UFC FIGHT NIGHT PRIMER: B.J. Penn returns to face Yair Rodriguez, plus Lauzon, Held, Saunders, McGee – Full Card Preview

By Matthew Ecochard, MMATorch contributor

The first UFC card of 2017 is a fight night featuring a returning B.J. Penn taking on the prospect Yair Rodriguez. The majority of the fight card takes place on Fox Sports 1 with a few early prelims being on UFC Fight Pass. The following is previews and predictions for the entirety of the card, beginning with the UFC Fight Pass preliminary fights:

UFC Fight Pass Prelim

Dmitrii Smoliakov (8-1) vs. Cyril Asker (7-2) – Heavyweight Bout

Dmitrii Smoliakov must have hoped that his UFC debut would have went better than it had against Luis Henrique Barbosa de Oliveira when he lost in the second round via rear-naked choke. Undefeated previously, Smoliakov had equal submissions to knockouts with four of each to amass an 8-0 record. Cyril Asker also had a rough start to his UFC career with a pretty vicious beat down by an undersized heavyweight in Jared Cannonier. These two have a lot to prove in this second bout, and with both being in their 30’s, the loser will likely be booted, even from the shallow heavyweight division. Smoliakov seems like he has more weapons so a rather unsure pick goes with the Russian to get it done before the final bell sounds.

Prediction: Dmitrii Smoliakov via Submission Round 1

Bojan Mihaklovic (10-4) vs. Joachim Christensen (13-4) – Light Heavyweight Bout

Two more fighters who had disappointing debuts will be squaring off on UFC Fight Pass. Bojan Mihaklovic will be dropping down in weight after being decimated by Francis Ngannou in July. He is primarily a striker, but even at 205 lbs will be fairly undersized. Joachim Christensen lost to Luis Henrique da Silva by armbar in the second round of their bout in October and is fairly strong in most aspects of MMA, but favors the ground and submissions. Christensen is going to be four inches taller and should be able to roll through Bojan Mihaklovic without too much trouble.

Prediction: Joachim Christensen via Unanimous Decision

Walt Harris (8-5) vs. Chase Sherman (9-2) – Heavyweight Bout

This heavyweight bout should be an entertaining one with the athletic Walt Harris taking on durable and violent Chase Sherman. Walt Harris hasn’t been able to put it together to be a true threat in the heavyweight division. If Harris doesn’t get the first round knockout he has yet to win in any other fashion, but luckily for him the same can be said for his opponent. Both men have been knocked out before, but it has happened twice to Harris. Sherman showed a durable chin against Justin Ledet, but looked to be out of shape and much slower to the punch. While either fighter could win or lose decisively here, I trust Sherman’s chin more from what has been seen so  far.

Prediction: Chase Sherman via TKO Round 1

Devin Powell (8-1) vs. Drakkar Klose (6-0-1)– Lightweight Bout

Two UFC newcomers who should be considered prospects will be making the walk to the octagon on Saturday. Devin Powell is a gritty fighter who loves the ground game and will rough his opponents up with elbows from the top. All three of his submission wins come from different techniques and he has only lost one bout via decision in 2013. Drakkar Klose trains out of the MMA Lab and certainly prefers to strike with four of his victories coming from TKO. Both men have experience against fellow journeymen and this is a good test to see if Klose can stay undefeated against solid competition or if Powell can beat someone stemming from a rather well known fight camp. Klose’s wrestling defense might not be strong enough to keep it standing and Powell seems to have fought the slightly better competition so far so he should be favored here.

Prediction: Devin Powell via Unanimous Decision

Fox Sports 1 Prelims

Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger (6-3) vs. Nina Ansaroff (6-5) – Women’s Strawweight Bout

Both Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger and Nina Ansaroff are likely candidates to be let go by the UFC if they lose this bout as they have gone 0-2 in their short stints in the octagon. Jones-Lybarger had a really tough opponent in Tecia Torres her first time out but then failed to beat a more even fighter in Randa Markos in June of 2016. Nina Ansaroff has had two fights with extended time off in between, she lost her debut against a tough Juliana Lima and then over a year later fought and lost to Justine Kish. Another year has passed for Ansaroff and she is now looking to get her first victory in what should be a fairly even match-up. Ansaroff has more finishing ability than Jones-Lybarger does and one has to hope that with another year of training she might have finally made some solid strides in her overall game.

Prediction: Nina Ansaroff via TKO Round 2

Tony Martin (10-3) vs. Alex White (11-2) – Lightweight Bout

Being almost solely a submission artist makes it hard to succeed in the UFC, but Tony Martin has had a couple of victories still. The issue with Martin is that his submission skills are more unorthodox, but he can still be submitted by higher level BJJ fighters such as Beneil Dariush and Leonardo Santos. Alex White can grapple, but definitely prefers the stand-up so far in his UFC bouts. White will likely look to keep the bout standing, but I would like to see him submit the submission artist after rocking him on the feet. White has the higher upside as a fighter overall and should come out relatively unscathed here, even though he took the bout on a one month notice.

Prediction: Alex White via Submission Round 2

Aleksei Oleinik (50-10-1) vs. Viktor Pesta (10-3) – Heavyweight Bout

Aleksei Oleinik is as veteran as you can get in the sport with over 60 bouts and finally got his UFC shot in 2014. Oleinik had strong success against two decent heavyweights in Anthony Hamilton and Jared Rosholt before being shutdown by Daniel Omielanczuk in a close bout. With so many miles on him, it was hard to believe Oleinik would do as well as he has done thus far, his submissions have carried him through his career with over 40 of them in his 50 wins. Viktor Pesta has never been submitted, but has been knocked out two times in a row in a little over a year. Pesta can strike and grapple, but is not likely superior to Oleinik in any area of combat. Pesta hasn’t shown much that proves he can hang with high level fighters and he will be dispatched of rather quickly here.

Prediction: Aleksei Oleinik via Submission Round 1

Frankie Saenz (11-4) vs. Augusto Mendes (5-1) – Bantamweight Bout

Running into the brick wall that is Cody Garbrandt gave Augusto Mendes his first loss and led to a less than amazing UFC debut. Mendes relies heavily on his submission skills to win his fights, but not much else had been shown of his skills and his UFC debut didn’t really show much of anything besides getting knocked out. Frankie Saenz was 3-0 in the UFC before facing off against Urijah Faber in a fight where he had some good moments. Eddie Wineland was next for Saenz and he lost in the third round via TKO. Saenz has some good overall skills but doesn’t have the best finishing instincts. Saenz has never been submitted and his fight IQ should be too good for him to let Mendes get into a submission position. Saenz should be able to overwhelm Mendes anywhere they go and play it safe.

Prediction: Frankie Saenz via Unanimous Decision

Fox Sports 1 Main Card

(#8) John Moraga (16-5) vs. (#15) Sergio Pettis (14-2) – Flyweight Bout

The opening bout on the main card features two of the three ranked fighters on the entire card and the fight should be an intriguing one. John Moraga recently lost to Matheus Nicolau which leaves me to question where he actually stands in the division. Prior to that most recent loss, he only had lost to Demetrious Johnson, John Dodson and Joseph Benavidez, but he might be slowing down now. Moraga has always favored his submission game, but can grapple and hold his own on the feet. Sergio Pettis isn’t as strong on the ground as Moraga is, but might have the better overall game. Pettis’ only loss at flyweight was a fight he was winning but got clipped in against Ryan Benoit late in the third round. This is a solid step up in competition for Pettis that should provide proof that he is ready for some higher level competition at flyweight. This should be a tight battle that will be competitive wherever it goes.

Prediction: Sergio Pettis via Split Decision

Court McGee (19-5) vs. Ben Saunders (19-7-2) – Welterweight Bout

The durable Court McGee takes on the slick Ben Saunders in a gritty welterweight bout. McGee has been in the UFC since 2010 going 7-4 in that stretch. McGee will likely keep pressure on the cage and try to turn it into an ugly bout. Ben Saunders has a very exciting style and will try to submit his opposition with unique techniques, but he is also willing to stand and trade. This is some excellent matchmaking by the UFC with two middle of the pack welterweights that could break into the top 15 with a win. Saunders has the better skills, but it is just a matter if he can withstand the pressure of McGee and implement his strategy. McGee is tough  and has never been submitted. If anyone could submit him, it would be Saunders, but its more likely this bout goes to a decision.

Prediction: Ben Saunders via Unanimous Decision

Joe Lauzon (26-13) vs. Marcin Held (22-5) – Lightweight Bout

Marcin Held must have felt incredibly disappointed with his performance in his UFC debut against Diego Sanchez as he spent the entire fight laying complacently on his back. Held has incredible submission skills, but if he relies too heavily on his ground game. Striking against Sanchez, Held was actually winning on the feet, but was too comfortable thinking he could finish him on the ground. If Held fights a smarter fight here, he should be able to dispatch Joe Lauzon. Lauzon is a household name at this point, fighting in the UFC since 2006 and going 13-9 in that time. Submissions are the bread and butter of Lauzon, but he has evolved his striking over the years and his last three victories have come via TKO. This has the potential to be fight of the night for sure. Held should have what it takes to get the win here, but if he losses, this will be the last time I choose him as a favorite.

Prediction: Marcin Held via Submission Round 2

(#10) Yair Rodriguez (9-1) vs. B.J. Penn (16-10-2) – Featherweight Main Event (5 Rounds)

B.J. Penn refuses to retire and is coming back for yet another UFC bout even though he hasn’t won a fight since November, 2010 when he beat Matt Hughes. Going 0-3-1 in his last four bouts over the course of 3 years isn’t a good look for Penn. Two and a half years since his third loss to Frankie Edgar, Penn looks to take on a young prospect in Yair Rodriguez. Rodriguez hasn’t lost a UFC bout yet, going 5-0 and looking more and more impressive every time out.

Penn has solid boxing, wrestling and BJJ, but needs to put it all too good use if he plans on beating Rodriguez. This will be his second fight at featherweight, but he needs to look nothing like he did the first time out against Edgar. In his last bout, Penn held himself tall and kept his legs close, resembling something like a pencil. If Penn comes out with that same strange stance that gave him no advantages against Edgar he will be in for a really rough night.

Rodriguez has a really entertaining style with his black belt in Taekwondo. Only 24 years old, Rodriguez is still improving while Penn is on the downside of his career. His finish over Andre Fili was a thing of beauty and his first five round fight against the tough Alex Caceres gave him some much needed experience. Anywhere this fight goes, the younger and stronger fighter in Rodriguez should be able to hold his own. The weakest area for Rodriguez might be his BJJ, but I just don’t see Penn getting him into a dangerous position to be able to stop him.

Prediction: Yair Rodriguez via TKO Round 2

NOW CHECK OUT THE PREVIEW UFC PRIMER: UFC 207 PRIMER: Ecochard’s preview of Nunes vs. Rousey, Cruz vs. Garbrandt, Dillashaw vs. Lineker, full card preview

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