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Diggin’ Deep on UFC St. Louis: Stephens vs. Choi – Main card preview

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Get the scoop on the opening half of the main card of UFC St. Louis, featuring promotional favorite Paige VanZant and welterweight contender Kamaru Usman looking to make a statement.

What have we got for UFC St. Louis… one fighter the UFC seems desperate to turn into a contender, and another they are seemingly doing everything they can to keep from becoming one. Well, the latter accusation may be taking things a little too far as they can’t force anyone to sign up to fight Kamaru Usman… Or can they?

Despite fans wanting to see Usman fight the likes of Colby Covington or Darren Till, Usman could only get Emil Weber Meek to sign on the dotted line. Usman gains almost nothing with a win over Meek. Maybe the UFC could push Usman with the narrative that no one wants to fight him. Remember how they pushed that with Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell? Fans flocked behind the Iceman during that feud. Just a thought.

The main card starts on FS1 at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Sunday.

Paige VanZant (7-3) vs. Jessica-Rose Clark (8-4, 1 NC), Women’s Flyweight

It’s a quick turnaround for Clark, making her second UFC appearance less than two months after her debut. Her contest against Bec Rawlings displayed her improving ability to mix up her combinations to the body and head, often punctuating them with a low kick. Quite the progression from someone who had a reputation as a brawler a very short time ago. She showed good control in the clinch too and even mixed in a few takedowns for good measure. Clark has developed into a very well-rounded fighter, seemingly finding a home at flyweight after struggling with larger women at bantamweight.

VanZant is entering the division from the opposite direction, fighting her first six UFC contests at strawweight. The UFC has been pushing her mightily upon the fans with media appearances and commercials in hopes that the bubbly former cheerleader will break out into a star. The biggest problem getting in the way of that happening has been VanZant’s inability to win against a high caliber of competition, falling to Rose Namajunas and Michelle Waterson. Perhaps the move up in weight will help, but that didn’t seem to be the issue in those losses. In fact, she was bullied by those women in her losses and neither would be considered on the large end of the strawweight division.

Given it has been over a year since we last saw VanZant, it’s hard to know where her progression is at. Further complicating issues has been her desire to turn herself into an out-fighter. In her victory over the aforementioned Rawlings, VanZant was getting pieced up prior to landing a devastating head kick to put Rawlings down for the count. That showed she has power, but she was on her way to a decision loss before landing the kick. Should VanZant return to her roots and look to relentlessly grind away on Clark, it’s unknown how much success she’ll find given she’s going to be the smaller fighter. What can’t be questioned with VanZant is her stamina – she can go for days – or her heart as she fought out of some very tough situations against Namajunas.

I’m not a VanZant hater. Yes, the way the UFC crams her down our throats is annoying and her bubblegum personality has never appealed to me, but she does seem like a good person. She just doesn’t appear to be the elite talent the UFC would like her to be. Clark could be the best possible opponent for her at this time to determine what she is/what she will become. It’s a close contest, but I’m favoring the Aussie as I like her steady development, especially contrasted against the questions surrounding VanZant. Clark via decision

Kamaru Usman (11-1) vs. Emil Meek (9-2-1, 1 NC), Welterweight

I have nothing against Meek. He’s a fine fighter with wins over the likes of Rousimar Palhares and Jordan Mein. Those are quality wins. Nonetheless, he has no business being in the cage with Usman.

What more can Usman do to get a high-profile contest? The Nigerian immigrant opened his UFC career by being crowned the winner of TUF 21. He then ripped off four more dominant wins – bringing his UFC streak to five with nine in a row overall — before people complained his wrestle-heavy style was boring. Okay, I’ll admit that is fair criticism. Usman goes out in his last bout against Sergio Moraes – a dude who was undefeated in his last seven contests – and literally turns him inside out when he knocked him out in less than three minutes. Yeah, Usman is legit.

As stated earlier, Meek is a quality fighter. However, Palhares appears to be in decline while Mein was making a return from a nearly two-year hiatus. He wasn’t facing the best versions of those fighters. He has been quoted as saying Usman is in trouble if he underestimates Meek, and he is right. Usman simply hasn’t underestimated anyone thus far. He’s been well-prepared for every one of his opponents to date. Granted, he does take some risks as Moraes landed some good shots before Usman put him out, but Usman’s risks have been well calculated.

What Meek does well is stay in his opponents face with sound boxing technique while being difficult to move should he engage in the clinch with his opponent. The latter isn’t a surprise given his wide frame and his short-area power was apparent with the elbow from the clinch he used to put out Palhares. The Norwegian’s physical strength is near the top of the welterweight division and he has an explosive double-leg when he chooses to pull it out. Meek’s grappling skills are still questionable, though he avoided running into any sort of trouble with Mein.

Despite Meek being a prospect worth keeping an eye on, the UFC didn’t do him any favors by granting him a contest with Usman. Meek isn’t a bad wrestler, but he couldn’t stop Mein’s takedowns prior to Mein fading. Does anyone really think he’ll be able to stop Usman’s? He might have a chance standing… but Usman continues to show marked improvement on the feet in every fight despite being a wooden striker. Usman is a smart fighter. He’s well-conditioned. He’s a freak athlete. He may be the best wrestler in the division. And he’s becoming a real KO threat. I can’t see anyone breaking this fight down objectively and not picking Usman. Usman via submission of RD3

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