Photo by Patrick Smith/Zuffa LLC
The UFC train keeps on rolling. For the second time in less than a month, this week sees another double header of UFC events—the promotion’s first visit to the New York State capital, Albany, before swinging by Toronto’s Air Canada Centre for a return to Ontario, at UFC 206.
UFC Fight Night: Lewis vs. Abdurakhimov (otherwise known as UFC Fight Night 102) will be taking place at Albany’s Times Union Center on Friday night. As suggested by its name, the headline contest is between two impressive heavyweights—Derrick Lewis and Shamil Abdurakhimov. Though, the event has been badly affected by plenty of chopping and changing.
Charlie Ward was expected to make his UFC debut at the event against Randy Brown, but was pulled from the card having encountered some visa issues. A top-level bantamweight bout between Aljamain Sterling and Raphael Assuncao was cancelled when the former picked up an injury. Zubaira Tukhugov was also expected to face Tiago Trator before dropping out for a potential anti-doping violation from a drug test with USADA.
The worst example of a fight change was the slated contest between Josh Samman and Oluwale Bamgbose. Samman tragically passed away in October and was replaced in the fight by Joe Gigliotti. Bamgbose later pulled out of that fight with injury and now his spot taken by another promotional newcomer in Gerald Meerschaert in a fight which in no way resembles the original match-up.
Those issues aside, there are still some great fights on this card. Another heavyweight showdown serves as the co-main event, with France’s Francis Ngannou taking on Anthony Hamilton. Meanwhile, Gian Villante finally gets to fight in his home state, taking on Saparbek Safarov in a light heavyweight contest. However, the other light heavyweight tilt on the main card between Corey Anderson and Sean O’Connell is this event’s One to Watch fight flying under the radar.
Salt Lake City, Utah’s, O’Connell is one of the finest entertainers in all of MMA. Besides appearing on his own ESPN radio show, “The Real OC,” is a natural showman in many facets of the sport. His antics at the weigh-ins, including the presentation of bouquets of flowers for his opponent, are neither as trite nor contrived as Tom Lawlor’s elaborate get ups. But, more importantly, O’Connell also produces entertainment in the cage—backed up by the fact he has three Fight of the Night honours to his credit.
With a professional record of 17-8, O’Connell has went 2-4 in the UFC with two losses in a row—a 30-second knockout against Ilir Latifi and a controversial decision loss to Steve Bosse. His back is up against the proverbial wall with the UFC roster guillotine looming should he not successfully progress past Anderson on Friday evening. But, the fact he is still around with a 2-4 record, surviving the regular UFC roster purge, speaks volumes of the thrilling fights he often puts on in the confines of the cage.
Three is a common number which seems to pop up around O’Connell and his thought process ahead of his next fight—of which he says is his toughest yet. Three consecutive losses appear to be the fatal number for most UFC fighters and that isn’t lost on the 33-year-old Jeremy Horn product. But, he is hoping his exciting style, one which has garnered those aforementioned three Fight of the Night awards, and a win on Friday will stave off the UFC vultures circling.
Speaking to MMAjunkie, O’Connell said: “It’s definitely the toughest fight of my career, and it also comes at the most crucial juncture in my career. Even though I feel like I won that last fight and got robbed in a bad decision [against Bosse], that’s not what goes down in your ultimate record. I’m coming off back-to-back losses, and this is an absolute must-win fight, probably for the UFC brass, and for me personally. It’s one of those do-or-die fights. Truthfully, I win this fight, or my career is probably over. And that’s something I have to consider every moment of the fight. How many guys do they keep around if they lose three in a row?”
“Ultimately, as a fighter, you try to be in control of your destiny, and the only way you do that is by winning fights,” he said. “This is the last fight on my current deal, and we have new ownership that might be less familiar with my three ‘Fight of the Night’ performances and things like that. So I have to go in and I have to win against Corey Anderson. As tough as that’s going to be, that’s just the way it is.
“I’m trying to jumpstart my career again against the toughest opponent I’ve ever faced,” O’Connell said. “It’s obviously not something that would be described as an ideal situation. But I’m also the kind of guy who doesn’t expect to be handed anything special. I know I don’t have that caché in this company yet or in this sport yet. So if I’m going to prove myself, I’d rather do it against someone known and tough and ranked than against some random guy.”
That is an admirable attitude to take. O’Connell always gives off the impression he is very much grateful to be in the position he finds himself in, fighting for MMA’s premier promotion. But, in Anderson, O’Connell certainly has his work cut out for him if he wants to maintain his place on the UFC roster.
Besides having one of the worst nicknames in all of combat sports, “Beastin’ 25/8”, Anderson is the most promising light heavyweight upstart for some time—a relief during the stale, stagnant modern era of the weight class being a world away from the excitement it brought in yesteryear.
An NCAA Division III wrestler, graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Anderson was initially encouraged to give MMA a try by former Bellator and current One FC welterweight king Ben Askren. The decision to heed Askren’s words proved to be worthwhile.
Anderson found his way into the UFC fold after competing on season 19 of The Ultimate Fighter. It was a successful showing on the reality show, winning it with consummate ease despite only entering with three professional fights under his belt. Anderson beat Matt Van Buren by TKO to earn the crown as his season’s winner. Van Buren is a mutual opponent between Anderson and O’Connell, with both men emerging victors by knockout.
Since then, Anderson has went 4-2 in the UFC, beating tough opposition such as Jan Blachowicz, Fabio Maldonado and the aforementioned Tom Lawlor, while losing to tougher opposition in Gian Villante and one Mauricio “Shogun” Rua—the latter of which was a controversial split decision which went in favour of the Brazilian in his hometown of Curitiba.
Anderson is very much up for getting back on the winning track after such an unjust loss—a loss which even had him contemplating retirement. Talking to MMAjunkie, Anderson said: “When they said ‘Shogun,’ I was content with it. Then when I watched the video in the room and saw I really dominated, even though I didn’t do that much in the first round. I hit him more, I took him down, I was kicking him, I was blocking. I was like, ‘Man, I should’ve won that.’ Then when I saw [on MMADecisions.com] they did a poll of 25 reporters, and 21 of them thought I won… Now it really started to get to me.
“For a moment, I wanted to walk away from it,” Anderson said. “If they’re saying the judges are cheating me, and that dictates my career, do I really want to depend on that? Do I want to make money depending on what someone else says? I want to do something where I can control it. If I didn’t get the finish but I did enough to win, and everybody thinks I was cheated, is this serious? Is this something I want to do for the rest of my life? It really hurt me for a while.
“For a while, I stayed home–for a month and a half, two months. I was at my parents’ house. My parents were like, ‘When are you going back to training?’ I had to get my bearings back.”
While this contest is make or break for O’Connell, Anderson sees this as a fresh start after the disappointment of UFC 198—so much so, he is ditching the Beastin’ 25/8 nickname. Though, he isn’t revealing his new moniker, which was given to him by training partner Frankie Edgar, ahead of his upcoming bout.
Anderson’s wrestling pedigree has allowed him to sharpen his boxing tools over the last couple of years and he hasn’t looked out of place when competing against top-level strikers such as Shogun. Meanwhile, O’Connell is hell-bent on creating any fight into an exhilarating brawl. No matter what course this fight takes, it is a sure-fire barnburner. Make sure this is your One to Watch on Friday night.
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