After a week’s absence due to the Christmas season, the UFC makes a violent return this weekend as Robbie Lawler and Carlos Condit collide in what promises to be a fan-friendly affair. The co-main event between Stipe Miocic and Andrei Arlovski is sound, too, but recognizable name value drops off sharply after that.
Without going into details for any of the other fights (as I’m about to do just that for the prelims), I have to admit that there is a good degree of competitiveness in the remaining ten bouts despite the lack of sexy names, with only a handful sporting a clear cut favorite. To get to my point, I was fairly disappointed in the card outside of the headliners myself until I actually started taking a closer look at the matchups. At this point, I’m expecting a very good night of fights.
I also figured it’s a new year, I might as well introduce a new format as I feel as though I restricted myself too much the other way. Hope this serves to hit my desired effect. Oh… and here are the preliminary details:
Michael McDonald vs. Masanori Kanehara (Bantamweight)
It has been two years since we last saw McDonald step into the Octagon, and yet he is still only 24 years old. At 16-3, 19 fights was a lot of wear and tear to accumulate before his 23 birthday, so the layoff will likely prove beneficial to his career in the long run, even if he proves to be a bit rusty against the savvy vet Kanehara. This is a hell of a trap fight for the youngster, as Kanehara specializes in capitalizing on his opposition’s mistakes.
McDonald’s youth and size have often been the most discussed attributes, leaving his athleticism to be an understated weapon of his; that’s a significant benefit as he can get away with sloppy footwork at times and still tear into his opposition with fast boxing combinations, with his right hand being particularly lethal. His submission ability started receiving attention after he locked up Brad Pickett with a triangle with Pickett in his guard as McDonald has rarely looked to take the fight to the ground, but don’t expect him to start looking to go there against Kanehara; not necessarily because Kanehara is world-class, but because McDonald’s advantage on the feet is that pronounced.
McDonald usually employs a number of leg and front kicks in his repertoire to help keep his opponent at a distance as opposed to a jab, but look for him to scale back on those as they fall right into Kanehara’s style. A fantastic scrambler, Kanehara often initiates said scrambles by catching kicks and then rushing his opponent while holding their leg to push them off-balance. Kanehara will be looking all over for those opportunities as he doesn’t possess the physicality or technique to out-wrestle his larger opponent. Sporting an unusual square stance, it has worked for Kanehara pretty well as he has developed some sound power in the waning years of his career relying particularly on his right hook. He can get into trouble waiting for his opponent to throw first as Kanehara rarely is the aggressor on the feet.
The only way I see Kanehara getting the win is by initiating a scramble and either catching McDonald in a submission or maintaining control of the former title challenger for multiple rounds using this strategy. While plausible, this is one of those fights McDonald wins four out of five times, and it would be stupid to go against those odds. I like McDonald’s chances of getting a KO as Kanehara’s chin has been cracked before. McDonald via KO in the second round
Kyle Noke vs. Alex Morono (Welterweight)
I don’t know if Kelvin Gastelum’s injury is a blessing in disguise for Noke or not, as a win over late injury replacement Morono will do little for him. But then again, three wins in a row in the UFC always looks good on paper regardless of who the opposition is. It isn’t that Morono is a nobody – the 25-year old is a fun fighter to watch and has some talent to back up the entertainment factor – but he did fight less than a month ago and is taking this fight on less than two weeks notice. This is going to be a hell of a challenge for the newcomer.
Noke has been a hard one to figure out recently. Being clearly out-wrestled and out-grappled by Jonavin Webb back in May (only to be fortunate enough that the judges had cataracts and gave him the win), Noke came out looking rejuvenated at UFC 193 while landing one of the most devastating body kicks seen in the sport. He has revamped his approach since cutting down to welterweight, largely cutting out wrestling, and using his newfound length advantage as opposed to his girth. Yes, he’s bigger than almost all the other welterweights, but he is also slower and was never a great wrestler to begin with.
There is a good chance that will change this time around as Morono is a horrible wrestler, spending about 80% of his last two fights on his back as he gets taken down with ease and is content to stay there as he is capable of snatching subs from that position. Lucky for him his fights usually don’t go to decision as he would be outpointed more often than not. What has saved him on multiple times is his big right hand, toughness, and resilience as he can take a lot of damage while needing only a single punch to change the course of the fight. He isn’t the most disciplined on the feet, leading him to brawl where his chin comes into play.
Morono’s best chance will be to catch Noke with a Hail Mary submission as Noke is able to take a lot of damage himself. Look for Noke to stay on the outside and use his reach on the UFC newcomer to outpoint him with Morono making a run late in the fight as Noke is prone to gassing. Noke via decision
Justine Kish vs. Nina Ansaroff (Women’s Strawweight)
Anybody seen Kish fight? If you have then you know damn well why I’d love to see a Muay Thai fight between Kish and Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Oh, the violent possibilities…
It has been two years since Kish last stepped in a cage of any sort as the TUF 20 alum dealt with a torn ACL which prevented her from partaking in the tournament. It’s a shame as most fans are unaware of what a joy Kish is to watch. The question is whether or not Kish will be able to make weight as she hasn’t officially made the 115 lb. limit in a fight yet. If she can do so without depleting herself, Kish could very well insert herself as a dark horse title candidate, as she is one of the best pure Muay Thai practitioners with a World Muaythai Council title on her resume. She isn’t as smooth as Joanna Champion as she looks a bit stiff, but is very powerful and technically sound, bullying her opponent in the cage with kicks from range, along with sharp elbows and devastating knees to the body from the clinch.
Kish’s ground game doesn’t get a lot of attention thanks to her standup abilities, and she does need some polish and refinement from there. With that said, she can quickly rip off a triangle on an opponent who is caught sleeping on her. The question is whether or not Ansaroff will look to take the fight to the ground as she has preferred to stand and trade regardless of what her opponent is best at. While Ansaroff isn’t a bad striker herself, she’ll be at a clear disadvantage in terms of polish as Kish has about a decade’s worth of Muay Thai experience. If she can work her jab with some leg kicks to keep Kish at a distance and avoid looking for the kill shot (which often results in a breakdown of discipline for her), she could hang around. If she mixes in a well-timed shot or two with her trip takedowns and scoring some points with her ground elbows, she could end up stealing the fight. Like Kish, Ansaroff is an opportunistic submission artist who isn’t known for her grappling accolades, but can surprise.
If Kish wasn’t coming off of such a long injury layoff, I’d be picking her with a lot more confidence as she could come in rusty. I don’t think Kish’s style is going to be greatly affected by the injury as she has relied more on power than on speed. She is at her best when she can push her opponent against the cage and lay into them with the aforementioned elbows and knees, something Ansaroff has a tendency to get caught. Ansaroff is scrappy as hell which should make things interesting, but Kish bullies her way to a debut victory. Kish via decision
Scott Holtzman vs. Drew Dober (Lightweight)
Is Dober getting a break as he faces Holtzman instead of injury-prone Erik Koch? Hard to say, as Koch seems to be a shell of the fighter we thought he would become, while Holtzman’s ceiling has yet to be established. We’ll find out more about Holtzman here than we did against Anthony Christodoulou, as Dober has at least proven competitive against UFC competition. Note that I didn’t say Dober is UFC caliber; that has yet to be proven, as a 1-3 (1 NC) record with the only win coming against a broken down Jamie Varner leaves a lot of doubts to his abilities.
Despite me wondering whether or not Dober belongs in the UFC, it doesn’t mean I think Holtzman will dominate the Nebraskan. Holtzman looked great against Christodoulou, but any fringe UFC fighter would (sorry Anthony, I’m sure you’re a badass dude). Holtzman has shown all-around skills and works with the likes of Benson Henderson at The Lab in Arizona, indicating he might have staying power. Now the bad: Holtzman hasn’t beat anyone worth mentioning, meaning the skill set he has thus far shown needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and he is already 32 years old. A large percentage of his fights have taken place against the fence, using a high pressure approach punctuated by some short and strong boxing combinations and trip takedowns. If he is forced to fight at range rather than keeping things close, it should say whether or not he deserves to be in the UFC.
Dober is certainly the more proven commodity. His offensive wrestling has proven weak (he hasn’t scored a single takedown in five Octagon appearances) while his defensive wrestling has held up pretty well, allowing him to do what he does best: stand and trade with his high output Muay Thai. His record on the regional scene is littered with a number of submission victories which gives people the false impression that he is a grappler. Most of those came after he stunned his opponents with his strikes and took their back for the finish a la Donald Cerrone. Hell, his lone UFC victory was a weird iteration of that sequence with Varner knocking himself silly on a takedown attempt! Dober has sound punch-kick combinations, but doesn’t have a whole lot of power behind them. Alas, he is fun to watch which is probably why he has received as many opportunities as he has. This could be the end of the line though if he can’t pass this test.
I wouldn’t touch this fight if I was a betting man. Dober was competitive in all of his UFC fights except for his last appearance and has proven to be tough as nails even if he lacks the finishing skills most UFC fighters possess while Holtzman has looked the part against subpar competition. If nothing else, this should very well be an early favorite for FOTN. Take this with a grain of salt, but I see Holtzman’s aggression being the difference in the eyes of the judges to take a very close decision. Holtzman via decision
Dustin Poirier vs. Joe Duffy (Lightweight)
I gotta disagree with the UFC on this one. Not the fight itself, it’s a fantastic fight! But putting it on Fight Pass? Look, I have Fight Pass, and appreciate what they are trying to do by putting it there as a “reward” to Fight Pass subscribers. But this fight is probably the third best fight on the entire card (fourth at the worst) and they don’t put it on the main showing? Shame, shame UFC.
Similar to the Holtzman-Dober fight, I wouldn’t touch this one if I was a betting man. Poirier is very much a fan favorite due to his aggressive ways that leads to a highlight reel finish and/or FOTN candidates. Since moving up from featherweight, he has been on an incredible tear, easily disposing of Carlos Diego Ferreira and Yancy Medeiros, interjecting himself as a darkhorse candidate of the division after just two fights at 155 lbs. Duffy on the other hand is getting promoted non-stop as the last man to beat Conor McGregor (whom Poirier badly lost to) and has looked just as impressive in his two UFC fights, albeit against lower level competition in Jake Lindsey and Ivan Jorge, who have both since been released.
Aside from Duffy being the last man to beat McGregor, his time spent as a professional boxer has also been highly hyped, which would make it seem pretty straightforward that Poirier wants the fight on the ground while Duffy wants to keep things standing. It may not be quite that simple. Poirier is skilled on his feet (despite his lack of head movement), perhaps more so than he is on the ground while Duffy has made great strides on the ground, submitting a submission guy in Jorge. See what I mean about this one not being an easy one to pick?
Poirier is at his best when he lets the fight come to him as he struggles in transitioning from one phase to another. He is fine in scrambles, but going after a takedown? He telegraphs it too much and ends up losing his flow. A southpaw counter striker, Poirier unloads with major bombs once he catches his opponent cleanly and often ends the fight in that manner, but also leaves himself wide open for the counter at that point. He hasn’t shown any lost strength since moving up to featherweight, while showing renewed energy, indicating the cut to 145 lbs was taking more out of him than we knew. Poirier has pulled out some slick submissions too as he is particularly dangerous in the aforementioned scrambles.
Duffy has all the tools you’d expect out of a former boxer: a stout jab, slick combinations to the body and head, and perhaps most importantly, great head movement. Like Poirier, he works at a fast pace that is hard for anyone to keep up with. He’s been working up at Tristar with Firas Zihabi on his wrestling and grappling, something he wasn’t bad at to begin with, as he has always been difficult to take down, and also possesses a black belt in Japanese jiu-jitsu. Duffy does leave his lead leg out to be attacked with kicks while struggling in the clinch, but those are correctable and relatively minor for someone headed into their third UFC bout.
Though neither sucks on the ground, I don’t see either one of them looking to take the fight there, which means this should be an excellent standup battle. Both have holes the other can exploit, but I like Duffy’s fight IQ more at this point. Maybe fight IQ is the wrong way to put it, but Poirier can be more than a bit prideful, which led to him being easily handled by McGregor. Then again, he showed a lot of maturity by not accepting the fight with Norman Parke on short notice after Duffy was forced to pull out of their original meeting due to a concussion. Oh hell… I don’t know who to pick. But I can promise that I’ll be watching on Fight Pass…. Duffy via TKO in the second round
Joe Soto vs. Michinori Tanaka (Bantamweight)
At first glance I didn’t care much for this fight. Upon closer inspection, this should be a lot of fun. Soto is in danger of only becoming the guy known for receiving a title shot when Renan Barao’s weight cut went bad, while Tanaka is a former hot prospect who needs a win to get back on track in addition to a failed drug test (due to over the counter allergy medicine). With both pretty fun to watch and badly in need of a win, this should be a good one.
Soto was pieced up pretty badly by T.J. Dillashaw despite showing loads of heart, and was blitzed in his sophomore effort by Anthony Birchak. He’s been unable to execute his bread and butter wrestling game in either fight, which pretty much explains why he hasn’t been able to find any success thus far in the UFC. That doesn’t mean that he sucks everywhere else. If that was true then he never would have made it into the fifth round with Dillashaw. Soto is solid-but-unspectacular on the feet with a very basic counter boxing game. He has struggled to implement that against dynamic strikers… which explains both Dillashaw and Birchak. Soto is better than his 0-2 UFC record indicates, but he has had bad matchups stylistically. Against more traditional strikers, he is better able to time his level changes where he can put his chain wrestling together and fight his fight. He had moments against Dillashaw where he landed some good shots, but he doesn’t have KO power.
So the obvious question is whether or not Tanaka is a dynamic striker. He is dynamic… just not with his striking. Tanaka is cat-quick and one of the most exciting wrestle-grappler’s in the sport, having won FOTN in his grapple-heavy loss to Kyung Ho Kang. Considering most fans (and Dana White) prefer the knockdown-drag out slugfests, that should be saying something. Setting a blistering pace that few can match, Tanaka has been a bit of a one-trick pony, as Kang pretty much saw the takedown attempts coming which made it easy to counter. When Tanaka did try to stand, Kang showed him no respect as Tanaka has little power in his strikes while rarely throwing kicks. He hasn’t fought in over 15 months which is a long time for him to add to his repertoire, so I’d expect him to have some new wrinkles to his game.
Tanaka is the best stylistic matchup that Soto has faced in the UFC as he is stronger than Tanaka by far and will get the opportunity to implement his wrestling for the first time in the UFC without much worry of Tanaka’s striking. I still have hesitancy picking him as Kang was the first opponent to defeat him while everyone else has known what Tanaka was bringing to the table and were still unable to stop it. Soto isn’t bad in scrambles either, but few are better than Tanaka and Soto’s wrestling style makes it a given we’ll see quite a few. This is another pick to take with a grain of salt. Tanaka via decision
Sheldon Westcott vs. Edgar Garcia (Welterweight)
Yeah… this one is hard for me to get excited about. Neither fighter appears to have the requisite skill set required to make a dent in the UFC, and are entering the fight with a combined 0-5 UFC record, meaning this is guaranteed to be a loser-leaves-town bout.
Both are 31, but Westcott has less mileage on his odometer in addition to an athletic advantage, meaning the UFC would rather see him pull it out as he has a higher ceiling. If he is to do so it will almost assuredly come in the first round, as six of his eight wins have come in the opening frame, in addition to his two TUF Nations tournament wins. Westcott comes out like a man on fire from the opening bell, blitzing his opposition as he looks for a quick finish. That type of pace can only be maintained for so long before he is drained, so if his opponent can weather the early storm, Westcott is most likely a sitting duck as he his punches have lost the steam that they had to open the fight in addition to him having great difficulty scoring any significant offense or avoiding what his opponent has to throw at him.
I had forgotten what a fun fighter Garcia can be before I started scouting him. Hmm… maybe I should change the opening line for these two… ah, screw it. Garcia is first and foremost a boxer as he pushes the pace (though nothing like Westcott does from the get-go) throwing punching combinations to the body and head. He doesn’t like to go to the ground, but when the fight goes there he does have the wrestling pedigree and submission savvy that he can pose as a threat. What has gotten him into trouble has been his careless submission defense as he has been caught twice in his three UFC losses in chokes that finished the fight. His gas tank can be called into question as well, though I doubt that will be a huge concern since Westcott is a virtual guarantee to gas first.
This is pretty cut and dry. Garcia will take an easy win if he can survive Westcott’s early storm, though that is a lot easier said than done. Both are very durable, but hardly indestructible, so I don’t see this one going the distance. Rather than take my word for it, I’ll tell you to flip a coin and avoid betting on this one if you’re strictly looking for a winner. If you’re betting on whether the fight goes the distance, that is a completely different story… Westcott via submission in the first round
[Photo (c) Kyle Terada via USA Today Sports]
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