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UFC 238 predictions, preview, and analysis

After a pair of ho-hum “Fight Night” cards on ESPN+, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to the pay-per-view (PPV) market with the ho-hum UFC 238: “Cejudo vs. Moraes” event, which as the name suggests, is headlined by the bantamweight title fight pitting current flyweight kingpin, Henry Cejudo, opposite top 135-pound contender, Marlon Moraes, in a championship clash for the strap that was forcibly vacated by the suspended TJ Dillashaw.

Also going to war over a shiny new belt at UFC 238, which takes place this Sat. night (June 8, 2019) inside United Center in Chicago, Illinois, will be Valentina Shevchenko and Jessica Eye, as “Bullet” tries to speed past “Evil” in what marks her second flyweight title defense. In addition, the promotion recently beefed up the “Windy City” line up with the addition of Tony Ferguson vs. Donald Cerrone, which will no doubt have serious title implications in the lightweight division.

I’m sure you’re all in a big hurry to hear about the five-fight main card, but before we get busy with some PPV picks, let’s first see what the always-lucid Patrick Stumberg had to say about the preliminary offerings on ESPN and UFC Fight Pass by clicking here and here. Latest odds and betting lines for UFC 238 can be found here. Remember, you need a subscription to ESPN+ to watch this weekend’s PPV offering, so be sure to sign up here and catch all the hard-hitting action.

Let’s get to work.

135 lbs.: UFC Flyweight Champion Henry “The Messenger” Cejudo (14-2) vs. “Magic” Marlon Moraes (22-5-1)

It has become increasingly harder to separate Henry Cejudo, the goofball, from Henry Cejudo, the fighter, probably because he’s so good at being both, so they just sort of bleed together at this stage of his combat sports career. One thing that is not in dispute is his place atop the flyweight division. Whether or not you think he lost his last Demetrious Johnson fight is of no consequence at this stage of the game, as “Mighty Mouse” has already set sail for greener pastures in Singapore. Besides, if you give him the Johnson loss then you need to also give him the Joseph Benavidez win, which is usually how split decisions work. You win some, you lose some, regardless of how you perform.

But Cejudo’s decision to jump weight classes is not the same as a guy like Daniel Cormier moving back to heavyweight to win simultaneous straps. It worked for “DC” because most of that division is either fat or slow, sometimes both, and few can match his wrestling pedigree. In the 135-pound weight class, Cejudo will gain no advantages in speed or power and will be wrestling an opponent who is likely to weigh north of 150 pounds after rehydrating. Arguments for “The Messenger” already proving his mettle after disposing of TJ Dillashaw often neglect to mention that Dillashaw’s brain was so dried up from the cut down to 125 pounds, he entered the cage looking like Thanos had just snapped his fingers.

Marlon Moraes is a true bantamweight and a frightening example of what happens when raw athleticism is combined with top-shelf technique. Now 31 and fighting in the prime of his professional career, “Magic” comes into this bout with three straight finishes, including a first-round destruction of the notoriously-durable Raphael Assuncao. It’s important to note, at least for the purposes of this column, that Moraes has been fighting the best of the best. Assuncao and Jimmie Rivera were both crowded together in the Top 5, while Aljamain Sterling was ranked in the Top 10. All three went down in flames. Hard to believe he’s only been competing under the UFC banner for two years, though we can blame the since-rebranded World Series of Fighting (WSOF) for that.

I don’t typically worry about conditioning in five-round fights when talking about the lighter weight classes and I don’t plan to start here. Even with the extra weight, Cejudo is a lifelong athlete and not a yo-yoing fighter who only trains when an opponent is booked. Even with the improvements in his hands, I find it very hard to believe “The Messenger” is going to deliver many strikes against an animal like Moraes and will instead fall back on his world-class wrestling. But he needs to neutralize “Magic” for a full 25 minutes without taking much damage, because getting clobbered by the hard-hitting Brazilian is much different than absorbing strikes from a flyweight like Sergio Pettis. Sooner or later Moraes is going to land, and he’s going to land huge, reminding us why they have weight classes in the first place.

Final prediction: Moraes def. Cejudo by technical knockout

125 lbs.: UFC Flyweight Champion Valentina “Bullet” Shevchenko (16-3) vs. Jessica “Evil” Eye (14-6, 1 NC)

Jessica Eye long complained that she was a flyweight fighter stuck in a bantamweight division and her record supports that claim. Once the loser of four straight, which cost her a spot in the Top 10, “Evil” has since dropped down to 125 pounds and rattled off three in a row, good enough to land her at No. 1 in the flyweight division. While she’s now in line for a shot at the division title, currently held by another former bantamweight in Valentina Shevchenko, it’s safe to say their downward paths took much different twists and turns and in many ways, tells us a lot about what we can expect tomorrow night in the “Windy City.”

It’s been said that winning ugly is still winning, and Eye captured two split decisions as part of her aforementioned rebound streak. Part of what elevated her to title challenger is the lack of available contenders. The fact that either Liz Carmouche (No. 3) or Roxanne Modafferi (No. 5) could be in line for the winner of Shevchenko-Eye is indicative of what matchmakers have to work with. In terms of actual skill, Eye is spectacularly uncomplicated in her attack, oscillating between serviceable striking and paint-by-numbers wrestling. Her biggest asset is her toughness. Anyone who knows a thing or two about the Ohioan’s past will tell you there is no female fighter on the planet who will be able to intimidate her, Shevchenko included.

As for the speeding “Bullet,” she had a pretty remarkable run at 135 pounds before dropping down to flyweight. Many pundits expected the much larger and much more decorated Holly Holm to piece her up at UFC on FOX 20. Instead, Shevchenko outstruck the former boxing deity and moved on to battle The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 18 champion, Julianna Pena. Similarly, Shevchenko was expedited to wilt under the relentless pressure of the “Venezuelan Vixen.” Instead, she scored a first-round submission to land a rematch against Amanda Nunes. Remember, these are opponents who were not only the best in the world, but also held significant height and reach advantages in a higher weight class. Shevchenko is just that damn good.

Eye presents a stiff test for any fighter because she can wear them down and grind them into exhaustion, which then opens the door for ... well, whatever she wants. But she has to somehow accomplish that formidable task across a span of 25 minutes against a striker who lands jabs like Jordan used to drain free throws. “Bullet” could close her eyes and outstrike “Evil” for all five rounds. I just don’t see any way Eye wins this fight. There has been nothing in her recent performances to suggest she’s championship material, her offense is average, at best, and she’s fighting a champion who is completely locked in. If all we can say about her chances as we coast into this co-main event is, “Well, this is MMA and anything can happen,” then I would suggest you keep yourself from the betting window between now and fight night.

Final prediction: Shevchenko def. Eye by technical knockout

155 lbs.: Tony “El Cucuy” Ferguson (24-3) vs. Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone (36-11, 1 NC)

It’s been fun watching the old Donald Cerrone get his groove back, yet he’s inexplicably marketed as the “new” Donald Cerrone after pairing fatherhood with a couple of impressive victories. I’m not sure I understand this narrative ... was “Cowboy” not a killer the last time he made a run at lightweight? Before setting sail for the more weigh-in friendly 170-pound weight class, Cerrone boasted an eight-fight win streak — with five finishes — bookended by a pair of losses to Rafael dos Anjos. It wasn’t until he jumped to welterweight that he struggled to find consistency. And before we get too carried away, we should probably take a closer look at his last three wins. Alexander Hernandez is not ranked in the Top 10. Mike Perry? Can’t even crack the Top 15. That leaves Al Iaquinta as the only opponent worth talking about and credit to “Cowboy,” that was a bona fide ass whooping.

Cerrone is a sensational kickboxer who is equally adept at reeling off submissions. I’ve never seen him get tired — even at age 36 — and you won’t find a busier, more experienced lightweight. Whatever Tony Ferguson plans to throw at the WEC import, Cerrone has already seen it across two different weight classes. That’s really what this fight boils down to. “El Cucuy” is not unlike Cerrone in offense, but his delivery is much less conventional and often times erratic. That doesn’t sound like a flattering assessment of skill, but it works because it’s difficult to prepare for and nearly impossible to defend on the fly. Cerrone is at his best when he controls the distance and is afforded the necessary real estate to plod forward and unleash his own brand of hell.

Despite his crisp boxing and punishing ground game, Ferguson is not perfect. He was sent to the floor by Anthony Pettis at UFC 229, a receipt for a defensive blunder not unlike the laizze-faire gameplan that nearly cost him the Lando Vannata fight. “El Cucuy” also let Kevin Lee control a portion of their contest at UFC 216. The counter to that, of course, is that Ferguson finished all three opponents, but it would be irresponsible to gift Cerrone those sorts of openings. Above all else, he’s a lethal finisher and doesn’t do that dumb, “omg he’s one punch away from Sleepsville, let me shoot for a takedown” thing that so many fighters, maddeningly, resort to in the red zone.

There is no such thing as a perfect fighter, because all fighters are human and we as humans are imperfect, balanced by our own nature. Cerrone has all the physical tools to be the best of all time and comes oh-so-close on many occasions, but his struggles with the psychological aspect of cage fighting are well documented and often lead him to the loss column in fights he would ordinarily win. Ferguson is equally gifted and has the benefit of being completely insane, so there won’t be any hesitation, second-guessing, or self doubt during each and every blitzkrieg. Against a skilled, patient counter striker, that dragon can be slain. Opposite a methodical attacker like Cerrone, who needs time to clear his strategic cache in between bursts, it can be a recipe for success.

Final prediction: Ferguson def. Cerrone by technical knockout

135 lbs.: Jimmie “El Terror” Rivera (22-3) vs. Petr “No Mercy” Yan (12-1)

I don’t know why I’m surprised every time MMA fans abandon ship when a hyped fighter hits rough waters, but alas, here we are, and Jimmie Rivera is lost at sea. I think the Aljamain Sterling hiccup had something to do with that, as I can’t imagine anyone would be hard on “El Terror” for losing to Marlon Moraes. After all, “Magic” is fighting for the division title and ranked No. 1 in the world. A frequent knock on Rivera is his inability to finish fights, which is not uncommon among wrestlers or counter-strikers and the former TUF 14 hopeful is both. Still, five of six Octagon wins going to the judges’ scorecards will not create the sort of urgency to promote a fighter into title contention, irrespective of record. Scoring championship fights while coming off a loss is not unheard of in UFC, but that takes a big mouth or a big finish. Rivera has offered neither.

While Rivera might not be getting enough credit from fans, Yan may be getting a bit too much. I’m just as excited as everyone else to see what the 12-1 Russian can do when he finally hits his stride, but can we calm down with the “future G.O.A.T.” talk? Yan is already ranked in the Top 10 and I’m not sure why, which probably sounds like I’m being a jerk, but his first three UFC wins came over fighters who are not even ranked in the Top 15. Should I break out the party hats for a decision win over John Dodson, a natural flyweight who’s ranked No. 13 and 3-4 as a bantamweight? Sorry, I need a little more. Maybe that “more” comes tomorrow night in Chicago, but it won’t be so easy.

Rivera has already fought three fighters who are currently ranked in the Top 5 and brings a war chest of experience. He may not be as flashy as Yan and is a few inches shorter, but makes up for it with his advantage in reach. That matters in this contrast of styles, as “No Mercy” will lumber forward with incoming fire while “El Terror” fights reactively. I know the sexy pick is Yan, particularly for the bookies, who peg him as high as -350 in the UFC 238 betting lines, but I lean toward the battle-tested war horse, who after more than a decade of competition, won’t be surprised (or rattled) by anything his opponent has to offer. That said, I am expecting a very close fight as these two cancel each other out in each exchange.

Final prediction: Rivera def. Yan by split decision

265 lbs.: Blagoy “Baga” Ivanov (17-2, 1 NC) vs. Tai “Bam Bam” Tuivasa (8-1)

Curtain-jerking the promotion’s PPV main card are sloppy seconds, courtesy of Junior dos Santos, who disposed of both Blagoy Ivanov and Tai Tuivasa with relative ease. That probably has more to do with the fact that “Cigano” is still one of the best 265-pound fighters in the world and less to do with “Blaga” and “Bam Bam” being heavyweight refuse. Ivanov has just two fights inside the Octagon after an impressive career on the regional circuit, though I have trouble overlooking his submission loss to Alexander Volkov under the Bellator MMA banner back in 2014. “Drago” is now a UFC fighter himself and well, there aren’t many wins on the Bulgarian brute’s resume that I would consider to be noteworthy. Pushing around Ben Rothwell for three rounds after “Big Ben” spent three years on the sidelines? Sure, I guess.

You can make the same argument for Tuivasa, who amassed quite the highlight reel in his still-young MMA career, because the Aussie faltered when he was bumped up in competition. I can’t get all worked up over his decision win over the rapidly-fading Andrei Arlovski, as “The Pitbull” turned 40 back in February and racked up eight losses over the last four years. Tuivasa is not a well-rounded mixed martial artist, but rather a big, athletic heavyweight who moves fast and hits hard. He’s not unlike Greg Hardy, minus the ego (and all that domestic violence baggage). This fight boils down to “Bam Bam” landing the knockout blow before Ivanov can wear him down with his Sambo and exploit a still-developing ground game.

I’ll be honest with you folks, I do not have high hopes for this fight. I’d love to see Tuivasa land an earth-shattering knockout, just as much as I would love to see Ivanov roll him up with some sort of slick submission. Instead, we're likely to play that game of heavyweight keep-away, complete with cage circling and sloppy grappling changes against the fence. If it’s any consolation, this is one of those rare occasions when I want to be dead wrong.

Final prediction: Ivanov def. Tuivasa by unanimous decision

There you have it.

MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 238 fight card on fight night (click here), starting with the Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:15 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET, before the ESPN+ PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET.

For much more on UFC 238 click here.

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