Benson Henderson vs. Brandon Thatch
Injuries to Tarec Saffiedine and Stephen Thompson have prompted the UFC to engage in some unusual matchmaking: pairing off a rising welterweight prospect in Brandon Thatch with the former UFC lightweight champion in Benson Henderson. That’s the new main event of Saturday’s UFC Fight Night show in Broomfield, Colorado, and it’s a fight where I find myself disagreeing with just about everybody I’ve seen offer an opinion on it.
Let me get this out of the way first: I think Thatch is a tremendous prospect and a very talented fighter. He’s developed a very advanced kickboxing style featuring a wide arsenal of kicks and the ability to throw the right technique at the right time. He’s the kind of fighter who can attack the weaknesses in his opponent’s defense in almost any situation. The result is a series of quick finishes, including first-round victories in his UFC appearances against Paulo Thiago and Justin Edwards.
With that having been said, I have a lot of questions about Thatch’s overall game. First, it bugs me that Thatch has been out of the first round just once in his career, and that he happened to lose that fight. Yes, the fight was very early in his career, but it leaves real questions and doubts about Thatch’s ability to fight beyond the first few minutes. The thing about Thatch’s high-octane kickboxing style, heavy on kicks and knees, is that it has to be physically exhausting. It’s certainly not the way a fighter would compete if he intended on fighting for five rounds.
I also believe that Thatch’s style leaves him vulnerable to being taken down. Thiago took Thatch down with a double-leg, and so did Mike Rhodes at an RFA event. Thatch was able to explode back to his feet in both situations, but if he’s getting taken down in the second round and beyond, I have my doubts about how well Thatch would be able to respond to being put on his back.
While Thatch brings an explosive and dangerous style with him into the cage, I find myself wondering if he’s so aggressive that it’s first-round finish or bust. Obviously Thatch has proven to be very good at getting those finishes, but it’s only a matter of time until a fighter manages to weather his storm and take him into deeper waters.
That brings us to Benson Henderson. Yes, I’m aware that Henderson will be the significantly smaller fighter in the cage. I’m also aware that Henderson took this fight on short notice. But Henderson is far superior to every fighter Thatch has ever defeated. Guys like Thiago, Edwards, and Rhodes all have their merits, but none of them has come close to achieving the level of success that Henderson has achieved. For crying out loud, Henderson just took on top-tier lightweight Donald Cerrone and a lot of people thought Henderson got ripped off by the judges.
I’m getting a serious Jon Fitch-Erick Silva vibe with this fight. Like Silva, Thatch is a fighter whose wins have been so impressive that it’s hard to find what his weaknesses might be. However, Thatch is also like Silva in that there are serious questions about his game that haven’t been answered to this point. If he can finish Henderson by knockout in the first round, then my hat’s off to him. But if I’m expected to predict a winner in a fight between a top-tier lightweight and a welterweight prospect whose toughest career opponent was Paulo Thiago, then I’m going to take the top-tier lightweight every single time.
Pick: Benson Henderson by submission
Max Holloway vs. Cole Miller
Two of the tallest featherweights on the UFC roster will battle in the co-main event. Holloway and Miller have both been succeeding against fringe UFC opponents in recent fights. Holloway comes in with a four-fight winning streak and TKO victories against Akira Corassani, Clay Collard, and Will Chope to go along with a submission win over Andre Fili. Miller has defeated Sam Sicilia by submission and Andy Ogle by decision in his last two.
While Miller is an active and willing striker, he’s not particularly good at defending himself, and that’s where Holloway figures to shine. Miller absorbed 129 significant strikes against Nam Phan, 81 against Steven Siler, and 76 against Matt Wiman. Meanwhile, Holloway has landed over 70 significant strikes in five of his ten UFC outings. It doesn’t help that Holloway has some sting behind his punches as well. Miller is the far superior submission stylist but I have my doubts that the fight will ever hit the floor.
Pick: Max Holloway by decision
Kiichi Kunimoto vs. Neil Magny
I was really hoping to see Magny get a stronger test after a 2014 campaign that saw him go 5-0 with wins against Alex Garcia and Tim Means. Kunimoto’s last fight was a very dubious decision victory against Richard Walsh, a fight that Kunimoto seemed to lose in my (and virtually everyone’s) opinion. Magny has established himself as a good volume striker and wrestler, and I would be very surprised to see him lose this one.
Pick: Neil Magny by decision
Daniel Kelly vs. Patrick Walsh
Kelly is best known for appearing in the Olympic Games four times in Judo. He had a very successful debut against Luke Zachrich but lost his TUF Nations appearance against Sheldon Westcott. The biggest factor working against Kelly is his relatively advanced age, as he enters this fight at 37 years old. His opponent, Patrick Walsh, managed to grind out a decision win against Dan Spohn in his UFC debut and enters as the much younger fighter at 26. I don’t imagine Walsh beating Kelly the same way he beat Spohn, but I think he can fight well enough standing to earn his second UFC victory.
Pick: Patrick Walsh by decision
Kevin Lee vs. Michel Prazeres
Lee is one of my favorite prospects in the UFC right now. He was very raw and unpolished when he made his debut against Al Iaquinta, a fight that was probably too much for Lee less than two years into his professional MMA career. Since then, Lee has developed much faster hands and has established an identity as a punishing wrestle-boxer type. Prazeres is much more of a pure wrestler, but somebody whose one-dimensional style can make landing takedowns difficult. I like Lee to mostly keep this fight standing and hurt Prazeres with strikes.
Pick: Kevin Lee by decision
Ray Borg vs. Chris Kelades
Borg is a fairly hyped flyweight prospect who enters this match at just 21 years old. He dropped a split decision to Dustin Ortiz in his debut but rebounded nicely by out-classing Shane Howell in his most recent appearance. Kelades was an unknown replacement who was fully expected to lose to Paddy Holohan but managed to survive a rough first round and win rounds 2 and 3 in an unexpected outcome. I would be surprised if Kelades was able to pull off that trick twice in a row, but he’s a good grappler and probably has a better chance of beating Borg than people are giving him.
Pick: Ray Borg by decision
Nik Lentz vs. Levan Makashvili
Makashvili steps in on short notice and has a thankless task in front of him as he’s set to face grinder extraordinaire Nik Lentz. Makashvili is actually a good prospect – he enters with wins against Bellator veteran Alexandre “Popo” Bezerra and 18-6 Scott Heckman, and has also appeared twice in Ring of Combat, a regional promotion among the world’s best in developing prospects. There are certainly UFC featherweights Makashvili could beat, but he’s probably not prepared to be taking on a top ten opponent like Lentz.
Pick: Nik Lentz by decision
Efrain Escudero vs. Rodrigo Monstro
It’s a minor miracle for Escudero that he keeps getting chances in the UFC, but I can see why. Escudero is actually a decent striker with some finishing ability. He figures to have a distinct advantage standing against Monstro, who got torn up in his UFC debut against Neil Magny. It’s the kind of fight I feel Escudero really should win, but I’m fully aware that Monstro has ground skills, and Escudero doesn’t exactly have a history of doing well on the ground. With that said…
Pick: Efrain Escudero by TKO
Jim Alers vs. Chas Skelly
I hyped up Alers a little bit before his UFC debut against Alan Omer last April, but it was Omer who was the more impressive fighter to me in that match. Alers won by decision thanks to a timely knockdown, but I felt he was fortunate in doing so. His opponent this time is Skelly, an aggressive grappler who tapped out Tom Niinimaki and repeatedly had Sean Soriano in trouble as well. I’d like to think that Alers can put together a stronger performance this time around, but I’ve learned to value performances in the UFC much more than performances in pre-UFC bouts.
Pick: Chas Skelly by decision
Tim Elliott vs. Zach Makovsky
Elliott is a good volume striker, a good wrestler, and a fighter who just finds ways to lose at a high level. He was off to a great start against Joseph Benavidez… and then, just like that, Benavidez locked up a guillotine choke and Elliott tapped out. Makovsky is not nearly as active with strikes as Elliott, but he’s probably a better wrestler and overall grappler. This should be a tough, close fight for both guys, but Makovsky has proven he can win fights like this and Elliott hasn’t.
Pick: Zach Makovsky by decision
James Moontasri vs. Cody Pfister
Pfister steps in for an injured Jake Lindsey to battle Moontasri, who dropped a split decision to Joe Ellenberger in his UFC debut. Pfister is probably best known for his brief appearance on TUF 15, in which he lost to Vinc Pichel in the preliminaries. Moontasri had his moments against Ellenberger, including a knockdown, but he had some trouble stuffing Ellenberger’s takedowns. My statistical model actually likes Pfister here, but with such a lack of data it seems like the betting lines should be more informative.
Pick: James Moontasri by decision