Get the inner scoop on the biggest card 2017 has had to offer thus far, including the number one contenders contest at welterweight between Demian Maia and Jorge Masvidal.
Before the injury to Henry Cejudo, it was a realistic possibility that the winner of all of the non-title contests of the main card would next be fighting for a belt. Cejudo’s injury eliminated that possibility which pressed Dave Branch and Krzysztof Jotko into the spotlight. It may not be quite what Cejudo and Sergio Pettis would have offered, but it is a contest far more worthy of its place on the card than say… Pearl Gonzalez and Cynthia Calvillo. Barring any last minute gaffes, this is easily the deepest and best card 2017 has to offer fans. Trust me on this.
The main card of UFC 211 begins at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT
Demian Maia (24-6) vs. Jorge Masvidal (32-11), Welterweight
Despite six straight wins with names such as Gunnar Nelson, Neil Magny, and Carlos Condit amongst his list of victims, Maia is required to pick up yet another victory in order to secure an elusive title shot. He’ll be in trouble should he sleep on Masvidal. Remember, Masvidal did dispose of Donald Cerrone….
Maia’s run has been unprecedented. Not only has he been winning, he’s been doing so impressively. In his last four contests, he has taken a total of 13 significant strikes according to Fight Metric. With those contests taking up about 35 minutes of fight time, that’s an average of eating one significant shot for almost every three minutes. He’s picked up three finishes in those last four contests too. And yet, the UFC is reluctant to give him his well-deserved title shot due to his lack of flash. When people discuss whether the UFC is more sport or entertainment, Maia is one of the primary examples for the entertainment argument.
Even if Maia isn’t flashy, he is still the most dangerous grappler in the sport. His improved wrestling in recent years – plus the move down to welterweight where he no longer is at a size disadvantage – has made it increasingly difficult for fighters to keep the fight standing. Maia’s continued pressure and excellent timing on his shots virtually guarantees that the fight will hit the ground at some point. The last time Maia didn’t secure a takedown? Against Chris Weidman, his last fight at 185.
Though Masvidal’s takedown defense is regularly underrated – as he is in general – there is ample reason to believe he won’t have the tools to keep the fight standing. The longtime vet spent a large chunk of his career stuffing the attempts of lightweights and hasn’t faced an opponent with the wrestling ability to floor him since moving to welterweight. Some may argue Jake Ellenberger was capable of doing so, but Ellenberger’s fight IQ is something that can be called into question in recent contests.
Masvidal’s best chance to steal a win is to keep the fight standing. Even though many knocked his ability to end a contest before the 15-minute time limit expired, he’s done so in his last two appearances, including one of the more violent KO’s in recent memory of the aforementioned Cerrone. A large part of that is thanks to him no longer needing to dehydrate himself to make 155. No longer needing to cut those extra 15 pounds, Masvidal has been able to keep his foot on the gas pedal and displaying power that had previously been hidden. If the power Masvidal has displayed isn’t merely an aberration, it will be difficult to find holes in his boxing game, one of the most technically sound in the sport. He does get overconfident at times and let down his guard, though that hasn’t been happened for a little while.
Maia’s standup isn’t going to threaten Masvidal, though he is sound enough that he can hold his own if required. Gone are the days where Maia feels the need to test his standup, but he showed in that time that he can land his own offense from there even if he has only a single fluke KO/TKO victory – his TKO of Dong Hyun Kim — on his UFC ledger. Maia’s durability has been impressive too as Nate Marquardt almost eight years ago has been the only opponent to finish him.
This is one of the harder contests in recent memory to pick. Masvidal specifically asked for Cerrone and many were saying Cerrone had it in the bag heading into that contest. That didn’t turn out to be the case. I’m still picking Maia, but I’m not discounting the possibility of Masvidal securing another upset and potentially stealing away Maia’s title shot. Masvidal has been difficult to submit, so expect him to be able to survive the entirety of the contest… even if there are some close calls. Maia via decision
Frankie Edgar (21-5-1) vs. Yair Rodriguez (10-1), Featherweight
All-time great Frankie Edgar continues to improve despite his advanced age of 35. Still, it won’t be a surprise to see Father Time begin winning the war he has with every athlete. Rodriguez is hoping that time is now.
Edgar has shown slight signs of physical decline as he isn’t quite as quick as he once was. However, he has been able to compensate for that by improving his footwork, distance management, and head movement as he doesn’t take nearly as much damage as he once did. Edgar didn’t look quite as sharp against Jeremy Stephens, but he was also dealing with a number of injuries that he was keeping on the down low at the time.
Despite Edgar’s improved defense, he hasn’t dealt with an opponent quite like Rodriguez. Owning top-notch athleticism and a flashy rangy attack, the 5’11” Rodriguez presents Edgar with the type of challenge the legend hasn’t seen in his career thus far in terms of physical skills. Rodriguez also negates what has traditionally been one of Edgar’s biggest strengths: his stamina. Edgar puts on a pace that few opponents can match. An argument could be made that Rodriguez not only matches it, he exceeds it. Keep in mind that Rodriguez went 5 rounds at altitude against Alex Caceres back in August.
Rodriguez’s arsenal has largely consisted of flashy kicks, tossing out a fair compliment of spinning and front kicks to his more common round kicks. However, he showed progress in his footwork to make his boxing game a better option. He can’t hope to compete with Edgar’s fundamentals or fluidity of his punching combinations. Rodriguez’s length could end up being the difference maker for him. Granted, Rodriguez hasn’t mastered distance management yet, relying heavily on his explosion to close the distance rather than fundamentals. As he continues to improve, expect opponents to have an increasingly difficult time getting into range.
For all of the improvement in Edgar’s defense, he’ll still need to score some offense if he wants to win which means getting into Rodriguez’s range. Edgar has shown a greater tendency to sit down in the pocket and put together lengthier combinations than he did a few years ago, relying less on his in-and-out approach that he has long been noted for. This could be a good thing in this contest as it is doubtful Rodriguez has made enough strides in his boxing should Edgar continually find his own range.
What is likely the biggest key to this contest is Rodriguez’s takedown defense. Outside of Jose Aldo, Edgar has found great success in getting his opponents to the ground and keeping them there for extended periods of time. He isn’t a huge submission threat, but he is surprisingly top heavy. Rodriguez has yet to face a notable wrestler with Andre Fili probably being the most accomplished of his past opponents. Rodriguez has shown a dangerous guard while improving his own top control, but he isn’t likely to find much success on the ground outside of a scramble and even that isn’t a guarantee.
I’m not at all surprised to see how many pundits I’ve seen picking Rodriguez. The kid is exceptionally talented and continues to make major strides. However, his best opponent he has faced thus far is Alex Caceres. That’s a big jump to go from Caceres to Frankie Edgar even if Edgar is no longer in peak form. Though it is conceivable that Edgar’s semi-lackluster performance against Stephens can be attributed to age, I’m willing to trust injury played a part in it too. Expect a hell of a contest with both having their moments with Edgar’s takedown abilities giving him the needed edge for the win. Edgar via decision
Krzysztof Jotko (19-1) vs. Dave Branch (20-3), Middleweight
Fresh off of an undefeated stint in WSOF where he was a two division champion, Branch meets a streaking Jotko in his return to the UFC.
Branch’s transition to the UFC isn’t being met with much fanfare as his first UFC run wasn’t very memorable. The BJJ ace has improved his striking abilities, keeping a steady pace behind his jab – aided by his 79″reach — and a strong compliment of low kicks. Branch isn’t a powerful striker, though he can surprise if you don’t show him any respect.
Jotko isn’t likely to be caught asleep by Branch as he’s constantly moving on around on the outside. He utilizes footwork and a series of feints to create his awkward striking style that opponents have had a difficult time figuring out. He’s upped his output considerably since his UFC inception, developing punching combinations to develop his strong clinch game. Though he doesn’t often look to go to the ground these days, Jotko still has his trip takedowns that were once the center of his attack that he can fall back on if he so chooses.
Don’t expect that to happen. Branch’s bread and butter has always been his grappling ability. The Renzo Gracie student owns one of the best back-take games in the sport for the heavier weight classes in the sport. Though the RNC is his favorite way to dispose of his opponents, it’s simply wise not to expose your neck to him in any way. Branch will have a tough time getting Jotko to the ground as the Pole’s takedown defense has proven to be about as sturdy as it gets for the middleweight division. Then again, few are better at scoring the reactionary single-leg than Branch.
This is not an easy contest to pick. Branch has done a good job filling in the cracks since his release from the UFC in 2011, presenting a much improved version of the fighter who earlier graced the Octagon. Jotko isn’t amongst the middleweight elite quite yet, but he’ll get there if he continues to improve in the manner he has the last few years. I like Jotko’s youth and durability. Branch is unlikely to outstrike Jotko and I don’t anticipate him being able to control Jotko on the ground for the majority of the contest or
securing a finish. Expect a razor-thin judges decision. Jotko via decision