D. FOX: Preliminary card preview for UFC Fight Night 81 “Dillashaw vs. Cruz”

By Dayne Fox, MMATorch Contributor

Usually when a card is hit hard by injuries (or circumstance) in the week leading up to an event, it almost inevitably is one of the better fights on the card that falls victim to the switch. Surprisingly, the top of this UFC Fight Night 81 card remained untouched by the vicious injury bug. While I’m overall excited about that, the fact that there were three last minute changes on the prelims meant I had to re-do three previews in addition to doing extra research. Damn it!

Overall, this is one of the best (not better, best) Fight Night cards the UFC has ever put on. It would have held a bit more clout without the late injuries, but nobody really remembers the bottom of a card anyway. Even with the injuries, the two fights that I looked forward to the most on the prelims remain unscathed, as Patrick Cote clashes with Ben Saunders while Paul Felder and Daron Cruickshank will look to kick the other’s head off. Considering the injuries that did pop up, I’m very happy with what the UFC is offering to us before the main course.

Patrick Cote vs. Ben Saunders (Welterweight)

It’s crazy to think, considering he started his UFC career in the main event of UFC 50 as an injury replacement against Tito Ortiz, that Patrick Cote is still hanging around. Obviously he is a much smaller version of his former self, as he is required to weigh in 35 pounds lighter, but this may be the best version of Cote that we have ever seen. Formerly Cote was largely just a striker, but good enough of a striker that he was able to win four in a row and earn a chance to dethrone legendary middleweight kingpin Anderson Silva. With all due respect to Cote, it is amazing to see how far the middleweight division has since come.

Since his drop to welterweight, Cote has added a dimension of wrestling not seen before. The element of surprise may have had something to do with his initial success as the takedowns have been harder to come by in his last few fights, but has also given his opponents more to think about even if the shots aren’t working. He’s also become a more diversified and slicker striker, adding both kicks and polish to his arsenal to the point that if you didn’t know better, you’d say he couldn’t be the same fighter who fought Silva back in 2008. That fighter comes out every now and then still as he’s still willing to brawl as his right hand is full of dynamite while his chin has yet to crack.

Like Cote, this isn’t Saunders’ first go-around in the UFC. Unlike Cote, Saunders isn’t that much different stylistically than what he was the first time around, though he is certainly wiser than his former self. An absolutely monstrous welterweight, Saunders uses his massive reach extremely well (at least offensively) as he mixes a wide variety of kicks from a distance, but can also use the leverage his height provides in the clinch to devastating effect with his knees, his favorite and most effective strike. He doesn’t always maintain distance very well, often using his volume of strikes to serve as his defense ala what we saw from Carlos Condit against Robbie Lawler. Thus he has proven to be an average brawler at best if the fight degenerates to that.

Those factors add up to Cote perhaps being best advised to revert to his former self to make the fight a brawl, as Saunders holds his chin high at times. Saunders will either engage in the clinch where his awesome Muay Thai will tear up Cote’s body or he’ll attack with a high volume of kicks from a distance. If the fight does go to the ground, Saunders won’t be the one to initiate it (one takedown in ten UFC appearances), but he is comfortable off his back, proving to have a dangerous guard many times over. Remember his omoplata upon his UFC return?

Not an easy one to predict. I keep thinking of Cote’s fight with Stephen Thompson for reference as Thompson utilizes a kick heavy approach from a distance like Saunders. Yes, Cote lost, but he didn’t look bad in that fight by any means, utilizing a lot of leg kicks. And the crazy thing is that Cote seems to be improving despite being 35 years old. I’ve gone back and forth many times as I’ve studied these two and while I’ve put a prediction on paper (and I’ve given you a big clue who I’m picking), that doesn’t mean I may not have changed my mind by the time this fight airs. Cote via decision

Tim Boetsch vs. Ed Herman (Middleweight)

Remember when there were talks of Boetsch being a title contender? How those wins over Yushin Okami and Hector Lombard seem like a lifetime ago. Boetsch is 2-5 since those wins with one of those being a highly contentious decision over CB Dollaway. With that said, he has proven to always be dangerous thanks to being tough as hickory and strong as an ox as his other win was a comeback on a usually durable Brad Tavares showed. The question some have asked is whether or not his durability is fading as he has been finished in each of his last three losses. Two were by submission while gorilla is prone to go to sleep from an H-bomb by Hendo. Still, Boetsch needs a win to remain employed.

The same could be said for Herman who has now had an association in one form or another with the UFC for a decade now despite never being anything more than a mid-level fighter. He got by most of his career on his brand of toughness and grit, but was starched in less than a minute in his last appearance a year ago by Derek Brunson, the first KO/TKO loss of his career outside of injury. He faces the same durability questions that Boetsch now faces, something that seemed laughable for both just a short time ago.

So how will this play out? Boetsch is a bully in the cage, imposing his girth on his opponent by either grinding them against the cage with uppercuts and knees or taking them down where he can land some heavy GNP from the top position. That’s all he really offers from the ground and he has proven to be prone to submissions… something Herman is particularly adept at as over half of his wins have come that way. Boetsch has tried avoiding going to the ground as of late and I see no reason for that to change here. So will the fight be against the cage? I expect it to be as Herman often employs a similar style with more technical dirty boxing than what Boetsch employs, as the years of tutelage under Randy Couture paid off for the former Oregonian.

I don’t think this will be a very fun fight to watch with both being plodders, but I won’t be surprised to see a highlight reel finish. Boetsch is far from a defensive wiz, but Herman has gotten worse as his less-than-stellar athleticism has declined as he has gotten older. Boetsch should end up swarming him with heavy punches at some point bring about nap time, walking out with a job-saving win while putting an end to Herman’s decade long UFC tenure. Boetsch via TKO in the first round

Chris Wade vs. Mehdi Baghdad (Lightweight)

Perhaps he would disagree with me, but Wade caught a real break when Mairbek Taisumov ended up having VISA issues. Wade went from being one of the bigger underdogs on the card to being a heavy favorite with Baghdad stepping up on a single week’s notice.

Wade’s strategy for the fight isn’t going to change much as Baghdad is a poor man’s version of the man he is replacing: Muay Thai practitioner with a bit of wrestling. Wade has been making strides in his striking to the point that he no longer looks awkward in space, though he still has a way if he wants to look natural. He hurt his last opponent Christos Giagos with short combinations, but also ran right into a similar one from Giagos that damn near floored him. Baghdad is a better striker than Giagos, so it’s abundantly clear that Wade will want to get the fight to the ground. Lucky for him that is where he is best.

Baghdad has shown some good takedown defense and is proficient enough to scramble back to his feet pretty quickly. Then again, Baghdad hasn’t faced anyone with the wrestling pedigree possessed by Wade. Baghdad’s best takedown defense is often his offense from the clinch as he has often made opponents think twice about tying up with him; he has some lethal elbows and knees from close distance, even picking up a KO with an elbow from the clinch. Wade’s primary offense standing has often come from grinding his opponent against the fence, but that will be a risky proposition against Baghdad. Then again, Wade has some judo trips in his arsenal that could make Baghdad look to break away quickly. Hard to say.

When fighting at a distance, Baghdad is a rangy fight with hard hooks and stinging kicks with the potential to end the fight. He is also pretty stationary and often telegraphs his kicks so that an experienced wrestler can easily score a takedown when he is off-balance. Wade may not possess the most powerful shot, but he is just the type of wrestler who can do that. I’m making it sound like he is a very basic striker who is easy to overcome, but that is far from the case as Baghdad has improved the timing of his kicks to avoid being taken down in addition to his head movement to avoid too much damage. He has the definitive advantage on the feet for sure thanks to his power, but he needs to keep the fight there.

I got a hankering that the clinch battle will be what determines this fight. I haven’t seen a Wade fight where a big chunk of the fight takes place there yet. He hasn’t faced someone as dynamic in the clinch as Baghdad, so this is actually a better test for him than many people realize. If Baghdad had more time to prepare for Wade, I’d consider the upset. With that taken into account though, I have to take Wade. Wade via decision

Maximo Blanco vs. Luke Sanders (Featherweight)

Wait… Blanco is on a three fight win streak? Wow, that’s surprising. It isn’t that Blanco lacks talent, he’s always had that in spades. But there isn’t a fighter more prone to self-destruction than Blanco in the sport… at least in the cage (for all the potential Jon Jones thoughts). Prone to flabbergasting fouls and strategies, it could reasonably be said that he has won his last six fights had he not fallen victim to himself as an illegal knee resulted in DQ against Akira Corassani while a late foul derailed his momentum and confidence against Felipe Arantes.

If Blanco can avoid the mental gaffes, he is still a premier athlete at 32 with explosion and power in spades. Those attributes are usually what get him into trouble as he is aware of that and has gone for the quick finish. He’s gotten it before, but he has also gassed himself in the process when he it doesn’t materialize. When he fights a calm collected fight, he works in good wrestling (2007 Pan American Games competitor) to open up the flashier strikes he loves to throw such as flying knees and spinning back fists.

Originally scheduled to face Dennis Bermudez before Bermudez pulled out with a staph infection, he now faces UFC newcomer and natural bantamweight Luke Sanders. Having plied his trade in RFA for the last few years, Sanders has a shot due to his ability to push the tempo at a pace that few can keep up with, keeping the pressure on at all times. It isn’t always pretty as it often turns into a grinding affair chuck-full of short range strikes, but it has proven highly efficient as Sanders is presently undefeated. He isn’t exceptional in any single area, but is sound in all areas his phase shifting is so smooth that he can often get the fight where he wants even when his opposition knows it is coming.

Sanders is one of the better prospects who has been outside the UFC for the last year or so, but two weeks notice while fighting a phenomenal and talented athlete in a weight class above your own? I like Sanders potential at bantamweight, but think he has too much to overcome in this fight. Look for Blanco to take an early lead before fading down the stretch, but it should be enough to give him the W. Blanco via decision

Paul Felder vs. Daron Cruickshank (Lightweight)

Is it just me, or is the UFC trying to continually match Felder up with strikers? From a fan’s perspective I can’t fault them as his last three fights have predominantly taken place on the feet and they’ve been pretty damn awesome. Cruickshank can wrestle, but everyone knows that he is first and foremost a striker. This should be fun!

Despite being aesthetically pleasing, Felder has now lost two in a row which means he may very well need a victory to remain employed in the UFC. I think he is safe either way as the brass loves what he brings, but I don’t get paid to make those decisions (unfortunately). One of the most diverse strikers in the game, Felder has developed a reputation as a poor man’s Donald Cerrone, a training partner of his. While it is an apt comparison as both rely heavily on step-in knees to counter and block takedowns in addition to their Muay Thai arsenal in general, Felder is a lot more flashy than his mentor. Between himself and Edson Barboza, I’m sure they broke the record for spinning kicks thrown in a fight this past July. His spinning back fist he landed on Danny Castillo reminds everyone that he has more to offer than just his kicks.

What has held Felder back has been the lack of wrestling and the need to “get him back.” The wrestling is self-explanatory (he rarely takes the fight to the ground, duh!), but what I mean by “get him back” is Felder’s tendency to feel the need to return a hard blow to an opponent if they have delivered one to him. He often drops his hands and stalks forward in the process, forgetting about his strategy for a brief moment. That helped Ross Pearson eek by in their split decision battle in September.

Felder’s recent stretch has been bad, but Cruickshank’s has been worse. He has zero wins in his last three appearances and only one in his last five. Cruickshank needs the win much more than Felder does. With his previously mentioned wrestling ability, Cruickshank is the better-rounded fighter and it seems a given that he will try to exploit that. That doesn’t mean that he won’t engage with Felder on the feet as Cruickshank has three head kick KO/TKO victories in the UFC, more than anyone else. Cruickshank is notorious for switching stances often throughout the course of a fight in order to better find openings for his kicking arsenal. Though his wrestling ability is sound, holes in his BJJ have been exposed the last couple of fights, but that shouldn’t become a factor against Felder.

While I do favor Felder, I think the odds are skewed too heavily in his favor. He doesn’t have the style to expose Cruickshank’s holes while Cruickshank has the ability to keep the highlight striker grounded if he times his takedowns appropriately. I won’t be surprised by any outcome (aside from a submission of any type), but expect Felder to squeak out a decision victory. Felder via decision

Ilir Latifi vs. Sean O’Connell (Light Heavyweight)

How to hype up this fight while maintaining full disclosure? Screw it. There is more riding on this fight than there should be as depth is a foreign concept to the light heavyweight division. If these guys fought in the lightweight division, they’d be in the neighborhood of 40-50 in terms of rank. Light heavyweight? They are sitting just outside the top 15 with the possibility of a win here putting them in the official UFC rankings.

To be fair, both made their way into the UFC as late injury replacements and have stuck around when many wouldn’t have expected them to do so. Between the two, Latifi seemingly has the higher upside despite his 5’8″ stature. Owning an unusually long reach for his frame at 73″ that allows him to compensate for the lack of height, Latifi packs all sorts of muscle onto his frame that his taller counterparts aren’t able to. Knowing very well how to get inside his opposition, Latifi has some of the most powerful takedowns in the division, the ground being by far where he is most comfortable. He isn’t a grappling expert by any means, but considering the sad state of grappling at 205 he might be in the top half of the division, even if that largely reflects upon his guard passing abilities rather than actual submissions. Not that he has no submissions, but Latifi is more likely to obtain a tapout thanks to his brute strength as opposed to technique. Then again, I don’t think he cares so long as he gets the tap. Even if he doesn’t get it (or isn’t looking for it), he has some serious power in his GNP.

Where Latifi struggles is with inactivity on his feet. Gegard Mousasi jabbed him to death as he will spend too much time looking for an opening for either a shot or a strike. That shouldn’t be too much of an issue for him here as O’Connell is a brawler personified. Over the course of a 15 minute fight, O’Connell averages just under 97 strikes landed. Problem is, over the same time period he gets hit over 99 times himself. Sure, it makes for exciting fights, but isn’t a successful recipe for long-term success. Funny thing is, O’Connell is among the least physically talented light heavyweights on the roster, so this type of approach might actually be the smartest approach for him to take.

O’Connell has tried to slow things down at times, but has been unable to score a takedown in the UFC as he isn’t a very technical wrestler. His ground game at the UFC level is very much a mystery, but he has worked with Jeremy Horn for years, one of the best at adapting BJJ into MMA around the turn of the century. As a result, I’d imagine he should be sound.

If I didn’t like the potential for fireworks at the top of the card so much, I’d say this would be among the favorites for FOTN as O’Connell has proven effective at forcing an opponent to fight his fight. Even if he can force Latifi into that, it’s only a 50-50 proposition at best as Latifi packs a hell of a lot of power into his punch, more than O’Connell who will have to rely on his combination punching. I see Latifi scoring a number of takedowns as well if the fight goes the distance, so I’m favoring Latifi either way. Latifi via TKO in the first round

Charles Rosa vs. Kyle Bochniak, Featherweight

Damn it! This is the third time I’ve written a preview for this fight! Gods of MMA, may I please request that no more injuries occur upon this card as this is getting extremely annoying! If I knew something about Bochniak beforehand, this wouldn’t be quite as big of a pain in the ass. I didn’t know anything about Augusto Mendes either, then did my homework on him only to have to discard that for this entry. At least I’m familiar with Rosa…

Rosa came into the UFC as a wild card, making his debut on short notice against Dennis Siver (on a mere few days notice after the original replacement was found unfit to face Siver… similar to Bochniak) and more than held his own against the longtime UFC mainstay. Rosa has bought himself some cred with the brass thanks to his go-for-broke style that has resulted in FOTN honors in his two losses and a late finish after a back-and-forth affair in his lone victory. No reason to expect him to turn in a bad performance now, especially seeing as how he’ll be fighting in front of his hometown of Boston.

What Rosa does best is chain submissions together and isn’t afraid to put himself in a compromising position to do so. As a result, he gets taken down quite easily by his opponents since he is incredibly comfortable off of his back in addition to being sloppy with his own takedowns, often allowing his opponents to end up on top. Considering he hasn’t been pounded into submission or dream street yet, it is hard to argue as Rosa has a quick and active guard that catches opponent off-guard even when they know the submission is coming. His opponents are hardly out of trouble once they pull out of the initial sub as there are usually more to follow.

I have no clue whether or not Bochniak will be able to handle Rosa’s aggressive submissions as this is going to be a BIG step up in competition for the Boston native. The most wins any of his previous opponents had upon facing him was five and none of them walked out of the fight with a winning record. He has shown good athleticism and enough ability in all areas that he could develop into a keeper, but he faces a tall order coming in on short notice.

For everything that Bochniak does well, there is a caveat for why bettors should be weary picking him as an underdog. He throws some good (not great) boxing combinations, but leaves his chin high. He usually pushes a fast pace, but will he be able to do that when taking the fight on a mere few days notice? Wrestling and grappling are sound with good GNP, but does he really want to challenge Rosa where Rosa is at his best? If Bochniak does keep things standing he stands a better chance than if he goes to the ground as Rosa isn’t an adapt counter striker. In fact, Rosa is most proficient throwing kicks as opposed to using his hands. While Rosa does throw good kicks, they aren’t the type of kicks to end a fight. Translation: no one will mistake him for Edson Barboza.

I’ll give Bochniak all the credit in the world for stepping up on short notice. I also understand that this is his ticket to the UFC when it otherwise would have likely taken at least another year, most likely two or three. I fear he is getting in over his head as another two or three fights against increasingly difficult opposition would have been recommended. Instead he gets an opponent who is also fighting in front of his hometown and wants to make a statement. Rosa via submission of the first round

Rob Font vs. Joey Gomez (Bantamweight)

Wait a minute… Font is actually fighting? You’re sure? With a preliminary card that has been ramrodded by injuries, it’s a bit surprising that the guy who hasn’t fought in 18 months due to injuries is one of the seeming few who made it to the card unscathed. The same can’t be said for original opponent Patrick Williams, but let us move on from that.

Font surprised many when he starched George Roop in just under two minutes in his UFC debut. That was his last fight since his previously mentioned 18 month layoff, and he has largely been forgotten about as a result. Kind of a shame as Font very much has the look of being a difference maker in the division… if he can stay healthy of course.

Largely a striker, Font shows great discipline for someone so young in the MMA game with his movement. His footwork is solid, he uses great angles, and circles out of danger as opposed to the cardinal sin of backing straight up. Font does leave himself open to be countered at times, but overall times his rushes well and is able to angle out before serious damage can accumulate. With the power and explosion he possesses, it is a gamble worth taking as he’s likely to come out on top of those exchanges more often than not. Just ask Roop about that. Font hasn’t shown much of a proclivity towards wrestling, rarely looking to take the fight to the ground. His BJJ is another thing to question as most of his submissions have come after hurting his opponents with strikes.

Wait… why did I bother to say anything about Font’s wrestling and grappling? It isn’t like Gomez ever bothers to go to the ground. There are actually a number of similarities between the two as both are pretty technically sound strikers with a penchant for staying on the feet. The biggest difference between them would be that Font mixes more kicks into his arsenal (though it is still primarily punches) and Gomez throws out a lot of jabs. Gomez has actually won all of his professional bouts via first round KO/TKO, but has also faced a lower class of competition than Font.

To come clean, the reason why I brought up the wrestling and grappling with Font is Font made his bantamweight debut against Roop, meaning he had been fighting larger dudes beforehand. Will that make a difference in his approach now that he is fighting a guy who has shown little on the ground besides the ability to scramble back to his feet? Another question is how Gomez will do if the fight goes the distance as he clearly isn’t used to going for very long. I think he could. Gomez is worth the UFC looking into, but I’m favoring the larger Font in this one. Font via TKO in the second round

Francimar Barroso vs. Elvis Mutapcic (Light Heavyweight)

This fight is a bit of an oddity as the newcomer Mutapcic is better known than the three fight UFC vet Barroso… and Barroso even has a winning record and made his last appearance on the main card. So why doesn’t anyone know (or should I say care?) about Barroso?

Barroso is a pretty boring fighter, to be honest. All three of his fights in the UFC have gone the distance and aside from a devastating low blow he landed on Ryan Jimmo, there isn’t a single moment from any of his fights anyone would be able to remember a half hour after watching. That doesn’t mean he completely sucks, he just hasn’t been worth remembering due to him being averse to risk. A large chunk of his fights have been spent against the cage where he uses his size well to grind and wear them out. When fighting in space he does pack some power in his kicks, but what else would you expect from a Nova Uniao pupil?

What’s a bit odd about Barroso is even though he doesn’t take a lot of risks, he is still fairly poor defensively. He’s lucked out thus far by not facing anyone who is willing to push the pace which has allowed him to eek out the decisions that he has. Mutapcic matches up badly for him in that regard as Mutapcic is a volume striker. Though he starts a bit slow as he looks to feel out range early on, Mutapcic will let his hands fly once he has figured out his range. He works in a lot of kicks to the body and legs too, throwing to the legs early in particular to measure range. He isn’t seen as a power puncher, but he can floor his opposition when given the chance to sit down on his strikes.

What will be interesting will be the size difference. Yes, Mutapcic has fought at 205 lbs before, but he is a more natural middleweight. Barroso’s wrestling hasn’t been very efficient in his last few appearances, but I would expect him to have more success against a smaller opponent such as Mutapcic who would be considered an average wrestler at best when fighting guys his size. Even if he doesn’t get Mutapcic to the ground, Barroso should still be able to push Mutapcic against the fence and grind him out for long periods of time.

Mutapcic has proven to be extremely durable with a deep gas tank. I think those factors should swing the fight in his favor. Look for him to push the pace and try to wear out Barroso. He should end up with the greater volume of strikes and curry the judge’s favor against Barroso and follow up his victory by dropping down to his more natural weight of 185. Mutapcic via decision

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