UFC 278 featured the likes of Harry Hunsucker and Yanan Wu on the main card. To put that in perspective, those two had a combined 1-6 record entering the event, neither leaving with a win. In other words, those two had no business being on the main card of a Fight Night card, much less a PPV.
With UFC 279, there aren’t any eyesores on the main card. Every one of the main card fights are contests I’d be perfectly happy to see on a PPV main card. However, I wouldn’t want a card to be chuck full of them… as UFC 279 is.
Let me be clear that I don’t believe a PPV needs title fights to be successful. I admit it helps because the highest caliber fighters are typically champions, but it isn’t needed. But having every fight featuring fighters who hover around the ten spot in the rankings of their respective divisions? Unless there’s a major blood feud or a fight between aged legends that we’ve all been waiting for, that doesn’t qualify as a quality co-main event. Going off what would constitute an average PPV, it’s hard for me to recommend throwing down $75 for the event. Not that the fights won’t be fun, but I’ve also got to be honest.
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Jingliang Li vs. Tony Ferguson, Welterweight
Let’s get something straight: Ferguson is a UFC legend. Not on par with the likes of Anderson Silva or Chuck Liddell, but a legend in his own right. During his twelve-fight win streak, he consistently one of the most entertaining fighters on the face of the planet, pulling down nine Performance Bonuses in that stretch. Only three of those contests went to a decision. Ferguson would push an insane pace on his opponents, firing explosive offense from all angles in hopes of putting them away. Due to his incredible gas tank and mind-boggling durability, Ferguson was able to survive all those firefights, wear down his opponent, and typically submit them after they gassed. Unfortunately for him, the Piper needs to be paid and he was storing up interest in that time.
In his four-fight losing streak he has been on since his incredible winning streak was snapped, there’s been several issues that have come to a head. We should have all seen them coming. Firstly, Ferguson only fought once a year to close out that stretch. Injuries were sapping him of cage time and though no one doubts Ferguson trained and rehabbed like a mad man to come back from them, they always take a toll. Combine that with age and Ferguson isn’t the athlete he once was. Credit to his conditioning and intensity, Ferguson was able to hide the fact that he wasn’t an elite athlete in the first place.
Secondly, it isn’t just the injuries that took their toll. Ferguson often played little or no attention whatsoever to his opponent’s return fire. Because of his insane durability, he was able to take what they threw at him and keep coming. That doesn’t mean he never got hurt. Think back to Lando Vannata making a name for himself in his UFC debut because he dropped Ferguson. Anyone who has watched MMA long enough knows that no one’s chin remains iron clad forever. Ferguson’s crazy style chipped away at his durability more than it needed to and the Piper was due.
Now the question is whether moving up to welterweight is going to help him. To be fair, the UFC didn’t pit him against a world beater. Hell, the thing most people remember about Li is how he was manhandled by one of the headliners of the PPV, Khamzat Chimaev. That doesn’t mean Li is a bum. It means the UFC wants Ferguson to have a chance of winning as it’s a mixed bag whether moving up in weight will help anything.
Perhaps cutting less weight will help with Ferguson’s durability. It has been beneficial for a wide swath of fighters over the years. Perhaps it will be beneficial for his speed. Given Ferguson depends on unpredictability, improved speed could make a huge difference. It’s unlikely to help his offensive wrestling, though Ferguson has made no attempt to wrestle in years, his last takedown coming in 2015. It’s up in the air whether it will help his grappling too. Still, looking at everything on the hole, it looks like it could be beneficial… except for one big thing.
Ferguson has been taken down and controlled for long stretches of each of his last three contests. While each of those three opponents are known for their grappling and/or wrestling, does anyone really think facing a larger opponent is going to make it easier for him to avoid that situation? Many think of Li as a brawler – which isn’t completely out of line – but his roots are as a suffocating grinder. Plus, Li’s never been one to slow down over the course of a fight. Given Ferguson can’t quite push the same pace he could in his prime, it’s hard to see him wearing down Li. Plus, while Chimaev manhandled Li, he didn’t dead him with one punch. Li’s plenty durable.
Nobody is immune to Father Time. Either the fighter leaves the profession before the effects set in or we see them deteriorate before our eyes. Ferguson is in the deterioration stage. Plus, Li doesn’t get the credit for being the heavy-handed puncher that he is. He has eight KO/TKO stoppages over his UFC career, including a one-hitter-quitter. Even if Ferguson can survive Li’s power, I don’t trust he can keep Li from smothering him. Legends do occasionally find a way to extend their careers with the occasional flash of what once made them special, but it’s typically unwise to bet on that. Li via TKO of RD2
Kevin Holland vs. Daniel Rodriguez, Welterweight
Given his eclectic personality and opportunistic nature in the cage, Holland has solidified his spot as a mainstay on the UFC roster for a long time. Of course, many believe he can become more than that now that he has dropped down to the welterweight division. No longer does it appear he needs to worry about more muscle-bound opposition dragging him to the mat at will and keeping him there for long stretches. At 170, Holland isn’t just the longer man in the cage; he’s the bulkier one now quite frequently.
That won’t be the case with Rodriguez. The again, it probably won’t matter too much. Not that Rodriguez is a poor wrestler; it’s that he rarely chooses to go that route. Rodriguez has proven himself to be one of the busiest volume strikers on the roster, averaging over eight significant strikes a minute, one of the highest averages on the roster. Though he is generally thought of almost exclusively as a combination boxer, he’s done a fantastic job of regularly mixing in low kicks to keep his opposition guessing where the attack is coming next. The question will be whether he can handle the length of Holland.
While Rodriguez could arguably be 7-0 thus far in the UFC – his loss to Nicolas Dalby is highly controversial – the struggles he has had thus far have come from longer opposition. His aggressive style doesn’t come without him eating his own fair share of damage and lankier opponents have been able to deal their offense a bit more effectively before he can unload his combinations. It’s not like he’s bereft of power either.
In terms of technique, Holland is a bit of a mixed bag. He typically keeps his hands low, but when he throws his punches, he does so with no wasted motion at a rapid pace. The fact his punches tend to come at unorthodox angles has been beneficial for him, even more than it would be for the typical fighter. That’s due to Holland’s unnatural opportunistic nature. Think of his finish of Jacare Souza. Or how about his slam of Charlie Ontiveros? Holland’s sixth sense is something that can’t be taught.
Holland’s ability to snatch a highlight reel moment out of nowhere is what keeps me from being confident in picking Rodriguez. Rodriguez has proven himself to be a crafty combination puncher with durability to the nth degree. Plus, while Rodriguez isn’t known for his grappling prowess, he’s proven savvy enough that I can’t remember him being in any precarious position on the mat in his UFC run. Plus, his fight IQ appears to be superior to Holland’s. Pulling something improbable out of your ass is a completely different thing than consistently fighting smart. For one, Holland has opted to fight off his back for long stretches as opposed to looking for a way to his feet. He has been better about that since moving down to 170, but it has also come against opponents on the decline. Rodriguez may be 35, but he doesn’t have too many miles on his body and he was at his peak before taking a year off to heal from some injuries. Given he fought 7 times over 18 months prior to the year off, I can see the time away being a good thing. I’m going with Rodriguez to win being the busier fighter, but it’s a hard fight to predict. Rodriguez via decision
Irene Aldana vs. Macy Chiasson, Women’s Bantamweight
Aldana and Chiasson may be the most disappointing 135ers on the roster. The organization has had hopes to elevate both of them into title contention at some point, but every time they’re on the verge of making that leap, they stumble. What’s worse, it always appears to be the same problems that plague them.
In the case of Chiasson, it’s twofold. First, against an opponent that can offer any degree of resistance, she tends to gas pretty hard. It shouldn’t be a surprise given she is absolutely monstrous for the division. In fact, Chiasson’s last two fights have been at featherweight… and she missed weight for one of those contests. If Chiasson is in a good place after the weight cut, she makes great use of her massive frame, smothering her opponents against the cage and mitigating their offense. She still isn’t the most technical clinch fighter – meaning she can be outworked from there despite her physical gifts – but improvements have been made.
Secondly, Chiasson may know how to use her frame to great effect against the cage, but she doesn’t know how to use it from the outside. At just a shade under 6’0”, you’d think she’d be a natural to stay on the outside and spam her opponents with jabs and front kicks. Much like her technique in the clinch, there are signs of improvement, but is it enough for her to hang with Aldana on the outside?
Aldana’s strength has been her boxing, whether from the outside or in the pocket. Her loss to Holly Holm exposed her issues in regards to spacing and angles, but it would be a surprise if Chiasson were to be able to expose those issues. Thus, even though Aldana is hardly impervious to being beaten on the outside, it would be a major shock to see Chiasson be the better fighter if given any space. Unlike Chiasson, Aldana puts together slick boxing combinations and has the ability to mix kicks into her attacks regularly. Perhaps most importantly, she can put power behind her strikes, something Chiasson has yet to prove from a distance.
The wild card for Aldana is the clinch. In part due to her opponents not wanting to test her there – Aldana isn’t as big as Chiasson, but she does have one of the bigger frames in the division – and in part because of her own preference for fighting on the outside, Aldana doesn’t have the extensive resume at fighting from that range as you’d expect of someone with her experience. What is known is Aldana’s takedown defense is impressive and she can hold her own in terms of physicality.
At 34 and 31 respectively, Aldana and Chiasson aren’t the youthful prospect some mistakenly still see them as. There is room for improvement from both, but there’s also a strong feeling they are what they are going to be. However, their age also brings up the issue of Chiasson’s weight cut. I’ve said it a million times, but the older one gets, the harder it gets to make the cut. 31 isn’t ancient, but it was already a hard cut for Chiasson in the first place. Even if Chiasson can make the cut, I have major worries about her ability to be at her most effective. Without that concern, I’d say the fight is about a 50-50 proposition. With that in mind, I’m leaning solidly towards Aldana to outpoint Chiasson. Aldana via decision
Johnny Walker vs. Ion Cutelaba, Light Heavyweight
It doesn’t seem like that long ago that Walker was the future of 205. The ginormous Brazilian opened his UFC career with three consecutive KO’s in under two minutes in spectacular fashion, igniting all sorts of hype about him being the one to dethrone Jon Jones. Since that point, Walker has gone 1-4, losing two flat decisions and getting blasted in his two other losses. In the process Walker has become a bigger flop than Gigli.
To be fair to Walker, he has been attempting to refurbish his attack to take advantage of his incredible reach. He has thus become more patient, perhaps even cleaner in his technique. However, the results have been disastrous as Walker has now become reluctant to pull the trigger, spending far more time circling around the cage than actually attacking. Whether that’s a result of the coaching from John Kavanaugh or Walker suffering from PTSD from being KO’d isn’t fully known, but there has been no sign of the guy who electrified the UFC upon his entry.
Like Walker, Cutelaba only has one win in his last five contests, though he at least has managed a draw in that time as well. While waning aggression isn’t the same problem for Cutelaba that it is for Walker, it has simultaneously been Cutelaba’s greatest strength and weakness. Against the lesser talent of the division, Cutelaba has been able to overwhelm his opposition with his heavy hands and continuous takedowns. Hell, it has even worked against some of those who are in the upper half of the division… at least early on.
If Cutelaba can’t secure a finish, he tends to gas out hard, putting him into survival mode by the time the third round arrives. Even more troublesome, some of his opposition has been able to turn his aggression against him even before he gasses. The question is whether Walker can be one of those to turn it against him. There’s no doubt Walker can put the Moldovan to sleep should they meet in the middle of the cage like a pair of crazed bulls. But that version of Walker has been AWOL for a while now. It’s baffling Walker has settled for letting the fight come to him given how badly he has struggled with pressure. That Walker has maintained his coaches and camp despite the poor results only boggles the mind further. I fear he may not get the message until he’s on the outside looking in on the organization. Given his questionable chin and Cutelaba’s willingness to touch it up, I think that’ll happen. Cutelaba via TKO of RD1
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