Written by: Remi Se
For the first three months 2018, the UFC’s pay per view cards seemed reliant entirely on their main events to draw buys. No one wants to miss a big title fight for Cormier, Cyborg or Miocic but it’s a lot easier to ignore them when the rest of the card is full of inconsequential match-ups. The drought of quality undercards has turned UFC 223 into more than just a good card, but a reason for excitement among fans who have been eager for something big. Top to bottom, UFC 223 is stacked with quality match-ups that are both exciting and should push fighters into positions to face high ranking opposition in the near future. Even the loss of Tony Ferguson in the main event couldn’t slow down the momentum and 145 lbs champion Max Holloway enters the main event looking to become the second two division champion in history against the absolute monster that is Khabib. Let’s explore the PPV match-ups further:
Al Iaquinta vs Paul Felder:
Al Iaquinta’s last four wins have all been the type that launch a fighter into bigger opportunities. He’s beaten Ross Pearson, Joe Lauzon, Jorge Masvidal and Diego Sanchez consecutively. The problem is that three of those wins happened in 2014-2015 while Iaquinta put a pause on his momentum over contract disputes and a real estate career to fall back on. Felder is a bit of a foil in this respect. He’s a guarantee to take three fights a year against whoever the UFC wants and he’ll double as an analyst when he isn’t booked to compete. But where the two men are alike is in their striking acumen and their willingness to throw technique aside as they fall into brawling exchanges. Both men appear to fight on emotion at times and become overly aggressive, betraying their skills in the name of truly testing toughness…that’s the type of attitude that sparks some classic moments in the octagon.
The winner of this bout might be the fighter who demonstrates the most patience. Felder can be a bit of a plodding fighter, focused on forward pressure and closing space to set up his elbows. Opponents who try to shoot forward can expect intercepting knees and counter punches as well. The Irish Dragon has an arsenal built to not back down and he has run off three straight KO’s being more methodic than in his past, pressing opponents toward the cage and making them pay for any steps forward. Iaquinta meanwhile has light footwork that can help him to be elusive and plenty of feints that can break a pressure fighter’s momentum. These are the first tools to topping an opponent like Paul Felder and they should open up Raging Al’s power right hand. Iaquinta however can be frustrated and much of his boxing is used specifically to set up that right. Felder’s recent methodic approach and his ability to game plan could help him to avoid the big threats and press Iaquinta into closed quarters where the Irish Dragon’s elbows are by far the biggest threat for either fighter. This fight has a great chance of turning into a war of attrition and one where both guys refuse to back down, but I suspect that the fighter who is willing to concede some ground and set up counters will be the victor. Since Felder has shown more craft of late, I give him the better odds to do just that.
Michael Chiesa vs Anthony Pettis:
Anthony Pettis needs no introduction, except to say that we’re only getting further away from the time when he reeled off all the highlights people know him for. He’s lost five of his last seven fights, having faced only top competition since his days as lightweight champion. The man who graced the Wheaties box just hasn’t seemed to have the same flare in the octagon, whether opponents have figured him out or the fire is gone is anyone’s guess. Chiesa meanwhile has won five of his last seven though his last bout was a loss to Kevin Lee (who immediately got a title shot after). Chiesa has picked up some tough losses in his UFC career but he’s consistently beaten quality opponents throughout his time. For both of these men, a loss would be a major setback. Pettis may lose top 15 standing for what seems like the first time since he came from the WEC while Chiesa would likely lose his top 10 position. The winner of this high profile match-up would be in a position to challenge top ten or possibly even top 5 opponents before the year is out. A lot is on the line for these two men.
Pettis is still an incredibly dynamic striker with grappling talent, but he also still struggles to stay on his feet or get up once he’s been taken down. There’s no secret to the fact that pressure fighters are his kryptonite while he beats virtually everyone that lets him operate in space. When he can kick and use his versatility, he’s dominant but his in-fighting is far behind the eight ball. Chiesa is smart enough to close distance and excellent on the ground, specifically taking opponents’ backs and sinking in chokes. Maverick has a three-inch height and reach advantage and he knows how to fight long, forcing opponents to explode to close distance which plays into his grappling whenever he times the explosion right. This could easily become a game of cat and mouse, with Chiesa trying to get inside while Pettis works to do damage without getting caught. Most intriguing of all is the fact that Pettis fought a similar style in Charles Oliveira for one of his few recent victories. Pettis routinely got taken down and gave up his back but Oliveira was unable to finish any choke attempts, instead being reversed and allowing Pettis to hold top position. Chiesa operates in that same world and has some impressive submissions (see Beneil Dariush) there. There’s a strong chance we see the fighters in this position and whether Pettis can continue to escape the rear naked choke may become a deciding factor in the fight. I’m personally hoping that Pettis cleans up his takedown defense instead and forces Chiesa to fight standing where Showtime can add to his highlights and steal a quality win to regain momentum…it’s probably wishful thinking.
Renato Moicano vs Calvin Kattar:
It’s easy to look at some of the quality names along the undercard and fight pass and wonder how Moicano vs Kattar landed on the big PPV. But I suspect that the two fighters’ styles and potential is what got them the nod above former contenders Karolina Kowalkiewicz or Ray Borg. Moicano went head to head with number one ranked Brian Ortega for the better part of three rounds before succumbing to a choke and before that he took a clear decision victory over Jeremy Stephens. Kattar meanwhile came out of seemingly nowhere to beat Andre Fili and Shane Burgos decisively. Both men have shown impressive toughness, great hands and a willingness to mix it up. There are going to be exchanges of combinations from right inside the pocket in this bout, it’s a virtual guarantee and both of these men could easily see top ten ranks before 2019 begins.
In watching Kattar work, the first word that comes to mind is SHARP. Kattar has a beautiful jab that he uses in various ways to keep opponents off balance. He can throw it to hurt or flash it to open up a power strike and once his man thinks the timing is set, Kattar will switch to looping lead hooks that take advantage. His kicks aren’t nearly as pretty as his hands but Kattar knows how to use them effectively, getting in and out with power behind them. His grappling is somewhat untested but he showed strong takedown defense especially against Fili. Moicano meanwhile might not be the cleanest boxer, but he makes up for it with precision and head movement. Almost the entire fight with Ortega was fought inside the pocket. Moicano could be hit but he was always countering whether Ortega landed or not. The Brazilian will stand and bang, not giving ground easily and answering strikes with combinations of his own. This is all the more impressive because Moicano is a jiu jitsu based fighter who has no knockouts but a slew of submissions. Expect both men to trade often while Moicano looks to mix in some takedowns. For the betting man, the Brazilian is absolutely the more proven commodity having gone toe to toe with two of the top five fighters in the division; but if Kattar can keep things standing which he has against two wrestlers already, his hands and striking discipline are superior.
Joanna Jedrjecyk vs Rose Namajunas:
At this time a year ago, Joanna Jedrjecyk was the undisputed most dominant female fighter alive. It was a near foregone conclusion that she would match and break Ronda Rousey’s title defense record for a female. Partially because he last name is tough to pronounce and partially because it just fit like a glove, JJ had the nickname Joanna Champion. Then she fought Rose Namajunas with a chance to tie Ronda’s record and Thug Rose shocked the world. Rose’s journey to the top was one that MMA fans got to witness from start to peak. She hit the scene with highlight finishes including a flying armbar that drew Rousey comparisons of her own but in the TUF finale she showed holes in her mental game moreso than technique. Rose was the first fighter to fight for the women’s strawweight title in 2014 but it took three years to get back into a title fight and become a champion. Now the most dominant champion in the division’s history becomes the challenger against Thug Rose who went from a tearful UFC debut to a finishing machine over the course of a three-year journey.
Rose’s first match-up with JJ was a picture perfect performance. She dropped Joanna early but was patient rather than using all of her energy early. She continued to control the fight with feints and rhythm changes until she dropped Jedrjecyk a second time and finshed her. Rose’s ability to shift weight on her lead foot and feint convincingly saw Joanna reaching with her punches and missing on a vast majority of her volume. If one thing was clear, it’s that Rose can control this match-up from space. The two fought in November so Joanna has had very little time to make big changes to her game for the adjustment. It would be in her best interest to force the fight into closer range where Rose’s reach and feints won’t be as impactful. JJ is great in the clinch, ferocious when an opponent is backed against the cage and overwhelming once she traps somebody. If Joanna pushes inside and works from clinches, this fight will take on a dimension it never got the chance to in that first time around. That’s not to say Rose is a slouch inside, her grappling is a threat whether standing or on the ground but with the clear advantages she possesses in space it only makes sense to test her inside game. Since I’ve been writing MMA previews, I’ve said a handful of times that I don’t think a quick turnaround for a rematch after a clear loss is the best way to treat former champions. They should have more time to make adjustments and improvements before risking their last shot at the current champion (this was my sentiment for Holloway vs Aldo 2 most recently). I’m sticking with this belief and expecting another victory for Thug Rose. Ironically, I still think JJ is dominant over everyone else in the division and I question how Rose will handle wrestlers but when styles make fights, this is her fight to lose.
Max Holloway vs Khabib Nurmagomedov:
Max Holloway has the 145 lbs belt and two consecutive stoppage victories over legend Jose Aldo. In route to his belt, Holloway had to beat a who’s who of the division’s top contenders and so he has virtually cleaned out the division (Ortega is the glaring exception) in spite of having only one title defense. When Tony Ferguson injured his knee with just a week to go before UFC 223, Holloway was offered an opportunity that is equal parts insane and high reward. He would have six days to make weight and fight a 25-0 dominant lightweight for the 155 lbs title. That lightweight is Khabib Nurmagomedov. He has absolutely stormed through the likes of former champions Rafael Dos Anjos and top ranked Edson Barboza with victories that were absolutely dominant. The rumors out of his camp feel like myths with the amount of hype behind them. Cormier said that he goes toe to toe with former middleweight Luke Rockhold and holds his own. Many fans believe he’s been the best lightweight for years, the title eluding him due to injuries moreso than anything. It is on this backdrop that we get a truly compelling title fight and main event. A man with everything at Featherweight has nothing to lose at Lightweight, stepping in to fight a grappling machine that even the likes of Eddie Alvarez said requires a full camp just to compete with. An undisputed lightweight champion will be crowned and whether it’s a coronation that was preordained or a world shocking, legend maker; that will set the stage for Tony Ferguson, Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz’s eventual returns into a division that is stacked but missing its biggest draws.
Let’s talk about the styles in this fight. I’ve said time and again that I believe Khabib is the best grappler in any of the lower weight classes. He has incredible takedowns because he can mix throws, drags, trips and shots seamlessly together. He has a heavy top game that mixes grappling with vicious ground and pound to help him advance position, deal damage and wear out opponents. On his feet, Khabib’s striking seems designed to set up his grappling. He strikes with explosions and relies heavily on explosive forward movement or looping power strikes that push his opponents back in a narrow path to the cage. Against the cage he seems unstoppable but in space he has eaten strikes from nearly every opponent and simply gritted his teeth to press through it. You can outstrike Khabib but once he gets you down, and he will get you down, the round is his. Holloway meanwhile relies on motion, space and volume. His lateral movement isn’t spectacular but it’s strong and he remains light on his feet all night. He has the toughness to not concede ground and trade combinations with even strikers at Jose Aldo’s level. Where Khabib loops his punches, Holloway is much more crisp and concise. His punches make a bee-line to his targets and he isn’t afraid to work the body or build his damage rather than chase one punch finishes. This allows him to be elusive and thanks to his cardio, he tends to increase his pace while his opponents slow down. On a full camp without being fresh off of an injury; Holloway would receive far stronger consideration by the oddsmakers and betting public. But thanks to just 6 days of prep, most likely focused on weight cutting, this seems like a mountain to climb.
For Holloway to shock the world, he has to keep the fight on its feet for extended time. This is going to rely heavily on his light footwork and ability to get in for a strike than out before Khabib can grab him. Fighters have been able to get inside on his hips and press him back to the cage in some recent bouts however and Khabib has shown a willingness to shoot for a takedown when closing the distance is a struggle. That said, Holloway’s takedown defense against the cage has been absolutely beautiful over the course of his previous 8 fights. He has defended 27 of 27 takedown attempts in that span and Luke Thomas has a great breakdown showing just how talented Max is as keeping his balance and fending off the takedown attempt. Khabib is a different level of grappler though and it seems inevitable that he will score some takedowns. From there it will be up to Max to mitigate damage and avoid submissions. He has to make Khabib work and keep the Eagle from getting in short breathers on top. Nurmagomedov’s road to victory is always the same. Secure the takedown, wear his man down and finish the fight when opportunities open up against a tired opponent. Khabib is a master of wrist control and this allows him to control fighters on the ground while opening them up for ground and pound. He’s the bigger fighter and has a full camp versus six days of preparation; the plan is clear. What Khabib will need to watch for is reckless movement forward and wasting energy on his explosions. Max needs to be a matador similar to Holly Holm against Ronda Rousey. If he can force Khabib to close larger gaps, he can slide out of the side and waste Khabib’s energy. Max is no stranger to feinting or to working off of lateral motion, but the question marks come with his injuries and lack of preparation time. On a full camp, I have Max pegged as the toughest stylistic match-up for Khabib. He’s tough to takedown, precise as a striker and has far superior footwork to Khabib; but even so it would be tough to pick against Khabib. Add in those question marks around Max’s cardio, weight drain and injury recovery; I can’t pick against the Eagle for this fight. That said, the near 5-1 odds and disappointment over Ferguson pulling out of the fight has people underestimating Max somewhat. He’s a champion who has fought elite opposition and proven near impossible to figure out. He has a shot, even if only a slim one, to shock the world.
The Undercard Sleepers:
I’m 3000 words deep on this card in case you missed the enthusiasm. So as not to drag this out too long, I want to highlight a handful of match-ups from the undercard that absolutely deserve your attention. Two former title challengers face quality opposition as Karolina Kowalkiewicz meets Felice Herrig and Ray Borg faces Brandon Moreno. The champions have an edge in those match-ups but they should be competitive and both face legitimate threats. Fightpass meanwhile includes what is bound to be a fun fight in Artem Lobov vs Alex Caceres, two men who might not always win but always do show up to fight. There’s also a massively promising prospect on Fightpass, Zabit Magomedsharipov. Magomedsharipov has a striking style reminiscent of Jon Jones and showed quality wrestling in his past fight as well. He’s facing a step up in competition in the form of Kyle Bochniak who is extremely tough to finish and has been competitive every time out. As I said early, this card is worth watching from top to bottom, so keep an eye out for those match-ups.