Author: E. Spencer Kyte

UFC 219: 10 Things We Learned Last Night

UFC 219: 10 Things We Learned Last Night

1. And Still

Cris Cyborg retained her featherweight title with a unanimous decision victory over Holly Holm to close out UFC 219. One official scored the fight 49-46 for the Brazilian champion while the two remaining judges – Dave Hagen and Chris Lee – had the fight 48-47, giving Holm the opening two rounds, meaning the former bantamweight queen could have pulled upset with a more effective performance in the final stanza.

This was Cyborg’s most impressive performance to date. As much as some of the times she’s mauled opponents in no time flat has been fun, it was really interesting and captivating to see her pushed for the first time in forever, forced to deal with an opponent who was able to return fire and take the punishment the Brazilian standout was dishing out. Holm fought a very good fight and likely would have gotten the better of most other competitors on Saturday night in Las Vegas, but unfortunately for her, she was in the cage with an unbeatable superstar who took her best shots and responded with even better offense en route to securing her position as the top female fighter, both now and in the history of the sport.

2. Time to give Cyborg a serious push

I know she just headlined a pay-per-view and has been the main event of a couple televised events, but it’s time for the UFC to really see what they have in Cyborg in terms of her drawing power and star power and give her the kind of promotional push that the dominant, tenured champion deserves.

Give her a pay-per-view main event in Brazil and watch how nuts the crowd goes for her. Give her a chance to connect with fans outside of the MMA bubble and see how well the ferocious fighter who also happens to be a genuine, caring, engaging personality outside of the cage can do when provided with a platform to connect with an new audience.

There are always going to be the legion of troglodytes that spew sad, hateful comments at her, but you can’t hold her back because some people are morons. Cyborg is one of the most dominant fighters in the history of the sport and she should be promoted and marketed as such in 2018.

3. Nurmagomedov is next level

I’m not sure there is anyone that can beat Khabib Nurmagomedov.

The undefeated lightweight returned to the Octagon for the first time in 13 months and trounced Edson Barboza, eating hard leg kicks like nothing as he pressed forward into the clinch, where he was able to dragging the Brazilian to the canvas and open up a can of whoop ass. For almost the entire fight, Nurmagomedov pressed forward, putting Barboza on the canvas and roughing him up. While he didn’t get the finish, the result was never in doubt and the performance affirmed that “The Eagle” is the top contender in the deep and talented lightweight division.

In fact, he very well could be the best fighter in the weight class, superior to titleholders Conor McGregor and Tony Ferguson. The only reason we don’t know that for sure yet is because Nurmagomedov has yet to face either one inside the Octagon, but that should change in 2018. Unbeaten in 25 fights, the only thing that has been able to slow Nurmagomedov has been injuries and weight cutting issues, but with the latter seemingly dealt with, it’s seems like the only thing that could stop him from challenging for gold is another injury.

Send up your offerings to the MMA gods now because we’ve been waiting too long to see Nurmagomedov fight for the lightweight title and the opportunity is once again upon us.

4. Hooker finding a home at lightweight

Dan Hooker returned to lightweight for his debut appearance in 2017 and collected a second-round knockout win over Ross Pearson. Saturday night, the New Zealander made it two fights and two finishes (over two Brits) by choking out Marc Diakiese.

Expected to be a back-and-forth striking battle, the first two rounds didn’t feature as much action as everyone anticipated, leading the crowd to rain down boos and social media to shift its attention elsewhere as the fight chugged along. Diakiese came out hot to start the third, pressing forward behind quick, sharp hands and it seemed like business was about to pick up, but just when he started landing, Diakiese opted to dive in on a sloppy takedown and Hooker made him pay, locking in a tight ninja choke that immediately made “The Bonecrusher” tap.

This may be the first time that Hooker has won back-to-back fights in the Octagon, but it seems obvious that the 27-year-old is finding a home at lightweight. He has good size for the division, a bunch of experience and is sneaky-technical, making him an interesting “under the radar” talent to track as we move into the new year.

5. Former champ Esparza halts Calvillo’s climb

Inaugural strawweight champion Carla Esparza bounced back from being dominated in the opening frame to grind out a trio of 29-28 scores to bring an end to Cynthia Calvillo’s perfect start to her career.

After getting taken down early in the first and being controlled there for the majority of the frame, Esparza went on the wrestling offensive herself in the second, mixing in timely takedown attempts with solid striking to keep Calvillo off balance. While she couldn’t keep the Team Alpha Male representative on the canvas for long once she got her there, the former champion did an excellent job of keeping Calvillo guessing and landing the cleaner, heavier shots over the final two rounds to earn the victory.

The victory sets up some interesting options in the division as 2018 draws near as Esparza owns a victory over current champ Rose Namajunas and re-asserted herself as one of the top talents in the 115-pound weight class with this performance.

6. Magny Shines against “The Natural Born Killer”

Neil Magny wanted to get the sour taste from his loss to Rafael dos Anjos out of his mouth before 2017 came to close, so he badgered UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby for another fight. He never expected to be offered a bout with Carlos Condit, but he jumped at the chance to challenge himself against the former interim champion and Saturday night in Las Vegas, he made the most of his opportunity, earning a unanimous decision win to kick off the pay-per-view main card.

The Denver, Colorado-based welterweight fought a smart, tactical fight, catching kicks and completing takedowns, never giving Condit a chance to find his rhythm. He closed the distance and lived in the clinch, and while the offense he offered was never anything too punishing, Magny was able to stay active and grind out a very good victory over one of the most accomplished fighters in welterweight history.

While some might want to put qualifiers on Condit’s performance, noting his lengthy layoff prior to this fight, it would be a disservice to Magny to do so. He fought an excellent fight, sticking to the game plan and playing to his strengths to collect the biggest win of his career.

7. Introducing Michal Oleksiejczuk

If you’re looking for a promising light heavyweight prospect to track in 2018 and beyond, look no further than Michal Oleksiejczuk.

Originally tabbed to make his debut at UFC 217, the 22-year-old was pulled from the card at the 11th hour when his opponent got flagged for a USADA violation, but he jumped at the chance to replace Gohkan Saki opposite Khalil Rountree Jr. here and made the most of it, weathering an early first-round storm to win a unanimous decision over the former TUF finalist.

A training partner of Polish standouts Jan Blachowicz and Marcin Tybura (among others), the UFC neophyte had already logged 14 professional appearances prior to his promotional debut and pushed his overall winning streak to double digits with his victory on Saturday. While there is nothing threatening looking about “Lord Michal,” he’s a patient, technical striker who did a great job mixing in shots to the body and a bunch of kicks to put it on the flagging Rountree over the final 12 minutes of action.

In a weight class where aging veterans dominate the Top 10 and opportunities abound, Oleksiejczuk is one of the few young upstarts competing in the 205-pound rounds who have the potential to climb the ladder and potentially become a factor in the division over the next couple years.

8. Jury back in contention

Following a 16-month hiatus, Myles Jury returned to action in April, dominating Mike de la Torre. Saturday night, the former lightweight prospect showed that he’s all the way back and a contender once again with a solid, professional performance against Rick Glenn.

There were no major highlights moments in the 15-minute affair. Instead, Jury simply offered three rounds of clean, polished offense in all facets to pick up his second win of the year and add his name to the growing list of fighters to watch in the featherweight division.

Having dropped two straight before his time away, it’s easy to forget that Jury was once an unbeaten rising star int he lightweight division; a two-time TUF contestant whose first loss came to Donald Cerrone in a fight where many thought the Michigan native would establish himself as a contender by getting a victory over “Cowboy.” He’s hit the reset button now and returned to training with the elite crew at Alliance MMA in San Diego, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see the 29-year-old keep rolling and emerge as a serious contender in 2018.

9. Welcome back, Matheus Nicolau

After winning his UFC debut with a Japanese necktie and beating former title challenger John Moraga by split decision in his sophomore Octagon appearance, Matheus Nicolau returned to action for the first time in 18 months and turned in a dominant effort against stupid-tough Hawaiian Louis Smolka.

The 24-year-old Brazilian was on the sidelines after being flagged for a USADA violation which he pinned on a tainted supplement, but the time away didn’t appear to hinder his performance in his comeback fight as he turned in a blistering first round, knocking down Smolka on multiple occasions before controlling the action over the final 10 minutes to earn a clean sweep of the scorecards.

Now 3-0 in the UFC and 13-1-1 overall, Nicolau’s lopsided decision win over the durable Hawaiian should send him into 2018 in prime position to take part in some big fights at flyweight next year. While his suspension forced him out of the rankings, this performance coupled with his previous victory over Moraga should earn the talented returning fighter a place in the Top 10 and with a couple more quality wins, he could find himself challenging for the flyweight title.

10. Bittersweet Victory

Tim Elliott collected an impressive second-round submission win to kick off Saturday’s fight card, connecting on a deep anaconda choke just over a minute into the second round that forced newcomer Mark De La Rosa to tap, but it was a bittersweet moment for the Lee’s Summit, Missouri native.

Earlier this month, Elliott’s coach Robert Follis took his own life and the former flyweight title challenger dedicated this performance to his departed coach. As soon as De La Rosa tapped, Elliott walked over and sat down in a neutral corner, the emotions starting to wash over him. Following the official decision, Joe Rogan handed him the microphone and all the 31-year-old had a simple message: “Robert Follis, I love you.”

The loss of his coach came on the heals of Elliott opting not to compete two week’s ago in Winnipeg after his short-notice opponent Pietro Menga was unable to make the contracted weight. Elliott passed on a catchweight contest and lobbied to get booked again quickly, which he did, but then returned to Las Vegas to the tragic news about his coach.

On Saturday night, Elliott delivered one of the most impressive and dominant performance of his career, turning the page on a terrible month.

UFC 219: Punch Drunk Predictions

UFC 219: Punch Drunk Predictions

Here we go, fight fans – it’s the last UFC event of the year and it’s a good one!

Featuring a championship main event between the most dominant female fighter of the past decade (Cris Cyborg) and a former champion who has already knocked off an icon once before (Holly Holm), UFC 219 is a terrific blend of big stakes, big names and quality preliminary card fights that should entertain.

Rather than warming you up to it any more, I’m going to assume that if you’re here reading this piece on this site, you’re already stoked and just looking to know who I think will emerge victorious, so I won’t keep you waiting any longer.

Here are my thoughts.

These are the UFC 219 Punch Drunk Predictions.

Cris Cyborg vs. Holly Holm for the UFC women’s featherweight title

I think there is a way for Holm to win this fight – stay outside, pick her spots, stick and move and hope Cyborg gets tired – but I just don’t see her being able to take big shots from the Brazilian standout long enough to edge out a tepid decision.

One of the things I always find interesting when we’re breaking down Cyborg fights is how someone always thinks the next opponent is the one who is going to show that her gas tank is suspect by taking her into the championship rounds and beating her once she gets tired. A big reason that hasn’t happened yet is because Cyborg is an ultra-talented fighter who pressures well and wears you down under a frequently more patient, but powerful approach. It’s hard to take someone into deep water when they’re drowning you in the shallow tides.

I believe Holm will get out of the first round and land some of the clean left hands that she hit Ronda Rousey with in their fight, but overall, I think she’s going to end up getting overwhelmed and put away just like everyone else.

Prediction: Cris Cyborg

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Edson Barboza

Let me start by saying I stand by my column earlier this week stating that Barboza is being overlooked and that feels really weird to me because he’s a tremendous fighter and a dangerous finisher facing a guy that is kind of hittable in Nurmagomedov.

He could win. He could knock “Nurmy” out and surprise a whole lot of people.

But I don’t think he’ll do it.

Between writing that piece and this piece, I went back and re-watched Nurmagomedov’s win over Michael Johnson and I sat here giggling at how goddamn dominant he is on the ground. This happened just a couple hours after I talked to the unbeaten lightweight standout for a UFC.com feature that includes lines like “wrestling and Khabib are the same” to explain his prodigious acumen on the ground and “my background is to smash opponents,” which is exactly what he did to Johnson at UFC 205.

And I think he’ll end up doing it to Barboza here as well.

Prediction: Khabib Nurmagomedov

Dan Hooker vs. Marc Diakiese

The Marc Diakiese hype train was slowed a little last time out as “The Bonecrusher” dropped a sluggish decision to Drakkar Klose, but he gets a favourable bounce-back opportunity that should be contested exclusively on the feet here against Hooker, a seven-fight UFC veteran who has alternated wins and losses over that stretch and enters off a knockout finish of Ross Pearson in June.

When I say this is a “favourable bounce-back opportunity” for Diakiese, I’m not trying to throw shade at Hooker, but rather just call it like I see it and the way I see it, Diakiese is a very good prospect with excellent striking who is going to continue to improve in big chunks over the next couple years as he keeps working at American Top Team and Hooker is a middle of the pack fighter who has some weapons, has some skills, but isn’t as polished or explosive of his British opponent.

Maybe he proves me wrong and catches Diakiese with the same kind of nastiness he used to put Pearson down back in the summer, but looking at whom he’s beaten and he has gotten the better of him in the cage, I give the edge to Diakiese and I think he wins going away.

Prediction: Marc Diakiese

Cynthia Calvillo vs. Carla Esparza

This is the most interesting fight on the main card to me because Calvillo is still very much a work in progress even though she’s hustled into the Top 10 this year, while Esparza is established and seasoned, but still has glaring holes in her game.

Everything about this fight comes down to who can control the action on the canvas because neither woman is particularly skilled or polished when it comes to throwing hands. Calvillo is the better scrambler, but Esparza has the more robust takedown game and has historically done a good job of working just enough to maintain top position once she gets you to the ground.

As much as I like what Calvillo has been able to do so far this year and believe she still has another level she can reach, this is one of those “you’ve got to show me you can win this fight before I can pick you to win this fight” deals for me. Dragging Joanne Calderwood to the ground and riding out dominant positions is one thing, but doing it to someone like Esparza is  completely different and until I see it happen, I’m siding with the former champion.

Prediction: Carla Esparza

Carlos Condit vs. Neil Magny

On pedigree and skill set, Condit wins this fight in a route. He’s a high output striker who is dangerous off his back as well, can pressure Magny to get inside his long jab and rough him up in the same way Lorenz Larkin roughed him up last year at UFC 202.

But here’s the thing: I was at Condit’s last fight and he got trucked.

He got trucked after coming back from a lengthy layoff where he was considering retirement and saying all the right things about having the hunger back and being ready for what Demian Maia had to offer and he still got trucked. So it’s hard for me to sit here 16 months after that – after Condit has gone away again and started working on other things and gotten another year older – and hear him saying all the right things and not be reminded of last August in Vancouver.

Magny is a competent welterweight – a very solid Top 10, Top 15 guy with a good jab, great motor and no glaring deficiencies. He’s only lost to really good fighters in the last couple years and while Condit was a really good fighter, I’m not sure he still is. I need to see it before I can believe it again, so I’m picking Magny.

Prediction: Neil Magny

Preliminary Card Predictions

Khalil Rountree def. Michal Oleksiejczuk
Rick Glenn def. Myles Jury
Marvin Vettori def. Omari Akhmedov
Matheus Nicolau def. Louis Smolka
Tim Elliott def. Mark De La Rosa

UFC 219: Overlooking Edson Barboza feels like a mistake

UFC 219: Overlooking Edson Barboza feels like a mistake

Khabib Nurmagomedov is a terrific fighter.

The undefeated Dagestani lightweight has been hovering around the top of the division for years and is universally regarded as a potential champion. Truth be told, if not for a series of injuries and a weight cut gone sideways back in March, the 29-year-old standout might already have UFC gold wrapped around his waist.

Likeable and talented, Nurmagomedov is a critical darling with the potential to be a crossover star in North America and an international superstar given his growing popularity around the globe and superstar status in Russia. It feels like it is only a matter of time before he reaches his full potential both inside and outside of the cage.

But it has felt that way for well over three years now and it still hasn’t happened and while most seem to view his matchup this weekend with Edson Barboza as a formality – the next step in Nurmagomedov’s journey to fighting for the lightweight title – I can’t help but feel like the Brazilian is being overlooked at a time when his skills are at an all-time high and all the pressure is on his opponent.

Barboza is 13-4 in the UFC and riding a three-fight winning streak. He’s ranked No. 3 in the deepest, most talented division in the sport and coming off arguably the best knockout of the year – a second-round flying knee finish of Beneil Dariush in March that illustrates how “blink and you missed it” dangerous the 31-year-old contender is at all times.

After coming up short in high profile matchups with Donald Cerrone, Michael Johnson and Tony Ferguson earlier in his career, Barboza stopped shuttling to New Jersey from his home in Florida for his training camps and convinced his wife to move to the Garden State permanently following his loss to Ferguson in December 2015.

He hasn’t lost since, earning unanimous decision victories over former champions Anthony Pettis and Gilbert Melendez prior to turning out Dariush’s lights in Forteleza, Brazil earlier this year.

His already solid boxing has become even crisper and his stiff jab makes for a nice 1-2 punch when paired with his incomparably fast and punishing kicks. He moves well and has continued to hone his takedown defense, denying every attempt made by Dariush, Melendez and Pettis in those three fights combined. While none is anywhere near as proficient and effective a wrestler as Nurmagomedov, the fact that Barboza was 9-for-9 when it comes to defending takedown attempts against those three elite competitors cannot be ignored, nor can his 86% takedown defense over the course of his 17 UFC appearances.

Additionally, it’s not like Nurmagomedov has had an easy year in 2018 and he heads into this one with a bunch of questions and concerns hovering overhead.

He was forced out of an interim title fight with Ferguson in March after experiencing serious health issues during his weight cut and then had hernia surgery in the summer. He’s fought just twice since April 2014 and while he looked terrific last time out, mauling Michael Johnson at UFC 205 in New York City, he’s been on the shelf for over a year and dealt with two more health issues since then. When he’s active, Nurmagomedov is one of the best fighters on the planet, but over the last several years, the times when he has been healthy and able to compete have been significantly less than the times he’s been unable to make it to the cage.

Barboza carries none of those concerns. He’s never missed weight in his 23-fight career, looks healthy and energetic when he steps on the scale and has fought eight times in the same time that Nurmagomedov has competed twice. He comes from an elite camp, is in the best form of his career and has the striking skills and footwork needed to work from the outside and frustrate someone who needs to close the distance and get inside to really get his offense going.

I don’t know whether he’s going to beat Nurmagomedov or not, but I do believe Barboza merits far more attention heading into this fight than he has been receiving thus far.

He’s not quite an afterthought because he’s featured in the Embedded series and his picture is on the poster for Saturday’s year-end event at T-Mobile Arena, but it certainly feels like a lot of people see this weekend’s contest as a tune up for Nurmagomedov while looking ahead to potential bouts between the currently unbeaten lightweight and one or both of the division’s two champions.

That could very well be how things play out, but I also wouldn’t be all that surprised if Barboza came out and handed “The Eagle” his first career loss.

This feels like one of those times where people are so caught up in the narrative and what could come next for one particular fighter that they’re overlooking the sizable task in front of them. I felt the same way heading into Cody Garbrandt’s title defense against TJ Dillashaw at UFC 217, where tons of people, including Garbrandt, were talking about his potential as a draw and setting up a fight with Demetrious Johnson as if Dillashaw was some stiff who didn’t have a chance.

While “No Love” had his moments in the first, he got stopped in the second, lost his title and all those grand plans and lofty projections disappeared into the ether.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think it wise to discount a competitor as talented and dangerous as Barboza in any fight and especially heading into a pivotal matchup like this where the winner will most likely be fighting for a title next time out.

Yes, Nurmagomedov is the betting favourite, the more popular of the two and the one who has been projected to be a title contender and potential champion since he arrived in the UFC almost six years ago, but Barboza is an elite lightweight as well and shouldn’t be treated as an afterthought in this matchup.

UFC on FOX: Lawler vs. dos Anjos 10 Things We Learned Last Night

UFC on FOX: Lawler vs. dos Anjos 10 Things We Learned Last Night

RDA Deserves Next

Rafael dos Anjos deserves the next welterweight title shot.

Saturday night, the former lightweight kingpin marched into the Octagon and put it on former champ Robbie Lawler for 25 minutes, distancing himself from the vaunted veteran with each successive five-minute round until the final results read 50-45 across the board. It was a third straight victory over a Top 10 opponent (at the time of their fight) for dos Anjos in his new weight class and the kind of drubbing that should land him opposite Tyron Woodley the next time “The Chosen One” defends his title.

While Colby Covington has been talking a blue streak and put up a couple quality wins (and five straight overall) to enter the conversation, dos Anjos’ pressure style is tailor-made to draw an exciting performance out of the champion and there is a difference between grinding out a win over Demian Maia and laying the wood to Robbie Lawler.

Performance, results and reputations need to carry more weight than trash talk and social media campaigns and by those measures, RDA is the clear choice to be the next challenger for the welterweight title.

Upheaval at Featherweight Continues

Josh Emmett made an emphatic contribution to the changing complexion of the featherweight division this weekend, planting a beautiful check left hook on the chin of Ricardo Lamas as the two were exchanging punches in the pocket that left “The Bully” rigid on the canvas as the Team Alpha Male staple celebrated.

In the last couple weeks, long-time champion Jose Aldo was handed a second consecutive loss at the hands of Max Holloway and perennial contender Cub Swanson was choked out by Brian Ortega, shifting the focus at the top of the 145-pound weight class from the established names to the new talent climbing the ladder.

Emmett’s performance on Saturday adds to that as the once-beaten 31-year-old is less than two years into his UFC career and now finds himself in the thick of the title chase. While he still has more work to do before fighting for the belt, Emmett should get the opportunity to face another established contender next time out.

Quality Performance from Santiago Ponzinibbio

There have been a number of fighters who had excellent campaigns inside the Octagon in 2017 and Santiago Ponzinibbio is one of them. The American Top Team product collected his third win of the year with a hard-earned 29-28 sweep of the scorecards against Mike Perry in “The People’s Main Event” in Winnipeg.

Now riding a six-fight winning streak, it has been a slow burn for the former Ultimate Fighter: Brazil contestant who began his UFC career with a loss to Ryan LaFlare and was 2-2 after his first four outings. He hasn’t lost since and has continued to show improvements each time out, displaying more grit and toughness than we’d seen in the past in this back-and-forth battle with Perry.

He’s a man on the rise in the always competitive and freakishly deep welterweight division and someone we should been talking about far more heading into this one and definitely cannot leave out of conversations about the top contenders in the future.

Very few people manage to string together six straight wins and even fewer do it in a shark-infested division like welterweight, so it’s time to start giving “The Ponz” his due and treating him like the contender he is going forward.

Pump the Breaks on Mike Perry Hype

Perry turned in a good effort against Ponzinibbio on Saturday night in “The Peg,” but ultimately, “Platinum” came out on the wrong side of the scorecards and it should bring the hype of the middle-of-the-pack welterweight to an end.

I get that he has a weird magnetism and talks all kinds of junk, but he’s now been in the cage with two quality opponents (sorry Jake Ellenberger) and come away with losses both times. He’s fun to watch and capable of blistering anyone in the division, but he’s also largely unproven, so how about we hold off an treating him like a contender before he’s actually cracked the Top 15?

Far more people were talking about Perry heading into this fight than Ponzinibbio even though the latter was coming off a 90-second knockout win over Gunnar Nelson and sporting a five-fight winning streak.

If you’re wondering why the UFC struggles to create stars and quality fighters fail to connect with the larger audience, that’s why – we spend too much time hyping guys who don’t necessarily deserve it because they’re flamboyant personalities and overlook proven, polished, more deserving talent in the process.

Still Sharp, Still a Contender

Glover Teixeira’s matchup with Misha Cirkunov could have been a passing of the torch situation – a fight where the veteran contender gave way to the younger, more athletic upstart – and early on, that’s how it looked like things were going to play out.

Cirkunov started quick and looked to be finding a rhythm on the feet when a small mistake gave Teixeira a chance to clinch up and quickly bring the fight to the floor. From there, the Brazilian veteran went to work, attacking submissions before transitioning to back mount and unleashing a torrent of strikes that brought the contest to a halt.

This was a savvy veteran effort from Teixeira, who proved he’s still very much one of the elite contenders in the light heavyweight division. Though the might not be in line for the title shot he chatted wit Daniel Cormier about at cageside following the finish, the 38-year-old proved that he’s far from finished and still a tremendously tough out near the top of the 205-pound weight class.

Great Performance, Good Dude

Julian Marquez made an instant impression Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contenders Series this summer, icing former prospect Phil Hawes with a head kick. Saturday night, he made his debut in the Octagon and after playing some Rock’em Sock’em Robots with Darren Stewart early, the affable Las Vegas-based fighter finished things in the second with a slick guillotine choke.

Afterwards, “The Cuban Missile Crisis” had some fun on the microphone, challenging Tyron Woodley to a “Best Beard in the UFC” contest, lobbying to fight alongside his teammates James Krause and Zak Cummings in St. Louis and giving a shout out to his mom after saying he’s open to fighting the winner of the upcoming middleweight title bout between Robert Whittaker and Luke Rockhold.

While it wasn’t quite a star-making performance, it was a great start for the likable middleweight who delivered a wildly entertaining performance in the cage before showing you don’t have to talk trash and be an asshole to get noticed in this sport.

No Substitute for Experience

A sharp right hand dropped Chad Laprise early in his bout with Galore Bofando, but as soon as the Chatham-Kent, Ontario native got back to his feet, he showed why experience is so crucial inside the cage.

A foot sweep brought the fight to the ground, with Laprise landing in side control. A minute of ground-and-pound and control gave him the space to move to mount and from there, “The Disciple” was able to pound out a third-straight stoppage win.

Bofando is fun to watch when he’s upright and offering flashy, powerful strikes, but he was completely out of his element once Laprise initiated the clinch and brought the fight to the floor. The Canadian veteran talked about his edge in the other facets of the game before the bout and wisely played to his strengths after getting stung out of the gate.

As we talk about all the time, there are levels to this stuff and Laprise showed that again on Saturday.

Good Lord!

When a guy partially blocks a headkick and still needs to grab a handful of cage to keep himself upright, you know there was some serious force on the strike.

That’s what happened in the welterweight clash between Nordine Taleb and Danny Roberts, with the former causing the latter to snatch up two hands of cage after catching a kick early in the first. Unfortunately for Roberts, the follow-up right hand down the pipe was something fierce and landed flush, bringing the fight to a sudden halt.

Roberts complained about the stoppage after he was done trying to takedown referee Jerin Valel, but this was a clean finish and impressive performance for the long-time Tristar Gym representative Taleb.

Nasty Knee

Things were moving at a snail’s pace in the middleweight scrap between Alessio Di Chirico and Oluwale Bamgbose more than a minute into the second round. The first five minutes featured little action and the action resumed in the middle stanza, it seemed like it would be more of the same as Bamgbose continued to hang out on the outside, hesitant to engage.

As soon as Di Chirico was able to get his hands on his opponent, however, the Italian brought the crowd to their feet and sent Bamgbose collapsing to the canvas face-first, a well-placed knee knocking him out cold.

There have been a number of impressive finishes off nasty knees this year in the Octagon and this one is right up there.

Big Victory for Jordan Mein

Five years ago, Jordan Mein seemed destined to be a Top 10 fixture in the welterweight division. He was young, aggressive and seasoned, having started his career at age 16 and worked his way to the UFC by facing tough regional vets before a three-fight stint in Strikeforce, where his only setback came by split decision to current UFC titleholder Tyron Woodley.

But injuries and apathy sent Mein into an early retirement a couple years back and the results hadn’t been great since he returned last year at UFC 206. He looked like a hesitant, faded version of his former self.

Saturday night, Mein got back in the win column by getting back to what got him to the big leagues in the first place, coming out aggressively against Erick Silva before taking what the Brazilian gave him en route to a unanimous decision victory. It was the 30th win of Mein’s career, his first since August 2014 and his most complete performance in years.

After a bunch of ups, downs and even a brief departure from the sport, perhaps this is the start of a second chapter for the 28-year-old Canadian.

UFC on FOX: Lawler vs. dos Anjos Punch Drunk Predictions

UFC on FOX: Lawler vs. dos Anjos Punch Drunk Predictions

As I said in my column this week for The Province, I think this weekend’s FOX event in Winnipeg is going to be an avalanche of awesomeness that sends people into the Christmas break before UFC 219 on a high.

From start to finish, this event is loaded with combustible matchups that should produce explosive results and add to what has been a really entertaining final couple months in the Octagon.

But who will leave Winter-peg with their hand raised in victory?

Here are my thoughts.

These are the UFC on FOX: Lawler vs. dos Anjos Punch Drunk Predictions.

Robbie Lawler vs. Rafael dos Anjos

This is such a compelling fight to me because Lawler isn’t far removed from being champion, still has tremendous takedown defense and can take apart pretty much anyone in the division in a striking battle on any given night, while dos Anjos put on a clinic against Neil Magny back in Edmonton and has the kind of pressure style with strong grappling at his disposal that could be problematic from “Brutal Bob” Lawler.

People are going to think this is weird when I say it, but I’m picking dos Anjos based on current/recent form, even though he’s 2-2 over his last four and Lawler is 3-1 with a couple successful title defenses in there. But please, hear me out.

I think the Rory MacDonald fight took a toll on Lawler the same way it did MacDonald and after another brawl with Carlos Condit, he got caught by Tyron Woodley. While he rebounded with a good win over Cowboy Cerrone, he wasn’t the same menacing force we’re used to seeing, especially when you consider how good Darren Till looked dispatching Cowboy in the first round three months later.

While dos Anjos dropped back-to-back outings to end his time at lightweight, we’e since heard the horror stories about his weight cut prior to his bout with Eddie Alvarez and going the distance with Tony Ferguson is no easy feat. After a good, not great debut at welterweight against Tarec Saffiedine, he looked scary-good opposite Magny at UFC 215.

I think the likelihood of seeing a similarly strong performance from him here is greater than the potential of Lawler putting it on him early and putting him away. I have a feeling dos Anjos shines here and makes the UFC strongly consider awarding him a title shot in the first half of 2018.

Prediction: Rafael dos Anjos

Ricardo Lamas vs. Josh Emmett

Normally, I would give this a lot of thought and break it down in detail because Emmett is tough and durable, but homeboy missed weight by a couple pounds on Friday and Lamas was already salty about having his original opponent (Jose Aldo) pulled so he could fight for the title, which is the second time that has happened to the Top 5 fixture in four years.

Lamas is out to prove that he’s deserving of another title opportunity and a second bout with Max Holloway and I think he delivers a dominant performance here.

Prediction: Ricardo Lamas

Santiago Ponzinibbio vs. Mike Perry

I get that Perry is slightly unhinged and completely unfiltered, which makes him an interesting interview and general curiosity, and that he carries a bunch of dynamite around in his hands, which always makes him a threat. That being said, I’m not sold on “Platinum” being anything more than a middle of the pack wild card in the welterweight division – a guy that collects some highlight reel wins and talks a bunch of nonsense, but ultimately fails to crack the Top 10.

Ponzinibbio is far from unstoppable, but he’s proven himself against quality competition and is the more seasoned, complete fighter of the two. While Perry is always capable of landing that one blow that brings the proceedings to a sudden halt, “Gente Boa” has power in his hands as well and has shown far more poise and patience in the Octagon to date.

As always, Perry will come out of the gate fast and throw smoke the entire time he’s in there, but look for Ponzinibbio to frustrate him with movement and counters until he connects with something stiff and settles things inside the distance.

Prediction: Santiago Ponzinibbio

Glover Teixeira vs. Misha Cirkunov

This is the fight I have had the most trouble with because despite his advanced age and slowly diminishing skills, Teixeira a tough old cuss and capable of putting Cirkunov down with one of his patented clubbing hooks.

Youth and athleticism are on the side of the Latvian-Canadian grappler, but Teixeira is no slouch on the canvas either, so it’s not like Cirkunov can rush in, blast a double and grind out the win from top position. The usual path to beating Teixeira has been to out-work him on the feet and avoid his big punches and I’m not completely sold on Cirkunov’s ability to do that yet.

But I’m gonna roll the dice on the younger, fresher, more mobile fighter and see what happens.

Prediction: Misha Cirkunov

Preliminary Card Picks

Jan Blachowicz def. Jared Cannonier
Julian Marquez def. Darren Stewart
Chad Laprise def. Galore Bofando
Nordine Taleb def. Danny Roberts
Abel Trujillo def. John Makdessi
Alessio Di Chirico def. Oluwale Bamgbose
Jordan Mein def. Erick Silva

A Change in Approach is Needed: Thoughts on Rankings and Prospects

A Change in Approach is Needed: Thoughts on Rankings and Prospects

This one has been percolating in my head for a while now and instead of crafting it all smooth and trying to lay everything out crisp and clean, I want to just get my thoughts on the subject out there as they run through my head.

We talk a lot about rankings in this sport – how they currently feel fraudulent and fictitious, how they could be very important and influential and what needs to happen in order to make the shift from the former to the latter. It’s all legit too; rankings don’t really carry that much weight right now and they do feel like a missed opportunity in many ways, at least to me.

But when I think about rankings and how I would lay them out, how I would make use of them, it goes beyond just the divisional hierarchies and a Top 10 list that lays out the top contenders in each weight class. It’s not just a matter of throwing the most familiar names and the “of the moment” fighters into some kind of order. I think about things like strength of schedule and try not to get caught up in who just had an electric performance and has everyone buzzing right now because those names change every week and I don’t think rankings should be a revolving door, even if we’re only talking about the bottom few spots.

It’s a difficult process because prior success plays a huge factor in trying to figure out where to position these athletes and try as we might, our impressions about their level of talent and star power undoubtedly creep into our minds as we’re debating positions as well. Competitors we know and like and respect and appreciate get the benefit of the doubt while lesser known athletes who haven’t put in as much time or don’t have the same resonance with fans get the short end of the stick.

It sucks, but it happens.

If we want rankings to really have value, we have to do our best to set aside those biases and influences and just focus exclusively on performances, accepting that some wins are going to look better with time and others will become less impressive.

For example: Dong Hyun Kim currently sits at No. 14 in the latest edition of the UFC Fighter Rankings. I know they’re not great, but they’re the easiest example to use.

The 36-year-old hasn’t won a fight since last December when he edged out Tarec Saffiedine, who is currently on a three-fight skid and is 2-4 since moving to the UFC. While he’s 13-4 with 1 NC inside the Octagon, he’s 4-2 in the last three years, losing to Colby Covington and Tyron Woodley while getting the better of Saffiedine, Dom Waters, Joshua Burkman and John Hathaway.

All of his losses in the UFC have come against legit competition and he’s beaten a few familiar names over the years as well – Matt Brown, Nate Diaz, Paulo Thiago, Erick Silva – but at what point do we stop looking at the whole of his resume and focus in on the here and now when determining if Kim is still a Top 15 welterweight?

What has Kim done in the last couple years that earned him that position while someone like Leon “Rocky Edwards is on the outside looking in? While Kim has been so-so, Edwards has collected four straight victories, starting with a win over Waters, followed by victories over Albert Tumenov, Vicente Luque (who has been really good of late as well) and Bryan Barberena.

For me, Edwards is far more deserving of a place in the rankings, but gets bumped in favour of Kim because the South Korean veteran is a more familiar name with more name-brand opponents on his resume and a longer history in the Octagon, though very little of that matters in the moment. Right now, Edwards in the better fighter to me and we should be ranking the best fighters right now because if we’re not, we’re stuck playing catch-up when guys like Edwards keep winning and start knocking off bigger names.

That leads me to the next piece of this, which is that we need to widen our focus and broaden our horizons when it comes to discussing up-and-coming fighters.

Edwards remains a perfect example.

Here’s a 26-year-old who is 6-2 overall in the UFC, on a four-fight winning streak and won six of his last seven after dropping his debut, with his lone setback coming against Kamaru Usman, who is on a 10-fight winning streak with a 6-0 mark in the Octagon and is on the come-up in the 170-pound ranks.

He’s beaten solid competition, including a guy who was once a critical darling (Tumenov), an emerging finisher (Luque) and a perennial tough out (Barberena), and yet no one is talking about him.

On the flip side, Mike Perry gets more press than most in the welterweight division because he’s a combustible, outrageous personality who has collected a few highlight reel wins over middling competition. His finish of Jake Ellenberger in April was violent, but beating Ellenberger in 2017 doesn’t mean nearly as much as it did between 2010 and 2013 or 2014.

Perry is 4-1 in the UFC with a pair of finishes on either side of a decision loss to Alan Jouban, the one proven, steady opponent he’s faced in the Octagon thus far. He’s facing surging Argentine Santiago Ponzinibbio Saturday night in Winnipeg on FOX and talked about like a potential player in the welterweight division when for me, he’s nothing more than a slightly unhinged brawler who still hasn’t proven to me that he can beat anyone of real substance, unlike the soft-spoken, more tested Edwards.

For me, this extends to debuts and emerging prospects as well.

When someone from a big camp that we’ve heard good things about from reliable sources debuts in the UFC, we’re often quick to turn a spotlight on them and tell everyone to pay attention.

Everyone from the “Iron Army” was raving about Zabit Magomedsharipov (rightfully so) and so we were quick to make sure everyone knew to check for this dude even though his debut and sophomore efforts came on Fight Pass cards that usually get panned and left for dead.

But Volkam Oezdemir somehow still caught people off guard when he trucked Misha Cirkunov and Jimi Manuwa even though he edged out a legit Top 10 talent in Ovince Saint Preux in his debut.

Or they had issue with Kevin Lee being slotted into the main event against Michael Chiesa in Oklahoma City even though “The MoTown Phenom” had won four straight and looked really damn good in the process.

Or they still haven’t said much about Shane Burgos or Gregor Gillespie or Cody Stamman or countless others.

It’s why a year before they ascended to the throne in the their respective divisions, Max Holloway and Robert Whittaker were fringe considerations in the title discussions even though they’d been putting in work and putting up strong performances.

To me, it should be like Major League Baseball where the diehards are talking about the Top 100 prospects every year and are tracking the progression of their favourite team’s top youngsters through every level.

I knew about Mike Trout and Byron Buxton and Paul Goldschmidt and Cody Bellinger before they hit the majors and turned into superstars because baseball people talk about emerging talent long before they reach the highest levels. Sure, some guys still sneak through and come out of nowhere every year, but for the most part, you can look two, three, four years down the road and pick out 10, 12, 15 guys with elite potential to watch knowing there is a pretty good chance a half dozen of them are going to come through.

We don’t do that in MMA – at least not to the same degree.

There are certainly some journalists who invest a lot of time and energy talking with and spotlighting prospects and regional talent, but we don’t have the same kind of “keep your eyes on this guy” conversations about fighters as they’re working their way to the highest levels in the sport or even beginning their careers in places like the UFC or Bellator or ONE as they do in many other sports and I think MMA suffers as a result.

Yes, the sheer volume of fight cards makes it difficult to pay attention to everyone, but there are 162 MLB games a season and multiple tiers in the minor league system and just about everyone who identifies themselves as a moderate Yankees fan or above can tell you how terrific it was that they didn’t have to give up one of their Top 3 prospects in the deal that landed them Giancarlo Stanton last week.

But how many MMA heads could tell you much about Andre Harrison right now or were aware of Aspen Ladd before she landed in the Octagon?

If we’re going to hype the hell out of Mackenzie Dern (understandably), we should also be hyping Aga Niedzwiedz, who lost a close fight for the flyweight title in the main event of the same Invicta FC event Dern was on last weekend.

Rather than picking and choosing a few prospect to talk about at select times, we need to be checking for the next wave of talent destined to land on the biggest stages well in advance of their arrival because that’s the only way they can potentially hit the ground running and start getting the attention they deserve right out of the chute.

And that folds back into the rankings idea because if we’re talking about more than just the established names and newcomers are getting air time and acknowledgement, guys like Edwards or Oezdemir or Gillespie or Burgos aren’t stuck needing to win three, four, five fights or more before they even become a blip on the radar and start getting a little shine.

I know it’s hard for everyone to pay attention to everything at all times – there are far too many events and we all have lives outside of our MMA fandom – but these are the steps we need to take in order for the sport to progress to that next level.

Everyone seems to want to get to a point where rankings matter, where champions defend against top contenders and you can easily chart and track a competitor’s rise up the division ladder.

Well, this is how we get there.

Time to talk about UFC’s ‘Next Generation’ as the ‘Now Generation’

Time to talk about UFC’s ‘Next Generation’ as the ‘Now Generation’

How will the UFC’s 2017 campaign be remembered?

As the end of the year draws closer by the day, year-end retrospectives and summations will start to appear and it will be interesting to see how folks who follow the sport religiously choose to remember the previous 11 months and change.

For me, 2017 has been the year where youth was served – where a handful of talented young fighters made it clear that they were no longer content being a part of the next generation, but instead staked their claim to being the now generation.

Robert Whittaker claimed the interim middleweight title before getting promoted to being the undisputed champion last week.

Max Holloway unified the two halves of the featherweight crown and then cemented his place atop the division with an equally impressive encore performance against Jose Aldo in Detroit.

Darren Till stormed through Donald Cerrone to become a player in the welterweight ranks and just this past weekend, Brian Ortega showed he could finish before the third round by choking out perennial contender Cub Swanson in his first main event assignment.

Add in Rose Namajunas ascending to the top of the women’s bantamweight division, Volkan Oezdemir going from unknown to No. 1 contender in the span of six months and young in the sport (and young for heavyweight) monster Francis Ngannou further proving his legitimacy by nearly decapitating Alistair Overeem and you have an impressive collection of emerging stars across a number of divisions who seem poised to be factors in their respective division for years to come and the potential to become cornerstone figures for the company going forward.

What’s interesting about this collective (at least to me) is that it’s a mix of competitors who came out of nowhere and fighters everyone should have seen coming.

Last August, I put together a Top 5 list of the best UFC fighters under 25 – four of them have since won titles (Namajunas, Holloway, Whittaker and Cody Garbrandt) while the remaining member of the bunch (Yair Rodriguez) is still highly regarded.

I don’t include that reference to toot my own horn, but rather to point out that picking out the young talent with superstar potential in the UFC isn’t as difficult a process as we often let on and if we’re willing to commit energy to spotlighting emerging fighters as they work their way up the ladder, fans and consumers won’t be playing catch-up when someone like Holloway or Whittaker stakes their claim as the top fighter in their division.

While guys like Oezdemir and Till used 2017 to quickly make a name for themselves by collecting three victories in rapid succession and were long shots to be contenders when the year began, Namajunas was pegged for greatness upon arrival and Whittaker and Holloway very making steady gains in their respective divisions for a couple years; all that was missing was the backing of the company and more than passing attention from the media.

On last week’s edition of The MMA Beat, host Ariel Helwani had this to say about Holloway:

“He is just so much fun to talk to and be around and witness and observe since he became champion of the UFC’s featherweight division.”

I would posit that Holloway has always been fun to talk to and be around and witness and that the wider audience is only catching on now because he’s been afforded time in the spotlight.

The 26-year-old Hawaiian has been the same guy throughout his rise – engaging and awkwardly charismatic; passionate about his craft, his family and Hawaii and committed to taking on all challengers in order to prove his greatness.

The guy that went back-to-back against Jose Aldo in 2017 is the same guy who stepped up on short notice to fly to Sweden and starch Akira Corassani; people just weren’t paying attention.

Ortega is the connector between the two camps – an undefeated talent many have viewed as a potential contender in the future who capitalized on his first opportunity to climb into the title picture, probably a little sooner than most expected. He didn’t exactly come out of nowhere because he had earned four straight finishes in the UFC over the last two years, but few would have pegged him as a Top 5 featherweight when the year began either.

As much as I understand and recognize the importance of committing time, attention and column inches to the select handful of names that drive traffic on websites and get people to click links on social media, we also need to spend a good deal of time shining a spotlight on the up-and-coming set, especially given that we frequently talk about the UFC’s need to create new stars and build up fighters.

Rather than just outlining why they need to do it and how it could possibly be done, we can help lead the charge by instructing fans to pay attention to fighters like Holloway and Whittaker before they’re booked into championship fights and get as excited about the likes of Ortega and Till and Oezdemir as soon as they get a couple good wins under their belt like we’ve done for several others of varying degrees of skill who just so happen to help drive traffic.

We have to start taking a more long-range view of things and committing more time and energy to spotlighting up-and-coming talent when they first arrive in the UFC and start making headway.

The true “next generation” of potential UFC stars are the men and women who have already impressed in their first couple outings – Aspen Ladd, Brett Johns, Zabit Magomedshapirov – not the mid-20s talents who have already cracked the Top 10 in their respective divisions.

Those men and women are the now generation that we should be talking about already because even if you haven’t been paying attention, they’ve been kicking ass and taking names for a couple years now and have already established themselves as contenders or champions.

Talking about them as the future and finally give fans a chance to familiarize themselves with them once they’ve already reached the top of their division feels like a mistake since they’re not just the future, they are the present and in most cases, we’ve had plenty of time to get to know them already.

UFC Fresno: Punch Drunk Predictions

UFC Fresno: Punch Drunk Predictions

As per usual when it’s fight week, but not pay-per-view fight week, there have been lots of cracks about “UFC Fresno” being an actual thing and how all these Fight Night events are problematic.

As per always, I think it’s mostly a bunch of noise from people who want every show to be the best show ever and prefer to complain about just about everything rather than accepting there are five different types of UFC events.

When we’re headed into a Level 2-type show like we are this weekend in Fresno, it’s about enjoying the opportunity to see more from a few solid prospects (Hello Eryk Anders! Greetings Merab Dvalishvili!) with a couple really good fights tossed in there too.

Seriously – there are two Top 10 pairings, plus a Top 15 matchup and the return of “Hick Diaz.”

That’s a nice little Level 2 Saturday night fight card if you ask me.

Here are my thoughts on who will emerge victorious.

These are the UFC Fight Night: Swanson vs. Ortega Punch Drunk Predictions.

Cub Swanson vs. Brian Ortega

This is a classic “veteran vs. upstart” battle similar to the one we got in Gdansk, Poland earlier this year between Darren Till and Donald Cerrone, but while the young Scouser got the better of “Cowboy,” I think we see the veteran get the best of it in this one.

Ortega has looked pretty good throughout his five-fight UFC run and earning four straight fights by third-round stoppage is crazy and speaks to the way he’s always working to get the finish, rather than happily coasting to the cards. But in his last two bouts – wins over Clay Guida and Renato Moicano – he’s needed those finishes in order to avoid going to the cards in a close fight that could produce his first career loss.

Given the way Moicano was able to have success on the feet against him, I just don’t see how Ortega manages to survive the offensive onslaught Swanson will bring from the jump. “Killer Cub” has more power, better movement and more creativity than Moicana and while I remain high on Ortega’s overall potential, I’m still leaning towards this being the wrong matchup at the wrong time for the laid back prospect from Torrence.

Prediction: Cub Swanson

 Jason Knight vs. Gabriel Benitez

First and foremost, I love that Knight is completely down with the “Hick Diaz” moniker; it makes me feel comfortable using it knowing that he self-identifies as a hick.

Secondly, I think he rolls here and shows that he should be considered alongside guys like Ortega, Yair Rodriguez and Mirsad Bektic as one of the top twenty-something talents in the featherweight division. He had his “face a veteran” fight last time out, lost to Ricardo Lamas and pulled out a bunch of positives from that performance, all of which will help him a great deal going forward.

It won’t necessarily show here because I think he’s head-and-shoulders better than Benitez and should handle him with relative ease, but still. Knight will be a Top 10 fixture pretty soon.

Prediction: Jason Knight

Marlon Moraes vs. Aljamain Sterling

This is a terrific fight between the No. 7 and No. 8-ranked fighters in the bantamweight division and if you can’t get hyped for that, I’m not sure you can honestly identify yourself as a fight fan.

Seriously.

Moraes just collected a win over John Dodson on November 11 and jumped the opportunity to get right back in the cage when Sterling’s original opponent, Rani Yahya, was forced to the sidelines. That was a good matchup for “Aljo,” but this one isn’t so favourable.

Listen – I like Sterling, but I still haven’t seen enough from his standup to think he’s able to hang on the feet with a dangerous striker like Moraes. While the possibility is there for him to take the “Human Jansport” approach and wrestle Moraes, the former WSOF champ trains with dudes like Frankie Edgar and Eddie Alvarez, so I’m not sure he’s going to just get completely controlled in the grappling department.

My guess is that Moraes keeps this in kicking range, beats up Sterling’s lead leg and out-strikes him over the course of 15 minutes.

Prediction: Marlon Moraes

As for the rest of the card… 

Scott Holtzman def. Darrell Horcher
Eryk Anders def. Markus Perez
Benito Lopez def. Albert Morales

Alexis Davis def. Liz Carmouche
Luke Sanders def. Andre Soukhamthath
Alex Perez def. Carls John de Tomas
Merab Dvalishvili def. Frankie Saenz

Iuri Alcantara def. Alejandro Perez
Davi Ramos def. Chris Gruetzemacher
Trevin Giles def. Antonio Braga Neto

UFC Fresno: A Friendly Reminder about Event Tiers

UFC Fresno: A Friendly Reminder about Event Tiers

A few years ago, I wrote a column offering my thoughts on how the UFC should lay out its fight calendar, inserting a week off following every pay-per-view event.

At the time, my argument was that the shockwaves from PPV shows always run into the following week and when there is another fight card the very next Saturday, the competitors on that card are automatically going to get overshadowed and the event as a whole is going to get unfairly judges because of its proximity to the pay-per-view event that just happened and the depth of talent on that card.

It has been happening again all this week as we deal with the fallout from an outstanding show at UFC 218 and prepare for the Saturday’s event in Fresno as folks are just dismissing the card even though it actually features a couple excellent fights and a few quality prospects.

Seeing all the “UFC Fresno is actually a thing?” tweets and how this solid card is stuck under the radar has made me want to remind everyone that just as Frankie Edgar showed Yair Rodriguez that there are levels inside the Octagon, there are tiers to fight cards as well.

Here’s a handy reference guide you can add to your bookmarks and consult whenever you feel the need to get extra salty about there not being enough major stars on the latest FS1 event or UFC on FOX show.

Tier One: International Events on Fight Pass

Let’s start with the fact that it will probably start at an odd time because its taking place overseas, so if that one is going to get you upset, you should probably calm down already.

The main event is going to be pretty good, but pretty much everything else is going to be tailored to the country/region, the same way every Canadian fight card is guaranteed to feature a ton of Canadians. Given that it will start in the early morning hours in North America, expecting anything different – or complaining about the composition at all – feels like a “you’re trying too hard” situation for me.

And when you get an event like this year’s card in Singapore with a main card that fits in a different tier, cherish it, relish it, enjoy it – just don’t expect it to be the norm.

Tier Two: Cable Events

This weekend’s card in Fresno is exactly what fans should expect from an event that airs on FS1 or wherever you get your fighting fix:

Cub Swanson vs. Brian Ortega – a very good main event
Jason Knight vs. Gabriel Benitez – a chance to see a cult figure maul someone
Marlon Moraes vs. Aljamain Sterling – an underrated Top 10 battle
Alexis Davis vs. Liz Carmouche – a deep cut, completely overlooked quality fight
Eryk Anders, Benito Lopez, Merab Dvalishvili – early looks at a few solid prospects

If you’re expecting more from the standard Saturday night fight card, I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe that’s not enough to get you excited, which is fine, but to expect the UFC to load up these events when they have two or three of them every month is misguided.

There have been times in the past (and there will be more instances in the future) where the quality of the card dips below this weekend’s level and trends closer to being a Tier One card that just happens to be on television and that sucks, but there are also times where the lineup is better than the baseline (like the March 11 event in Fortaleza, Brazil), so it all balances out.

Tier Three: FOX Shows

Here’s the general framework for the four main card fights on the “Big FOX” show:

Opening Bout: An action fight that kicks things off on the right foot and gets everybody excited for the next three bouts
Second Fight: Usually a showcase of some emerging talent, occasionally a “guaranteed action” fight
Co-Main Event: Contenders who aren’t quite next in line, but could be with a great performance on FOX
Main Event: Title fight with a champion who doesn’t draw on PPV or top contenders bout

As always, nothing is set in stone and sometimes you end up with Paige VanZant headlining against Michelle Waterson with Mickey Gall and Sage Northcutt in the penultimate bout of the night, but for the most part, the FOX cards follow the above guidelines. They’re designed to introduce the casual fans that aren’t buying pay-per-views and those who don’t watch every Tier Two event to a handful of top names in one sitting so that if they’re intrigued by any particular fighter, perhaps they’ll follow that person to PPV.

Three athletes who earned victories on FOX in the first half of the year – Valentina Shevchenko, Rose Namajunas and Robert Whittaker – have already gone on to fight for titles. Francis Ngannou is poised to do so in 2018 and the winner of next week’s main event in Winnipeg has been “guaranteed” a title shot as well.

The best way I can describe the UFC on FOX lineups is that they’re pay-per-view quality if you took away the pay-per-view main event. Look at the cards over the last couple years and tell me you wouldn’t pay $60 for most of them if you tossed a quality title fight in there to top it all off?

Tier Four: Standard PPV Event

These are your standard $60 affairs capped by a title fight backed by a strong supporting act, a solid swing fight in the middle and two more bouts that can range anywhere from okay to outstanding and play a big role in determining the level of excitement and anticipation there is for the event.

Exhibit A: the first two fights of the UFC 218 PPV were outstanding and helped contribute to the overall “this is an amazing card” feeling everyone had heading into last weekend’s event.

Exhibit B: UFC 210 opened with Charles Oliveira and Will Brooks followed by Thiago Alves taking on Patrick Cote. Very few people were counting down the days until the company’s return to Buffalo back in April.

Shows like this can also be goosed a little with the addition of a second championship bout, though that doesn’t always as much of an impact as having strong matchups book the rest of the way. Sometimes you can have a stacked card and there just isn’t any real buzz (see UFC 211).

For the most part, these are the baseline pay-per-views that we see 7-10 times a year that generate mediocre pay-per-view buys, but quite often exceed expectations.

Tier Five: The Blockbuster Shows

While they’re becoming a more regular feature on the annual calendar, these are the ginormous events with two or three title fights and a supporting cast consisting of fights that could headline Tier Two or Tier Three events without anyone blinking an eye.

These are the shows that your friends who never ask you about MMA ask you about and the ones where mainstream sports media suddenly develop an opinion about the names on top of the marquee. These are the events everyone gets hyped for well in advance and the ones that turn the lunatics (like me) that watch every single event into little kids on Christmas morning once Fight Day finally arrives.

UFC 205 is the ultimate example of this type of show and featured a lineup where each of the final seven fights was main event caliber. Although most will agree that three title fights on one show and a bushel of big fights behind them is often overkill and leaves the company thin a month or two or three down the line, that’s a price the UFC and its fans seem very much willing to pay in order to have an event that tops 750,000 buys and earns a place in the pantheon of the greatest shows in the company’s history.

These events cannot be compared to any other tier and if you’re hoping for Tier Two shows to be anywhere near as compelling and stacked as these occasional monster cards, I can’t help you. Hell every pay-per-view event can be as loaded as these shows, which is why they’re special and everyone gets all goofy and excited when they finally come around.

Besides, if they were all like this, I have a feeling fans would still find a way to get complacent and suggest that three title fights and a stacked card from top to bottom still wasn’t good enough.

At that point, the only thing left to do is electrify the cage or use Rorion Gracie’s original idea for the UFC and put an alligator-filled moat around the Octagon.

UFC 218: Punch Drunk Predictions

UFC 218: Punch Drunk Predictions

Everything old is new again; that’s the saying, right?

For the first time on this site, but the 487th time since I first started writing on any site emblazoned with the name Keyboard Kimura, it’s time to dive into my picks for a UFC event.

Saturday’s UFC 218 pay-per-view in Detroit is one of the best cards from top-to-bottom that the company has delivered in years, excluding the over-the-top attractions that dotted the calendar over the last couple years. All five main card fights feature competitors ranked in the Top 10 (the Top 6 if you want to be hyper-specific) and we could have a couple new title contenders emerge depending on how things shake out.

On a way more basic level, they’re all great fights that should be exciting and action-packed, so sit back, buckle up and keep reading.

These are the UFC 218 Punch Drunk Predictions.

Max Holloway vs. Jose Aldo (for the UFC featherweight title)

I never thought I would get to a point where I was picking Jose Aldo to get blown out of the water, but I’m picking Jose Aldo to get blown out of the water here. Max Holloway is that good.

Coming off a third-round stoppage win over Aldo in Rio earlier this year, the rematch tilts things in Holloway’s favour even more because he’s already been able to get his read on what Aldo brings to the table and as we saw in their first meeting, once “Blessed” felt comfortable, the Brazilian got trucked.

The champion still needs to be careful, but I fully expect him to start pressuring forward behind combinations and hurting Aldo to the body in the late stages of the first, making it clear that the belt isn’t going anywhere. If the challenger makes it out of the opening round, I don’t think he’ll get through the second.

Prediction: Max Holloway

Alistair Overeem vs. Francis Ngannou

Ngannou is a scary proposition, man – a massive physical specimen who has shown both devastating power and an incredible ability to learn and improve at a rapid rate. Four years after starting his professional career, he’s favoured against one of the most decorated heavyweights of all-time… and I’m pretty sure he’s going to beat him handily.

This is one of those fights where my pick is dictated by the thing I know, instead of the thing that remains a question mark.

We don’t know how well Ngannou can take a big shot because no one has really anything too serious on him to this point in his UFC career, but we do know that Overeem has a suspect chin and I’m positive that “The Predator” is going to find it, probably before the first round is over.

Prediction: Francis Ngannou

Henry Cejudo vs. Sergio Pettis

This is a great fight and I’m glad Pettis was afforded the chance to develop over a couple years instead of getting hustled up the ladder like a few previous flyweight prospects. That said, this fight feels a little like the fight between Frankie Edgar and Yair Rodriguez to me, with Cejudo playing the Edgar role, showing he’s still a level or two above the young upstart.

Here’s the thing: Cejudo hasn’t even been fighting for five years yet and he’s already one of the best flyweights in the world. Not only is his wrestling game excellent, but his hands are quick and dangerous too; ask Wilson Reis.

Pettis likes to control the distance and win technical fights from range, but I don’t think Cejudo will give him the space to operate. We’ve seen Pettis get clipped and finished before and I think Cejudo will continue to showcase his hands and get another stoppage here.

Prediction: Henry Cejudo

Eddie Alvarez vs. Justin Gaethje

Making a pick here is tough because it basically comes down to trying to figure out which of these two savages will be able to endure more punishment and land the blow that brings this Fight of the Year contender to a close?

I think both guys will catch some big shots, but my money is on Gaethje pulling off something similar to what we saw in his debut against Michael Johnson, where he eats some doozies, but still manages to respond and ultimate finish Alvarez.

All I really hope is that this fight is 80% of what I’ve built it up to be in my mind. If we get that, we’ll get an instant classic.

Prediction: Justin Gaethje

Tecia Torres vs. Michelle Waterson

This feels like one of those fights where once it’s done, a lot of people will kick themselves for getting sucked into the Michelle Waterson hype again, kind of like after she got trounced by Rose Namajunas.

The UFC has been pushing the Jackson-Wink staple since she returned to action a year ago and while she’s a solid depth piece in the strawweight division, I don’t think she’s as good as Torres or anyone else in the Top 5.

Torres keeps a quick pace, is better on the ground than people ever give her credit for and is coming off a very good performance against Julianna Lima. Plus, the only person to beat her to date is the new champion and if you don’t think that adds an extra dose of motivation heading into this one, you’re crazy.

I thick the constant pressure and pace of Torres eventually gets to Waterson and the TUF 20 alum gets a third-round finish.

Prediction: Tecia Torres

Preliminary Card Picks

Paul Felder def. Charles Oliveira
Alex Oliveira def. Yancy Medeiros
Drakkar Klose def. David Teymur
Cortney Casey def. Felice Herrig
Abdul Razak Alhassan def. Sabah Homasi
Dominick Reyes def. Jeremy Kimball
Allen Crowder def. Justin Willis
Amanda Cooper def. Angela Magana