UFC 196 is just hours away, and everyone is quite understandably talking about Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz. The co-main event between women's bantamweight champion Holly Holm and Miesha Tate is at a far lower level of public interest, if not entirely because there's neither Ronda Rousey involved nor any sort of bitter rivalry that Holm and Tate have drummed up. Still, there's plenty on the line for both women and for the UFC, who absolutely want Holm vs. Rousey 2 at some point in time.
Instead of conjuring up some more takes in the crowded think tank surrounding the top two fights, I'm focusing on some familiar faces on the preliminary card. They're two welterweights who had shown enough flash and promise to be potential contenders, but so far it hasn't panned out that way, and tonight on FS1 they're both in must-win mode.
And in case you're wondering, unlike the Anderson Silva hot takes from earlier in the week, this is a genuine opinion.
Brandon Thatch is 30 years old, heading into the 8th year of his professional career. Erick Silva is 31 years old and in his 11th year as a pro, so neither one of them is really a prospect anymore, but let's play along for a little bit.
Thatch entered the UFC with a lot of promise given his lethal Muay Thai striking and ability to finish fights in the 1st round. Quick wins over Justin Edwards and Paulo Thiago -- neither of whom are still in the UFC -- steadily rose him up the ranks, and while hindsight may be 20/20, he was probably much better off losing a competitive bout with Benson Henderson than getting pieced up by Stephen Thompson. Losing to a former champion on short-notice is one thing, but Thatch's stock dropped sharply after he was knocked down and choked out by Gunnar Nelson at UFC 189. Brandon looking hapless on the ground against Bendo and Nelson was a problem in itself, but Gunnar ended his night early by firstly beating him at his own game. To this day, it's the only time Nelson has shown anything resembling striking power in the UFC.
Thatch's opponent, Siyar Bahadurzada, hasn't fought since 2013 and hasn't won since 2012, so he figures to be overmatched. If Thatch is going to re-build some of the hype from his regional career and his first two UFC fights, anything but a win, preferably by dominant stoppage, isn't encouraging. Come to think of it, it may actually be a positive if he can beat someone in the 2nd or 3rd round or win a decision, because he's yet to do so, and blitzing people in a round is just not sustainable against high-end UFC level competition.
Erick Silva's UFC career is defined by three things: explosive athlete, highly entertaining, and frustratingly inconsistent. He's never won more than 3 fights in a row, never lost 2 straight, all of his wins have come in the 1st round, and all of his losses (save for 1 DQ) have happened outside of it. None of Silva's wins are against fighters who are still in the UFC. Nordine Taleb is a tough opponent but he's also decidedly not an up-and-comer. He's 34 years old and Warlley Alves strangled him into a living death, and given Silva's opportunistic and deadly submission game, it's quite possible Erick taps Taleb out. One thing to keep a close eye on is Silva's physique and his notoriously spotty conditioning. He was very sluggish and out-of-shape against Neil Magny and looked nothing like the "boom or bust" fighter we'd seen in the past. If the Silva that showed up against Magny is the one we'll continue to see moving forward, then he won't be winning many more fights in the UFC and quite conceivably might not be with the promotion much longer. If you're not winning then at least be fun, if you're not fun then you better at least be winning consistently, and if you're not winning and you're not fun then you're as good as gone.
You could generally categorize the UFC roster into five groups:
Group 1: Good enough to contend and/or be a champion. (Examples: Anyone who is currently or has ever been a UFC champion, or Alexander Gustafsson)
Silva and Thatch are quite firmly in group 3 at the moment, although both of them seemingly had the potential to at least be in group #2. Sure, they didn't have the necessary wins against quality opposition to back it up, but the way they dispatched their foes made such projections quite reasonable. Hell, neither Erick Silva nor Thatch has ever closed as a betting underdog in the UFC! For Silva, that includes his eventual losses to Jon Fitch (coming off the Hendricks KO loss), Dong Hyun Kim, Matt Brown, and Neil Magny, while Thatch was a slight favorite against Bendo and Gunnar.
There's a lot to be said about how similarly Silva and Thatch lose fights despite being so different stylistically. Take them out of the first round and their games become increasingly less effective. Silva's cardio just goes to hell and his strategy of constant offense -- think of a 7-year-old playing video games and smashing buttons, and that's Erick Silva's striking -- can't keep up. Thatch has a little bit less data to work from, but his 3 losses are consistent with him not being able to completely overwhelm and destroy his competition from the get-go. What's the problem here? Were they never actually that good? Is it the coaching? Are they negatively affected mentally when they can't be frontrunners? All of the above? None of the above? So many questions I've asked, but so little time to turn this into an even longer column filled with self-answers.
Tonight's performances will tell us a lot about what their respective futures are. Thatch, by virtue of being slightly younger and with less mileage, still has a chance of developing into at least a fringe contender. After all, he's only fought 4 times in 3 years with the UFC, so the room to learn from his past setbacks is theoretically there.
The same can't be said for Silva, who pretty much is who he is this late into his career. If Erick can beat Taleb then at least he'll still likely alternate between losing to ranked fighters and beating unranked guys. But if he doesn't win and continues to perform like he did against Magny, then he's a hell of a lot nearer to group 4 than group 3. Aging curves -- this is code for "USADA" for some of you -- are a tricky thing and Erick is certainly not in a favorable position.
Thatch and Silva were pegged as potential stars at 170 lbs and perhaps rushed up the ranks too soon, but now they find themselves on the prelims of a major UFC PPV just trying to keep themselves relevant in a crowded division, and quite possibly to maintain their place in the UFC.