While we’ve all been rocked by the saga of Conor McGregor this week, we should all remember that there is a pay-per-view this weekend in UFC 197, featuring the greatest mixed martial artist we’ve ever seen (sorry Anderson, GSP). Jon Jones returns from his exile, and he’ll be preceded into the Octagon by the man who has held onto his UFC belt longer than any other champion at this point in Demetrious Johnson. Whether you find him exciting or not, you can’t deny that he is hella good.
The preliminary card fights aren’t up to the usual standard that has been set for them in recent pay-per-view events with Sergio Pettis and Chris Kelades headlining them. However, the fact that they feature a former champion in Carla Esparza should speak at the recent level of standard that has been set. Nothing jumps off the page as a can’t miss affair, but a number do offer considerable promise, and a few prospects to keep an eye on, such as recent Lookin for a Fight find Cody East and Danny Roberts who could make some noise in the near future.
Sergio Pettis vs. Chris Kelades (Flyweight)
Still not ready for primetime, the UFC continues its attempts to groom the younger Pettis into a star (like unto his brother) with another litmus test in Kelades.
No one doubts whether or not Pettis has all the physical tools to become a major force to be reckoned with and perhaps even become the face of the flyweight division (sorry Demetrious, you just don’t sell for some reason). He’s even been able to flash more and more of that ability with each passing bout. Though he isn’t as flashy as his brother, his striking is very technically sound with a steady jab to compliment his kicks. Hell, he has even developed some nice trips in the clinch to take the fight to the ground when he pleases.
What has been holding him back is his inability to keep it together for 15 minutes. He’s been dropped in half of his UFC fights after taking control in all of his bouts. Even though he didn’t get dropped in his last appearance against now-retired Chris Cariaso and maintained solid striking defense for pretty much the entire fight, he let Cariaso back into the contest with Cariaso controlling the last round from the top position. Until he can put together a full fight, his detractors will have plenty of ammunition.
Fortunately for him the UFC continues to give him favorable matchups. That isn’t meant to be a knock on Kelades (though I realize it is), but Pettis’ kryptonite is akin to his brother’s: a grind-it-out wrestler. Though that doesn’t describe Kelades, he makes all of his opponents work hard for their victory with his grit, heart, and never-say-die attitude. Being a slow starter, he came from behind to pick up both of his UFC victories as his opponents tired and he found his rhythm.
What does give Kelades a chance is his heavy top game and ground striking as Pettis didn’t show much once Cariaso was able to get on top of him. In fact, that would make Kelades the favorite if he showed more wrestling, but he telegraphs his shots and isn’t very explosive. Even though Pettis isn’t great defensive wrestler, he has shown minor incremental improvements which gives me reason to believe that he should be able to avoid Kelades’ attempts.
Make no mistake, Pettis should win this easily… so long as he maintains his defense. I’d imagine what most will be looking for is if he can get a finish as all of his previous four wins came by decision. If he can’t put away the ultra durable Kelades don’t expect him to get a major step up, though it may not be truly indicative of his progress. Pettis via decision
Danny Roberts vs. Dominique Steele (Welterweight)
Am I the only one who feels like this is a showcase bout for the former professional boxer Roberts?
Perhaps that sounds harsh as Steele is coming off of a victory in the UFC, but a closer look reveals some unfortunate truths. Steele was signed as a late injury replacement and was taken out in less than a minute. As is customary for most injury replacements, he received a second bout only for his opponent to be changed at the last minute due to injury. Not only that though, but because the card he was on took place in Korea it isn’t like the UFC could sign the best prospect available as they either needed someone with their passport good and ready to go or a Korea native. Yep… that was the type of victory Steele walked out with.
On the other hand, Roberts came into the UFC with a well-deserved reputation as a striker (thanks to the boxing background) and ended up submitting Nathan Coy after being taken to the ground. I’m not ready to proclaim Roberts a grappler master by any means, but it is solid proof that he is developing into a genuine mixed martial artist and someone whom his opponents will have to show respect on the ground or pay the price. Steele did show an improved wrestling game against the lesser known Dong Hyun Kim, but as already stated, Kim was a late replacement and is a natural lightweight so Steele’s improvements need to be taken with a grain of salt.
Roberts is by far the more technical striker of the two in addition to being a better athlete which is largely why this fight seems so academic. Hell, I haven’t even mentioned the diversity of his striking either as has developed some nice kicks to the legs and body too. Steele does have a lot of natural power in his fists and has shown a lot of durability outside of his UFC debut, which gives him the clichéd “punchers chance” if nothing else. Part of the reason why his durability is so proven though is his inability to remove himself his opponent’s range. Steele will look to go to the clinch where he can utilize dirty boxing and perhaps drop for single and double legs.
I’ll be shocked if Steele pulls off the upset. I can’t dog on him too much for the circumstances around his UFC victory as he did what he was supposed to do by taking out who was placed in front of him, but it didn’t do much to raise his profile in my view. Roberts defensive wrestling is sound enough that he should be able to do what he wants on the feet until he is able to break Steele about halfway through the bout. Roberts via TKO in the second round
Carla Esparza vs. Juliana Lima (Women’s Strawweight)
A lot of people are looking at this as an easy win for the inaugural Strawweight Champion. That would be a mistake as Lima may be the most underrated fighter in the division.
The funny thing is that there are a lot of people who think Esparza is a crap fighter after her overwhelming loss of the title to Joanna Jedrzejczyk that was the least competitive title fight seen in quite a while. The current champ was simply a horrible matchup stylistically for Esparza and there is no doubt that she has taken the lessons learned from the loss and made herself a better fighter. What killed her was a lack of an outside striking game when she couldn’t get her takedowns going and though Lima isn’t devoid in that category, she isn’t nearly on par with Jedrzejczyk.
Lima will need to emphasize that outside striking if she wants to give Esparza a run for her money as I don’t see her being able to out-wrestle the former collegiate wrestler. Not that she isn’t likely to try as Lima has placed a heavy emphasis on fighting in the clinch and fishing for takedowns. Then again, all of her UFC opponents have been at their best fighting at range. Perhaps she was doing that in an attempt to attack an opponent’s weakness and if that is the case she won’t be doing that at all this time around.
What gives me further pause in terms of Lima finding success is the type of offense she’ll throw at Esparza. Lima throws a lot of leg kicks and basic one-two combinations, but doesn’t seem likely to make Esparza pay for her takedown attempts the same way that Jedrzejczyk did. Typically when Esparza had a takedown stuffed she would be the one looking to immediately strike which would traditionally open up another takedown attempt. Lima will need to be prepared for that or it will be a long and grinding contest for her.
Esparza’s striking probably got crapped on more than anything after losing her belt. Lets not forget that we understand just how good of a striker Jedrzejczyk is now, and we didn’t at the time of the fight. Esparza isn’t the only one who underestimated our current champion. Esparza does her best work in the pocket where she can throw basic boxing combinations though her clinch work isn’t far behind either as the threat of a takedown makes her that much more dangerous.
Esparza has a lot to prove in this contest. If she falls short the popular conception will be that her championship victory was a fluke. Being aware of this I fully expect Esparza to come out with a brilliant performance. Lima will have some moments and is tough as nails which will allow her to hang around for the duration of the fight, but Esparza will have her arm raised in the end. Esparza via decision
Glaico Franca vs. James Vick (Lightweight)
Does the UFC have something against their TUF winners now? Franca won the most recent season of TUF Brazil and for his first UFC match after winning that tournament gets a guy who hasn’t lost in his first four UFC appearances?
Franca does have a lot of natural athleticism with the skills to become a contender in the near future. He showed a nice all-around game while finishing all four of his tournament fights with RNC’s. As is common for most Brazilians, wrestling is the weakest part of his game as he relied heavily on his large and powerful frame to drag down his opposition rather than skilled wrestling techniques.
Fortunately for him Vick isn’t much of a wrestler himself, instead choosing to utilize his 6’3″ frame to his advantage by keeping his opponent on the outside with a barrage of jabs and front kicks. Over time he has added more straight shots into his arsenal and has a serious knack for making opponents pay for attempting takedowns on him whether it be with a guillotine attempt or a step knee to catch them coming in.
The striking will be interesting to watch as Franca in three inches shorter, but does own an inch advantage in the reach. He throws more combinations than Vick and is likely to land his share of strikes as Vick hasn’t fully figured out how to keep from getting hit in the midst of his high volume attack. Neither has faced an opponent as long as the other, which could make things interesting.
Where I actually feel the fight will be decided is in the transitions and scrambles. Franca won’t be disappointed if he can’t finish his takedowns so long as he is able to initiate a scramble as he is particularly skilled at finding his opponent’s back as the aforementioned four RNC’s should indicate. While Vick hasn’t shown much in terms of traditional takedown defense, he has looked improved every time he steps back into the cage. I’d expect his wrestling is bound to be one of the areas he shows progress in at some point.
This is the first time I’ve liked Vick upon first glance going into a fight in a long time and even after reviewing the fighters I still feel that way. Franca looks to be the heavier hitter in addition to being the more skilled BJJ practitioner, but Vick is just so damn opportunistic as well as a volume striker that is hard to beat. Should be a fun fight. Vick via decision
Walt Harris vs. Cody East (Heavyweight)
Here we go with another one of Dana White’s finds on his web series, as East was signed to a contract off of White watching him fight in Minnesota. East wasn’t a hidden gem though. He’s been on the radar as a prospect for a long time. It’s been his legal troubles (including a rape charge and a child abuse conviction) that have kept him on the outside of any large promotion. Here’s hoping he can avoid repeating his past mistakes…
The thing that I find funny is that most expect East to walk all over Harris and I’m not so sure that is what is going to happen. Harris may be the most athletically gifted heavyweight on the roster as he has a collegiate basketball background to help prove that. He’s agile with a lot of natural power, knocking down Jared Rosholt with his bicep on a missed punch! He hasn’t been able to put together all of his skills yet as he is now 0-3 in the UFC, only being able to show flashes. It has been almost 18 months since his last MMA appearance. Considering he made his debut in 2011 and possesses rare physical gifts, he could have made major strides and come into the contest a completely different fighter than what we all knew.
East doesn’t have nearly the physical skills that Harris does. What he does have is the know-how to put together the skills that he does have. And what he does have is solid even if it isn’t what Harris possesses. Athletic enough that he can throw head kicks, East has developed a good boxing game that has led to several of his fights ending within a few minutes of the start. If he is unable to get going in the boxing he is a skilled enough wrestler that he can take the fight to the ground if he so desires. Considering Harris’ lack of grappling, that could be a viable option.
Where Harris’ athletic ability has really benefited him is in his takedown defense as he shows a sound sprawl in addition to just being a good athlete that he can avoid being taken down the majority of the time. East isn’t the wrestler Rosholt is and he isn’t the hulking beast Soa Palelei is and they both struggled to get Harris down. That means this should be a hell of a striking affair. Harris has the more diverse striking attack, throwing hard body kicks that you know could reach the head if he wanted while East is a much more technically sound boxer.
I really want to pick Harris in an upset special as I find it hard to believe someone as raw as he is hasn’t improved considerably. But I can’t know for sure what he has done in the interim. Will he still be throwing wild strikes simply hoping they connect or will he actually take decent aim at his opponent? But knowing what I do know I’ve got to pick East who has scored a number of early stoppages as of late. Will this be another one? I haven’t been impressed with Harris’ defense, so I say yes. East via KO in the first round
Marcos Rogerio de Lima vs. Clint Hester (Light Heavyweight)
Make or break for a couple of former TUFers who started their UFC careers out on win streaks. I have a hard time believing the loser will be kept around.
De Lima was a top prospect many moons ago whose lack of wrestling proved to be his undoing. When he finally got his opportunity in the UFC he was given favorable matchups and quickly starched Richardson Moreira and Igor Pokrajac, each being disposed of in less than two minutes. He damn near made it three in a row against Nikita Krylov, but Krylov was able to pull out of de Lima’s guillotine attempts and de Lima had nothing left to offer. Body and head kicks are the most vicious part of de Lima’s arsenal, though he offers some good pop in his fists too.
Hester is making the move up from middleweight which isn’t all that surprising as he was absolutely huge at 185. One of his issues was a shallow gas tank and while the move up in weight probably won’t completely solve the problem, it certainly does help alleviate it. An athletic freak with a background in boxing, Hester’s 77″ reach will still be longer than the majority of his opponents, including de Lima who measures in at 75″. Like de Lima, defensive wrestling is his sore spot as well as he was able to be taken down multiple times by middleweights who aren’t exactly skilled wrestlers. That could be a moot point in this contest though.
While it is expected that this will be a striking contest, Hester probably realizes that greatly favors de Lima who has some kickboxing contests under his belt in addition to Hester dropping his last contest to a similarly styled fighter in Vitor Miranda. With that in mind, look for Hester to mix in more than the occasional change of pace takedown that he usually produces to keep de Lima guessing. Otherwise it will be a matter of time before de Lima lands a hard strike to the body or noggin of Hester as Hester will need to walk into range of de Lima’s kicks in order to land his combination punches.
I have a hard time seeing this one go the distance and it’s too close to call with any real confidence. De Lima’s KO power is more readily apparent while Hester has the more diverse attack. Hester has changed camps in addition to his weight class and my belief is that this will be beneficial for him as it has been for others who’ve recently jumped weight classes. He finishes de Lima off late after the Brazilian tires. Hester via TKO in the third round
Efrain Escudero vs. Kevin Lee (Lightweight)
Having now used Escudero as a coach on the latest incarnation of TUF Latin America, there doesn’t seem to be much use for him anymore. So now the UFC is feeding him to Lee in order to get the young prospect back on the winning track.
Escudero was once seen in a similar light to how Lee is currently looked at, but that was many years ago. As more athletes entered the sport, Escudero’s physical limitations were exposed and he fell out of favor with this being his third stint in the UFC. He has been working at the MMA Lab the last few years and looked better than ever as he tightening up his boxing with crisper combinations. He’s at his best in scrambles and transitions as he demonstrated by nabbing a guillotine choke victory over Drew Dober almost a year ago.
Lee’s skill set is very similar to what Escudero has to offer as he is largely a boxer and wrestler with a lot of success in scrambles and transitions. The difference is that Lee is a far superior athlete to Escudero and is complimented by a freakish 77″ reach that he is still learning how to properly use. While he has certainly improved his punching prowess, he neglected his wrestling in his last appearance and paid the price as he can be predictable in his striking combinations. Wrestling is still his greatest strength where his natural explosion really comes through in his double legs.
The bottom line in this fight is anything Escudero can do, Lee can do better. Wrestling? Advantage Lee. Clinch fighting? Advantage Lee. Scrambles? Advantage Lee. About the only thing I’m not positive that Lee will have the advantage in is the standup striking as Lee has a tendency to leave himself open, but Escudero hasn’t consistently shown enough power to make him pay a significant price. Then again, Santos wasn’t known for his power either. Still, Escudero has fallen short every time he faces someone with either the wrestling pedigree or athleticism of Lee much less both. Escudero has never been KO’d in his career and hasn’t been submitted in over five years. Look for Lee to win in a dominant decision. Lee via decision
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