Sit down, strap in, and hang on, because this is the kickoff of perhaps the greatest stretch of MMA in the short history of the sport. The UFC is doing things right by building to a crescendo, but that doesn’t mean that the UFC Fight Night 80 card sucks. In fact, it is ideal for what a Fight Pass card should be. The main event of Paige VanZant and Rose Namajunas features a pair of the hottest prospects who realistically could challenge for the title in a year or so, but the general MMA population isn’t quite keen enough on them to tune in to watch them specifically. The rest of the card features mostly prospects as well that aren’t as hot as Van Zant and Namajunas (with the exception of Aljamain Sterling), but still offer promise with a few action fights sprinkled in there. Here’s what up with the prelims:
Tim Means vs. John Howard (Welterweight)
What’s at Stake: With both coming up short in their attempts to beat ranked opponents (or just outside the rankings), the winner could receive another shot to break the top 15.
The Fighters: Means is developing into a cult hero in some circles due to his toughness and fan friendly style. Even though he came up short against Matt Brown in his last bout, he had his moments showing that he can be competitive with the elite even if he isn’t quite good enough to beat them. A highly skilled Muay Thai practitioner, Means is at his very best in close quarters where he can unload with a series of elbows and knees. Despite his lengthy frame, he has struggled at a distance which is easily his biggest weakness at this point as he has made it a point to shore up his grappling and wrestling even if those are still far from elite at this point. He offers little other than defense off of his back, but Means’ ground and pound is lethal, and is now complemented by the improved submission repertoire.
Howard has a reputation as a striker thanks to his come-from-behind KO victory over Dennis Hallman years ago, but that result has been more of an outlier to his style as he is a grinder personified. He can trade as he does pack power in his fists, but his short stature and lack of combinations put him at a disadvantage in striking battles for the most part. That short frame actually helps Howard getting underneath his opponent for leverage when it comes to either pushing them against the fence or in their hips for a takedown. He is a top heavy grappler focused more on positioning than looking for subs. Durable enough that he isn’t often finished, Howard usually makes it to the final bell in a hardly entertaining and close decision
The Expectation: Means’ wrestling deficiencies will give the underdog Howard a chance to do his thing to pick up a win. However, Means’ grappling and takedown defense has been improving to the point that I feel pretty confident he’ll pull out a decision with his volume. Means via decision
Omari Akhmedov vs. Sergio Moraes (Welterweight)
What’s at Stake: A classic striker vs. grappler bout between a pair of larger welterweights with identical UFC records looking to escape the middle of the pack.
The Fighters: Representing the striker in this matchup, Akhmedov packs serious power in his punches. The big problem is that he comes out of the gate like a cannon looking to finish things early with his winging punches with little technique or accuracy, often leading to him tiring by the time the second round rolls around. Akhmedov did show more restraint in his last bout with Brian Ebersole, using leg kicks to knock the old veteran out of the fight, a good sign for the Russian. Though he possesses a powerful double-leg, timing is something he often struggles with. Once he does get the fight to the ground, Akhmedov unleashes powerful punches to the head and body. The biggest hole in his arsenal is his lack of defense, both on stopping takedowns and opposing strikes.
The 2008 winner of the World Jiu-Jitsu Championships, Moraes is one of the best grapplers in the MMA world. The rest of his game isn’t nearly as complete as his grappling, but Moraes’ slick guard passing heavy top control make him difficult to overcome. The trick for Moraes is getting the fight to the mat. It isn’t that he is a bad wrestler, as he is actually quite competent, but he needs better timing in looking for his shots and trips as he has telegraphed them too often. Moraes isn’t the most active striker nor is he very technical. He prefers a hard overhand right that he can fall in love with, making him predictable. If it lands, it can end a fight. When mixing things up, he can survive on the feet as his defense is sound enough though far from great.
The Expectation: The UFC has done a great job of putting close matchups together as of late and this one is no exception. Akhmedov’s poor takedown defense and grappling holes he showed against Gunnar Nelson make me believe that this fight is Moraes for the taking, but don’t be surprised to see Akhmedov get an early stoppage. Moraes via submission in the second round
Antonio Carlos Jr. vs. Kevin Casey (Middleweight)
What’s at Stake: Coming off victories over bottom feeders of the division who are no longer on the roster, both Carlos and Casey have a long climb to the top.
The Fighters: Still young in the sport of MMA, Carlos’ ceiling is difficult to determine at this point… and that is an indication of how good some think he can become as opposed to whether or not he’ll wash out. A skilled offensive grappler who is willing to take risks in order to make his opponent tap out, this will be Carlos’ second fight at 185 lbs after winning TUF Brazil 3 at heavyweight. In other words, he is a big and strong middleweight who will be nearly impossible to overcome on the ground once he develops some sound wrestling technique, as that will help him obtain favorable positions to begin with. Still raw on his feet, Carlos has shown skills that can be developed along with heavy hands. He is still wild right now, but has been showing better discipline and technique as his career moves forward.
Despite being 34, Casey isn’t quite a finished product at this point. Like Carlos, Casey is best known for his renowned grappling abilities as he has won several notable jiu-jitsu tournaments over the course of his career. With a strong muscular physique, Casey is a fantastic at controlling his opponent on the ground with a knack for taking their back. He washed out of the UFC in his first stint when his striking, takedown skills, and gas tank came up short. While none of those would be considered to be strengths now, he has improved in each of those fields that he no longer needs to rely on getting a submission as the only way to obtain victory. Largely a boxer on the feet, he puts very basic combinations together with little variety outside of his combinations.
The Expectation: This will either be a hell of a grappling scrap or a timid striking affair. Obviously we’ll all hope for the former, but my bet is the latter. Carlos is the more active of the two with a deeper gas tank in addition to having a greater ceiling. Thus, I’m picking the younger and more athletic fighter here. Carlos via decision
Aljamain Sterling vs. Johnny Eduardo (Bantamweight)
What’s at Stake: What in the hell is this fight doing on the prelims? This should be on the main card! The winner could very well be another win away from a title shot… though more likely two.
The Fighters: A freak athlete with all of the physical skills in the world to make him a champion in the near future, Sterling seems to have been left in the dark as the UFC looks to promote fellow specimen Thomas Almeida. A large part for that is due to Sterling’s wrestling-heavy approach not being as exciting, but Sterling is every bit as skilled as Almeida if not more. Though Sterling isn’t the striker Almeida is, he is developing distance striking to emphasize his freakish (that word again) length while he is already a tremendous pressure fighter. Against the cage, he alternates between wearing out his opposition and looking for a single or double-leg. His wrestling hasn’t been as explosive as his athleticism indicates, but that has more to do with his grinding style than ability.
Only his fourth fight in four plus years with the UFC, Eduardo has been severely limited by injuries in the waning years of his nearly twenty year career, most of it spent in the Brazilian circuit. Thanks to those injuries, Eduardo has been unable to capitalize on his spectacular KO of Eddie Wineland, breaking the tough veteran’s jaw in the process. Eduardo does more than just hit hard as the Nova Uniao product offers hard kicks to the body and legs to compliment his Muay Thai base. Eduardo rarely takes a clean shot with good footwork and head movement, but can fall into bouts of inactivity. Prone to submissions early in his career, Eduardo has largely cleaned up his grappling skills, but he rarely if ever is the one to initiate going to the ground.
The Expectation: Eduardo’s lack of activity makes it easy to forget just how good he really is. He is the clear underdog, but he’ll walk out with a win if Sterling takes him lightly. I don’t think that will happen though as Sterling has Matt Serra and Ray Longo to stay on his ass. He’ll get a clear but hard earned decision. Sterling via decision
Santiago Ponzinibbio vs. Andreas Stahl (Welterweight)
What’s at Stake: I don’t know if it is even appropriate to call these guys fringe prospect, but these fringe prospects are looking to get back on track following losses to higher profile opponents.
The Fighters: A pressure fighter with heavy hands, Ponzinibbio hs a great base to be a stalwart in the UFC, though he needs to fine tune a couple of areas in order to find any real success. Though he has made good strides with his defensive wrestling, he is a poor takedown artist whose pressure style would be greatly complimented if he could land the occasional takedown just to mix things up and keep opponents guessing. He’ll probably hang around for a while as an action fighter if he doesn’t touch it up, but that will be as far as he goes. Ponzinibbio has shown the ability to counter if the pressure isn’t effective and has the ability to catch submissions in transition. From the top, he prefers to use his fists to end the fight, rarely looking to advance for the sub.
Stahl is similar to Ponzinibbio in that he relies on a pressure-heavy style, but rather than moving forward with fists flying, Stahl utilizes more of a grinding approach using dirty boxing with short elbows and knees against the fence to wear on his opponent, utilizing his Greco-Roman wrestling background. He isn’t the biggest or strongest dude at 170 lbs, so he relies a lot on leverage. Stahl isn’t a great boxer in space, but he can hold his own and has proven to be durable thus far. He has also shown fantastic defensive grappling as he might get taken down, but he rarely stays down for long as he owns great scrambling and sweeping ability. What hurts Stahl is his lack of power as he isn’t a terrific athlete and relies on volume to score points as he rarely finishes the fight.
The Expectation: Stahl has a chance to win if he can get the fight to go for the full 15 minutes, but Ponzinibbio throws enough volume himself to get the judges to see things his way as well. I don’t think it will come to that though as Ponzinibbio’s heavy hands will end things early. Ponzinibbio via KO in the first round
Danny Roberts vs. Nathan Coy (Welterweight)
What’s at Stake: The Blackzilians vs. ATT rivalry continues as Coy fills in for injured teammate Michael Graves on short notice for Florida bragging rights.
The Fighters: Roberts still has a bit of an air of mystery to him as he is a former professional boxer, hasn’t fought in 19 months, and has moved to the larger Blackzilians since that time, meaning there could be a vast amount of improvement and/or change to his game. Even with that said, there is no doubt boxing is going to assuredly be the base of Roberts’ strategy where he is light on his feet, cutting excellent angles and picking apart his opponent if allowed to find a rhythm. He isn’t a powerful puncher, but is fundamentally sound enough, in addition to being able to pour on the volume, that he’ll get his share of KO’s. Roberts still has a long ways to go in terms of grappling and wrestling, as he has relied on athleticism to get him out of trouble more than sound technique.
While Coy is far from the same caliber of athlete that his injured teammate Graves is, both are largely grinders (though Graves could develop into more) and Coy is far less prone to the mental gaffes that Graves had fallen prone to during the TUF tournament. Making his MMA debut at the age of 29, Coy doesn’t have the same mileage that most other fighters at the age of 37 possess. A former wrestling All-American in college, Coy uses that pedigree very well to get his opposition to the ground time and time again with a single and double-legs as well as some savvy trips. Coy always seems to get into trouble when there is any sort of distance between him and his opponent as he holds his chin high with little head movement in addition to merely adequate sting on his own punches.
The Expectation: Not knowing where Roberts is in his grappling development after 19 months away makes this hard to predict. Coy could easily ragdoll him for the course of 15 minutes or Roberts could keep the fight on his feet and pick apart the ATT representative. I’m leaning towards Roberts making plenty of improvement to take this, especially given Coy’s striking defense. Roberts via TKO in the first round
Zubaira Tukhugov vs. Phillipe Nover (Featherweight)
What’s at Stake: Having long ago fallen short of high expectations placed upon him, Nover now serves as a gatekeeper to see if Russian prospect Tukhugov is ready for a step up in competition.
The Fighters: A selective striker with excellent accuracy, Tukhugov doesn’t have the same name value that some of his Russian contemporaries have which is a shame as he has the potential to go farther than some of his contemporaries. A slow starter in terms of volume, Tukhogov unleashes a swarm of kicks and punches once he finds his range, while mixing in the occasional spinning backfist or kick. He’s sound defensively as well with good in and out movement, though his head movement could use some fine tuning. Like seemingly every other Russian in the UFC, Tukhugov is a sambo combat champion. Though he has chosen to stand and trade for the most part in his UFC stint, look for him to use those sambo skills and take the fight to the ground quite often here and show off his sound ground skills.
The reason to expect Tukhugov to go to the ground is Nover has proven to be one of the worst at stopping a takedown, something you would have thought he would have worked on while he was away from the UFC. To his credit, he has become more than just the striker he was in his first stint as he has timed his shots much better, though no longer being undersized against his opposition is a big help as well since he moved down to featherweight. Scrambling and guard passes are underrated aspects of his repertoire, but opponents are aware of his abilities there. Nover is still a good athlete and still possesses most of the flashy striking skills that created such a buzz around him once upon a time, but he still can be too selective in his striking, falling behind on the score cards due to a lack of volume.
The Expectation: I’m not going to pretend that this is a close fight, as Nover struggled mightily against Yul Chi Nam and Tukhugov is at least a step above Nam. I’ll say Tukhugov spends the first round finding his range and finishes the job in the second. Tukhugov via TKO in the second round
Kailin Curran vs. Emily Kagan (Women’s Strawweight)
What’s at Stake: No doubt the loser will be cut as the young and inconsistent prospect meets the cagey and always tough veteran.
The Fighters: The UFC must really like Curran as she has not only lost her first two UFC appearances, but was finished in both of them. Despite those losses, her talent has been obvious as she gave Paige Van Zant her toughest challenge yet while dominating Alex Chambers until she got caught by a Hail Mary armbar. Curran is extremely talented in just about every facet of striking, but leaves holes in her defense the size of a Mack truck. Her aggression usually allows her to land more than she is landed on, but that strategy will bite her in the ass even though it hasn’t directly led to a loss yet. Curran also owns a nice bevy of trips and throws to get the fight to the ground, but as her loss to Chambers shows, she can be careless with her grappling.
While Curran struggles with defense, Kagan might be the one strawweight who is worse at range as she holds her head high and lacks the athleticism to compensate for her lack of technique. She has proven that she can take a hell of a beating and keep moving forward as she was pieced up by Angela Hill in her lone UFC showing. If Kagan can close the distance, she is an excellent grinder against the cage with dirty boxing and a steady diet of knees. While Kagan has proven to be a sound grappler who would likely have the advantage against Curran, she has struggled mightily to drag the fight to the ground as she telegraphs her attempts in addition to lacking explosion. Heart is her biggest strength and though that is a good thing to have, it isn’t good when it is easily your most notable trait.
The Expectation: You already know what I’m going to say if you made it this far. Curran should pick up a win here, but Kagan will make sure she earns it. Of course, most expected that outcome against Chambers as well… Curran via decision