Get the ins and outs of the main card of UFC Auckland, featuring exciting flyweights Tim Elliott and Ben Nguyen and longtime UFC stalwart Ross Pearson.
Though there is a lack of marquee names on UFC Auckland, the main card has serious potential to deliver some of the best action a lackluster 2017 has seen. The main event between Mark Hunt and Derrick Lewis is a good example of that as everyone seems to love when two major heavy hitters go at it, but there is also a strong chance that turns out to be a major dud.
No, I’m looking at the early portions of the card…and not just because those are the fights I preview. Though every fight looks to provide good action upon first glance, I’m particularly excited about the contest between flyweights Tim Elliott and Ben Nguyen. Yes, I said flyweights…the division that the UFC has allegedly threatened to fold if Demetrious Johnson doesn’t defend his belt. The one prediction I feel good in making is anybody who watches Elliott and Nguyen throw down will vehemently oppose that idea. OK, so this is a preview article, but I wanted a chance to state how disappointed I’d be to see the flyweight division go away…
The main card begins on FS1 at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Daniel Hooker (13-7) vs. Ross Pearson (19-13, 1 NC), Lightweight
Longtime lightweight mainstay Pearson may be on his last UFC legs. Loser of three straight heading into this contest, the former TUF winner already has 22 Octagon appearances under his belt which is a lot of high-level mileage to accumulate. It’s fair to ask how much he has left in the tank.
That’s the pessimistic point of view at least. Pearson hasn’t been blown out in any of his last three contests, looking competitive with the likes of Will Brooks and Jorge Masvidal. An adjustment here and a tweak there and we could just as easily be talking about well Pearson has aged as he approaches 33. His defense hasn’t looked as sharp as it once did, which is the primary reason he has struggled to pick up the W lately. He still has good pop in his hands and the timing on the counter to catch his opponent as they come in.
Hooker is making his way up to lightweight after a 3-3 run at featherweight. Absolutely massive at featherweight, it’s expected that Hooker should have more energy now that he no longer needs to cut the extra ten pounds as he lacked pop and the will to avoid his opponents attack. As a former kickboxer with a deep arsenal of kicks and a lot of power early in contests, that could turn out to be a hell of a difference maker to the New Zealand native.
Where this fight could end up being determined is in the wrestling. Hooker has shown almost zero inclination to take the fight to the ground, though his grappling has shown continued progress in every contest. While Pearson has shown the ability to hit the occasional takedown, it is hardly a regular staple of his arsenal. The one constant that has been there in his last six fights: if his opponents take him down at least once, Pearson losses. If he stays upright, Pearson wins.
Pearson has been a favorite of mine to watch. He’s durable and doesn’t give up even when he’s clearly outclassed. However, he’s also taken to being the aggressor when he’s far better off waiting for his opponent to come to him. Plus, Hooker will own a 6-inch reach advantage in this contest, hardly an inconsequential advantage. I hate doing it, but I’ve got to pick the young lion who is improving. Pearson’s decline may not be massive, but I’m guessing it is enough that he can’t beat the likes of Hooker any more. Hooker via decision
Ion Cutelaba (12-3) vs. Luis Henrique da Silva (12-2), Light Heavyweight
Though not my favorite fight on the card – I think I gave that away in the intro – it’s hard not to get excited about the possibilities a match between Cutelaba and da Silva brings. Neither are known for their defensive abilities while showing incredible durability. Can you see where I’m going with this?
Da Silva had a bit more hype behind him as he dispatched Joachim Christensen and Jonathan Wilson in impressive fashion, all the while walking through whatever they threw at him. However, he has run into some problems in his last two contests as his opponents have displayed a competent wrestling game, being taken down at will. If he can keep the feet standing, he has a wild-but-dangerous kicking arsenal, though he doesn’t mind throwing fisticuffs either.
Cutelaba’s standup isn’t nearly as diverse, relying almost solely on his fists to piece up his opposition. He puts everything into every punch, which often leads to him being tired by the time the third round rolls around. Fortunately for him, his power isn’t the only thing that he has going for him as he is a strong takedown artist with an explosive shot. Cutelaba hasn’t shown much in terms of top control as he often looks to do damage before securing position, but the potential is there.
Though both have obvious flaws that are similar – da Silva doesn’t have a deep gas tank either – they are as entertaining as it gets at 205. Da Silva’s striking is more diverse while Cutelaba is the superior wrestler. I’ll favor Cutelaba, though he will need to be aware of da Silva’s activity off of his back as the Brazilian has some slick submissions. Cutelaba via decision
Tim Elliott (14-7-1) vs. Ben Nguyen (16-6), Flyweight
As an unabashed fan of Joseph Benavidez, it’s difficult for me to admit that his torn ACL created a much more interesting contest when Elliott agreed to step in and face Nguyen.
There isn’t an MMA fan out there doesn’t enjoy watching Elliott do his thing. One of the most unorthodox fighters who has found success at the highest levels of the sport, opponents rarely know how to handle Elliott’s janky style. Even though Demetrious Johnson was able to secure a comfortable decision over him, Elliott gave Johnson his biggest scare in years, nearly securing a D’Arce choke in the first round before the only flyweight champion the UFC has known was able to figure out how to handle the Missouri native.
Nguyen isn’t the conundrum to solve that Elliott is, but he’s a handful nonetheless. Known as an aggressive fighter, that narrative is a bit deceiving. It isn’t that Nguyen isn’t aggressive. He is. He’s just a skilled counter striker whose improvements at slipping his opponent’s punches in recent years has led to his recent string of success where he has won ten of his last eleven fights. His ability to seamlessly throw heat from both stances makes him one of the most dangerous 125ers to stand and trade with.
Given Elliott’s tendency to leave his chin out there to be touched up combined with his pressuring style, it’s hard not to see Nguyen finding some success on the feet. However, Elliott has also proven to be one of the most durable flyweights in the sport…and I don’t just mean he can take a punch. He’s been in the cage with the best the division has to offer and only Benavidez has been able to submit him. Elliott has shown a lot of improvement since then with a better knowledge of how to use his large frame to get the fight to the ground. There may not be a fighter on the roster more aggressive in a consistent pursuit of the submission than Elliott, often putting his own neck out there to be snagged. Despite that, Elliott always seems to find a way to escape.
Nguyen isn’t the wrestler that Elliott is, but he may be able to hold his own in scrambles. However, Louis Smolka, whom Elliott beat just two months ago, got the better of Nguyen on the ground when Nguyen seemed to exhaust himself. Smolka simply teed off on the Australian transplant from there. Elliott tends to fade as well, but he’s also shown the ability to fight through fatigue effectively.
Though I love the main event, I’m expecting this to be the most entertaining fight on the card…thus why I typed more about this contest than any other. Nguyen is very dangerous on the feet and I can see him taking advantage of Elliott’s defensive deficiencies. However, Elliott has also made progress in his standup, demonstrating better technique in how he throws his punches and in his footwork. I don’t think he’ll finish Nguyen on the feet, but those improvements give him a better chance of standing with Nguyen which increases his chances of getting the fight to the ground. Elliott via submission, RD2
Alex Volkanovski (14-1) vs. Mizuto Hirota (18-7-2), Featherweight
There are mixed feelings on Volkanovski. Some see him as a hot prospect. Others see him as a token Australian who received a favorable matchup in his UFC debut. This contest will give a more definitive narrative just how high Volkanovski can climb as Hirota is easily the toughest challenge he has faced.
After a highly successful debut at lightweight, Volkanovski chose to be proactive by dropping down to featherweight before his lack of size cost him at 155. Short even for featherweight at 5’6″, Volkanovski has been able to use his short stature to his advantage as he finds it easy to get the proper leverage to drive his opponent into the ground. While Australia isn’t known for producing quality wrestlers, Volkanovski appears to be an exception to the rule. He still has some development to do on the feet, though his raw power and 71″ reach gives him a few tools to work with.
Though good-at-everything, great-at-nothing is a description that is used a lot in this sport, Hirota is one of those whom that truly describes. He’s also proven to be extremely difficult to put away, never having been finished with strikes and only submitted once in his career, that occurring over seven years ago at the hands of Shinya Aoki. Hirota’s defense has been improving recently as well, though he still has a way to go to completely shore it up.
I’m favoring Volkanovski in this one due to Hirota’s tendency to let his opponents dictate where the fight takes place. Don’t expect Volkanovski to overwhelm him as Hirota has displayed sound takedown defense, but it would be wise to believe the majority of the contest to take place on the ground which strongly favors the Aussie. Volkanovski via decision