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Diggin’ Deep on UFC 239: Jones vs. Santos – Main card preview

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I’ve heard UFC 239 described as two title fights involving two all-time greats with the undercard full of filler. While I can understand that sentiment as there aren’t any non-title contests that have fans salivating ala UFC 238’s Tony Ferguson and Donald Cerrone showdown. However, that would be selling short at least two of the contests on the main card. Ben Askren’s fighting style hasn’t done much to gain fanfare, but he’s more than made up for that with his brash personality. He looks to turn away the street tough Jorge Masvidal, with the winner possibly receiving a title shot. The undercard also features the light heavyweight debut of former middleweight champion, Luke Rockhold. Jan Blachowicz receives the honor of welcoming him to 205. Those contests are worthy of their place on a PPV main card. As for the third undercard contest… well, it isn’t as bad as it looks at first glance.

The main card begins at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Jorge Masvidal (33-13) vs. Ben Askren (19-0, 1 NC), Welterweight

There is zero secret to what Askren provides in combat. A collegiate wrestling champion and 2008 Olympian, Askren has long been regarded as a world class wrestler. He is so dominant in that phase that he remains unbeaten despite having what many would call a subpar striking. However, that has also been why his critics – most vocally Dana White at one point – have called him boring as Askren tends to take his opponent down time and again… and do little else other than hold them there. Perhaps that argument would have been fair at one point, but Askren only been to decision once in his last ten contests. The reasons are multiple. Yes, Askren’s level of competition in ONE was far beneath his own talents. That shouldn’t take away from Askren’s improved mat positioning, allowing him to either rain down heavy punches or snake in a submission.

It’ll be a hell of an accomplishment if he can find a way to finish off Masvidal, known as one of the toughest SOB’s in this or any sport. Masvidal hasn’t been finished in a decade. Even that finish – an inverted triangle choke at the hands of Toby Imada – is regarded as one of the biggest flukes in the history of MMA. Seriously, check it out if you’ve never seen it. Anyway, since that time, Masvidal has stood opposite of several of the best in the sport, usually making the fight a competitive scrap even if he is unable to find a way to pull out a win. Aside from his toughness, the one thing that Masvidal has become known for is coasting late in contests, falsely believing he’s far ahead enough on the scorecards to allow him protect himself. He’s made strides to rectify that, though he’s discovered more power fighting at a heavier weight and sitting down on his punches. Ask Darren Till how hard Masvidal hits…

There is a very simple dynamic to this contest. Askren wants nothing to do with Masvidal on the feet. Askren has certainly become serviceable in his standup, but even he knows he’s no match for Masvidal in that phase. The question is whether Masvidal will be able to stop Askren from repeatedly taking him to the mat. Masvidal struggled to do so against Demian Maia and Askren is not only physically superior to the Brazilian in almost every way, he’s also not going to fade late. Unless Masvidal lands that killer blow – a distinct possibility – Askren will ground him into the mat enough to secure a victory. Askren via decision

Jan Blachowicz (23-8) vs. Luke Rockhold (16-4), Light Heavyweight

It’s easy to forget about Rockhold when the 34-year-old has fought just twice in the last three years. However, those of us who remember Rockhold’s run up to the UFC title know just how special of a talent Rockhold is. Or should I say… was? Rockhold has dealt with enough injuries and enough time has passed that no one quite knows what to make of him anymore. Is he a legit title challenger? Or is he a pretender?

Rockhold will lose some of what made him special at 185 as his reach and length isn’t going to be the weapon it was against larger opponents at his new home. That doesn’t mean Rockhold won’t be effective from the outside anymore though. The AKA representative made his bones operating on the outside and is still longer than most 205ers on the roster. Another concern is that his wrestling game will be affected. Not that Rockhold relied much on his wrestling, but he was one of the best submission specialists at middleweight. He should be even more effective at light heavyweight in that regard, but the key will be getting his opposition to the ground first.

Fortunately for Rockhold, Blachowicz has historically been poor at stopping takedowns. Well… at least up until Blachowicz’s recent stretch. The most direct route to beating Blachowicz was to ground him and keep him on his back, something Rockhold is capable of doing. However, Blachowicz has only been taken down twice in his last five contests. He has improved his boxing in the pocket too, placing a heavy emphasis on fundamentals like a jab to great success. It’s like everything has been coming together at just the right time for the Pole.

The biggest factor in this contest is Rockhold’s head space. He seemed to lose motivation when grabbed the title. He didn’t get a highly-prioritized PPV slot for his title fight and underestimated Michael Bisping in the process. He sulked after that loss, again not giving Dave Branch and Yoel Romero the proper attention. He survived Branch. He didn’t Romero. Was he simply tired of cutting all the way to 185? Is he still bitter the UFC didn’t give him the star treatment he expected? There’s a lot to unpack with Rockhold mentally. If he’s in the right frame of mind, he should be able to handle Blachowicz. If he isn’t, Blachowicz is skilled enough to overthrow him. I’ll go with Rockhold being in the right place. Fans have largely forgotten about him and he doesn’t have a miserable weight cut. He debuts at his new home with a victory. Rockhold via submission, RD2

Diego Sanchez (29-11) vs. Michael Chiesa (14-4), Welterweight

It’s hard to get excited for a Diego Sanchez fight nowadays. Sure, the original TUF winner has won two in a row, but have you seen who those wins came against? Craig White and Mickey Gall. Prior to that, the formerly durable Sanchez was finished with ease in three of his four previous contests. There may not be a more determined fighter in the history of the UFC. However, determination alone isn’t enough for a fighter to remain relevant. Though Sanchez is still willing to throw down if it comes down to it, he’s smart enough to know he can’t take that kind of punishment anymore. Some will say Sanchez proved he can still wrestle and grapple some in his most recent contests, but again, his level of competition needs to be accounted for. Prior to that, Sanchez’s wrestling hadn’t been consistently effective in about a decade.

Expecting it to be effective against a submission expert like Chiesa would be foolhardy. No longer dealing with a massive weight cut to 155, Chiesa looked like a new man against Carlos Condit, bullying the former interim champion with ease before forcing him to tap to a nasty kimura. Perhaps no longer being the bigger, stronger fighter isn’t going to be as much of a problem as we all thought. He’s still a subpar striker who tends to get pieced up, but he does have enough power in his fists that opponents can’t just tee off on him as they please.

I’ll give the UFC credit. Chiesa isn’t the threat on the feet that can capitalize on Sanchez’s eroded chin – even with his occasional power — meaning Sanchez can put forth a competitive contest. However, Chiesa is far more capable on the ground than Sanchez’s recent opponents. Sanchez has never been submitted in his career, so it isn’t a guarantee Chiesa is able to slink in his trademark RNC. Then again, it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago we were talking about Sanchez never having been truly KO’d. Then the KO’s just didn’t seem to stop coming… Chiesa via submission of RD2

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