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UFC Lincoln: Justin Gaethje vs. James Vick – Main card preview

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UFC Lincoln’s main card offers a couple of up-and-comers in Deiveson Figueiredo and Eryk Anders to open up the proceedings. Despite Anders co-headlining a card in his last appearance, neither of these rising prospects carry much name value… at least not yet. The funny thing is, those who are perhaps the best known talents on this card come in on overwhelming losing stretches at a combined 3-13. Rather than tell you who those fighters are, browse through the contests and tell me which names you best recognize. My guess is they would be the two fighters riding a piss poor stretch. Maybe being known isn’t such a good thing after all….

The main card begins on FS1 at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Michael Johnson (17-13) vs. Andre Fili (18-5), Featherweight

Johnson is one of the biggest conundrums on the UFC roster. He’s dropped five of his last six despite being in firm control in each of those losses in the early stages. He’s also the only person to defeat Tony Ferguson within the confines of the Octagon, a hell of an accomplishment, even if it came over six years ago. A skilled boxer with exceptionally quick hands and sound footwork, Johnson’s issues are that he depletes his gas tank rapidly, often leaving himself a sitting duck before the second round has been completed. It’s no surprise that his lone victory over that stretch came via first round KO. Johnson’s wrestling has held up against all but the best, though he might be well-served if he looked to utilize his own brand from time to time.

Fili recently snapped a long-standing tradition of alternating wins and losses when he took a controversial decision over Dennis Bermudez in January. Ultimately, it was Fili’s love of wrestling that proved to be the deciding factor, ironic given his tendency to secure takedowns even when he was winning the standup. Fili’s standup has been coming along nicely over the last few years too, developing a steady jab to take advantage of his lanky frame and set up his power shots. Despite those improvements in his offense, Fili’s defensive holes are still highly prominent.

It’s hard to know what to make of Johnson. He’s looked good in his recent contests until he hasn’t, making it hard to blame it on age – he turned 32 this summer – or general mileage on his body. Fili has been developing a better sense for what to do in the cage, though he is still prone to mental hiccups from time to time. It’s hard to pick either competitor and feel confident. Rather than trust me, go flip and coin so you don’t blame me later. Fili via decision

Cortney Casey (7-6) vs. Angela Hill (8-4), Women’s Strawweight

If you enjoy a pair of high-energy strikers who don’t hold anything back, this is the contest for you. I hate guaranteeing a contest will be worth watching as MMA is such a finicky sport, but it’s hard to see a realistic way in which this bout disappoints.

Casey has come a long way from her UFC entrance as a spirited brawler with little else to her. Though she is still capable of biting down on her mouthpiece and throwing with the best of them, Casey has become a skilled counter striker. Perhaps the biggest advancement has been in her ground game. Her guard is amongst the most dangerous in the sport – not just the division – as her upkicks and elbows can do some serious fight-altering damage. It isn’t like she can’t catch her opponent in a submission either. Did I mention she has shown the ability to drag an opponent to the ground too? If only she’d begin using that ability with some regularity now….

A kickboxer prior to her MMA career, Hill has been moving away from her sharp knees and elbows in the clinch into more of an in-and-out fighter. No surprise given her association with Team Alliance, a camp well-established for teaching that style. In some ways it has been beneficial, in other ways not so much. For one, the high volume of movement requires a lot of energy reserves, leading to Hill fading down the stretch. Regardless, her technique and takedown defense have both improved enough to justify some of the apparent downsides of her time at the camp. Maybe all she needs is more time to work out the stylistic kinks….

There are a couple of factors that push me in Casey’s favor. Hill isn’t a small strawweight, but Casey is enormous for the division. Plus, Casey hits harder. It’s hardly a guaranteed recipe for a victory, but it’s enough for me to see Casey taking home a hard-earned victory. Casey via decision

Jake Ellenberger (31-14) vs. Bryan Barberena (13-5), Welterweight

Anyone else get the feeling Ellenberger would be long gone if the UFC wasn’t coming to Nebraska for this card? The native of Omaha was once upon a time in the general conversation to receive a title shot. Instead, Ellenberger suffered a meltdown against Rory MacDonald – and his jab — proceeding to go 2-8 over the last five years. Granted, Ellenberger has faced some stiff competition, but it’s not like he brings the name value of a Tito Ortiz, one of the few to go through a similar skid over the course of their UFC career. Even if it isn’t as impactful as some past happenings, Ellenberger remaining on the roster with a loss here would be amongst the biggest shocks in UFC history.

Ellenberger still has many of the tools that made him a contender all those years ago such as his one-punch power and powerhouse wrestling. His reluctance to throw volume – or utilize his wrestling for that matter – have made winning a fight such a rare occurrence at this juncture. Aside from his passiveness, his declining durability has played a major factor as well, making it to the final bell in only two of those eight losses.

Barberena stands in stark contrast to Ellenberger. A smaller welterweight with minimal power, Barberena’s gas tank doesn’t quit as he lays the punishment on nice and thick. The MMA Lab representative has never been finished by strikes either. Those characteristics appear to set him up to overthrow Ellenberger but for one glaring weakness: Barberena’s lack of wrestling, offensive or defensive.

Ellenberger has stood a good chance of winning many of the contests he’s dropped. However, he’s been unable to due to a combination of bad luck – see his getting his foot caught under the fence against Jorge Masvidal – and questionable strategy. If I knew Ellenberger would concentrate on grounding Barberena, I’d consider picking him despite his horrendous track record. Since I have no clue what the hell he’s going to do, I have to go with Barberena. Barberena via decision

John Moraga (19-6) vs. Deiveson Figueiredo (14-0), Flyweight

Figueiredo entered the UFC as a hot prospect who could develop into a title contender. Normally, this is where I say the aforementioned prospect has gone off the rails… but Figueiredo hasn’t done that. Granted, the UFC hasn’t exactly thrown the Brazilian into the deep end… until now. Will he pass the test?

Moraga has revitalized his career with victories over Magomed Bibulatov and Wilson Reis. Though the likelihood of him receiving another title shot is slim, he showed he still has something left in the tank despite most thinking he was near the end of the line. Moraga’s ability to scramble and his opportunistic nature make him a worthy challenge for just about anyone. However, if his opponent doesn’t provide the said opportunities, Moraga’s low volume and inconsistent wrestling have made winning by decision a difficult prospect for the veteran gatekeeper.

Figueiredo offers a similar dilemma as his output is just as problematic as Moraga’s. He’s made minor attempts to up his aggression level, but he’d probably be better off supplementing with low kicks as opposed to his constant head hunting. Granted, Figueiredo’s power is off the charts for 125. If he connects cleanly, it’s often lights out. One major note with Figueiredo: he loves him the guillotine, using it as a threat to prevent takedowns more than trying to stuff them… a strategy that usually doesn’t pay off.

It isn’t hard to see why many are excited about the potential of Figueiredo. However, it’s hard to see him consistently putting his skill set together on a consistent enough basis to believe that he’s going to challenge for a title someday. I’m not saying he can’t beat Moraga. I’m saying I think it will take a loss for him to begin to seriously evaluate his fighting style and take the next step in his career. This looks like that fight. Moraga via submission of RD2

Eryk Anders (10-1) vs. Tim Williams (15-4), Middleweight

Despite his loss to Lyoto Machida, the UFC still sees Anders as a special prospect. Why else would they line him up opposite of Williams? No disrespect to Williams, but his physical toolbox is on the lower end of the spectrum. His UFC debut lasted less than two minutes before he was flattened by Oskar Piechota. To his credit, Williams does have some skills to work with. For instance, he is a plus grappler with a deep bag of submissions. The issue for him against top competition has been getting the fight to the ground as his wrestling, like his standup, leaves much to be desired.

Anders is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He is an overpowering force of nature on the feet with the ability to get the fight to the ground despite lacking serious wrestling technique. Even if Anders ends up in an unfavorable predicament on the ground, his raw athleticism has allowed him to climb back to his feet with an ease that belies his grappling techniques. There has been progress in his fight IQ – he did a solid job conserving his energy reserves against Machida – though no one is about to call him a savvy veteran quite yet.

The former University of Alabama linebacker is looking to get back on track and Williams looks like the type of fodder the UFC delivers it’s prospects they want to put on the winning track. It’ll be a shock if Williams is able to make it to the final bell given Anders’ power and explosiveness. Anders via TKO of RD2

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