The new breed faces the slightly older breed inside Talking Stick Resort & Casino in Phoenix, Ariz., this Sunday (Feb. 17, 2019) when Francis Ngannou welcomes Cain Velasquez back to the Octagon after 2.5 years away. ESPN viewers will also get to see James Vick square off with Paul Felder and the Octagon debut of grappling great Kron Gracie, who takes on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) fan favorite Alex Caceres.
135 lbs.: Jimmie Rivera vs. Aljamain Sterling
Following a split decision loss in his second professional fight, Jimmie Rivera (22-2) put together one of the more impressive mixed martial arts (MMA) win streaks, racking up 20 consecutive victories over the course of nine years. His run came to an end last June against Marlon Moraes, but “El Terror” returned to the win column with a decision over John Dodson three months later.
He’ll give up three inches of height and reach to the “Funk Master.”
The perfect (4-0) UFC start for Aljamain Sterling (16-3) gave way to a 2-3 slump, including two split decision losses and a horrific knee from Marlon Moraes. He got back on track with a decision over Brett Johns, then picked up one of the 2018 “Submissions of the Year” by hitting a Suloev stretch on Cody Stamann.
His seven professional submission wins include six via choke.
The name of the game here is “length.” As dangerous as Rivera is with his hands, Sterling’s awkward kickboxing belies quality range management, and any attempt from Rivera to bully his way inside leaves him open to Sterling’s lethal wrestling. As intimidating as Rivera’s 100 percent UFC takedown defense is, the best wrestler he’s had to deal with is Urijah Faber.
Sterling is a whole different animal, and once it hits the mat, “Funk Master” is as good as anyone at 135 pounds.
Rivera’s lack of reach will keep him from establishing his boxing, while his willingness to scrap opens the door for Sterling to get in on his hips. From there, it’s just a matter of time.
Prediction: Sterling via second-round submission
135 lbs.: Manny Bermudez vs. Benito Lopez
Manny Bermudez (13-0) earned his ninth submission in 10 fights in his Octagon debut, dispatching Albert Morales via guillotine. He went back to his titular choke against Davey Grant five months later, earning “Submission of the Night” in the process.
“The Bermudez Triangle” will give up two inches of reach to “Golden Boy.”
Benito Lopez (9-0) dazzled early against Steven Peterson on “Contender Series,” but his foe’s relentlessness forced him to settle for a split decision. He made his Octagon debut four months later with a competitive decision over Albert Morales.
This will be his first fight since Dec. 2017.
Lopez is a damn fun fighter, treating flying knees the way the average fighter treats jabs. What he isn’t is terribly efficient — he slowed down badly against both Peterson and Morales after excellent starts. He’s just 24 years old and had a long layoff with which to mature, but the fact that he pushed an unsustainable pace against Morales despite the scare against Peterson suggests that it’s just the way he is.
Bermudez is simply too good a grappler for Lopez to be this reckless against. “Golden Boy” has excellent timing with his knees, which should make Bermudez think twice about shooting, but it’s all moot once Lopez’s gas tank dwindles. Bermudez survives an early onslaught to drag a flagging Lopez to the floor and choke him out.
Prediction: Bermudez via second-round submission
125 lbs.: Andrea Lee vs. Ashlee Evans-Smith
Andrea Lee (9-2) put together a four-fight win streak, including victories in Invicta and LFA, before joining UFC in 2017. When her planned debut with Kalinda Faria fell through because of United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) guidelines, she debuted the subsequent May with a “Fight of the Night” decision over Veronica Macedo.
She replaces the injured Lauren Murphy on two months’ notice.
Ashlee Evans-Smith (6-3) went 2-3 as a UFC Bantamweight before making the drop to 125 pounds in April 2018. In her divisional debut, she took on current bare-knuckle standout Bec Rawlings and held her own on the feet en route to a unanimous decision win.
She is two inches taller than Lee, but will give up 2.5 inches of reach.
Lee has traditionally struggled against skilled takedown artists and Evans-Smith is a wrestler by trade, but the complicating factor is that Evans-Smith’s wrestling hasn’t translated to MMA. She’s landed an abysmal 27 percent of her UFC takedowns and hasn’t made up for it with volume, attempting just over one every 15 minutes.
That leaves her at the mercy of Lee’s versatile kickboxing, which looks a fair bit more effective than Evans-Smith’s rough boxing. Assuming my faith in Lee’s still-developing defensive wrestling isn’t misplaced, she pieces up a relentless Evans-Smith in a fun battle.
Prediction: Lee via unanimous decision
155 lbs.: Scott Holtzman vs. Nik Lentz
Scott Holtzman (12-2) got off to an appropriately quick start in the Octagon with a dominant victory over Tony Christodoulou, only to lose two of his next three bouts. He’s gone undefeated (3-0) since a decision loss to Josh Emmett, most recently knocking out Alan Patrick at UFC 229 in a decent-sized upset.
“Hot Sauce” will have an inch of height and reach on “The Carny.”
Nik Lentz (29-9-2) pulled off one of 2017’s wilder upsets by choking out Will Brooks in Sydney, Australia, earning “Performance of the Night” in the process. He lost his next bout to David Teymur, then rebounded with a knockout of Gray Maynard four months later.
He owns 11 wins by submission, though just three via his favored guillotine.
Holtzman went from giving up eight takedowns to Josh Emmett to out-grappling a very capable grinder in Alan Patrick last time out. I’d still be leery of picking him against a dedicated wrestler, but he should be able to handle a slowing, shopworn Lentz. “The Carny” turns 35 this year, and though he’s actually younger than Holtzman, he has quite a few more miles. The wrestling prowess isn’t enough to make up for the physical disparity.
Lentz could absolutely still turn this into a miserable slog if he puts his mind to it. Considering his decline and Holtzman’s rapid improvement, though, I expect the latter to out-slug him on the feet and stay off the mat for long enough to take the decision.
Prediction: Holtzman via unanimous decision
There’s no way Velasquez-Ngannou isn’t spectacular in one fashion or another and the rest of UFC on ESPN 1’s main card looks action-packed. Don’t miss it, Maniacs.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC on ESPN 1 fight card on fight night, starting with the ESPN+ (7-day free trial here) “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN at 7 p.m. ET, before the ESPN main card start time at 9 p.m. ET.
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