When Francis Ngannou vs Junior Dos Santos was pulled from the main card of UFC 215, my knee jerk reaction was disinterest in the PPV. Now Borg has pulled out due to illness. Amanda Nunes issues with management had already dampened the outlook of the event and now the most exciting heavyweight prospect wasn’t there to bolster it. Then I sat down and looked at the card that was leftover. To my surprise, this card looks like one with potential to pay off. The match-ups are all intriguing and the card features some great grapplers who mix their striking and ground games up beautifully. The drama and Dana White’s own commentary has painted this card as lackluster, especially in the aftermath of the Conor McGregor vs Floyd Mayweather insanity; But I think this card could be a real sleeper and one of the most entertaining cards of the entire year. The names aren’t the biggest draws, but for fans of the sport, the fights could be truly entertaining.
Ilir Latifi vs Tyson Pedro:
Tyson Pedro has only fought 6 times and has finished every opponent he has faced inside of the first round. Ilir Latifi meanwhile has three times as many fights and has been a staple in the UFC for years, having fought the likes of Ryan Bader previously. The winner of this bout is likely to get an opponent in the UFC’s top 10 as the promotion continues to seek new talent for interesting match-ups. Pedro is a black belt in Japanese Jiu Jitsu and a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu; four of his finishes have been submissions. He compliments the submissions with serious power behind his strikes, most memorable of all being his knees to Paul Craig’s body from the clinch. Latifi meanwhile has a great wrestling pedigree that allows him to keep fights standing or force things to the ground when he is being outstruck. One punch KO power is the name of Latifi’s game who just like Pedro, throws every strike with heavy power. This is a match-up where both men will look to finish standing without fear of the fight touching the mat.
There’s a risk that this fight becomes a war of attrition. Latifi will chase takedowns if a fight is getting away from him and Pedro has shown some nice clinch work in the aforementioned bout with Craig. That said, the fact that both men are so aggressive means that clinch work and in-fighting could see vicious exchanges. On the ground, Pedro’s submissions skills and Latifi’s ground and pound should mean there are little to no breaks. All factors included; you’ve got a match-up between two heavy handed strikers who will likely pressure non-stop until somebody goes down once and for all. It is not a fight likely to go to decision and could surprise fans who are unfamiliar with the participants or underestimating them. Latifi is the safe bet here, but Pedro has been impressive at every facet in the octagon so far. Expect Latifi to provide the best test yet for Pedro, but the division could see a new rising star Tyson Pedro if he gets it done.
Gilbert Melendez vs Jeremy Stephens:
Gilbert Melendez and Jeremy Stephens are extremely entertaining fighters who have struggled with their recent competition. Combined they’ve lost seven of their last ten fights, however; 5 of those losses came to current or former UFC champions. These men are quickly being relegated to gatekeeper status as exciting fighters who can’t get past elite competition but will test anybody that hopes to break into that top tier territory. The weaknesses of both men are apt for exploitation; both can be drawn into a brawl fairly easily, both men will risk taking damage to deliver it and both men have a deep seeded hatred of taking steps backward in any capacity. Those weak points could turn this into a fight of the night contending brawl similar to Eddie Alvarez vs Dustin Poirier before it.
Stephens combines solid takedown defense with a great ability to get back to his feet when he does go down, as displayed in his fight with Frankie Edgar. Lil Heathen has flawed footwork that both Max Holloway and Renato Moicano took advantage of but he also has savvy that 39 career fights can bring. He knows how to set traps and when all else fails, he’ll take three shots just to land one of his monstrous blows. Melendez brings excellent wrestling and a scrappy, grinding approach that works well behind his incredible toughness. Like Stephens, Melendez will sometimes wade into danger and take damage to get the fight where he wants it. I’m edging this fight to Melendez because he does have a better chance at sticking to his gameplan and I suspect he’ll have a speed advantage to work with going in.
Rafael Dos Anjos vs Neil Magny:
After just one fight at Welterweight, former Lightweight Champion, Rafael Dos Anjos was tabbed as the stand-in should a fighter be injured in Tyron Woodley’s title defense against Demian Maia. That’s the kind of clout that Dos Anjos brings to the octagon. His streak to the title was among the most impressive I’ve witnessed, as he ran roughshod over Benson Henderson, Nate Diaz, Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone before being beaten by Eddie Alvarez. Dos Anjos was known for his ground game upon entering the UFC but his striking has become just as strong and at Welterweight his speed looked incredible. His opponent is the perpetually underestimated Neil Magny, another elite level grappler who has begun to develop his striking behind great length and constant threat of securing a takedown. While Dos Anjos is always a threat on the ground, Magny is the type of fighter you never want to be down there with because of how aggressively he seeks to finish. Magny has taken out the likes of Johnny Hendricks and Hector Lombard in route to becoming the sixth ranked Welterweight in the division and a win against Dos Anjos would set him up for top five competition.
Calling this fight is incredibly difficult given the limited views we’ve had of Dos Anjos at Welterweight and extreme difference in physical attributes. Dos Anjos is the better striker in a vaccuum, but he has to overcome Magny’s 6 inch height advantage and TEN INCH REACH ADVANTAGE. Magny uses his length well, but speed kills and RDA is liable to be one of the fastest opponents that Magny has seen. So it becomes speed vs size on the feet and the grappling battle involves two high level BJJ practitiioners. The one flaw in Dos Anjos’ performance against Tarec Saffiedine was that he was taken down early and Magny is a much better ground fighter who is more likely to seek takedowns. That said, Magny’s last loss came due to Lorenz Larkin’s leg kicks and RDA showed a similar ability to stop fighters with leg kicks when he stormed past Nate Diaz. I have a hard time picturing a fighter overcoming a ten inch reach advantage so I’m riding with Magny, the underdog here.
Amanda Nunes vs Valentina Shevchenko:
I’ve covered the technical aspects of this bout before Amanda Nunes pulled out of UFC 213. Nunes’ gas tank is a career long issue that has cost her fights and almost cost her the first match with Shevchenko. Shevchenko is the superior striker who needs to avoid Nunes’ takedowns and keep the fight standing for success. Without rehashing too much though, the biggest shift since 213 comes with the mental aspect of the fight. Amanda Nunes was in Shevchenko’s face and under her skin for much of the build-up to the first planned title fight between the two but after she pulled out of the bout late; it starts to look like overcompensation. Now, having felt Dana White’s wrath and the fans rage over her decision to pull out of their previous opportunity to meet, the pressure is firmly on Nunes. It’s hard to believe that there’s any mental edge for Amanda Nunes anymore as Shevchenko seems more confident than ever. I always had Shevchenko winning this rematch and only feel more confident in that choice, but Nunes is not to be underestimated. The Lioness packs KO power that overwhelmed Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate in back to back performances. I’ll still pick Bullet to come away as the new champion, but for at least the first two rounds this is a scary fight for both competitors.
Demetrius Johnson vs Ray Borg:
IS NOW CANCELED DUE TO RAY BORG PULLING OUT BECAUSE OF ILLNESS BUT BELOW IS THE BREAKDOWN.
While the UFC has thrown all of it’s promotional might behind a handful of fighters, somehow Demetrius Johnson has never gotten much love. Perhaps there’s such a thing as being too dominant for your own good as Mighty Mouse has barely been threatened in route to a perfect record since dropping to 125 lbs. in the UFC. He is considered by most the best pound for pound fighter alive, improving every time out and boasting one of the most well rounded games in the sport. By defeating Ray Borg, Mighty Mouse would break the record for most consecutive title defenses in UFC history. Borg however, is no slouch. Toughness and perpetual motion define Ray Borg’s style, as he has never been stopped from pressing the action let alone finished in a fight. Borg is scrappy and likes to force things into tight quarters, where he can bring the fight to the ground and create scrambles and back takes. His bout with Louis Smolka showed ground work reminiscent of Tim Elliot, who gave Johnson a challenging title defense when his opportunity arose. Borg also boasts constant head movement and forward motion, which gives us the promise of an action packed title fight.
It’s impossible to pick against Demetrius Johnson in Flyweight division. Had TJ Dillashaw come down in weight for the fight, I’d still be picking the best pound for pound fighter alive. That said, Ray Borg is the victim of the Dillashaw rumors. The Tazmexican Devil is not a slouch and doesn’t slow down. His ability to provoke scrambles and back takes give him the grappling equivalent of a puncher’s chance should the fight hit the mat. On the feet, Johnson is far superior but he’ll need to be cautious of the power packed volleys that Borg is capable of throwing. While I’m with the rest of the MMA world in selecting Johnson to win this bout and make history; I think Ray Borg is going to make it a tougher fight than many fans expect.
I can’t help but point out the missed opportunities of the UFC in promoting both champions on this card. Amanda Nunes is coming off of first round finishes of the two most famous female bantamweights of this generation. She brings the Brazilian fanbase with her and the Lioness character makes for an interesting scene whenever she weighs in. Demetrius Johnson is on the verge of cementing himself as the most dominant champion in the history of the promotion, but the UFC has failed to create compelling narratives for his opponents as it has rushed developing prospects to slaughter against him rather than let fighters grow and work toward the shot (looking directly at Cejudo and Horiguchi here). Before Moreno vs Pettis; Flyweights were mostly relegated to free cards and that includes Demetrius Johnson at times. What makes the circumstances even more curious is that Johnson isn’t a boring fighter. The man has finished more than half of his title defenses. His Twitch following means self-promotion hasn’t been an issue either. That UFC can’t figure out a way to monetize this dominant champion rests solely on the promotion. They turned GSP into a superstar even though he only finished 2 of his 10 title fights during his second run as undisputed champion. Simply put, spreading the love instead of honing in on two or three stars at a time (none of which appear to be ready or allowed to compete in the octagon any time soon) seems like a no-brainer and the biggest victim of the UFC’s recent approach is Mighty Mouse, but Amanda Nunes is looking like a similar missed opportunity…and apparently rather than try to build up these champions, the UFC appears poised to punish them with more under-promotion and a self-fulfilling fantasy.