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UFC Utica: Jimmie Rivera vs. Marlon Moraes Toe to Toe Preview – A complete breakdown

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Jimmie Rivera vs. Marlon Moraes headline UFC Fight Night: Utica this June 1, 2018 at the Adirondack Bank Center in Utica, New York.

One sentence summary:

David: Erroneous and Sports Programming Nomads.

Phil: Surely bantamweight will save us from these terrible main events of late, it never lets us down.

Stats:

Record: Jimmie Rivera 21-1 | Marlon Moraes 20-5-1 Draw

Odds: Jimmie Rivera -105 Marlon Moraes -105

History / Introduction to Both Fighters:

David: Rivera impressed me all the way back when he was just 20 years old, and already a solid prospect for Bellator. That kind of youthful exuberance is still a relative rarity in a sport that is barely a sport at all and therefore doesn’t have any pattern or trend of peak production/success. So it’s nice to see Rivera grow from boy to man. Though his debut was a smashing success (sorry Marcus; we love you, but obviously the UFC doesn’t), and he’s maintained that success since, I’m not sure people really think of him as a high end prospect.

Phil: Jimmie Rivera was a buttoned up defensive counterstriker with a quality regional record consisting mostly of decisions, who got to the UFC and then knocked out Marcus Brimage. This is an oddly common way for elite strikers to get their introduction, and I’ve always felt a bit sorry for Brimage: he’s a decent fighter with the misfortune to get Cody Garbrandt, Conor McGregor and Jimmie Rivera in their respective debuts. Since then Rivera has run through some quality opposition, beating Iuri Alcantara, Urijah Faber and most recently Thomas Almeida. His main issue has been fighting consistently. He had what could have been his breakout performance booked against Cruz, who then pulled out with a broken arm. He seems convinced that he has current champ Dillashaw’s number, and who are we to say that he doesn’t?

David: I’m still not sure I know as much about Moraes as I should. I love Raphael Assuncao. He’s been underrated since 2006, and somehow he still carries that badass card over a decade later. But why the frikkin hell does the UFC keep matching young prospects up with him? Obviously I’d like to see Assuncao get paid, but it’s ridiculous to think that a young prospect will look good against him. In that context, I try to table his loss to Assuncao except as a matter of record. Granted, Moraes is not exactly a prospect in doggy years, but he’d probably be hearing whispers of a title shot if he didn’t have a predictable UFC knock on his record.

Phil: Marlon Moraes was one of the centerpieces for World Series of Fighting, decisioning former WEC champ Miguel Torres on the very first show, and going on to win and defend the championship six(-ish, Cody Bollinger missed weight) times. The way he’s managed his career is fairly impressive. He fought for good purses on a solid regional show, racking up both solid experience and making money, until WSOF started to fall apart. He parlayed his name into getting high-end UFC bouts, and when he got edged by Rafael Assuncao he made sure to stay as active as possible to cleanse that loss from the mind of the public as quickly as possible. His last fight against Aljamain Sterling was the highlight KO he’s needed.

What’s at stake?

David: I honestly don’t know. If Garbrandt versus Dillashaw turns into a trilogy that needs to be clarified before the new blood gets a shot, then either one of these guys could further down the ladder than they deserve. But who knows. I’ve given up trying to make sense of rankings and hierarchy. I think it started when the UFC began doing its “own rankings.”

Phil: Garbrandt-Dillashaw II is up next for bantamweight, and the winner of this fight should be up next, based purely on competitive merit. Won’t happen, though. What I actually suspect is that the winner of this fight is (re-)booked against Cruz. He’s one of the most recognizable figures in the division, and he’s getting old. The UFC likely recognizes they should get him into title fights or eliminators sooner rather than later.

Where do they want it?

Phil: Team Tiger Schulmann has been producing tank-like, vicious kickboxers that are all slight variations on the same bearded stocky dude, and Rivera is one of the exemplars. He’s an aggressive counterpuncher, who probes behind throwaway volume whilst staying over his feet and waits for the return shot, which he normally likes to counter with a crushing left hook or quick right hand. Despite being technical, defensively responsible and powerful, he doesn’t have the record of knockouts which you might expect, and that’s probably because he tends to favour brute force over the kind of pinpoint accuracy which tends to pick up striking finishes. Think Jose Aldo, where you can see the opponent be driven off by how hard he’s hitting, but rarely getting actually finished. Rivera is not lightning fast for a bantamweight, and defensively he’s an interesting proposition: he’s not easy to hit clean, per se, but doesn’t possess much in the way of layers beyond strong distance management and a singular slip and counter. If striking exchanges go about three strikes deep, he’s often just there in stance with his head in the same place, or backing up. His focus on power over accuracy also seems to affect his conditioning, going into the third round of his fights. As his build and distance management might suggest, he’s a nightmare to take down and a surprisingly effective offensive wrestler.

David: I’ve always been impressed with Rivera’s composure. I remember picking Rivera over Marcus Brimage (who was always much better than his record indicated) Brimage precisely because I thought Rivera’s slick jab, and footwork would get to a fighter who had a very one-dimensional method of defending. Rivera has managed to maintain his composure even as he’s stepped up in competition. His jab is one of his best weapons, but he was never as active as he should have been (and one could argue still isn’t in proportion to the rest of his talents). As he’s grown more comfortable, he’s better at closing distance (especially with those snapping leg kicks) to setup his counter shots. Rivera is not a knockout puncher by any stretch, but he’s a very heavy one. His punches thud, and it commands respect from opponents who may otherwise feel empowered by taking a clean shot unabated. With expert positioning, he plays a clean game that never cheats, and it benefits him defensively. At the same time, you’d like to see a little more eccentricity. You’d like to see a sense of urgency in spots where there’s little risk, but plenty of reward.

Phil: If Mark Henry produces two types of fighter, it is gritty three-dimensional workhorses (Alvarez, Edgar) and powerful Brazilian kickboxers (Barboza). Moraes is unsurprisingly in the second camp. Like Rivera, he does a great job of staying on top of his own feet and never going out of position unless his opponent forces him to. He’s also an active jabber, but where Rivera’s jab is made to draw out counter opportunities, Moraes’ is designed to push back and set up for his kicking offense. He can break down opponents with the leg or body kicks, and has a tricky switch kick. Like Rivera, his money punch is the left hook. If Moraes has an issue, it’s that since coming to the UFC he’s been struggling to make his volume really work. He got hit by a couple of counters from Raphael Assuncao, and accepted an achingly slow fight, which he lost. Against John Dodson, he similarly got sucked into a Dodson fight, which he won. At his best (and to his credit, he looked more like his old self against Sterling even before the knockout) he throws at a good clip, and forces opponents to reckon with being knocked out with punches to the head or worn down with leg kicks. He’s not quite the same level of defensive wrestler as Rivera, so it’ll be interesting to see if Rivera tries to mix some offensive takedowns into the mix. Even if he can, Moraes is a quality scrambler.

David: It was always hard to really get a beat on Moraes’ game given the level of competition he was facing. Still, you can only mangle what’s in front of you, and that’s exactly what Moraes has done prior to getting in the UFC. Moraes plays a violent game built on a curve — rather than rely on specific techniques and build around them, Moraes establishes a rhythm with his jab to curve into a low attack that eventually blooms into options for the world’s end (for his opponents). The best part to all of this is that Moraes performs at this high level pace without really losing power or stamina. That’s not the same as having his pace wane, however; as we’ve seen. Insight from past fights?

David: A lot of fights give us insight into Rivera’s lack of power. For fighters who rely on counters, a lack of power can be its own curse. That’s ultimately the difference between Rivera and Moraes; one is defined by pace (Moraes) while the other is defined by precision (Rivera). Some observers are rightfully skeptical of this bout’s entertainment value since we’ve seen Moraes “adjust’ to someone who can counter his offense. Conversely, I’ve seen Rivera just sort of bow up, and leave himself to vulnerable to an outburst. Faber was never close to winning that fight against Rivera, but you can see the template for how Rivera ends of losing: with his instincts for a stern counter, he’s inside the pocket so much that in a situation where his legs have been taken away (as Moraes is capable of doing), he’d be a limping target.

Phil: The best analogue feels like Moraes vs Assuncao. We saw then that Moraes has some issues with his own counter game being rather limited, and that he can get sniped on the way when he throws his combinations. However, he also showed that his game is more effectively attritional: Assuncao’s lead leg was pretty banged up by the end, and I’m not sure that he would have won over five rounds.

X-Factors:

David: The fight favors Moraes over five rounds. It favors the fans if it’s over before then because we could absolutely get more mean mugging that clean slugging.

Phil: Title fight and five round experience? Moraes has, as mentioned, six title defenses in WSOF, whereas Rivera just has a single five round win over Jared Papazian.

Prognostication:

David: Gotta go with Moraes. If Rivera had more power in his counters (it’s understated, but not significant enough), I’d pick River all day. But Moraes should be able to gain punch entries, and gain enough confidence to open up Rivera as the fight goes on. Marlon will slow down, but he’s rarely inert. Marlon Moraes by Decision.

Phil: This feels razor, razor thin. Rivera is more durable and perhaps actually a better matchup for the three people occupying the top of the division… but I feel like in this particular matchup, his tendency to slow combined with Moraes’ leg and body attack should pay dividends. Whatever happens, I’ll be surprised if it isn’t closely contested. Marlon Moraes by split decision.


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