Don’t ever expect your prelims to look like this again because it isn’t ever going to happen again. Well… maybe until UFC 250 or UFC 300… but don’t get used to this! Aside from the Sage Northcutt fight, any of the fights listed here could easily headline an FS1 or even a big FOX card with all of them having major divisional consequences.
Zingano has already fought for the title and Pena was a favorite to do so next had Ronda Rousey disposed of Holly Holm as was expected. Johny Hendricks has been to the top of the mountain and isn’t as far away as some might think from getting another shot at the top. Dillashaw has also been champion and is facing one of the few who have already beaten him for their opportunity to face reigning champion Dominick Cruz. This is going to be awesome!
FS1 prelims start at 8:00 ET/5:00 PT on July 9
Cat Zingano (9-1) vs. Julianna Pena (7-2), Women’s Bantamweight
Though the winner isn’t expected to get a title shot - at least not right away - this is a pivotal fight in the 135 division. Zingano is out to prove her days as a title contender aren’t finished while Pena looks to move her name amongst the elite of the division.
Zingano hasn’t been seen since her 14 second defeat to Ronda Rousey about 16 months ago. Some would probably question her mental toughness following her long layoff after such a devastating defeat, but this is a woman who overcame two devastating knee injuries on top of her husband committing suicide to come back from a 17-month layoff. This woman is the definition of toughness. Age isn’t on her side though as she just turned 34.
Pena has had some hard obstacles to overcome herself, such as having her knee shredded following her victory on TUF 18. She recovered nicely from that to pick up two dominant wins upon her return only to cause self-inflicted damage with a high profile arrest for alleged assault after an incident in a bar. Perhaps the biggest setback for her had nothing to do with her as there is a strong likelihood she would be the next contender for the title if Ronda Rousey was still champion given their testy history and the UFC’s needs for fresh challengers.
Zingano has picked up a reputation as a slow starter following her come-from-behind victories over Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes - ironically enough the contestants fighting for the title later in the card. Surviving those fights also contributed to her reputation for being tough, but there is no way in hell she would have earned that title shot if all she had was heart and toughness. One of the biggest women in the division, she uses her strength well in the clinch where she batters her opponents with short punches and knees while maintaining excellent control. She is awkward from the outside and eats a lot of damage, but she does have some high kicks from there that are worth being wary of.
Pena has quite a few similarities in that she too is aggressive with a preference for the clinch. She isn’t quite as big as Zingano, though she is a much better athlete with a definitive speed advantage. Pena throws a greater amount of volume than Zingano overall, but so much of it is without technique or accuracy that its effectiveness comes into question. Thus far she has relied on that volume to overwhelm, though the question will be if she can find success with that as her competition progressively gets tougher. Jessica Eye showed she can be countered with ease as Pena’s focus on her attack often has her forgetting about defense, making her easy pickings for someone with an understanding in angles and footwork. Lucky for her, that isn’t Zingano.
Their ground games also have a lot of similarities in that they are relentless ground and pounders from the top position. Where their differences are most notable is how they get the fight to the ground as Zingano relies on trips and throws to get the fight to the ground with headlock throws being her signature. Pena’s preference is to use her wrestling for single and double-leg takedowns in the clinch. Like her striking, Pena’s focus on offense often makes her vulnerable to being swept, reversed, or submitted. She has been able to make up for that with her speed as she is a fantastic scrambler, but it’s hard to believe she won’t pay a severe price for it one of these days.
In terms of pure physical skills, Pena owns the advantage as she is one of the better athletes in the division and is exceptionally well conditioned. I can’t help but see all of the holes in her game though and thinking that Zingano won’t be able to expose those in one way or another as she is truly one of the ultimate survivors in this sport. Zingano has a nose for the finish too, so the question is when she’ll be able to find it. Zingano via submission of the second round
Johny Hendricks (17-4) vs. Kelvin Gastelum (11-2), Welterweight
There may not be a pair of more disappointing welterweights as both have had problems making weight on more than one occasion while coming off of losses where they were sizeable favorites heading into the contest.
Just a year ago Hendricks was still in talks for being one of the elite fighters not just in the division, but in the entire sport. Most pundits agreed that he got screwed in half of his career loses by the judges with both of those being title fights. Fast forward to this year and his weight issues forced a cancelation of an anticipated bout with Tyron Woodley followed by his being absolutely demolished by Stephen Thompson and many see Hendricks as washed up. Though he isn’t a spring chicken, he shouldn’t be finished yet at the age of 32.
Everyone agrees the 24-year old Gastelum still has his best years ahead of him. It’s just that he flashed so early that the expectations on the youngster shot beyond what was reasonable at the time. There were actually plenty of positives to take out of his loss to Neil Magny as he showed the ability to go 25 minutes, producing a late comeback, and making weight comfortably. Now he may be getting the toughest test of his career against the former champion Hendricks.
Hendricks seems to solve one issue that is plaguing him only to have another pop up. He won the title against Robbie Lawler with a torn bicep. He gets that fixed only to have a horrible weight cut and lose the belt. He gets his diet under control and dominates Matt Brown only to again botch his weight cut going into his scheduled fight with Woodley. He looked great physically going into his fight with Thompson only to have no strategy for how to deal with Stephen Thompson’s range striking. Maybe leaving Team Takedown and their coach Marc Laimon wasn’t the best idea as Laimon’s game plans are among the best in the business.
If Hendricks has his head on straight, he can still be the best welterweight in the world. Evolving from grinding wrestler to a power puncher and now into a fantastic combination striker, Hendricks has one of the most well-rounded skill sets in all of MMA. He showed that he can still get down and grind against Brown and no one doubts his power has gone anywhere. His weight cutting issues has allowed his gas tank to betray him at times, but if he has that solved the only major hole that he has is dealing with distance strikers.
Though Gastelum is capable of attacking from the outside, he is at his best pressuring his opponent and threatening the takedown. Will he try to change up his strategy to expose Hendrick’s weakness? That would probably prove unwise as no one else could have exposed Hendricks in the manner that Thompson did. Gastelum has developed a habit of throwing a steady diet of leg kicks at the opposition which is his most consistent strike from the outside with the occasional jab. When he utilizes pressure he throws fast and hard punching combinations that are explosive, often catching his opponent off-guard.
Hendricks is at his best in the pocket where he can not only put together his smooth combinations, but threaten with a takedown. His mixes his punches to the head and body and often punctuates the exchanges with a kick to the leg. He throws a jab with some efficiency on the outside, but is hindered by his relatively short 69″ reach.
The clinch is going to be an interest battle as both are among the most physically strong fighters in the division with a good wrestling pedigree, Hendricks in particular. The former NCAA wrestling champion is damn near impossible to stop if he gets underneath his opponent’s hips and is capable of scoring a heavy slam. Only other fighters with strong wrestling pedigrees have been able to get him off of his feet, which should give Gastelum hope. He usually times his shots well and more often than not finishes them off. He did show a weakness to being taken down himself against Magny time and again, a development few expected. Neither is much of a submission artist, preferring to throw punches on the ground while maintaining positional dominance.
Due to Gastelum being young in his career, Hendricks has a lot more riding on this contest than the youngster. If he ever wants an opportunity to regain the title, he needs to win this fight or he’ll be relegated to a gatekeeping role for the rest of his career. Provided he has all of his ducks in a row, we might see the best version of Hendricks we’ve ever seen. Or perhaps it is true that he is washed up and no longer elite. We’ll soon find out. Hendricks via decision
TJ Dillashaw (12-3) vs. Raphael Assuncao (23-4), Bantamweight
Has it really been almost three years since these two squared off for the first time? Dillashaw’s reign as a UFC champion came and went since that time while Assuncao has only fought twice with this being his first appearance in 21 months. Did I mention the winner probably gets the next crack at Dominick Cruz’s belt?
In the eyes of many - including me - Dillashaw should still be champion. Alas, the judges said differently by awarding Cruz the decision in January and now Dillashaw must pick up at least one more win before he is given a rematch against Cruz. Considering this is a chance for him to avenge another loss many felt he didn’t deserve, there probably isn’t a fight he would rather take to get back to the title.
Assuncao is about as obscure as a fighter can be for someone that has been hovering around the top of his division for several years. That’s what happens when you’ve had a 21-month layoff due to injuries. It’s easy to forget that he is currently riding a seven fight win streak that includes the aforementioned victory over Dillashaw as well as Bryan Caraway.
Dillashaw is not the same fighter that he was when these two first fought. Fresh to working with Duane Ludwig at the time, Dillashaw has mastered in Ludwig’s unique Muay Thai style heavy on stance switching, lateral movement, and unorthodox footwork in the name of finding angles of attack. Though he abandoned the strategy against Cruz - one of the few who utilize a similar approach — look for him to go back to it against Assuncao. Long-winded combinations are a trademark of Dillashaw which typically ends up wearing down his opponent over the long haul. Power isn’t a trademark of his, but it comes in flashes. He usually gets hit quite a bit in return, though the strikes are rarely clean thanks to his movement.
Assuncao’s reputation as a submission artist has led to him being underrated as a striker. He doesn’t have one-punch power by any means, but he has improved his technique and angles to the point that he averages just under 6 significant strikes per minute over his last two bouts according to Fight Metric. That isn’t even mentioning his wicked kicks, particularly to the legs. He alternates between moving forward with basic punching combinations and stepping aside just enough to land a hard counter hook. Typically his defense is outstanding, rarely staying in the same place once his opponent begins their attack while utilizing good head movement. Though usually hard to find, he has shown a weakness to leg kicks.
The first fight featured a significant portion of the fight on the ground as both attempted submission chokes only for the other to escape. Dillashaw is the better pure wrestler, coming from a collegiate background and is the only fighter aside from Caraway to take down Assuncao at bantamweight. Though his shot isn’t particularly powerful, he times it well and uses other various tools such as trips and knee taps to get the fight to the ground. He’s skilled at taking the back too - he did in their first contest - and has knack for finishing with a RNC.
Where Dillashaw is in danger of being upset is in a pure grappling contest as Assuncao’s reputation is well deserved. He isn’t going to wow observers with a flashy finish having scored only a single submission finish since joining the WEC, but he routinely passes guard with ease while maintaining a heavy top game. When he times his takedowns well, he usually finishes the job though he’s been okay to use his large frame to simply push the fight against the fence to wear down his opponent. Though traditionally difficult to get to the ground, Dillashaw has already proven he can take Assuncao down.
This is not the same fight we saw in Brazil in October 2013. Dillashaw has since been atop the championship mountain while Assuncao has largely been on the shelf. Despite what Dominick Cruz says, ring rust is a very real thing and Assuncao is likely to fall prey to it. I feel much more comfortable picking Dillashaw in this thanks to that fact, though it should still be a pretty good display of high level MMA. Dillashaw via decision
Sage Northcutt (7-1) vs. Enrique Marin (8-3), Lightweight
The boy wonder returns from his first career loss to be given a softball. Does Uncle Dana realize he’s adding to fan’s vitriol towards Super Sage by putting him on this card?
In reality I have no doubt Dana White is aware of the public perception of Northcutt, but just figures so long as fans are talking about him that he is getting what he wants out of him. The problem for fans is they tend to complain more about things they dislike rather than praise what they do like. While no one is doubting Northcutt’s physical gifts, most feel he isn’t ready for the big stage and would rather see him hone his craft on a smaller stage than have him shoved down their throats while being spoon-fed lesser opponents. That he is getting paid a higher sum than more established fighters doesn’t help Northcutt’s cause either.
You won’t find a name more out of place on this historic card than that of Marin. Not possessing much high level experience himself, it isn’t difficult to see why the UFC hand picked him to get the Northcutt train back on the winning track. Hardly coming from an MMA hotbed in Spain, Marin came up short against Erick Montano in the finals of the TUF Latin America 2 tournament while fighting at welterweight.
There may not be a better pure athlete on the entire roster than Norhtcutt. There also isn’t anyone as raw as the kid is. His striking skills are the most developed part of game at this point, particularly his kicks. If his roundhouse kick connects with his opponent’s head, its lights out. While his boxing is still developing, his speed allows him to charge and put together some fast combinations. He tends to keep his hands low which makes it easy to counter him, though his explosion often makes it difficult for that to happen.
Marin is going to have a difficult time matching up with the youngster on the feet. He has made some strides in that arena thanks to some work with Rafael Cordeiro, but he is still very stiff in his movement. The clinch is where he does his best work, landing elbows and knees looking for openings to take his opponent to the ground. While he tends to telegraph his level changes, Northcutt has been susceptible to takedowns. Marin moving down to 155 could help him out as well as he won’t be facing opponents bigger than him by a sizeable margin.
Make no mistake that Marin will want to get the fight to the ground as Northcutt’s grappling inexperience was exposed by Bryan Barberena as he was able to score an arm triangle choke from half-guard. Northcutt panicked as he had never been in that situation in a live fight and he should respond much better now that he has been in that situation, but banking on that would be foolish until we’ve seen otherwise. While Marin tends to get reckless at times in his search for subs, his aggression could benefit him against someone like Northcutt. It doesn’t sound illogical to call Marin the best submission fighter Northcutt has faced thus far in his young career.
By putting Northcutt on this card, it’s clear the UFC expects him to win this contest as it could care less what type of career Marin has going forward. They’re putting their eggs in the Northcutt basket whether the fans want them to or not. Marin will try to execute a strategy similar to Barberena in taking the fight to the ground. Seeing as how Northcutt will be expecting him to do so and Marin hasn’t shown the same ruggedness Barberena possesses makes me think it an unlikely proposition. Northcutt via TKO of the second round
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