D. FOX: Preliminary card preview for UFC on Fox 18 “Johnson vs. Bader”

By Dayne Fox, MMATorch Contributor

Jake Ellenberger (photo credit Jayne Kamin-Oncea © USA Today Sports)

Is it just me, or is the UFC giving big Fox the short end of the stick? The FS1 card two weeks ago featuring TJ Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz easily had the better quality of fights despite being on the channel available to fewer households. What gives?

With the news that UFC 196 will now be available on FS1, it’s plausible to say that this UFC on Fox 18 card will be sandwiched by two superior FS1 cards. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any good fights on the card, but I’m not gonna BS anyone either and say that this card is awesome. The preliminary headliner features two former welterweight contenders on the verge of slipping into oblivion. It isn’t a bad fight, but it doesn’t do much to peak interest. In fact, none of the fights really look like they are guaranteed to be of high excitement. The same could be said for main card to be honest…

Tarec Saffiedine vs. Jake Ellenberger, Welterweight

Had this fight happened when it was originally scheduled to take place two years ago, it would have been a big deal. Saffiedine was the last Strikeforce welterweight champion and Ellenberger was seen as a legit title contender. Lots of luster has since been lost as Saffiedine has struggled to stay healthy (two fights in the UFC since Strikeforce officially merged with the UFC) and Ellenberger has lost four of his last five. Now it seems they are fighting just to be relevant in any way.

Saffiedine is a tough nut to crack. While he is the last Strikeforce Welterweight Champion, he took the belt from a declining Nate Marquardt, and has only beaten Hyun Gyu Lim since then. Lim doesn’t suck, but he is a far cry from an elite fighter. So was he simply in the right place at the right time to grab the belt or is he a legit contender? The other part that is tough to figure out is whether or not he is still improving, as he is still only 29. The issue is that his injury history is making it hard to figure that out.

Ellenberger, on the other hand, appears to be on a steep decline, with Josh Koscheck (he who rode a five fight losing streak out of the UFC) representing the only W over the last two years. Ouch. The saddest thing about his decline is that his physical skills still seem to be there, as he did rock Stephen Thompson in his last outing. He just didn’t do anything else, as he has lost the edge that once made him a bullying presence in the division.

So what is going to happen in the cage? Saffiedine will look to keep the fight standing and work his technical kickboxing. He throws beautiful boxing combinations in the pocket while picking apart his opponent with devastating leg kicks on the outside. If he had a bit more power, he might be a contender. Alas, he is forced to rely on his volume to often earn a judge’s decision as he last earned a stoppage victory back in 2010. Considering Ellenberger’s tendency for long stretches of inactivity, Saffiedine could end up having a heyday picking him apart.

Ellenberger is and always has been a power puncher… he just needs to actually start throwing some punches! Since he started this skid, he has averaged 1.67 significant strikes a minute. Granted, he has never been a volume striker, but that is a steep decline from the three per minute that he averaged in his preceding 10 UFC fights. You’d thing that he’d be stepping up the amount of takedowns, as he is a former NCAA Division II All-American. Nope. He went from 3.33 takedowns per 15 minutes to 1.3. Do you see what I mean by long stretches of inactivity?

Ellenberger still has power, and his wrestling ability has been there too when he has decided to use it. Thus he still has the ability to win this fight. He has clearly been regressing since working with Edmond Tarverdyan, but I’ve also heard he is no longer working with the much maligned coach. Still, I think Tarverdyan’s done the damage to Ellenberger’s career. Saffiedine will outwork Ellenberger and should stuff most of Ellenberger’s takedown attempts too. Ellenberger has been in the UFC since 2009. Alas, all good things must come to an end. Saffiedine via decision

Olivier Aubin-Mercier vs. Diego Ferreira, Lightweight

Ferreira is a big step up in competition for Canada’s next big hope in Aubin-Mercier. Especially when one realizes he was set to fight Joaquim Silva, a dude who struggled to beat a natural bantamweight in his UFC debut prior to Silva pulling out with an injury.

Aubin-Mercier (OAM from here on out) has received numerous comparisons to his hero Georges St-Pierre thanks to also hailing from Montreal, being incredibly physically gifted, and having a similar aw shucks attitude. For those reasons the comparisons are fair, but to predict he’ll become a long reigning champion would be getting ahead of ourselves.

The most telling comparison to GSP would be his wrestling, as OAM had a scant wrestling background entering the sport despite it being a staple of his arsenal. Then again, OAM was a member of the Canadian judo national team and was able to use that base very nicely to transition into other stages of grappling. Thus he is very much a wet blanket on his opposition with a serious knack for taking their back and sinking in a RNC. His striking still has a LONG way to go with only a right jab and power kicks reliably within his repertoire. The natural power is there to be developed, but he needs more time.

With OAM’s absolute lack of striking, look for Ferreira to do everything within his power to keep the fight standing despite his extensive BJJ background. Don’t get me wrong, Ferreira is a talented grappler (despite not looking to go to the ground in his UFC stint) and has the technical edge on OAM. But OAM will have a size, strength, and athletic advantage that is more pronounced in the grappling as OAM has a good feel for what he is doing there. As already established, OAM would be clueless on the feet with an experienced striker. Then again, I’ve questioned Ferreira’s strategy before.

Experienced striker doesn’t exactly describe Ferreira, but he can crack with his brawling style that occasionally produces a nice combo. He throws out kicks the head and body steadily, some of them at odd angles, though they still seem to find their mark. Ferreira doesn’t pace himself as he is always looking for the finish, so his gas tank will bear watching.

The bottom line for this fight depends upon how you look at Ferreira. He has lost two in a row, but they came against two guys hovering around the top 10 in Beneil Dariush and Dustin Poirier. Is he a solid fighter who lost to top competition or did he benefit from favorable matchups in his early UFC fights? The answer is probably in between. Ferreira’s wrestling certainly has holes that OAM can and will exploit, but Ferreira’s grappling will help nullify OAM with Ferreira using his striking advantage to take the decision. Ferreira via decision

Rafael Natal vs. Kevin Casey, Middleweight

In so many ways this fight typifies the blah-ness of the middleweight division outside of the top eight or nine, as it feels like the majority of the division can beat one or the other on any given day. There isn’t a lot that whole lot of ground separating about 20 of them and these two are right in the midst of that mix.

When it comes to pure physical talent, Natal could be in the mix near the top of the division. Unfortunately his fight IQ has often been less than UFC caliber. His 8-4-1 UFC record might indicate otherwise, but he has lucked out a number of times with his opponent getting hurt and a less-than-stellar replacement being named. To his credit, the last few fights have all been his original opponent, he has been fighting smarter, and as a result he is riding a three-fight win streak. Is he turning the corner? This seems like the type of trap fight that should indicate that he has turned the corner only for him to falter.

Casey had some problems similar to Natal, which led to him having a short initial run in the UFC. He has ironed out some of those issues as he now paces himself better to keep himself from gassing in addition to some good work with a boxing coach. However, Casey isn’t as proven as Natal (that sentence really feels like a contradiction) as he has more no contests on his UFC record than wins or losses. His lone win came against Ildemar Alcantara. That isn’t saying much.

Despite being a well-renowned grappler, Natal has pretty much abandoned the ground game in his recent streak. Most of that has to do with fighting larger competition (many of his early opponents dropped to welterweight after their fight) as most of Natal’s takedown’s come from the clinch where he isn’t the most proficient at dragging his opponent to the ground. He has timed his occasional double-leg entries better recently and that could come into play. Otherwise he prefers to attack from the outside with heavy leg kicks or blitzing punches that he could tighten up.

Casey has some similarities in that he is a reputed BJJ practitioner, he hasn’t made many attempts to go to the ground. A lot of that has to do with his short gas tank. He knows that it isn’t very deep and has contented himself with a slow paced fight where he mixes short boxing combinations with leg kicks. The obvious thing looking at that would be to push the pace, but Natal has a tendency to gas himself. I still expect Natal to try to do that as he has made a habit of doing so in the early part of fights.

There really isn’t a lot to get excited about with this one. Neither are great wrestlers and have respect for the abilities on the ground for one another, so an awkward kickboxing match is expected. Natal usually starts out strong out of the gate and I expect him to do the same thing here. This might be a good one to take a break for. Natal via decision

Dustin Ortiz vs. Wilson Reis, Flyweight

I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is I like about this fight, but I like it a lot. Ortiz has only lost to the upper echelon of the division, and the same could be said about Reis, leaving them in similar positions. The difference is that Ortiz is younger and seems to have a higher upside, while Reis would probably need to start gearing up right now for one last run towards the title. He is only 31, but the lower the weight class the faster the fighters age.

Ortiz is a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none. While a label like that usually indicates that a fighter can’t compete with the elite, Ortiz is still improving. I’m not saying that he is elite (he isn’t) or that he is guaranteed to get there (I have my doubts), but who would have guessed Rafael dos Anjos would be where he is following his loss to Clay Guida (his sixth UFC fight, which is how many Ortiz has and roughly same age at the time)? Never say never in this sport.

If there has been a chink in Ortiz’s armor, it’s in his takedown defense. That’s majorly bad news for him, as Reis’ strategy usually consists of wrestling and grappling as a first, second, and third option. I’m making Reis sound one-dimensional and he really isn’t as he has some powerful leg kicks and some pop in his punches. When you know where your strength lies there is no reason to avoid it, and that is exactly what Reis does. Most of his striking damage comes in the clinch which is where he is usually working to get the fight to the ground. A pretty bulky flyweight, Reis knows how to use his size to his advantage there.

On the flip side, Jussier Formiga exposed a big hole in Reis’ game… his own takedown defense. Fighters have often respected Reis’ BJJ enough that they don’t want to try going to the ground with him. Ortiz is fearless with complete trust in his abilities to escape danger. Though he hasn’t been finished yet in his career, he has been caught in some bad situations by Justin Scoggins and Ray Borg. I don’t know if he’d be able to escape from a similar situation from Reis, but I guarantee you he’ll claim that he can.

A sleeper for FOTN, these are two offensive minded flyweights who only focus on defense when forced to. Finishes aren’t all that common at flyweight, but Reis has been dropped in two of his last three fights, even if he hasn’t been finished. How much longer can his chin hold up? Ortiz has some good combinations and it’s likely he’ll land a hard shot to put Reis down. I like Reis’ chances of securing a submission too, but I’m leaning toward Ortiz. Ortiz via TKO of the second round

George Sullivan vs. Alexander Yakovlev, Welterweight

I’m a bit confused at the move by Yakovlev back to welterweight, as he scored his lone UFC victory at lightweight. I’m guessing the IV ban has something to do with it as Yakovlev was big at lightweight, but is a tweener in that he is often overpowered at welterweight. Best way to sum it up, he is a fighter without an appropriate weight class for his frame.

Before his fight with Gray Maynard at lightweight, Yakovlev was given a tough hand, debuting against grappling ace Demian Maia and being given Nico Musoke in his sophomore effort. Though he has some great takedown defense, Yakovlev has been bullied in a good chuck of his bouts as the opposition will push him against the cage (usually off of a takedown attempt) and beat him up in the clinch… even by the smaller Maynard at times. Sullivan hasn’t had a lot of success in scoring takedowns, but he is easily the bigger (not longer) and stronger dude who has had some good success in the clinch. Sullivan will assuredly look to bully the Russian at close range.

What Yakovlev will want to do is maintain his distance and try to land at a high volume, using his long frame and reach to his advantage. Sullivan has fought some rangy fighters in his last few appearances and actually got the better of freakishly long Dom Waters in all areas, including from a distance. Yakovlev is a more technical striker than Waters in addition to being far more experienced and should be able to find his range with the brawling Sullivan. Then again, Yakovlev isn’t nearly the athlete Waters is. This should be interesting.

Yakovlev’s biggest advantage would actually be on the ground as he has some nice submission chops while Sullivan has shown some holes in that area. The problem will be if he can even get the fight to the ground at all as he has struggled mightily to implement his wrestling in any effective way. Sullivan has exactly zero submission wins to his credit, so even if Yakovlev can’t get the takedown, look for him to initiate some scrambles at the very least as Sullivan lacks much in the speed department. If Maia couldn’t submit Yakovlev, I sure as hell don’t see Sullivan having success doing it.

I actually really like the matchmaking here. Sullivan is the easy favorite at first glance, but Yakovlev doesn’t get enough credit with his all-around skills and showed the ability to put together good boxing combinations before the jump to the UFC. So why has he largely turned into a one-off striker? His opponents thus far have been grapplers whereas Sullivan is more of a striker. Yakovlev should open up his striking game more than he has thus far in his UFC stint. Will it be enough to pull out a win? I can’t give a definitive answer, but I’m going to lean towards Sullivan’s power pushing the edge in his favor. Sullivan via decision

Alex Caceres vs. Masio Fullen, Featherweight

There isn’t any sort of intrigue in this fight for me. Caceres has hit a rough stretch having lost three in a row after having what many perceived to be a breakout performance over Sergio Pettis. Fullen is on the UFC roster thanks to his Mexican heritage via the first season of TUF Latin America. Can I spell it out any more? Caceres is getting a layup to get himself back on track.

If he wasn’t a favorite of Dana White, it’s likely Caceres would have already been cut. He’ll be making his return to featherweight following his rough stretch, which isn’t too big of a surprise. Owning a lanky frame even at 145 lbs, Caceres was cutting a lot of weight to make 135. With the IV ban, this seemed like an inevitable move for the UFC”s resident afro bearer. Don’t let the losing streak fool you either. Caceres faced the toughest stretch of competition in his career in that stretch and was competitive in all the fights minus the 21 second blitz that Francisco Rivera put on him.

The jab is the most consistent strike in Caceres’ arsenal and rightfully so as it enables him to use his long range in addition to a basic compliment to the flashier techniques that he loves to throw. Head kicks, flying knees, spinning back fists… if it has style, Caceres loves to throw it. He has added side kicks over recent bouts as well as a way of maintaining space and help disguise his harder kicks. The flash has opened him up to counters quite a bit as his opponents often know it is coming sooner or later and can guess when it is coming if they can’t time it.

Caceres’ real strength is in his scrambling and submission abilities. Yes, he is a horrible wrestler with a total of two successful takedowns in 12 UFC fights and that deficiency is no secret. So he uses to his advantage by seemingly allowing his opposition to take him down at times in order to initiate some sort of a scramble, as he is cat-quick in taking his opponent’s back in addition to possessing an active and offensive guard. What will bear watching is how well he does in this area with the stronger opponents now that he is at 145 lbs.

Fortunately for Caceres, Fullen isn’t the guy to test Caceres ability to handle larger opponents. Not much of an offensive wrestler himself, Fullen’s areas of strength are his short boxing combinations which he occasionally throws an exclamation point on with a kick (head, leg, or body, depending on what’s available) and his sprawl. His sprawl is probably won’t do him much good against Caceres, but he’ll certainly have an opportunity to lay some leather. He hasn’t shown a lot of his grappling on the higher levels, but all indications are that he isn’t on Caceres level.

I’ve made it obvious I expect Caceres to win this. Neither of these two are very concerned about their striking defense, so I expect some fun striking exchanges to take place. Fullen has been rocked quite a bit in his two UFC appearances even if he hasn’t gone out and I expect Caceres to do the same and use Fullen’s dazed state to secure a submission. Caceres via submission of the first round

Matt Dwyer vs. Randy Brown, Welterweight

Absolutely 100% this is the wild card fight on the card. We know what we’re getting with Matt Swyer as he is a tall and lanky brawler with a suspect chin. We have no clue what to expect from Brown as footage of the Lookin’ for a Fight product is difficult to find.

Dwyer is the perfect fighter to welcome such an unknown as Brown into the UFC as he is an inherently exciting fighter since he is always looking for the finish. With an attitude like that there is little surprise that he also pays little attention to defense. His greatest attribute is easily his 6’4″ frame, and the long reach that comes with it. Now if only he knew how to properly use it. His jab is usually AWOL, a cardinal sin for someone of his length, preferring instead to throw hooks and uppercuts in his attempts to stop his opponent as he does have some legit stopping power in his hands. He’ll occasionally throw out a front kick in an effort to maintain distance, but that is about it as far as defense goes as he holds his chin high with little head movement.

Grappling is even more of an afterthought than striking defense if that is possible. There is pretty good reason for that as Dwyer telegraphs his awkward entries meaning that there is little chance for them to succeed. He doesn’t look for takedowns of any sort from the clinch, but he does have some sound offense from there with his knees.

So how to integrate all of this with the scant footage of Brown? About the only things that are seen is that Brown is a high level athlete, hyper-aggressive, and he comes from some sort of boxing background as he throws fast punching combinations. Dana White’s initial thoughts of him being an exceptional talent don’t seem to be an overstatement at first glance, but when has a glance ever been enough to make a judgement? Brown hasn’t faced the highest level of competition, but he hasn’t exactly faced cans either.

I’d much rather just sit back and watch this fight to see what Brown has to offer, but my job isn’t to tell you to sit and watch fights. So I’m going to be using more logic than analysis in my pick. If the UFC wants their fledgling reality show staring Uncle Dana to have any long term success, they need to be finding some actual talent that succeeds, especially early on. They wouldn’t be putting Brown in this fight if they didn’t think he was going to win. Only one of Dwyer’s fights has gone the distance with the vast majority ending in the first round. See where I’m going with this? Brown via TKO of the first round

Damon Jackson vs. Levan Makashvili, Featherweight

Jackson is on his last legs here as he would have two loses on his record if it wasn’t for Rony Jason’s positive test for a diuretic, with both losses coming via submission loss. So how are his chances against Makashvili? Not so good.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that there aren’t guys Jackson couldn’t beat in the UFC, as his chances are more of a reflection of how good I think Makashvili is in addition to Makashivili being a poor stylistic match for Jackson. Jackson’s game is predicated on getting his opponent to the ground and submitting them. Makashvili is not an easy dude to get to the ground.

To be honest, I underestimated Jackson’s abilities heading into his fight against Jason. Knowing that Jackson isn’t a great athlete of very big at featherweight, I underestimated his scrappiness and strength. He actually controlled the majority of the fight with takedowns until he got caught in a triangle choke. He times his level changes very well and has a good base that’s hard to buck along with solid guard passing skills. Jackson’s lack of athleticism make him vulnerable to scrambles and he has obviously been careless as he has been caught in both of his Octagon appearances.

Makashvili actually employs a similar strategy to what Jackson does with the added caches of being bigger, stronger, more athletic, and a harder puncher. He isn’t quite as skilled in submission as Jackson as he has yet to record a single victory via submission, but he is much more liable to pound out his opposition if he can get into position to do so. Look for the majority of the fight to be spent in the clinch with the two of them jockeying for position with Makashvili pressing Jackson against the cage for the better part of the time.

If Makashvili does lose, it will be due to the same problems he has consistently exhibited: a lack of volume and activity. I already mentioned his lack of submission skills, but he doesn’t always make productive use of his takedowns and falls into bouts of inactivity looking for the perfect opening. Jackson lacks the same power, but he mixes his punches and kicks pretty well and does so with a solid amount of volume. He’ll have to be careful not to wade into one of Makashvili’s hard hooks though as they are serious game-changers.

You know already who I’m going to pick. Makashvili has slowly but surely been working on his weaknesses and I anticipate he’ll throw a lot of leg kicks to maintain volume in case the fight goes to the judges. I’m not sold on Jackson’s durability though and I think he’ll wander into a hard shot from the Georgian descendant. Makashvili via TKO of the second round

Tony Martin vs. Felipe Olivieri, Lightweight

I don’t know who it is in the UFC management who really likes Martin, but this has to be his last chance to stick around as he currently sits at 1-3. It’s hard to gauge whether or not he is expected to win as his opponent Olivieri is a newcomer to the UFC after spending his career up to this point tearing up the regional circuit in Brazil, but not always against solid competition.

The book on Martin is pretty simple. He is an absolutely massive 155 pounder with the strength to match the size. His striking was raw upon his UFC entry and has steadily progressed in his boxing skill to the point that he is now a credible boxer. He hasn’t been able to transfer his power into his punches to make himself a KO artist, but I would expect it to come. His real strength is in his wrestling and grappling. He uses his strength to drag his opposition down despite not always using the best technique while also possessing solid guard passing skills.

The reason Martin sits at 1-3 is for one massively glaring weakness. Martin cuts a lot of weight to be as big as he is in the ring and often has little left in the tank after the first round. It shouldn’t surprise anyone his lone win came in the first round with his losses coming after the passing of the round. At that point he can’t get his takedowns any more (remember what I said about his technique?), ends up losing scrambles, and struggles to defend submissions. Most feel he would be best served jumping up to welterweight, but he has resisted. There is greater cause for concern with the IV ban in effect.

Olivieri doesn’t have a lot of recent footage of his fights making it difficult to get a good feel for where he currently sits in his progression. A good sized lightweight who tried out for TUF Brazil 2, but was unable to make it into the house. Despite the lack of footage, he has scored three straight first round finishes since his TUF tryout in addition to coming from a highly regarded camp in Nova Uniao.

What I have been able to see of Olivieri indicates a fighter with a Muay Thai base (no surprise for Nova Uniao) highlighted by his kicks. He doesn’t throw a lot of combinations, usually throwing a one-off punch or kick with a lot of power. On the ground he does have some grappling chops, but prefers to pound out his opposition rather than look for a submission. What looks like will be Olivieri’s Achilles heel against Martin will be his lack of wrestling. While he showed a propensity to get to his feet pretty quickly (in addition to solid knees in the clinch), none of his opponents have exhibited the type of chops Martin presents to keep him down.

I wouldn’t touch this fight if I was a betting man. Both fighters exhibit talent that indicates they could have lengthy runs in the organization, but also have holes indicating they could just as easily be gone quickly. I’m going with Martin as he isn’t easy to put away with strikes and I haven’t seen enough out of Olivieri to make me believe he can submit Martin. Martin will use his wrestling to control Olivieri early before fading to get a decision W. Martin via decision

[Photo (c) Jayne Kamin-Oncea via USA Today Sports]

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