Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is bringing mixed martial arts (MMA) fans the biggest combat sports pay-per-view (PPV) event in the history of the promotion, starring none other than Conor McGregor, as he takes on lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in the UFC 229 main event.
I don’t want to spend too much time building up to the main card preview and predictions for this Saturday night’s (Oct. 6, 2018) championship extravaganza in Las Vegas, Nevada, because chances are you already know how we got here, and why, and there is very little that I can add that you don’t already know.
That said, there’s some compelling action taking place on the UFC 229 “Prelims” portion of this weekend’s fight card that may require further study, so go ahead and check out what the flat-footed (but pointy-penned) Patrick Stumberg had to say about the FOX Sports 1 and Fight Pass offerings by clicking here and here.
Let’s get down to business.
155 lbs.: UFC Lightweight Champion Khabib “The Eagle” Nurmagomedov (26-0) vs. “The Notorious” Conor McGregor (21-3)
What makes Conor McGregor such a remarkable talent, and what sets him apart from other seasoned self-promoters like Chael Sonnen, is that he doesn’t just talk the talk, he also walks the walk. Part of his success comes from his god-given talent, as “Notorious” is one of the few fighters who, from purely a striking perspective, has the complete package. A lot of guys have power but no speed, or precision but no power. McGregor has it all, along with an incredible gift for mental acuity. I make as many McGregor jokes as anyone, but when it comes time for action, I stand in awe of his abilities.
But he’s not perfect.
When trying to determine his chances against Khabib Nurmagomedov, we have to consider two absolutes. McGregor, the striker, is going to land a punch and Nurmagomedov, the grappler, is going to score a takedown. That’s simply a byproduct of a contest that features the two very best talents in each respective discipline. The question becomes, which of those scenarios is more likely to end the fight? I would reckon that McGregor could probably spend more time on his back getting beat up than Nurmagomedov could spend on his feet eating Irish bombs. And hey, “The Eagle” could get Aldo’d and this fight might be over in less than 30 seconds. I saw McGregor get busted open during a ground assault from Chad Mendes, only to come back and finish the fight by knockout. Similarly, I watched Nurmagomedov eat a heavy left hand from Michael Johnson, shake it off, and turn “The Menace” into puppy chow.
But there is one thing I have not seen.
I've never seen Nurmagomedov lose. You can talk about his sloppy stand up against Al Iaquinta, or needing two rounds to put away late-replacement Darrell Horcher, but a 26-0 record is beyond reproach. Yes, some of those early wins came against Russian rejects, just like McGregor made a name for himself on the European circuit by recycling Celtic cans. In absence of a loss, show me his toughest fight? Where has “The Eagle” struggled? McGregor needed 25 minutes to capture a majority decision win over Nate Diaz in their UFC 202 rematch — after losing to him at UFC 196 — because Diaz was able to do what no other fighter could before him: he never let McGregor inside his head. Being able to absorb punishment was also a factor, but durability and conditioning were not just contributing factors, they were turners of tides.
“Notorious” can expect more of that on Saturday night, though he won’t just have to deal with being pushed against the cage and slapped around, he’s going to have to deal with a Sambo master who wrestlers bears in his free time. Complicating matters is a long, lean frame that unlike combatants with a low center of gravity, makes “Mystic Mac” easier to topple. Going to the floor is a matter of when, not if. I know McGregor fans are thinking, “one shot, one kill.” That might work in those Hollywood sniper movies, but for a lightweight striker who lives and dies on his timing, a two-year absence against an active ground fighter feels less like a title fight and more like corporal punishment.
Final prediction: Nurmagomedov def. McGregor by technical knockout
155 lbs.: Tony “El Cucuy” Ferguson (23-3) vs. Anthony “Showtime” Pettis (21-7)
One thing I think we can all agree on, is that former interim lightweight champion, Tony Ferguson, is completely insane. I’m not sure how else to describe his public outbursts, along with those training videos that have him pedaling a unicycle on piano wire stretched across an alligator pit, or whatever that goofy shit he’s doing to prove he’s got otherworldly balance. I admire his belief in himself, but isn’t this the same guy who almost had to have his leg amputated because he tripped over a Ritz cracker? Believe it or not, that same insanity is the reason I’m picking him to thrash Anthony Pettis. Considering how long most fighters are benched after devastating leg injuries, “El Cucuy” wrapped this thing up lickety split and I’m not expecting much, if any, performance issues attributed to his layoff.
Aside from all that background noise, the hard-hitting Ferguson is a complete fighter and must be taken seriously as a top lightweight, who could very well turn out to be the best in the division. Prior to making his cage fighting debut, The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 13 winner was a state champion wrestler in high school, as well as a two-time collegiate All-American in college. Complementing that is a black belt from Eddie Bravo to go along with his eight submission wins, six of which came under the UFC banner. Not bad for a fighter who also holds 10 victories by knockout.
I wish I had as many superlatives for Anthony Pettis, who is actually three years younger than Ferguson, but I don't know what the fuck happened to his career over the last five years. He went from lightweight champion — having never been finished in his career — to a 3-5 fighter who was both knocked out and submitted. That includes a failed trip to featherweight which thankfully brought him back up to a healthier cut at 155 pounds. Pettis has been telling anyone who will listen that he’s “back” because he was able to submit Michael Chiesa at UFC 226 last July, but he also lost the first round in that fight and “Maverick” was half dead from the weight cut, which has since sent him up to the welterweight division. Point is, I’m not breaking out the bubbly just yet.
Pettis was a great champion with an impressive list of victories (and stoppages) over some big-name talent, like Donald Cerrone and Gilbert Melendez (who have also fallen on hard times). He’s a creative striker with top-shelf jiu-jitsu, but his takedown defense is garbage. Too harsh? Dating back to his last title defense against “El Nino,” Pettis has been taken down a whopping 30 times. That’s a three and a zero, in case you’re not clear. If Ferguson wants to get this fight to the ground, it’s going to the ground. If “El Cucuy” wants to keep it standing, he’ll be operating with a four-inch reach advantage. If this was 2013, I might have a different attitude, but Pettis hasn’t won back-to-back fights since 2014 and he’s fighting a maniac who’s captured 10 straight with seven finishes.
Is there a such thing as the “El Cucuy” kick?
Final prediction; Ferguson def. Pettis by technical knockout
205 lbs.: Ovince “OSP” Saint Preux (23-11) vs. Dominick “The Devastator” Reyes (9-0)
Dominick Reyes transitioned to UFC in early 2017 with little-to-no fanfare, but quickly made a name for himself in the light heavyweight division by winning three straight, with all three of those wins coming by way of violent finish. That includes last May’s technical knockout victory over well-traveled veteran Jared Cannonier at UFC Fight Night 129, marking his eighth stoppage in nine wins. That doesn’t include his undefeated run on the amateur circuit, where “The Devastator” captured half a dozen wins (and finishes). No question Ovince Saint Preux is a considerable step up in competition, but one that was undoubtedly earned and probably long overdue.
What’s amazing about Reyes is that he does not come from a combat sports background, so his success is a result of natural talent, combined with athleticism and hard work. I think losing his dream of playing in the NFL, which came during his time on the gridiron for Stony Brook University, motivated him to pursue MMA with a greater passion as to not lose out on a second chance to make a living as a pro athlete. Saint Preux knows a thing or two about football, having taken the field for the University of Tennessee. This marks the 18th fight for “OSP” since crossing over from Strikeforce roughly five years back, making him one of the busiest (and most experienced) fighters in the light heavyweight division.
One thing about Saint Preux is that he can't win the big one. Not only did he come up short against Jon Jones, he was also stymied in top contender fights opposite Glover Teixeira and Jimi Manuwa. That said, one thing he has done throughout his career is kill the hype of up-and-comers and middle of the road’rs. His last fight resulted in a submission win over Australian wunderkind Tyson Pedro, finish number 18, and that marks four out of five wins for the ex-title contender. Saint Preux enters this bout with a three-inch reach advantage and one of the sneakier ground games at 205 pounds, registering taps by way of calf slicer, shoulder choke, and kimura, just to name a few.
On the surface, this feels like a fight that was designed to propel Reyes into the top 10 by stopping an established veteran with a decent name. Saint Preux turned 35 back in April and “The Devastator” is still just 28. Sure, Reyes may be in the groove right now and hasn’t seen the second round in over six fights, but that can also work to his disadvantage. I think “OSP” survives an early scare, gets the fight to the floor, and proves that old dogs don’t need to learn new tricks when the existing ones still get the job done.
Final prediction: Saint Preux def. Reyes by submission
265 lbs.: Derrick “Black Beast” Lewis (20-5, 1 NC) vs. Alexander “Drago” Volkov (30-6)
Derrick Lewis is currently ranked No. 2 at 265 pounds, which I find to be a very generous spot when you consider his level of competition. It’s also indicative of the state of the heavyweight division. Let’s just go ahead and say it out loud: it blows. After getting his clock cleaned by Shawn Jordan in summer 2015, “Black Beast” went on an impressive 8-1 run with six finishes. But all that glitters is not gold, as a couple of those bouts were stinkers, including his snoozer against Shamil Abdurakhimov in Albany. That’s the second fight he was forced to apologize for, the other being his UFC 226 debacle against Francis Ngannou.
Lewis does not train jiu jitsu and really only cares about scoring the knockout. He’s a big, physical heavyweight with tremendous power and surprising agility, though he becomes less effective as the fight wears on, simply because it takes a lot of energy to punch as hard as you can with each and every swing. There is no finesse here and that’s okay, but that comes at a price, evidenced by knockout losses to Mark Hunt and Matt Mitrione. It’s okay to be the big, bad power puncher ... right up until you meet someone who is bigger and badder, then it’s time for Plan B and the 33 year-old Texan doesn’t have one.
Like Lewis, Alexander Volkov had issues in 2015 and found himself on a two-fight losing streak under the Bellator MMA banner, which included a unanimous decision loss to Cheick Kongo on Spike TV. And, also like Lewis, he rebounded nicely and put together six straight wins with four finishes. The last two are most important, at least for the purposes of our discussion, because they came over ranked UFC fighters. I'm not sure how much stock we should put into a knockout win over the increasingly brittle Stefan Struve, but stopping Fabricio Werdum, even though “Vai Cavalo” was 40 and on the downturn, is nothing to sneeze at. For those of you keeping score at home, that was knockout No. 20 for the towering Russian, who only has three submissions across 30 wins (but can still outgrapple his UFC 229 opponent without much effort).
I do not expect this fight to hit the floor. Volkov is four inches taller but his reach is only one inch longer, so keeping Lewis at bay with his jab may not be so easy. I think what this bout really boils down to is the condition of “Black Beast.” If his back was as really as bad as he says it was — and is really as good as he now claims it to be — then I would expect him to win this fight convincingly. Judging by his svelte physique at the open workouts, I’m leaning toward the latter. At 6’7”, Volkov will give him a very big target to hit and I don’t think “Drago” will be prepared for how quick Lewis moves when the fists start flying. I’m sure someone will tell him after he wakes up.
Final prediction: Lewis def. Volkvov by knockout
115 lbs.: Michelle “Karatie Hottie” Waterson (15-6) vs. Felice “Lil’ Bulldog” Herrig (14-7)
Expectations were high for Michelle Waterson when she crossed over from Invicta FC back in summer 2015 and she appeared to be title bound after consecutive wins over Angela Magana and Paige VanZant, but then she canceled those out with disappointing losses to Rose Namajunas and Tecia Torres. It’s hard to get down on a fighter for losing to the reigning champion, as well as the division’s top contender, and Waterson was previously competing in a smaller weight class. Since there is no atomweight division in UFC — where she previously held gold — it’s sink or swim at 115 pounds. The good news for “Karate Hottie” is that she’s back in the win column following a split-decision win over the venerable Cortney Casey-Sanchez, but it won't get any easier this weekend in Vegas.
Felice Herrig came up short on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 20 combat sports reality show, but had a big enough name to get called back for the live finale, where she won her Octagon debut by way of submission. She was promptly turned away by the aforementioned VanZant in her very next fight, then went on a four-fight tear prior to dropping a split decision to former title contender Karolina Kowalkiewicz. Herrig is a complete fighter with kickboxing and Muay Thai titles to complement her Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt. That hasn’t always translated well to the cage and “Lil’ Bulldog” can be considered good at everything and great at nothing. At age 34, I don’t expect that to change and what you see it pretty much what you get.
Waterson is the the more fluid, creative striker and gels well with her team at Jackson-Wink MMA in Albuquerque. If she can manage to keep this fight standing she’ll have to overcome a three-inch reach disadvantage. Where VanZant had the most success against Herrig is the ground and Waterson has 10 takedowns spread across her five UFC fights. I don't know if she has the strength to make that gameplan an effective one for this showing and Herrig is built like an action figure. It would not surprise me to see “Karate Hottie” land her fair share of strikes, but once “Lil’ Bulldog” bites down on her mouthpiece and makes this an ugly fight, Waterson will spend most of her 15 minutes against the cage or on the mat, victimized by mug-and-slug as the clock slowly creeps down to zero.
Final prediction: Herrig def. Waterson by unanimous decision
That’s a wrap.
MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 229 fight card on fight night (click here), starting with the Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on FOX Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET.
For much more on UFC 229 click here.