Written by: Remi Se
Christmas has passed, the New Year is days away and that means the UFC’s year-end event is set to arrive. UFC 219 isn’t the star studded curtain call of years past, but it could be a star-making night. Cris Cyborg is considered by many to be the greatest female MMA fighter of all time. After fighting lesser known opponents in her UFC career, she finally gets a true foil in the woman that dethroned Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm. Khabib Nurmagomedov was on the verge of a title shot before injuries and weight issues hit; now he faces a lightweight striker with more highlight KO’s than Anthony Pettis, Edson Barboza. The Pay Per View also kicks off with the return of fan favorite Carlos Condit. Opportunities abound and there’s a chance for surprises and high drama when the night is over.
Neil Magny vs Carlos Condit:
Carlos Condit and Neil Magny are two quality fighters in need of a win. Magny was on the verge of a top 5 ranking before Lorenz Larkin pulled a vintage Jose Aldo assault via leg kicks. Neil fell out of the top 10 after being submitted by RDA with ease, his hype was officially over. Condit meanwhile hasn’t fought in over a year and hasn’t won a fight in over two years. He seemed to be mulling retirement as much as he was training for a while. It’s a perfect scene for two fighters to put aside any hesitation, laying everything on the line.
The Natural Born Killer, Carlos Condit will enter the octagon with a striking advantage that he needs to capitalize on. Condit is well known for punishing opponents with pace and variety. He’ll need to use kicks to keep distance and his famous elbows inside of the pocket or clinch. Magny meanwhile, has one goal. He needs to get the fight to the ground and use his BJJ advantage just like Demian Maia did before him. Magny’s not Maia; he’s a high level grappler but not as effective with takedowns or submissions as the elite of the division. That gives Condit a real chance to keep this fight standing to win, but it feels like the most glaring gap between the two is clearly Condit’s takedown defense. I won’t hide the fact that I’m a Condit fan and want to see him matched with more top ten fighters. I’m rooting for his takedown D to hold up for a win but I’m skeptical.
Cynthia Calvillo vs Carla Esparza:
It’s hard to believe that less than 3 years ago, Carla Esparza was the first champion in UFC Women’s Strawweight history. Even crazier, Cynthia Calvillo is a heavy favorite to beat Esparza and she didn’t have a professional fight until more than a year after Esparza’s reign. Calvillo shot up the rankings with impressive submission skills and a developing striking game. Esparza meanwhile took a break and hasn’t been able to put together a win streak since losing the title. That information gives this fight the feel of a no-brainer; but Esparza is a true veteran of the game with top notch wrestling. She is easily the biggest test of Calvillo’s career.
The tactics for this bout are going to be interesting. Neither woman is a dominant striker, both find more success bringing fights to the mat. Calvillo has shown a propensity to outscramble opponents like any Alpha Male talent should; she has shown an array of submissions and transitions that make her a threat in any situation. Esparza is a pure wrestler rather than submission artist. She’ll look for takedowns to score points, wear opponents down and finish them when fatigued. The question is whether Esparza’s wisdom and experience can help her overcome the fastest rising fighter in the division. Cookie Monster typically goes for takedowns at the feet and ankles rather than shooting for the hips, which could keep her away from Calvillo’s chokes. But I suspect that Calvillo will have an advantage standing to go with submission threats whenever Esparza does get things to the mat.
Jimmie Rivera vs ???:
As of my writing this, John Lineker was forced to pull out of his fight with Jimmie Rivera. The UFC was trying to book Marlon Moraes for yet another short notice bout but it appears that the fight has fallen through. In all likelihood this slot will be replaced with a completely different fight. My money is on Diakese vs Hooker, which looks like it will be a striking show to behold. But Rivera is already in Vegas and there will be fighters looking to jump on a quick opportunity to enter the contender’s circle. John Dodson’s name floated out there and that would make for a fun fight.
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Edson Barboza:
Khabib Nurmagomedov went from seeming destined to fight for the lightweight title to straight up cursed. His absence due to injuries and weight issues has caused many in the MMA world to forget just how dominant his grappling was. This is a fighter who completely shutdown Rafael Dos Anos right before the man had one of the most impressive runs to a title ever. Edson Barboza meanwhile seems to have the curse of being too active in such a dangerous division. He runs of streaks of wins against high level competition but eventually someone catches him before he can get to a title shot. His current streak of three wins has shown more caution and better conservation of energy than the past. He’s always been a highlight reel striker, but now he’s added better craft to match his technique.
Similar to Magny/Condit, this is a bout with each fighter looking to push a clear advantage. Barboza is arguably the best striker in the stacked lightweight division. His low kicks are a danger to get caught by Nurmagomedov, but he’s so fast with them that he may still be able to utilize the weapon. He’ll need to keep his distance and only explode when he’s sure he can land AND escape at the end. That’s because Khabib is the best grappler in the lower weight-classes. He’s not the submission threat of a Brian Ortega, but he’s superior at getting the takedown and smothering his man. If Khabib gets a grip on an opponent; it’s virtually foregone that the Eagle will score the takedown. Nurmagomedov usually uses looping power strikes to get inside while opponents defend which could leave him open to a Barboza counter. The problem for Edson is that it only takes one mistake for Khabib to control the rest of the round in top position. Barboza needs a KO quickly before fatigue causes mistakes too prevalent to avoid Khabib’s onslaught on the ground.
Cris Cyborg vs Holly Holm:
When Cris Cyborg defeated Gina Carano, she laid claim to the title of greatest living female fighter. That was in 2009 and since then the only person to even enter the debate with Cyborg has been Ronda Rousey. Cyborg is physically imposing with champion tier muay thai, overpowering wrestling and a BJJ game that is lauded though she never has to use it. She’s finally on the verge of getting her recognition after years at the top. That’s because Ronda Rousey was derailed in glorious fashion by Holly Holm. Holm’s boxing success was well known before she ever got into the octagon, but her MMA career really hit the map with her headkick KO of Rousey. The upset shocked the world and displayed exactly why Holm is so dangerous. She has incredible footwork, she’s elusive and her ability to counter opponents makes the footwork lethal. A victory over Cyborg would give Holm unparalleled giant killer status, making her the first female two division champion in UFC history and perhaps sparking a new debate for who the GOAT is.
There’s reason to believe that this will just be another day in the office for Cyborg. Holm has struggled recently, losing 3 in a row before dispatching Bethe Correia to return to the winner’s circle. Cyborg meanwhile has been dominating for 8 years in peerless fashion. But there is plenty of evidence for those looking for an upset. Cyborg’s competition at 145 hasn’t been consistently elite. Against Invicta star, Tonya Evinger, Cyborg started to gas and did have some struggle. Holm meanwhile has faced the absolute best of the best that the UFC has to offer. She’s beaten Ronda Rousey, taken four rounds from Miesha Tate before a submission loss and lost razor thin decisions to Valentina Shevchenko and Germaine De Randamie. That’s a combination of elite striking and grappling that would prepare a fighter to face off with anybody, including a legend like Cyborg. But more importantly, the tactics for this fight appear to play into Holm’s favor.
Holm’s losses have come in two fashions. Miesha Tate shot a takedown and used her wrestling pedigree to submit Holm, but that doesn’t seem like a style Cyborg could mimic. The strikers that upset Holm have been patient. They let Holm fire first and give her few opportunities to counter. If you’ve watched Cyborg fight, you probably realize that this isn’t her typical style either. Cyborg overwhelms opponents with pressure. She is constantly pressing forward, always the aggressor looking to trap victims against the cage or in the clinch. The last time someone tried to be the aggressor with Holm, Ronda Rousey got a concussion so bad that she started family planning. Holm is near impossible to trap and sets traps for any would-be chaser. On top of that, Holm is tough as nails with 5 round endurance. She’ll still be in motion in the championship rounds and there’s no quit in her. Cyborg meanwhile showed signs of slowing down in the Evinger fight. There’s a real opportunity for Holm to outlast Cyborg’s endurance and begin to pick the legend apart in the latter rounds. As much as this is Cyborg’s fight to lose, a patient approach would create finishing opportunities; the styles of the fighters play to Holm’s advantage. I like Holm’s odds on this fight as long as she enters the pocket at angles and not straight lines. She’ll be the toughest opponent Cyborg has faced in quite some time; her style is tailor made to frustrate and fatigue Cyborg; and she finally got back on track in the Correia fight.