While UFC 271 doesn’t have the second title fight that most PPV’s have featured over the last year or so, it doesn’t mean It’s lacking in quality. Derrick Lewis always finds some way to be entertaining — if not during his fight, he is in his interview – and the rest of the main card fights seem like they were made with the aesthetic in mind. The one fight that appears to have a decent probability of producing a snoozer has the highest stakes outside of the main event.
Derrick Lewis vs. Tai Tuivasa, Heavyweight
There may not be a pair of more likeable pair of heavyweights than Lewis and Tuivasa. Lewis’ dry sense of humor and don’t-give-a-damn attitude have made him the ultimate soundbite in the sport. On the flip side, Tuivasa is all about having fun, marking his brand with his signature shooey. In fact, I get the feeling a large part of the MMA community had the shooey introduced to their lexicon by the heavy hitter.
While no one really wants to see either of these two take a nap, it’s hard to believe one of them won’t end up counting sheep. Lewis owns the record for the most KO’s in UFC history and six of Tuivasa’s seven UFC wins were stopped via his striking prowess. That said, it would be foolish to think these two will swing recklessly at one another. Both have evolved into strategic fighters who find a way to lure their opponents into their power.
Out of the two of them, Lewis is easily the more patient fighter. The big man tends to lumber forward, hoping to induce them to either throw at him or look for takedowns. Either way, Lewis doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to counter. However, he isn’t beyond making a rush at his opponent, whether it be a head kick out of nowhere or a reckless overhand that would put down an ox. Lewis will play possum at times too, having doubled over on multiple occasions only to launch a power shot as his opponent draws near.
With Tuivasa, he’s evolved from a reckless slugger reliant on his chin into someone who makes reads and looks for openings. The protégé of Mark Hunt has begun to make excellent use of low kicks, chewing up the legs of several of his opponents during his four-fight win streak. Tuivasa’s ability to counter has improved too. He can still leave himself wide open on defense, but there are certainly improvements from when he first touched down in the UFC.
While Lewis is the overwhelming favorite, Tuivasa shouldn’t be immediately counted out. He may not hit quite as hard as Lewis – Francis Ngannou is the only worthy comparison – but he still hits hard enough to put Lewis away if he can land the right shot. Lewis has been prone to low kicks too, so it’s possible he can weaken the base of Lewis and put him away. However, while Lewis loves selling himself as putting a half-assed effort into his career, his fight IQ is underrated. He knew what to look for when he put Curtis Blaydes away. That comes from film study, whether from him or someone in his camp. He’s going to be looking for something Tuivasa does regularly to capitalize on. My guess is he finds it. Lewis via KO of RD1
Jared Cannonier vs. Derek Brunson, Middleweight
Given the disappointing showing in victory by Sean Strickland last week, it’s almost a surety the winner of this bout will get a title shot… provided Adesanya retains his title. The stakes are about as high as they get for a non-title fight.
There’s no doubt the organization would rather see Cannonier walk out the victor. Cannonier is a built like a brickhouse and throws as hard as anyone in the division, having secured three of his four middleweight wins via KO/TKO. He isn’t a volume striker by any means, showing a lot of patience and making his strikes count. While everyone seems to be aware of the power in his fists, it’s forgotten that he stopped Anderson Silva with leg kicks… and did it within one round. No matter what Cannonier is throwing, his opponent is going to feel it.
Where Cannonier has traditionally been toppled is in the wrestling department. Some will argue his takedown defense has held up since he moved to middleweight, but Dave Branch took him down at will and Jack Hermansson’s wrestling has come up short time and again. It’s hard to argue that his ability to stop takedowns won’t be tested more against Brunson since he made the drop to 185.
Brunson has always been one of the better wrestlers at middleweight; he just hasn’t always chosen to use it. Long one of the bigger and better athletes, Brunson went through a long stretch of blitzing opponents with his power. It worked against a lower level of competition, but he hit a wall when challenging the elite. Realizing the limitations of that strategy, Brunson has undergone a career resurgence by returning to his roots and pursuing takedowns like he did in the early stages of his career. It isn’t always pretty, but it has opened up his striking a lot too, increasing his efficiency on the feet immensely.
Given the last time Cannonier faced someone with the size and explosiveness of Brunson, he couldn’t stop the takedowns, I’m going with Brunson. I acknowledge Brunson is chinny – five of his seven career losses have come via KO – and all Cannonier may need is one clean shot. But Brunson has shown the ability to recover from being rocked in a way he couldn’t in the past. Cannonier better make sure he finishes the job. Otherwise, Brunson will squeak this one out. Brunson via decision
Bobby Green vs. Nasrat Haqparast, Lightweight
Haqparast is someone a lot of analysts have had their eyes on for quite a while. Possessing an ideal lightweight frame with tight boxing and solid wrestling, Haqparast has the athleticism to make it all work out on an elite level. For whatever reason, it’s not all clicking together.
When he’s facing a lower level of competition, Haqparast has minimal problems piecing up the opposition. His jab from his southpaw stance stays in his opponent’s face and he usually mixes in some body shots for good measure. Unfortunately, Haqparast has a bit of a one-track mind when he fights, concentrating almost exclusively on his boxing. He hasn’t landed an official takedown since his UFC debut – seven fights have passed since that time – and low kicks are even more nonexistent than takedown attempts. Experienced opponents tend to figure him out and have their way with him.
That should leave me confident in picking Green, one of the senior members of the lightweight division at this stage of his career. Despite that, the 35-year-old is still a plus athlete with exceptionally fast hands. Green has also experienced a resurgence the last few years, in part brought on because he remembered he’s a pretty damned good wrestler. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to ever feel good about picking Green as he tends to find a way to let fights slip through his fingers. Whether it’s because he fights up or down to the level of his competition or he thinks he’s winning the fight if he isn’t getting hit cleanly – or a combination of both – Green has dropped several fights he should win. It isn’t all his fault either. In his last four losses, he managed to outstrike his opponents by a sizeable margin. Of course, not all strikes are created equal….
I’m not confident in my pick, but I am ultimately going with Green. Haqparast will have every opportunity to snatch the fight away from Green, especially given Green tends to keep his hands low and rely exclusively on his head movement. Unfortunately for Haqparast, I think Green is in a good headspace, motivated by coming off his first finish since 2013. If he’s going to make a late career run, it’s now or never. I say it’s now. Green via decision
The weirdest piece of matchmaking for UFC 271 is far and away the bantamweight contest between Kyler Phillips and Marcelo Rojo. Perhaps if Rojo was stepping in on short notice for an opponent who pulled out, I’d understand this fight. But as it is, it makes no sense. Phillips, despite having entered the official UFC rankings last year, is still a youthful 26-year-old prospect with a bright future while Rojo looks like a journeyman who got to the UFC too late to make huge impact. That said, I still anticipate this fight will be absolute fireworks. Phillips is a flashy striker who tends to put everything into his strikes early on. Well, at least he did against Raulian Paiva, resulting in Phillips being gassed after the first round. It’s doubtful Phillips makes that mistake again, but I wouldn’t put it past Rojo being able to drag a repeat performance out of him. Rojo is a wild man in the cage, throwing any and everything at the opposition. His chin has held up well throughout his career – he’s only been finished by strikes once – but he has been prone to being submitted. Unfortunately for Rojo, the ground is where Phillips is at his best. Phillips still needs to iron out his wrestling, but it’s not like Rojo is especially difficult to take down. Thus, I expect Phillips to rebound quite nicely from the Paiva loss, though I wouldn’t be disappointed to see Rojo celebrate a win. Phillips via submission of RD2
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