Written by: Remi Se
UFC 218 seems like an event built to pass the torch from old dominant fighters to leaders of the next era. With the exception of Cejudo vs Pettis; every fight features an established elite fighter facing a rising star. The lowest ranked fighter on the main card is 6 and every match-up is competitive. UFC 217 is a tough act to follow but this card has the potential to be right there with it.
Henry Cejudo vs Sergio Pettis:
Henry Cejudo and Sergio Pettis are set to decide which man is next in line to try and unseat pound for pound top dog Demetrius Johnson. Pettis enters the fight on a four fight win streak and fresh off of a unanimous decision over fast rising Brandon Moreno. Cejudo meanwhile looked like a whole new striker in his second round finish of Wilson Reis. These guys are the cream of the crop, adding much needed depth to a notoriously shallow division.
Sergio Pettis is among the most gifted strikers in the entire 125 lbs. division. He’s only 24 years old and his early UFC career saw some mistakes turn into stoppage losses, but on his recent win streak Pettis has fought mistake free. Pettis has strong takedown defense and is active off of his back; hard to take down and even harder to keep there. Cejudo meanwhile is the older but less experienced fighter. Cejudo’s striking showed development in his loss to Joseph Benavidez and looked completely evolved against Wilson Reis. For as much as Cejudo showed standing, his Olympic level wrestling is what decides fights. If Pettis can deny the takedown early, he can take a decision standing but Cejudo’s wrestling is the X-factor. Even if Cejudo can’t score takedowns early, the threat can open up his new and improved striking; combined with the pressure he can apply shooting and clinching Cejudo should find ways to get to the floor.
Michelle Waterson vs Tecia Torres:
Michelle Waterson and Tecia Torres were the last stops for Rose Namajunas in route to a title fight and victory. These women are among the best in the division and beating either is a shortcut to elite competition. Waterson was a dominant atomweight before moving to 115 lbs for a UFC bid. She was undefeated in her UFC run until the current champion knocked her off. Tecia Torres was undefeated for her entire career before a competitive loss to Rose as well, but the Tiny Tornado also boasts a win over the title holder. A win for Tecia could line her up for a very quick rubber match while Waterson may have work to do but has to be eyeing a victory as a quick way to move one fight away from her own rematch.
These are two of the most well rounded women in the division. Both come from Karate backgrounds, using kicks and distance management to set up quick rushes of aggression. Torres tends to be a bit more measured and more liable to shoot whereas Waterson is hard pressed not to shoot forward, but takes fights to the ground more often on trips and throws. The Karate Hottie is the veteran but the Tiny Tornado has two superior performances against Rose to Waterson’s showing. That said, MMA math is fuzzy and whereas Waterson’s aggression backfired with Rose, I suspect it can score against Torres. Torres isn’t afraid of a scrap but Waterson has had much more success drawing opponents into a gunfight.
Eddie Alvarez vs Justin Gaethje:
Eddie Alvarez established himself as one of the best lightweights in the world outside of the UFC. He’s a throwback, Bellator’s first champion known for pushing a non-stop pace behind a tough chin and iron willpower. Repeat all of that for Justin Gaethje but change Bellator to World Series of Fighting. These are two of the most exciting fighters in MMA who both fight a similar style; constant forward pressure even if they’re hurt until the other guy gives space. That this isn’t one of the main events speaks to how epic the card is. If these two fight the way that they virtually always do, this has potential to be MMA’s Arturo Gatti vs Mickey Ward.
Eddie is the more experienced fighter with the tougher fights on his resume. While both men punch for power but with holes due to their reckless styles, Eddie can separate himself with pressure wrestling and clinch work. The Underground King can turn a fight around by putting his weight on opponents and wearing them down even if they’re winning the striking battle. Gaethje however is an opponent who never seems to slow down. Few fighters are as dedicated to leg kicks as the Highlight and Alvarez has been beaten by dedicated leg attacks before. The undefeated fighter is younger, but that could mean more mistakes. Against Michael Johnson, Gaethje got hurt multiple times but willed his way through the damage. Against a former UFC champion like Alvarez, he’ll have to fight smarter and give his leg kicks time to bare rewards.
Alistair Overeem vs Francis Ngannou:
In just five UFC fights, Francis Ngannou is on the verge of a title fight. Ngannou has been fighting professionally for just four years but every time he seems to evolve every trip into the octagon. The Predator has finished his opponent in every victory of his career, his power is astounding. Alistair Overeem has been fighting more than four times as long as Ngannou, 18 years. He has been an elite fighter since the Pride days and has won 6 of his last 7 matches, all against top ranked competition. While Stipe Miocic stands atop the Heavyweight division, Alistair Overeem is one step away and a victory over Ngannou cements another shot at the crown atop a hall of fame career.
Overeem is an elite technical striker with knockout power to back it up. While his chin has been questionable, his continued dominance comes thanks to elusiveness. While the Predator’s development has been rapid, he has never fought an opponent even close to Overeem’s caliber. Yet Ngannou has the most powerful punch any fighter has registered. Against a chinny opponent, the physical advantages of the Predator are impossible to ignore. If Ngannou fights patiently, knockout opportunities will present themselves. His lead uppercut is a punch to watch for.
Jose Aldo vs Max Holloway:
Max Holloway defeated Jose Aldo to become the Featherweight champion less than 6 months ago. Aldo started the fight applying heavy pressure with his handspeed, but Holloway methodically slowed the Brazilian legend down and finished him in the third round. But Aldo was winning the fight 2 rounds to none on the judges’ scorecards before he was finished and when Frankie Edgar was injured, Aldo seemed like the clear choice for a second chance. Both fighters had advantages in the first fight and weaknesses to be exploited, making adjustments to key to victory in this rematch.
Aldo’s speed was the difference maker early in the first bout. He was able to catch Holloway a number of times and appeared to hurt the Hawaiian at one point. Holloway was able to work the body and legs of Aldo however and by the end of the second round he had control of the fight. The former champion has alluded to looking for a knockout and aggression could be a huge deciding factor. Aldo didn’t attempt leg kicks nearly enough in the first bout. The level changes could help open up more opportunities to land his punches. For Holloway, weathering the storm important. He has to fight cautiously in the early going and focus on chipping away. Max can’t be overconfident, but a similar strategy of body work and taking picking his spots should be able to take sap Aldo’s energy and retain the title.