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Diggin’ Deep on UFC on FOX 24: Johnson vs. Reis – Main card preview

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Peer into the inner workings of the first two contests of the main card of this weekend’s UFC on FOX card, featuring a pivotal contest between Jacare Souza and Robert Whittaker.

For many, the true main event of the card is the clash between Jacare Souza and Robert Whittaker. Demetrious Johnson is amazing and deserves the highest praise, but it is difficult to get up for what appears to be another easy title defense. How many people are seriously giving Wilson Reis a chance? The co-main event between Rose Namajunas and Michelle Waterson is a fine contest. It’s also expected to be far more competitive than the title scrap. But neither has shown the level of dominance that Jacare and Whittaker have in recent years.

Did I mention Jeremy Stephens is opening up the card as well? It’s a rare occasion when he’s in a boring fight. I gotta give the UFC all sorts of credit for the main card of this FOX show…it totally kicks ass!

The main card of UFC on FOX 24 begins at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Jacare Souza (24-4, 1 NC) vs. Robert Whittaker (17-4), Middleweight

Given the logjam at the top of the middleweight division, Souza isn’t going to sit around waiting for well-earned chance at the belt. It’s risky, but it will earn him cred with the hardcore fans. For Whittaker, this is his chance to officially enter the conversation as one of the elite.

Whittaker’s lack of size at 185 has been well publicized. Despite that, Whittaker hasn’t been taken down once since returning to the middleweight division, leaning on his footwork and athleticism to avoid going to the ground more than anything else. However, Whittaker hasn’t faced many solid wrestlers with Derek Brunson being the best he has met. Even then, Brunson executed a puzzling strategy where he rushed at Whittaker swinging fists, not bothering to utilize his wrestling ability. Whittaker is going to have that tested by Souza for sure and Jacare is one of the best wrestlers in the division.

Souza’s wrestling ability is often overlooked due to his amazing grappling credentials. He isn’t just one of the best submission artists in the division, he’s one of the best in sport regardless of weight class. The 17 victories he has picked up by way of submission is about as good of proof as one can find as a good chunk of those victories came against high level competitors. Jacare is difficult to shake once he gets the top position, seamlessly passing the guard while showing incredible creativity to further his position, as his walking the cage against Chris Camozzi showed. Whittaker hasn’t been submitted since he was an inexperienced 20-year-old, but Souza is a completely different beast from anything Whittaker has faced.

Whittaker has a good chance if he can keep the fight standing. One of the most technical boxers in the sport, he throws organic and lengthy punching combinations with surprising power. His ability to switch stances only increases his effectiveness and he’s just as good leading the dance as he is on the counter. Whittaker does tend to take quite a bit of damage, but that can be attributed more to his aggressive style as opposed to poor defense.

Souza isn’t likely to back down even if Whittaker is throwing heavy leather as his entire game is predicated on his pressure. Opponents aren’t going to rush at him in hopes of getting him to the ground, so Jacare has to move forward himself. His boxing is very basic, but it doesn’t need to be fancy. He has enough power in his fists that Whittaker will have to respect his standup even if Whittaker will likely throw at least twice as many strikes.

Due to matchmaking and poor strategy on the part of his opponents, Whittaker has yet to have his Achilles heel tested. Souza is going to do just that. Whittaker does have the ability to hurt Souza should the Brazilian decide he wants to test his abilities on the feet, but I don’t see Jacare taking that course when Whittaker’s strengths and weaknesses are so clearly defined. Whittaker should keep things interesting, but I still anticipate another submission victory for Souza. Souza via submission, RD2

Jeremy Stephens (25-13) vs. Renato Moicano (10-0-1), Featherweight

After three consecutive contests against former or current champions – one of them being a victory over Renan Barao – Stephens now gets an opponent who is an unknown quantity in the prospect Moicano.

Moicano has been on the roster for well over two years, though he has only fought twice due to injury. His wins came over Tom Niinimaki and Zubaira Tukhugov, so it is hard to read too much into those victories in comparison to Stephens. What is apparent is that he has skills to hang around the UFC long term, though we don’t know yet whether or not he can become a constant in the official rankings. Moicano does prefer to work off of the counter, which leads to bouts of inactivity if his opponent is reluctant to engage. Otherwise, he throws a tight jab and straight right while maintaining good distance thanks to his 5’11” frame.

Volume shouldn’t be a problem for Moicano in this contest as Stephens isn’t afraid to engage with anyone. A brawler in his early UFC years – a reputation fans still attach to him – Stephens has shown better footwork and use of angles as a boxer, taking less damage than he used to. It could be argued that this approach has led to him throwing less heat as he hasn’t been finishing off opponents at the same clip he once did, but I see that having more to do with his increased level of competition than a loss of power. Stephens has also shown a willingness to mix in the occasional flying knee out of nowhere, having found good success on the occasions he tosses them out there.

The chances of Moicano winning a pure striking contest with Stephens would appear to be remote, so look for the Brazilian to try to get the fight to the ground at some point. The problem is that Moicano hasn’t shown much wrestling ability. Couple that with Stephens’ own sturdy takedown defense and things don’t look too bright for the youngster. If he finds a way to succeed on that front, Moicano is a skilled grappler with a real knack for taking his opponent’s back. Stephens was once susceptible to being submitted himself, but has cleaned up in that area, surviving 15 minutes in the cage with Charles Oliveira a few years ago. The last time Stephens was submitted: over eight years ago against Joe Lauzon.

Moicano is a prospect to watch. He has a lot of talent and athletic ability, but he doesn’t match up well with Stephens. His kick-heavy offense is effective when opponents give him room to operate. Don’t expect Stephens to do that. Not ever having faced a striker as savvy as Stephens, I expect Moicano’s first career loss to be another highlight reel moment for Stephens. Stephens via KO, RD1

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