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UFC 229: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor – Main card preview

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Far too often, it feels like we’ve been walking into a UFC PPV feeling underwhelmed with the main card contests prior to main and co-main event. Perhaps the UFC heard the grumblings and decided to make good on providing the fans with some quality for UFC 229. If I’m being honest though, we all know that it has more to do with stacking a card featuring Conor McGregor. Not that I blame them. If Derrick Lewis can produce the highlight-reel KO he’s capable of to a wide audience, he could become a major attraction. He isn’t the only one on the early portion of the main card the UFC thinks could attract some fans… provided the stars align correctly.

The main card begins at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Ovince Saint Preux (23-11) vs. Dominick Reyes (9-0), Light Heavyweight

It’s possible there isn’t a more frustrating talent on the UFC roster this side of Jon Jones than Saint Preux. One of the best pure athletes who has pulled off several impressive highlight reel finishes in his UFC career, he has also fallen victim to several mental gaffes that have prevented him from fulfilling his massive potential. At 35 and a decade into his pro career, it’s unlikely he ever does. That doesn’t mean the master of the Von Preux choke isn’t a threat to derail the similarly talented Reyes.

Like Saint Preux, Reyes was a football star in college, not debuting in MMA until his mid-20’s. Also like Saint Preux, Reyes owns a lanky frame, though Saint Preux will have about three-inches in the reach department. That could create issues for Reyes as he’s been reliant on his physical advantages against his opponents, something that won’t be assured against Saint Preux. Nonetheless, Reyes has taken to the sport quickly and showed growth in his skill set along the way too. It’s hard to conceive he hasn’t added to his already diverse attack since his last appearance.

Saint Preux doesn’t put the volume on in the same manner Reyes does, preferring to explode with a powerful single strike. Whether it’s a hook, a straight punch, or a head kick, it’s hard to guess what Saint Preux will attack with. He can wrestle a bit too, though he tends to avoid doing that for long periods of time as it tends to exhaust his gas tank in hurry. In fact, it’s his shallow gas tank that lends to his low output.

While it’s plausible this turns out to be too much, too soon for Reyes – Saint Preux is a big step up from Jared Cannonier – this could also turn out to be the breakout party for the youngster. The UFC seems to believe he’s ready as they wouldn’t have put him in this contest otherwise. The division is badly in need of fresh blood as Saint Preux has likely topped himself out. Why would they potentially sacrifice one of the only legit talents to a fighter who is unlikely to be a legit title contender if they didn’t believe in him? I’m seconding their belief. Reyes via TKO of RD1

Derrick Lewis (20-5, 1 NC) vs. Alexander Volkov (30-6), Heavyweight

Fortunately for the viewers, Volkov has never been reluctant to engage. Thus, we shouldn’t expect a repeat of the disaster Lewis is coming off with Francis Ngannou. If we do get something similar, the UFC should cut Lewis without blinking.

It really shouldn’t be much of a surprise Lewis was part of such a stinker. He’s developed into a patient fighter over the last few years, biding his time until the right opportunity to strike develops. If his opponent doesn’t present that opportunity, Lewis doesn’t strike. The low output strategy works for the big man since he is amongst the hardest hitters in the history of the sport. He’s never been a technical marvel – particularly when he’s looking to get back to his feet – though his physical strength allows him to do things other men can’t do, even at heavyweight. If the fight hits the mat, it’s plausible the worst place for anyone in MMA to be is mounted underneath Lewis; it’s almost certainly lights out from there.

Volkov is amongst the taller members of the roster, clocking in at 6’7”. It’s no surprise he’s used to having a reach advantage and he does here as well. However, it’s only by a single inch, meaning his typical strategy of picking apart his opponent from the outside with jabs and kicks won’t be as easy to execute. Traditionally, Volkov has been thought to be a weak wrestler, though he’s been surprisingly stout thus far in his UFC run. When he has been put on his back, his underrated guard has been on display. Given Lewis’ aggressive nature on the ground, that could be a huge factor.

Volkov isn’t a defensive genius by any means, but he’s better in that field than most will give him credit for. He’s also got a stronger chin than you’d expect from such a tall fighter. Those factors mean he could realistically pick apart Lewis over the course of three rounds. However, all it takes is one clean shot from Lewis to change the course of a fight. Though a win by Volkov won’t be surprising, the odds still favor Lewis landing that one shot at some point. Lewis via TKO of RD2

Michelle Waterson (15-6) vs. Felice Herrig (14-7), Women’s Strawweight

Though it feels like Waterson and Herrig have bumped against their ceiling as gatekeepers to the top six or seven of the division, no fighter wants to be told they will be getting no further chances to advance their standing. The winner of this contest will most likely get another chance to break that ceiling.

Waterson is the organizational favorite. Imminently likeable in addition to her good looks – she is known as the Karate Hottie for a reason — Waterson has been placed in several enviable positions in relation to her success in the cage. That doesn’t mean Waterson is a poor fighter. She’s exceptionally quick in scrambles, a plus grappler, and capable of producing a KO blow with her explosive kicks. What limits her is her lack of size as she struggles to get the fight to the ground and match the volume of her opponent on the feet.

Herrig experienced a career revival after a hiatus to find herself and recharge her batteries. She’s been energetic, mixing up her striking arsenal to best attack her opponent. One fight it was almost exclusively a jab which she attacked with, the next she was landing short, powerful combinations. She still has plenty of holes in her defense, but she has also become a far more savvy boxer with great timing on her counters. Herrig used to rely heavily on her wrestling and will still hit the occasional takedown, but has strayed from that approach in recent contests.

Kudos to the UFC matchmakers on this one. It’s a difficult contest to predict as Waterson has struggled with fighters of similar size and skill to Herrig. Herrig may not be as big as Cortney Casey – whom Waterson had problems with – but she is far more savvy and better at stopping takedowns. Waterson has more skills to end the fight early, but Herrig is resilient and durable. Herrig takes a close and controversial decision. Herrig via decision

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