Step one: have only the mildest of interest in combat sports. Don’t let the title fool you, a stellar fight card awaits us all tomorrow and any even semi-conscious fight fan needs not my half-assed suggestions for how to get keyed up about tomorrow’s MMA offering. The UFC’s FOX cards continue to demonstrate the organization’s capacity for highly entertaining match making and their sincere desire to leave a lasting impression on the U.S. mainstream. That being said, allow me to highlight some of the more intriguing subplots set to play out on the eight-sided stage 24 hours from now.
The uber-talented, baby-bear wrestling, undefeated superstar-in-waiting Khabib Nurmagomedov has been left off the main card surely for no reason other than his less broadly appealing grappling style. Don’t misunderstand me, I am highly entertained by The Eagle’s fights, but I can see the reasoning behind the UFC not wanting to use precious network broadcast minutes on what could very well become the kind of wrestling clinic Khabib employed against Trujillo for 3 rounds. However, despite being shuffled to the middle of the event, Nurmagomedov-Dos Anjos may be the fight on the card with the greatest implications for its respective weight class (and, yes, that includes the main event, both of whose participants I see getting starched by Velasquez). Nurmagomedov appears to have the potential not only to be champ at 155 but to become a highly marketable MMA superstar. In addition to his skill, he appears to have a knack for and willingness to engage in the kind of pre-fight shenanigans that help to sell events. His willingness to openly insult BJJ alone is an MMA marketing dream. And that hat…or wig…or whatever it is…bravo. Facing off with Dos Anjos (no slouch himself) we will get to see him tested against very competent boxing and top level Jiu-Jitsu. A victory for Khabib tomorrow and we could very well see him fighting the winner of Pettis-Melendez for the belt. I see Khabib once again launching in with his unorthodox striking, clinching with Rafael and controlling him en route to another decision victory, one with huge implications for the LW landscape.
Thiago Alves, one of the most entertaining competitors and effective strikers the welterweight division has ever seen, will return to the octagon after a 25 MONTH layoff due to injury. Despite this humongous absence from competition, Alves possesses both the experience and remaining youth to successfully rebound from his hiatus. If he does, favorable stylistic match-ups abound for him in the current 170lb landscape, where his excellent take-down defense and broad assortment of Muay Thai attacks are a potent antidote to the wrestling-based games of many of the divisions top fighters. Even if his return does not spell a second career title run, The Pitbull is just fun to watch. A solid win for him tomorrow will help to dust off the cobwebs of a multi-year layoff, get his career back on track and keep us fans in chin-chiseling punch combinations and bone-rattling leg kicks for years to come.
Moving on to a fight that has made the main card (and deservedly so) is a clash between athletic phenom Yoel Romero and constantly improving Brad Tavares. Tavares looked stellar in his last fight, shutting down the unorthodox and dynamic striking game of Lorenz Larkin and is on a 5 fight win streak, 7-1 overall in the UFC. However, as many good things as there are to say about Tavares, Yoel Romero is the reason this fight is on the main card. This is an athlete that the world needs to know about. Romero is arguably the most accomplished wrestler to ever compete in the UFC and possibly one of the best pure athletes. A silver medalist in freestyle wrestling in the 2000 Summer Olympics, Romero is one of the few men to ever defeat the legendary US gold medalist Cael Sanderson, which he did on 3 separate occasions. Put a pillow under you jaw and google "Yoel Romero ankle pick". The guy is something special. However, that doesn’t mean he should be favored against Tavares tomorrow. If Romero has one thing working against him it’s that he is 36 years old and still a relative newcomer to MMA, having a mere 8 fights on his record. His potential is immense, but the window for him to capitalize on it smaller than most. He can’t afford to spend years shoring up the holes in his game against less dangerous competition, if he is going to compete for a UFC title it probably has to happen in the next few years. This leaves him in the position of being ushered into bouts against more experienced, well-rounded guys like Tavares for whom he may not be ready. The question is will Yoel’s talent be enough to carry him through the middle of the 185lb division while his skills catch up and can he avoid the single set back that may cost him the little time he has left to make his mark in the deepest MW division in UFC history. If Romero doesn’t give up early rounds like he did against Brunson and gets aggressive (especially with his wrestling) in the first stages of the fight, he should be able to pull out a victory. If he hangs back early and lets Tavares practice his more well-rounded game for even a single round, he could be on his way to a decsision loss. Either way, it should be well worth watching.