Just months away from birthday No. 40, former Welterweight title challenger, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, will look to begin a final climb to the top when he takes on Kevin Holland in UFC Orlando’s main event this weekend (Sat., Dec. 3, 2022) inside Amway Center. The 170-pound division will also host a guaranteed war between Rafael dos Anjos and Bryan Barberena, while Matheus Nicolau and Matt Schnell square off at 125 pounds and Tai Tuivasa attempts to bounce back at Sergei Pavlovich’s Heavyweight expense.
UFC Orlando features a hefty nine “Prelims” undercard matches to set the stage, the first five of which we’ve broken down below. Let’s get to it ...
145 lbs.: Darren Elkins vs. Jonathan Pearce
A six-fight winstreak from 2015 to 2018 had Darren Elkins (28-10) on the verge of contention. Then came a four-fight losing streak, though he’s since picked up wins in three of four appearances.
“The Damage” stands two inches shorter than Jonathan Pearce (13-4) at 5’10.”
Pearce ran over Jacob Rosales on the Contender Series, but received a rude Octagon welcome from Joe Lauzon. Dropping to 145 paid immediate dividends, as he went on to win his next four and score three stoppages along the way.
He’s knocked out nine and submitted another two as a professional.
Attrition is the most powerful weapon in Elkins’ arsenal. He’s so exhausting to fight that even if he’s physically or technically overwhelmed early, he claws his way back in with alarming regularity. It’s a trick that’s worked on a surprising number of very capable fighters, but it’s not getting anywhere “JSP.” Pearce has the suffocating grappling and functional standup to take Elkins apart, and more importantly, the man simply does not get tired.
There’s just no clear path to victory against a man eight years his junior who thrives in the exact sort of grind that Elkins prefers. In other words, Pearce takes him apart on the ground, potentially scoring a ground-and-pound finish.
Prediction: Pearce via unanimous decision
125 lbs.: Tracy Cortez vs. Amanda Ribas
Tracy Cortez (10-1) — unbeaten since her professional debut — handed Mariya Agapova her first pro defeat on Contender Series to punch her ticket to the Octagon. Though plagued with inactivity, she’s nonetheless racked up four wins in the world’s largest mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion.
She’ll have a two-inch height advantage over Amanda Ribas (11-3), but give up a half-inch of reach.
After three years on the sidelines because of a United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) violation, Ribas opened her UFC career perfect (4-0) with two submission wins. She’s now 1-2 in her last three, a decision over Virna Jandiroba sandwiched between losses to Marina Rodriguez and Katlyn Chookagian.
Her seven professional stoppage wins include four by submission.
The deciding factor here will be which of the two manages to get the other moving backwards. Cortez could be the stronger overall takedown artist, but she has a habit of backing to the fence that the clinch-happy Ribas will be more than happy to exploit. Even if Ribas is unlikely to finish Cortez, it’s easy to picture her grinding her way into enough dominant positions for the win.
I’m still leaning Cortez, though. Ribas is ridiculously easy to hit, even for a middling striker like Cortez, and the latter showed off some excellent defensive grappling against dangerous submission artists like Stephanie Egger and Melissa Gatto. In short, she works her way to another UFC victory with clean right hands, regular takedowns, and enough wherewithal to slip out of Ribas’ moments of success.
Prediction: Cortez via unanimous decision
155 lbs.: Natan Levy vs. Genaro Valdez
Injury kept Natan Levy (7-1) on the sidelines for a year after his Contender Series victory, and things didn’t get much better when Rafa Garcia defeated him in his debut. He proved more successful against Mike Breeden, racking up an impressive nine takedowns en route to victory.
He gives up an inch of reach to “El Rayadito.”
Genaro Valdez (10-1) ended a nearly 15-month layoff by out-warring Patrik White on Contender Series. He made his UFC debut three months later, coming up short in a five-round slugfest with Matt Frevola.
He’s yet to see the judges as a professional, knocking out seven.
They may both be Contender Series graduates, but there’s a massive gulf in class between Levy and Valdez. Valdez is little more than an admirably gutsy brawler, lacking the striking craft to get through Levy’s kick-heavy standup or the wrestling to keep Levy from burying him in takedowns like he did to Breeden.
Unless that loss to Frevola was a “Come to Jesus” moment that makes Valdez re-evaluate his style and focus more on fundamentals, this will be a rout. In the end, Levy overpowers him on the mat for a mid-round finish.
Prediction: Levy via second round submission
145 lbs.: Marcelo Rojo (16-9) vs. Francis Marshall (6-0)
The Ultimate Fighter (TUF): Latin America 3 semifinalist, Marcelo Rojo (16-9), finally joined UFC in March 2021, falling to Charles Jourdain in an enormously entertaining debut. Next came another dangerous contender in Kyler Philips, who caught “Pitbull” in a triangle armbar midway through the third round.
He gives up an inch of height and reach to Francis Marshall (6-0).
Marshall racked up five amateur wins and four finishes in his first five professional bouts, earning a spot on Contender Series opposite Connor Matthews. Though he failed to find the finish, his 15 minutes of dominance were enough to earn him a contract.
All four of those stoppages came via rear naked choke.
Marshall’s wrestling is a weapon for which Rojo has few answers, and though “Fire” remains overly hittable, his stand up has developed to the point where he can at the very least match Rojo’s brawling with his own effective pressure. The big test is whether Marshall can get Rojo retreating and put the fear of the level change in him before Rojo can tenderize his lead leg.
Between Marshall’s steady improvement and the threat of the takedown preventing Rojo from sitting down on his kicks, that seems doable. So long as the bright lights don’t get to Marshall, he wears down Rojo for a wide decision or late stoppage.
Prediction: Marshall via third round submission
115 lbs.: Yazmin Jauregui vs. Istela Nunes
Yazmin Jauregui (9-0) capped off her impressive Combate run with three wins in a single night, two of them via knockout. Exactly one year later, she battled her way past late replacement Iasmin Lucindo for her first-ever UFC victory.
She’s scored six knockouts as a professional.
Though she failed to topple Angela Lee in her ONE FC title shot, Istela Nunes capped off her stint in the promotion with a decision over Gina Iniong. She’s still chasing her first win in the Octagon, having lost to Ariane Carnelossi and Sam Hughes in successive efforts.
She’ll enjoy one inch of height and two inches of reach on Jauregui.
The name of the game is “pace.” Nunes’ powerful counters — particularly the step-back right hand she used to great effect against Hughes — are going to give Jauregui fits. The young slugger can still put too much behind her punches and leave herself open to return fire, and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see Nunes really put the hurt on her in the opening round.
Problem is, the Hughes fight showed quite clearly that Nunes can’t fight that way for 15 minutes, while Jauregui is ready, willing and able to throw heat until the final bell. Jauregui’s superior cardio and the wrestling in her back pocket give her the means to claw her way back into the fight once Nunes starts to slow down, so as long as she can survive the early slugfest, she’ll take over down the stretch.
Prediction: Jauregui via unanimous decision
Four more UFC Orlando “Prelims” undercard bouts remain to preview and predict, including what could be mayhem between Niko Price and Phil Rowe. Same time tomorrow, Maniacs.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Orlando fight card right here, starting with the ESPN/ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 10 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance (also on ESPN/ESPN+) at 10 p.m. ET.
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