Here we are. The event we’ve all been waiting for. We’ve seen Rose Namajunas remind us of her immense potential. We witnessed Tony Ferguson stake his claim to challenge for lightweight gold. We beheld Frankie Edgar reaffirm his status as an all-time great and leave no doubt he is next in line to challenge for featherweight gold. Now we arrive at UFC 194 with perhaps the most stacked card we have ever witnessed. This is gonna be great!
While I am a bit remiss I don’t get to discuss the main card, I can’t say that there wasn’t some joy in going over the bouts that take place on the preliminaries, as there are some fights that are certainly worth keeping an eye on. Tecia Torres has yet to have her breakthrough UFC moment and is due. Colby Covington and Warlley Alves are a pair of hot welterweights who could be amongst the top of the welterweight heap soon. Magomed Mustafaev is another hot prospect, but at lightweight. And though he has clearly slowed down, Urijah Faber is still a name most fans know and recognize. With the recent drama out of Faber’s camp between him and former teammate and current bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw, Faber has something to fight for.
Urijah Faber vs. Frankie Saenz (Bantamweight)
What’s at Stake: Saenz gets his opportunity to break into the elite by getting a faded Faber who is in need of a bounce back victory… that could lead to a surprising title shot.
The Fighters: Many question whether or not Faber is still an elite fighter, as he allowed Alex Caceres and Francisco Rivera to be competitive against him while coming off of a loss to Frankie Edgar, a loss where he couldn’t even take a round from the former Lightweight Champion. Faber shouldn’t be discounted yet; he may have lost a bit of quickness, but he is still a savvy enough boxer to land a power shot to put his opponent down when trading strikes, and is still one of the best wrestlers in the business. There is a reason that Team Alpha Male is also known as Team Guillotine, as the entire camp is well versed in chokes, and seeing how Faber is the founder… you know what I’m getting at. Scrambles has always been another area of strength, but will his loss of quickness affect him there?
Though Saenz sports less power than Faber in his fists, he might possess the advantage on the feet, as he sports a classic boxing style throwing in combination looking to score points as opposed to landing the KO blow. Constantly moving forward, Saenz does a fantastic job of mixing in takedowns as well to keep his opponent guessing what is coming next, using his wrestling pedigree from Arizona St. to great effect. Despite being small for a bantamweight, Saenz has proven to be surprisingly strong in the clinch with a nice Thai clinch punctuated by knees. Will he be able to utilize that against the physically strong Faber? Hard to say. He struggled to implement his wrestling against the lone UFC opponent he has faced with a any sort of a wrestling background as well, so it will likely depend on his striking abilities.
The Expectation: Faber is definitely slowing, but he is still dangerous and highly marketable. He could very well get a title shot with a win here (he has history with both T.J. Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz that would sell a fight) so he will have plenty of motivation. Expect to see the best Faber we’ve seen in two years with Saenz being the unfortunate victim. Faber via submission in the second round
Tecia Torres vs. Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger (Women’s Strawweight)
What’s at Stake: This fight lost a lot of luster when Michelle Waterson was forced to pull out due to injury, and Torres now welcomes short notice replacement Jones-Lybarger to the UFC.
The Fighters: Torres had a lot of hype behind her going into the TUF 20 tournament, but a loss to Randa Markos and an inability to finish opponents (all of her amateur, exhibition, and professional fights have gone to decision) have cooled most of the excitement. Torres is a bit of an enigma, as she is at her best fighting on the outside despite her 5’1″ frame as owns a huge arsenal of kicks thanks to her tae kwon do background that have plenty of sting, even if they haven’t put an opponent out (yet). She can fight in the clinch, but is in danger of being overpowered if she stays there too long with larger opponents, so it is either in-and-out or she’ll score a trip takedown or a barreling double-leg. Torres isn’t the most active ground fighter as she places value on position as opposed to damage or subs.
Jones-Lybarger should be a nice addition to the division; she is an aggressive pressure fighter with a still developing game. A former collegiate basketball player, Jones-Lybarger is a good athlete with a very boxing-centric attack, though she’ll throw in the occasional body kick as she moves forward. Her boxing combinations are very basic, but she’ll mix in to the body and has a lot of heat on them despite not having a KO/TKO finish yet. She also uses he her strong frame to wear her opponent down against the cage as her wrestling technique is still developing. She does have a tendency to get caught by an opponent’s reactive takedown as she moves forward, but has also shown progress in that field. Still young in her MMA career, she should continue to get better.
The Expectation: Jones-Lybarger looks like a stronger yet less nuanced version of Torres last opponent, Angela Hill. While the strength could be an issue for Torres, I see Jones-Lybarger struggling with Torres’ angles from a distance and will likely spend most of the fight chasing the Tiny Tornado. Torres via decision
Warlley Alves vs. Colby Covington (Welterweight)
What’s at Stake: 3-0 prospects in the UFC look to hang the first loss on one another in a striker vs. grappler contest.
The Fighters: Some would argue Alves (the striker in this case) should have a loss on his ledger already after taking a controversial decision from Alan Jouban last year, but no one argues his talent. He hits with a lot of power, has an above average submission game, and some of the best takedown defense in the division, all accentuated by his incredible athleticism. So why isn’t Alves one of the best already? Though accurate in his strike selection, he doesn’t throw a high volume of strikes while allowing his opposition to land on him with ease due to a lack of effective head movement. Oh yeah… he has had issues with his gas tank as well. Considering these are correctable problems, often solved over time with experience, Alves should become a star with proper time and development.
Covington came into the UFC best known as a former roommate of Jon Jones, but has since proven to be much more than just a footnote as his wrestling credentials are for real. Covington has flown under the radar of some fans due to his wrestling/grappling heavy approach that doesn’t produce much for the highlight reel, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a serious future. Because everyone knows his pressure is coming, he struggles to efficiently disguise his level changes, but is dogged enough in his approach that he can often finish his attempt despite telegraphing his intentions. He’ll be much more efficient once he develops some effective striking from a distance as it will be difficult for his opposition to guess where he wants the fight.
The Expectation: A great piece of matchmaking by Joe Silva, the winner is going to be set up for big things in 2016. Alves’ explosion and takedown defense should make him the favorite as Covington hasn’t faced an athlete or striker with the power that Alves possesses. Should be a fun one. Alves via KO in the second round
Leanardo Santos vs. Kevin Lee (Lightweight)
What’s at Stake: Longtime savvy veteran Santos serves as a litmus test for promising and athletic youngster Lee.
The Fighters: Santos isn’t going to be making a run at the title at the age of 35, but he does have use as a gatekeeper. One of the best pure BJJ practitioners in MMA, Santos has continued to improve despite his advanced age, rounding into a competent striker. Sure, he lacks power and isn’t going to score a one-punch KO, but he does have a jab and some kicks to score points, though he could use work on using them to keep distance. Now if only he could find a way to round out his wrestling as still shows little grasp of disguising his shots, finding far more success with trip takedowns. Once he does get the fight to the ground, Santos makes good use of ground strikes to assist with his superb guard-passing skills with a major propensity for chokes.
Lee is in many ways the polar opposite of Santos as he is a skilled boxer, excellent wrestler, with his ground skills being his weakest facet, even as he is improving. Oh yeah… he is young too at the tender age of 23. Like Santos, however, Lee doesn’t have a lot of pop in his punches, but uses his long reach to affect opponents with his jab, complementing his basic boxing combinations. Though Lee’s BJJ skills are still developing, his scrambling skills are top notch, and his athleticism really stands out there where he has grabbed a good chunk of his submissions. His wrestling is easily his best skill as his double-leg is powerful and he is very heavy from top position. What could end up holding Lee back is his in-fight strategy as he occasionally makes serious mental gaffes.
The Expectation: Another fantastic matchup as Lee is clearly more talented but his brain farts combined with Santos submission skills and savvy make this harder to call than it should be. I’m still gonna go with the favorite Lee as it is the safer pick, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Santos pull off a submission upset. Lee via decision
Joe Proctor vs. Magomed Mustafaev (Lightweight)
What’s at Stake: Proctor is established as an action fighter with limited ceiling while Mustafaev is a legit blue-chipper. So yeah, Proctor is kind of being fed to Mustafaev…
The Fighters: Even though his ceiling limits how far he’ll go, Proctor still has some room to improve. A student and teammate of Joe Lauzon, Proctor isn’t quite as aggressive looking for the submission as his mentor, but part of that is due to Proctor’s struggles to get the fight to the ground as he has yet to record a takedown in six UFC fights. Despite lacking much in terms of offensive wrestling, he has proven difficult to take down, but that is about the only area that he seems to put a lot of effort into defensively as he is continually on the offensive in both his grappling and striking, though his aggressive grappling often serves as its own defense. He has made nice strides since he first came into the UFC as he puts together nice boxing combinations with occasional power.
Yet another Russian with an extensive Sambo background. How many more are we to see? Though he isn’t the most powerful wrestler, Mustafaev does have a variety of ways to get the fight to the ground (trips and body-locks as well as the classic single and double-legs) and is dogged in his attempts to get the fight there if that is what he desires to do. His biggest strength is his chain submissions as Mustafaev is dangerous in scrambles in addition to a dangerous game off of his back. While striking is probably his least developed area, it may also be his most dangerous as he possesses loads of power and a propensity for riskier strikes such as spinning techniques and flying knees. He doesn’t throw with great volume or the best technique, but watch out if he cleans that up.
The Expectation: Yet another great fight. Proctor will probably come up short, but his high-risk style very well could catch Mustafaev in a submission or counter him with a powerful punch as Mustafaev’s striking lacks discipline. Similar to my thoughts with Lee and Santos, I’m going with the younger, more athletic, and safer pick. Mustafaev via TKO in the third round
John Makdessi vs. Yancy Medeiros (Lightweight)
What’s at Stake: Makdessi and Medeiros have both earned reputations as action fighters, and should deliver the goods in an expected slugfest.
The Fighters: I can’t help but feel Makdessi got an undeserved reputation as a quitter for bowing out of his fight with Donald Cerrone following a broken jaw as Makdessi has stuck around the UFC for a while for a reason. I admit that I sometimes hesitate to refer to him as a mixed martial artist as he wants nothing to do with the ground, landing zero takedowns in 10 UFC appearances. But he is fantastic at keeping the fight on the feet as his low center of gravity helps with his excellent balance. Despite his lack of height and reach, Makdessi has proven to be an excellent range fighter with a high variety of spinning attacks and some serious KO power. Though he often takes a lot of damage, that is due more to his fast pace than poor defense as he moves in and out well and is dangerous on the counter.
Medeiros is an interesting case; he is among the most physically talented in the division, but his head hasn’t caught up to his physical skills, and I hesitate to say yet out of question of whether or not they ever will. He has shown improvement in his striking as he has made efficient use out of his high variety of kicks (spinning, leg, head, front… you name it, he throws it) all while moving forward and complimenting his basic yet effective boxing accentuated by his massive frame. What leaves one scratching their head is his complete lack of offensive wrestling (despite his strength) as he, like Makdessi, has yet to complete a single takedown in the UFC. What is shocking is Medeiros has a sound grappling game with a knack for chokes, but has really only shown what he can do in transitions.
The Expectation: Are there any betting odds on whether or not a takedown is landed? Just curious. Medeiros has some miserable losses, but they all came against grapplers, or at least opponents who can wrestler. Makdessi doesn’t offer that threat. Should be well worth watching. Medeiros via decision
Court McGee vs. Marcio Alexandre (Welterweight)
What’s at Stake: Wait, Court McGee is still in the UFC? Cool. He might not be if he loses this fight… and we know Alexandre won’t be if he loses.
The Fighters: It has been two years since McGee last stepped into the Octagon, as he has dealt with a myriad of injuries and surgeries only to now be finally healthy. The former drug addict seems to have found his place in the welterweight division where his high volume, pressuring strategy is amplified by his absolutely massive frame at 170 lbs as there are few in the division who can match his 76″ reach. The drop in weight also benefited McGee’s wrestling takedowns to really make his offensive output amongst the highest in the UFC. His deep gas tank and rock solid chin are what allow him to pour it on as thick as he does as he doesn’t slow down and hasn’t been stopped in his career. McGee does lack power in his punches and has little dynamism to his approach which can make him predictable.
Alexandre hasn’t been seen in a year either, but hasn’t picked up a win, much less have a gnarly beard to give fans something to remember him by. Going by Lyoto during his stint on TUF Brazil 3, Alexandre does have a game that vaguely resembles his idol, in that he prefers to sit on the outside and blitz quickly with some killer kicks and serious power in his punches, but he lacks the timing and angles that make Machida special. Far too often he ends up sitting on the outside for long periods of time without throwing anything, as he can be too selective with his shots. Alexandre’s grappling and wrestling aren’t weapons he chooses to use with regularity, but he has shown adequate defensive skills in both to at least allow him to keep from being overwhelmed.
The Expectation: This is a horrible matchup for Alexandre. Alexandre needs space to operate and McGee isn’t going to give him any. Alexandre will wilt under McGee’s constant pressure late in the fight which will lead to McGee getting his first finish in five years. McGee via submission in the third round
[Urijah Faber art by Grant Gould (c) MMATorch.com]