Outside of the opener, the televised prelims of UFC 228 are about as good as they get outside of the mega-card’s the UFC tends to do once or twice a year. A rising star at strawweight looks to potentially put the final touches on her road to a title shot by disposing of a former champion. A pair of rising bantamweights look to affirm their status as contenders in a crowded division. And perhaps most intriguing of all, a bantamweight contender looks to reaffirm his status against a former flyweight title challenger. There have been PPV main cards underneath the main and co-main events that haven’t been this good. It’s safe to say this is one of the better preliminary cards we’ve seen in a long time.
The FX prelims begin at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Carla Esparza (13-5) vs. Tatiana Suarez (6-0), Women’s Strawweight
While Esparza’s stock amongst fans probably is at its apex following her spirited performance against Claudia Gadelha, the UFC is looking to use her to build up its latest golden prospect in Suarez.
It’s worth noting Esparza successfully turned aside Cynthia Calvillo less than a year ago while in the same position she finds herself now. The former collegiate wrestler still relies heavily on her wrestling as her offensive base, though it is no longer the sole consistent source. Esparza lost her confidence on the feet after losing the strawweight title to Joanna Jedrzejczyk in 2015, only beginning to look comfortable on her feet in the Calvillo fight. It isn’t flashy, but her combination punches have been troublesome in recent contests for the opposition.
The biggest issue for Esparza is there is a strong likelihood she won’t get to show off her boxing skills. Suarez is an Olympic-level wrestler who has been able to ground every single opponent she has set out to put on their back. The inability of her opposition to do anything other than fight off her relentless assault has beaten most of them mentally long before the final bell. No one knows how Suarez will respond if she can’t take her opponent’s down, though the small clips of her standup indicate she’s heavily reliant upon kicks.
Esparza has bounced back from a few shaky performances to put forth the best iteration of herself. However, Suarez looks like she is a transcendental talent. For all of Esparza’s wrestling prowess, she hasn’t been able to stop from being taken down herself when that’s what her opponent wants to do. That doesn’t bode well for the former champion. Suarez via decision
Aljamain Sterling (15-3) vs. Cody Stamann (17-1), Bantamweight
For the last four years, Sterling has been touted as one of the top prospects of the bantamweight division. A highly skilled collegiate wrestler and an exceptionally creative submission artist, it wasn’t hard to see why he inspired so much excitement. However, he’s experienced some growing pains as he needed to develop a functional striking game in the pocket. Experience being his biggest ally, Sterling has improved gradually, though he isn’t exactly a title contender quite yet. If Sterling is ever going to live up to the expectations that were on him years ago, the time for him to make his move is now.
Stamann isn’t the freak athlete Sterling is, nor did he enter the organization with the expectations Sterling had. In fact, Stamann’s debut against Terrion Ware last summer was largely an afterthought. However, Stamann has proven to be supremely technical for a prospect, putting together slick kick-punch combinations in the pocket while avoiding too much return fire with his head movement and footwork. He knows how to leverage his stout frame to get under his opponent’s hips to blast them to the ground in addition to stuffing his opponent’s attempts to floor him.
Sterling’s pocket striking never looked better than it did in his last appearance against Brett Johns, indicating he’s still progressing. Aside from strength and power, Sterling probably has all the physical advantages over Stamann, including an additional 7” in reach. Given Sterling’s jab and range kicks, that may be enough for him to outpoint the stocky Stamann. Regardless, this contest is going to be very close. Sterling via decision
Jimmie Rivera (21-2) vs. John Dodson (20-9), Bantamweight
At 29, Rivera is in the prime of his career. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t have the flashy personality or style to immediately climb back into contention following his loss to Moraes. Nonetheless, there is a certain beauty to Rivera’s lunch pail style. The pocket is his favorite place to be, landing lengthy punching combinations as he ducks and dodges his opponent’s return fire with a high degree of success. He does throw the occasional kick in there for good measure, though he’s more likely to turn to his wrestling if he really wants to mix things up. Rivera isn’t a particularly dangerous grappler, focusing more on maintaining control than looking to end the fight with a sub or punches. However, he has only turned to that when he felt threatened by his opponent on the feet.
Look for Rivera to pull out his wrestling as Dodson is one of the most explosive bantamweights in the division. The former flyweight title challenger still maintains an incredible burst even as he closes in on his 34th birthday. However, he’s used it more to avoid danger and to quickly get back to his feet once taken down as opposed to the highlight reel finishes he used to rack up in his days at 125. The longtime Jackson-Wink protégé has also done a better job of developing a strategy and sticking to it as opposed to floating through contests while waiting for an opening to present itself.
While there has long been talk about Dodson’s speed and quickness, he never gets enough credit for his durability. The 14-year MMA veteran has never been finished in his career. Unfortunately for Dodson, he’s struggled to go the distance as his waiting for an opportunity has worked against him when he doesn’t get the finish. Rivera’s style is perfect for taking decisions and he’s plenty durable, even if he’s coming off a 33 second loss. Rivera via decision
Charles Byrd (10-4) vs. Darren Stewart (8-3, 1 NC), Middleweight
Though the saying is “third time’s the charm,” it turned out to be the fourth time for Stewart as he didn’t pick up an official UFC victory until his fourth contest. A couple of things worked against him before he found his footing as he was undersized at light heavyweight and needed to become more than just a brawler on the feet. Though Stewart’s boxing has improved significantly, it still has a way to go. Nonetheless, the heart of his attack still consists of clinching up and looking for trips where he can attack with his ground strikes.
Byrd had long been an exercise in frustration as he always had the physical tools, only he couldn’t put everything together. That has been changing since he began fighting under the UFC banner, initially in the Contender Series. Previously devoid of any submission victories, he has since pulled off three in a row, showing improved wrestling and grappling. On the regional scene, he was known for his kicking arsenal and explosion. Even if he hasn’t been utilizing those skills, there is no reason to believe those skills have dissipated.
Stewart’s road to victory is much more linear while Byrd has many routes he can take to get there. Given his improved fight IQ, Byrd should be able to find one way or another to take the win while avoiding the type of fight Stewart needs to secure a win. Byrd via TKO of RD2