UFC Denver: Lightning Picks

If UFC Phoenix taught us anything, it should be that regardless of skill-level, every mixed martial artist has an expiration date. What Yair Rodriguez did to BJ Penn was very tough to watch. It reminded me that I'm not interested in seeing legends past their prime. That's why I'm incredibly excited about this weekend's event in Denver, Colorado. The card is packed with young prospects, well-thought-out matchups, and a main event that will decide the future of the female Bantamweight division. Without further ado, let's get to the lightning picks:

Aljamain Sterling vs. Raphael Assuncao

In the Fox Sports 1 prelims, two of the most talented 135ers in the world will collide in search of a spot in the "contenders" conversation. Assuncao (23-5 MMA, 7-2 UFC) and Sterling (12-1 MMA, 4-1 UFC) are coming off relatively high-profile losses to top-ranked Bantamweights. To be honest, I really like this fight. The winner gets closer to title contention, while the loser is left in the rankings' limbo. In short: it's a must win. I'm picking Assuncao. Aljamain is well-rounded and tough, but he has shown concerning deficiencies in his cardio. He gassed badly in round 2 against Bryan Caraway, who proceeded to outbox and outgrapple him. Said bout took place in Vegas, at an elevation of around 2000 feet. This Saturday, he'll have to overcome a veteran in Denver, a city that happens to be about 3200 feet higher.

Prediction: Raphael Assuncao

Nate Marquardt vs. Sam Alvey

Headlining the FS1 prelims are Middleweight veterans Nate, The Great, Marquardt (35-16-2 MMA, 13-9 UFC) and Sam, Smile'N, Alvey (29-8-1NC MMA, 6-3 UFC). Now, these are two extremely tested fighters. We have a fair idea of their capabilities and shortfalls. Marquardt is 2-3 in his last 5, with 4 of his 5 most recent losses coming by way of KO or TKO. He seems to struggle with power punchers such as Hector Lombard, Jake Ellenberger, and Kelvin Gastelum. On the other side, Sam Alvey is an expert at smiling and throwing bombs. His UFC KO/TKO ratio currently sits at 83%. Can't help but to think he'll be able to land the shot on Nate.

Prediction: Sam Alvey

Alex Caceres vs. Jason Knight

To kick off the main card, Jason, 'The Kid', Knight (15-2 MMA, 2-1 UFC) takes on Alex, 'Bruce Leeroy', Caceres (12-9 MMA, 7-7 UFC) in the Featherweight division. Looking at his record, you'd think Alex Caceres is a dud. But I assure you he's not. Competing since 2008, Bruce Leeroy has been around the game for a minute, stepping into the octagon with tough costumers like Urijah Faber and Francisco Rivera. His creativeness and dexterity are off the charts (throwing double punches and 360° kicks like it's nothing). That said, he wasn't able to become the top contender I expected him to be. On the other side, Jason Knight caught my attention a couple of months ago when he defeated Jim Alers. He sort of reminds me of a Diaz brother. A scrappy loudmouth who fights long. I'm not too sure about this one, but I'll go with Knight by submission. He seems to be the larger man, and two-thirds of his wins have come via tap.

Prediction: Jason Knight

Andrei Arlovski vs. Francis Ngannou

If you were looking for a bout that doesn't require judges cage side, you've come to the right place. Andrei, 'The Pit Bull', Arlovski (25-13 MMA, 14-7 UFC) and Francis, 'The Predator', Ngannou  (9-1 MMA, 4-0 UFC) meet up in the Heavyweight division, and there's no chance the fight goes to a decision. Like most MMA fans, I was shocked to see Arlovski's career revival after his losing streak back in 2010. Moving to Albuquerque and training at Jackson Wink was clearly a life-changing decision. Sadly, he seems to be in the doghouse once again, being finished in his last three fights. This Saturday, he'll battle one of the brightest prospects the heavyweight weight class has seen in years. Ngannou is extraordinarily strong, he can take a punch, and he has proven to have a high fight IQ. He doesn't wildly swing for the fences. Every combination and clinch exchange is technical, calculated, and effective. I predict The Predator to obtain the early finish.

Prediction: Francis Ngannou

Donald Cerrone vs. Jorge Masvidal

As interesting as the main event is, the welterweight scrap between Donald, 'Cowboy', Cerrone and Jorge, 'Gamebred', Masvidal is undoubtedly the people's main event. Both men are aggressive, exciting, and they truly love to fight. Cowboy is excellent at putting combos together and using his high volume to get the finish. Ever since he made the move to 170, he has looked unstoppable. However, Cerrone struggles with great boxers, and that is Jorge's forte. I particularly see his left hook and body kick giving Cowboy trouble. The only thing that would hold me back from picking Masvidal is the fact that he clearly has difficulties pulling the trigger, finishing only 3 of his last 10 victories. Nevertheless, the Jorge that beat Ellenberger last December was much more active. He was patient and simultaneously desperate to finish his opponent. If he walks into Denver with that attitude, I wholeheartedly believe he can pull the upset.

Prediction: Jorge Masvidal

Valentina Shevchenko vs. Julianna Pena

Finally, the evening's main event will reveal Amanda Nunes' next opponent, as Valentina, 'Bullet', Shevchenko fights Julianna, 'The Venezuelan Vixen', Pena. This is the definition of a 'striker vs. grappler' contest. Valentina will look to maintain distance, land the cleaner shots, and avoid getting her back against the cage. Julianna will attempt to get the fight to the ground and use her size advantage to inflict damage. If this was a three-rounder, I would probably pick Pena. Shevchenko is unquestionably undersized for her division. A bigger grappler that holds the reach advantage is bound to give her trouble. Despite that, these ladies will be trying to kill each other for 25 minutes. When you combine the city's elevation with Pena's grueling style and the fact that we haven't seen her in the 4th and 5th rounds yet, I think it's fair to consider the possibility of Julianna slowing down. I believe Valentina will have some trouble early on. but she'll be able to grow as the bout progresses, ultimately getting her hand raised.

Prediction: Valentina Shevchenko

January 2017 Accuracy (Thus Far): 100% (4/4)
- UFC Phoenix: Lightning Picks

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