While I feel this is one of the weakest Fox cards in recent memory (though I will admit injury is playing a big part in that), the preliminary portion of the card isn’t to blame. In fact, there is only one fight on the card I’m looking forward to more than the lightweight bout between Beneil Dariush and Michael Chiesa. It’s rare either of them is in a boring fight, which should translate into a hell of a performance between the two of them.
Aside from that, there are plenty of other fights worth keeping an eye on even if they don’t have a lot of name value. Court McGee and Santiago Ponzinibbio are names that don’t mean much to many fans, but I fully expect them to put on one of the best scraps of the night. There are a number of prospects that could emerge as contenders in a year or more likely two. If you’re looking at overall quality, the bottom of the card sure helps to make up for the lack of it near the top.
Beneil Dariush vs. Micheal Chiesa (Lightweight)
Perhaps the most underrated fight on the card, Dariush and Chiesa represent two of the top youngsters in the division. There is a chance the winner will get an opportunity against the elite of the division.
Lost amidst his controversial win over Michael Johnson in August is that Dariush still has a long ways to go before he reaches his full potential. A no gi world champion in BJJ, he has become more than just a respectable striker as he is a legit KO threat. Regardless of whether you feel he stole the win from Johnson, the fact he was able to hang with him was in itself a hell of a feat at this point in his development.
Chiesa came to notoriety thanks to his TUF Live victory which also highlighted the death of his father and instantly made him a fan favorite. Enough time has passed that most of those vibes has dissipated despite making huge strides since that time, mostly (like Dariush) as a striker. Unlike Dariush, his background is that of a wrestler with an approach that is rougher around the edges than the smooth Dariush. Despite that, Chiesa has actually has one more win via submission than Dariush out of each of their six UFC victories.
The difference between the two of them on the ground is that Dariush offers a much more diverse grappling skill set whereas Chiesa is pretty much a one trick pony… but what a trick it is! Few are better at getting an opponent’s back than Chiesa as he is an expert an manipulating them into exposing it to him whether it be offering just enough room from top position or initiating a scramble. Once he gets his hooks in, he uses strikes from behind to open up his opponent’s neck where he can snake in a RNC. Dariush usually does his best work from the top position and doesn’t get enough credit for his ground striking ability which he also uses to open up opportunities to pass.
The striking battle will probably be the difference. Honing his Muay Thai under the tutelage of Rafael Cordeiro, Dariush has made tremendous strides since his UFC debut. Mixing in patented leg kicks with a potent one-two, he isn’t very flashy but is very effective. Chiesa isn’t as smooth on the feet as Dariush, but just like his grappling skills is more effective in specific areas, notably the clinch where he can use his size to wear down his opposition. He’s fairly aggressive moving forward, looking to close the distance more than looking for the KO shot.
It’s hard not to have a high level of interest in this fight. Some believe Chiesa represents a step back in competition for Dariush following his victory over Johnson, but Chiesa isn’t an easy stylistic match for the Iranian. Regardless of that, I favor Dariush as Chiesa has shown holes in his grappling defense and Dariush has shown steady improvement every time he steps in the cage. Should be a fun one. Dariush via submission in the second round
Cub Swanson vs. Hacran Dias (Featherweight)
This represents Swanson’s last opportunity to hang around the top of the division as he has lost two in a row following a six fight win streak while Dias is looking for an opportunity to fight the elite. A win here will likely do the trick.
Swanson ate a lot of punishment at the hands of Frankie Edgar and Max Holloway in those two losses, looking like a shell of the fighter who reeled off all of those wins beforehand. He is claiming the year off has reinvigorated his love for fighting and that he is still elite. He was never able to find a rhythm against either opponent which is a recipe for disaster as his strategy revolves around his boxing which is among the best in the division. Mixing in the occasional leg kick with his beautiful combinations and stance switching, Swanson tends to physically wear out his opponents with volume though he does have occasional power.
Swanson has never been a great wrestler (Edgar took him down at will, but few time their takedowns better than the former champ), though he is skilled enough to keep the fight where he wants the majority of the time while even scoring the occasional takedown of his own. His submission defense has been called into question recently (his last three losses all came by subs), but he had been beaten down by Edgar and Holloway before they subbed him out. Normally he is a sound defensive grappler without being much of a threat on the ground outside of GNP.
While Dias isn’t in the same vein as either Edgar or Holloway (who are both much quicker than the bulky Brazilian), he still looks as though he could offer Swanson fits. He out-grinded perpetual grinder Darren Elkins while barely staving off fellow brickhouse Levan Makashvili in his last appearance. Considering Swanson’s trouble with wrestlers, he could very well exploit that hole in Swanson’s repertoire and has the submission skills to finish him off as well.
Swanson will have the decided advantage on the feet for sure, but perhaps not as sizeable as some might think. Coming from the Nova Uniao camp, Dias does possess their patented leg kicks in his repertoire and would be able to take the legs out from underneath Swanson if he is able to land those early and often. His fists aren’t nearly as potent though he can certainly hurt his opponent with his counter based Muay Thai.
I’m going out on a limb and picking Dias here. I look at Swanson’s opponents during his win streak and all of them were stylistically favorable to him as they all chose to largely keep the fight standing. I don’t see Dias looking to do that. This should be an exceptionally close fight though as Dias allowed an unrefined Makashvili to out-strike him even though he pulled out the win. Should be a good one. Dias via decision
John Dodson vs. Manny Gamburyan (Bantamweight)
After being turned away by Demetrious Johnson for the Flyweight Title twice, Dodson is moving up in weight to 135 lbs where Gamburyan’s career has been revived after dropping down in weight last year.
The move for Dodson is an interesting one as he was never a large flyweight, but it’s also understandable as he would be in no-man’s-land following the losses to Mighty Mouse. Dodson will be banking on his speed advantage to make all the difference as he moves up in weight and hoping that his power translates as he moves up in weight as well. That isn’t a guarantee as Conor McGregor taught us all ever so recently and will probably bear watching. Then again, Dodson scored three KO wins in the TUF 14 tournament at 135 lbs so perhaps I’m harping on a moot point.
Gamburyan may be the slowest fighter on the bantamweight roster, but he makes up for that with his incredible strength and low base that makes him difficult to uproot off of his feet. His judo background plays a big part in his ability to stay on his feet as well as providing him his arsenal of trips and throws to get the fight to the ground when he so desires. He has found more success in these avenues at the lighter class… but that is dependent upon him getting a hold of his opposition. Will he be able to get his hands on the notoriously quick Dodson to get him down?
Dodson has shown great takedown defense with only Mighty Mouse taking him down during his UFC stint. Then again none of those opponents were nearly as large or strong as Gamburyan. Gamburyan’s iron grip makes his guillotine choke difficult to escape from as well. Dodson will score the occasional takedown of his own more as a change of pace rather than looking for a finish. His best ground skill is his ability to climb back to his feet in a hurry.
If Gamburyan can’t get Dodson to the ground he may have to rely on scoring a clean shot, which is a greater possibility than I would have said a year ago. Dodson has looked a bit flat since coming back from knee surgery, not showing the same quick-twitch explosion to avoid strikes or burst into a potential fight ending strike. Gamburyan has plenty of power in his punches too, though it should be noted that he hasn’t finished a fight with strikes in six years.
Even if Dodson is a bit slower I struggle to see Gamburyan landing enough volume or getting a hold of his smaller opponent enough to score enough points in the eyes of the judges. Dodson isn’t exactly a volume striker himself, but I think he’ll do more than Gamburyan to score a successful return to bantamweight. Dodson via decision
Court McGee vs. Santiago Ponzinibbio (Welterweight)
It seems pretty clear that McGee will never be more than a middling welterweight… but what about Ponzinibbio? It’s up to McGee to do his job for us to find out whether or not Ponzinibbio can bust out of the middle of the division.
McGee has struggled with injury in recent years, though he did make a successful return after a two year absence this past December. With his physical prime seemingly past him, McGee is still an extremely durable, tough, and dogged competitor. His high volume boxing style complemented with an active takedown game would make him one of the best in the sport if he wasn’t limited by his lack of athleticism and power. Otherwise he knows how to use his size and length well.
Ponzinibbio hasn’t quite established his ceiling quite as much as McGee has and has some pundits excited about his potential largely thanks to his pair of violent KO’s over Wendell Oliveira and Andreas Stahl. The definition of a pressure fighter, Ponzinibbio is an above average athlete in addition to being a large and powerful welterweight. Though his pressuring style leads to him eating a lot of damage, his power often leads to him getting the better of the exchanges as he fires basic punching combinations.
It’s rare that McGee doesn’t land at least one takedown over the course of the bout, but that is more due to the sheer volume of attempts that he throws out there. That strategy never changes regardless of who his opponent is and considering Ponzinibbio offers little offensively off of the ground (besides GNP of course), it should be very prominent this time around. Ponzinibbio has struggled to stay standing against his opponents who’ve looked to go to the ground (Andreas Stahl and Ryan LaFlare) which could be a serious red flag.
The real reason this fight will be fun to watch will be the fact that two pressure based fighters are going to go at it which should result in a potential barnburner. McGee doesn’t get easily rattled and has one of the deepest tanks in the sport. The longer the fight goes the more it favors him, especially if it turns into a brawl with Ponzinibbio throwing everything he has into his strikes early. Ponzinibbio has the power to turn the lights out on anyone, but it should be noted McGee has never been finished in his career whether by KO/TKO or submission.
There is no way I’d be throwing any money at this fight as this is a very evenly matched up encounter. I favor McGee since his struggles with Alexandre could be attributed to cage rust and his durability as well as Ponzinibbio’s struggles with takedown defense. The prediction I’m more confident in making is that it will be one of the more entertaining bouts on the card. McGee via decision
Bethe Correia vs. Raquel Pennington (Women’s Bantamweight)
Having gotten all the marketing push out of Correia that they could, the UFC appears to be using her as a gatekeeper that will likely be used to boost Pennington’s name.
Nobody was mistaking Correia as a threat to Ronda Rousey when she fought the then-champion, but she marketed herself right to get Rousey’s attention and probably scored a nice payday in getting her title shot. Now it seems she’ll be at a level more attune to her limited skill set. In addition to being on the smaller side of the division, she isn’t very athletic, doesn’t pack much power in her punches, and has shown very little in terms of ground skills. To sum it up, fortunate matchmaking (none of her UFC wins came against opponents currently in the UFC) and being in the right place at the right time got her that title shot more than anything else.
What Correia does do well is swarm her opponent with volume punching, owning one of the most technical boxing games in the division. She uses good angles and throws a high volume of her strikes to the body. Her takedown defense has proven to be a strength too. Because she can usually keep the fight where she wants to she has found success despite her limited physical skills.
Despite knowing this, don’t be surprised to see Pennington keep the fight at boxing range anyway as that is where she is most comfortable as well. She isn’t quite as technical as Correia, but the gap is very slim. Having a size and athletic advantage should give Pennington the confidence to hang around in the pocket. She used to suffer through bouts of inactivity, but seems to have gotten past that block and ready to really hit her stride.
If Pennington decides to attack Correia’s weaknesses, she has the tools to do that too. An absolute beast in the clinch, Pennington is very strong with the ability to either grind out her opponent against the cage or land a trip or double leg from there. While no one thinks of her as a submission specialist, her last two victories have come by way of chokes as she has improved her scrambling in addition to becoming quite the opportunist.
I don’t like Correia’s chances at all. Some might say Pennington is a bigger, younger, and more athletic version of Correia, but that is discounting Pennington’s wrestling and submission abilities. Pennington isn’t the hardest punches so I could see it going the distance, but I’m gonna go out a bit on a limb here and predict a finish. Pennington via TKO in the second round
Randy Brown vs. Michael Graves (Welterweight)
Interesting matchup of two prospects found on differing UFC viewing productions with Brown coming from Lookin for a Fight and Graves from TUF.
Brown looks to be the better pure athlete, but he also less polished despite having more professional fights as his level of competition was lower than what Graves has faced in the confines of his own gym. Brown ran through his regional competition, earning a finish in every fight up until his UFC debut where he appeared tentative, particularly early on. This isn’t a surprise as he is still young (25) and young in his career with the UFC representing a massive step up from where he had previously been. He should appear much more comfortable in this, his sophomore effort.
Coming out of a large camp at American Top Team, Graves makes up for his lack of experience with going head to head with a stable of top fighters at his camp, including the welterweight champion Robbie Lawler. He isn’t quite the quick-twitch athlete that Brown is though he is still a fine athlete himself with a lot of natural strength. What will prove to be challenging for him will be overcoming the height difference (Brown stands at 6’3″ to Graves’ 5’10”) as well as the reach (78″ to 71″). Graves isn’t much of a striker, so he’ll be looking to avoid a standup battle at all costs.
Knowing this, the key to this fight will obviously be who can take the fight where they want it to go. While Brown looked tentative in his UFC debut, he was also facing someone with similar height and reach in Matt Dwyer. Look for his normal aggressive style to return as Graves is closer in line to his previous opponents in size. A sound technical boxer, Brown revealed some unexpected clinch game complimented with the ability to trip his opponent to the ground. Graves is very tentative standing, but does have enough power in his fists to pose as a threat.
If the fight goes to the ground, Graves won’t have quite the same advantage Brown owns on the feet as Graves is very simplistic in terms of his offensive grappling, having only shown a rear-naked choke in terms of submission ability. Brown did a fine job fighting off Dwyer’s takedown attempts, but Graves is a completely different monster. Even when his opponent knows the shot is coming, Graves is powerful enough to finish his takedown anyway. Though Brown isn’t a submission expert, he has shown some know-how with his long limbs that Graves will want to be wary of that.
It’s clear both of these youngsters have talent. Reviewing them it’s obvious that Brown has more. Graves could still pull out the win with a smart game plan with a heavy emphasis on his wrestling and I have little doubt he’ll try to pull that off. I’d still expect Brown to pull it off though as I think his advantage on the feet will be too much for Graves to overcome. Brown via decision
Drew Dober vs. Islam Makhachev (Lightweight)
Not much to say in terms of an introduction for this fight. Dober is a tough veteran who showed real growth in his last appearance while Makhachev is a prospect with some real hype behind him coming off of his first loss.
Dober has been fighting for quite a while so it is easy to forget that he is still relatively young at 27. Thus, his improvement against Scott Holtzman shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was. A volume striker with more sting than power in his strikes, Dober took Holtzman to the ground five times after not scoring a single one in his five previous UFC appearances. If he can remain a takedown threat it will open up his striking that much more and he should be able to be more than an action fighter on the lower levels of the division.
Asking him to be able to take Makhachev down might be too tall of an order. A training partner of Khabib Nurmagomedov, Makhachev is already one of the best wrestlers in the division despite having only two Octagon appearances thus far. He’s also aggressive in looking for the submission and going for the back which often leads to him giving up position and allowing his opponent to get back to their feet. That hasn’t been too much of a problem for him thus far as he usually just takes them right back to the ground as he pleases.
The reason that he is coming off of a loss has nothing to do with his wrestling. Makhachev chose to strike with a veteran in Adrian Martins and got caught. He wings looping punches that can cause seriously bad consequences for his opposition, but they are also pretty easy to counter. Normally he looks to use the punches to close the distance more than anything so he can get to his comfort zone of the clinch where he either uses dirty boxing or transitions to a takedown attempt being versatile enough to attempt either a trip or shoot at the hips.
Dober’s path to victory is pretty clear as a result: he needs to keep the fight standing and pick apart Makhachev. Easier said than done, but Dober’s takedown defense has been underrated, so he has a chance to pull it off. Despite his lack of power, Dober does throw a lot of combinations with the points racking up in a hurry. His record is littered with submission victories, but that is more indicative of two things: his scrambling ability and his lack of KO power as he usually uses a RNC to finish off a downed opponent.
I really like what I saw out of Dober against Holtzman, but I don’t think it will be nearly enough for him to get past Makhachev. Perhaps he was simply respecting Martins submission abilities too much, but I don’t think Makhachev will look to keep this fight standing. Makhachev via submission in the second round
Elizeu Zaleski vs. Omari Akhmedov (Welterweight)
No doubt this is a fat cutting fight as both of these foreign strikers will likely be given a pink slip with a loss. I still expect the fans to win in this likely brawl.
Zaleski put on a surprising performance in his UFC debut as most expected Nicolas Dalby to put him away with relative ease. Instead Zaleski was the superior striker who was felled by his lack of wrestling, a common thread among Brazilian fighters. Fortunately for him, Akhmedov has a tendency to forget just how good of a wrestler that he is and try to turn the fight into a brawl which falls right into Zaleski’s strength as a counter striker.
To be fair, Akhmedov has shown more discipline as he advances deeper into his UFC career, even in his last appearance which was a loss as he was avoiding going to the ground with Sergio Moraes before Moraes surprised him with a powerful right that dropped the Russian. He has also learned to pace himself better in addition to showing more crispness to his powerful looping punches that he mixes to the head and body.
Despite his improvement as a striker, I’d still venture to say that Akhmedov’s wrestling is still his biggest strength. He commonly uses his strikes to disguise his entries and his double leg is extremely powerful. While he hasn’t shown much in terms of submission ability, that’s perfectly fine as he has a strong base from the top and some very heavy GNP. Zaleski isn’t much of a submission threat himself, but is very good at tying up his opponent from the ground as well as climbing back to his feet, something he’ll find difficult to do with Akhmedov.
Zaleski found found mixed success in being the aggressor against Dalby as put together some impressive combinations, but was also taken down at times as he moved forward. He was forced to take that approach as he is a bit of a slow starter and was unable to find his range early as the counter striker. Once he found his range, he utilized a stepping knee to counter Dalby’s forward momentum and an overhand right.
If Akhmedov remembers his wrestling, he should easily take this fight. Zaleski has the ability to end the fight just as Moraes did as he has just as much power while being a better striker than Moraes. What he doesn’t offer is the submission prowess which means Akhmedov will probably look to land takedown after takedown with little fear of going to the ground. Akhmedov via decision
Oluwale Bamgbose vs. Cezar Ferreira (Middleweight)
We got two different career trajectories going here as Bamgbose looks to be a potential contender in the making while Ferreira’s bubble burst long ago as he looks to simply hold onto a job at this point.
An absolute freak from an athletic standpoint, Bamgbose is still incredibly raw with this fight only being his eight professional appearance. Knowing experience is the most valuable thing for him at this time, he took this fight with about two weeks notice after an injury to Ferreira’s original opponent Caio Magalhaes. None of his fights have left the first round with only one going past three minutes which is a testament to his finishing ability, but also an even stronger indication of his inexperience as he has gone less than 15 minutes combined.
Ferreira isn’t a bad athlete himself, but has been unable to put all of his skills together with any sort of consistency. Having lost three of his last four, all of those losses occurred by KO in the first round. This has led to talks of a weak chin as well as him standing on his last legs. He tried to change his fortune by moving to welterweight in his last appearance where he was drawn out and dehydrated. Returning to middleweight, he should look better physically.
Bamgbose has yet to show much of a ground game which is why it should be expected that Ferreira will look to go to the ground. Ferreira isn’t a great wrestler himself, but he has typically timed his takedowns fairly well which has led to him finding some success in that department. If he can get the fight there with consistency, there is a good chance he could nab a submission as Bamgbose looked lost when Uriah Hall was able to get him to the ground.
The issue for Ferreira is that fights start on the feet and that is exactly where Bamgbose wants the fight. He still has a ways to go in terms of tightening up his technique though his physical skills have allowed him to make up for that. He uses a lot of jerky movement and stance switches to throw off his opponent before launching a powerful kick or overhand. Ferreira is similar in the sense that he largely throws single shots, but works at a more deliberate pace that has left him labeled a boring fighter.
I fear this is the end of Ferreira’s disappointing UFC run that started with so much promise. I don’t see him having enough success in avoiding Bamgbose’s quick-twitch trigger or being able to score a takedown before Bamgbose is able to hurt him. I don’t think this will take long at all. Bamgbose via KO in the first round
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