Onward and upward for the UFC’s desert series, as we have a few fights with little divisional relevance, a strawweight fight between two ranked contenders (one of them being a former champ), a former heavyweight champ welcoming a new addition to the division, a rematch literally no one asked for, and a possible title eliminator for middleweight.
It’s a lot to digest, and most if it is really smart, interesting, and just good matchmaking. Not sure how this will go over at home, as this will almost guarantee a very long event for those watching.
But hey, free fights, right?
Robert Whittaker vs Darren Till
This fight will be Whittaker’s (20-5) first since his devastating loss at the hands of Israel Adesanya, and could easily put him next in line for another crack at the current king with a win here. And it’s very much within reach. No disrespect to Till (18-2, 1 draw), but seeing him dropped by Woodley and then obliterated by Masvidal gives me a feeling something very bad can happen for him. Whittaker’s hittable, but only by some of the savvier strikers like Romero and Adesanya at the elite level. Till’s a good striker, and he’s got great use of range paired with painful clinchwork. But seeing his defensive lapses get exploited as he gleefully engages in rough exchanges inside? That’s not a good habit, and it’s just one giant button that a fighter like Whittaker can pounce on with both feet, over and over.
Whittaker’s defense while striking, keeping his guard, shuffling off to the side, evading counters, all of that will be tough to deal with for a fighter that doesn’t have very high output and that can also be outwrestled. Does Till have a chance? Sure. He’s still got his leg kicks and he can attempt to kill Whittaker’s midsection with body attacks. The only other person to put Bobby away with strikes was Wonderman Thompson, and that was ages ago with a less defensively-minded Whittaker. That means it takes a very focused and technical striker to make that happen, and I worry Till might not have all the pieces together to make that work. This should be fun, but don’t expect this to be some kind of situation where Till blows Whittaker out of the water.
Shogun Rua vs Rogerio Nogueira
No, I’m not personally thrilled about this fight. They’ve fought twice before with Shogun winning by decision, twice. They’re both older, shopworn and plagued by injuries. At least Shogun has a more conservative approach these days and has feasted on lesser-ranked fighters like Corey Anderson and Gian Villante to go 4-1 in his last five fights. This includes his most recent fight, a win against Tyson Pedro.
But it also includes a loss at the hands of Anthony Smith, a first round finish due to strikes. Minor Nog can still crack, but he’s also coming off his loss last year against Ryan Spann, where he was put on a boat and shipped off to Valhalla, blessed up by the most high. It’s a battle of two guys that don’t got it like they used to, but Nog’s got less. Nobody will be made better for participating in this. Not a single, solitary person.
Fabricio Werdum vs Alexander Gustafsson
Werdum (23-9) is still at it in one of the wildest and weirdest career arcs, even at heavyweight. From the historically shocking upset against Fedor, to defeating Mark Hunt and Cain Velasquez en route to winning the big gold belt, he’s had amazing highs. Then came the losses to Stipe Miocic in a befuddling performance, to the decision loss in a rematch against Alistair Overeem that didn’t need to happen. After a hiatus, he came in out of shape and looking lost while getting pieced up and put away by Alexander Volkov and dropped a split decision in a not-so-exciting bout against fellow grappler Alexey Oleinik.
But he’ll be the one welcoming Alexander Gustafsson (18-6) to the heavyweight division, in a move that is somewhat overdue and may or may not pay off in the long run. We’ll have to see how he adapts to having the grown man frame or if he’ll be aided by an often underappreciated statistic, dad strength (+15 on offense). His hands are still sharp, but his footwork isn’t great. Werdum might not be in the business of double-legging opponents, but he might be able to work a Judo takedown or pull guard to test Alex’s ground skills, but he’s going to eat damage regardless. If he’s not mindful, Alex will make it a short one as his power should translate well at heavyweight, especially against a guy that’s been knocked out before.
Carla Esparza vs Marina Rodriguez
Esparza (16-6) went from inaugural champ to middle of the pack quick, but she’s quietly put in that work over at Team Oyama and recently gone an 3-0 run. That includes wins over submission ace Virna Jandiroba, sharp striker Alexa Grasso, and fireplug Michelle Waterson.
But Rodriguez (no relation, 12-0, 2 draws) has mostly shucked off takedowns and outpaced opponents with output and physicality. She’s not as technical as she could be, and her defense isn’t as good, either. She’s also got some good wins over Jessica Aguilar and Tecia Torres, but they were mostly undersized and liable to be overpowered. Her draw against Markos could have gone differently, and this is a totally different kind of fight. Esparza can work her jab, disguise her takedown attempts and outwork almost anyone in the division when it comes to the clinch. Marina’s not going to get away with straight line punch barrages or single takedown attempts, and I’m not quite sure how she’ll fare against chained attempts or a fighter that can counter her better than past opposition. Maybe Marina might pull it off by doing more damage per strike, but she’s gotta stay upright for that. Esparza’s really good at making sure that doesn’t happen.
Paul Craig vs Gadzhimurad Antigulov
Craig (12-4, 1 draw) is fun when he wins, mostly because he makes for high-stakes drama. The problem is that it’s him taking a lot of damage most of the time before he pulls a rabbit out of a hat. It’s not luck, Craig is a very skilled submission fighter that packs a major punch. He’s content to soak up strikes and fall behind on the scorecards, yet all but one of his UFC fights (4-4-1 draw in the UFC) have been finishes, and that’s wins and losses. I’m not even sure if his most recent draw against Shogun says more about Craig or Shogun, really.
Antigulov isn’t in the business of waiting around to find out, though. Coming out of ACB and making an immediate impact in the UFC with three straight submission wins (all chokes), he’s hit a very rough patch getting finished with strikes twice by Ion Cutelaba and Michal Oleksiejczuk. It’s a tough one to call, since Craig could blitz him out the gate like he did Vinicius Moreira, or fall back and get controlled like in the Nzechukwu fight before taking home an arm. I’m not much of a gambler, but I wouldn’t touch this fight no matter what the odds were.
Alex Oliveira vs Peter Sobotta
Part of the UFC since 2014, Sobotta has fought sporadically and gone 4-2 so far. While he’s had some great wins over Steven Kennedy and Ben Saunders, his losses to Kyle Noke and Leon Edwards were devastating. While being more of a generalist, Sobotta’s got accurate strikes and a good submission base while not being great with his takedowns and a propensity to get outworked by stronger and more explosive fighters.
Oliveira (21-8, 1 draw) is clearly in decline, having gone 1-3 in his last four, having lost a little something on his fastball and not being a step ahead of others in terms of grappling. He’s still a very adept grappler and defensive wrestler that can outbox a lot of other welterweights. He should have a few advantages here unless Sobotta is able to really turn up the volume and press with output to drown him out.
UFC Fight Night: ‘Whittaker vs Till’ takes place live from Abu Dhabi this Saturday starting at 5:00pm EST for those of us stateside. This event will be on ESPN.
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