Some surprising news was delivered late last week when the NSAC decided to pull Cain Velasquez from his scheduled rematch with Fabricio Werdum. As the contest was supposed to be a title eliminator at heavyweight, it was a huge blow to the strength of the card. Nonetheless, the main card is still very strong with two title contests headlining and a potential title eliminator in the bantamweight division. They could have put almost any other contests in the opening two spots of the main card and there wouldn’t have been an issue. To be fair to those contests, they are actually worthy to be on a PPV main card, something that hasn’t always been the case with a large chunk of the PPV’s this year.
Worth noting, due to stupid rules from USADA about a fighter who has been in the UFC before needing 4 months to be in their testing program while one who has never stepped foot in the cage before requiring zero time to be in the pool, we are deprived of seeing Jessica Andrade take on Angela Hill. Before we completely blame USADA for this, keep in mind the UFC can waive that mandatory waiting period if they deem the circumstances to be extenuating… like when Brock Lesnar came back. Lesnar’s comeback counts… and Angela Hill attempting to step in on short notice doesn’t? We gotta call BS when we see it….
The main card begins at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT.
TJ Dillashaw (13-3) vs. John Lineker (29-7), Bantamweight
While there are no guarantees that the winner of this contest will receive a title shot, there is little doubt the victor would be the favorite to challenge either Dominick Cruz or Cody Garbrandt -- whoever wins the title later in the night. Many believe it should be Dillashaw challenging Cruz anyway as Cruz took the belt from him in a highly controversial decision where many believed Dillashaw was the rightful winner. After losing the title, Dillashaw went and avenged one of his earlier career losses to Raphael Assuncao at UFC 200 in hopes of getting another crack at the belt only to be told he’s not getting the next shot. Upon receiving that news, Dillashaw asked for the contest with Lineker.
Beating the Brazilian isn’t a small feat. Lineker is undefeated at bantamweight at 4-0 since making the move to his new weight class. His last victory came over John Dodson who had previously been undefeated to anyone not named Demetrious Johnson in his UFC run. He’s been able to overcome his lack of size with his power that is unheard of for a man of such small physical stature. That he is able to secure as many finishes as he has in weight divisions that don’t regularly have their fights end before the fifteen minute time limit makes him that much marketable… so long as he is able to make weight.
Lineker’s strategy is completely based on pressure, hunting down his opponent so that he might be able to land his powerful punches. His ability to use angles and cut off the cage comes and goes as he’ll take to following his opponent at times. Lineker is at his best on the counter, though he is capable of leading the dance as well. Few are better at attacking the body outside of the clinch as he prefers to fight in the pocket, though it would be foolish to discount what he is able to do in close quarters as well.
Dillashaw employs a much more unorthodox approach, relying on fancy footwork and lateral movement to move in and out of the pocket. Few pile up the volume like he does as he puts together lengthy combinations that are often punctuated by a kick to any of the three levels. Though he typically ends up dealing more damage than what he ends up eating, he does usually end up eating a shot or two in the process of his high output approach which gives pause to think this contest will be the cakewalk many think it will be for the former champion.
Knowing this, expect Dillashaw to turn to his wrestling at various points of the contest. Lineker isn’t known as a wrestler as he rarely looks to take the fight to the ground himself, but make no mistake that it isn’t a chink in his armor by any means. He has yet to be taken down since moving up in weight with Ali Bagautinov finding regular success in that capacity. That contest was three years ago and Lineker has shown much better energy levels at 135, making it more difficult to wear him out enough to take him to the ground. Dillashaw isn’t a powerful wrestler, but he’s very technically sound and shows great timing on his entries in addition to his own strong takedown defense.
It's rare that Lineker finds an opponent who will likely outpace him in terms of volume, but Dillashaw is elite in that category. So what this contest really boils down to is whether or not Lineker can catch Dillashaw with a kill shot. Dillashaw has been KO’d before, though that last occurred five years ago when Dillashaw was still a raw prospect. He is much more fundamentally sound now, though Lineker has continued to show growth in his striking technique himself. If it goes the distance, Dillashaw is a strong favorite. If it ends before that point, expect Lineker to have finished the job. Dillashaw via decision
Dong Hyun Kim (21-3-1, 1 NC) vs. Tarec Saffiedine (16-5), Welterweight
Though no one expects Kim or Saffiedine to become a title contender, this contest is pivotal for each of them if they want to make any sort of a run towards receiving a title shot. Saffiedine probably has a bit more room for leeway as he is only 30-years old, but his inability to remain healthy has stunted his UFC run, having competed only four times since Strikeforce officially integrated into the UFC in 2013. He should be in the prime of his career at this point, so Saffiedine needs to make a run now… particularly given his history with injuries.
The ironic thing is that it has been Kim who has struggled with injuries more as of late, having been on the sidelines for over a year. Now 35-years old, it appears that a title run is a pipe dream, though he can still play a role as a gatekeeper to the top ten for another year or two. The biggest positive that he has going for him is he has finished his opponent in his last four victories after earning a reputation as a decision machine earlier in his career.
The reason for Kim’s rush of finishes has been his newfound penchant for flashy strikes, a habit he picked up after picking up a Hail Mary finish of Erick Silva when near the throes of defeat. Spinning backfists, jumping knees, Superman punches… the type of strikes he never used to throw. It made it pretty easy for Tyron Woodley to put his lights out – they are high-risk for a reason -- and Kim did settle down a bit in his subsequent fights after that, but he still has that desire to score another highlight reel finish. When not trying to wow the fans, Kim employs a clinch-heavy approach where he uses his massive frame to wear down his opponents in addition to hitting trips sharpened by his judoka background.
Saffiedine is a much more traditional kickboxer who rarely throws anything with flash. He became best known for his leg kicks after chewing up Nate Marquardt’s leg to take the Strikeforce title and though they are a large part of his arsenal, it is hardly the only thing he does well. An expert at using angles, Saffiedine establishes his range with a steady jab while mixing in efficient combinations. He doesn’t have a lot of power, though he makes up for it with his sheer volume and accuracy.
What will likely determine the outcome is whether or not Saffiedine will be able to stop Kim’s takedown attempts. Saffiedine has had great success stuffing the takedowns of traditional wrestlers such as Rick Story and Jake Ellenberger, but Kim’s judo trips and throws are a different ballgame. Kim offers suffocating control from the top with steady if not overpowering ground and pound. Saffiedine is active from the bottom in avoiding damage and looking for sweeps to get back to his feet, but he isn’t a real submission threat.
Saffiedine is one of the best pure technical strikers in the division who is held back by his lack of power. It’s unlikely he’ll be able to finish off the Korean, so he’ll need to outpoint him. That isn’t an easy task if Kim is able to bully Belgium native. In what should be a razor-thin decision, I see Kim doing just enough to sway at least two judges. Kim via decision
Louis Smolka (11-2) vs. Ray Borg (9-2), Flyweight
Smolka and Borg could very well represent the future of the flyweight division, but right now both are coming off of upset losses and badly need a victory to get back on track. Smolka’s loss in particular was shocking as he allowed Brandon Moreno to submit him in under a round after Moreno took the contest on short notice. Smolka admitted he took Moreno lightly and this could serve as the wake-up call he needs to take subsequent opponents seriously regardless of their status. At 25 years old, Smolka shouldn’t be anywhere near his prime.
Borg is even younger at 23 years old and still very raw in his development for someone with the amount of UFC experience he has. His most recent setback was very indicative of that as Justin Scoggins manhandled him as Borg is small even for the flyweight division. As Demetrious Johnson has shown, that is an issue that can be overcome and Borg has the wrestling chops and physical skills to do just that… he just needs more time.
Many believe that Borg is the quickest fighter on the planet, even quicker than the aforementioned Johnson. Borg uses that speed to catch opponents off-guard to nail reactive takedowns and turning the fight into a game of transitions. Even if unable to finish the takedown, he chains his attempts together at such a furious pace that he is usually able to create a scramble at the very least. He isn’t just a transition fighter either as he is a smooth grappler as well.
Smolka may be one of the few who can keep up with Borg on the ground. He’s almost as quick as Borg with just as much of a penchant for taking the back. While Smolka has proven to be a poor wrestler – the area that Borg will look to expose – Smolka is also one of the best at operating off of his back with his long limbs making him a real threat. Borg’s small stature make him a difficult subject to submit, but if anyone is capable of doing it, it would be Smolka.
Though Smolka has been perfectly content to go to the ground with most opponents, this is one of the few times that he would undeniably rather keep the fight standing as Borg’s striking largely consists of a flurry of punches to close the distance for takedowns. With a reach of only 63", it’s difficult for Borg to do much more than that given his inexperience in that department. On the other side of the spectrum, Smolka throws a steady jab with his 68" reach and possesses an absolutely devastating clinch game where he wracks his opposition with knees to the body, making good use of the leverage his height provides.
This is a very closely matched contest that can go either way. Smolka is accurate enough that he could end up catching Borg with a powerful shot and finishing him off in that fashion, but that is far from a guarantee. Though Smolka is a talented grappler, he has yet to face someone of Borg’s caliber and he doesn’t have the size or wrestling to bully him the same way Scoggins did. I don’t have a lot of confidence in the pick, but I’m going with Borg. Borg via decision