For the first time since B.J. Penn squared off with Georges St-Pierre for the second time way back in 2009, two Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) champions with actual title defenses will duke it out this Saturday (July 7, 2018) as Heavyweight kingpin Stipe Miocic welcomes Light Heavyweight roost-ruler Daniel Cormier back to the division where he got his start. Meanwhile, 120 pounds below, Featherweight champion Max Holloway squares off with the surging Brian Ortega in UFC 226’s pay-per-view (PPV) co-main event, while Derrick Lewis gets his long-awaited grudge match with Francis Ngannou.
We’ve got seven “Prelims” undercard matches that will first set the stage inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, with three on Fight Pass and the rest on FOX Sports 1. Because this is a double fight week — The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 27 Finale takes place the night before — we’ve crammed them all into one post.
FOX SPORTS 1 ‘Prelims’ (8 p.m. ET start time)
185 lbs.: Paulo Costa vs. Uriah Hall
Paulo Costa (11-0) — the martial artist formerly known as “Borrachinha” — bounced back from an unsuccessful TUF: “Brazil” 2 run to win and defend the Jungle Fight Middleweight title. He has been every bit as successful in UFC, smashing Garreth McLellan, Oluwale Bamgbose and Johny Hendricks in his 2017 campaign.
He has never gone past 1:23 into the second round as a professional, knocking out 10 opponents and submitting one other.
Uriah Hall’s (13-8) ridiculous upset of Gegard Mousasi gave way to three consecutive losses, including first-round (technical) knockouts against Brunson and the aforementioned Mousasi in the rematch. Down on the cards and with his back against the wall, “Primetime” knocked out Krzysztof Jotko to win “Performance of the Night” and keep his Octagon career afloat.
These two were originally slated to fight in April before Costa suffered a biceps injury.
We all know how it goes at this point. Hall has the potential to knockout anyone in the division at any time, but it is beyond foolhardy to put any faith in his ability to execute against competent Middleweight competition. This is a guy who lost to Josh Howard and then went on to knockout Mousasi, a feat multiple world champions and quality Heavyweight kickboxers have failed to accomplish.
Costa is young, huge, incredibly powerful and seemed to have solid cardio in his two trips to the second round. The obvious outcome sees him pressure Hall against the cage and blast him with hooks for the finish as Chris Weidman and the aforementioned Brunson did. Barring another Hall miracle, that’s my call.
Prediction: Costa via first-round technical knockout
170 lbs.: Paul Felder vs. Mike Perry
Paul Felder (15-3) is 5-1 since consecutive losses to Edson Barboza and Ross Peason, securing three consecutive (technical) knockout victories. He was originally slated to fight James Vick in Boise, Idaho, but answered the call when Vick got called up to face Justin Gaethje and Yancy Medeiros busted a rib.
“The Irish Dragon” has knocked out 10 opponents and submitted one other.
Mike Perry’s (11-3) thunderous knockouts of Jake Ellenberger and Alex Reyes put him within spitting distance of title contention, only for Santiago Ponzinibbio to out-slug him in a grueling affair. He returned two months later against Max Griffin in what looked to be a rebound fight, but “Max Pain” defied considerable odds to pick Perry apart and secure a decision.
Seven of his 11 knockout wins have come in the first round.
Perry has all the tools to be a truly standout Welterweight, boasting hellacious power, hand speed and physicality, but his technique isn’t advancing the way it should. While losses to Alan Jouban and Santiago Ponzinibbio are understandable, Griffin is someone he should have destroyed. Felder is durable enough, adaptable enough, and versatile enough on the feet to recreate Griffin’s winning effort.
There is the concern of Felder being unable to stand up to the power of a genuine Welterweight, but he has absorbed blows from quality finishers like Edson Barboza and Daron Cruickshank without flinching. I have faith in his ability to steer clear of Perry’s bombs and pick him apart for a decision win.
Prediction: Felder via unanimous decision
135 lbs.: Raphael Assuncao vs. Rob Font
It hasn’t always been the prettiest of affairs, but Raphael Assuncao (26-5) is 10-1 since his knockout loss to Erik Koch, beating the likes of T.J. Dillashaw, Bryan Caraway, Aljamain Sterling and Marlon Moraes, among others. His latest win was the most eye-catching yet, a brutal one-punch knockout of Matthew Lopez that earned the Brazilian his first post-fight bonus since 2013.
He is three inches shorter than Rob Font (15-3) and will give up five inches of reach.
Font scored brutal finishes in four of his first five UFC appearances and looked poised for another win in Oct. 2017, but succumbed to Pedro Munhoz’s infamous guillotine late in the first round. Against another dangerous foe in Thomas Almeida, Font survived a competitive first round to drop and stop “Thominhas” in Boston.
Font has knocked out seven opponents and submitted another four.
Well, if there’s anyone outside of Cody Garbrandt and John Lineker who could drag a great fight out of Assuncao, it’s Font. Dangerously powerful and aggressive, he’s everything you’d want in a young fighter. For all that destructive potential, though, I’m not convinced he’s sharp enough to take the Brazilian out of his comfort zone. Assuncao’s counterpunching is some of the best in the division — only Dillashaw and the incredibly adaptive Moraes have been able to consistently land on him without taking more in return. Based on what I’ve seen, he can slow this fight to his pace and consistently punish Font’s aggression.
I’m pulling for Font, as he’s exponentially more entertaining, but I say Assuncao picks him off enough to take a controversial decision.
Prediction: Assuncao by unanimous decision
170 lbs.: Max Griffin vs. Curtis Millender (15-3)
Max Griffin (14-4) — after splitting bouts with Colby Covington and Erick Montano — threw down with Elizeu Zaleski at UFC Fight Night 119, coming up short on the cards but securing a $50,000 bonus for his troubles. Four months later, “Max Pain” took a wholly unexpected decision over Mike Perry, whom he outclassed on the feet.
Half of his pro wins have come by form of knockout.
The early 1-3 skid for Curtis Millender’s (15-3) didn’t stop him from winning six straight afterward, including solid victories in LFA. His Octagon debut pitted him against Thiago Alves, whom he caught with a vicious knee in the final minute of the second round.
“Curtious” stands four inches taller than Griffin at 6’3.”
Griffin impressed pretty much everyone against Perry, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him shut down “Curtious,” but this looks like a rough match up for him. In addition to the height disadvantage, Griffin is fairly easy to hit and got knocked down more than once against Zaleski. It’s also worth noting that his arsenal doesn’t prominently feature takedowns or low kicks, which are Millender’s key weaknesses.
Without the tools to get inside on Millender or make him hesitate on those long kicks, Griffin is going to struggle to bring his heavy hands to bear. Millender finds the mark with a head kick partway through the second round.
Prediction: Millender via second-round knockout
UFC Fight Pass ‘Prelims’ (6:30 p.m. ET start time)
155 lbs.: Gilbert Burns vs. Dan Hooker
Gilbert Burns’ (13-2) Brazilian jiu-jitsu pedigree earned him quite a bit of attention when he joined UFC and he lived up to the hype with wins in his first three Octagon appearances. A 1-2 stretch slowed his roll, but he has smashed his way back into contention with crushing knockouts of Jason Saggo and Dan Moret.
Burns has submitted seven professional foes, four by armbar, and knocked out another five.
After an inconsistent run at Featherweight, Dan Hooker (16-7) has reinvented himself as a Lightweight contender with three impressive finishes. He opened his 155-pound run with a knee knockout of Ross Pearson, submitted Marc Diakiese soon after, and went back to the basics with another savage knee against Jim Miller.
He will have two inches of height, four inches of reach, and three inches of leg reach on “Durinho.”
Hooker has looked like a new man at 155 pounds, discarding his face-first brawling in favor of a varied, tricky offense. Burns has looked ferocious as well, but I’m not sure energy-intensive headhunting is the best approach against the iron-jawed Kiwi. Hooker is notoriously durable and has gotten out from under ace grapplers like Hatsu Hioki in the past.
If he’d showed a better jab and more blended wrestling, I’d take Burns over most of the division. As is, while he’ll get plenty of highlight-reel finishes, the stylistic match up isn’t in his favor — Hooker is just too damn tough to get rid of and too sharp with his game planning. Heavy knees and straight punches keep the hard-charging Burns at bay for 15 minutes.
Prediction: Hooker via unanimous decision
155 lbs.: Lando Vannata vs. Drakkar Klose
Lando Vannata (9-2) opened his UFC career with a near-upset of Tony Ferguson, dropping “El Cucuy” with a head kick before ultimately tapping to a d’arce choke. His Octagon career since has been inconsistent but entertaining, as he has gone 1-1-1 and earned three post-fight bonuses.
He has knocked out and submitted four professional foes apiece.
Drakkar Klose (8-1-1) — fighting out of The MMA Lab — defeated “Lookin’ for a Fight” product Devin Powell in his Octagon debut before using powerful leg kicks to upset Marc Diakiese. He had less success against David Teymur, who shut down his wrestling and picked him apart at range.
He will give up an inch of height and 2.5 inches of reach to the “Groovy” one.
Vannata is a match for anyone in the division in the first round. The reason he’s sitting on a losing UFC record despite his obvious skills is his inability to pace himself. That said, he still gave David Teymur a much tougher fight than Klose did and his slickster stylings seem well-equipped to shutting down Klose’s straightforward offense.
Klose will struggle to keep Vannata on the fence, isn’t a sufficiently overpowering wrestler to take him down in the center of the cage, and doesn’t have the power to put him away. Vannata banks at least two rounds with nifty long-range striking before fading enough for Klose to start connecting.
Prediction: Vannata via unanimous decision
115 lbs.: Emily Whitmire vs. Jamie Moyle
Representing Team Justin Gaethje on TUF 26, Emily Whitmire (2-2) submitted Christina Marks in 40 seconds before falling to Roxanne Modafferi in the quarterfinals. Her woes continued at the Finale, which saw her tap to a Gillian Robertson submission in little more than two minutes.
She is five inches taller than Jamie Moyle (4-2), but will give up two inches of reach.
Moyle likewise went 1-1 in her TUF run, beating Alyssa Krahn in the elimination round of TUF 23 before falling to eventual finalist Amanda Cooper. Things have been similarly up-and-down in the Octagon, defeating Kailin Curran in her Octagon debut and losing to Viviane Pereira six months later.
This will be her first fight in 13 months because of injury.
Whitmire’s two professional victories came over opponents who were 0-0 and 2-7. She was a Strawweight before moving to 125 pounds for TUF, so she shouldn’t have much of a weight advantage. She has been submitted twice as a professional and got ground-and-pounded into the dirt on TUF.
That said, you can see why I’m not picking her over a capable wrestler.
Moyle has faced much stronger competition and has the stylistic edge to overcome the height disadvantage. She outstrikes, outwrestles and outgrapples Whitmire for up to 15 minutes.
Prediction: Moyle via unanimous decision
UFC 226 will feature two incredible world title fights, a grudge match, and the return of Gokhan Saki. If that’s not worth your money, I don’t know what is. See you Saturday, Maniacs!
Remember, too, that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 226 fight card, 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.