Which fights on the April schedule are you most anticipating, and why?
MICHAEL BANE, MMATORCH CONTRIBUTOR
Thankfully, I’ll be two months removed from the MMA high that was Gracie vs. Shamrock 3 and Kimbo Slice/Dada 5000 vs. Cardio, so I’ll be able to focus again on other MMA fights. April has some fantastic fights coming up, and it’s a nice return to the inundation of mixed martial arts events after a relatively slow March. While none will approach the McGregor vs. Diaz level of hype, here’s the best of a month worth keeping an eye on.
1. Daniel Cormier vs. Jon Jones 2 – Assuming this fight actually happens (Jon Jones sits in a New Mexico jail as of writing this), it is one of the most intriguing fights of 2016. Jones returns from an almost 16 month layoff to recapture a title he never lost. The champion across the cage, Daniel Cormier, is the last person he fought (and beat). Unlike many fights that manufacture tension and dislike in promotion, the heat between Cormier and Jones is definitely real. These two legitimately dislike each other to the point where putting them in the same room is a tension-filled affair.
What will Jones look like after his significant time away from the cage? Jones has the talent to be the greatest MMA fighter ever, but throughout his career he’s been his own worst enemy (that and cars it seems). Can he be even better now? He’s declared he’s finally sober, and videos of him working out show him in extraordinary shape. His out of ring escapades have cost him millions in fight purses, endorsements, and also a chance to break Anderson Silva’s title defense record. Jones needs this win to begin the process of salvaging a career he’s on the verge of throwing away.
Cormier wants more than anything to win this fight, and he’s convinced he can. It’s easy to understand. Cormier has been successful at the highest levels of this sport, even as an undersized Heavyweight. Prior to Jones, he’d never tasted defeat. It’s not that Cormier didn’t look respectable and had some success against Jones in their fight, but the fight wasn’t really that close. Cormier is an alpha male who still has a hard time comprehending that he can be beat. He’s freakishly strong, possibly having the most functional strength of any fighter in the UFC, but at 37, it’s hard to say how much time he has left. Jones is at his athletic peak, but Cormier is definitely a few years removed from his. These two are going to lay it all on the line, as the thought of losing to the other may actually be a bigger motivating factor than winning the belt.
2. Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson – After two years of being continually sidelined, Khabib Nurmagomedov finally makes his way back into the Octagon. If not for injuries, the Eagle and his 22-0 record surely would have fought for the title by now, and may have held it for an extended run. Nurmagomedov has looked unbeatable in his career, and his last fight and win came against the current UFC Lightweight Champion, Rafael dos Anjos, a man who has demolished his competition as of late.
Tony Ferguson has run off seven straight wins since losing to Michael Jonson in 2012. He’s looked better and better lately, using his very long arms to secure numerous chokes against his opponents. His Fight of the Night performance against Edson Barboza showed some previously unseen ingenuity, with Ferguson protecting himself from Barboza’s lethal kicks by rolling toward his competitor to close the distance. I’m not a huge fan of Nurmagomedov’s smothering style, but Ferguson can bring the excitement, and the winner of this should secure a shot at the title.
3. Ben Rothwell vs. Junior dos Santos – It seems a long time ago that Junior dos Santos was one of the top two fighters at heavyweight, and even longer since he was the champ. He’s take a couple of careers’ worth of damage in his last few fights, and he’s starting to look like a shell of the athletic fighter whose boxing skills dominated the UFC for a while.
Rothwell, on the other hand, has won four straight and may be in line for a shot at UFC gold with a win here. He’s looked particularly impressive, submitting Josh Barnett in his last bout and knocking out contender Alistair Overeem in 2014. Rothwell is a crazy, almost weird guy, and the huge specimen that he is keeps finding ways to win in an unlikely run to the top of the division. Dos Santos’s skills seem to have stagnated Cain Velasquez stole his soul in 2012, and this may be his last chance to stay relevant as a title contender. A lot on the line, and fights between the big boys can always end at any time.
4. Anthony Pettis vs. Edson Barboza – Crazy spinning, flying, acrobatic, ninja kicks reign supreme in one of the most exciting fights ever presented on paper. Edson Barboza’s spinning wheel kick knockout of Terry Etim is one of the greatest highlights we’ve seen. Anthony Pettis probably has the single greatest move we’ve seen at the highest level of MMA, when he sent Benson Henderson crashing to the canvas with his “Showtime Kick” off the side of the cage. Neither of these guys will look to go to the ground, and it’s going to be a showcase of striking that doesn’t come around very often.
5. Andrey Koreshkov vs. Benson Henderson – Benson Henderson wisely took the higher guaranteed money in his move to Bellator from the UFC. While the former UFC Lightweight Champ may be missing out on some interesting fights at 170 pounds with his former employer, he’s moving right into a championship shot in his new organization. I’ll be host, I forgot who the Bellator Welterweight champion was, as that title has been largely irrelevant since Ben Askren left the promotion. With Henderson in the fold now, and a chance to become a two division champ if he secures this belt and fights at 155. As far as Koreshkov, a surprising win here can make him a lot of money, as he’d be suddenly viewed as a UFC caliber talent. Added to this all is the undoubted comparisons between the two organizations’ talent levels that we get when these types of fights take place. Bellator is firmly number two in MMA, this may help us to see how far their talent has come along.
DAYNE FOX, MMATORCH CONTRIBUTOR
Easily the fight that I’m most excited for is the Light Heavyweight Title rematch between interim champion Daniel Cormier and the true champion Jon Jones. The UFC (and Cormier) might say otherwise, but anyone with an inkling of knowledge about the sport knows the truth: Jones is the greatest MMA fighter ever seen in this sport’s short history and the only person he lost his belt to was himself. Jones has reportedly rededicated himself as a fighter (Tuesday’s arrest says more about his past than it does his present, so I’m willing to cut him some slack even if I feel the law shouldn’t) and I’m anxious to see what a version of him who is dedicated to the sport looks like. I Cormier can even make the fight competitive I’ll be impressed, but we’ll have to see.
Perhaps you’re expecting me to list the other title fight going on that night, but I see Demetrious Johnson’s defense against Henry Cejudo as a sleeper more than a fight I’m anticipating. I’m actually much more excited for the lightweight bout between Anthony Pettis and Edson Barboza on that card than any other bout (except for the main event). Both are two of the best pure strikers in the sport much less the division and fireworks should be promised.
Other UFC fights include the main event of the next upcoming event with Ben Rothwell and Junior dos Santos as Rothwell has been on a tear while it will be interesting to see what dos Santos has left. The FOX card feels like one of the more underwhelming recent editions with a possibility of a stinker for a main event (remember what Khabib Nurmagomedov did to Rafael dos Anjos two years ago? Dominant, just not entertianing). Hopefully Tony Ferguson can pull the best out of him. That doesn’t mean there aren’t fights I’m not looking forward to like Rose Namajunas rematching Tecia Torres and Mike Chiesa against Beneil Dariush, but they simply aren’t on the same scale of the other fights I’m looking forward to.
Bellator has two events this month, but only one fight I’m curious about. Benson Henderson’s debut will answer a lot of different questions such as whether he belongs at welterweight and the give us about as good of a gauge of the caliber of fighter his opponent Andrey Koreshkov is. I would have rather seen what Bendo could do against Will Brooks, but I also understand the politics behind why Bellator hasn’t done it. Other fights such as Derek Campos and Patricky Pitbull aren’t bad fights by any means, but don’t have the same appeal.
FRANK HYDEN, MMATORCH CONTRIBUTOR
It starts with Junior Dos Santos vs. Ben Rothwell at UFC Fight Night 86. Rothwell is making a case for himself as a title contender and if he’s able to take out Dos Santos here (which I think he will), it’s going to get harder and harder to deny him in the title mix. Then at UFC on FOX 19 we get Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson. The winner here is in a prime spot for a title shot. Ferguson should definitely get it if he wins, but even Nurmagomedov can make a case for a title shot despite being on the shelf with injuries far too often. Benson Henderson makes his Bellator debut against Andrey Koreshkov at Bellator 153 so that should be interesting. Lastly, we wrap up with three big fights at UFC 197. Edson Barboza vs. Anthony Pettis is my pick for Fight of the Night as I expect an explosive striking match. Then UFC Flyweight Champion Demetrious Johnson defends against Henry Cejudo. Johnson isn’t always the most exciting fighter to watch, but he’s a marvel to behold, and I’m very interested in seeing how he deals with the Olympic Gold Medalist. The biggest fight of the month, though, is Jon Jones trying to take back the title he never lost as he faces UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Daniel Cormier. Jones is one the best fighters in the world, but he’s had legal issues that have kept him away from the cage. We’ll see how much that affects him. These guys don’t like each other and that only adds to the hype surrounding this fight. This is one of the biggest fights of the year so it’s an easy choice for my most anticipated of the month.
DAN MOORE, MMATORCH UK COLUMNIST
Ben Rothwell engaging style will hopefully encourage Junior dos Santos to do the same meaning their main event fight in Zagreb, Croatia, won’t end up a twenty-five-minute snooze fest. Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson is very intriguing but the entertainment value of it will be determined by how well Ferguson negates the avalanche of inevitable takedown attempts. Beneil Dariush vs. Michael Chiesa has real potential if they engage and don’t cancel each other out. As for UFC 197, I’m all in on all of the main card fights starting with Yair Rodriguez vs. Andre Fili. Anthony Pettis vs. Edson Barboza should be sensational and look like Matrix reboot, while the return of Jon Jones doesn’t need any hyperbole to sell it, especially against the man who’s currently renting his belt.
[Photo (c) Jayne Kamin-Oncea via USA Today Sports]
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