UFC FIGHT NIGHT 81 PREVIEW: Penick’s main card thoughts and predictions for “Dillashaw vs. Cruz” event

By Jamie Penick, MMATorch Editor-in-Chief

UFC Fight Night 81 hits Fox Sports 1 on Sunday night after the conclusion of the NFL’s divisional round playoffs, and one of the single best UFC bantamweight fights ever headlines the event. The main card also features an elite level lightweight fight between former UFC Lightweight Champ Anthony Pettis and former Bellator Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez. Here’s what’s coming up on the main card.

T.J. Dillashaw vs. Dominick Cruz (UFC Bantamweight Championship): Dillashaw’s two fights with Renan Barao were shockingly fantastic displays of dominance, especially as Barao had established himself as the “best of the rest” following Cruz’s injury hiatus. Before Cruz came back in September of 2014 and destroyed Takeya Mizugaki, he was to have his chance to regain the title he never lost against Barao; instead, injury delayed the return, then again after the Mizugaki fight, leaving the opening for Dillashaw to take a surprising place atop the field.

However, after the first destruction of Barao, Dillashaw was even more impressive in the rematch, leaving no question as to how much improvement he’s made. Now, there are critics of Dillashaw’s accomplishments to date, and though it’s a simple fact that he’s got just two wins over an opponent still in the UFC, that opponent being Barao is a very significant factor in addressing the level of his ability into this fight.

Cruz’s three year layoff didn’t see him showing any signs of rust, and indeed the win over Mizugaki was among his most impressive. It’s now been nearly 16 months since that showing, and it’s just as impossible now as it was in September of 2014 to know exactly how it’s affected him.

Stylistically, there’s everything to love about this matchup. Cruz is one of the best defensive fighters in the sport, able to use his considerable speed, footwork, and technique to avoid much damage while scoring effectively with his counter-strikes. However, fighters have had success connecting on him, including two men who are extremely familiar with both he and Dillashaw in Joseph Benavidez and Urijah Faber.

In some ways, Dillashaw shares similarities with his now former Team Alpha Male brethren, but he’s improved on one particular aspect of his game beyond what we’d seen from those two in his striking. Like Cruz, he’s fast, uses his movement well, and does a mostly good job at avoiding getting hit; however, he’s an offensive-minded fighter, willing to take his strikes to find his angles in order to inflict considerable damage to his opponents.

While he hasn’t fought perhaps the elite of the elite throughout his run, those wins over Barao showcased him at his best against elite competition. And even in his loss to Raphael Assuncao – by decision in a three round fight – he had a lot of very good moments, and an argument for that fight as well.

Cruz’s TKO win over Mizugaki may on the surface seem like a significant factor into reading this fight, but I’m not convinced it is. Cruz got that win by bullying Mizugaki to the ground and finishing him there. Dillashaw’s never been taken down and kept there. Indeed, from a wrestling standpoint, that’s where Dillashaw is most like Benavidez and Faber. He doesn’t have the same instinctive submission as Faber, but he’s more aggressive, faster, and more powerful on the feet, and that’s what I think the difference is here.

Go back four and a half years to Cruz before the injuries, the 26-year-old defending his title and avenging the sole loss on his record. He still got knocked down multiple times, and there was an argument for Faber winning that fight. With the exception of the loss to John Dodson in his fifth career fight and that close bout with Assuncao, Dillashaw’s done nothing but take out the fighters put in front of him. He can establish himself as the rightful man atop this division by taking out the man who never lost the belt, and I think that’s just what he’s going to do. Dillashaw by TKO in the third round.
Anthony Pettis vs. Eddie Alvarez (Lightweight): Pettis, despite getting mostly manhandled and out-worked by Rafael dos Anjos to lost the Lightweight Title back in March, is one of the single most dynamic strikers in the sport. He’s got power in close, though he’s much more effective at range fighting, picking shots, and throwing his kicks. Those kicks are both varied and massively dangerous, as he effectively mixes things up to the head, body, and legs, while also scoring in punching combinations as TRwell. He’s had issues with letting himself be complacent on the ground, but he’s also quite good with his submission game, and when working it well is capable of catching things from the bottom or top position.

Eddie Alvarez is one of the toughest men in the sport. He’s willing to get hit to land his power strikes, and for much of his career he’s managed to get the better of things on the feet to either stop things there, or get his opponents to the ground, where he works well with submissions and ground and pound. He’s an advantageous fighter, capable of catching things even when small openings are presented, but the damage he allows himself to take takes its toll.

He wants to press Pettis in similar fashion to what dos Anjos did, but that’s not his style of fighting, and he’s not going to be as effective attempting to do that. If he tries to rush Pettis in similar fashion to Gilbert Melendez or Benson Henderson, he could find himself getting picked apart. This one could wind up being a brawl, with Alvarez’s ability to gut out punishment playing a part in keeping him in the fight. However, Pettis should be favored significantly, and I think he gets the dominant win he’s looking for. Pettis by TKO in the second round.
Travis Browne vs. Matt Mitrione (Heavyweight): Mitrione enters on the final fight of his contract, hoping to score another highlight reel win and to avoid the mistakes made in his last outing. Mitrione’s at his best in a striking battle, as he’s developed power and finishing ability throughout his MMA run. He got himself into needless trouble against Ben Rothwell in his last fight, going for a takedown for the first time in his career which led to a submission loss, and indeed that ground game has always been the weak point for him.

Browne was, at one point, seemingly on the fast track toward a title fight, and even his setback loss to Fabricio Werdum came in a competitive fight. However, the loss to Andrei Arlovski last May came in violent fashion, and those types of battles more than often lead to consequences down the line. With that said, for as much as Mitrione could be dangerous here, Browne’s chin has held up against harder hitters and better overall strikers.

Expect a striking battle, with the taller, rangier Browne utilizing his reach edge before putting Mitrione away. Browne by TKO in the first round.
Ross Pearson vs. Francisco Trinaldo (Lightweight): Both of these lightweights are frustrating at times, inconsistent at others, and yet still considerably talented in certain areas as well. Trinaldo has been on a very good run of four straight wins into this event, but he’s had a few close fights in there that are stylistically in Pearson’s wheelhouse. The Brit is coming off a good performance in just one such fight in his most recent outing, edging Paul Felder in a competitive striking affair.

Pearson’s got considerable stopping power, though Trinaldo’s never been stopped, but he has a tendency to get out-worked in fights on occasion, and Trinaldo’s mix of striking, cage pressure, and clinch work could be a problem for him. We’re likely in for three competitive rounds pending one of them finding the right strike to put the other down. Coin flip: Pearson by decision.

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