I know you’re all disappointed not to be getting the Toe-to-Toe preview from David Castillo and Phil Mackenzie. There’s a reason they get the top fights for each card. However, they’ll be covering the third iteration of Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz clashing. Whether that’s a fight of greater importance is up to you to decide….
The importance of the main event of UFC Beijing cannot be understated, even if it has lost much of the luster attached to it. Many were predicting we’d see Curtis Blaydes and Francis Ngannou off again following their first meeting about 31 months ago. Given the lack of young talent in the heavyweight division coupled with the magnificent physiques of both, it appeared to be a given. Blaydes has held the course many predicted for him, emerging as the most promising heavyweight for the future of the UFC by far. However, Ngannou has veered badly off course. Ngannou beat Blaydes in their first meeting, but he also was brimming with confidence at that time. Since losing to Stipe Miocic, Ngannou has exhibited zero of the swagger he once possessed. This contest is do-or-die for the big man. This contest may very well determine the future of the heavyweight division.
The main card of UFC Beijing begins at 6:30 AM ET/3:30 AM PT on Saturday.
Curtis Blaydes (10-1, 1 NC) vs. Francis Ngannou (11-3), Heavyweight
After entering 2018 as the favorite in his title fight with Miocic, Ngannou’s stock has taken such a hit that he enters the contest with Blaydes as the underdog despite having already defeating Blaydes before. Despite the loss, Ngannou received some slack after being taken down repeatedly against Miocic. It was seen as a learning experience. Many deemed him finished when he proved reluctant to engage against Derrick Lewis. While it’s understandable that no one wants to be on the receiving end of a heavy shot from Lewis, that’s part of the risk of this job.
If Ngannou has straightened himself out, he’s the most fearsome striker in the sport. His KO of Alistair Overeem last December instantly went down as one of the most violent finishes in the short history of MMA. There may not be a more impressive physical specimen, his brute strength and power unparalleled. Remember his kimura of Anthony Hamilton? If not, or if you’ve never seen it, Youtube it. Aside from Miocic, he has been able to get back to his feet quickly when an opponent has been able to get him to the ground. However, his gas tank proved to be questionable against Miocic, offering next to nothing after the opening frame. Then again, Ngannou pursued the KO against Miocic like he never has before. Is it possible he was overcompensating for his early aggression against Miocic in his refusal to engage with Lewis?
While Ngannou’s stock has been in a steep decline this year, Blaydes’ has shot to the stars. Proving to be the most dominant wrestler in the division since Cain Velasquez was in his prime, taking down the likes of Mark Hunt and Alistair Overeem down at will. What is scariest about Blaydes is how quickly he has been learning. He couldn’t take down Daniel Omielanczuk the previous summer. That experience taught him a lot and the results have been incredible, taking down whoever he wants at will now. His GnP has become brutal too, his own finish of Overeem coming close to matching the level of violence applied to the Demolition Man by Ngannou. It isn’t like Blaydes is poor on the feet either. He hasn’t demonstrated himself to be the KO artist Ngannou is, but his jab helps him to keep opponents at bay before he finds the proper opening for the takedown.
Ngannou needs to win this fight to remain relevant. Otherwise, it’s going to be a long road back into contention, provided he gets back on that road. However, his poor performance against Lewis was truly alarming. Even without the question of whether he could bounce back from that, there were questions of whether he could thwart Blaydes a second time. However, it is worth noting it took all Miocic had to keep Ngannou down. In other words, I’m picking Blaydes, though Ngannou has proven all it takes is one good punch from him. It’s hard to pick against a guy with that ability. Blaydes via decision
Alistair Overeem (43-17, 1 NC) vs. Sergei Pavlovich (12-0), Heavyweight
Make no mistake, Overeem going from facing the two men in the main event to a newcomer to the UFC is a major step down in competition. However, it isn’t like the UFC is pitting him against a mere curiosity. Pavlovich looks every bit like a legit prospect.
Perhaps I should clarify as some of you might mistake me for saying he’s on the level of a young Cain Velasquez. Pavlovich doesn’t appear to be that good, but the Russian checks almost all the boxes. He’s got power. He’s got length. He can stuff takedowns. He’s gone five rounds. Aside from facing better competition, you can’t ask for much more out of him and he’s probably not going to find that on the regional scene. Pavlovich can be too patient for his own good on the feet, particularly against an experienced striker like Overeem.
Despite Overeem’s extensive kickboxing and MMA accolades, Pavlovich will assuredly look to keep things standing with the Dutchman thanks to the myriad of questions regarding his chin. Overeem’s durability has long been a major question mark. However, after being brutally finished in his last two appearances, it’s only fair to wonder if his chin has completely disintegrated at this point. Should Overeem prove capable of getting the fight to the ground, his grappling credentials are something Pavlovich will want to be wary of. Then again, despite Overeem’s 17 career submission victories, he hasn’t secured a submission victory since 2009.
Overeem is no longer a title contender. Not that I’m rooting against him, but that’s good news for a division that was long ruled by the old guard. However, that doesn’t mean he’s completely finished. Even if his chin is gone, Overeem still hits harder than hell and has done a better job of guarding his chin in his later years. Though I won’t be surprised to see Pavlovich finish him off, I think Overeem still has enough savvy and power to outpoint the youngster. Overeem via decision
Song Yadong (13-4) vs. Vince Morales (8-2), Bantamweight
If I’m being brutally honest, I didn’t thing much of Yadong’s signing last year. His debut did nothing for me either as he beat a nobody. However, the 20-year old made a believer out of me when he bulldozed through Felipe Arantes in his sophomore UFC effort. It wasn’t just the brutal finish of the Brazilian veteran that did it, though that certainly put a stamp on his performance. It was his ability to put Arantes on his back and avoid Arantes submissions as Arantes owns a dangerous guard. Yadong has all the physical tools to become a standout. It’s just a matter of refining them.
It would be inaccurate to say Morales graduated from the Contender Series as he fell to Domingo Pilarte, but Morales is the one touching down in the Octagon first. He’s a good athlete, but not great. It really shows up when he tries to stick-and-move, usually getting clipped one way or another on the way out. That doesn’t mean Morales doesn’t have tools to work with as his power and hand speed is prevalent enough opponents need to respect him. What impressed me most was his ability to work the body. However, the way he gave up takedowns – and his back — against Pilarte is very concerning.
I’d be less confident in picking Yadong if Morales had months to prepare rather than the two or so weeks he is working with. Yadong is far from a striking genius at this point, but he’s been skilled enough to land his power shots in each of his two UFC contests for the finish. Morales can counter well enough to keep things interesting, but Yadong’s improving game should be too much for the American to overcome. Yadong via decision
Yi Jingliang (15-5) vs. David Zawada (16-4), Welterweight
Jingliang has come a long way from the lay-and-prey reputation he developed prior to making his way to the Octagon. He’s become an exciting brawler who only turns to taking the fight to the ground as a last resort. His granite chin and surprising accuracy in a wild environment have been the biggest keys to his success, though it isn’t like he’s faced great competition either. His best win over the course of a four-fight win streak he had snapped earlier this year: probably Frank Camacho. I love watching Camacho fight as much as anyone, but no one gets much of a bump for beating the exciting slugger.
Fortunately for our viewing pleasure, the UFC only wants to pit him against others who will bring out the brawler in Jingliang and Zawada will do just that. The German doesn’t have the same one-punch power possessed by Jingliang, but he knows how to pile up the volume in a hurry and has the chin to match Jingliang. Though Zawada’s takedown defense has been notoriously poor, he’s been able to surprise his opponent with his own takedowns when he opts to go that route.
Many thanks go to UFC matchmakers for putting this contest together as it’s the favorite for FOTN on a card that looks like it could have a number of stinkers. If I’m being brutally honest, I really don’t care who wins as neither of these guys are breaking out of being mid-tier action fighters. I’m sure neither of them would like to hear that, but it isn’t as bad of a fate as it initially sounds. I’ll take the home country advantage possessed by Jingliang. Jingliang via decision