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UFC on ESPN 3 predictions, preview, and analysis

It’s heavyweight thunder in Minneapolis this Saturday night (June 29, 2019) when Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) puts on its latest mixed martial arts (MMA) fight card on ESPN.

The main event sees Francis Ngannou look for his seventh UFC knockout against former champion Junior Dos Santos, who is making his sixth consecutive main event appearance. One fight prior, Joseph Benavidez takes on Jussier Formiga in a flyweight rematch six years in the making to determine the next challenger for Henry Cejudo’s throne.

There’s also a welterweight crossroads bout, a pair of fun lightweight fights, and a clash of light heavyweights who’ve never seen the judges in more than 20 combined fights.

The guy who usually handles these articles is currently orchestrating a discreet parlay with enigmatic warlord Anomander Rake, so I’ve taken over for the moment. You can get your UFC on ESPN 3 “Prelims” fix here and here, plus a pinch of odds and betting analysis here.

265 lbs.: Francis “The Predator” Ngannou (13-3) vs. Junior “Cigano” Dos Santos (21-5)

No one can deny that Ngannou is an absolute beast, but I’m of the firm opinion that the Junior Dos Santos of, say, seven years ago would run roughshod over him. “The Predator” has yet to prove that he can maintain a strong pace or deal with a technically superior boxer, especially one who could take Roy Nelson’s and Shane Carwin’s best shots without flinching.

Unfortunately, that Junior Dos Santos got a few years of life beaten out of him by Cain Velasquez, and now we’re left with a “Cigano” who got touched up by both Tai Tuivasa and Derrick Lewis before landing a game-changing shot. Though the Brazilian’s jab remains uniquely potent, he’s lost both crispness in his power punches and the hand speed that used to let him get away with uglier shots.

If I had faith that Dos Santos could keep his cool and and hold Ngannou at bay with his jab, I’d pick him in a heartbeat. I just can’t do so after the way he willingly entered a sloppy slugfest with Lewis. Ngannou simply hits too hard for that to work here, and while Dos Santos probably has it in the bag if he can extend it into the second round, odds are Ngannou clips him before that point.

Just like last week’s main event, though, I hope I’m wrong. Dos Santos is one of the good guys of the sport and it would break my heart to see him busted up again.

Prediction: Ngannou by first-round KO

125 lbs.: Joseph Benavidez (27-5) vs. Jussier Formiga (23-5)

These two first fought in 2013, shortly before Benavidez’s disastrous second crack at Demetrious Johnson. Formiga, once the No. 1 Flyweight in the world before a loss to Ian McCall in Tachi Palace Fights, had no answers for Benavidez’s speed and power, ultimately falling midway through the first round.

So where are we now?

For one, both men are in their mid-30s, which seems like a point in Formiga’s favor considering how integral Benavidez’s athleticism is to his success. Further, the Brazilian has developed into a capable striker and wrestler in his own right, while Benavidez went life-and-death with Dustin Ortiz on the mat this past January.

I still can’t bring myself to pick against “Joe B,” though. With Demetrius Johnson on a grand adventure overseas, Benavidez is essentially the division’s premier scrambler, and he looks to have shored up his striking with enough technique to offset the loss of speed.

This won’t be anywhere near the blowout the first fight was and Formiga’s back control remains among the best in the sport. It’ll come down to the wire and Benavidez will find himself in more submission danger than ever before, but he’s beaten too many strong grapplers for me to believe that Formiga can get revenge. He survives having a Brazilian backpack for several minutes to eke out a decision on the strength of his power punching.

Prediction: Benavidez by split decision

170 lbs.: Demian Maia (26-9) vs. Anthony Rocco Martin (16-4)

Fighting the current incarnation of Maia is nightmarish enough, but having to fight him for three rounds? When he doesn’t have to pace himself? Unpleasant, to say the least.

Martin’s been on a tear since he finally decided to stop killing himself in an effort to make 155 pounds, but it’s worth remembering that Maia’s three-fight losing streak came against the division’s three best wrestlers besides Ben Askren. He made his style work against plenty of well-rounded, dangerous guys like Neil Magny, Gunnar Nelson, and Jorge Masvidal; just having “good” wrestling isn’t good enough.

The one concern is Martin’s sheer strength and solid striking game; if he does manage to shrug off Maia’s takedowns for three or four minutes and put a dent in the latter’s gas tank, it’s smooth sailing. Then again, I had similar worries when Maia fought an absolute physical powerhouse in Lyman Good last February, and Maia made mincemeat of “Cyborg.” Martin’s good enough on the ground to survive for a bit, but it’s just a matter of time once Maia gets in on his hips.

Prediction: Maia by second-round submission

155 lbs.: Roosevelt Roberts (8-0) vs. Vinc Pichel (11-2)

It’s been seven years since Pichel competed on The Ultimate Fighter. Since then, he’s fought a grand total of six times, defeating just one member of the current UFC roster. He’s coming off yet another long layoff, having not fought since a loss to Gregor Gillespie in June of last year.

He’s by no means a bad fighter, boasting quality wrestling and robotic-but-effective striking, but it’s hard to rise through the ranks when there’s a different top 10 every time you fight.

In any event, he’s a quality test for Roberts. Neither of the 25-year-old’s UFC opponents have been particularly potent wrestlers, and I’m very interested to see how effective his clinchwork is against stronger competition. Even if he can’t consistently take Pichel down, though, he looks to be the smoother boxer and has a nice height advantage to fall back on. Expect Roberts’ fluidity to carry him to a competitive but clear decision.

Prediction: Roberts by unanimous decision

155 lbs.: Drew Dober (20-9) vs. Polo Reyes (8-5)

Reyes hits stupid hard and once walked out to the One-Punch Man theme, so it’s safe to say that I’m ride or die. It’ll be a little more “die” this time, unfortunately.

I expected Reyes to steamroll Damir Hadzovic in his last bout, but his takedown defense betrayed him against the Bosnian striking specialist. Further, though I wouldn’t call him a brawler, his standup definitely relies heavily on his power. Dober, a crazy-durable technician who can fall back on his wrestling if needed, seems to tick all the wrong boxes.

I will say that if anyone punches hard enough at 155 to turn Dober’s lights out, it’s Reyes, but between Dober’s takedowns muzzling Reyes’ offense and the fact that Dober can withstand anything short of an absolutely perfect short, it’s not a possibility worth banking on. Dober weathers the early storm and mixes in enough takedowns to earn the decision.

Prediction: Dober by unanimous decision

205 lbs.: Alonzo Menifield (8-0) vs. Paul “Braveheart” Craig (11-3)

Menifield has seven knockout wins and one submission. Craig has 10 submissions and one knockout. Between them, they have 13 first-round finishes.

I don’t think this is going to last very long, is what I’m saying.

The conventional wisdom is that either Menifield knocks Craig out or Craig submits Menifield, and while Craig’s no slouch on the feet, I see no reason to disagree with this reductive analysis. Menifield’s too fast and hits too hard for “Braveheart” to deal with in the striking, and Craig is likewise too crafty on the mat for Menifield to survive prolonged engagements. The fight comes down to whoever can keep it where they want.

From where I’m standing, that’s Menifield. Craig, beyond not being terribly strong or athletic at the weight, isn’t a strong technical wrestler. Menifield, though still developing, can bolster his takedown defense with sheer strength and speed. Craig’s in for a world of hurt if he hasn’t improved his entries.

Craig’s as tricky a bastard as they come and is dangerous literally from bell to bell, but Menifield is just too fast and too strong to give him the opportunity for another miracle comeback.

Prediction: Menifield by first-round TKO

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC on ESPN 3 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN “Prelims” at 6:00 p.m. ET, and continuing on with the ESPN main card at 9:00 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC on ESPN 3: “Ngannou vs. dos Santos” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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