The UFC’s penultimate pay-per-view of 2018 features a pair of highly anticipated title clashes.
Featherweight champion Max Holloway and No. 1 contender Brian Ortega will settle unfinished business in Saturday’s UFC 231 main event after seeing their initial booking in July spoiled by Holloway’s medical issues that to this day remain somewhat shrouded in mystery. Is Holloway 100-percent going into his first fight in a year? Will it matter against the unbeaten Ortega, who has been a finishing machine in the UFC? Could this be the beginning of a budding rivalry between two fighters in the prime of their athletic careers?
That last question could also be asked about the co-main event, which sees former strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk fight No. 1-ranked women’s flyweight Valentina Shevchenko for a vacant 125-pound title. That title has been the subject of much scrutiny since it was debuted as a trophy for the winner of The Ultimate Fighter 26, which turned out to be Nicco Montano. Montano has been unable to defend the title for various reasons, most notably bowing out of a scheduled title defense against Shevchenko in September after weight-cut issues led to her being hospitalized. An impressive win by Jedrzejczyk or Shevchenko will bring some much-needed stability to the division.
In other main card action, Gunnar Nelson competes for the first time in over 500 days when he takes on Alex Oliveira in a welterweight bout, all-action featherweights Hakeem Dawodu and Kyle Bochniak are set to throw down, and Jimi Manuwa will give fellow striker Thiago Santos his next test at light heavyweight.
What: UFC 231
Where: Scotiabank Arena in Toronto
When: Saturday, Dec. 8. The four-fight UFC Fight Pass preliminary card begins at 6:00 p.m. ET, the four-fight FOX Sports 1 preliminary card begins at 8 p.m. ET, and the five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET.
Max Holloway vs. Brian Ortega
It’s time to crown a new featherweight king.
Max Holloway has been nigh-unbeatable for the past five years, but don’t mistake that with un-hittable. If anything, part of what has made “Blessed” such a darling among the hardcores is his propensity to get it as good as he gives. The defending champion embodies the Hawaiian fighting spirit and in his last 12 outings, it’s his opponents who have always wilted first.
Enter Brian Ortega.
“T-City” has also shown himself to be vulnerable during his UFC run; however, thanks to his uncanny ability to pick up third-round finishes, he’s managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat on at least a couple of occasions. That wasn’t even necessary in his last fight where he walloped former UFC champion Frankie Edgar (considered to be a superior striker) inside of a round.
Make no mistake, Ortega can successfully stand with Holloway. The Gracie jiu-jitsu disciple will surely have the advantage on the ground, but if it comes down to it, he won’t be out of his element even in the face of Holloway’s outstanding striking arsenal.
I’d be lying if I said Holloway’s recent health concerns weren’t affecting my pick here. In what is arguably the most competitive featherweight fight in MMA history, even the slightest crack could be what leads to a fighter’s downfall and in this situation, it’s Holloway who enters the Octagon with questions about how he’ll perform after a grueling year-long layoff.
And that’s not to say that Ortega will only win because Holloway is diminished. Even at full strength, Holloway was always in danger of falling to an in-his-prime challenger with the same invincible aura as himself. Ortega is that challenger and after UFC 231, he’ll be the champion.
Valentina Shevchenko vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk
Betting against arguably the greatest female fighter of all time seems foolish, but what else can you do when she’s going up against an opponent who has proven to be the better striker on three separate occasions already?
Their muay thai days are a lifetime ago for Valentina Shevchenko and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and though Jedrzejczyk has already established herself as a force in MMA, it’s fair to use Shevchenko’s previous wins over Jedrzejczyk as a point of reference. Saturday’s co-main event likely will be a stand-up affair, so it stands to reason that the outcome could be a familiar one.
Shevchenko will have a slight size advantage on fight night and though some are trying to sell this as Shevchenko’s power vs. Jedrzejcyk’s speed, “Bullet” is no slouch when it comes to quickness either. The striking that Jedrzejczyk displayed during her run as strawweight queen has looked more dynamic, but that’s only because Shevchenko has been inclined to show off more of her mat skills as she did in wins over Priscila Cachoeira and Julianna Pena.
That gives Shevchenko one more avenue through which to win the fight, though Jedrzejczyk’s takedown and grappling defense have always been superb. In reality, this will primarily be a standup battle, one that should be more methodical than frenzied, with Shevchenko consistently beating Jedrzejczyk to the punch en route to finally claiming the UFC women’s flyweight title.
Alex Oliveira vs. Gunnar Nelson
It’s a difficult thing to find in MMA, though Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira seems to have had no problem in his last few fights. The well-rounded Brazilian fights with an infectious joie de vivre that will be in stark contrast to the ever-stoic Gunnar Nelson on fight night. Oliveira is happiest when he’s working and he’s put in work to the tune of six wins in his last seven fights (excluding one no contest), while injuries have limited Nelson to just three fights since December 2015.
Nelson is a gifted fighter, able to implement an unorthodox karate style along with his high-level ground game. He’s only lost to fighters that were able to out-grapple him (or out-eye-gouge him), so it will be intriguing to see if Oliveira decides to put his jiu-jitsu skills up against Nelson’s. Oliveira has good submission skills, but Nelson is an excellent control and position fighter on the mat.
But rhythm has to be taken into account, and competing against a high-output fighter like Oliveira after such a long layoff is a tall order for anyone. Nelson should be able to avoid being added to Oliveira’s impressive list of finishes, but Oliveira’s more active offense should still be enough to win over the judges.
Hakeem Dawodu vs. Kyle Bochniak
Hakeem Dawodu’s first UFC win in July showed glimpses of the talent that has many touting him as the next big thing to emerge from the Canadian MMA scene. That’s the kind of hype that Kyle Bochniak has dealt with before.
“Crash” nearly did just that to what was Zabit Magomedsharipov’s coming-out party in Brooklyn when the two fought at UFC 223. For two rounds, Magomedsharipov mostly out-classed Bochniak en route to a unanimous decision win, but for the duration of their fight Bochniak just kept coming forward until he was forcing Magomedsharipov to trade with him in wild exchanges. That’s where Bochniak is at his best, when he can convince a technically superior opponent to lose their wits and throw down with him.
I think he can do that against Dawodu. The Calgary native has still yet to show his true potential in the Octagon, but if he gets comfortable Dawodu can be absolutely deadly, whether it’s with a well-timed counter punch or a sudden, rapid combination. He’s also adept at using leg kicks, the perfect weapon to make a brawler like Bochniak think twice about his approach.
If Bochniak can get off to a faster start than usual and keeps up the pressure, it will make things frustrating for Dawodu, and Dawodu will have no choice but to return fire under less than ideal circumstances. This is a candidate for the Fight of the Night, one that Bochniak will eke out on the scorecards.
Jimi Manuwa vs. Thiago Santos
At Thursday’s media scrums, Jimi Manuwa himself said that he doesn’t expect size to make a difference here as he takes on recent middleweight transplant Thiago Santos. In actuality, that could prove to be the British slugger’s downfall.
If it comes down to speed, “Marreta” has that in spades, and he’s always been a terror at 185 pounds when it comes to striking. Add in his propensity for accurate spinning kicks and this could be one of the trickiest matchups Manuwa has ever faced. That said, he’s always been a smart standup fighter himself, so it’s not as if he’ll just wade into whatever Santos throws at him.
Though Manuwa might be well on his way out of his prime, at 38 he’s only four years older than Santos so it’s not as if he’s being matched up with some spring chicken. The athleticism should be fairly even and Santos won’t be able to style on Manuwa like he has against slower middleweights.
This should end in either an early KO or develop into a fan-friendly slugfest, and I’m leaning towards Manuwa being the one to catch Santos off-guard at some point and pull off the upset.
Claudia Gadelha def. Nina Ansaroff
Jessica Eye def. Katlyn Chookagian
Eryk Anders def. Elias Theodorou
Olivier Aubin-Mercier def. Gilbert Burns
Aleksandar Rakic def. Devin Clark
Brad Katona def. Matthew Lopez
Diego Ferreira def. Kyle Nelson