UFC 236: Analysis and Predictions

UFC 236 goes down on April 13th at State Farm Arena in Atlanta Georgia.  As far as Pay-Per-View cards go this is a decent offering, it’s not the best card of the year, but it’s certainly not the worst.  It’s a bit of a strange card in that it offers two title fights, both interim belts, and neither with a fighter ranked higher than #3 in their weight class.  That should tell you a lot about the state of these two divisions.

Max Holloway vs Dustin Poirier

Interim Lightweight Championship

Max Holloway (Featherweight Champion) (20-3) (-210)

Dustin Poirier (#3 Ranked) (24-5) (+175)

Is the current UFC lightweight division the deepest division in the history of MMA? 

The only historical division I can imagine even coming close would be the 2005 PrideFC light heavyweight division which featured Silva, Rua, Jackson, Arona, and Nogueira all in their prime.  I think you can make a strong argument that this lightweight division is even better.  Case in point, Dustin Poirier vs Max Holloway.

Max Holloway is ranked 4th in the pound for pound rankings.  You can argue Dustin Poirier deserves to be in the top 10 of the pound for pound rankings.  Despite those two facts, there are 3 fighters ranked above them in the lightweight division.  Hell, Max Holloway isn’t even ranked as lightweight.  Above these fighters at lightweight you have Nurmagomedov, McGregor, and Ferguson who are all ranked in the top 10 pound for pound and have all held the lightweight belt at one point or another.  To sum it up, four lightweights are in the top 10 pound for pound rankings and a 5th probably deserves to be.  It’s crazy how deep this division is.

Take all of the above into consideration when thinking about how important this fight is.  The winner will most likely face Nurmagomedov for the belt later this year.  So now that I’ve spent 4 paragraphs setting the stage, let’s talk more about the actual fight.

Max Holloway has been dominant for the last several years at featherweight.  In November he absolutely crushed undefeated top prospect Brian Ortega in a lopsided beatdown.  That dominant performance slingshotted him to the top of the pound for pound rankings.  Holloway is absolutely massive for a featherweight and many have anticipated a permanent move to lightweight at some point, and this appears to be his first step into that direction.  Holloway is an elite striker who can hold is own standing against the best of the best in MMA.

Dustin Poirier has consistently been a top contender in the lightweight division.  He’s currently riding a 4 fight win streak with impressive wins over Alvarez, Gaethje, and Pettis.  Over the course of 21 fights in the UFC he has only lost 4 times, and they were to some of the most elite fighters in the division.  Poirier is a well-rounded fighter who mostly prefers to stand.  It’s safe to assume this fight will be an entirely standup affair.

With the above said, it’s hard to image Holloway losing this fight after the striking clinc he put on against Ortega several months ago.  Holloway is unbelievably skilled and judging range and he has fantastic head movement.  His striking is a volume based approach similar to what we’ve seen in the past with the Diaz brothers.  He throws a lot of strikes at 50% power and the sheer volume of attacks tends to wear down opponents.  Add to this the fact that I believe he will feel better than ever at 155 and there is every reason to imagine him putting on another clinic.

If there is one major flaw in Holloway’s game, it’s that he tends to brawl in the later rounds of fights.  He got cracked hard late in the Ortega fight.  This makes for some extremely exciting fights, but it isn’t good for maintaining a title run.  I think a decent game plan for Poirier would be to intentionally start slow, conserve energy, and then wait to capitalize in round 3 or 4 when Holloway decides to brawl.  This tends to be when he’s at his weakest and definitely provides plenty of openings.   

I think the fight playing out this way is unlikely though.  This most likely outcome is that Holloway lands consistently through the first two rounds and by the 3rd Poireir is bloodied and frustrated.  The finish comes sometime in the 3rd or 4th.

Holloway by 4th Round TKO

 

Kelvin Gastelum vs Israel Adesanya

Interim Middleweight Championship

Kelvin Gastelum (#4 Ranked) (15-3) (+175)

Israel Adesanya (#5 Ranked) (16-0) (-210)

I just spent several paragraphs talking about how deep the lightweight division is, and the middleweight division, well it’s pretty damn solid as well.  And again, as a result, you have two fighters outside of the top 3 fighting for the belt.  The champion Whitaker is injured, #1 Yoel Romero is coming over a narrow loss in his title challenge, #2 Luke Rockhold is moving to light heavyweight, and #3 Ronaldo Souza, well, he actually probably deserves this title challenge more than Adesanya.  Middleweight is another very deep division.

Kelvin Gastelum was less than 24 hours away from fighting for the title at UFC 234 when champion Robert Whittaker suffered a collapse bowel that forced him out of the fight.  Gastelum earned his title shot with an impressive run of victories at middleweight including wins over Weidman and Souza.  He’s a striker who hits with a lot of power and has a rock solid chin.  He’s not as much of a precision striker, and instead thrives in a brawl.  Stylistically his striking is about as different from Adesanaya as one can imagine.

Israel Adesanya is a former Glory Kickboxing world champion with a combined record of 75-5.  He is 16-0 in MMA.  He looked absolutely phenomenal during his first few UFC fights, but had somewhat of a regression to the mean in his last fight against Anderson Silva.  He won that fight handily, but many fans, myself included, expected him to flatline Silva inside the first round.  That fight left me wondering whether or not what I saw was an Adesanya revealing some weaknesses, or a Silva looking better than he has in years.  The answer is probably somewhere in the middle.

As I mentioned earlier, the striking styles of these two fighters are about as polar opposite as you can imagine.  Gastelum is powerful come-forward brawler who depends on power strikes and strong chin.  Adesanya is precision striker who uses speed, head movement, and range to avoid damage while picking his opponent apart.  The winner of this fight will be the one who is best able to execute on their game plan. 

When I first began typing my write up for UFC 236 I had no idea who I was going to pick for this fight, but now after reading back on this, it seems like Adesanya is the obvious choice.  Kelvin is going to try to stand and trade with Adesanya, and I just don’t think he matches up well in that regard.  He’s going to struggle to cut off the cage and close range.  You will probably see him swing at air quite a bit as Adesanya stays just outside of range. 

I think the first several rounds of this fight have the potential to be snoozers as Adesanya stays at distances and waits to get a feel for Gastelum before fully engaging.  I imagine a frustrated Gastelum going into the 3rd or 4th round unsure of how to even approach striking with Adesanya.  The 4th and 5th will be more of Adesanya landing at range en route to a comfortable decision.

Adesanya by Unanimous Decision

 

Wilson Reis vs Alexandre Pantoja

Flyweight

Wilson Reis (#5 Ranked) (23-9) (+140)

Alexandre Pantoja (#6 Ranked) (20-3) (-160)

Unfortunately, in the UFC’s under appreciated flyweight division a matchup between top ranked fighters is only enough to get you on to the prelims of a PPV.  That’s a bummer because the fight between Wilson Reis and Alexandre Pantoja should be an entertaining one.

Wilson Reis, like many Brazilian MMA fighters, comes from a very strong BJJ pedigree.  Of his 23 wins, 10 have come through submission, and the other 13 were decisions.  His striking game isn’t bad, but it’s largely used to put himself in position for takedowns and transitions to grappling.  At 34 with 32 professional fights, and with a flyweight division that’s figuratively on the ropes, this fight may be Reis’ last chance to get back into title contention.

In many ways Alexandre Pantoja is a very similar fighter to Reis.  Also a Brazilian coming from a strong BJJ pedigree, Pantoja was a semi finalist in the Ultimate Fighter tournament of champions, losing a decision to Hiromasa Ogikubo.  Pantoja comes into this fight on a 2 fight win streak, scoring a decision win over Brandon Moreno last May, and a submission over Ulka Sasaki in November.  At 28 Pantoja will be the younger fighter in this fight.

This is a fight that I think will be decided by the motivation level of each fighter coming into the bout.  I’m concerned that Reis is not far removed from two deflating losses to Johnson and Cejudo, towards the end of his career, and is fighting in division with an uncertain future.  Pantoja on the other hand still seems like a driven fighter who recognizes he has many big years ahead of him, even if it isn’t at 125 lbs in the UFC.

I’m taking Pantoja.  I believe we’re going to see a true MMA match that transitions frequently from striking to grappling.  Reis may be the more decorated grappler, but I believe the speed and youth advantage will favor Pantoja both standing and on the ground.

Pantoja by Unanimous Decision

 

Ovince St Preux vs Nikita Kryolv

Light Heavyweight

Ovince St Preux (#12 Ranked) (23-12) (-110)

Nikita Krylov (24-6) (-110)

I’ve written extensively about how shallow the light heavyweight division is in the UFC, and in some ways that is no better represented than in this fight between Ovince St Preux and Nikita Krylov.  Both of these fighters have shown moments of brilliance in their UFC careers, but both have struggled with consistency.

Ovince St Preux had his first UFC fight in April of 2013.  Since then he has had many impressive wins, and even challenged Jon Jones for the title back in 2016.  Unfortunately, it seems like every few big wins is followed up by a deflating loss for St Preux.  He’s currently coming off of a loss to Dominick Reyes back at UFC 229 in October.  St Preux is a power striker who tends to rely heavily on kicks and keeps opponents at range.  He doesn’t tend to grapple much unless he has an opponent hurt, and that’s a little unfortunate because he has one of the best Von Flue chokes of any active fighter.  Most hardcore fans have taken to calling it the “Von Preux” choke given how good Ovince is with this one.

Nikita Krylov has similarly been fighting in the promotion since 2013, and has similarly had many impressive wins that seem to inevitably be followed by a deflating loss.  Krylov is also coming off of a loss, in his case to Jan Blachowicz in September.  Krylov may be fighting to remain in the promotion.  If he losses it will be 3 UFC losses in a row for the Russian, he won 4 straight in other orgs between 2017 and 2018, and he doesn’t seem to be a big draw amongst fans. 

I feel like this fight is St Preux’s to lose.  He’s the more talented striker and should be able to keep Krylov at range while landing kicks to the body and legs.  Krylov’s best chance is to make this a grappling match, but even in that, I think the most likely outcome is a clinched stalemate.  Preux while edging towards the end of his career, remains a very dangerous fighter, and I think he finds the head kick somewhere in the second round.  Corey Anderson smiles somewhere watching this.

Ovince St Preux by 2nd Round KO