I remember thinking how shallow the preliminaries were for Fight Night 34 (Saffiedine vs. Lim) were and that the UFC would have a hard time topping that. They've proven me wrong here. There is not a single match where both participants own a UFC victory and only two where both participants have fought in the UFC before. So maybe blue-chip prospects? Not really. In all honesty, I don't think you'd miss a lot by not watching these prelims.
With that stated, Dana White has said that not all cards are going to be directed at the North American audience and this certainly qualifies. In other words, he warned us. So knowing that, I don't think I have too much room to bitch.
Story Thus Far: Matthews will be the youngest fighter in the UFC at when this fight takes place as he doesn't turn 20 (yes, he is still a teenager) until August. He spent 6 weeks in Canada for TUF Nations and was easily handled by Olivier Aubin-Mercier in his only fight on the show. The rest of his career has been spent beating middling competition on the Australian circuit.
Johnson has been a figure of controversy for the way he has earned his undefeated record and rightfully so. His 8 opponents (fought on of them twice) have a combined record of 13-39 with one opponent owning 12 of those wins. Johnson has a lot to prove in his UFC debut... more than your usual undefeated fighter.
Fighting Style: As young as he is, you would expect Matthews to be a specialist. But he is actually very well rounded... he just needs some polish in all areas. His strength at this point is his BJJ (owns a purple belt) as he is very good at stringing together submissions. His wrestling keeps him from owning the ground though as he is controlled relatively easily. His punches are actually pretty good looking, but don't seem to have the oomph needed to put out someone with one punch. More worrisome is his lack of movement with his head and poor movement with his feet... going backwards is never a good idea with an opponent coming at you.
Johnson started his athletic career in boxing and put up about an even record there. He has some good power in his fists and has shown a crisp jab, but the ugly hooks he throws are something someone from boxing should be embarrassed to possess. He is explosive going for takedowns, but doesn't utilize good technique, opting instead for overpowering his opponent with raw strength and athletic ability which he has in abundance. He looked clueless at times on the ground indicating he is still very raw in his grappling.
What to Expect: Considering he has pro boxing experience and has defeated most of his opponents (if you want to call them that) by strikes, Johnson is going to do everything in his power to keep the fight standing. He can't wing the wild hooks at Matthews and not expect any consequences from Matthews in return as those shots are incredibly easy to counter. Look for his technique to be polished up.
If Johnson is unable to finish Matthews early, look for him to use his quick shot for some takedowns. I can't say whether or not he gets it, but he won't necessarily be looking to take the fight to the ground for a long period of time. He'll just be looking to score points in the judges eyes. If he has done any homework then he knows that Matthews is solid off of his back. Johnson's lack of activity on the ground would either make him pay or result in a standup.
Matthews is going to let the fight come to him meaning he won't push anything which can be good and bad. If the takedown is there, he'll take it. If Johnson is leaving himself open to get hit, Matthews will hit him. He is the more well-rounded fighter and what 19-year old doesn't want to prove their superiority?
X-Factors: Johnson has only fought for one promotion (Xplode MMA) and it has come under fire for its booking practices. Clearly he has been catered to. Will his confidence be shaken at all? And how will the travel affect him?
Who Will Win: I have a lot of questions whether either of them belong in the UFC at this juncture, but I believe that Matthews is good enough to be there within a few years anyway. He's young, but he hasn't been fed cans to feast on and actually has dealt with a bit of adversity in the cage. Johnson is going to be exposed. Matthews by Submission 2nd Round
Story Thus Far: Vaculik's UFC debut was a one-sided drubbing to the young phenom Justin Scoggins as he suffered his first stoppage defeat. He has proven to have lots of heart by fighting as a very undersized lightweight on TUF Smashes before making his UFC debut at a weight class 30 pounds lighter. He needs a win here to stay with the company though.
Sangcha-an got the call from the UFC as an injury replacement after Jon Delos Reyes pulled up lame and is looking to make the most of it. Out of the Philippines, Sangcha-an trains alongside Mark Eddiva whom has proven to be a solid addition to the UFC roster. Having started his career only two years ago, the 23 year old has a lot of untapped potential. Hopefully this isn't him getting thrown to the big dogs too early.
Fighting Style: Vaculik is one-dimensional in both his standup game. He is a solid boxer with a jab he likes to double up on, but doesn't add too much else. Throw in the fact that he doesn't make effective use of angles making it fairly easy for opponents to tee off on him. If he can incorporate just a little more movement with the angles he'd be pretty solid. On the ground he is very active looking for submissions with some alright GNP he'll use to loosen up a submission. His shot is quick which is his greatest weapon with takedowns as his single and double legs aren't particularly powerful.
Just like his teammate Eddiva, Sangcha-an relies very heavily on his kicks for offense and is very aggressive with them. He throws them with great velocity and mixes them freely between the body and legs, as well as the occasional shot to the head for good measure. He throws sloppy, looping punches that can easily be countered, but certainly hurt. His wrestling is strength based as he picks up his opponents and tosses them to the ground... very little technique involved. While active in searching for submissions, he'd be better off using his very solid GNP more to create openings.
What to Expect: Sangch-an doesn't suck on the ground, but he is far from refined. Vaculik will use his quick shot to try and get Sangcha-an to the ground and look for a submission there. Even if he can't get the takedown, Vaculik will be in good shape if he can at least create a scramble, something Sangcha-an hasn't looked impressive in. If Vaculik gets a dominant position I don't know if Sangcha-an is savvy enough to gain the advantage from there.
Vaculik wilted under the constant pressure of Scoggins in his UFC debut and was unable to put together any offense. Sangcha-an has the kicks to keep Vaculik off guard and would be wise to utilize them without abandon. I worry his punches would be too easily countered by Vaculik's jab and we all know what a jab can do to a fighter coming forward. Yeah... Sangcha-an should stick to the kicks.
The problem in imitating Scoggins' strategy for Sangcha-an is he doesn't have the top control Scoggins does. Vaculik would likely find a was to sweep and/or reverse Sangcha-an as his grappling discipline is lacking. Look for Sangcha-an to go for takedowns anyway. Sangcha-an's top control is likely the wild card in this fight.
X-Factors: Sangcha-an is very inexperienced and could be prone to jitters. But his teammate Eddiva didn't and they have many of the same mannerisms. Vaculik bombed fighting in front of his hometown, but I'd say he was simply overwhelmed by a more talented fighter. Vaculik is used to being in the Australian public eye.
Who Will Win: The logical thing is to pick the veteran Vaculik, who has unofficially had three opportunities to pick up UFC wins and has faltered each time. In the case of Sangcha-an, I see a lot of Eddiva in him. I laughed when the UFC picked up Eddiva and picked against him. Two fights later, I'm impressed with him. I expect to be impressed by Sangcha-an. Sangcha-an by Decision
Story Thus Far: I was surprised either one of these guys are getting another opportunity as neither showed anything in their loses at the TUF Nations Finale. Pays to be Australian I guess.
Grujic did score a highly impressive KO in the TUF house over Luke Harris, but is most known for being a Leonidas look-a-like. Having fought at middleweight in the show, he'll be a big welterweight which will only accentuate his strength more. At 37, Grujic isn't likely to get another chance in the UFC if he doesn't win here.
Indich has interestingly enough spent most of his career at middleweight... which I suppose he could get away with on the Australian circuit but certainly not here. He is in a very similar boat to Grujic with one very important difference: at 27 he is a decade younger and capable of working his way back to the company if he loses here.
Fighting Style: Grujic is a close distance striker utilizing both dirty boxing and Muay Thai for the most part. By far the best part of his game is his work from the clinch as he has some very powerful knees from the clinch that can put his opponents to sleep. A purple belt in BJJ, he hasn't shown much in his association with the UFC with his grappling, but the elbows he reigned down on Harris were as vicious as I've seen when it comes to GNP. He was controlled quite easily by Nordine Taleb in his official debut though, so there are serious questions on his wrestling as Taleb isn't an expert by any means.
Indich has shown himself to be scrappy as hell at this juncture. He can take a beating and keep coming and will do whatever he can to latch on to a submission to finish the job... but struggles to do so. Keeping his hands up and movement have been a weakness for him, but he'll keep coming forward if allowed to be the aggressor. His takedowns consist of single and double legs, but he doesn't hit them with the regularity he would like.
What to Expect: Indich struggled with Richard Walsh's size advantage over him and Grujic is even bigger. I don't see Indich being very successful in getting him down and doing so would require him to walk into Grujic's strong point: short distance striking. Indich's best chance to win will be via the ground... can he get it there? Smart money says no.
I doubt Indich is stupid and trained with Grujic for 6 weeks so he knows what he is capable of. For example, Grujic is quite stiff. Indich leaves himself open to get hit quite a bit, but he is much quicker than Grujic and will likely try to pick him apart with a combination of leg kicks and boxing from the outside. Considering the route to get the fight to the ground, this may be a better option for Indich.
Grujic will be fine with where the fight takes place (so long as he has top control on the ground obviously), just so long as he can get his hands on Indich. He is easily strong enough to put the smaller Indich out cold and will likely try to do so. I don't expect him to try to utilize BJJ as Indich is likely the most skilled BJJ artist he has faced thus far.
X-Factors: This will essentially be a fight in front of the hometown crowd for the both of them which could be good or bad. Will either get jitters from that fact and choke? Grujic seems to be the more poised. Also, he has fought at welterweight before, but he last fought just over 2 months ago at middleweight. Will the cut be difficult for him?
Who Will Win: Both of these guys have proven that they can take a beating and are willing to come back for more punishment. So I don't expect a finish here. But I do think that Grujic will be too strong for Indich in a fight in which both have their moments with Grujic winning by showing more control. Grujic by Decision
Neil Magny (10-3) vs. Rodrigo de Lima (8-1-1), Welterweight
Story Thus Far: After a two fight losing streak to close out 2013, Magny is starting to look like a prospect worth keeping an eye on. The TUF season 16 veteran has now won two in a row, one in dominating fashion over Gasan Umalatov and the other over tough and scrappy vet Tim Means. He is 26 and showing marked improvement with a rare physical frame.
At 22, de Lima (largely known as Monstro) is still very young and raw and has a long ways to go before he is a finished product. While that bodes well for his future, that could be very much a problem for his present. Keep in mind that the skills are there and he was the reigning Jungle Fight champion at welterweight at the time of his call to the UFC.
Fighting Style: That rare physical frame I was referring to? Magny is 6'2 with an 81' reach. He isn't an expert utilizing his reach, but he is getting better with each outing. Even better for him is he is learning how to dictate the pace of the fight, something he had previously struggled with. Now he does a solid job of mixing in takedowns with his striking. His takedown defense hasn't been improving... in fact it almost seems to be regressing. But I suppose that happens when you face higher competition.
Monstro needs a good camp and coach more than anything. His strikes have zero snap to them with little technique and has horrible takedown technique. Not everything is bad though. His kicks have a lot of snap, his trips are passable, and he is strong. Very strong. Like I said with his technique though, he needs refinement as he can lift his opponent into the air without finishing a takedown. 6 of his victories have come by submission and shows good GNP to soften his opponent up to snake in a choke. He is rough around the edges for sure, but could be polished into a real diamond.
What to Expect: Magny often took Means to the ground to mix things up, but I wouldn't look for that here. Magny was tapped quickly by Sergio Moraes less than a year ago and Monstro may not be on Moraes level, but he is better than Magny for sure. Magny will look to keep this standing and his wrestling advantage will help him dictate where the fight takes place.
Monstro is gonna have some difficulty with Magny's length. Magny is still figuring out how to fully use his reach, but he throws his punches a lot more crisp than Monstro and will be able to counter Monstro's plodding and sloppy punches. If Monstro is going to have success with striking, it will be with leg kicks which would help weaken the base of Magny which will help Monstro take him down... which is where Monstro wants it anyway.
The biggest question of the fight will be if Monstro can take Magny down. Magny's recent takedown defense has been poor, but he has been facing decent if not good wrestlers. Monstro is not that. Out of all of the opponents that Magny has faced I would compare Monstro's abilities most to Jon Manley... whom Magny stuffed 12 out of 13 times. Ouch.
X-Factors: Monstro is young and making his UFC debut in New Zealand. Magny has been deployed overseas in the US Army, so I'd imagine travel isn't as troublesome for him as it is others. And I really like the improvement I've seen from him.
Who Will Win: I've made it clear all the way that I believe Magny will win. I'm not going to pretend otherwise. But I also feel this fight will emphasize my biggest complaint with Magny at this point: his lack of killer instinct. He'll get another decision here which if you count the TUF house will be his 7th victory by decision. Magny by Decision
Story Thus Far: Coming out of Phuket Top Team, Entwistle comes into the UFC riding a 4 fight win streak with the majority of his fights in the Cage Warriors promotion. The Englishman has spent most of his time at lightweight, but did recently make the drop to 145, so this won't be his debut at that class. Not exactly a blue-chipper, its doubtful the UFC has any long term plans with him.
Hooker is a New Zealand native that has competed in some professional kickboxing matches with a fair amount of success. Having fought on the Australian circuit, his competition is underwhelming. Nevertheless, he comes in riding a 5 fight win streak after a bit of a rough start to his career and should continue to improve at the age of 24.
Fighting Style: Is it just me, or do the English seem to either be brawlers or submission artists? Entwistle falls into the latter category with 6 of his victories coming by way of chokes or heel hooks. But he isn't your traditional grappler. He has taken to diving at his opponents ankles looking for the heel hook to start fights and why stop when the longest fight in your last four has been 116 seconds? Very little striking has been seen (all I've seen are leg kicks with reckless abandon and some light GNP) and he might end up being a bit of a one-trick pony. While there isn't a great track record for those, remember the success Rousimar Palhares had?
As you would expect with someone who has a kickboxing background, Hooker would much rather have the fight on the feet. He is fairly aggressive coming forward and puts some solid punching combinations together, but drops his hands to often, particularly leaving himself open to be countered. He doesn't look lost on the ground, but the technique I've seen out of him seems to be a bit sloppy, which makes me question the level of his opponents even more. Still, he has some submission know-how and has actually picked up half of his wins that route.
What to Expect: With all of the success he has had out of the gate going for his opponents ankles, I don't expect anything different from Entwistle. Especially when you consider Hooker's relative lack of technique with regards to wrestling. There is a very good chance that this is going to be a short match.
If Hooker can avoid the early shot of Entwistle his chances increase exponentially. His lack of striking defense won't matter too much against Entwistle as Entwistle doesn't seem to possess the striking skills to make him pay. Look for Hooker to turn up the offense right away and stalk Entwistle. Its hard to shoot when your opponent is continually making you move backwards.
Entwistle has never left the first round in any of his fights. Hooker usually finishes his opponents as well, but not always so quick. Don't be surprised if Hooker doesn't look for the kill shot and is fine with wearing down Entwistle with his solid jab in order to maintain distance from Entwistle. It'll be harder for Entwistle to score a takedown from a distance... which would also tire him out.
X-Factors: Obviously Entwistle's gas tank. But Hooker is fighting in his home country and will be able to avoid a long flight. Then again, fighting in front of his home crowd also puts a bit more pressure on him.
Who Will Win: If Hooker can engage his striking from a safe distance, this fight is all his. But I don't see that happening. Entwistle might not get him on the ground in his first takedown attempt, but I think he will eventually. Then it will be tap city for Hooker. Entwistle by Submission 1st Round
Story Thus Far: This may be the last chance for Villante to stay in the UFC. Once considered a blue chip prospect due to his athletic pedigree (former linebacker at Hofstra University and was thought to be an NFL prospect) and power, he sits at 1-2 in the UFC with his lone victory over chinny Cody Donovan. Whether he is friends with Chris Weidman or not, he needs a W here.
In O'Connell's UFC debut as an injury replacement for Steve Bosse, he was able to squeeze a fun fight out of Ryan Jimmo. Regardless of whether or not he lost, that should be commended. O'Connell is a journeyman without any expectations on him, which is both good and bad. He is more than capable of making Villante pay if he underestimates him.
Fighting Style: Villante was an All-American wrestler in college in addition to his football playing and is more than capable of getting anybody to the ground... in the first round. Villante's biggest problem is his gas tank. He dominated Fabio Maldonado in the first round of their bout with takedowns and some solid boxing only to fade. He kept his hands down and telegraphed his shots from a mile away, allowing Maldonado to pick him apart and easily sprawl. He does have good power with 7 KO/TKO victories... he just needs to maintain it through a fight.
O'Connell is what you'd expect of a journeyman: he does everything well, but doesn't specialize in anything. Still, fans usually walk away from his fights satisfied as he is willing to stand and trade and does so with little regard to getting hit himself. Translation: his striking defense leaves a lot to be desired. His standup isn't very technical either, but he is a willing brawler that does a lot of work in the clinch to wear down his opponent. He is active on the ground forcing his opponent to stay active even if he doesn't have a lot of submissions to his credit.
What to Expect: Look for Villante to open the fight very similar to how he did with Maldonado looking for early takedowns... and expect him to get them. O'Connell hasn't faced much upper echelon competition and certainly few (if any) athletes of Villante's caliber. The bigger question is whether Villante will try to finish him early due to his lack of cardio or try to pace himself... due to lack of cardio. See the catch 22 there?
O'Connell will likely make the choice for him. O'Connell is always active and will force Villante to keep moving. Otherwise, O'Connell could score a submission. I haven't gotten a feeling for O'Connell's gas tank at this point, but would be led to believe that he'll have an advantage considering he does train at altitude (Salt Lake City). Still, I haven't seen a reason to think he can go deep and if the fight doesn't end early, look for a sloppy final round.
Villante is a big light heavyweight... but so is Jimmo and O'Connell was able to push him up against the fence. Villante has a boxing background and would rather try to pick O'Connell apart that way, especially considering O'Connell's lack of technical ability. O'Connell will look to push it against the fence and make the fight ugly.
X-Factors: Obviously conditioning in this one. Villante is physically superior in regards to his talent, but until he fixes his conditioning he will always be a question mark. I could be mistaken, but I also believe that he has the bigger weight cut and a flight halfway around the world likely won't help him.
Who Will Win: This fight is going to be closer than it should be. Villante should have a roster spot solidified by now trying to work his way up the ladder but hasn't put it together. I would think he could here... but I gotta go with the upset here as I think O'Connell is more composed and better able to cope with the travel. O'Connell by Decision