Here we are over three months into the new year and we are finally getting a fight that feels like it really means something. We were hoping for that with Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov before Nurmy’s weight cutting snafu, which led to the crapfest put on by Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson being that much more disappointing. But even before we get to Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson, we got 12 other contests to get through.
The Fight Pass portion features a prospect in every contest that could make some noise. Some I’m not so crazy about, others I think stand a very good chance of living up to the hype. Regardless, if you like searching the horizon for the next big name in the sport, the early prelims are right up your alley for UFC 210.
The Fight Pass prelims begin at 6:15 PM ET/3:15 PM PT on Saturday.
Gregor Gillespie (8-0) vs. Andrew Holbrook (12-1), Lightweight
Even if they are coming off of wins, Gillespie and Holbrook are both on the lower end of the totem pole in the stack lightweight division. The difference is that Gillespie is expected to continue climbing….
While I admit that is a knock against Holbrook, it should be noted that Chris Lytle protege has proven to be a perennial overachiever who is the perfect fodder for the physically gifted such as Gillespie. He makes up for his lack of athleticism and speed with a strong clinch game and his slick submissions. He has made technical improvements in his boxing to make him a more viable threat on the outside, but its primary function is still to close the distance where he either wears out his opponent with dirty boxing and knees or attempts to drag the fight to the ground.
The problem in this contest is that strategy falls right into Gillespie’s wheelhouse. The former collegiate wrestling champion is a dogged takedown specialist, chaining his attempts together in rapid succession until he gets what he wants. He has slowly developed some submission skills and basic boxing, but is still relatively one-dimensional at this stage in his development. However, Gillespie does pack some dynamite in his fists. That alone makes him a viable threat as he continues to progress beyond throwing a basic one-two combination.
What will give Holbrook hope is Gillespie’s tendency to trust his wrestling ability too much as he doesn’t have the dominant top control game you’d expect from someone as accomplished as him. Holbrook’s willingness to dive on leg locks, chokes, or armbars – basically whatever is available – could prove to be troublesome for Gillespie should he get overconfident. Gillespie is on the small side at 155 too, so perhaps Holbrook could bully him in the clinch… provided he can stuff the takedown attempts.
Gillespie is a deserved favorite as he possesses the far superior physical gifts in addition to his wrestling pedigree. Holbrook has already surpassed the expectations most put on him and it wouldn’t be a shock anymore to see him continue to surprise. However, I’m going with the safe pick in Gillespie to maul him over the course of 15 minutes while escaping Holbrook’s submission attempts. Gillespie via decision
Josh Emmett (11-0) vs. Desmond Green (19-5), Lightweight
Longtime featherweight Green makes his UFC debut at lightweight against Team Alpha Male representative Emmett… and no, this isn’t a short-notice contest. The move up is permanent for the former Titan featherweight champion.
Green has left his featherweight days long behind, having fought four times at various weight classes since losing to Andre Harrison in September 2015 for the aforementioned Titan featherweight title. As is the case with many who move up in weight, Green has stated he no longer feels drained when he steps into the cage. That hasn’t stopped him from looking depleted in the latter stages of his most recent contest against Martin Brown, a concern for the wrestler as he advances his career into the UFC.
Nonetheless, Green was able to eek out the decision thanks to his relentless style. It isn’t pretty – likely why his UFC debut is coming later than many anticipated – but it has proven to be effective. Most of his takedowns come as his opponents look to attack as few execute a reactive takedown better whether it be out of a shot or a body-lock trip. Even if an opponent is able to get back to their feet, Green usually sticks to them like glue, wearing them down with knees and short punches. Considering he falls into bouts of inactivity on the feet while throwing one-off strikes coupled with his lack of power, Green needs to get his wrestling game going in order to find success.
Some may draw comparisons of Green to Emmett due to his base being in wrestling as well, but there are a lot more differences than not. For one, Green is a far superior athlete. On the plus side for Emmett, he is likely to be bigger and stronger than Green. Emmett has also shown a greater willingness to let his fists fly. It isn’t always smooth as he rarely puts anything less than full power into his punches, but he still has enough stamina in reserve to maintain that approach from bell to bell. In the pocket, Emmett has developed a deceptively good combination boxing game, working the body as well as the head while showing comfort from both stances.
When evaluating these two, Emmett appears to be far more comfortable and confident in the cage. In a contest as evenly matched as these two, it puts me over the top to pick him in a contest where I was leaning towards picking him anyway. I won’t be surprised if Green is able to out-athlete him by winning a few more scrambles in the wrestling exchanges that will inevitably come, but I’m leaning towards the older competitor here. Emmett via decision
Katlyn Chookagian (8-1) vs. Irene Aldana (7-3), Women’s Bantamweight
There has been some reasonable expectations on these strikers and they have come up short thus far. Someone will get their career track back on course….
It isn’t that either has been disappointment. Both lost competitive decisions against proven UFC talents, showing exactly why people were excited for their potential. It’s fair to assess that the expectations placed upon them were too much, too soon. Translation: don’t expect the loser to receive their walking papers quite yet.
Aldana in particular has been under a spotlight. Her Mexican heritage is a plus as the UFC looks to make inroads into the Latino market. She has good size, a fun boxing game, and is easy on the eyes. What isn’t to like? Like many in the UFC that are short on experience, Aldana owns many defensive deficiencies. She does make an effort to move her head, but it usually isn’t effective. She can also be drawn into a firefight as her loss to Leslie Smith showed, though Aldana has the power that she should be able to find more success in that environment as she gains experience. In fact, it may be wise for her to take that route against Chookagian.
That’s because Chookagian is extremely disciplined in her approach. While also a striker, she prefers to circle on the outside, keeping her opponent at range with a stiff jab and a variety of kicks. A natural flyweight, she struggled to fend off the takedown attempts of Liz Carmouche after finding success against Lauren Murphy in her UFC debut. While Aldana isn’t a bad wrestler, it isn’t her first avenue to success. That should allow Chookagian to let her fists to fly rather than worry about defending takedowns.
There is a strong case to be made for both in this contest. Aldana is bigger, stronger, and rarely goes to decision. On the other hand, Chookagian’s technique is superior, making great use of angles and footwork to avoid taking damage. I like Chookagian’s ability to stay on the outside and pick apart Aldana. It won’t be the barnburner many want out of the ladies, but it should be a solid contest. Chookagian via decision
Jenel Lausa (7-2) vs. Magomed Bibulatov (13-0), Flyweight
After an exodus of established talent (ex. Zach Makovsky, Kyoji Horiguchi, Ali Bagautinov), there is plenty of room for new talent to carve out a role in the flyweight division. The opportunity is there for Lausa and Bibulatov.
Even with the departure of the earlier names, it is a bit surprising to see Bibulatov make his way into the UFC at this time given WME’s disregard for foreign talent in terms of their marketability. Perhaps it should be taken as an indication of Bibulatov’s talent level. For about three years, he has been considered one of the top prospects at flyweight, even the top prospect in the eyes of some. Could he end up being a challenge for Demetrious Johnson? It is plausible, but Bibulatov needs a lot more seasoning before an accurate assessment can be made.
Known primarily for his wrestling, Bibulatov possesses brilliant timing and technique, allowing him to take down larger opponents than himself with surprising ease when he fought at bantamweight. Since making 125 his permanent home, he has looked even sharper. That isn’t the only area in which Bibulatov is strong. Though he can be wild at times, his creativity shines in his striking with a wide array of kicks that come from odd angles. Side kicks, spinning back kicks, front kicks… you name it, he throws it. Bibulatov could struggle to outpoint an opponent on volume as he climbs the ladder, though I don’t anticipate that being a problem for a while.
Should Bibulatov decide he wants to test out his striking prowess, Lausa could give him far more problems than anyone anticipates. The heavy underdog owns a professional boxing background in addition to a surprisingly solid kicking arsenal of his own. Unlike Bibulatov, Lausa is capable of hanging in the pocket and stringing together lengthy punching combinations. However, he doesn’t possess a modicum of the wrestling or grappling prowess of Bibulatov. To his credit, Lausa did show better than expected takedown defense against Yao Zhikui in his UFC debut, but Bibulatov is a far more accomplished takedown artist than the raw Zhikui.
Lausa does have potential to develop into an exciting addition at flyweight, but Bibulatov has the potential to become a title challenger. Lausa simply doesn’t have the takedown defense to hang with the Russian newcomer. Look for Bibulatov to try and get an early finish in order to make a statement in hopes of speeding up his run to the top of the division. Bibulatov via submission of RD1
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