Author: E. Spencer Kyte

UFC 221: Romero vs. Rockhold Punch Drunk Predictions

UFC 221: Romero vs. Rockhold Punch Drunk Predictions

So I started off the year strong and have stumbled since, culminating in a 4-7 mark last weekend in Belem.

Gross.

It’s time to reverse that trend and start putting up some quality numbers in this series.

Let’s get it.

Yoel Romero vs. Luke Rockhold – for the UFC interim middleweight title, at least for Rockhold

I thought Rockhold was going to win this fight from the day it was announced. I became more convinced of it as I started prepping for this event and checking out some of the things both guys had to say, especially how focused and confident Rockhold seems to be this time around. My opinions were cemented when Romero missed weight yesterday, turning this into one of those weird fights where only one half of the tandem can earn the title.

Romero is a tremendous athlete and it’s insane that he’s still an elite talent at his advanced age, but I think Rockhold thrashes him here. In fact, I think Rockhold rolls through this one and cements his standing as the best middleweight in the world later this year when he fights to unify the middleweight titles against Robert Whittaker later this year.

Prediction: Luke Rockhold

Mark Hunt vs. Curtis Blaydes

There is very real possibility that Hunt connects with one of those Samoan sledgehammers he calls fists and ends this one in traditional Mark Hunt fashion. That being said, I think we see Blaydes pull off the upset and collect the biggest win of his career.

Hunt’s takedown defense is very good, but is it good enough to deny Blaydes over and over and over again? I’m going to say no. I think we see Blaydes get in on takedowns and deploy the same approach Stipe Miocic did when he fought Hunt a couple years back (and Francis Ngannou a couple weeks ago). His transitions and entries have gotten better as he’s continued working with the crew at Elevation in Denver and I believe he has the potential to be a player in the heavyweight ranks down the line.

Tai Tuivasa vs. Cyril Asker

“Bam Bam” is going to bulldoze Asker here; that’s what is supposed to happen and what is most likely going to happen.

The former Rugby League player turned Mark Hunt protege has blistering power and is more athletic and nimble than he looks and that should lead to a one-sided mauling. Asker is a solid grappler and far more experienced, but this is set up for Tuivasa to shine and he should do it with style and ease.

Prediction: Tai Tuivasa

Jake Matthews vs. Li Jingliang

A couple years back, I thought Matthews was an elite prospect who would blossom into a contender by this point.

I was wrong.

“The Celtic Kid” has kind of stalled out and while the more to welterweight produced a victory last time out, Matthews hasn’t taken the next step forward in his development as of yet and that makes for a rough pairing with Jingliang here. While Matthews has faltered (or at the very least flattened out), Jingliang has continued to improve, adding powerful striking to the smothering grappling style he came into the organization with nearly four years ago.

“The Leech” has won four straight, three by stoppage, and I think he extends that run here, probably by an early stoppage.

Prediction: Li Jingliang

Tyson Pedro vs. Saparbek Safarov

Pedro is another one of those guys that I’m high on, which could be the kiss of death given my recent results.

He’s a 26-year-old light heavyweight with a bunch of raw potential who is coming off his first career loss to Ilir Latifi, a sturdy, seasoned veteran. It wasn’t anything too grizzly and should serve as a massive learning experience for the Australian upstart, who earned first-round stoppage victories in each of his first two UFC appearances. Unless he gets clipped and finished, I think this will be an excellent bounce-back performance and another positive step forward in a division that is always in need of fresh, young names to track.

Prediction: Tyson Pedro

Preliminary Card Predictions

Dong Hyun Kim def. Damien Brown
Israel Adesanya def. Rob Wilkinson
Jeremey Kennedy def. Alexander Volkanovski
Ben Nguyen def. Jussier Formiga
Mizuto Hirota def. Ross Pearson
Jose Alberto Quinonez def. Teruto Ishihara
Daichi Abe def. Luke Jumeau
2018 Predictions Record: 27-18-0 (.600)
UFC Fight Night 125: About Last Night in Belem

UFC Fight Night 125: About Last Night in Belem

Machida Wins, Anders Learns

Lyoto Machida collected his first victory in more than three years, returning home to Belem to earn a split decision win over talented upstart Eryk Anders Saturday’s main event.

It was a close, tactical contest throughout, with Machida using his familiar evasive style to keep Anders guessing and avoid getting cut off and while everyone agreed the fight was close, the 49-46 scorecard turned in by judge Tony Weeks felt a little off as most had Machida winning the first and fifth with the second frame serving as the deciding round in the split.

As much as it was a happy moment for the hometown crowd to see their favorite son get back in the win column, this was one of those fights that felt bittersweet to me as it was once again clear that Machida is in the twilight of his career and doesn’t have many more trips into the Octagon left. While he was able to squeak out the victory, there was nothing about this fight that made you think he’s set to go on one final run at middleweight and the likelihood that this leads to another ugly knockout loss is high.

For Anders, this is a massive learning experience. He showed flashes, like when he split Machida open with a perfectly timed knee along the fence, and there are instinctive things that he does that you have to really like, but his lack of seasoning was also evident on Saturday. He couldn’t cut off the cage. He lunged after too many big shots. He failed to capitalize whenever he stung Machida, opting to duck in for a takedown far too often.

That being said, he’s only 11 fights into his career and just went 25 minutes in hostile territory with a former world champion and could have come away with the victory. That’s a net positive in my books and Anders will be better for having gone through this next time out and his future in the middleweight division remains bright.

Shevchenko Shines

Valentina Shevchenko turned in the blistering, dominant effort everyone was expecting in her flyweight debut opposite Priscila Cachoeira. She rocked the Brazilian neophyte right out fo the chute, exhibiting the extreme discrepancy in their skills and experience from the jump and then spent the next four minutes mauling the overmatched Cachoeira on the canvas. For some unknown reason, the fight progressed to the second round, where Shevchenko took things up another notch, securing a mounted crucifix and continuing to beat down on Cachoeira for another several minutes before finally choking her out late in the round.

This was an absolute mugging and it was exactly the kind of performance the UFC needed from the ultra-talented former bantamweight title challenger.

Look, I hate seeing Cachoeira get beat up like that and think both referee Mario Yamasaki and her corner have some explaining to do (but that won’t happen) for not stopping the fight, but as far as Shevchenko and the promotion go, this is what you wanted. This is what you needed to position Shevchenko as a menacing force in the flyweight division and move her into a title fight with Nicco Montano whenever the champion is ready to go.

As great as she has looked at different points during her bantamweight run, this was a next level, “nobody is going to want to fight this woman” kind of effort from Shevchenko. She showed the same slick hands as always, but they were quicker and she looked more powerful on the ground as well. The 29-year-old has legitimate star potential and this flawless effort should help push her one step closer to realizing her championship dreams and reaching that superstar level later this year.

Odds, Ends & Observations

Here’s one of those “why people don’t take MMA seriously” situations: Michel Prazeres blew weight on Friday, missed the agreed upon upper limit on Saturday and still walked into the Octagon and collected a victory over Desmond Green. If this sport is going to move forward and become anything more than a niche that lunatics like us pay too much attention to, the UFC (and other organizations) need to pull the plug on those fights and enforce greater punishments on athletes that fail to make weight.

Tim Johnson did what Tim Johnson does against Marcelo Golm, forcing the unbeaten heavyweight newcomer to carry his weight, fight in a phone booth and deal with a more savvy, more experienced fighter. It was a suffocating reboot of his win over Marcin Tybura and a reminder of why the UFC struggles to have turnover in various divisions at times. This was the 25-year-old Golm’s second UFC appearance and instead of handing him a more winnable matchup, they put him in there with a smothering grappler who has limited upside. It’s a good win for Johnson, but a bad result for the division.

Douglas Silva de Andrade is the kind of exciting, entertaining fighter who isn’t going to be a contender that every division needs. He’s ultra-aggressive, rocks the vintage Vitor Belfort mullet-hawk and is 25-2 overall, but just 3-2 in the UFC. He’s the quintessential “you can count on him for a fun fight” guy at bantamweight and should be able to maintain that position for the next several years.

It’s time for Thiago Santos to get another crack at a Top 10 opponent in the middleweight division after he stopped the stupid-tough Anthony Smith on Saturday night. “Marreta” has won four straight – all by knockout – and should already be higher than the No. 15 position he occupied coming into this one. He’s ridiculously powerful, always entertaining and rolling right now; get him in there with Kelvin Gastelum or David Branch or someone like that and see what happens.

Sergio Moraes getting the nod over Tim Means was trash, even if you could smell it coming from a mile away. While the Brazilian veteran won the first round, Means landed the more significant strikes in the second and dominated down the stretch, yet two judges scored it in favour of his opponent. The part that really sucks is that it was wholly predictable, as Moraes was slinging hooks and getting loud cheers every time he connected. I don’t know if judges need to wear noise cancelling headphones or what, but Means deserved better.

Polyana Viana straight up mauled Maia Stevenson in their joint promotional debut in Belem. It was a one-sided mugging (as expected) with the Brazilian getting the finish with just over a minute left in the opening round. I don’t normally do the “doesn’t belong in the UFC” thing too much, but Stevenson has no business fighting at this level as her six victories have come against opponents with a combined 0-13 record following their fights.

Iuri Alcantara is the most frustratingly inconsistent fighter in the bantamweight division. Just when you think the 37-year-old veteran is slowing down, he goes out and smashes Joe Soto in 66 seconds, looking like a wrecking machine in the process. He’d lost two straight before this, but also has the third most bantamweight wins in UFC history. Dude is just perplexing, but he looked outstanding on Saturday night.

Really nice performance from Deiveson Figueiredo to kick things off, knocking Joseph Morales from the ranks of the unbeaten with a second-round stoppage win. The 30-year-old is 14-0 with 12 finishes and deserving of a step up in competition next time out. He’s already cracked the Top 15 and needs to get a push in the somewhat stale flyweight division.

Lots of Twitter squabbling and posturing today in the hours leading up to Fight Night after news broke that Max Holloway was out of his UFC 222 title fight against Frankie Edgar. The dumbest of the bunch: people actually thinking it made sense for T.J. Dillashaw to defend the bantamweight title against Cody Garbrandt in four weeks. Losing the Holloway-Edgar fight sucks, but that doesn’t mean you go rushing into a rematch no one (besides Team No Love) is really craving a month from now to make up for it.

Predictions Results: 

UFC Fight Night: Machida vs. Anders Punch Drunk Predictions

UFC Fight Night: Machida vs. Anders Punch Drunk Predictions

Since this is becoming the sole piece that I seem to write here from week-to-week (I’ll work on that, I promise), I’m going to skip the intro and get right to the goods.

Here are my picks for Saturday’s Fight Night event in Belem, Brazil.

Lyoto Machida vs. Eryk Anders

This just feels like a terrible matchup for Machida, who enters on a three-fight skid that includes getting crushed in his last fight pre-suspension and first fight post-suspension. Now he’s stepping in with an athletic, powerful emerging middleweight who actively campaigned for this exact assignment. When guys are calling you out and you’re on a three-fight losing streak, it’s usually means they think you’re easy prey and I think Anders takes full advantage of this pairing.

While he didn’t look nearly as impressive against Markus Perez as he did knocking out Rafael Natal in his promotional debut, Anders remains a promising prospect with top of the food chain potential. Machida is no longer the elusive, challenging puzzle he used to be inside the Octagon and as long as Anders keeps his chin tucked, he should be able to get inside and find a home for something sharp that puts “The Dragon” on the canvas once again.

Prediction: Eryk Anders

Valentina Shevchenko vs. Priscila Cachoeira

Cachoeira has a harrowing story and a sparkling resume, but it was fashion by running through scrubs on the regional circuit and against the skilled and experienced Shevchenko, the raw, aggressive striker is going to get lit all the way up.

Shevchenko should dominate from the outset and while she’s yet to show knockout power in the UFC, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if she overwhelmed Cachoeira with counters early, got her backing up and finished her with a choke. This should be the showcase opportunity Shevchenko needs to punch her ticket to a title shot against flyweight champ Nicco Montano later this year.

Prediction: Valentina Shevchenko

Michel Prazares vs. Desmond Green

Prazares is a truck at lightweight and considering that he missed weight (by a considerable margin), I have a feeling we see him put those extra pounds and that additional strength to good use in a sluggish, grind’em out performance against Green.

This should be similar to Green’s last fight against Rustam Khabilov, which he lost by unanimous decision, as he was unable to nullify the Dagestani grappler’s abilities in the clinch and couldn’t muster enough meaningful offense in space to swing things in his favor. As much as I expect Prazares to fade down the stretch, he should be able to salt away the first two rounds and coast to a win from there.

Prediction: Michel Prazares

Timothy Johnson vs. Marcelo Golm

Johnson has the kind of grappling abilities that could turn what should be a chance for Golm to shine at home in Brazil into an upset that doesn’t help anyone, like when he beat Marcin Tybura, but the more likely scenario is the unbeaten 25-year-old Brazilian stinging him with strikes and finishing him inside the distance. It will probably take more effort and energy than he was forced to expend in his debut win over Christian Colombo, but the outcome should ultimately be the same.

Prediction: Marcelo Golm

Douglas Silva de Andrade vs. Marlon Vera

Vera is one of those guys that everyone roots for and wants to see succeed, but he hasn’t quite been able to put it all together as of yet. Just when you think he’s figured things out and is ready to take the next step forward in his development, the UFC drops him in against John Lineker, he gets blanked on the scorecards and you realize he’s not quite ready for prime time and may not ever get this.

This is a chance to get another read on where he stands as DSDA is a tough, durable veteran with plenty of experience under his belt and similar results in the UFC. He tends to be a little wild and run out of gas the later the fight goes, so as long as Vera keeps it clean and simple, he should be able to land from the outside and look to capitalize on any openings that are presented.

Prediction: Marlon Vera

Thiago Santos vs. Anthony Smith

You have to give Smith props for being a tough cuss who has hung around, worked his way back to the big stage and put up a trio of impressive performances, but this feels like one of those fights where you come away thinking, “Man, they really didn’t do right by him, throwing him in there like that with Santos.”

Because Thiago Santos is a bad man.

These two are going to come out swinging for the fences and while both carry home run power, Santos is the quicker of the two and mixes things up much better than Smith and I’m thinking he’ll land something filthy that shuts the lights off in a hurry.

Prediction: Thiago Santos

Preliminary Card Picks

Tim Means def. Sergio Moraes
Damir Hadzovic def. Alan Patrick
Polyana Viana def. Maia Stevenson
Joe Soto def. Iuri Alcantara
Joseph Morales def. Deiveson Figueiredo

2018 Prediction Record: 23-11-0 (.676)

 

UFC on FOX: Jacare vs. Brunson 2 Punch Drunk Predictions

UFC on FOX: Jacare vs. Brunson 2 Punch Drunk Predictions

Saturday’s event on FOX is another one of those cards everyone says it’s terrible and not worth watching, but as per usual, I beg to differ.

Look, I’m not going to try to convince you that this is some stacked event and you’re a jerk if you aren’t hyped to see Gregor Gillespie do his thing, but I will say that the main event should be compelling and competitive, the co-main will be fun and that there are a handful of intriguing up-and-comers on this show – like Gillespie – that you might want to keep an eye on.

Here’s how I see things shaking out.

These are the UFC on FOX: Jacare vs. Brunson 2 Punch Drunk Predictions.

Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza vs. Derek Brunson

One thing I know for certain is that this is going to last longer than the first time these two met when Jacare iced a green Brunson in 41 seconds thanks largely to a beautiful inside right hand to the chin.

Under normal circumstances, I would probably take Souza – he has a more diverse offensive arsenal and is the savvier fighter, but he’s been off since losing to Robert Whittaker last year, had two different surgeries since then and contemplated walking away. Couple that with Brunson having serious power and I think we see the hometown boy draw level with another knockout win.

Prediction: Derek Brunson

Dennis Bermudez vs. Andre Fili

This one feel pretty straightforward to me: Bermudez by wrestling.

As much as Fili could stick on the outside and snipe with long punches and occasional kicks, I just don’t see Bermudez letting him hang out at range and trading with him. This is going to be a classic “crash forward and grind” performance from the perennial Top 10 fixture Bermudez.

Prediction: Dennis Bermudez

Gregor Gillespie vs. Jordan Rinaldi

Gillespie is a legit lightweight to watch.

I know the division is loaded and he’s 31 and he hasn’t fought anyone of real substance yet, but trust me on this one: “The Gift” is the goods.

He’s a four-time All-American and a perfect 10-0 since transitioning to mixed martial arts. His hands are still a work in progress, but he’s shown flashes there too, like when he blasted Andrew Holbrook in no time flat in his sophomore appearance in the Octagon.

This one is going to be lopsided.

Prediction: Gregor Gillespie

Drew Dober vs. Frank Camacho

Losing Ovince Saint Preux and Ilir Latifi forced this welterweight fight to get moved up to the main card and it should end up being a Fight of the Night contender as Camacho has taken home an additional $50,000 in each of his first two UFC appearances and Dober is down to scrap with anyone.

As much as Camacho’s pressure could make this interesting, Dober is the better overall talent and his technical advantages should carry him to victory. He’s quietly been very good since moving to Colorado to work with what used to be the Elevation Fight Team and should be able to make “Frank the Crank” pay no matter whether he stays outside or crashed forward.

Prediction: Drew Dober

Preliminary Card Picks

Bobby Green def. Erik Koch
Mirsad Bektic def. Godofredo Pepey
Mara Romero Borella def. Katlyn Chookagian
Randa Markos def. Juliana Lima
Justine Kish def. Ji Yeon Kim
Vinc Pichel def. Joaquim Silva
Niko Price def. George Sullivan
Cory Sandhagen def. Austin Arnett

2018 Prediction Record: 14-8-0 (.636)

UFC 220 Aftermath: Experience Matters

UFC 220 Aftermath: Experience Matters

Saturday night at UFC 220, reigning heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic exploited the holes in “one in a million” challenger Francis Ngannou’s skill set to grind out a demoralizing unanimous decision victory, setting the record for the most consecutive successful title defenses in the division in the process.

From the outset, Miocic used his wrestling, putting Ngannou on his back, nullifying his power and sapping his energy. With each passing round and every successful takedown, the challenger got slower and more exhausted. When you’ve got the kind of power Ngannou possesses, you’re always dangerous, which is why Miocic remained cautious whenever they were standing and went back to his wrestling every chance he got.

By the third round, Ngannou looked like he was fighting in quicksand. By the end of the fourth, he struggled to get to his feet and make it back to his corner. Those questions about his takedown defense, skill off his back and conditioning were all answered.

Ngannou was tested and he failed.

It’s not the end of the world, but it was a terrible showing given that the challenger was positioned as a man of destiny and an unstoppable juggernaut heading into the contest.

While the unknowns about Ngannou were made clear in the cage and sharply contradicted the role he was cast in during the build to the fight, it was the things everyone already knew about Miocic that shone through on Saturday night in Boston and should stand out in the aftermath of UFC 220.

He’d been the distance with elite competition and shown he could keep maintain a solid pace for 25 minutes. He’d nullified the power of a knockout artist by utilizing his wrestling. He’d proven that he could absorb punishment and keep coming forward, making adjustments to minimize damage and land big blows of his own.

He’d beaten the only two established talents Ngannou had beaten on his march to Saturday’s championship fight, finishing them inside the opening five minutes, just like the challenger.

He’d proven he was the best heavyweight in the UFC and yet he entered Saturday night’s contest as the underdog; an all-time great expected to get mauled by a guy who made his professional debut two years after Miocic started fighting on the biggest stage in the sport.

As intoxicating as potential can be, there is something to be said about known commodities – fighters with proven skills and abilities and established track records who may not have the look and feel of a titleholder, but have the knockout victories and shiny gold belt that make them the champion nonetheless.

Credentials matter. Experience matters. As Frankie Edgar said after dismantling hyped prospect Yair Rodriguez last year, “There are levels to this.”

Miocic reminded everyone that doubted him on Saturday night of that with his lopsided win over Ngannou. Light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier did the same in stopping challenger Volkan Oezdemir one fight earlier. Demetrious Johnson does it every time he steps into the cage.

It’s okay to get excited about an emerging talent and thinking about what they could do in the future, but there is no way to skip any steps in this sport.

Literally every current champion in the UFC right now has faced some kind of setback along the way and been forced to regroup, make adjustments and get better.

Every single one of them knows what it is like to lose. Some have losses on their resumes that seem unbelievable today, but if you ask them, they’d probably tell you that those are the performances that had the greatest impact on their careers.

Ngannou will be a better fighter because of this loss. He’ll be forced to get in the gym and work on his takedown defense and drill ways to get back to his feet. He will have to assess whether looking like an action hero in the cage is more important than having the conditioning to go more than five minutes at a good clip without becoming exhausted.

He’ll have to develop a Plan B for those times when his opponents don’t simply fall over and stay on the ground when he lands a good shot. And he’ll need to develop a Plan C to have in his back pocket, just in case.

Ngannou remains a ferocious hitter and potentially terrifying force in the heavyweight division and he’ll hopefully learn more from this one setback than he did all 10 of the victories that came before it. He might even still one day be champion, but a “one in a million” addition to the heavyweight ranks he is not and he never should have been positioned as such.

Conversely, it’s time to stop paying so much attention to all the pomp and circumstance and commit a little more time, energy and attention to the established talents who have no interest in singing their own praises, but have proven themselves inside the cage time and again.

There was a way to promote Saturday’s heavyweight championship matchup for what it was – a pairing between a surging prospect with tremendous potential, but a few lingering questions that needed to be answered and a no-flash Midwesterner who likes dumb jokes and shoveling his driveway and just so happens to be the baddest man on the planet, too.

Instead, the reigning champion was positioned as an obstacle standing in the way of destiny; another victim who was likely to fall at the hands of the challenger.

That’s not what happened – not even close – and now a lot of people are scrambling to figure out how to move forward from here.

Here’s an idea: stop over-hyping inexperienced and unproven talent and selling established competitors short, especially champions.

Tell their stories as they are – they’re compelling enough without the over-the-top hyperbole – and focus on outcomes, not expected results.

UFC 220: Miocic vs. Ngannou Punch Drunk Predictions

UFC 220: Miocic vs. Ngannou Punch Drunk Predictions

Before getting to the predictions for this card, I want to jump up on my soapbox for a quick minute.

There has been the usual chatter about how weak this card is beyond the two championship fights and a lot of criticism about the other three bouts that make up the main card and while none of it surprises me because it happens before pretty much every pay-per-view now, they ring particularly hollow to me this time around.

The whole “aside from the championship fights” bit never makes sense to me because those you can’t just pretend like those fights aren’t happening or act like the UFC is somehow asking you to pay for the rest of the card independently. You’re paying for the whole thing and in my opinion, those two title fights are worth the asking price on their own, making everything else that will transpire on PPV a bonus.

Secondly, I’m not buying people thinking the bantamweight fight between Thomas Almeida and Rob Font is a yawn. This time two years ago, most people had Almeida as the next big thing in the 135-pound ranks and now he’s suddenly an also-ran? And Font may not be a contender, but he’s proven himself to be an action fighter who delivers entertaining performances every time he’s in the cage. If a scrap like that doesn’t tickle your fancy, I don’t know if you should be referring to yourself as a fight fan.

Lastly, I get that Calvin Kattar and Shane Burgos aren’t big names, but they’re prospects that people who follow the UFC and cover the sport should know given that (a) Kattar rolled in and beat Andre Fili in his short notice debut (on FS1) and (b) Burgos is 3-0 in the UFC and 10-0 overall with a couple memorable moments in the Octagon to his credit.

Again, if you’re a fan of this sport or someone who gets paid to watch these events, you should know that they’re two quality emerging talents in a stacked division that is going to be front-and-center all year and that their placement on the main card is a way to introduce them to the portion of the audience that only wants to tune in to see the guys that are fighting for the shiny gold belts.

Not all cards can be monsters and if you can’t get behind an event with two terrific title fights, a Top 15 pairing and a bout between a couple solid emerging talents in a deep division, I think you’re in for a long year of hate-watching UFC events.

Thanks for listening.

Here are my picks.

These are the UFC 220: Miocic vs. Ngannou Punch Drunk Predictions.

Stipe Miocic vs. Francis Ngannou

Man, I have been wrestling with this one for a while because like everyone else, I recognize the hellacious power Ngannou possesses and that we’ve seen Miocic get clipped a couple times in the past. If that happens here, he won’t have a chance to recover; that’s the kind of power and finishing instincts the challenger brings to the table.

That being said, I think Miocic is the craftier of the two and the more complete of the two and something tells me we’ll see him take a similar approach to the strategy he used against Mark Hunt.

Ngannou is far less powerful when his back is on the fence or the floor and my guess is Miocic will look to keep him in one of those two spots for as long as possible. If he gets him down and can keep him there – which is a big if, I know – I think the champion has the top control and effective offense to do a lot of damage. Think back to that fight with Hunt – it had me wondering if Miocic was the guy that would end up being Cain Velasquez’s greatest rival. Now I think he’s supplanted Velasquez as the best, most complete fighter in the division and I think we see him prove that once again here.

Prediction: Stipe Miocic

Daniel Cormier vs. Volkan Oezdemir

Oezdemir is still underrated and could be someone who is at the start of a long stay in the upper echelon of the light heavyweight division, but I’ve only seen one man defeat Daniel Cormier and since that dude isn’t the one stepping into the Octagon on Saturday night, I’m sticking with “DC” to retain his title.

Look – you can question his title reigns all you want and remind me that he’s 0-2 against Jones, but Cormier has also beaten literally everyone else that has been put in front of him and done so with relative ease. The only other person to test him was Alexander Gustafsson and while Oezdemir might be able to replicate that performance here, Cormier still rightfully came away with the win and will do the same in Boston.

Prediction: Daniel Cormier

Calvin Kattar vs. Shane Burgos

Like I said up top, this is a terrific little fight between a pair of featherweight upstarts looking to take the next step forward in a loaded weight class. Kattar has won nine straight, including his unanimous decision win over Fili at UFC 214, while Burgos is perfect through  his first 10 fights, meaning someone’s lengthy winning streak is coming to an end.

While I was really impressed with Kattar’s ability to roll in and get the better of Fili in Anaheim back in July, I’m siding with Burgos in this one because the New Yorker reminds me a little bit of featherweight champ Max Holloway in that he works behind a quality jab, throws in combinations, recognizes when he gets his opponents hurt and turns up the output accordingly.

As long as he comes out with the kind of steady offense he’s exhibited thus far in his UFC career, “Hurricane Shane” should rain on Kattar’s homecoming.

Prediction: Shane Burgos

Gian Villante vs. Francimar Barroso

Okay, if you want to be critical of any fight on the main card, I’m not going to stop you from questioning why this one made the cut. Both guys are coming off losses, they’re not Top 15 talents and it’s not like they’re faded veterans who can still trade on their names either, so yeah, if we’re doing the whole “one of these things is not like the other,” this is the one that doesn’t belong.

This is another one of those fights that Villante should win because he has more power and – in theory – a little bit of a wrestling game to fall back on if things get rough, but the Serra-Longo product and BFF of the heavyweight champion tends to take more of a “you punch me and I’ll punch you and we’ll see who falls down first” approach to things that can always make it scary to pick him.

That said, he should be able to get through Barroso.

Prediction: Gian Villante

Thomas Almeida vs. Rob Font

The fact that people are suddenly not enthused about seeing Almedia compete this weekend is Exhibit 437 in the case for MMA fans being the most fickle and fair-weather fans in all of sports.

Two years ago, when he was 20-0 with 19 finishes and coming off four straight UFC victories – all of which produced a bonus – the Brazilian standout was considered one of the most can’t miss prospects in the sport. Then he loses to a guy that ends up winning the damn title seven months later (Cody Garbrandt) and a top contender on a 20-fight winning streak (Jimmie Rivera) and he becomes this dude no one cares about any more.

Watch how quickly that will change if he lights up Font and collects another savage finish, which I think he will on Saturday.

Font is a perfect lower third of the rankings resident – too good for scrubs, but not quite good enough to beat guys in the Top 10. He’s good everywhere and might be able to catch Almeida with something because he likes to hang out in the pocket and doesn’t have great defense, but given Almeida’s power, the more likely outcome in my eyes is the former up-and-coming star collecting the kind of blistering knockout that reminds everyone of his upside.

Prediction: Thomas Almeida

Preliminary Card Picks

Brandon Davis def. Kyle Bochniak
Abdul Razak Alhassan def. Sabah Homasi
Alexandre Pantoja def. Dustin Ortiz
Dan Ige def. Julio Arce
Matt Bessette def. Enrique Barzola
Islam Makhachev def. Gleison Tibau

2018 Prediction Record: 9-2-0 (.818)

UFC Fight Night: Stephens vs. Choi Punch Drunk Predictions

UFC Fight Night: Stephens vs. Choi Punch Drunk Predictions

Here we go – once more into the breach for another year for UFC fight predictions.

The 2018 campaign kicks off with a familiar theme hovering overhead as fight week issues forced not one, but two bouts to be pulled from today’s line-up in St. Louis. First it was Zak Cummings slipping in the tub and splitting his head open and then Saturday, Uriah Hall was taken to the hospital without weighing in, scrapping his co-main event assignment and delaying Vitor Belfort’s retirement fight by a couple months.

Nonetheless, this is a solid show for a Sunday afternoon after football and the main card should be exciting.

Here’s who I think will emerge victorious.

These are the Punch Drunk Predictions.

Jeremy Stephens vs. Dooho Choi

As much as Choi is super-entertaining to watch and coming off his 2016 Fight of the Year battle with Cub Swanson, this is a terrible matchup for the talented South Korean featherweight. He doesn’t move particularly well and tends to deploy an “I trust my chin” style of defense in striking exchanges, neither of which are good things when you’re facing a seasoned heavy hitter like Stephens.

While he’s yet to put together the kind of winning streak needed to climb all the way into contention, the 31-year-old Stephens is coming off one of his most complete and professional performances to date – a three-round mauling of Gilbert Melendez at UFC 215 in Edmonton. The Alliance MMA product chopped at Melendez’ lead leg and beat him to the punch in most exchanges, remaining patient throughout even though he had the former Strikeforce champ hobbling around on a bad wheel.

Stephens has only been stopped by strikes once, so while Choi has excellent power, I’m not sure he’s going to be the man to drop and finish the 26-fight UFC veteran. Look for Stephens to press forward, beat up Choi’s lead leg and snipe home big shots similar to the approach he deployed against Melendez. Because he’s got a couple extra rounds to work with, I think he’ll get the stoppage late in the fight.

Prediction: Jeremy Stephens

Paige VanZant vs. Jessica-Rose Clark

It feels like there are a lot of people who are writing off VanZant, which is odd to me because this is the time to be buying up her faded stock.

Look – I think the UFC has pushed her too quickly and spent too much time trying to convince people that she’s a contender when the results just haven’t been there, but the 23-year-old is moving up to a division where she is a much better fit physically and has shown the flashes of talent that justify her being viewed as a solid prospect. At the end of the day, her two UFC losses have come against the reigning strawweight champion and a former Invicta champ with much more experience and savvy.

Clark is a tough Aussie who has shared the cage with some familiar names, but she’s struggled against more skilled opponents and just squeaked by in her biggest wins. She’s gutsy and durable and isn’t going to be overwhelmed by suddenly being in the co-main event, however I’m not sure if she has the all-around skills to get the job done against someone like VanZant.

After a year working with Chael Sonnen’s crew in Portland, I think we see a more grappling-heavy style from VanZant, who has always been a good scrambler and opportunistic in her pursuit of submissions. Look for her to use her speed and movement to get inside, bring this to the mat and work Clark over from there, eventually finding a finish.

Prediction: Paige VanZant

Kamaru Usman vs. Emil Meek

Kamaru Usman is a different type of fighter, man.

You know the guy Colby Covington thinks he is? Kamaru Usman is that guy – a powerhouse wrestler who can also lay you out if the fight stays standing. While Covington talks all kind of junk, Usman simply puts in work and piles up wins, having collected six straight victories in the UFC and 10 consecutive wins overall heading into this one.

Meek is a dangerous brawler who showed he can go the distance in his UFC debut, but this feels like a fight where Usman shows he’s on a different level than the wild Norwegian. As much as I want to see these two stand and slug is out, I fully expect this to be a takedown heavy affair where Usman breaks Meek’s spirit before breaking him down physically and getting the stoppage.

Prediction: Kamaru Usman

Darren Elkins vs. Michael Johnson

I’m not sure what to make of this fight because on paper, Johnson is an intriguing addition to an already loaded division and has the power and hand speed to be a factor at featherweight. But he’s always been a guy with suspect Fight IQ to me and I’m not sure how much better he’s going to be dropping down in weight.

The one thing that I know for sure heading into this one is that Elkins remains criminally underrated and one of the toughest outs in the UFC. You don’t catch a beating like the one he took against Mirsad Bektic only to rally back and get a stoppage of your own in the dying seconds of the fight without having insane resolve, tons of heart and an unbreakable spirit.

Thinking about how this might play out, I keep going back to Johnson’s fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov and while Elkins isn’t the same kind of grappler as the unbeaten lightweight contender, he’s a very good wrestler and tenacious enough to eat some shots in order to get inside and take this to the floor. Plus, he’s a former lightweight as well, so it’s not like Johnson is going to be significantly bigger than him or anything.

As much as Johnson getting a win at home in St. Louis in his divisional debut would be a nice story, I think Elkins keeps his winning streak going by earning the kind of dominant victory that forces everyone to start thinking about him as a potential contender in this division the rest of the year.

Prediction: Darren Elkins

Preliminary Card Picks

James Krause def. Alex White
Matt Frevola def. Marco Polo Reyes
Irene Aldana def. Talita Bernardo
JJ Aldrich def. Danielle Taylor
Jessica Eye def. Kalindra Faria
Mads Burnell def. Mike Santiago
Kyung Ho Kang def. Guido Cannetti

 

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.