The UFC brings the year of 2019 to a close with a trip to South Korea, Busan to be exact. As with most UFC cards taking place across the ocean, there’s a minimal amount of contests that offer much interest for anyone other than the most hardcore of fans. Good hell… I’m beginning to sound like a broken record given the amount of times I’ve stated this. Nonetheless, continuing with what I’ve said on many previous occasions, one can always find something on every card worth paying attention to. With UFC Busan, the most interesting bouts can be found in the smaller weight classes. The dark horse of the flyweight division gets a chance to right his ship against the division’s Lazarus and a pair of up-and-coming bantamweights collide. Did I mention Francis Ngannou’s sparring partner is in action too? However, if you want to catch the preliminary action, you’ll either need to stay up late or wake up incredibly early.
The prelims begin on ESPN at 2:00 AM ET/11:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Alexandre Pantoja (21-4) vs. Matt Schnell (14-4), Flyweight
You never want to put too much stock into an impressive loss, but Pantoja turned a lot of heads when he came up short against the resident flyweight juggernaut, Deiveson Figueiredo. For large chunks of that contest, he went toe-to-toe with the heavy hitter, even coming out on top on a few of the exchanges. Hanging in there the way he did showed a grittier side of the Brazilian that most didn’t know existed. He’s always been known for his submission grappling – particularly his knack for RNC’s – and the patented low kicks developed at Nova Uniao, but the expanded depth to his game has many believing he could fulfill his immense potential.
In the eyes of many, Schnell has already done that to the point where they might say he’s overachieving. After dropping his first two UFC contests via vicious KO, he’s rebounded with four straight victories to resurrect his career in the shallow flyweight division. However, it could also be pointed out he hasn’t exactly faced any world-beaters, the best name on his belt being a Louis Smolka who hasn’t been the same since losing to Brandon Moreno three years ago. Regardless, Schnell has overcome expectations, displaying improved boxing and defense without disregarding his impressive submission game.
While a lot of credit needs to go to Schnell for beating those who have been placed in front of him, there isn’t a lot of substance behind those opponents. The names Pantoja has defeated aren’t that much better, but he has held his own against vastly superior opponents in losses whereas Schnell has been bowled over when he’s been given a noticeable step up. I know it’s more complicated than that, but I don’t want to break it down so simply as to say Pantoja is a superior athlete so he’ll win… but there you are. Pantoja via TKO of RD2
Raoni Barcelos (14-1) vs. Said Nurmagomedov (13-1), Bantamweight
Barcelos is a bit of a what-if story. Starting his professional career by the time he was nearly 27, Barcelos is already 34. If he was a heavyweight or light heavyweight, that wouldn’t be such a big deal. However, at the lighter weight class less dependent on power – which doesn’t fade with age – and more reliant on speed and quickness – which does – Barcelos’ window is incredibly small at this point.
While it wouldn’t be a guarantee that Barcelos would become a legit title contender even if he had begun his MMA career in earnest at a younger age, you won’t find many who will deny his physical talents are considerable enough that even at this point, he could realistically crack the top ten. It’s not like he wasn’t doing anything prior to beginning his career either as he won multiple BJJ tournaments before beginning in MMA. The funny thing is, despite his extensive grappling credentials, he’s picked up most of his wins of the back of his powerful counter boxing, scoring eight wins via KO, over half of his overall total.
Yes, Said is a cousin of Khabib’s, but he doesn’t have the same chummy relationship with the lightweight champion that Abubakar has, nor does he have a similar game. That doesn’t mean Said doesn’t have a competent ground game; it’s that his grappling leans more on the finesse side whereas Khabib brutalizes the opposition. On the feet, Said loves throwing spinning strikes, usually doing so to great effect. He hasn’t gotten enough credit for his boxing since he doesn’t have too much power in his fists, but he regularly touches up the opposition to give him an edge in volume.
One of the better contests on a shallow card, there’s a strong possibility the winner of this contest gets a shot at a ranked opponent. Nurmagomedov may have a slight technical advantage on the feet, but Barcelos has yet to take a significant drop in athleticism in addition to owning the edge on the mat. It’s likely to be a tight contest, but Barcelos’ finishing abilities has me giving him the nod. Barcelos via TKO of RD2
- Despite two highly impressive wins in his first two UFC contests, the UFC continues to play it slow with Cyril Gane, a training partner of Francis Ngannou. Then again, Gane still only has five professional contests under his belt, so I have no problem with the UFC taking their time with him. A former Muay Thai champion, Gane’s striking has been on display in his UFC contests, but he’s surprised many by picking up a pair of submissions to secure those wins, showing he’s got more than just heavy strikes. Despite the UFC resisting throwing him in the deep, Tanner Boser still represents a big jump up in terms of experience as there isn’t anything Boser hasn’t seen in his long career on the regionals. However, Boser is also much shorter and doesn’t hit hard. It’s a hell of a chore for a volume striker to get on the inside of a longer, harder hitting opponent without going to sleep. There’s a reason you don’t see very many successful volume striking heavyweights. Gane via TKO of RD2
- After a one-and-done showing on TUF and several lopsided losses by his brother Ashkan, it was a surprise to many Suman Mokhtarian got a UFC contract. He didn’t help to sway those detractors by getting blown up in his debut in just over two minutes by Sodiq Yusuff. A pressure fighter, Mokhtarian relied on power on the regional scene that hasn’t translated against higher competition. It shouldn’t be a surprise given he only faced a single opponent with a winning record, much less a win, on their record. To most, it appears he’s being set up to give Seung Woo Choi, a hard-hitting puncher with a questionable ground game. Nonetheless, Choi is a huge featherweight who could make some serious noise if he learns to appropriately use his size and length. His physical talents alone should be enough for him to overcome Mokhtarian. Choi via decision
- It’s hard to know what to take out of Omar Morales’ performance on DWCS. The Venezuelan veteran put a beatdown on his opponent, but part of that was brought on thanks to a leg injury his opponent suffered. Morales hits hard and has a hell of a killer instinct, but also hasn’t faced much quality competition. He makes his debut against Dong Hyum Ma, a well-traveled veteran who has seen much over his lengthy career. However, being well-traveled has also put a lot of miles on his body and has been seeing the effects of those miles, failing to make it the distance in each of his four UFC losses. His judo base and takedowns make him tricky to deal with when he tries to get his takedowns working, but he doesn’t have much finishing ability himself. He’ll be hard-pressed to grind out Morales for the entirety of the contest before the newcomer catches with a haymaker. Morales via KO of RD2
- We can only speculate what would have happened to Amanda Lemos had her PED failure emerged under the newly instated policy, but as it was, she was forced out of action for two years, only now making her return. She’s a hard-hitting Brazilian who overwhelmed her opposition on the regional scene. She got to the UFC and found that wasn’t going to work against stronger opponents. How much she’s going to change her approach is up in the air, but she should find more success at flyweight as opposed to bantamweight. She returns against prospect Miranda Granger, a former kickboxer with a list of club-and-subs on her record. She executes a rangy outside attack, but is still prone to lapses, letting her opponent inside the pocket to piece her up. However, she hasn’t been outpointed yet and I don’t see Lemos being the first one to do so… or finishing her off. Granger via decision
- Wait… Ryan Benoit is still in the UFC? It’s not that he’s not talented enough to be on the roster. It’s that he hasn’t been around for two years. Whatever the reasons, it feels like he let the prime years of his career go by the wayside during his absence as he’s now 30. He’s moving up to bantamweight, a move that isn’t quite the problem for him that it might be for others as he’s a powerhouse striker who should gain a quickness advantage that wasn’t there fighting at 125. He’d better hope his wrestling holds up as that’s what led to Heili Alateng’s victory in his UFC debut despite being outstruck over 2-to-1. He’s got power himself, but he suffers from the same tendency to swing for the fences as Benoit. I like Alateng’s consistent work over Benoit’s sporadic record, but it’s incredibly difficult to get a feel for this contest. Alateng via decision