D. FOX: Preliminary card preview for UFC 196 “McGregor vs. Diaz”

By Dayne Fox, MMATorch Contributor

For all the excitement there is behind Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz at UFC 196, it’s easy to forget that Holly Holm and Miesha Tate will be fighting for the title. So if that fight is easy to forget about in the midst of steroid users and balloon animals, do you think anyone remembers any of the other fights on the card? While I do think Amanda Nunes vs. Valentina Shevchenko is flying under the radar, there isn’t another fight that will cause any seismic shifts in the divisional standings.

However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some fun action fights on this preliminary card. Even though most are looking at Brandon Thatch vs. Siyar Bahadurzada as a one-sided affair, it should actually serve as a fun slugfest. And regardless of the date on his last legitimate win (I claim October of 2010 over Paulo Thiago), Diego Sanchez always puts on an entertaining show. His dance partner Jim Miller does too. So yeah, there might be a fight or two beyond the top two fights worth watching…

Brandon Thatch vs. Siyar Bahadurzada (Welterweight)

Originally scheduled for the Pittsburgh card, Thatch and Bahadurzada will be fighting for their UFC lives, as both are riding two fight losing streaks after originally entering the UFC with a bang. Hard to believe that violence won’t be served up from these two swingers. Did I mention each of their last wins was against has-been Paulo Thiago?

I’m amazed that Thatch is still fighting at welterweight after the IV ban, as he is easily the largest welterweight ever seen in the sport this side of Rumble Johnson. Many still view the Colorado product as a prospect, but at 30 and fighting as a pro since 2008 means Thatch is pretty much fully developed. That doesn’t mean he can’t improve, but his fate appears to be that of an action gatekeeper as he is aggressive with a jab to establish his range. Once he finds it, he’ll look to finish the fight pretty quickly depending on where his opponent goes with the fight from there. If they try to close the distance, he tears them up with Muay Thai from the clinch, specifically knees. If they stay away, he’ll unleash kicks to the head and body.

Thatch isn’t without his holes. The few times he has gone out of the first round he has lost while tiring down the stretch in his memorable loss to Benson Henderson. In his last appearance against Gunnar Nelson, he got lazy with his defense and Nelson caught him with his hands down and then giving up his back which allowed Nelson to finish the fight with a RNC. To be fair, Henderson is a former champion and Nelson is one of the best grapplers in the division so Thatch isn’t losing to middling fighters.

A better question is whether or not Bahadurzada will be able to expose those holes. Bahadurzada isn’t necessarily a brawler as he is too well-rounded to be given such a simple designation, but he is most effective when the fight breaks down into a brawl as he is a highly efficient counter puncher with a tendency to swing for the fences. He isn’t just a counter striker either as he’s happy to move forward as well, throwing punching combinations which often induces his opponent to throw as well. He can pull off the upset if he can drag Thatch into a brawl as Bahadurzada does have the reach advantage despite being shorter by three inches.

What put Bahadurzada on his current losing streak was his inability to keep from being taken down and/or escape to his feet. He had better success against John Howard, but was completely smothered against Dong Hyun Kim, a welterweight of similar size to Thatch. Considering Thatch isn’t the takedown artist Kim is, a repeat performance is highly unlikely, though it would be surprising to see Thatch make zero attempts to take the fight to the ground with Bahadurzada’s history.

Both fighters are UFC caliber, but it appears likely the loser will be cut loose with a loss and the MMA community is almost unanimous in agreeing that Bahadurzada is going to be the one on the outs. I agree with the sentiment, but am amazed at the lack of credit Bahadurzada is getting. He could easily pull a knockdown similar to what Nelson pulled off with his striking prowess, but I don’t see Thatch making that mistake two fights in a row. Thatch via TKO in the first round


Erick Silva vs. Nordine Taleb (Welterweight)

The UFC has been trying to make a star out of Silva for years now, and this fight could very well determine if they decide to give it one last go or whether or not to accept that he is a middling talent. The story on Taleb… he is in this fight.

Silva is absolutely the focus of this fight. He has had absolute flashes of brilliance that has had the UFC drooling at the possibilities while also showcasing a lack of conditioning or fight IQ when faced with a step up in competition. Now 31 and with over 10 years of professional fighting experience, he can no longer be considered a prospect and is closer to a finished product at this stage. An exceptional quick-twitch athlete, Silva relies heavily on those physical gifts without taking into consideration other factors such as spacing or conserving energy which led to his losses.

From a striking perspective, Silva is pretty technically sound even if his strategy is unwisely to throw everything he has into every shot. His roundhouse kicks and looping punches have worked very well against the lower tiers while also showing good offense in the clinch. It has been easy to forget he is a skilled BJJ practitioner too due to his striking success, but that may actually be his greatest strength. Keep in mind though that Silva has lost all of his UFC fights that have left the first round.

Taleb is the type of opponent that Silva has run over and is a solid underdog as a result. Taleb does a few things going for him that Silva’s previous victims can’t claim. He is experienced (unlike Mike Rhodes), but not past his prime (unlike Josh Koscheck). He’s big (unlike Takenori Soto or Jason High) and durable (unlike Charlie Brenneman) too. Considering Silva looked incredibly flat in his last performance as well, Taleb very well could score the upset.

While Taleb came into the UFC with a reputation as a striker, he has actually placed a pretty heavy emphasis on wrestling, though a lot of that can be attributed to matchups. He really doesn’t stand out as either a striker or a wrestler, but is competent enough at both to be a threat and pick where he feels he can take the fight. His striking is very basic, throwing a lot of jabs and mixing in kicks. His sheer size and strength make him difficult to deal with in the clinch while also playing a large part in his wrestling success, though his overall technique has shown improvement too.

Silva is by far more naturally talented fighter. I can’t help but think that he is a head case though as he has been unable to win fights against the upper tier of the division. Taleb isn’t that (which is why I’m gonna pick Silva), but he is also a different enough of a breed that I don’t see Silva running over him the same way he has other opponents. I expect Silva to pick up his first win outside the first round in the UFC. Silva via submission in the third round


Vitor Miranda vs. Marcelo Guimaraes (Middleweight)

Hard to put a spin on this fight, so how about an interesting fact!? Miranda made his UFC debut at heavyweight while Guimaraes came in at welterweight. Anyone else think that there could possibly be a size mismatch here?

The reason why it is hard to put a positive spin on this one is that there is great potential for this one to be a stinker. Guimaraes is an undersized grinder while Miranda is a low volume striker. If someone is going to make this exciting it is Miranda as his selective strikes usually have serious fight ending potential. A former Muay Thai fighter, Miranda’s kicks are his favorite weapon as he uses his long reach very well to keep his opposition at a distance while maintaining the threat of ending the fight with a head kick.

As would be expected for someone making the conversion to MMA from a pure striking sport, Miranda’s grappling is still very much a work in progress. He isn’t a threat himself to score a submission or even a takedown, but he has shown progress in terms of his grappling defense. Takedown defense is a different story, as Miranda still maintains a stance closer to pure Muay Thai than an MMA stance which makes it easier than it should be to get him to the ground.

Perhaps calling Guimaraes a grinder is a tad inaccurate as he isn’t much of a clinch fighter. But as often as he’ll go to the well to score a takedown even when he isn’t having any success leads me to believe that the tag still fits him when combined with his penchant for going the full 15 minutes. Guimaraes has struggled to score the takedowns he looks for in the UFC, owning an embarrassingly low 13% success rate on his takedown attempts. Despite a decorated grappling background, submissions haven’t been a large part of his arsenal as he prefers to posture up and hammer his opponent with punches.

Fortunately he has a functional though far from spectacular striking game that he can land in volume to rack up enough points in the eyes of the judges to take the decision. I didn’t say it was pretty, just functional. A very heavy diet of leg kicks consist of his primary weapon with an occasional jab and looping punches used to close distance on his often poorly disguised takedown attempts filling out the rest.

I’m not excited about this fight at all. Miranda will need the highlight reel finish in order to salvage this fight and I think he’ll end up getting it as Guimaraes struggles with larger opposition. The question is when. Miranda via KO in the second round


Darren Elkins vs. Chas Skelly (Featherweight)

Elkins has been the premier grinding gatekeeper ever since the inception of the featherweight division in the UFC. Skelly has the look of Elkins version 2.0. As much as the previous fight might end up sucking, this one has a greater likelihood.

Despite the likelihood of this either being a grindfest or an ugly striking contest, I’m still highly intrigued by the outcome of this fight. Elkins shouldn’t be having the success he has had in the UFC if one were to go strictly off of physical tools, but his wrestling technique, doggedness, and toughness have led him to a far lengthier stay than anyone could have predicted when he first signed on almost six years ago. It isn’t pretty, but when Elkins is able to clinch up against the fence and deliver dirty boxing all while searching for an opening to drag his opponent to the ground he has proven very difficult to stop.

Most of Elkins’ opponents have been the better athlete, so to say that he loses to better athletes is pretty much a moot point. The ones who have given him troubles have been those that have a half decent wrestling background as they know how to stop his takedown efforts which results in him having to resort to his slightly awkward standup. Elkins has proven willing to throw when he has too, but it isn’t very effective with his chin being the primary factor in keeping him in the fight.

What is bad for Elkins is that Skelly is probably the best wrestler that Elkins has faced. Skelly was actually an NAIA All-American in college, far better accolades than Elkins ever had. Skelly has been similarly aggressive in looking for takedowns while also exhibiting a much greater penchant for finishing fights. Even if he doesn’t finish the takedown, he’s happy to initiate a scramble at the very least as he has proven skilled at finishing fights with chokes, picking up two RNC’s in five UFC fights.

On the feet, Skelly has shown far more power in his strikes than Elkins, but has also shown a greater reckless streak which has led to point deductions for knees to a downed opponent as well as all sorts of opportunities even for those who wouldn’t be termed counter strikers. To be clear, Elkins isn’t likely the type to expose that. What’s likely and what actually happens in MMA is usually two completely different things.

Elkins has been unable to stop takedowns himself when put on the defensive side of wrestling and that is probably the biggest factor in me picking against him. Not that Skelly is the better athlete. Not that Skelly is the more effective striker or submission artist. Or that Skelly has the longer reach. Damn, that is a lot working against Elkins. Skelly via decision


Diego Sanchez vs. Jim Miller (Lightweight)

How is it possible that these two have both been in the UFC since at least 2008 hovering near the same fighting level for the majority of that stint and have never met before now? This may not be as exciting as it would have been had they met in their primes, but this should be a damn good match.

Despite becoming somewhat of a joke in the eyes of MMA hardcore fandom due to his throwback style. He’s willing to rush headfirst into danger (i.e. an opponent’s fists) and picking up decision victories he doesn’t deserve, Sanchez can still be a dangerous fighter. Few fighters have ever proven as durable as the only stoppage of Sanchez’s career came from a cavernous gash on his forehead from B.J. Penn. Sanchez doesn’t ever stop coming forward and is swinging as he does so when he isn’t motioning for his opponent to keep hitting him.

Miller once upon a time had a similar reputation in terms of durability, but has seen a sharp decline there in recent years as the years of wear and tear have caught up with him. Never a great athlete, Miller has noticeably slowed a step which has led to him dropping three of his last four as he has found himself in a number of situations he used to be able to avoid. What hasn’t eluded him is his savvy which is what he will need to rely on to dispose of the relentlessly aggressive Sanchez. It’s clear what the major question for this fight is: which fighter has declined the most?

Sanchez was once a feared wrestler and submission ace, though those days are long past. He still shoots for single legs when he sees an opening, but is rarely able to finish them anymore which leaves his BJJ skills very much in question as it has been years since we’ve seen them in earnest as he prefers to pound out his opponent once on the ground. While we may not see his ground skills, it is a guarantee that we’ll see him moving forward either swinging recklessly or with his hands down.

Miller is a much more calculated fighter, knowing his limitations and operating within those bounds. Though a well-rounded fighter, he is at his best in a grinding contest operating against the fence. Though more efficient than Sanchez at finishing takedowns, his wrestling has dropped off a bit too as opponents have been taking him down at will, though that may have something to do with Miller’s comfort off of his back as he is incredibly aggressive in sniffing out submissions.

Even though the majority of the time I was talking about how much these two have fallen off, both are still fun to watch due to their aggressive natures. Neither quits easily with Sanchez having proven damn near indestructible. I favor Miller due to him being a much smarter fighter and inherently less hittable than Sanchez. Miller via decision


Jason Saggo vs. Justin Salas (Lightweight)

Wait… these guys are still around? The last time we saw either one of these guys was October of 2014. Somehow still on the roster, it’s a guarantee that the loser of this contest won’t be any longer.

Saggo’s absence can be explained on his video he posted on YouTube in which you hear his Achilles snap while training. Now recovered, it will be interesting to see how the injury affects him. An aggressive grappler who chains together submissions very well, he may have issues finishing his takedowns as an injury like that usually affects one’s explosion and he has had issues telegraphing his takedowns in the past. He may need to rely more on his trips to go to the ground now.

Salas himself comes from a wrestling background, but the odd thing is that has actually been his weak point recently as he has been unable to complete his takedowns. This would be excusable if he was facing opponents with notable wrestling backgrounds except that he hasn’t. Not much of a scrambler, Salas is an absolute grinder if he can get the takedowns as he shows sound positioning, but very little in terms of a submission game.

Fortunately Salas has shown great strides in his striking since his UFC inception, turning himself into a talented boxer with sound combinations as well as some recently discovered power. He isn’t exactly a feared striker now, but he will make you pay if you don’t respect his abilities.

Saggo hasn’t shown a lot of power in his striking, but he is much more diverse. Having competed in some Muay Thai fights in Thailand, Saggo’s offense depends pretty heavily on kicks from range along with a jab. While he can fight in the clinch a bit too, he is far more comfortable at range.

While I agree with the lines in picking Saggo as the favorite, I’m surprised at how big of an underdog Salas is, especially considering Saggo is the one coming off of the serious injury. I feel Saggo diversity will make the difference here as well as his aggression in looking for subs. Saggo via submission in the second round


Julian Erosa vs. Teruto Ishihara (Featherweight)

We go to the bottom of the featherweight barrel for this contest. At least both are young and talented enough that they could potentially jump up a rung or two… but I wouldn’t count on it.

Erosa made a run to the semifinals of the most recent season of TUF before being stopped by Artem Lobov. Having fought through the tournament at 155 lbs, Erosa should be able to take advantage of his 6’1″ frame and 75″ reach at 145 lbs and effectively use his range striking efficiently against smaller opponents. He finds himself standing around too much as he looks for angles, but he did show a much improved clinch game in his UFC debut against Marcin Wrzosek. If growth like that continues, he could end up sticking around the roster longer than anyone anticipated.

Ishihara is a product of the UFC’s Road to the Octagon, a TUF knockoff for Japan to try to garner support from the Japanese audience. As would be expected from such a show, Ishihara is a very raw talent who surprised many simply by making the final much less taking the experienced Mizuto Hirota to a draw. He’s an active and athletic striker who mixes up what he throws very well. What he doesn’t do very well is put together combinations and isn’t powerful enough to score a KO blow with just one strike.

What will probably end up hurting Ishihara the most is his small size at 5’7″ frame and 69″ reach, a difficult proposition for an experienced fighter to overcome much less one as green as he is. His recklessness and creativity might benefit him here to allow him to get within his opponent’s range as his grappling has been limited to stopping takedowns at this point.

Erosa isn’t exactly much of a wrestler himself. However, similar to his clinch fighting, he showed improved wrestling ability than what he had showed in the TUF tournament while showing off his underrated submission abilities. Most of his subs come in scrambles, but he isn’t too bad off of his back and he should find more success with the size advantage that he’ll assuredly have against Ishihara.

I really don’t like Ishihara’s chances in this one. Erosa is a big featherweight while Ishihara would probably be at his best fighting at bantamweight. Erosa will probably look to keep the fight on the outside and pick Ishihara apart, but don’t be surprised to see him go to the ground if he so desires either. Erosa via TKO in the first round.

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