Looking ahead to this weekend’s blockbuster event there are many things to get excited about, not just the return of easily the greatest light-heavyweight of all time. There’s also the small matter of Demian Maia being given the title shot he earned about a year ago and the restarting of the women’s featherweight division with a title-fight finally featuring Cyborg. That’s just the title-fights though, the rest of the main card includes a surefire fight of the year nominee between Robbie Lawler and Donald Cerrone after what might be a fight for the next light-heavyweight title shot between Jimi Manuwa and Volkan Oezdemir.
There are plenty of excellent fights on the prelims as well, including but not limited to Ricardo Lamas v Jason Knight, Aljamain Sterling v Renan Barao and a face-off of unbeaten fighters in Brian Ortega v Renato Moicano. However, I’ll be previewing and predicting the main card only in this article, primarily because the card is so stacked that those five fights alone can’t be done justice in a thousand words or less.
Jimi Manuwa v Volkan Oezdemir
Both these men are strikers first and foremost with knockout power in abundance, they both go for the finish as soon as the opportunity comes and one of them should be walking away with an extra $50,000 when all is said and done. You can forget about it ever making it to the scorecards because in a combined thirty-four fights, only four have required the use of judges and only twelve have gone past the first round. Putting these two men together is guaranteeing fireworks and it’s quite difficult to know who’s going to come out on top, it’s almost like a roll of the dice when both men can end a fight with a single strike.
Oezdemir does vary his striking a lot more than Manuwa, he’s shown that he’s got a strong kicking game to back up his heavy fists and can work at range equally effectively. That being said, Oezdemir’s only been able to show his knockout power on the highest stage once and the majority of his record comes from fighting journeymen in smaller promotions. His UFC debut opposite Ovince St. Preux was a fight of two halves and despite nearly finishing his opponent in the first-round, Oezdemir struggled in the final half of the fight and was nearly finished before being saved by the final bell. He did follow that up by wiping out Misha Cirkunov in under thirty seconds, so that shows that he’s still able to finish ranked fighters but with so little experience against top opponents, it’s hard to gauge his skill level.
Jimi Manuwa on the other hand has looked pretty solid since joining the UFC back in 2012 and has only lost to the last two men to challenge for the title. He’s got deceptively good boxing skills to compliment his awesome power and works best when he’s mixing up his punches to the body and head, often landing clean multiple times. Manuwa is another Yoel Romero-esque freak of nature for whom age doesn’t seem to effect and at the age of 37, still looks sharp and has great reflexes which help him land that knockout blow. He’s lethal from the clinch and likes to throw strong knees to compliment dirty boxing that doesn’t seem any less powerful than his full-range punches.
In the last five years we’ve seen all that Manuwa can do and I put more faith in the underdog maintaining his streak. Oezdemir’s going to feed him kicks at range and might have to endure a scary moment or two but should eventually catch him clean when Manuwa tries to close the distance.
Result: Volkan Oezdemir by KO (Round 2)
Robbie Lawler v Donald Cerrone
This fight is a pretty general consensus for fight of the night honors but it’s bizarre to think that when you consider that both these men are coming into this fight off pretty savage knockout losses and long layoffs. Cerrone’s might only be for 6 months but when you bare in mind that he’s fought four times a year for the first ten years, it still seems quite long. With both men hitting their mid-thirties now, nobody can really be 100% certain on what we’re going to see from either fighter really, though Cerrone has had less time to get back to the drawing board after losing to Jorge Masvidal in January.
Cerrone is a little more predictable than Lawler, he’ll use his Muay Thai background to try and impose his will on the feet, punishing Lawler for closing the distance by causing damage from the clinch. He mixes up his strikes to any area of his opponent’s body and throws in combination, he won’t look for the takedown or try to force it but can hit some slick trips from the clinch if the opportunity presents. He does have great submission skills and if he does manage to knock Lawler down then he’s not afraid of hunting for the submission finish against a hurt opponent. His most likely path to victory is exactly that, but whether or not Cerrone chooses to walk it is a different story. Lawler’s notoriously hard to put away with strikes and Cerrone’s not one to shy away from a challenge, he’s managed to stop the unstoppable before.
Lawler’s a much bigger risk-taker than Cerrone but through the wars he’s had from his first meeting with Johny Hendricks to his last win over Carlos Condit, it’s been evident that he knows exactly how to drag an opponent into fighting his fight. Most of his recent fights he’s actually been outstruck by his opponents but has landed harder and more meaningful shots. He likes standing and trading, being able to hit his opponent with powerful punches from in close but risking eating shots in return and this kind of fight only plays into Cerrone’s hands. Regardless of the outcome of his last fight, Lawler has shown greater resilience and determination in the last few years of his career than any other fighter to wear a championship belt.
Lawler can be hit, be hurt and still fight back to win in the later rounds. That’s exactly what I’m predicting to happen here.
Result: Robbie Lawler by KO (Round 3)
Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino v Tonya Evinger
All three title fights feel like matches we should’ve seen a while ago and the first is no exception. Changing her opponent might have lessened that feeling a little but after more than a year of being teased, we finally get to see Cyborg compete for gold on the sport’s highest stage. Evinger might be a late-replacement but she’s no walk in the park, she’s ruled over Invicta’s Bantamweight roster for nearly two years and she does have the reach advantage over Cyborg which could be used to good effect by sticking and moving, staying out of Cyborg’s zone of terror.
Evinger is a good all-round fighter and given a chance to build her way up the rankings over a year or so, she could probably end up somewhere up among the bantamweight top five. Make no mistake about it though, featherweight is where Cyborg rules as queen and it seems almost like she always will. She’ll have the size, strength and striking advantage over Evinger and regardless of her putting up more of a fight than Cyborg’s first two UFC opponents, the outcome is still going to be the same.
Expect the first round to be reasonably competitive before the damage starts accumulating and Cyborg opens up to get the ultra-violent finish.
Result: Cristiane Justino by KO (Round 2)
Tyron Woodley v Demian Maia
No matter what Demian Maia does it seems like he’s always going to be underrated, other than maybe Jacare he’s probably the best pure grappler MMA has seen. His striking isn’t great but he’s proven in two weight classes that it doesn’t need to be, he does what he needs to do in order to get the fight to the ground where he’s top of the food chain. Despite his lack of striking ability, he’s pretty resilient and has taken shots from some of the best stand-up fighters at both welterweight and middleweight only to keep coming forward. He’s only ever been knocked out once in his career and that was nearly eight years ago so things don’t bode well for Woodley and his primary method of attack. This’ll be his second chance at gold since coming up short against Anderson Silva back in 2010 and at 39 with a style that casual fans simply don’t appreciate, it’ll most likely be the last chance he gets.
Woodley’s the man to beat and reigning champion at the moment, although his reign doesn’t seem that great in hindsight considering he’s had two lackluster fights with Stephen Thompson after icing Robbie Lawler inside of a round. He’s going to use his impeccable takedown defense to keep the fight standing where he can use his best weapons, a good sense of timing, a pressuring but measured game and the raw power lying in his fists. His ability to suck fighters into fighting his slow-paced fight and then wait for the perfect opportunity to separate them from their senses is unreal and his patience is second to none in the fight-game. He’s fought more experienced strikers than Maia and better wrestlers, most of them have been unable to play their own game and instead have been forced to fight at an almost glacial pace before being left staring up at the lights.
Or at least, that’s the way the fight’s going to go for the first few rounds. Maia’s unlikely to get any early success with takedowns but he’s stifling in the clinch and knows how to wear opponents down in close quarters by making them carry his weight and being relentless in getting the fight to the floor. As the Thompson fights showed us, no matter how much Woodley paces himself he still doesn’t quite have the cardio necessary for a full five rounds and would prefer to finish it before then. After winning some rounds by landing cleaner and more meaningful strikes, Woodley’s finally going to give up a takedown coming into the third and spend the rest of the round stuck beneath Maia and his world-class BJJ. All it’s going to take is half a round of fending off submissions from Maia on the ground and Woodley’s gas tank will be so dry that he’s not going to have the energy to survive wearing Maia as a backpack again.
It’s not impossible for Woodley to end the fight early and it could easily happen but I think Maia toughs it out and finishes the fight in the later rounds, most likely by rear-naked choke.
Result: Demian Maia by Submission (Round 5)
Daniel Cormier v Jon Jones
This is it. The fight that’s two years in the making and even as I write this, 24 hours out from the fight, it still seems possible this is going to fall apart again at the last minute and that only adds to the drama. It’s the next step in a long and winding saga, one of the most heated and watchable rivalries that mixed martial arts has produced in the last decade is about to come to a head and it’s going to be great. Jon Jones’ troubles outside the cage have been well documented and they’ve kept him from fighting more than once in the last two and a half years, even that was a pretty flat victory over Ovince St. Preux that a lot of people attributed to ring rust. During the same timespan Daniel Cormier has slowly but surely built his own light-heavyweight title reign by submitting Anthony Johnson twice, battling through a five-round war with Alexander Gustafson and beating a living legend in Anderson Silva. This is what the last two years have been building towards and this fight looks better given the length of time since the first time they met, Daniel Cormier has established himself as the best light-heavyweight out there other than Jon Jones and really upped the stakes for both fighters tomorrow night.
It’s hard to gauge what Jon Jones’ performance is going to be like given the limited amount of competition he’s had in the last two years, especially given that he’s an unorthodox fighter who seems to not only enjoy trying new techniques but actually finds success with them as well. Looking further back, Jones’ record is practically a list of future Hall of Fame inductees and he walked through them all with relative ease, he’s barely been challenged in his career and that includes the last fight with Cormier. Jones uses his insane reach to maximum effect by outscoring fighters on the feet and punishing them with lethal elbows if they dare try to take him down or engage him in the clinch, which is probably his strongest area. He’s only been taken down twice in his UFC career and even though Cormier is the owner of one of those takedowns, it’s unlikely he’ll give up more than one takedown in this whole fight and definitely won’t stay on his back for long.
Daniel Cormier is unlikely to change his gameplan much from the first fight and will undoubtedly steer clear of prolonged striking exchanges by trying to use his Olympic-level wrestling to take Jones down and keep him there, similar to his fight with Anderson Silva. This is a logical move when you consider that he gave up 3″ height and 5″ in reach against Silva and he’s giving up 5″ in height, 12″ in reach against Jones. That and enforcing his will in the clinch, connecting with strikes and making Jones respect his power when trading in the pocket. D.C will be looking to make it a long night for Jones and has strong cardio compared to any other former heavyweight, since dropping to light-heavyweight he hasn’t lost the ability to go hard for five rounds.
The main problem is that Jones has a gas tank to spare, he’s not only going to be ready to go the distance but he’s probably banking on it. The final two rounds of their first meeting are where he really stamped his mark on the fight, the images of him ragdolling Cormier to the ground and bullying him in the clinch all around the cage still seem fresh. It’s no coincidence that Jones employed a similar tactic in his last fight against Ovince St.Preux, he was training for Cormier up until three weeks before it happened and he kicked into high gear again after the third round and won the fight soundly on all scorecards, even if it was against a weaker opponent.
Jones is going to replicate the exact same gameplan to perfection again and after a competitive first three rounds, the oblique kicks and damaging clinchwork is going to break Cormier down so the final two aren’t even close.
Result: Jon Jones by Decision