It is the third installment of a four-weekend streak of UFC events, marking the first time ever that the promotion has staged an event in the United States capital.
UFC Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz will defend his title for the fourth time against the incredible pace and tenacity of Demetrious Johnson in the main event of the evening. And in one of the most hilariously asymmetrical fights in the promotion’s history, 6’11" Stefan Struve will face 5’11 Pat Barry in a heavyweight slugfest that will serve as the co-featured fight of the evening.
For those of you not content with just seeing a title fight free-of-charge on Versus this weekend, there is also a solid undercard line up that will stream online via the UFC Facebook page.
Let’s take a look:
135 lbs.: Mike Easton vs. Byron Bloodworth
Interestingly, Easton (10-1) has fought two members of the cast of the current "The Ultimate Fighter" (TUF), defeating John Dodson and Josh Ferguson by decision and submission, respectively. What Easton is most infamous for, however, is being on the lucky end of Sherdog’s 2009 "Robbery of the Year," earning a controversial decision over former WEC champ Chase Beebe despite doing nothing to warrant it. "The Hulk" has not competed since, meaning Saturday night’s battle with Bloodworth will be his first trip to the cage in 23 months. He’ll be out to prove that he’s built of steel, not iron, in avoiding ring rust and impressing the UFC brass on Saturday.
North Carolina-based Byron Bloodworth (6-1) took this fight on just four days’ notice, replacing the injured Jeff Hougland. Bloodworth just fought little more than a month ago, knocking out Scott Farhat with a knee in just over two rounds. Bloodworth has a spectacular opportunity in front of him and will look to take full advantage.
Had Hougland stayed healthy, I would have picked him to defeat Easton. While Easton has some very solid wins on his resume, the fact that he hasn’t fought in nearly two years makes me extremely hesitant to pick him against a proven opponent. That said, Bloodworth is anything but a proven opponent. Easton has gone five rounds before and fought some serious competition, while Bloodworth has yet to fight anyone of significance. It would be folly to suggest that the layoff won’t hurt Easton, but I fully expect him to take down and submit Bloodworth before fatigue has a chance to set it.
Prediction: Easton via first round submission
155 lbs.: Yves Edwards vs. Rafaello Oliveira
Once the "people’s champion" of the UFC lightweight division thanks to one of the most jaw-dropping head kicks ever, Edwards (40-17-1) hit his nadir soon after, including a horrendous 1-5 run that was capped off by him getting his block knocked off by a Jorge Masvidal head kick. Luckily for the 34-year old, his fortunes improved and he found himself back in the UFC. While his first two victories under the Zuffa banner were nothing to scoff at, in his third match, Sam Stout apparently got the marshmallow fluff removed from his knuckles and crushed "Thugjitsu Master" with a left hook in one of 2011’s scarier moments. Edwards needs another win to stay afloat at 155. And pounding out Oliveira would certainly make a good case for his continued employment.
Oliveira (14-4) entered the UFC in 2010 with a resounding "meh," going 1-2 with all three bouts going to the judges. After winning four straight on the regional circuit, Oliveira was invited back to face lightweight goliath Gleison Tibau on short notice. Unfortunately, the power of Tibau was too much, and Oliveira was forced to tap to a rear-naked choke in the second round. "Tractor" scored some brownie points for taking on a beast like Tibau with an abridged training camp, but he’ll need a win over Edwards to ensure a spot in the UFC.
The Tibau win might not be a great indicator of where Oliveira is, considering that it was on short notice and that Gleison Tibau is, well, Gleison Tibau, but I’m not convinced that "Tractor" is a UFC-caliber fighter. His offense is built around his ground game, but he hasn’t had success in situations where he couldn’t get his opponent down. Yves is primarily a striker, and a damn good one at that, but he’s very well-versed in the grappling department and, unlike Oliveira, can win a fight both standing and on the ground.
Even the slow, ponderous striking of Tibau managed to find a home on Oliveira’s face. Edwards is far past his prime, but he’s still better than the likes of Oliveira, and should use his impressive striking arsenal to secure a dominant decision win.
Prediction: Edwards via decision
A WEC import with a nasty blend of elite wrestling and a crafty submissions game, Roller (10-4) looked like he was on his way to proving the notion that he and his fellow WEC veterans were inferior to their UFC counterparts in his match against Thiago Tavares. After a hairy first round, however, a colossal right hand from Roller laid out Tavares and brought honor to the beloved organization for which he once fought. Unfortunately, against Melvin Guillard at UFC 132, he attempted the same "get destroyed early, come back and win" strategy, but only got as far as the "get destroyed" part, getting knocked out cold by Guillard’s murderous power. Beating Grant would do wonders for reestablishing Roller as a threat, and Shane has every intention of doing so with gusto.
One of the welterweight division’s endemic heavily-bearded wrestlers, Grant (16-5) had a mediocre 3-3 run at 170 (including getting outwrestled and outbearded by Johny Hendricks) before deciding to test the waters at 155. Grant was originally scheduled to compete at UFC Live 4 in June against fellow heavily-bearded wrestler Charlie Brenneman before illness nixed the bout. Now, two trips to Versus later, Grant will look to test his mettle against a lightweight heavily-bearded wrestler.
I honestly believe Roller is a lot better than he’s given credit for. Yes, he’s never managed to crack the upper echelon of the lightweight division, but since he’s been under the Zuffa banner, he’s only lost to the elite. Plus, despite having an excellent wrestling pedigree, he’s a noted finisher -- only one of his fights has ever gone to a decision.
Grant’s losses at 170 have come to guys who could control him on the mat: Dong-Hyun Kim, Johny Hendricks and Ricardo Almeida. While Roller may be smaller than those guys, he possesses a very similar skillset. Further, Grant doesn’t have the punching power to fluster Roller standing (like Guillard) nor the bottom game to make Roller hesitant to shoot (like Tavares). I think Roller comes back strong from the Guillard loss and utilizes his wrestling to smother Grant for a dominant decision.
Prediction: Roller via decision
170 lbs.: Josh Neer vs. Keith Wisniewski
Despite just turning 28 this year, Neer (31-10-1) is one of the most well-travelled veterans out there, originally joining the UFC in Jan. 2006, scoring wins over the likes of Mac Danzig, Melvin Guillard and Din Thomas along the way. While he was last in the news for getting submitted by the much smaller Eddie Alvarez, "The Dentist" has rattled off four straight stoppages since, his last coming just over a month ago. Now in his third stint in the UFC, Neer will try to put the memories of the Alvarez fight behind him by stomping Wisniewski.
Keith Wisniewski (28-12-1) is only 29 himself, meaning that these guys’ combined ages are less than their combined fights. After falling to Nick Thompson in his UFC debut and going winless throughout 2006 and 2007, "The Polish Connection" went on a six-fight tear that includes a submission over UFC veteran Pete Spratt. With a second shot at UFC glory, Wisniewski will be looking to start a new chapter in his life, one where he isn’t defined by getting his arm snapped by a psychotic octopus-man.
No matter how much I look at it, I’m still blown away by the fact that these guys have 83 fights between them and neither man has hit 30 yet. Wow.
Anyway, Neer has hit a couple rough patches in the last few years, but in general, he’s lost to extremely good fighters. Aside from knocking out Jorge Santiago eight years ago, it seems that most of the quality names on Wisniewski’s record pop up next to the word "loss." He’s a good fighter, but Neer has proven himself far more capable against higher-level competition and thus should take a decision here.
Prediction: Neer via decision
155 lbs.: Michael Johnson vs. Paul Sass
Displaying impressive wrestling but middling cardio, Michael Johnson (9-5) competed on TUF 12, grinding his way to a spot in the finals. Unfortunately, the grappling prowess of Jonathan Brookins overwhelmed him on the live series finale, leaving his UFC future in doubt. Luckily for Johnson, he righted the ship with an impressive technical knockout stoppage of Edward Faaloloto on the undercard of "Barry vs. Kongo." With Brookins having just suffered his first UFC loss, a win for "The Menace" would give him the chance to put that loss behind him.
Ten of Paul Sass’s (11-0) wins are by submission. Eight of those are triangles. His only decision is over reigning BAMMA lightweight champion Rob Sinclair. Sass, a 23-year old from the United Kingdom, won his Octagon debut by, what else, a triangle choke back at UFC 120. And although he has been on the shelf since, he remains one of the more intriguing English prospects out there. Defeating Johnson and thereby overcoming the traditional British weakness to takedowns would certainly raise his stock.
Against Faaloloto, Johnson looked very improved from his huffing-and-puffing time in the TUF house. That said, he still didn’t look like a truly great fighter, especially considering that Faaloloto had a grand total of three fights before his UFC debut. "Sassangle," on the other hand, has faced and defeated some seriously good fighters. While better-suited for the 145-pound division, Jason Young showed some serious skill against Dustin Poirier. Rob Sinclair has looked beastly in his time in BAMMA, including his spectacular uppercut knockout of Diego Vital. Neither man could best Sass.
While Johnson managed to survive the grappling attack of Brookins, he still has four submission losses to his name, and even if he has the wrestling not to get taken down, Sass showed an excellent ability to drag his opponent into his guard in his UFC debut. Look for a handful of crazy scrambles in the early going before Sass locks up his signature triangle.
Prediction: Sass via first round submission
135 lbs.: Walel Watson vs. Joseph Sandoval
Fighting out of the spectacularly-named Team Hurricane Awesome, the absurdly 5'11" lanky Watson (8-2) has never gone to a judges decision. In fact, he’s never even gone past the second round. After losing his debut via anaconda choke, "The Gazelle" won seven straight before losing via technical knockout this past May. Undaunted, he submitted Ismael Leon just a month later. Walel will hope to prove that he’s more than just a scarecrow for the bantamweight division.
Sandoval (6-0), unbeaten so far, has competed under the Shark Fights banner for five of his six bouts. At 26 years old, Sandoval has three finishes to his name. Zuffa snatched up the Texas-based fighter early in his career, and he’ll look to prove that it was a good investment.
Watson has an absurd five inches of height on Sandoval and has demonstrated an excellent ability to wrap those wiry limbs of his around unwary throats. That said, he simply looks lost on his feet. His kicks are okay, but his punches are awkward and clumsy. Plus, he doesn’t seem to know how to react to getting hit, as he’ll back straight up with his hands down when flustered.
I’m taking Sandoval for the same reason I’m taking Barry over Struve: I’ll pick the guy with shorter reach over the taller guy who has no idea how to use his reach every time. Sandoval should be able to sprawl-and-brawl his way en route to a second round stoppage, hopefully beating into Watson’s head the necessity of developing a competent jab.
Prediction: Sandoval via second round technical knockout
A title fight for free and a fight between the shortest and tallest heavyweights in the UFC. It doesn’t get much better than this, folks.