough vets, Curran has shown little in the UFC to date. After the VanZant fight, her loss to Alex Chambers might have been her best performance, since she at least mostly dictated the terms of the fight, although even then she made a rookie mistake and became the victim of an armbar submission. Since then, UFC has basically fed Curran a diet of wrestlers that the Hawaiian’s been able to do little with; her lone UFC win over Emily Kagan came in a fight that Kagan was pretty much dictating, and while Curran may have some potential as a long, lanky kickboxer, she hasn’t stayed upright enough to really show much of anything. After one-sided losses to Felice Herrig and Jamie Moyle, I figured Curran was headed to Invicta, but instead she gets what, one assumes, is one last shot against Russia’s Aleksandra Albu.
Albu’s been in the UFC for four years, but it’s not like you’d ever know it, since she’s had an exceedingly strange and sparse career. Albu was apparently signed with only a 1-0 record, even though UFC says she has four other wins that don’t appear on any of the reputable databases out there, which probably took place with mixed rules or something. Anyway, UFC signing a 1-0 fighter, particularly as one of their first signings when building out their women’s divisions, would seem odd, but, well, makes a lot more sense when you do a Google image (or, even better, video) search for Aleksandra Albu. She has prominent assets, let’s say that. Anyway, Albu was initially signed to fight Julie Kedzie at bantamweight, which, given that Albu’s still a tank at strawweight, would’ve been interesting, but instead Albu suffered a knee injury, pulled out of the fight, and pretty much vanished. That was December of 2013, and it wasn’t until April of 2015 that Albu actually appeared in a weirdly irrelevant fight, this time at strawweight; deep on the prelims of an all-Fight Pass card that served as UFC’s debut in Poland, Albu tapped out hometown fighter Izabela Badurek. Badurek was cut shortly thereafter, and Albu once again vanished, with info surfacing only late last year that she had apparently decided to focus on some college work. But, right on schedule, Albu’s back two years later for a fight.
Frankly, who knows with this; Curran has the potential to be something, even if she has yet to really cash in on any of it, while Albu is a complete unknown, coming back from a two-year layoff with a record that wasn’t much to begin with. It’s hard to have too much faith in either fighter, but based off her two fights, Albu at least seems to have some idea what she’s doing; she’s basically the world’s prettiest tank and can make things an ugly clinch-fest, and if it goes to the mat, she at least seems to have a basic sense of how to clamp on a submission. And those two things alone should be enough to beat Curran, who’s never really shown the ability to dictate where a fight can take place. This is basically the easiest of this style of fight that Curran can get, so maybe this is the one where she’s finally able to set a distance standing and show off some skill, but everything to this point suggests that Albu can basically bull Curran around and not really suffer much in terms of consequences. Curran may be able to survive for all fifteen minutes, but instead I’ll say that Albu finds a submission in the second round.
A solid bout here between two guys looking to make a mark in the shark tank that is UFC’s flyweight division. Not much was expected of Illinois’s Eric Shelton when he was on the cast of the all-flyweight champion season of TUF, but despite being seeded fifteenth out of sixteen, Shelton made a run all the way to the final four. Looking back, that’s not a surprise; Shelton’s a solid athlete and the best part of his game is his wrestling, and guys who don’t need a complicated gameplan and can basically go the wrestling route of “have takedown, will travel” often have a ton of success in a tournament format like TUF. Despite overachieving on the show, Shelton still looked good in his UFC debut, a loss to Alexandre Pantoja, but he probably needs a win here over Jarred Brooks to stay on the UFC roster.
This is the second shot at a UFC debut for Brooks, as the Michigan native was signed to face Ian McCall in February, but, given that it was an Ian McCall fight, McCall was forced to drop out the day of. Brooks was a worthy signing, as he had a rep as one of the best flyweight prospects outside of UFC, and rightfully so; he’s got a venomous submission game, based around rushing in with big takedowns, and when that doesn’t work, he’s also flashed some powerful striking. Honestly, the only real concern about Brooks is his size; he’s a short, muscular tank of a guy, and has even fought at strawweight when he’s taken fights in Japan – it hasn’t been a concern to date, but there’s always reason for caution when moving up to the UFC level, where every guy is typically a big, top-flight athlete.
It’s a fascinating fight, particularly since, like Ortega/Moicano above, it features two guys that are still improving from fight to fight. I’m particularly interested to see how Brooks’s game translates; he looks like an unstoppable tank against regional flyweights and Japanese strawweights, but even a lower-tier roster flyweight like Shelton is a top-flight athlete who’s also the strongest wrestler that Brooks has faced to date. I actually think Shelton can neutralize Brooks – he did well with some undersized grapplers on TUF – and then the question from there becomes if Brooks’s aggressive, powerful game can catch the more movement-heavy Shelton. I’ll go with a bit of a flier and say, by using his defensive wrestling to throw Brooks off his game, that Shelton gets the decision nod, but this is pretty much just a fun coin flip.
Joshua Burkman (28-15  overall, 6-10  UFC) vs. Drew Dober (17-8  overall, 3-4  UFC, 1-0 Bellator):
I feel bad ragging on someone who’s had a solid career like Josh Burkman, but I’m really surprised that UFC is giving him another fight. Burkman’s been a MMA mainstay, making his UFC debut all the way back in 2005, as he got some notoriety by beating Melvin Guillard on the second season of The Ultimate Fighter before having to pull out due to injury. Burkman settled in as a decent mid-card fighter before losing three straight at a time when that was a guaranteed cut, so Burkman’s UFC career figured to be over in 2008. But Burkman just kept hanging around, taking and winning fights on the regional scene before signing with the fledgling World Series of Fighting and going on a bit of a tear, mostly notably tapping out perennial top welterweight Jon Fitch out in under a minute, right after Fitch had been controversially cut by UFC. That eventually earned Burkman a UFC return of his own, and while he wasn’t too successful early on, at least the results weren’t too bad; Burkman was winning a fight against Dong Hyun Kim until he basically make a dumb decision and lost it, and his fight against Patrick Cote was a really fun back-and-forth war before Burkman got knocked out. But then 2016 hit, Burkman decided to cut to lightweight, and things more or less fell off a cliff. He beat a disinterested K.J. Noons in his lightweight debut, but losses to Paul Felder and Zak Ottow were just flat decisions where Burkman didn’t do much of anything, and Michel Prazeres – who’s typically a decision machine – just blew Burkman’s doors off and tapped him out in under a two minutes. After the Prazeres loss, Burkman teased retirement before deciding to keep fighting, and I think everyone sort of figured he’d have a retirement fight on a regional card somewhere near his native Utah; but, nope, instead he gets another UFC shot against Drew Dober.
Drew Dober’s had a funny little UFC career, as I used to joke that, even two years into it, I still had no idea what Dober was good at; his first five UFC fights were mostly just flat or one-sided loss where Dober didn’t show much, save his lone win over Jamie Varner, where Varner basically dropped himself on his head going for a throw, giving Dober the opening to tap him out. But when 2016 rolled around and Dober fought Scott Holtzman, he suddenly showed a pretty neat little kickboxing game that got him the decision win, and followed that up with a starching of Jason Gonzalez to give him some momentum. Admittedly, Dober wasn’t able to do much last time out against Canadian prospect Olivier Aubin-Mercier, as Aubin-Mercier showed some career-best form of his own, but Dober’s now at least shown enough that he can be a fun gatekeeper.
There’s not really much to say here, as it pretty much all comes down to if you think Burkman is done, which I pretty much think he is. Even if not completely physically, the fact that he’s already teased retirement is a bad sign mentally, and Dober’s going to have some motivation possibly fighting for his own UFC career. It’d fit right in with Burkman’s career and how these things tend to go if he suddenly got a win and managed to extend his UFC career for four more fights, but likelier than not, Dober gets a finish at some point; I’ll say it comes via second-round knockout.