While the top of the card can be questioned for quality on Sunday’s UFC Fight Night 88 card, the depth cannot, which extends well into the preliminary card portion. In Sara McMann, you have a former title challenger and Olympic silver medalist. In Abel Trujillo, you have one of the better action fighters in the sport. In Aljamain Sterling, you have one of the brightest up-and-comers whom many believe will be a champion in the very near future, and he’s taking on a dude everyone loves to hate in Bryan Caraway. I admit that there are some throw-away fights, but who is to say that you can’t find treasure in the trash sometimes? Top to bottom there aren’t any real household names, but there is certainly quality.
Sara McMann vs. Jessica Eye (Women’s Bantamweight)
Despite being two of the better known names in women’s MMA, both McMann and Eye are in an absolute must-win situation having lost two in a row and three of their last four. Is it possible the loser could be cut? Me thinks so…
McMann is one of the greatest mysteries in the division. She possesses elite physical gifts, an unmatched wrestling pedigree, and exceptional toughness. Despite all of that she has been unable to find any sort of extended success in the UFC. The issue has been her inability to adapt her stupendous wrestling into an effective MMA style and advance beyond a basic striking arsenal in addition to some unfavorable stylistic matchups as Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes were both ideal opponents to expose those holes respectively.
Eye’s had similar problems with her matchups as well, though her strengths and weaknesses are on the opposite end of the spectrum as Eye is a fantastic out-fighter with absolutely no inclination for grappling. It’s pretty simple to explain: she has lost all of her UFC fights in which she has been taken down while winning all of those in which she was able to stay on her feet. Her takedown defense is actually better than advertised but when you’re facing some of the better takedown artists, you’re likely going to hit the mat from time to time.
There are a couple of X-factors to consider, chief among them the fact that they’ve trained with one another before which means they’re familiar with each other’s tendencies. That might give McMann the knowledge to effectively use his basic boxing to get through Eye’s defenses… but then it might also give Eye the know-how to stuff McMann’s takedowns. The other thing to look for is who wins the clinch battle as both are pretty skilled in that area.
It’s pretty basic to figure out that Eye will be looking to keep her distance from McMann while lighting her up with her skilled boxing combinations while McMann will look to close the distance and take Eye to the ground with her powerful takedowns. I’m going to favor McMann here as Eye is better suited to fight at 125 and McMann should be able to outmuscle Eye in the clinch and control her on the ground. McMann via decision
Abel Trujillo vs. Jordan Rinaldi (Lightweight)
USADA strikes again! With Carlos Diego Ferreira failing a drug test, Rinaldi steps up on short notice as a sizeable underdog against action-fighter Trujillo.
A little over six months ago Trujillo was riding a two fight losing streak on shaky ground when it comes to sticking around the UFC. Now following some unusual events, he has to be USADA’s biggest fan as he is potentially in line for his third straight win thanks to an overturn of his loss to Gleison Tibau for his drug test failure and his stoppage victory over Tony Sims shortly after. Deserved or not, Trujillo has gotten a reputation as a horrible wrestler due to his penchant to stand and throw and the drubbing Khabib Nurmagomedov put on him in which he was taken down a record 21 times. That label is a bit unfair as Khabib is on another level from everyone else and Trujillo has largely held his own in the rest of his contests.
Knowing that Trujillo isn’t the weak wrestler many surmise him to be, it will be curious to see what strategy Rinaldi will take against him. One of those fighters who is good at everything but not great at anything, Rinaldi lacks a true strength while usually attacking his opponent’s weakness. He does have a wrestling background with excellent timing on his shots, but he is also on the smaller side for 155 lbs which will hurt him against Trujillo whose struggles have come against bigger and more physical opponents. If Rinaldi can get the Blackzillian representative to the mat, he has shown a knack for getting his opponent’s back while being a sound positional grappler.
The expectation is that the fight will take place on the feet where Trujillo is very aggressive, often luring his opponent into the brawling environment in which he thrives. Though he has a nice clinch game, he often losses all technique as soon as he lands a few punches as he goes crazy looking for the kill. If Rinaldi can survive the onslaught that is sure to come, Trujillo will be easy pickings as he tends to expend all energy in the process as Rinaldi’s definitive advantage comes in the stamina department. Rinaldi mixes in a basic boxing approach with leg and front kicks, though he doesn’t offer much KO power.
Ferreira represented a solid test for Trujillo while Rinaldi doesn’t exactly seem like a sure thing to hang around the UFC. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve a chance to prove his UFC worth. I’m saying Trujillo is one of the tougher challenges for a newcomer to come in and steal a win from. I don’t see him going the distance much less snatching victory. Trujillo via KO in the first round
Jake Collier vs. Alberto Uda (Middleweight)
This is a completely vanilla fight. Collier is on the verge of being cut as he needs a win to keep his job while Uda makes his UFC debut with almost no hype behind him.
The best physical feature for Collier is his rangy 6’3″ frame and 78″ reach. Unfortunately that is about the only plus he physically owns as he isn’t any better than an average athlete and has had his chin cracked in both of his UFC losses thus far. He does know how to use that reach offensively as he establishes a solid jab while throwing in a variety of kicks and boxing combinations for a very high output. He does struggle to keep the fight from staying at the end of his range and often eats plenty of shots himself, thus why his chin cracked.
Uda’s outside striking is limited to front kicks and awkward punches that leave his chin out to be countered. Fortunately for him that isn’t his strength as he is devastating from the clinch with a textbook plum clinch which he uses to leverage his knees into the body and head of his opponents with real finishing power. Knowing that is the only place where he is dangerous on the feet, he wastes little time in closing the distance, usually while eating a punch or two to get there. Collier doesn’t have the power to make him pay too badly for that strategy, so look for Collier to try and keep his distance despite owning a competent clinch game of his own.
The entire grappling phase is a bit of a mystery between these two. Neither are very technical wrestlers, using trips and body-lock takedowns though I’d have to give the overall advantage to Collier ever so slightly due to his solid takedown defense. Both have submission ability too with Collier better in scrambles while Uda shows plenty of skill off of his back. Don’t look for either of them to pound out a victory as their ground strikes are more annoying than powerful while goth have shown a clue how to sweep their opponents, something Uda’s past opponents didn’t seem to have a clue about.
I wouldn’t even consider throwing money around this fight as this is too close to call and I fully expect the odds to reflect that. I do acknowledge that Collier has faced tougher competition which is why there are a few blemishes on his record, but I’m still picking Uda thanks to his chin showing some granite while Collier’s has proven fragile too often. Uda via TKO in the second round
Erik Koch vs. Shane Campbell (Lightweight)
There are a number of fights on the card with a lot of potential for FOTN. This one has that type of potential as both are strikers through and through despite most fans likely sleeping on that possibility.
Does anyone else remember that Koch was supposed to fight Jose Aldo for the title four years ago? Me neither. Injury after injury has derailed what was once upon a time one of the more promising prospects on the roster as Koch hasn’t even stepped inside a UFC cage for two years. It wasn’t like things were going good for him up to that point anyway as he has dropped three of his last four. Perhaps the time away has done him some good while helping him to refocus himself, though the only way to find out will be to see him step back in the cage.
Campbell has been your typical UFC journeyman who has had just about as many bright spots as he has had bad moments thus far while looking more comfortable with every passing bout. At 6’0″ with a 71″ reach, Campbell has above average size for a lightweight which really accentuates his outside striking. He stays busy with a jab which allows him to land a lot of volume and sets up his kicks very well. A former kickboxer, few can rival Campbell’s kicking arsenal which he throws at all angles to all the orifices’ of his opposition. Considering Koch comes from a Tae Kwon Do background, we should see a lot of feet flying in this one. Koch has more dynamite in his fists which should make up for the slight reach advantage Campbell owns to make the striking a pretty even affair.
Though both have excellent takedown defense, I gotta give the grappling edge ever so slightly to Campbell thanks to his ability to hit well-timed trips and throws from the clinch to mix things up. Koch has submission chops with half of his victories come that way, though the last one was six years ago. SIX! Even crazier is that it has been longer since he scored a takedown. Have his grappling skills dissipated?
I’m struggling on this one since Koch is such a wild card. Will he be the same fighter we all previously knew before his slump or is this skid he’s on permanent? Like the Collier-Uda fight, I wouldn’t throw any money around on this one. Koch’s biggest wins came against guys now fighting at 135 lbs (Raphael Assuncao and Francisco Rivera) which gives me the impression he was able to be successful bullying smaller opponents. That isn’t Campbell. Shane Campbell via decision
Aljamain Sterling vs. Bryan Caraway (Bantamweight)
Far and away my favorite fight on the prelims (and quite possibly the card), high stakes are on the line as Sterling makes his case for a title shots while Caraway simply looks to push his name into the title picture. He’ll do that with a win here.
His first fight since his foray into free agency, Sterling remains undefeated with off the charts athleticism and length that had people predicting him as a future title challenger even before he ever stepped into the Octagon. He has yet to put together his standup game to make himself a threat there which should be a sign of how good of a wrestler and grappler that he is that he has been able to get his name swirling around the rest of the elite of the division with incomplete striking. That doesn’t mean he isn’t dangerous as he throws his kicks efficiently, including spinning kicks. It just means he has yet to develop consistent fluidity to integrate all parts of his arsenal.
Caraway isn’t exactly a great striker himself, largely using looping hooks to distract his opponent as he closes the distance in order to get the fight to the ground. Then again, he showed an effective jab and some sneaky hooks against Eddie Wineland in his last appearance, out-landing the experienced striker in a fight that was mostly contested from a distance. That should be taken as a compliment towards his defense as well as he showed much improved head movement as well. He’s still at his best grinding out his opponent against the fence where he can quickly drop down for a takedown.
The ground battle is what has so many people salivating at the prospect of this fight. Sterling uses his quickness to shoot in on his opponents hips to score a takedown. It isn’t just his athleticism that makes him dangerous as he is a former collegiate wrestler with a solid technical game. He’s relentless too in finishing the takedown and looking for submissions, chaining one after another. Caraway isn’t quite as smooth as Sterling using a more grinding approach, though he is a chain wrestler too with a savvy knack for all the little tricks not easily seen by the casual observer to not only get the fight where he wants to go, but to finish the fight once he gets it there. Both are great in scrambles and taking the back too with a large chunk of their wins coming by way of RNC.
Caraway hasn’t exactly made himself a likeable character (and not just because he is Miesha Tate’s boyfriend), but he has made it difficult to pick against him as he has proven himself to be durable and smart as he makes excellent adjustments throughout the fight. Despite that I still can’t help but give the advantage to Sterling in this one. He’s too damned talented with a point to prove after many felt he didn’t get the fair shake he deserved in free agency. Caraway will make this fight a lot of fun, but I don’t think he can make up for Sterling’s physical advantage. Sterling via decision
Chris de la Rocha vs. Adam Milstead (Heavyweight)
Have you ever thrown spaghetti against the wall to see if it will stick? That’s what the UFC is doing at the bottom of the heavyweight division in hopes of finding a keeper and these two big fellas exemplify that.
This isn’t de la Rocha’s first UFC appearance, but it might as well be since he lasted less than a minute in his forgettable debut after taking it on short notice. He is a bit of a frustrating case as he does have some good physical skills, but he is already 37 with five professional fights on his ledger after making his professional debut in 2013. Would he have been able to become a true player had he started his career earlier? Obviously we’ll never know. It’s clear the UFC would rather see Milstead emerge with the victory due to his comparative youth, though de la Rocha shouldn’t be counted out thanks to his larger girth (he hovers around 245 lbs.) and surprising athleticism.
Milstead is on the smaller side of heavyweight, regularly coming in at the 230 lb. mark on a 6’3″ frame which has led to some talks of his potentially moving down to light heavyweight. Considering there isn’t much fat on his frame that doesn’t seem to be the likeliest of possibilities. Milstead’s athleticism should allow him to compensate for being smaller than de la Rocha as he may already be one of the top athletes in the division. The negative for him is that he has largely been facing cans and veteran journeymen with .500 records. To his credit, he has been finishing them quickly (none of his fights has ever gone the distance) which is what he is supposed to do.
What will transpire in the cage isn’t too difficult to reason: de la Rocha wants to take Milstead to the ground while Milstead wants to stand and trade. De la Rocha is willing to swing punches though it is clear that isn’t his most comfortable dimension as he has struggled to avoid eating damage against skilled strikers. De la Rocha isn’t a great wrestler either, but he does have the physical tools to get Milstead on his back and pound him out from the ground. Milstead does have a wrestling background though he hasn’t used it much. Expect him to use it to keep himself vertical.
There isn’t much to get excited about on paper. De la Rocha was absolutely brutalized by Daniel Omielanczuk in his UFC debut and Milstead hasn’t beaten anyone high profile enough to convince anyone that he is a prized prospect and a win over de la Rocha probably won’t convince anyone that’s what he is quite yet. If he does it though I’ll certainly look at his sophomore UFC effort with greater interest. Milstead via TKO in the first round
[Photo (c) Bill Streicher via USA Today Sports]
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