UFC 231: Analysis and Predictions

UFC231Poster.jpg

Featherweight Championship

Max Holloway (Champion) (19-3) (-130) vs Brian Ortega (#1 Ranked) (13-0) (+110) 

I'm guessing this fight isn't a huge draw for the non-hardcore MMA fans.  Ortega and Holloway don't have the name recognition of a Cormier, Diaz, or Nurmagomedov, and nowhere near a McGregor.  That's a real tragedy, because this is an awesome matchup between two of the most elite fighters currently on the UFC roster.  I'm expecting a bloody and exciting demonstration of high level MMA.

Holloway has been absolutely unstoppable since losing a decision to a then-unknown Connor McGregor 5 years ago.  His wins include dominant performances over Jose Aldo, Anthony Pettis, Ricardo Lamas, and Jeremy Stephens.  2018 has been a somewhat tough year for Holloway and his last fight will have been over a year ago come UFC 231.  His absence has been due to a variety of issues, most notably when he was hospitalized for concussion-like symptoms during his weight cut for UFC 226 in July.  By all accounts, he seems to be healthy going into this title defense, so hopefully we get a 100% Holloway.

Ortega is undefeated through 14 fights, 7 of which have taken place in the UFC.  His most recent win over Frankie Edgar was particularly impressive.  The first round knockout was the first in the future Hall of Famer's career through 29 fights.  This dominant performance launched Ortega into title contention.  At 27 years old he possesses a great combination of youthful athleticism and well-rounded skills.

This is a difficult fight to predict and it could really play out in a lot of different ways.  The smart game plan for Ortega would be to aggressively mix in clinch work and submission attempts to keep Holloway off balance.  Ortega's fight with Cub Swanson should serve as a template for how to fight Holloway. He doesn't have to win the striking game, he just needs constantly threaten with it.  Ortega is a talented grappler and I believe he'll have the advantage if this fight moves back and forth between the grappling and standing. 

Unfortunately for Ortega, I don't think this is how he chooses to fight.

The KO over Edgar will still be fresh in the mind of Ortega and over the years we've seen a bad tendency of grapplers to fall in love with striking after a big KO.  This isn't good for Ortega, because I think Holloway has the striking advantage in this fight.  He’s faced and dominated more experienced strikers than Ortega.  Keep in mind, Holloway is the guy who took Connor McGregor to a decision in a predominately standup match 5 years ago.  Holloway is the guy who just TKOed striking great Jose Aldo twice in a row.  Holloway's striking advantage is going to show, and if this fight stays standing it could get ugly.  It won’t be quick or painless though, Ortega has one hell of a chin.  This is going to bloody affair that goes to the later rounds.

Holloway by 4th Round TKO

 

Women's Flyweight Championship

Joanna Jedrzejczyk (#1 Ranked) (15-2) (+255) vs Valentina Shevchenko (#1 Ranked) (15-3) (-310)

On paper, this seems like an amazing fight.  A new champion is crowned in a battle between #1 contenders moving up (Jedrzejczk) and moving down (Shevchenko) from their divisions.  The problem is in the history between these fighters.  Jedrzejczyk and Shevchenko have fought before in kickboxing.  They’ve fought three times, and Shevchenko won in every meeting.  Sure, this is a different sport, and a lot of time has passed, but I’m expecting this to look very similar to the last two times they fought.

Prior to this, Jedrzejczyk was the long-time dominant champion of the women’s strawweight division.  She had 5 successful title defenses with 3 victories by TKO.  Her last two losses were in title fights with current champion Rose Namajunas.  Jedrzejcyzk was KOed in the first match and then subsequently lost a closely fought decision.  Jedrzejczyk is still an incredibly dangerous fighter and will likely feel great at 125 lbs. considering how often she struggled with weight at 115 lbs.  She's coming off a win over Tecia Torres.

Shevchenko is the longtime #1 contender in the women’s bantamweight division holding notable wins over Holly Holm, Sarah Kaufman, and Juliana Pena.  Shevchenko has beaten everyone in the division whose name isn’t Amanda Nunes, and similarly to Jedrzejcyzk, finds herself in an odd position of having dropped two fights to the current champion.  She is an incredibly fast and athletic striker.

This will be a tough fight for me to watch because I’m a huge fan of both fighters.  The loser will unfortunately be somewhat lost in a no-man’s (woman's?) land of title contention, having lost multiple championship fights across divisions.  That’s a tough outcome considering the talent level on these fighters.  They're both still relatively young and can certainly compete at a high level for years to come.

I think most people, including the Vegas oddsmakers, are expecting Jedrzejczyk to lose.

I really don’t see any reason to disagree with the popular sentiment here.  Both of these fighters have evolved and improved since their kickboxing days, but it feels that Shevchenko is the more complete and well-rounded fighter.  Jedrzejczyk has two recent loses with the first being a brutal KO, and the second, while competitive, saw her get rocked multiple times.  Meanwhile, Shevchenko looked like a game competitor in her recent loss to Nunes at 135.  Shevchenko is going to win this fight and it might be ugly.  I’m worried Jedrzejczyk is headed for another big KO loss.

Shevchenko by 2nd Round KO

 

Light Heavyweight

Jimi Manuwa (#7 Ranked) (17-4) (+160) vs Thiago Santos (#15 Ranked) (19-6) (-185)

The UFC’s light heavyweight division is in a bit of an odd state.  In a deeper division such as lightweight or middleweight you would expect that fighters with recent records similar to Santos and Manuwa would be ranked pretty low.  However, the light heavyweight division is deeply stratified at the moment between the elite (Jones, Cormier, and Gustafsson) and pretty much everyone else.  Given Cormier’s eminent retirement and Gustafsson’s upcoming 2nd title challenge, it’s not impossible to imagine the winner of this fight being one or two more wins away from a title shot.  The stakes are higher than you might expect.

At 38 Manuwa is likely in the late stages of his career.  He’s .500 in his last 8 outings, dropping his last two fights to Jan Blackowitz and Volkan Oezdemir.  He’s a power striker who always has knockout potential, but lately has had his chin failing him.  3 of his 4 recent losses came by knockout.  When a fighter is 38 and coming off of two losses, I can’t help but question their motivation.  Are they fighting because they believe they still have a title run in their future, or are they just paying the mortgage?

The 34-year-old Thiago Santos is pretty recent addition to the light heavyweight division having fought most of his career at 185 lbs.  His only fight at 205 was an inspiring performance against Eryk Anders that he won by 3rd round TKO.  This will be Santos’s 5th fight in 2018 which raises a lot of questions in my mind about his training and health.  The somewhat silver lining is that he’s 3-1 this year, so confidence is probably on his side

This fight is going to be a slobber knocker.  You have two fighters that like to stand in the pocket and throw power.  I feel like there is almost zero chance this fight goes to a decision.  Anytime you get a slugfest going between two knockout artists it’s really a coin flip as to who the winner will be.  That being said, I’ll go with the younger fighter who is on a win streak.  Santos likely feels like he has several years ahead of him at 205 and is going to be the more guarded and thoughtful brawler.  Look for him to kick, jab and keep distance during Round 1 to wear Manuwa down.  In the 2nd Round Manuwa slows down and Santos starts hitting home with power shots.

Santos by 2nd Round TKO

 

Welterweight

Alex Oliveira (#13 Ranked) (19-4) (-120) vs Gunnar Nelson (#14 Ranked) (16-3) (-100)

This welterweight fight between Oliveira and Nelson is a fight between two talented athletes trying to break out in a relatively deep division.  Both of these fighters have been in the UFC for several years, and have generally performed very well.  However, both have struggled against the top of the division.  The winner of this fight could well move into the top 10 rankings.

Oliveira is a journeyman with only 3 losses in 13 UFC fights.  His last outing was a KO win over Carlo Pedersoli Jr back in September.  Generally speaking, Oliveira prefers to strike, but he has shown himself a capable ground fighter over the years with 4 wins by submission.  That being said, I'm guessing Oliveira will be pretty happy to keep this fight on the feet because Nelson is formidable on the ground.

It's somewhat hard to believe that Nelson has 10 fights in the UFC.  I'm probably showing my age here, but I feel like Nelson was just recently considered an up and coming prospect at welterweight.  Nelson is certainly still a dangerous fighter, but it seems that his limitations have become much more transparent over time.  He's extremely dangerous on the ground, but has a striking game that is still developing.  The open question in my mind going into this fight is: How much has Nelson been able to develop his striking game in the last year that he's taken off from fighting?

I wouldn't quite call this a traditional striker vs grappler matchup, but I think it's pretty clear what the path to victory is for each fighter.  Oliveira will use his jiu-jitsu defensively to keep this fight standing as much as possible.  Unless Nelson's striking game has improved considerably, a standing matchup will favor Oliveira.   Oliveira has a lot of power and I worry that Nelson, coming off a big KO loss, is going to be tentative while standing.  In order to get the fight to the ground he needs to establish himself as a striker to setup his takedowns, but I'm concerned this won't happen.  I think the more likely outcome is that his takedowns come from too far outside, without any setup, and are easily defended.  This will play well into Oliveira's style and he'll start landing big shots as the fight gets later into the first round.  Nelson doesn't last long in Rd 2.

Oliveira by 2nd Round TKO

 

Women's Strawweight

Claudia Gadelha (#3 Ranked) (16-3) (-265) vs Nina Ansaroff (#11 Ranked) (9-5) (+225)

I’m always excited whenever I see Claudia Gadelha on a fight card because I feel that she’s a somewhat under-appreciated talent in the 115 lb. division.  This fight with Nina Ansaroff should have some interesting repercussions for the division.  If Gadelha can win, she’s likely one more win away from another title shot.  If Ansaroff can win she will raise considerably in ranking and be poised to take on more of the elite in the division.

Gadelha is another female fighter who just two years ago found herself in the odd position of having lost twice to the current title holder.  She has since then had some ups and downs.  Her wins over Casey and Kowalkiewicz were solid, but a recent loss to Andrade and a very controversial decision over Esparza have left me wondering if she’s beginning to slide.  What’s her mental state going into this fight?  Is she excited about the prospect of a fight with new division champion Rose Namajunes, or is she more of division workman at this stage?

Ansaroff had a slow start to her UFC career dropping her first two fights, but has been on a streak lately, winning her last 3 and staying much more active.  Her most recent win over an always game Randa Markos is what earned her the shot at higher level competition.  She is the fiancé of current bantamweight champion Amanda Nunez, and that relationship seems to have markedly improved her fight game.

This is a big step up in competition for Ansaroff and this fight will tell us a lot about both fighters.  If Gadelha is motivated and eager for another title run, I fully expect her to put on a dominating performance.  Ansaroff is a good fighter, but I don’t think she is ready for the level of pressure that Gadelha can apply.  I expect Gadelha is use her size and strength to make this a grinding affair, utilizing takedowns, clinch work, and striking to establish herself, once again, as a top contender in the division.

Gadelha by Unanimous Decision