As goofy as it may sound, as a whole, I’m more excited about UFC Tampa than I was about UFC 243. Yes, UFC 243 had a badass main event between Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya. It also had a solid scrap between Daniel Hooker and Al Iaquinta. But what else did it have that had viewers excited going into it? Yeah, that’s what I thought. The prelims of UFC Tampa alone have more depth to them alone than UFC 243 sans the top two contests. James Vick was able to burst into the lightweight rankings, but was unable to make further headway. He’ll now begin a new road at welterweight, debuting in his new home against Niko Price. Deiveson Figueiredo was thisclose to beating Jussier Formiga. Four of the last five men to beat Formiga got a title shot immediately after beating him. The fifth? Joseph Benavidez is in line for a shot at Henry Cejudo, if it ever comes to fruition. Figueiredo welcomes back the always exciting Tim Elliott from a long layoff. Plus, who doesn’t love a good Marlon Vera scrap? For an ESPN+ card, these prelims are fantastic.
The prelims begin on ESPN+ at 5:00 PM ET/2:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Niko Price (13-3, 1 NC) vs. James Vick (13-4), Welterweight
There’s clear risk for Vick in moving up to 170. So long as he could make it to 155, he was almost assured to have a size advantage thanks to his 6’3” frame. However, he’s also suffered from tall man’s defense, keeping his head up high to be hit and it has resulted in three KO’s among his four losses. The belief is that he won’t be so chinny if he doesn’t dehydrate himself so much by no longer cutting to the lightweight limit. Yes, he’ll lose some of the size advantage he previously possessed, but how much does that matter if it doesn’t take much to put you to sleep?
It’s also possible Vick’s confidence could be shaken from all the recent losing. That’s something moving up in weight won’t solve. If it isn’t, he’ll still be significantly taller than Price and knows how to use his jab very well. However, even more effective for the Texas native had been his fast hands. They served him well to deflect his opponent’s attacks before he started facing top competition more consistently. Vick is also noted for his dangerous guillotine choke which has secured him a pair of victories as opponents shoot for takedowns and he’s an underrated grappler in general.
Price’s grappling chops have been notable too, but the ATT product also has a history of being reckless in every aspect of the fight game. There are times where it works out as Price is a solid athlete and is incredibly creative. See his KO of Randy Brown, finishing him with hammerfists from the bottom. If Price finds any sort of opening for a finish, he’ll go for it. His power is a plus too, securing several finishes where he rushes his opponent. All his losses have come against opponents who are arguably better athletes. One of the key questions is whether Vick is a better athlete.
A lot can happen in a 15-minute fight. All fight fans know this. Given Price’s reckless nature, it seems unlikely this contest goes the distance. So, the question is who gets to who first. Vick is the more disciplined fighter and Price is hardly impossible to finish. However, Price’s aggression and Vick’s own defensive holes make the most likely scenario being that of Price finding Vick’s chin as Vick can’t rely on his size in the same manner he once did. Price via KO of RD2
Ryan Spann (16-5) vs. Devin Clark (10-3), Light Heavyweight
No one denies Clark’s physical talents. One of the better athletes in the light heavyweight division, it’s been a matter of discipline for the former junior college wrestling champion. Clark has a habit of letting his defenses down, from the sloppy standing RNC in which Jan Blachowicz caught him to the spinning backfist he ate from Alexander Rakic. His inability to finish off his own opponents has also limited him too as all his wins in the UFC have gone to decision. Clark has the tools to put away the opposition, particularly in his fists. The issue is getting him to throw his strikes with rhyme and reason. Smoother technique wouldn’t hurt either.
Spann isn’t a terrible athlete himself, but he isn’t quite on Clark’s level. Nonetheless, he’s a slight favorite due to his larger frame and slick submission skills, the guillotine being a specialty of his. Spann’s career really began to take off a few years ago following his loss on DWCS, recommitting himself, and has had the best run of his career since. He’s never been a powerhouse on the feet – and still isn’t despite his KO of Rogerio Nogueira. What he has always been is a thoughtful fighter, but now it can be said that he’s more self-assured and decisive in his course of action. His chin still presents some questions, but he’s made better use of his length to keep opponents from touching it up too much.
Some would point out Spann hasn’t faced an aggressive pace-setter like Clark yet in his UFC tenure. However, he did face the likes of Alex Nicholson and Myron Dennis prior to entering the organization and effectively used their aggressiveness against them. Clark is a superior athlete to both, so there’s a good chance he’s able to make that strategy work for him. Smart money says Spann finds a way to work it to his advantage, either with an early finish or allowing Clark to exhaust himself. Spann via submission of RD1
Deiveson Figueiredo (16-1) vs. Tim Elliott (15-8-1), Flyweight
Thanks to several highlight reel finishes, the image of Figueiredo is often falsely portrayed as an uber-aggressive striker. Make no mistake, the athletic Brazilian packs a hell of a punch, only being rivaled by the likes of John Dodson and John Lineker in the annals of flyweight power punchers in the UFC’s history. However, he picks his spots when to explode, more commonly looking to utilize his powerful frame to muscle and hold down his opponents with his wrestling. Besides, given how much weight he is forced to cut to make the flyweight limit, he doesn’t have the energy necessary to go hard and heavy for 15 minutes… should the fight go that long.
On the other hand, despite being another large flyweight, Elliott does push a hard pace in hopes of overwhelming the opposition. Elliott’s Achilles’ heel is his tendency to walk into submissions as well as his miserable striking defense, often stepping into the pocket chin first. However, he has also tightened up his technique and paid more heed to his defense. That isn’t to say Elliott has become an orthodox fighter by any means, but he also realizes he can’t rely on his iron clad chin to hold up forever. Despite the improvements on the feet, Elliott’s bread and butter is still his constant takedown game in addition to fishing for submissions.
As much as I believe people underrate Elliott’s submissions, Figueiredo was able to avoid any serious trouble on the mat with Formiga and Alexandre Pantoja, two grapplers of greater renown. Plus, even though Figueiredo hasn’t scored a submission win over his UFC career, he has threatened on multiple occasions with guillotines. Elliott is the more active fighter, meaning he’s got an above average chance of pulling off the upset should the fight go the distance. However, chins don’t hold up forever and Figueiredo is certain to check Elliott’s. It’s far from a guarantee Figueiredo will finally be the one to crack Elliott’s, but he’s also as likely to do it as anyone is. Figueiredo via TKO of RD2
Marvin Vettori (13-3-1) vs. Andrew Sanchez (11-4), Middleweight
What initially appeared to be a respectful and evenly matched contest has devolved into an ugly war of words between Vettori and Sanchez after the latter was forced to withdraw from their scheduled contest a month ago due to an eye infection. Understandably, Vettori was upset and Sanchez has since called him a “juicehead” in reference to Vettori’s recent USADA violation. There’s a good chance most people still don’t care a whole lot about this contest, but the added drama does add something to it.
Sanchez has the know-how and tools to be regularly competing with – and hanging with – the ranked opposition in the division. However, Sanchez has regularly struggled with energy conservation, typically spending the last half of a contest merely hoping to survive after jumping to an early lead. It’s not like he’s in bad shape. He just tends to load up on his offense in hopes of ending the fight in addition to his constant hunting of takedowns. Sanchez hasn’t proven to be much of a KO threat, but his wrestling doesn’t get enough credit. After all, he was an NAIA wrestling champion.
Unfortunately for Sanchez, Vettori has been beefing up on his takedown defense. Originally it appeared to be a weakness, but he turned in the best performance of his career against Cezar Ferreira in July, stuffing all the takedowns from the wily Brazilian. Part of it appears to be the youngster growing more fully into his frame, as he also bullied Ferreira in the clinch. In the meantime, Vettori has continued to evolve into a better combination striker. There is still some stiffness in that department, but his evolution has seen that aspect slowly erode.
Sanchez has looked better since moving to Tristar, but he’s still suffering from many of the same issues that plagued him before the move. In Vettori’s case, the improvements have been more noticeable. The Italian has been regularly overlooked as a fighter to watch in the division, but it feels like he’s on the verge of gaining a bit of a spotlight. Expect the contest to be competitive early with Vettori surging late to take a decision or a late finish. Vettori via decision
- Even though Max Griffin is the more recognizable fighter between him and his opponent Alex Morono – largely thanks to Griffin’s victory over Mike Perry – it’s Morono who walks into this contest with a winning UFC record. That’s largely due to the level of competition each has faced, Griffin with names like Colby Covington and Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos dotting his ledger and Morono’s losses – representing his toughest opposition — coming to the likes of Keita Nakamura and Jordan Mein. Griffin is the more technical fighter whereas Morono has overwhelmed his opposition with aggression and volume. Griffin has been able to navigate fighters like Morono before and has added takedowns to his arsenal as well. Griffin should find a way to emerge with his hand raised… provided Morono doesn’t get into his head. Griffin via TKO of RD3
- For some reason, the UFC has seen fit to keep Hector Aldana around despite being unable to secure a victory in his two UFC appearances… and it hasn’t been close. He has displayed some power in his punches and shows the ability to throw combinations in the pocket, but he’s still prone to defensive lapses and questionable strategy in general. Nonetheless, the UFC is giving him another shot, though he appears to be fodder for DWCS alum Miguel Baeza. A large, athletic welterweight, Baeza showed plenty of power of his own in addition to a solid chin and a submission arsenal that many weren’t sure whether he possessed. Though unbeaten, Baeza hasn’t been tested by difficult opposition, leaving open the possibility of an upset by Aldana. Regardless, I wouldn’t be willing to bet on that chance. Baeza via TKO of RD2
- Despite having her three-fight win streak snapped by Maycee Barber, many believe JJ Aldrich turned in the most impressive performance of her career in the loss. Against a superior athlete, Aldrich proved to be fearless in the pocket, launching slick boxing combinations and effectively countering Barber’s offense for long stretches. She’ll try to get back on track against Lauren Mueller, a pressure fighting slugger who still has a lot of holes to fill in terms of her technique. She may be able to overcome those deficiencies as she appears to be the better athlete of the two, but she hasn’t shown much finishing instincts. Without that, it will be difficult to overcome Aldrich’s workmanlike approach. Aldrich via decision
- With all due respect to Andre Ewell, but why in the hell isn’t Marlon Vera facing a tougher opponent? I’ll admit Vera hasn’t defeated the toughest of opposition, but he is still riding a four-fight win streak, each victory coming by way of stoppage. Vera has largely eliminated many of the issues that plagued him earlier in his career – such as backing into the fence – but others still remain, his tendency for inactivity being the most obvious. Nonetheless, his opportunistic nature, if anything, has sharpened and he’ll pounce on any opportunity he can find to end the fight. However, his inactivity could cost him against a volume striker like Ewell. Ewell’s takedown defense still leaves a lot to be desired, but the lanky bantamweight is a slick boxer who operates behind an effective jab. Should the fight go the distance, Ewell could pull off the upset. However, I’m trusting Vera’s finishing instincts to flare up once again. Vera via submission of RD2