This Saturday night (Feb. 1, 2014) Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweights Jamie Varner and Abel Trujillo will kick off the pay-per-view (PPV) main card of UFC 169 from Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
The bout presents an excellent opportunity for both fighters to claim coveted positioning in the competitive UFC 155-pound landscape.
Varner, a former World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) lightweight champion, has experienced an up-and-down run since returning to the Octagon in May 2012. He's notched impressive wins over Edson Barboza and Melvin Guillard, but also dropped bouts to Joe Lauzon and Gleison Tibau. He'll look to erase the sting of his UFC 164 split decision loss in his next bout against an up-and-coming prospect.
Trujillo is regarded as one of the best emerging lightweights in mixed martial arts (MMA) today. The Blackzilian team member sits at 2-1 (1) in UFC and was last seen destroying Roger Bowling with a second round technical knockout at UFC on FOX 9 back in December. He'll make a quick turnaround to face Varner, who should be the second-toughest test of his burgeoning career, with his UFC 160 loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov being the first.
Let's take a look at the keys to victory for Varner and Trujillo:
Record: 21-8-1 (2) overall, 3-3 UFC
Key Wins: Melvin Guillard (UFC 155), Edson Barboza (UFC 146), Donald Cerrone (WEC 38)
Key Losses: Gleison Tibau (UFC 164), Joe Lauzon (UFC on FOX 4), Benson Henderson (WEC 46), Donald Cerrone (WEC 51)
Keys to Victory: Varner is a seasoned veteran who brings a laundry list of top-level fights to the Octagon. He hasn't always come out on top in those bouts, however, and inconsistency may be his worst enemy.
Varner has a solid, well-rounded skill set with nine submissions and nine knockout victories to his name. He's never been knocked out, but he can't let that fact allow him to get overconfident against Trujillo. Varner has a decided experience advantage, but Trujillo's knockout power is nothing to mess with.
Varner should take a page out of Nurmagomedov's book and look to use his wrestling to dominate this fight. He may not have the overall elite grappling skills of "The Eagle," but he's going to stand a better chance grappling with Trujillo. Looking to stand and trade with "Killa" may not see him staring up at the lights, but there's simply no need to mess around with his opponent's scary knockout power.
Despite his wrestling background, Trujillo can be taken down. Varner needs to transition his striking into some takedown attempts to both score points and control Trujillo. Maintaining top control will be paramount to victory at UFC 169.
Varner's 2-2 record since returning to UFC means that he has to win, and do so impressively. A loss probably won't get him cut, but it will put him very far down the line in a stacked division.
If a focused, in-shape Varner shows up in Newark, this is his fight to lose. Unfortunately for him, we haven't always seen that. That makes this fight a very telling one for him.
Record: 11-5 (1) overall, 2-1 (1) UFC
Key Wins: Marcus LeVesseur (UFC on FOX 5), Roger Bowling (UFC on FOX 9)
Key Losses: Khabib Nurmagomedov (UFC 160)
Keys to Victory: Trujillo has made waves since entering UFC, but he experienced a huge setback when Nurmagomedov repeatedly rag dolled him on the way to setting a UFC record for takedowns. A showing like that immediately caused the belief that wrestling is his kryptonite.
That remains to be seen because Sambo champion Nurmagomedov may just be that far above the mid-level lightweights in UFC. You can bet that Trujillo's takedown defense is going to be fully tested at UFC 169. He's going to have to show up ready to fend off multiple takedown attempts and keep this fight standing.
If he can, he'll open up some opportunities to unleash his power striking. Trujillo impressed by finishing LeVesseur with knees in his UFC debut; though Varner won't go down so easily. He's an iron-chinned fighter who might be able to take Trujillo's best punches and keep coming forward.
Trujillo also has three submission victories and Varner has tapped four times. He can make UFC 169 a showcase for his ground skills if they've been improving at South Florida's Jaco Hybrid Training Center. That might be the best way to keep Varner guessing, because he's going to be looking for Trujillo to stand and bang.
Old habits die hard, however, so don't be surprised to see Trujillo go to the well and try to knock off Varner's head. He just can't over-commit because Varner has the knowledge and skills to end his night in a flash.
UFC has decided to give Trujillo another solid opponent. It's on him to make sure it doesn't end like his bout against Nurmagomedov.
Bottom Line from New Jersey: The bottom line here is that this fight is going to define the career paths of both fighters. Varner was thought to have resurrected his career, but he's gone back to his old ways of trading wins and losses. That won't get the job done in today's ever-evolving fight game, so he has to put a stamp on Trujillo if he ever wants to be a player at 155 pounds.
Trujillo looks to have a bright future ahead of him. But, if he hasn't shored up his wrestling defense, his ceiling could be extremely limited. He's a strong fighter with scary knockout ability, but he has to stay upright long enough to implement that. If his time spent training with Rashad Evans and Anthony "Rumble" Johnson has improved his grappling, then Trujillo has a huge opportunity to score the biggest win of his MMA career.
It's time for "Killa" to put his talent on the line again. Lightweight is one of the most congested divisions in MMA right now, so all he can do is keep winning. Both Varner and Trujillo will need a very solid win streak to find themselves in the rankings.
That quest begins this Saturday night.
Longtime veteran Jamie Varner is looking to put together a solid run in UFC. Will he kick it off with a victory over powerful prospect Abel Trujillo, or will "Killa" prove he's ready to rise?