As disappointing as it was to see Jon Jones and Khabib Nurmagomedov dropped from this card, this is still a lineup I can really get behind. Any card with Chris Weidman, Daniel Cormier, Rumble Johnson, Donald Cerrone, and a top ten heavyweight fight is a card I’ll be excited to see.
Daniel Cormier vs. Anthony Johnson
A lot is made of Cormier being an Olympic wrestler (justifiably so) but I’m not convinced that his skills have translated very well to MMA, at least from an offensive takedown standpoint. Cormier has landed 1.91 takedowns per 15 minutes with 42 percent accuracy, numbers that rate as just slightly above average. I’ve speculated in the past that this is partly due to Cormier facing a series of submission fighters he didn’t want to take down, but I still find myself wondering about Cormier’s ability to take down opponents who are particularly tough to take down…
…like Anthony Johnson. “Rumble” enters with 85 percent takedown defense and gets taken down less than one time per 15 minutes overall. Johnson has proven to be excellent at moving forward and putting enormous pressure on his opponents while still being in position to defend takedowns. It helps that he has such pure knockout power and the ability to potentially win with a single clean strike.
It seems that the conventional wisdom coming in to this fight is that Cormier is going to grind Johnson down, wear him out, and end up winning this fight by slowly breaking Johnson down. I don’t see this fight going that way at all. I think it’s a terrible stylistic matchup for Cormier, a fight where Johnson will mostly be able to remain standing and then take control of the distance striking match with vastly superior power to go along with a significant height and reach advantage.
What Cormier has going for him is a combination of a good chin and very good striking defense. If Rumble comes out and fights too aggressively, it’s possible that he’ll tire himself out, leaving an opening for Cormier to suddenly break through with takedowns and perhaps score a TKO finish. However, what I’ve seen with Johnson in his recent fights is a guy who fights at a measured pace, walking his opponent down, landing big punches and kicks, and finishing fights by knockout.
If Johnson knocks out Cormier, he would become the first to do so. But with Cormier being 36 years old, coming off a particularly grueling fight against Jon Jones, and taking this fight on short notice, he’s probably more ripe to be finished than ever.
Pick: Anthony Johnson by TKO
Vitor Belfort vs. Chris Weidman
If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I love me some Chris Weidman. You also know that I have a history of picking against Vitor Belfort and being wrong. But in this fight, I’m really not that worried. I simply don’t think this is a very competitive match.
Let’s focus on Belfort first. He’s now 38 years old and has been fighting for literally half his life. He hasn’t fought since November 2013, when he knocked out Dan Henderson. He’s failed multiple drug tests in his career and no longer has a TRT exemption. Of course, that doesn’t prevent him from trying to cheat the system again, but I have a lot of questions about Belfort’s ability to retain his freakish athleticism coming into this fight.
Regardless, I hate this matchup for him. Belfort has historically struggled against top-tier wrestlers. Part of this is because his takedown defense is merely above-average, but another part is that he still plays an old-school guard game instead of looking to get back to his feet. It’s a fine/defensible strategy if there is no time limit in fights, but the ten-point must system and five-minute clock really give fighters an incentive to avoid fighting off their back. Belfort just doesn’t get up quickly enough, a problem that will be exacerbated against a wrestler like Weidman.
Weidman enters with massive statistical advantages in significant strikes and takedowns. It might also surprise you to hear that my model gives Weidman the edge in ability to win by knockout as well. Even though Belfort definitely hits a lot harder, he also has a much worse chin. Belfort has been finished by knockout three times and is 38 years old; Weidman is 30 and has never been knocked down – that’s after fighting Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida.
I see Belfort as being reduced to a puncher’s chance here. Belfort’s puncher’s chance is better than almost anybody’s, so I’m not going to count him completely out. At the same time, it seems inevitable that Weidman will close the distance, take Belfort down, and grind out a stoppage victory, with Belfort providing very little resistance off his back.
Pick: Chris Weidman by TKO
Donald Cerrone vs. John Makdessi
I’m sad that Khabib Nurmagomedov is off this card, as I think a fight between him and Donald Cerrone would be three rounds of pure fun. Nurmagomedov has been replaced by John Makdessi, who might have better pure striking but is easily worse at every other aspect of MMA. The one thing I’ll say for Makdessi is that Cerrone gets hit a lot, and there is a window open for Makdessi to potentially out-point Cerrone in this match. It’s far more likely, however, that Cerrone will be able to mix things up and get this fight to the ground. If that happens, Cerrone’s submission game should prove to be far superior to Makdessi’s relatively limited ground skills.
Pick: Donald Cerrone by submission
Andrei Arlovski vs. Travis Browne
It wasn’t long ago that I was dismissing Arlovski as a credible threat in the UFC heavyweight division. That was probably one of my worst calls in recent memory. He’s scored wins over Brendan Schaub and Antonio Silva, and finds himself in a match against Travis Browne now. Arlovski has better KO power but has been knocked out a whopping seven times in his career. The model says Arlovski but I can’t bring myself to make that pick.
Pick: Travis Browne by KO
Joseph Benavidez vs. John Moraga
Moraga initially got a title shot against Demetrious Johnson on the strength of a come-from-behind submission win against Chris Cariaso. Since then, I’ve seen people count Moraga among the better flyweights in the UFC, and I’ve never understood that. In fact, Moraga rates as slightly below-average in striking, takedowns, and knockouts. Benavidez enters with statistical advantages everywhere and should be considered a heavy favorite (and he is).
Pick: Joseph Benavidez by TKO
- John Dodson is a huge favorite to beat Zach Makovsky but my model has Makovsky the slightest of favorites. Dodson’s striking defense is not great but Makovsky isn’t much of a striker. I have to overrule my model again on this one. Dodson by decision.
- Josh Burkman is coming off a bizarre performance against Hector Lombard; I still have no idea what the UFC was thinking booking that match. Dong Hyun Kim is a more appropriate opponent but still probably a bit above Burkman’s pay grade. Kim by decision.
- Uriah Hall is once again a heavy favorite to beat a respectable opponent, and he probably shouldn’t be. He’s improved for sure but his takedown defense remains questionable. Rafael Natal is a step up in competition for him and I think Natal is well-suited to attack Hall’s weaknesses. Natal by decision.
- Rose Namajunas got quite a bit of TUF hype after her run to the finals, but Carla Esparza exposed her takedown defense as a serious weakness in her game. However, that’s something I don’t think Nina Ansaroff is ready to take advantage of. At some point, talent takes over. Namajunas by submission.
- Mike Pyle will be a massive step up in competition for Colby Covington, but Covington deserves it after easily out-grappling Anying Wang and Wagner Silva. Pyle has a tricky submission game but he’s also 39 years old and probably at the tail end of his career. Covington by decision.
- Leo Kuntz is making his debut against the newest import from Dagestan, Islam Makhachev. Kuntz has a strong record at 17-1-1, but Makhachev is undefeated, eight years younger, and figures to be the clear favorite coming in. Makhachev by decision.
- Justin Scoggins built a very impressive statistical resume against some fringe UFC opponents in Richie Vaculik and Will Campuzano. Scoggins didn’t perform nearly as well against Dustin Ortiz or John Moraga, leaving me skeptical of the numbers. But for once, the numbers agree with the betting public, especially because Josh Sampo’s numbers aren’t great. Scoggins by decision.