While I always try to be optimistic about what is being offered by whatever the UFC is putting out, I also try to be honest. The first two hours of the FS1 prelims don’t have much to offer. Oh, there could be an exciting contest or two out of the four fights, but there isn’t anyone fans are going to get behind. The last hour? Now, that’s got a lot of intrigue. The preliminary headliner between Nate Marquardt and Sam Alvey feels like a guarantee to deliver a finish. But the real intrigue comes in the fight just before that when Raphael Assuncao and Aljamain Sterling face off in a contest between highly ranked bantamweights. It’s unfortunate that many fans can’t seem to get behind the smaller weight classes as this contest rightfully deserves to be on the main card.
The FS1 prelims take place at 5:00 PM ET/2:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Nate Marquardt (35-16-2) vs. Sam Alvey (29-8, 1 NC), Middleweight
I’m not sure whether to dread this contest or be excited for it. The obvious result that most would expect out of these two is a highlight reel KO, but I also fear that it could be a 15-minute snoozer given that these two have the savvy to avoid that type of finish. Then again, as this contest just screams of middleweight goodness, I can’t wait to see what Phil Mackenzie has to offer in his narrative between these former training partners for the staff picks.
Hard to believe that Marquardt began fighting in cages for a living before the turn of the new millennium and is still plying his trade in the world’s best MMA organization. He won’t ever be fighting for a world title again, but he has picked up impeccable timing and a deep bag of tricks after well over fifty career contests which has picked him up a pair of KO victories over CB Dollaway and Tamdan McCrory in his most recent victories. He has had issues being able to outwork his opponent over the course of 15 minutes without tiring, but he’s also taken steps to address those issues. Marquardt also showed he still has most of his wrestling chops against McCrory, something he’ll probably look to utilize against the hard-hitting Alvey.
The problem with that is Alvey’s wrestling is highly underrated. Nobody talks about it since the Smilin’ One rarely looks to take the fight to the ground himself, scoring zero takedowns in his UFC run. However, in that time he has also been taken down by only one opponent, showing near-impenetrable takedown defense. Considering there are few that have better one-punch KO power, the simple strategy works incredibly well for Alvey. He doesn’t throw a lot of volume since he tends to wait for his opponent to throw first, making it difficult for him to win if the fight goes a full 15 minutes. He also struggles when his opponent keeps the fight on the outside as he has very little offense from range.
It’s really simple to beat Alvey… if you have the right tools. I don’t think that Marquardt has those tools to attack Alvey from the outside on a consistent basis. He’s going to have to either take the fight to the ground – something I don’t think he’ll be able to do as McCrory is a poor wrestler – or outbox Alvey without getting KO’d. Alvey’s chin has traditionally been stout – only Derek Brunson has cracked it – while Marquardt is notoriously chinny. It feels academic, but I’ll also admit that Marquardt has made it difficult to bet against him recently. Alvey via KO of RD1
Raphael Assuncao (23-5) vs. Aljamain Sterling (12-1), Bantamweight
While I can understand why this isn’t on the main card, why isn’t it at least the prelim headliner? This is a fantastic contest between two of the higher ranked bantamweights in the world! The winner of this contest could realistically be fighting for the title by next year. I acknowledge quite a few things would have to fall in place for that to happen, but it isn’t like we’re talking about an occurrence that would be completely unforeseen should it happen.
Assuncao very well could have had his shot at the belt had he not endured a series of injuries that has limited to one contest since October 2014, a loss to former champion TJ Dillashaw that snapped a seven-fight winning streak. Even though he’s best known as a BJJ expert, Assuncao has turned himself into a slick counterpuncher. There is nothing flashy about his approach, putting together basic punching combinations with a healthy volume of stinging leg kicks to give his opponents another dimension to think about. His defense is sound as well, limiting Dillashaw in both of their contests to his lowest amount of significant strikes per minute over the course of his last 10 bouts.
Sterling is one of the best pure athletes on the UFC roster with a very strong wrestling base. That alone makes him a threat to beat any bantamweight on the roster at any time, but he’s still very raw in both his striking and in his fight IQ. Those two shortcomings cost him in his last appearance against Bryan Caraway as he burned up his gas tank early while being unable to present a threat on the feet. Sterling does know how to keep his opponents at a distance with a series of front kicks which limit the amount of damage his opponents can do as well as setting up his explosive double and single-leg takedowns, but that hardly makes him someone opponents will look to pay respect to on the feet.
The aspect of this contest I’m most looking forward to is the grappling exchanges. Assuncao is without a doubt the more fundamentally sound BJJ practitioner with slick guard passing and sound positioning. However, Sterling has proven to be a very creative with his submissions, being the only fighter in my memory that has secured an arm-triangle choke from the bottom. Both are excellent scrambling – though I’d imagine Sterling’s athleticism should give him the advantage there – and difficult to submit. If it becomes a ground war, expect a lot of fun exchanges.
Assuncao has continually improved his wrestling to the point that only Dillashaw and Caraway have been able to take him down in his UFC stint. If he can at least force Sterling to expend a lot of energy to take and keep him down, he should be able to piece up the youngster on the feet as he should have the advantage even if Sterling has made huge strides in that field. I’m still tempted to pick Sterling as Assuncao is now 34 years old and could end up losing some motivation following his last loss to Dillashaw, but I’m sticking with the Brazilian. Assuncao via decision
Bobby Nash (8-1) vs. Li Jingliang (11-4), Welterweight
Not much of a narrative to this contest. Jingliang is looking to pick up consecutive wins in the UFC for the first time while Nash replaces Yancy Medeiros on short notice. If Nash was a hot prospect who had been on multiple prospects lists, there might be a bit more excitement. Alas, it is just another fight.
To be brutally honest, Nash wasn’t on my radar when he got the call for this contest, but perhaps he should have been. He’s quietly picked built up a respectable record in impressive fashion. The problem has been a lack of quality names on his resume with former UFC vet Lewis Gonzalez being the only notable victory. Nonetheless, Nash has shown progress in his striking, throwing short one-two combinations with good technique and occasional one-punch power. His defense comes and goes as his form isn’t bad, though he tends to get hit more than he should.
Considering Nash’s wrestling is more enthusiastic than effective, look for Jingliang to return to his grappling roots. Known as The Leech, Jingliang developed a reputation on the regional scene has a fighter who was difficult to shake once he got a hold of his opponent. He’s not much of a submission threat, but he can be smothering presence and has some killer ground and pound. Jingliang has shown off his improved standup more in recent contests, highlighted by improved finishing power. The problem there is that he has had defensive lapses, often dropping his hands and letting his opponents score points with ease.
Jingliang has traded wins and losses since coming into the UFC, scoring impressive finishes in his last two victories while suffering from a serious mental lapse in his last loss. Is Nash the guy to expose those lapses? While I will check myself by saying anything is possible, I don’t think he will as Jingliang’s recent losses have been to experienced veterans who’ve seen a lot happen in the cage over the course of their career. That doesn’t describe Nash. Jingliang via decision
Henrique da Silva (12-1) vs. Jordan Johnson (6-0), Light Heavyweight
The burgeoning reputation of da Silva took a major hit when he came in flat against Paul Craig in his last appearance, resulting in a submission loss. Now he gets to welcome yet another newcomer to the UFC – his third straight contest against a debutant – in Jordan Johnson rather than moving up the ladder. With only six professional contests under his belt and a career stretching back less than three years, Johnson is a complete wild card.
Wild card or not, Johnson has flashed the potential to be a serious contender, provided he is handled with care. Displaying a nice all-around game, it’s unlikely he’ll be overwhelmed in any one category off the bat, though it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where he is strongest either. His striking technique is usually sound and accentuated by his 78″ reach, though he does tend to break down and brawl from time to time. While pressure and clinch fighting are both key factors in his success, he could stand to improve in both, particularly the clinch where he falls into long periods of inactivity. Don’t sleep on his submission game as he has proven to be adept from there with strong front headlock control.
Da Silva’s nickname is Frankenstein, appropriate given his stalking nature and ability to eat all sorts of punishment. Against Craig, he seemed to tire far faster than usual, indicating he could have had some sort of injury or a bad camp, though I can’t definitively say for sure. Hopefully he can return to his brawling nature rather than looking like a punching bag. He’s shown a surprisingly apt guard and a methodical submission game along with finishing power. Da Silva also showed an active kicking game on the regional scene that hasn’t completely disappeared in the UFC, but has been utilized far less often than it once was.
I really like what I’ve seen out of Johnson and think that he could be a keeper, though I’m also very leery about the competition that he has faced. It isn’t his fault as there is almost zero quality competition at 205 on the US regional scene, but it doesn’t eliminate my concern. He could pull out a decision, but that would mean outworking da Silva in two out of three rounds. He’s not bad with submissions either, but I don’t think he’s at Craig’s level in terms of his BJJ and Craig had to work to finish da Silva. The Brazilian earns a hard-fought decision. Da Silva via decision
Eric Spicely (9-1) vs. Alessio Di Chirico (10-1), Middleweight
Good luck finding anyone with a high level of interest in this contest. Spicely pulled off one of the biggest upsets of 2016 when he submitted Thiago Santos, but the challenge for him now is to build off of that victory. As for Di Chirico, he is fresh off of a win over Garreth McLellan, though most felt he should have rolled over the South African if he wanted to establish himself as a long-term fixture. Whoever gets the win here will take a huge step in silencing their critics.
Spicely is the type of guy that is easy to root for. He isn’t very athletic. He isn’t very big or strong. His story is tragic as his parents were both drug addicts and his girlfriend died fairly recently as he prepared for a fight. Despite that, Spicely hasn’t been getting much love from fans. That’s because his style isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing, relying heavily on his grappling to secure submissions. That by itself isn’t so bad, but that his wrestling and entries are subpar in addition to his awkward – and largely ineffective — standup game leave his overall strategy wanting.
Di Chirico is still very raw, relying very heavily on his athleticism and power. Largely a counter striker, he loves throwing a power right as his opponent attacks. His timing could be better and I’d love to see him throw in combination, a possibility as he has made minor strides in each contest, relying less and less on his strong kicking game. Di Chirico’s wrestling has improved too, showing better Greco skills against the fence to compliment his reactionary takedowns.
I’m not sure if the credit goes to Joe Silva or Sean Shelby for this contest, but kudos to whoever did make it. Di Chirico is a raw talent that would easily dispose of the gritty Spicely if he fully knew how to utilize his physical skills. Instead, Spicely’s know-how and deep submission arsenal will make him a hell of a challenge for the Italian, perhaps the biggest of his career. I’ll go with Di Chirico as Spicely is a natural welterweight who has no interest in cutting that much weight which makes his takedowns that much more ineffective. If a finish doesn’t come early, don’t expect this to be an entertaining contest. Di Chirico via TKO of RD2
Marcos Rogerio de Lima (14-4-1) vs. Jeremy Kimball (14-5), Light Heavyweight
Though no one has believed for a number of years that de Lima was going to become a contender, his UFC run has felt underwhelming despite possessing a winning record at 3-2. At least no one can deny that his fights are entertaining as not a single contest has left the first round. He was expected to welcome John Phillips to the big show only for the Welshman to pull up lame with an injury. Now Jeremy Kimball steps in on about a week’s notice.
There is nothing subtle about Kimball’s game: he’s a brawler through and through. His chin has held up remarkably well for his style, not having a single KO/TKO loss on his professional ledger despite his willingness to slug it out. He’s not afraid to throw a high-risk maneuver such as a flying knee or a head kick in close quarters, though it has worked to his detriment too. Kimball has shown surprisingly effective takedown ability, but he has also been just as vulnerable to being taken down himself. He’s in serious trouble if that ends up being the case all every single one of Kimball’s career losses have come by submission.
Look for de Lima to keep the fight in the clinch or on the outside as opposed to trading in the pocket in Kimball’s comfort zone. Being the bigger and longer man – Kimball has spent most of his career at middleweight – de Lima has the physical skills to better dictate where the fight takes place. Now he just needs to put those skills to good use. His kicks from the outside are the most dangerous part of his arsenal, though his Thai clinch and knees are almost as dangerous. De Lima will go for a choke submission if he sees one available, though he doesn’t always take the time to make sure the attempt is properly cinched in. His defensive grappling has been called in to question at times too.
Kimball is getting this call to the big show because he is a local who is capable of filling in on short notice after Phillips pulled out. He’s not a very good athlete nor does he possess overwhelming power which limits his ceiling. Being small for a light heavyweight doesn’t help him out either. De Lima has his own limitations, but none of them are physical. He typically runs through those who are significantly less skilled than him and this contest should be no exception. De Lima via KO of RD1
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