After the disappointing main event stinker of UFC 209 (plus Khabib/Ferguson being canceled), we actually get a really good Fight Night card as a consolation prize. Yes, the main event between declining/deflating Vitor Belfort and surging contender Kelvin Gastelum is an absurd match-up, but the rest of the card is very solid. A rematch (sort of) between Tim Means and Alex Oliveira and a fiery battle from the Barboza/Dariush fight leads the way, and there’s even a Shogun Rua fight! And it’s one he can actually win against Gian Villante, sometimes auto-corrected to Giant Villain which is apropos. There aren’t many huge favorites on the card outside of Kelvin, so reading up on the specific strengths/weaknesses will be key to building the nuts lineup this week. Thankfully, I’m here to help you not read and just pick the winners. Praise the violence lords!
Garreth McLellan vs Paulo Henrique Costa
McLellan will be filling in on a month’s notice for Alex Nicholson against undefeated prospect Paulo Henrique Costa, or Borrachinha as he’s better known as. Borrachinha comes from the Jungle Fight promotion in Brazil, where he finished all of his opponents in the 1st round to a decent 8-0 record. McLellan is a very, very average fighter that should be a good debut fight for Borrachinha, as he fits into the mold of the guys he’s destroyed on the JF promotion.
Simply put, this is going to be a nightmare for McLellan if he can’t control Borrachinha through clinching up and eventually getting it to the ground. He’s just not athletic or quick enough to match Borrachinha’s stand-up, and already struggles against defending body kicks (Cedenblad pounded w/ them and crumbled McLellan). Borrachinha has some really sharp and powerful leg/body kicks, has a stalking profile, and has powerful one hit strikes with good reaction time. He’s also got some brutal GnP as well and appears to have decent clinch defense. I just think it’s a blowout for Borrachinha due to athleticism and speed, not to mention McLellan isn’t even good at anything but top control ground and pound. Lock him in.
Borrachinha via 1st round KO
Joe Soto vs Rani Yahya
Yahya is currently riding a 4 fight streak, and it’s all because he’s a damn relentless grinder. He wants one thing and one thing only – to cuddle up in the comforts of his opponents’ arms and then slowly but surely take them down to the ground. From there….who knows. Yahya is very much in the mold of Demian Maia – obvious take-down heavy gameplan but is wildly successful due to great leverage and relentless pursuit. Soto will be the much better, cleaner striker but isn’t known for his take-down defense. They’re both BJJ black belts and are excellent grapplers at different levels (Soto better off his back and ground defense, Yahya better at top/positional control). I think Soto will try to keep it standing as long as possible and is well-versed at getting off the ground quickly and smartly (very important), forcing Yahya to brawl with him. Big advantage for Soto there as Yahya gets sloppy and has a bad gas tank.
Soto via unanimous decision
Jeremy Kennedy vs Rony Jason
Kennedy will try to get the fight to the ground and get some GnP/positional control, but that’s really tough against Rony Jason’s excellent guard that’s been on display before (fantastic triangle sub against Damon Jackson). Jason should be the better striker with decent counters and great timing on head-kicks, but Kennedy’s a grinder who seems to understand distance and how to close the gap on reactive take-downs. It’ll come down to his top control and maneuvers against Jason’s guard and avoiding potential traps. It’s a coin flip fight, but I’ll side with Jason because I’ve seen how good his triangle setups are and Kennedy’s still relatively inexperienced. Edge in stand-up helps as well.
Jason via 2nd round triangle
Josh Burkman vs Michel Prazeres
Prazeres is a truck at lightweight and has basically won the majority of his fights in the same way. Trek forward and aggressively swing/box up then toss his opponents to the floor and literally sit on them. He’s a decision machine who doesn’t really get many advances or does GnP, but his size and strength are usually the reasons why he wins. Burkman is….I’m not really sure how to describe him. He has no rhyme or reason to his striking and just kinda does his own thing. He’s generally had good success against wrestlers, but he’s just a weird guy to try and figure out his gameplan. I suspect he’ll try to keep his distance against Prazeres and stick to at-range striking while avoiding getting backed up into the fence. Prazeres has a faulty gas tank that usually comes up empty near the end of 2nd round, so Burkman could in theory win a points fight. Don’t really like picking Prazeres here, but they’re both uninspiring and Burkman’s been pretty bad lately, going 1-5 since his return to the UFC. Shrug.
Prazeres via unanimous decision
Davi Ramos vs Sergio Moraes
Max Griffin was slated to fight Moraes, but an injury forced him to pull out of the fight and probably saved him an embarrassing loss. Davi Ramos, a BJJ god, will be filling in on a week’s notice or so. Both guys are eerily similar to each other, as both opt for the sit back and wildly swing a huge overhand or winging hooks, but won’t commit to anything otherwise on the feet. They’re both great grapplers, and while Ramos could potentially be the better of the two, it’s likely a stalemate either way. Ramos seems the cleaner striker of the two, usually ducking out of the way after a big swing. Moraes usually tries to follow up his big swings with another big swing or two, and can look like he’s about to fall down due to the momentum of a missed swing. That’s how hard he swings, baby. Neither guy really has any offensive take-downs outside of “Look, you dropped something!” and shoot in tactic. They’re elite grapplers, not wrestlers! I really don’t know why Moraes is this big of a favorite considering he’s basically fighting his doppelganger who’s bigger and stronger with more reliable stand-up (as far as I can see). It really could end up being a staring contest with neither guy wanting to commit to anything standing, and whatever happens on the ground will look like a BJJ grappling match. That means no points. Short notice for Ramos and Moraes has more UFC experience plus a full camp…..eh. I’m picking Ramos for the upset but not going to hold my breath for any points outside of an incredible flying submission or a 1 punch KO. The second part is actually possible as Moraes is very chinny and has been dropped in past fights.
Ramos via unanimous decision
Francisco Trinaldo vs Kevin Lee
This is a pretty pivotal fight for the 155 division in my opinion, and more so for Kevin Lee to prove himself as a legitimate contender. Trinaldo’s reeled off 7 straight wins and a win over Lee likely vaults him into a top 5 fight. Lee is a phenomenal wrestler with tops athleticism and a somewhat improving striking game. Trinaldo’s a gigantic lightweight that’s improved the two key areas that he struggled with early in his UFC career and propelled him into the 7 win streak – cardio and striking defense. Trinaldo’s been very good at counter-striking and finding his range to hit home the power left hand while avoiding getting boxed up repeatedly. Lee will probably try to wrestle him as much as possible to tire him out and land good GnP. Trinaldo’s huge and isn’t awful off his back, so Lee may struggle to keep him on the ground for long periods of time. I’m still not sold on Lee’s offensive striking, as Leonardo Santos was consistently lighting Lee up on the feet and eventually knocked him out. Trinaldo’s truly improved his striking to where he can now use his knockout power to his advantage with a higher connection percentage. Lee absolutely destroyed Mustafaev to the point that if you knew nothing about Mustafaev, you’d think he was a really bad wrestler. He isn’t, and Lee schooled him and even got the sub to boot. Tough match-up here as Lee really could struggle against Trinaldo’s size but does have a fantastic double leg take-down. I’m gonna bet on the Motown Phenom trying to avoid as many striking exchanges as possible and just grind his way to a decision.
Lee via unanimous decision
Alex Oliveira vs Tim Means
At UFC 207, Means landed an illegal knee on Oliveira and due to being unable to recover from said illegal knee, the match was a no contest. So, technically this is a rematch and it’s one that could result in a devastating Means KO. I was personally there for the 1st fight, and Means looked considerably bigger than Oliveira, cracking him several times before Oliveira forced him into the clinch (Oliveira lost that battle and got knee’d shortly thereafter). Oliveira’s a rangy striker who’s improved on his feints and footwork, but still seems sloppy at times and gets popped on counters. Means is technically sound with a great left straight and body kick, and Means has the finishing instinct when he lands a clean counter (22 finishes of 26 wins). Means is just the better striker, both technically and volume wise, will be the bigger man and already showed that he shouldn’t have trouble engaging in the clinch against Oliveira. Only issue I can see with the match-up is Oliveira may have changed his gameplan after the 1st fight and elects to stay at-range, feinting and mixing up his attacks instead of trying to get it to the ground. I’d still favor Means in that scenario, and I think it’ll be a great battle regardless. Good chance for a finish.
Means via 3rd round TKO
Bethe Correia vs Marion Reneau
Ehhhhh. Not that excited for this fight, but whatever. Correia is a boxer that doesn’t really have much outside of a good 1-2 and an uppercut. She’s nothing special power or speed wise, relying on her ability to control where the fight goes by clinching up and dictating the pace. Reneau prefers to sit back and engage with rangy kicks and then blitz with flurries of punches and the occasional clinch trip take-down. Reneau’s a pretty good BJJ brown belt, so she should be trying to get it to the ground here and there. Correia will be very tough to take down due to her stocky base and good clinch work, so this could end up being a striking battle. Reneau struggles against those who can keep their distance through jabs and octagon control (like the Holm fight), and Correia has shown that kind of ability albeit against lesser competition. I’m not really sure who is the better overall striker as Correia lands cleaner but lacks diversity like Reneau, and Reneau lacks technical striking as she tends to leave herself open on majority of her entry strikes. Again, not interested in this fight. Correia I guess?
Correia via split decision
Jussier Formiga vs Ray Borg
Man, Borg just continues to get the toughest match-ups in the flyweight division, huh? It’s an interesting fight because I don’t think Borg should try to engage Jussier on the ground, as Formiga is one of the best grapplers in the division and could flip the script on him in an instant. Formiga’s solid on the feet but has a questionable chin and generally loses to quicker strikers. Borg’s still improving in that department, but if he can size up Formiga early, he could do well with his 1-2 combos and tries to establish the jab. Borg’s bigger than Formiga and has better take-down offense, but like I said I’m not sure if he’ll risk getting into a grappling battle with Formiga. Borg really surprised me against Smolka, smothering him on the ground and showcasing great grappling. Formiga is a much tougher test than Smolka, who was more of an aggressive grappler while Jussier is technical and calculated. Borg’s got the size advantage and I have no question he can easily get Formiga down to the ground, but outside of that I have no idea what could happen. Stand-up battle? Borg out-grapples Jussier? Formiga stone-walls Borg and shows him what real grappling looks like? I’m gonna say Borg ekes out a decision mixing in take-downs and keeping it safe, sprinkling in some striking exchanges in-between. The Tazmexican Devil lives on.
Borg via unanimous decision
Beneil Dariush vs Edson Barboza
What a great fight! Barboza’s long been one of the top 10 lightweights in the division, unable to push himself into top 5/contender status. He’s on a 2 fight streak and has looked mighty impressive against elite competition, out-striking Taekwondo phenom Anthony Pettis and out-lasting Gilbert Melendez and his wrestling. He’ll get yet another tough test against Beneil Dariush, who’s a good striker in his own right. Barboza’s simply one of the most technical striker in the division, aided by his ridiculously fast kicks and a strong Muay Thai base. Dariush is more in the rangy striker mold, opting for one hit strikes and moving around for striking angles/counters over combinations. He’s got a solid counter-left and mixes in kicks to the body, but he’ll be at a significant speed disadvantage against the lightning quick Barboza. What I think Dariush likely will do is try to close the gap intelligently, biding his time and try to open up Barboza early with leg kicks and movement, then jump into a single/double leg take-down. Whether or not it’s successful isn’t the point, as Dariush simply needs to get into the clinch. If he gets him down, great. If he doesn’t, then he can just force Barboza into the clinch and try his diverse array of clinch trips/take-downs. I’m not sure if Dariush is capable of consistently being able to close the gap without risking eating a foot to the face, as Barboza has really tightened up his defensive striking, which in turn has helped him improve his overall take-down defense. Barboza has just been an absolute monster with his barrages of leg kicks and crisp counters against forward pressure. It’ll be tough for the BJJ black belt to test Barboza on the ground if Dariush can’t even get his hands on Barboza. Every Barboza fight always has a chance for a highlight reel KO, but I’m gonna err on the side of caution here.
Barboza via unanimous decision
Gian Villante vs Mauricio Rua
Giant Villain! Rua is suddenly riding a 2 fight win streak, and he’s looked pretty solid during it outside of getting caught versus Lil Nog. He’ll be bringing his usual Muay Thai base with thunderous (but significantly slower) kicks and power bombs. He may be on the downside of his career, but he still packs quite the wallop. Villante’s got some power but prefers volume over big shots, reeling in the sig strikes through constant low kicks and lining up quick jab combinations. Villante’s always been deficient of any sort of defensive skills like head movement, which has been mitigated by a zombie chin. I mean, the dude can take a punch like no one else. This is a good fight for Rua to continue his winning streak, as Villante seems to be content brawling rather than wrestling his way to the ground like he did early in his UFC career. Villante’s going to be quicker and have more in the gas tank than Shogun, but his utter disregard of striking defense is worrisome. He’ll give Rua plenty of chances to smack back on the patented Rua left hook counter, but I’m feeling an upset here. I think Villante has the chin to out-last Rua for the 1st couple rounds, then really pour it on near the end and maybe get a late finish. This isn’t to say Villante won’t gas out either, but he’s sown in past fights that he’ll still pour it on even on empty. Either way, this should be a high sig output fight for either fighter. Watch the Villante vs Sean O’Connell fight for a good preview of what could happen.
Villante via 3rd round TKO
Kelvin Gastelum vs Vitor Belfort
Questionable match-up, as Gastelum is a legit contender for either the MW or WW division if he can control his weight cuts. He’s coming off a dismantling of MW veteran Tim Kennedy, absolutely torching him on the feet with his massively improved boxing skills and increased accuracy. The guy was just pinpoint accurate in all of his combinations and left Kennedy with no solutions to the problem Belfort will face. How do you stop a charging Kelvin that’s learned how to punch? Kennedy was largely unsuccessful on most of his take-down attempts, and the ones that worked ended up with Kelvin right back up 3 seconds later punching his face in. Belfort doesn’t even wrestle! Kennedy was unable to get away from Kelvin’s forward pressure, trying his very best to hit back on counters and clinching up to no avail. Belfort used to be one of the deadliest counter-strikers with spectacular spinning kicks, and then he got deflated. To be more specific, Belfort lost his TRT exemption and his physique quickly changed. This is a guy who used to fight at 205 pounds and looked completely jacked. Now he’s basically middleweight Diego Sanchez but with diminished speed and power. Gastelum has blended well his aggressive pace with patience and movement, likely thanks to his move to Kings MMA camp with esteemed striking coach Rafael Cordeiro. He’s improved his hand speed and added more tools in his bag with body shots and increased head movement/feints. He’ll need it against Belfort, but it might not be the best route to victory for Kelvin. As Belfort has transformed from a grape to a raisin, so has his take-down defense. He’s been annihilated on the ground immediately after a laughably easy take-down in the last 3 losses, and the fighter who won in those fights got absurd amount of points in the process. Gastelum hasn’t really shown much interest in wrestling outside of a fight or two, and to be honest, he probably doesn’t need to against Belfort. He’s faster, more agile, shored up his defensive liabilities and kept his combinations tight, and actually can go past 1 round without needing an oxygen mask. Still, if he does wrestle Belfort and shoots in for a take-down, it very well could end up like the Nate Marquardt fight that earned Gastelum a 2nd round TKO with 59 sig strikes and a TD. It wasn’t pretty. I think you’ve got the point now that Gastelum has several avenues to an easy win, and having 5 rounds to put away a shriveled up peanut is more than sufficient to get the job done. Don’t mess this up Kelvin!