Raphael Assuncao vs. Marlon Moraes headlines UFC Fortaleza this February 2, 2019 at the Centro de Formação Olímpica do Nordeste in Fortaleza, Brazil.
One sentence summary:
David: The (strength) ultimate (power) martial (rhythm) art.
Phil: It’s the rematch to the slow-simmering, technical, inconclusive kickboxing match that everyone (read: no-one apart from the brass who would like to keep these guys away from the belt) wanted
Record: Raphael Assuncao 27-5 | Marlon Moraes 21-5-1 Draw
Odds: Raphael Assuncao +140 | Marlon Moraes -150
History / Introduction to Both Fighters
David: Moraes is a fantastic young fighter, but the UFC’s general campaign to market or not market their fighters (early DJ), their general inability to harness anything resembling a narrative surrounding their prospects (Charles Oliveira), and the rare instances where the prospects just aren’t good enough (Almeida) keep me at arm’s length. This is my issue in a nutshell: the UFC doubts their own fighters, and so I end up doubting them too. I shouldn’t, because Moraes is awesome, win, lose, or draw.
Phil: Marlon Moraes burst onto the UFC… well, like a squeaky-voiced kickboxer losing a Raphael Assuncao fight to Raphael Assuncao. Hard matchups off the bat is basically how the UFC operates when it picks up big-name signings from other organizations, and it’s one of the areas where it’s difficult to offer much criticism for the strategy. If you’re a champ outside the organization, then you’re essentially a finished commodity, and they should be putting you into contender-level fights right away. Explosive debuts work well (Gathje-Johnson), and at the other end of the spectrum the flops (Lombard-Boetsch, for example) give a more accurate view of what kind of product the UFC actually has on its hands. Moraes didn’t flop exactly, as most had him winning, but it’s taken him a while to make his way back to the contender stage. This has been helped by two brutal KOs over Sterling and Rivera.
David: Assuncao is the UFC’s gumshoe. He’s the hardened, chain-smoking, world weary stereotype of noir detectives who does his job no matter how noisy the skinhead circus that surrounds him gets. Who can anyone not respect him? He consistently fights the best, sometimes beats the best, and he’s never had to change.
Phil: I’ll always have a soft spot for Raphael Assuncao. For whatever reason, he was one of the first fighters I latched onto when I started watching World Extreme Cagefighting, and it’s been a pleasure to watch him round out his game over the years. An admittedly muted pleasure which depends on how much you enjoy watching defensively responsible counterpunchers who aren’t quite powerful to knock their opponents out. Since losing to Dillashaw, he’s had progressively more thankless matchups, moving from contender-type fights to bouts against prospects that would eternally derail him if they won.
What’s at stake?
David: Like the X-Factor section, this part of our preview feels increasingly outmoded. How often are the stakes truly high? Not often. We have fighters in danger of losing their entire division, fighters who get title shots because they talk like Proud Boys, and matchmaking that is held together by steroids and chewing gum.
Phil: The winner really should fight for the belt. Is that likely to happen, though? Dillashaw and Cejudo likely want their slightly pointless runback at 135, and that’s the biggest non-Cruz fight to make in the division. There’s a not insignificant chance that even the winner of this one will have to fight again. The entire strategic purpose of this fight doesn’t seem like it’s to crown another contender, but more that it’s to eliminate one of these two.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Moraes is a rare duck, in that he is someone who makes his bread as a defensive, mobile kicker. Mobility and kicking do not generally go entirely hand in hand, as it’s necessary to plant in order to throw your shin at someone. Kicks also require range, however, which has resulted in fighters like Donald Cerrone and Anthony Pettis questing for their favoured slice of distance with varying levels of success. In order to not get countered, kicks are often thrown at the end of combinations, when an opponent is turned, staggered, backing up or otherwise on the retreat. To sum up: typically weapons of offense or neutral space, but Moraes is particularly tricky because he is an adept counter kicker. He will cut his opponents kicks with his own, counter punches with kicks (including the big step-in kick to the back leg), and even intercept takedowns as he did against Sterling. His tendency to throw kicks “second” means that he doesn’t compromise mobility as much as a Pettis or a Cerrone, and so he keeps up steady lateral movement and is notably hard to line up for takedowns. His boxing isn’t quite up there with his kicks, but he has a powerful left hook and throws in combination.
David: Moraes embodies a unique hyperspace when it comes to violence. He has the power to be aggressive, but not the mind for it. The schematics are all there for Brazilian Eddie Alvarez: slicing kicks, movement inside and away from the pocket, quick, powerful counters. The difference is that Moraes doesn’t get caught into extraneous slugging. He’s not as good a raw boxer as Eddie, but then again I don’t think Eddie’s ever been as good as advertised: there’s a difference between having good mechanics, and knowing how and when to apply those mechanics. Moraes uses his raw talent on the feet to draw opponents into his rhythm: forcing them to chase him down, pressure exuberantly, or play his midrange game. When you look at his finishes, even the quick strike knockouts (and there are a lot) are organic: everything is well set up, well timed, and smoothly executed. There’s an element of his striking that is absent in most fighters: sustainability. He’s not Alistair Overeem, whose strikes work intermittently because everything else is lacking (defense, durability, etc). Everything about Moraes’ striking favors frequency over randomness.
Phil: Assuncao gets a perhaps unfair rap as being just a right hand, like a less athletic Tyron Woodley. This has been partially true in some of his most minimalist performances, but he also has a reasonably active pawing lead and has become a much more willing kicker himself of late, disrupting Rob Font’s jab with both the cross counter and by countering it with the inside leg kick. He has a nice disruptive front kick as well.
He’s one of the many BJJ to MMA converts, and retains the powerful wrestling and deep grappling of his earlier career. In general, his strength is that he’s well-rounded everywhere, and his weakness is that he lacks the pure athleticism necessarily to make any individual part of his approach terribly threatening.
David: If you squint your eyes, shrink him down, add jaw to the jaw, and take away his melanin, Assuncao does remind me of Woodley. The obvious difference is that Assuncao is kind of what Woodley would look like if he kept fights in the center of the octagon. The comparison obviously there, but it’s fun to note: Assuncao is a raw technician. If you pressure him, he has the speed, timing, and general IQ to punish you with minimal weapons that can nonetheless be violently executed. He has a very Get Off My Lawn way of countering — which probably explains why he’s so good at beating talented whipper snappers. I think this raw presence on his backfoot explains much of Assuncao’s success. Yes, he’s more dynamic than he looks, but he doesn’t strike dynamically. Part of that’s because he doesn’t need to, IMO. Pressuring is always an easier entry. Assuncao takes those easy entries away his opponents, which is why his fights always feel less like a beating, and more like a violent lecture.
Insight from past fights?
David: The first fight told us a lot without providing any lessons. Just to key in on one of the relevant tactics, but I thought the first fight gave us an example of the rare occasion where Assuncao wasn’t able to counter as confidently as he has in years past. Moraes isn’t a great counter boxer, but he has a clean, lightning fast overhand right that kept Assuncao from resetting. It helps that Moraes does a really job of concealing it too, with momentary stance switches, and lateral movement.
Phil: It’s hard to nail down Moraes’ performances in the UFC, because he’s vacillated between one-shot destructions and nip-tuck split decisions. It is notable that Assuncao did far worse against Dillashaw in the rematch than he did the first time, which may indicate that he isn’t necessarily someone who can make major strategic adjustments between fights.
David: Nothing to wrote home about unless they have competing Brazilian political beliefs.
Phil: Assuncao is 36 and 15 years into his MMA career, which is a lot for a bantamweight. That being said, he still looks to be in great shape, and Moraes himself is actually in his 12th year, a factoid which honestly surprised me a little.
David: More than anything, the thing working against Assuncao is just the hands of friggin time. In — warning: reader discretion is advised; I’m about to talk about the nerdiest game in the world — Magic the Gathering, you have combo decks that win quickly with the right sequence of plays. You have aggro decks that punish slow decks. You have control decks that punish synergy decks. And you have midrange decks that try to answer a little bit of everything to be prepared against anything. Assuncao is a midrange Magic deck in a bountiful body. The problem with midrange decks is that unlike other decks, it’s not just your opponent who threatens to beat you: it’s the clock. Marlon Moraes by Decision.
Phil: The most likely outcome seems to be that they pick up where they left off- in a tightly-contested mid-range kickboxing affair, where Assuncao’s better hands play off against Moraes’ better kicks. With that being said, Moraes is the naturally more attritional fighter over five rounds, as Assuncao tends to head hunt, while Moraes goes to the body and legs. In addition, while a finish isn’t likely, Moraes is far more likely to pick one up. Those two elements are enough to push me towards him. Marlon Moraes by unanimous decision.
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