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Diggin’ Deep on UFC St. Louis: Stephens vs. Choi – FS1 prelims preview

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Get the scoop on FS1’s early offering of fights for UFC St. Louis, featuring a featherweight clash between Darren Elkins and Michael Johnson, plus former welterweight title contender Thiago Alves.

This is not a sexy card. It doesn’t mean I don’t like it, but I know better than to try and sell my friends who are casual watchers on this card. It’s a bit of a shame as the televised prelims offer some competitive contests. There is a bit of name value. Michael Johnson has faced some of the best talent in the lightweight division, including being the only man on the roster to own a victory over interim champion Tony Ferguson. And Thiago Alves was once the most destructive force in the welterweight division. However, it appears likely both men have seen their best days already. Remember though, that doesn’t mean the fights are going to suck….

The FS1 prelims begin at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT on Sunday.

Darren Elkins (23-5) vs. Michael Johnson (18-12), Featherweight

Riding a five-fight win streak, Elkins comes off a pair of high profile victories to face… a longtime staple of the lightweight division making the drop down to 145 having lost four of his last five. Huh? I would have thought a contest with a contender would have been deserved.

No disrespect to Johnson, who genuinely is a tough opponent for Elkins, but it appears the UFC is emphasizing their disdain for Elkins’ grinding ways by refusing to put him into a contest with a legit contender at 145, something he has earned at this juncture. Granted, Elkins isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing fighter to watch. He doesn’t have a lot of power, neither does he show much ability to finish off a submission. FightMetric has recorded him attempting 20 submissions over his UFC career with nary a one eliciting a tap. What Elkins does do: he keeps coming. There may not be a more tireless takedown artist in the sport. He doesn’t pack a whole lot of punch on the ground, but he continues to chip away with his steady ground-and-pound, often exhausting his opponent in the process. Through the win streak, Elkins’ boxing has gotten attention for it’s improvement and deservedly so. Despite that, he’s still at a disadvantage against the speed Johnson offers.

To give Johnson his just due, his recent losses have come to Beneil Dariush, Nate Diaz, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Justin Gaethje. Maybe mentioning the lone win in there is worth spitting out: Dustin Poirier. Dariush is the only name that sits outside of the UFC’s top ten and most believed Johnson won that fight. We know that Johnson is legit… at lightweight. No, he wasn’t an especially imposing 155er physically, but in the era where IV’s are banned, it’s impossible to know how a fighter will respond to a drop in weight, especially when they spent their entire ten-year career in one weight class.

Should the cut go well for Johnson, he is a plus athlete with extraordinarily quick hands. He gets up in his opponents face with intense pressure and puts together slick boxing combinations while mixing his shots well to the body. However, he has also shown some mental weakness, getting dragged into the type of fights Diaz and Gaethje prefer rather than sticking to what was winning him the fight early. Johnson has an above average wrestling pedigree and should be able to stuff some of Elkins’ shots. But can he stuff all of them?

The biggest question to ask anyone who is about to face Elkins is whether or not they can break. We know Johnson can as he has done so before. That doesn’t make Elkins a shoe-in. Elkins has struggled to stop opponent’s attempts to ground him and Johnson can certainly do that. Plus, Johnson is a far superior striker despite the progress Elkins has made. Nonetheless, I’ve picked against Elkins too many times and would rather be wrong in picking him this time given Johnson’s history. Elkins via decision

James Krause (24-7) vs. Alex White (12-3), Lightweight

Krause acquitted himself well in his appearance on TUF over the first half of 2017 before being bullied by a much larger fighter in Jesse Taylor. Returning to his natural weight class of lightweight, don’t expect Krause to be bullied anymore. Not that he’s relied on wrestling. In fact, Krause is a rather poor takedown artist. Rather it’s that his length won’t be overshadowed anymore. A pot-shotter with a preference for jabs and high kicks, Krause’s outside game can be difficult to deal with if opponents give him all the space he needs.

White has improved since being on the verge of the cutting block a few years ago, showing better technique in his punches – he isn’t as flat footed as he once was – and much better wrestling. Yes, he has become more effective in his takedown artistry, but it’s his takedown defense that has been most impressive. Then again, that isn’t much of a worry against Krause. Nonetheless, White puts together good combinations in the pocket with some nice pop. He hasn’t wrinkled out all of his defensive deficiencies yet, but it is like the rest of his game in that it’s coming along nicely.

This is a closer contest than most would expect it to be. Yes, Krause is the cleaner technician and his slick submission skills make anyone reluctant to scramble with him or take him down. But White also has more power, making him a better candidate to secure a KO. Krause is tough, but he isn’t indestructible. White could very well mix in enough takedowns with his combinations to impress the judges, but I expect Krause’s discipline from the outside and threat of a submission to be enough for him to get the W. Krause via decision

Matt Frevola (6-0) vs. Marco Polo Reyes (7-4), Lightweight

Frevola made a hell of an impression upon his appearance on the Contender’s Series, aggressively pursuing Jose Flores with a flurry of punches and takedowns before securing an arm-triangle choke. However, the contest also highlighted his complete disregard for defense, continually walking into Flores’ own offense. Frevola showed scores of toughness, but solely relying on durability is never a pathway to success. As he faces more established competition, he’ll find it harder and harder to do so.

Reyes has been somewhat similar, preferring a brawling style while swinging heavy leather with great frequency. It resulted in one of the most memorable brawls of 2016 when he went toe-to-toe with Dong Hyun Kim. Despite his recklessness, Reyes has shown the ability to make adjustments between rounds, though he ended up getting annihilated by James Vick in his last appearance. Frevola is not Vick in terms of style or level of competition, but he does offer a skill set that highlights one of Reyes’ biggest weaknesses: wrestling. Frevola’s ability to pass guard shouldn’t be underestimated either should Reyes end up on his back. The cleanest part of Frevola’s game against Flores was his grappling.

Though I expect Frevola’s aggression to eventually get the best of him, I don’t think this is the contest. Yes, Reyes has some good power – Frevola also does – but he isn’t quite as explosive or athletic as Frevola. Vick proved Reyes’ chin isn’t granite. Given the tendency of both to sling heavy leather, expect Frevola to crack it again. Frevola via TKO of RD2

Thiago Alves (22-11) vs. Zak Cummings (21-5), Welterweight

Remember when Alves was thought to be a legit threat to the reign of GSP? If you don’t that’s okay as that was all the way back in 2009 when the Pitbull was a tender 25 years of age. Now 34, Alves has only shown flashes of that fighter from time to time since. Since challenging GSP, he’s been diagnosed with a brain irregularity, had a two-year hiatus to injury, and made an ill-advised venture to lightweight. Hardly the future most had in mind for him when he challenged for the belt. While it’s clear he will never be a contender again, Alves is still a dangerous and savvy striker with fight-ending power.

Cummings will be a tough test for the Brazilian veteran as Alves has struggled the most with takedown artists. While takedown artist isn’t the most accurate description to throw around regarding Cummings, he is better than average wrestler, using his hulking frame to his advantage to stuff takedowns and grind away against the fence if needs be. Despite that, Cummings has gotten away from his grinding roots in recent contests, becoming almost exclusively a counter puncher to this point. He’s made opponents who slept on his power pay, but it’s his front headlock game that opponents most need to be wary of.

Cummings last loss came against a similarly dangerous striker in Santiago Ponzinibbio. Alves isn’t quite on Ponzinibbio’s level at this stage of his career, but he looked better than he has in years in his last appearance against Patrick Cote. He reestablished his reputation as a dangerous low kicker, leaving Cote to hobble around the cage while coming this close to finishing the durable Canadian. If that guy shows up again, he’s my choice. Admittedly, I don’t know if he shows up, but I’m betting he does. Alves via decision

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