What the UFC has done with this card is similar to what Bellator did when it set up its Ken Shamrock-Kimbo Slice card: get a main event with name value that will draw eyes while the undercard is what has the true value. That isn’t to say Vitor Belfort and Dan Henderson are completely finished, but their days of competing for the title are long over. Underneath them are some serious potential names for the future like Thomas Almeida and Corey Anderson.
So what is there to look at on the prelims? I love Johnny Case’s potential and he is being set up in what some see as a showcase (see what I did there?) fight. Kevin Souza and Chas Skelly are sleepers at featherweight while Pedro Munhoz and Jimmie Rivera appear to be more than sleepers at bantamweight. Not everything is must-see-TV, but the preliminary fights are certainly better than what will be presented next week at UFC 193.
Gleison Tibau vs. Abel Trujillo, Lightweight
What’s at Stake: A pair of gatekeepers coming off of losses to Tony Ferguson battle to remain more relevant than the other.
The Fighters: It seems like Tibau has been around forever (he has been in the UFC since 2006), which is what makes it hard to believe he is still only 32. Considering athletic ability hasn’t been something he has relied heavily upon, Tibau has aged quite well, still the golden standard of all gatekeepers in any division. An absolutely enormous lightweight, Tibau has employed the same strategy for years with few adjustments made over the years. Problem is that he is so damn good at getting his opposition down to the ground and keeping them there with his stifling top control that his opponents can’t stop it. Tibau tends to begin to fade about halfway through the second round as he has never possessed the greatest gas tank. Though hardly a standout on the feet, he has made strides the last few years to pose a threat.
A combination of injury and bad luck has kept Trujillo from seeing much action in the cage the last few years, but most would universally agree that Trujillo is a fun fighter to watch, as he is the type to live and die by the sword, preferring to stand and trade despite a strong wrestling background. If he can convince his opponent to slug it out, Trujillo’s power and solid chin give him an above average chance of emerging the victor in those situations. The problem there is that his takedown defense is a well established weakness and there is no reason to believe that Tibau will change up his game plan to accommodate Trujillo. Trujillo’s offensive wrestling has looked good when he uses it, as he has some brutal knees in the clinch even if he fails to complete the takedown.
The Expectation: Trujillo is a very talented if not disciplined striker and will own a huge advantage there. It won’t do him any good though if Tibau can take him down time and again. Trujillo could get a late KO once Tibau tires, but I think Tibau will find a way to survive a late onslaught. Tibau via decision
Yan Cabral vs. Johnny Case (Lightweight)
What’s at Stake: How many lightweights are on the roster? Almost 100? And that is after the recent cuts? These two need to win impressively to distinguish themselves in the UFC’s largest division.
The Fighter’s: Cabral hasn’t done himself any favors in terms of making himself stand out, and it has been over a year since he last fought in what was an embarrassingly favorable matchup against Naoyuki Kotani. Cabral is a throwback in many ways, and about as one-dimensional of a fighter as you will find in the modern UFC. A fairly lanky 155 pounder, Cabral has made strides on his feet to the point where he no longer looks awkward as hell… only slightly awkward. He lacks power and merely looks to use his striking to set up his takedown entries. His shot isn’t powerful, but he is dogged in his single legs, often resorting to dragging his opponent to the ground. From there, there are few that are more stifling from the top while also posing a serious threat to pass guard, as Cabral is not content to use lay-and-prey.
After initially joining the UFC as a last minute injury replacement, Case has proven to be a hell of a find, winning his first three UFC fights, two in particularly impressive manner. While it is clear that Case will want to keep the fight standing, Case isn’t done for if the fight goes to the ground. Very physically strong, Case is difficult to control on the ground, stays active on the top with strikes, and is great at snagging a sub in transitions. Of course, Cabral will have to take Case down first, and Case has shown an excellent base and sprawl. On the feet, Case does a solid job of using his long reach and has some serious KO power in both his fists and his feet, though those kicks are also very effective to the legs of his opponent as well.
The Expectation: Let me be clear: Cabral is more than capable of submitting Case. But he will not outpoint Case, nor will he knock him out. Case knows this and will make sure to force Cabral to expend a lot of energy going for takedowns in addition to delivering punishment. Case will get a late stoppage once Cabral is worn down enough. Case via TKO in the third round
Clay Guida vs. Thiago Tavares (Featherweight)
What’s at Stake: Anyone else surprised these longtime UFC vets have never met? Pride more than anything else is on the line aside from relevance.
The Fighters: Guida likes to remind us all he owns a victory over current lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos. But that came five years ago when Guida was still a fan favorite. It’s easy to forget that Guida is almost 34 with almost 50 fights under his belt, and his body probably can’t survive the firefights he used to put it through anymore. Now Guida relies a lot more on his chain wrestling, which has proven to be more effective at 145 lbs as he is no longer overpowered in most fights. That style also creates a lot of scrambling opportunities, and Guida is quick to slap on a guillotine if the opening is there. Guida still has cardio for days, but most of his motion is wasted as his in-and-out movement is more style than substance, though it can get into the head of opponents.
Tavares is another one whose wrestling has benefited from the drop in weight, but he isn’t nearly as reliant upon it as Guida. To be fair, Tavares is more of a BJJ practitioner than a wrestler, but his ability to get the fight to the ground has been accentuated as he has developed his wrestling skills. Regardless of what he does best, Tavares is a skilled guard passer with good ground strikes to open up opportunities. Tavares has also shown a greater willingness to stand and trade punches with his opponents after largely relying upon his hard leg kicks for offense early in his career. Despite that, he still uses his strikes to get in close to his opponent to initiate a clinch where he looks to complete a takedown with a shot or a trip.
The Expectation: This is one of the harder matches to pick and I’ve wavered back and forth. But I’m going with Tavares as I don’t know how much Guida has left in the tank in addition to his struggles with submission defense at times. Tavares should take advantage of that. Tavares via submission in the second round
Kevin Souza vs. Chas Skelly (Featherweight)
What’s at Stake: Souza and Skelly are positioned to get an opportunity at a ranked opponent… if they can win this fight.
The Fighters: Souza has flown under the radar of most pundits, but is a legitimate talent… who also has legitimate holes. A very long featherweight with a 74″ reach, Souza does a good job of utilizing his reach by staying just on the outside of the pocket and peppering his opponent with stinging punches from a wide and unorthodox base. Though he isn’t a combination striker, he does throw a high volume of strikes as he stays up in his opponent’s grill. What will be the fall of Souza is his lack of diversity as the only other thing he’ll offer is the occasional body kick. Defense is another thing he struggles with, content to rely on his length to do the trick while he uses counter punches to make his opponents pay for takedown attempts… not the most effective strategy.
Despite being a credentialed collegiate wrestler, Skelly has set out to make a point that he has capable striking as of late. Though he hasn’t lost in his last three bouts, Skelly would be well advised to go back to his wrestling roots, as that would be playing right into the hands of Souza if he were to stand and trade. To be fair, he has made strides and has some power, but his stance is awkward and he leaves himself wide open to be countered. Fortunately his physical strength really comes into play with his takedowns. Though he hasn’t been able to get his opposition to the ground with consistency since making it to the UFC, it has often resulted in him pushing the fight against the fence where his dirty boxing combined with his pressure really wears out his opponent.
The Expectation: This is a nightmare matchup for Souza; he requires space to be successful, and Skelly won’t give him that. All of Souza’s losses have come by submission and while Skelly isn’t a submission expert, he is sound enough that I think he’ll catch the Brazilian in a compromising position. Skelly via submission in the second round
Viscardi Andrade vs. Gasan Umalatov (Welterweight)
What’s at Stake: With little upside and minimal success thus far, Andrade and Umalatov will be fighting for their UFC careers.
The Fighters: It will be nearly 20 months since Andrade’s last appeared in the Octagon thanks to a brutal injury that broke both his tibia and fibula during training. His injury makes him a serious wild card as an injury like that can seriously mess with a fighter’s confidence… ask Anderson Silva about that. If he is right, Andrade is talented enough to hang around for a while. A skilled BJJ practitioner, Andrade was making great strides in his striking, adding some power to make himself a threat for the knockout. The physical tools (including a sturdy chin) haven’t been the question… the gas tank and mental gaffes have been what have held Andrade back. For someone as skilled of a grappler as he has been, he offers surprisingly little off of his back.
Like most of his contemporaries coming from the Russian motherland, Umalatov is a sambo specialist despite having very little success in getting the fight to the ground. The biggest reason for that is due to his lack of athleticism and speed. While he isn’t a small dude at 170, he isn’t a powerhouse either which means he isn’t going to overpower too many in the UFC. To put it simply, his lack of physical skills will keep Umalatov from finding much success at the highest level. What he does have going for him is loads of toughness, a good gas tank, a sound counter striking game, great takedown defense, and the doggedness to stay up in front of his opponent throughout the fight. He has enough pop in his strikes to put his opponent on their butt, but isn’t seen as a true KO threat.
The Expectation: This is another hard fight to predict. Andrade is a much better athlete, but I greatly question his state of mind as he returns from such a serious injury. Umalatov’s toughness will make it hard for Andrade to put him away early and that will be the Brazilian’s best chance. Umalatov will grind him out in a largely boring fight. Umalatov via decision
Pedro Munhoz vs. Jimmie Rivera (Bantamweight)
What’s at Stake: For some reason there isn’t as much buzz about these prospects as there should be. A victory here should change that.
The Fighters: Due to some bizarre circumstances with the Nova Scotia Athletic Commission, Munhoz was unofficially suspended despite not exceeding the allowable testosterone levels, and hasn’t fought in over a year. Confusing, I know. With that behind him, Munhoz is looking to pick up where he left off, which was when he was being regarded with the likes of Thomas Almeida and Aljamain Sterling as a highly touted prospect at 135 lbs. Not as powerful a striker as Almeida and not as athletic as Sterling, Munhoz far outstrips them both as a grappling and submission wiz, with some sound takedowns and a striking game that has shown steady improvement for a while. It’s to the point where he is now a viable threat to clip and finish off an opponent.
Rivera has been one of the better known commodities in the northeast circuit with time in Bellator and WSOF before getting the UFC call as a late injury replacement in July, and he finished Marcus Brimage in less than 90 seconds in that bout. Rivera has always been a great combination boxer landing in high volume, but to his great benefit has been adding some pop to his punches, and has put together a string of stoppages with his fists. He offers a little bit of wrestling as well, but would much rather keep the fight standing and in the pocket, more often than not using his wrestling in reverse ala Chuck Liddell to keep the fight standing. While he isn’t a superb athlete for the division, Rivera often makes up for it with great hand speed and striking instincts.
The Expectation: Most analysts will say that Munhoz will win this fight, and I don’t disagree, but I do think it will be a closer than expected fight. Rivera has been putting everything together at the right time and should be around the UFC for quite a while, but Munhoz has the look of a future contender. Should be a fun fight. Munhoz via decision
Bruno Korea vs. Matheus Nicolau (Bantamweight)
What’s at Stake: Given the UFC’s recent history with TUF participants, this will be a one-and-done appearance for the loser.
The Fighters: While Korea is without a doubt the underdog here, he isn’t without the skill to pull off the upset. The question is whether or not he’ll be able to tap into his natural talents. Most of his deficiencies can largely be attributed to inexperience, as he has four professional fights along with three in the TUF Brazil house. He is reluctant to be the first to engage in striking exchanges, but has proven to have an effective affinity for spinning back kicks. If that is the best thing that can be said of his striking though, he has a long way to go as he greatly needs to increase his overall volume. As a grappler, he has a sound BJJ base with developing wrestling and a knack for grabbing a choke in transition. While his gas tank could be called into question, the TUF house is rarely the best judge for stamina.
Nicolau actually owns a victory in the TUF house over eventual tournament winner Reginaldo Vieira… not that anybody really gives a damn, as TUF is largely a crapshoot with luck involved. In this case it might actually mean something, as Vieira is a seasoned veteran while Nicolau is still getting his feet under him at the age of 22. While Nicolau is also hesitant to engage, content to sit on the outside and chip away with jabs and leg kicks, that’s more than what Korea usually throws. He has shown power and a greater willingness to engage with lesser competition, so it appears to be a matter of confidence with him. Nicolau is good at evading strikes and tie-ups, but will likely have difficulty stopping the takedowns if he can’t avoid as he is a natural flyweight.
The Expectation: I fear this will be a very tedious fight as neither have shown much aggression in the house. Then again, like I said, the TUF house isn’t a great signifier of things to come. Nicolau is the longer fighter and should use that well to take a decision thanks largely to greater volume. Nicolau via decsion