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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Fight Night: Bader vs. Nogueira 2 - Main card preview

Thomas Almeida and Claudia Gadelha are the big names featured in the main card of UFC Sao Paulo as they look to hold off upstart challengers in the underrated main card of the 100th edition of UFC Fight Night

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Almeida vs Birchak Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

So I crapped on the main card of Fight Night Mousasi vs. Hall 2 – taking place on the same day as this card – and you’d expect me to do the same for this card as most have expressed disinterest in both cards. But I’m not going to. I’m not saying this main card is out of this world. Hell, one of the contestants in the co-main event doesn’t even own a UFC victory. If you want to crap on the card, go ahead. I don’t blame you. The reason I’m not is this has the feeling of one of the underrated cards that sneaks up on you.

Remember when we were all singing the praises of Thomas Almeida? It wasn’t that long ago. He’s fighting. Wasn’t it just this past summer that Claudia Gadelha gave Joanna Jedrzejczyk the toughest challenge of her career? Yep, she’s here to attempt to turn away the premier strawweight action fighter, Cortney Casey. And nobody will be surprised to see either Warlley Alves or Kamaru Usman become top challengers at welterweight. The main event and co-main event have given the card a bad reputation as this card is silently solid.

The main card starts on FS1 at 9:00 PM ET/6:00 PM PT.

Thomas Almeida (21-1) vs. Albert Morales (6-0-1), Bantamweight

Curious choice for co-main event. Sure, Almeida is the exciting and talented prospect the UFC is looking to push… but matching him against Morales who doesn’t have a single UFC win?

The hype surrounding Almeida has cooled considerably ever since he was starched by Cody Garbrandt back in May. At 25-years old, it would be stupid to give up on the Brazilian as a future contender already. The type of aggressive action fighter the UFC loves to promote, the only fight of his career to go to a decision was his UFC debut. How can you not love a dude who finishes fights?

My complaints with Morales is less the actual fight and more the placement of it on the card. His lone UFC appearance came against Alejandro Perez on short notice and while many believed he did enough to walk away with the win, it was ultimately a draw. Morales possesses a lot of the same aggression as Almeida, so perhaps it is simply entertainment value the UFC is looking for out of this contest. But doesn’t it feel like the UFC is giving him too much, too soon?

It’s easy to spot what the UFC sees in Morales. His 72" reach is highly unusual at bantamweight. His professional career began less than two years ago and he’s only 25-years old. He still hasn’t figured out how to effectively use the reach, though his jab has been coming along. Morales prefers to apply heavy pressure from close quarters, perfectly happy to see the fight degenerate into a brawl as his chin has proven to be durable. I haven’t even mentioned his leg kicks which he used to brutalize the legs of Perez back in September.

Almeida’s reach is almost as long, checking in at 70". It’s worth mentioning as Almeida’s striking features far more technique and discipline with a jab being heavily emphasized. Leg kicks and slick punching combinations round out the heart of his offense. Though notorious for starting slow, few are better at making in-fight adjustments, at which point Almeida is prone to unleash high-risk maneuvers such as flying knees of spinning back kicks. Due to the firefights he has been drawn into thus far in his UFC career, his ability to counter has been overlooked, though it is also part of the reason for his slow starts.

Where Morales is most likely to steal the fight is on the ground, though Almeida has sound takedown defense and the ability to climb back to his feet if he does get taken down. Nonetheless, the occasional reactive takedown can be enough to take a round or two, particularly if the fight breaks down into a brawl. Morales has a surprisingly powerful double leg and aggressive ground and pound. Nothing flashy, but enough to do damage and earn points if not finish the fight.

While I love this fight, it appears to be pretty blatant the UFC is trying to get Almeida back on track. Morales is a talent, but he isn’t ready for this level of competition quite yet. It is fair to point out he surprised many with his showing against Perez, so maybe my assessment of Morales’ development at this point is inaccurate. I guess the only way to find out is to watch the contest and find out. Don’t expect it to go the distance. Almeida via TKO of RD2

Claudia Gadelha (13-2) vs. Cortney Casey (6-3), Women’s Strawweight

Claudia Gadelha, welcome to being the best women’s strawweight fighter in the world not named Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Casey gets the opportunity to upset the apple cart and immediately insert herself into the title picture.

Poor Gadelha. She’s now in the same position as Joseph Benavidez in that she has established herself as better than everyone in the division other than the champion. Having already lost to Jedrzejczyk twice, the chances of her getting another opportunity to fight for the belt seems rather slim unless she Gadelha can clear out any of the other potential challengers looking to make a run at Jedrzejczyk. Gadelha hopes to kick off that quest by eliminating Casey

It isn’t that Casey is knocking on the door quite yet. She does have momentum after defeating Cristina Stanciu and Randa Markos this past summer, but neither of them are anywhere close to being considered contenders. Known as a fun action fighter, Casey won FOTN honors in each of her first two UFC contests.

There isn’t an area in which Gadelha doesn’t excel. Her wrestling gets the most attention as she was able to drag Jedrzejczyk to the ground time and again early in their second contest. Trips and throws from the clinch compliment her relentless chain wrestling to provide her with versatility in getting the fight where she wants it. With the focus on her wrestling, many fans have forgotten that Gadelha is an outstanding BJJ practitioner, winning multiple world championships at the amateur level. The armbar is her favorite submission, though she is just as capable of ending a fight with punches if her opponent doesn’t leave a limb open.

Casey has shown a lot of growth in her own ground game, going for the occasional takedown in her last few fights and catching Markos in a wicked armbar. Has she grown enough to be considered the superior grappler. No, but I don’t think she’ll be embarrassed either. Her own takedown defense can be questioned, though I would expect her to put a greater focus on stuffing Gadelha’s attempts than she has with any of her previous opponents.

The standup should be a lot of fun. Casey is defined by her aggressiveness, winging hooks that are amongst the hardest in the division. She isn’t the most technical striker, though her chin allows her to thrive in a brawling environment. Gadelha is a lot more measured, throwing leg kicks from the outside and putting together beautiful punching combinations in the pocket. Despite her strengths in those areas, the clinch is where she is at her best as opponents have to worry about her takedowns in addition to the brutal knees and short punches she puts together.

Much has been made about Gadelha’s stamina issues against Jedrzejczyk, but that was a five-round contest. This is only three rounds. Casey doesn’t have the deepest gas tank either, though she covers up for it nicely with her refusal to quit even when she is exhausted. I struggle to see Casey being able to pull out the upset over Gadelha, but I can see her dragging out a FOTN from her Brazilian counterpart. Should be a lot of fun. Gadelha via decision

Thales Leites (26-6) vs. Krzysztof Jotko (18-1), Middleweight

After four straight wins, Jotko gets his first shot against a name casual fans have heard of in eternal gatekeeper Leites.

Leites ran off a five-fight win streak upon his UFC return, only to fall short once he received a definitive step up in competition against Michael Bisping and Gegard Mousasi. He rebounded with a win over Chris Camozzi this past August and while he is likely to earn another opportunity to fight against a top opponent, it seems unlikely he’ll ever pick up a win over one. At 35-years old with a career spanning 13 years, he’s probably already seen his best days.

Jotko should only now be approaching his best days. The 27-year old has revamped his approach to the point that he is now a well-rounded threat. His most recent contest was a 59 second KO of Tamdan McCrory, an awesome display of his progress. Stepping in the cage with with Leites will represent his first opportunity against a ranked opponent.

When Jotko first came into the UFC, his reputation was that of a relatively boring fighter who rarely finished fights. That narrative slowly started to change as he developed his footwork, using more feints, and janky movement. He has the basics such as a jab – accentuated by his 77" reach – and kicks to the body and legs after much technical improvement, though he’ll throw out unorthodox strikes such as reverse elbows to keep his opponent honest. His clinch game has always been solid with excellent takedown defense as his greatest strength.

Leites was once upon a time seen as your traditional BJJ MMA crossover in that all he wanted to do was grapple. Those days are long past. Leites is still going to have better luck with the ground game than standing and banging, but he at least poses a real threat now. Traditionally he has found his greatest success standing as a counter striker, though his right hand pressing forward has put the lights out on more than one opponent. He usually accumulates a lot of his volume with Nova Uniao trademark leg kicks.

While the title of BJJ black belt doesn’t mean all that much today, Leites has earned that title and then some. He passes guard effortlessly, is difficult to escape from, and has improved the use of ground strikes to open up submission opportunities. The problem for him is getting the fight there. He telegraphs his shots, leading to him having far more success using his trips and throws from the clinch. Considering Jotko has proven to have a high comfort level in the clinch, expect Leites to get the fight to the ground. It won’t be easy with Jotko, but it isn’t impossible either.

I really want to pick Jotko. He’s younger. He’s got a deeper gas tank. He’s pretty likeable too. But I just can’t do it. Leites has more ways that he can end the fight in addition to one other major advantage: the fight is taking place in Brazil. The vocal Brazilian crowd will support their countryman for sure. Did I mention Jotko’s one loss came via submission? Leites via submission of RD2

Warlley Alves (10-1) vs. Kamaru Usman (8-1), Welterweight

Not only are Alves and Usman both winners of TUF, they are also incredibly talented prospects who could end up circling one another once again at the top of the 170 pound heap.

Alves is the lesser known of the two to North American fans as the iteration of TUF that he won was in Brazil. However, that doesn’t make him any less talented than his counterpart. He does need to rebound from his loss to Bryan Barberena where Alves unloaded his onslaught early in the contest only to leave nothing in the tank once unable to finish the durable American. Losses like that are common for youngsters as they climb the ladder. At 25-years old, Alves still qualifies as a youngster.

Usman was thought to be by many one of the top prospects in all of MMA before making his UFC debut. The native of Nigeria is on another level in terms of natural athleticism. The one drawback is that he is already 29, hardly an old man, but far from a spring chicken either. Far from his prime as he has been a pro for only four years, it’s hard to say how much Usman has progressed since his last appearance.

To be fair, the same question of just how much Alves has improved since his last appearance should be applied. Aggression is the name of the game, stalking his opponent with single strikes. He has a penchant for flash, throwing spinning back kicks and flying knees. When Alves does hurt his opponent, he unleashes everything in his arsenal, putting his hand speed on display. Unfortunately, it cost him against Barberena as he was unable to finish him. If his opponent is able to survive his attack, Alves largely goes into survival mode, though surviving the onslaught is much easier said than done.

Usman is still a work in progress on the feet. He has good fundamentals as he trains with vaunted striking coach Henri Hooft. He’s shown the capability to put together good punching combinations and a jab that is still coming along, but does not yet have the confidence to put it all together. Once Usman does get his act together, he’ll be frightening as he is every bit as explosive as Alves while putting a greater emphasis on the fundamentals. Until he proves otherwise, Alves has the advantage on the feet.

That might be just fine with the Nigerian Nightmare as Usman will have a huge advantage on the ground. Sure, he doesn’t have much of a submission game and no game off of his back that anyone knows about. It’s his dominant wrestling honed as a division II All-American at University of Nebraska at Kearney. Explosive shots are only the beginning as he chains together attempt after attempt if he is unsuccessful in his first try to ground his opponent. Ground strikes consist of his offense on the ground, though he is usually more concerned about maintaining position than doing damage. Alves has a dangerous guillotine that Usman will need to be aware of and some ability from his guard, but he is at a severe disadvantage in the submission grappling department.

I love this matchup. Both Alves and Usman have enough talent to go far, but they also have enough limitations that they won’t fulfill their vast potential. Usman is likely to grind out his Brazilian counterpart, though Alves is fully capable of catching him with an explosive strike or a guillotine choke. My money is on the former. Usman via decision

Sergio Moraes (10-2-1) vs. Zak Ottow (14-3), Welterweight

If I’m being honest, this fight feels like filler. If I’m being positive, it’s a battle of submission specialists. Take your pick how you want to look at it.

Moraes really screwed himself over in his last contest. No, he didn’t lose. But he did fight a short notice Luan Chagas to a draw after Chagas tired relatively early. The draw snapped a four-fight win streak that had Moraes knocking on the door to competing against names causal fans might recognize. Now it feels like he is back to square one.

On the other side of the spectrum, Ottow has zero pressure on him whatsoever. Coming in on short notice to fight Josh Burkman in his UFC debut less than two months ago, Ottow is taking this fight on short notice as well after Michael Graves ended up having domestic issues that forced him out of the contest. Ottow responded very well to this type of situation the first time around. Now he’s hoping lightning will strike twice.

Most viewed Ottow as a relatively one-dimensional grappler upon his UFC entry. He proved those pundits wrong, throwing a high volume of leg kicks which opened up basic punching combinations mixed to the head and body. Lacking much in terms of power, there is nothing flashy about his style, but it is effective… so long as he doesn’t lapse into bouts on inactivity.

Inactivity is something that Moraes struggles with at times. Despite being a world class BJJ practitioner, there have been times where he has fallen in love with his striking. Yes, he has a lot of power and he picks his spots to attack quite well. The problem is he can be too choosy which results in him doing nothing. Powerful overhand rights and leg kicks are his weapon of choice, though he’ll occasionally mix in a spinning back kick.

The ground battle is what makes this fight interesting. Ottow is a sound submission artist from the top, using heavy pressure with strikes to create openings for his wide variety of chokes. Arm-triangle and rear-naked chokes are his favorite as they are the easiest to develop out from his fighting style. Moraes is a lot more dynamic. Almost as dangerous from his guard as he is from the top, opponents often avoid going to the ground with Moraes like he has the plague. He can often pass through his opponent’s guard like butter while showing great creativity with his submissions. The problem for both has been getting the fight to the ground as neither are particularly skilled wrestlers.

Ottow proved he doesn’t need to take the fight to the ground in order to win in his victory over Burkman. That’s a big key as Moraes represents one of the few that Ottow would rather stand and trade with. With that said, I still favor Moraes. Despite being 34-years old, Moraes is still a superior athlete. Plus, those Brazilian crowds can be difficult to deal with, particularly with somone as beloved as Moraes is. Moraes finishes Ottow the first time the fight hits the ground. Moraes via submission of RD1

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