Outside of the opener for the televised prelims for UFC 225, the other contests on FS1 could realistically be headliners for an FS1 Fight Night. While that says a little bit about the quality of the cards today, it says more about the quality of these prelims. Each contest features at least one former title contender not very far removed from being near the top of the heap with the winner likely becoming a relevant name in the title picture. Not a bad offering of fights. In fact, they’re downright awesome. Of course, none of these fights are nearly as intriguing as CM Punk and Mike Jackson….
The FS1 prelims begin at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT on Saturday
Alistair Overeem (43-16, 1 NC) vs. Curtis Blaydes (9-1, 1 NC), Heavyweight
The dynamic of this contest is incredibly simple. Blaydes wants the fight on the ground. Overeem wants to stand and bang.
Overeem will forever be associated with being on the receiving end of Francis Ngannou’s brutal uppercut that put Overeem’s head into orbit in December. KO’s like that can alter a fighter’s career for the negative, but Overeem has suffered many KO’s throughout his career – 12 in his MMA career – and always seems to come back with the same cocky smirk on his face as when we last saw him enter the cage. Overeem no longer stalks down his opposition as he did in his Ubereem days, exercising a much more cautious approach by picking his shots on the outside. Even if he isn’t quite as powerful as he was in his heyday, the accuracy is still there. Besides, he had plenty of power to spare from that time.
While Blaydes’ own standup is still very much in development, he has at least developed a competent jab to exploit his 80” reach. He can rock a head back as his natural power comes through in bursts, but Blaydes’ primary source of offense comes from his powerful takedowns. Most heavyweights rely on their brute strength in the clinch to outmuscle their opponent, often pushing them against the cage before they finish the attempt. Blaydes can do that too, but his explosive double leg is what makes him a true rarity for the division. The blend of speed and athleticism possessed by the former NJCAA wrestling champion makes it damn near impossible to stop him when he gets underneath his opponent’s hips. What might be the scariest thing about his attack is the gas tank Blaydes shows. He may get tired, but he doesn’t stop coming.
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of Overeem’s game is his submissions. With 17 submission victories, Overeem has almost as many wins via tapout as he does by KO. However, the last submission the Dutchman scored was all the way back in 2009. It doesn’t mean his guillotine – amongst other holds – shouldn’t be respected. He’s just as efficient with power subs such as keylocks and kimuras too.
Daniel Omielanczuk proved a savvy veteran who knows how to use their environment to their favor can stop Blaydes from taking the fight where he wants. That describes Overeem very well. However, Blaydes has shown progress in the year since that contest, better adapting his wrestling to MMA as opposed to the traditional freestyle he entered the sport with. Blaydes has only been stopped by Ngannou and that was because the doctor forced the stoppage. His durability and ability to control where the fight takes place has me leaning in the favor of the youngster. Blaydes via TKO of RD3
Claudia Gadelha (15-3) vs. Carla Esparza (13-4), Women’s Strawweight
There have been many times over the years that attempts have been made to put this fight together. Twice they were scheduled to meet in Invicta only for Gadelha to pull out due to injury and Esparza’s shoulder injury killed chances of it happening when they were fresh to the UFC. Now, after the bad blood has continued to stir between these two, we finally get the fight.
Many seemed to forget Esparza was the initial UFC strawweight champion after Joanna Jedrzejczyk demolished her to take the belt. Esparza was gone for over a year with the shoulder issue and appeared to have lost confidence in her standup upon her return. As she put distance from the loss to Jedrzejczyk, Esparza’s confidence slowly returned, surprising many when she outboxed the UFC’s latest hot prospect, Cynthia Calvillo. Despite the success on the feet, her wrestling is still the focal point of her offense, relentlessly chaining together her attempts to get the fight to the mat.
Many would argue Gadelha handed Jedrzejczyk her first defeat after their first meeting, but no one debates Jedrzejczyk emerged victorious in their second. Like Esparza, Gadelha has been considered one of the best wrestlers in the division, even if she isn’t quite the technical marvel Esparza is. Gadelha makes up for that with her sheer strength, size, and athleticism. Plus, Gadelha is a world champion BJJ grappler, though that often seems to be forgotten given how she has spent a lot of time playing face punchy with many of her recent opponents.
When these two were first scheduled to meet, Gadelha’s standup was heavily reliant upon her low kicks, honed from years of training at Nova Uniao. Since leaving the famed Brazilian camp, Gadelha’s boxing has looked much sharper, firing slick counters back at her opponent. Esparza has never been flashy, relying on short combinations, jabs, and the occasional supplemental low kick.
While this contest may not have the same appeal to it had it taken place a few years ago, it’s still good to see this fight happen. Both appear to be sitting on the outside of the title picture, though a win here likely puts one of them back into the mix. Gadelha’s own confidence could be going through a crisis similar to what Esparza recently went through after Jessica Andrade delivered one of the most brutal beatdowns in the short history of the strawweight division. Until it is known if she is or not, I feel confident picking the Brazilian to emerge victorious. Gadelha via decision
Ricardo Lamas (18-6) vs. Mirsad Bektic (12-1), Featherweight
Lamas has been hanging around the top of the featherweight division since its inception into the UFC. The only other mainstays for the top of the division since that time are Jose Aldo and Cub Swanson. And yet, Lamas doesn’t get as much recognition as his contemporaries despite having just as many finishes within the Octagon as those two own… combined. Did I mention Lamas owns a win over Swanson as well?
Despite Lamas’ impressive resume, he always came up just short against the best, losses to Aldo, Max Holloway, and Chad Mendes tainting his record. However, he’s coming off a KO loss to short notice replacement Josh Emmett. At 36, is Lamas at the end of the road?
The end is probably in sight, but he appears to still have some competitive contests left in him. Owning a nature of opportunism that can’t be taught, Lamas’ killer instinct is top notch. If an opponent leaves their neck out for just a second, Lamas snatches it up and commonly elicits a tap quickly with his tight squeeze. That doesn’t even account for his powerful hooks or top notch GnP. Lamas’ big issue has been an inability to put together good, consistent offense on a regular basis. He has improved at that, finding his range much faster than he used to putting together improved combinations.
Bektic has been on the radar of analysts for a very long time as a potential title contender, though he did have his hype train derailed a bit when Darren Elkins survived Bektic’s onslaught to overthrow and tired Bektic. Bektic returned with a more measured approach against Godofredo Pepey upon his rebound, but that may have something to do with knowing Pepey was going to aggressive. Nonetheless, Bektic, one of the better pure athletes in the sport – not just the division – is a brutally powerful wrestler with GnP to rival that of Lamas.
Being on the receiving end of a KO doesn’t mean a fighter is done. Lamas was looking great up until the point Emmett landed that huge bomb that put Lamas down for the count. However, Bektic is a beast who likely learned some valuable lessons in his loss to Elkins. Lamas could very well catch the occasionally reckless Bektic in a guillotine or some other sub in a scramble, but my guess is the younger fighter styles on the vet over the course of 15 minutes. Bektic via decision
Rashad Coulter (8-3) vs. Chris de la Rocha (4-2), Heavyweight
With all due respect to these two heavy hitters, it isn’t difficult to see where Joseph Benavidez is coming from when these winless heavyweights – in the UFC at least — have a higher spot on the card than the former title challenger.
De la Rocha hasn’t been seen in two years, last appearing in a fun slugfest with Adam Milstead. It was a bit against type as he entered the organization known as a grappler specializing on finishing his opponents with ground and pound. It was clear he worked hard to make his striking functional and the big man has enough natural power that he can make up for his lack of technique. However, his defense – normally the last thing to come around for inexperienced fighters – still leaves much to be desired.
That’s good news for Coulter, given he has some professional boxing experience in addition to more MMA experience than de la Rocha. Then again, Coulter’s defense is porous as well. He’ll continue to come forward – even on one leg – but it also makes it easy to clinch up with him. While Coulter isn’t helpless in the clinch, he is on the small side – he once fought as low as middleweight – and has yet to face someone who wants to take him to the ground the way de la Rocha will want to.
I’m not crazy about the future of either one of these big men. Coulter is the younger of the two and he’s already 36. If de la Rocha can get him to the ground consistently, this is the older man’s fight to lose. De la Rocha may only need a single hook to end Coulter’s night too, but if the fight ends on the feet, it’s likely to come from Coulter. I like Coulter’s more efficient striking to be the difference. Coulter via TKO of RD1