Perhaps the lack of quality on UFC on Fox 20 - or UFC 201 coming up next week - shouldn't surprise us that much. After all, the UFC did completely stack International Fight Week which made it difficult to spread the wealth to the rest of the cards immediately following the high-profile weekend.
So while there is pretty much zero quality depth in terms of name value, that doesn't mean this card is crap. Styles make fights, and there are some matchups that stylistically appear to be worth watching. To sum it up, the UFC knew what they were doing when they made Frankie Saenz and Eddie Wineland the preliminary headliner. You may not be aware of them, but I have a hard time believing you won't enjoy that fight.
Now the part that sucks to admit. You may not care to catch the rest of the televised prelims. Each of them contain a wrestler known for blanketing opponents favored to come out ahead on the scorecards. Damn...maybe this card does suck more than I originally thought.
The FOX prelims start at 6:00 PM ET/3:00 PM PT.
Frankie Saenz (11-3) vs. Eddie Wineland (21-11-1), Bantamweight
In a division that relies so much on speed and quickness, it's impressive these two fringe top-15 vets still are as effective as they are at the ages of 35 and 32.
Saenz, the 35-year old, has a lot less mileage on his tires than the well-traveled Wineland. Not to say Saenz is fresh as a daisy, but the former Arizona State wrestler didn't have his first professional MMA fight until he was 30. He's done well to make up for lost time, winning his first three UFC contests before dropping a competitive fight to Urijah Faber. Saenz is no contender, but he is one tough SOB and a good gatekeeper.
Many have called Wineland a tough SOB countless times, but he's also shown signs of all the wear and tear of a 13-year career catching up to him in recent years. The former WEC champion had his jaw broken for the second time two years ago and was unable to find success in his return bout against Bryan Caraway. Is his career coming to a close, or was it merely ring rust following the injury? This fight should answer that question for us.
Wineland traditionally uses a lot of lateral movement in his boxing-centric approach. Boxing traditionalists would cringe at his footwork and low hands, but would probably give him a thumbs up for his head movement. The movement is designed to throw his opponent off of their rhythm and he usually does a good job of ensuring he doesn't cross his feet. A lot of volume follows with more pop than your average 135er, though he's no John Lineker. Wineland doesn't get enough credit as a wrestler since he rarely shoots for takedowns himself, but he's proven to be extremely difficult to take to the ground. Even if opponents have been able to get his butt to the canvas, he usually pops right back up to continue the striking battle.
That isn't good news for the aggressive Saenz. Though he doesn't rely on his wrestling as much as many expected him to do so upon making his way to the big show, it is still a central part of his usual strategy. Aggression is the name of his game and Wineland is not an easy one to corner. Saenz also uses a boxing-centric attack, but utilizes a more traditional approach while attacking in a straight line. He can be sloppy in his attack, only to turn around and throw a crisp combo punctuated with a kick, proof of his relative inexperience in the sport. Saenz is strongest in the clinch where he puts his punches, knees, and elbows to good use in addition to ripping his opponent's feet out from under them.
This will come down to whether or not Saenz can implement his pressure on Wineland, which only the best have been able to do. Wineland didn't look bad against the perpetually underrated Caraway. All the components were still there that he had before even if he had a bit of rust - Caraway is just a hell of a crafty fighter. What ultimately swung my line of thought in favor of Wineland is Saenz's tendency to telegraph his attack, which makes it easy for an experienced striker to counter. Wineland is about as experienced as they come. So long as he can avoid Saenz's takedowns, it should be pretty academic. Wineland via decision
Darren Elkins (20-5) vs. Godofredo Pepey (12-3), Featherweight
In his eternal role as gatekeeper to the top ten, Elkins hopes to turn away another young hopeful in the flashy Pepey.
Every time Elkins has received a chance against a higher level of competition, he has been shut down emphatically with losses to the likes of Chad Mendes, Jeremy Stephens, and Hacran Dias. Against everyone else he has faced at featherweight, he's been able to walk away with his hand raised in victory with a 9-3 record at that weight. He'll never be exciting, but he has a very defined role and few do it better than the Midwesterner.
Once on the verge of being released, it's Pepey's turn to try his hand at facing a higher level of competition. Not only has he won three fights in a row since being this close to unemployment, he's finished all of them in the first round while picking up performance bonuses in the process. Elkins is a clear step - maybe two - above any foe he's faced so far, so he's going to have his work cut out for him.
Part of the reason that Pepey has been able to find success has been that his opponents matched up favorably for him in his offense first, second, and last approach. Flying knees and spinning back kicks are as much a staple of his arsenal as a jab is for some. He does occasionally throw out a jab and leg kicks, but more often than not he is looking for the instant finish or find some way to get the fight to the ground. Pepey isn't a good wrestler, but he has a decent body-lock trip and is willing to pull guard to get the fight to the ground. Considering he has one of the best guards in the game, that isn't a horrible idea for him, with triangle chokes being his specialty.
Elkins too is a grappler, but he couldn't be more stylistically different from the Brazilian. Whereas Pepey goes for the submission as soon as it's available, Elkins will grind you into dust if given the opportunity. It doesn't matter if it is on the ground or against the cage. If he couldn't finish the takedown, he'll get the job done slowly with short punches that don't hurt much but sure as hell will wear out his opponent. His striking from range is awkward with a very basic boxing approach that isn't very technical. A Darren Elkins fight is never pretty, but you have to give credit to a guy who has found the amount of success he has at the highest level with the tools he's been given.
Pepey will do what he has done the last three fights and look for the kill in the first round. He's going to have to as he's notorious for his short gas tank. Elkins has one of the deeper tanks in the sport, having the energy to still be taking it to his opponent at the 15-minute mark despite his aggressive approach. Elkins is also tough and pretty good at escaping most of his opponent's submission attempts. Outside of a flying triangle early in the fight from Pepey, I see Elkins doing what Elkins does. Elkins via decision
Kamaru Usman (7-1) vs. Alexander Yakovlev (23-6-1), Welterweight
Pivotal fight for highly-touted prospect Usman as he faces his biggest challenge in the well-rounded Yakovlev. He needs to show growth for anyone to believe he can fulfill his potential.
Usman is one of the most physically gifted fighters in the entire sport. He's explosive, powerful, and possesses a smothering wrestling attack honed by his years at the University of Nebraska. When he struggled against Leon Edwards in his last appearance, many seemed ready to jump off of the bandwagon. It's easy to forget he made his MMA debut less than four years ago; he still has plenty of time to fulfill the high expectations that have been put upon him.
Yakovlev is on the other end of the spectrum, having made his debut while he was still a teenager all the way back in 2004. He's not a standout athlete, but he knows how to use the physical tools he has and has seen it all at this point. He's hit his stride in the UFC recently after opening with losses to Demian Maia and Nico Musoke to rebound with wins over Gray Maynard and George Sullivan.
A big part of the reason Yakovlev has been able to find recent success has been due to him not facing a wrestler or a grappler with a longer reach than him. Usman falls into both of those categories with his reach clocking in at 76". He hasn't mastered how to use that reach yet, as his striking is still a work in progress. His jab is developing and he occasionally puts forth effective punching combinations. Despite his progress, there is a reason he still relies heavily on his wrestling as it is that damn good. He shoots powerful double and single-legs that if he can't complete them, at least pushes his opponent against the fence where he wears them down with short strikes. He hasn't been too active on the ground as he is largely a lay-and-pray fighter at this point.
Yakovlev is much more polished at this stage than Usman is as he utilizes an outside striking attack heavy on body and leg kicks. He mixes in straight-hook punching combinations that have a surprising amount of power as he has been transferring more weight into his strikes as of late. Yakovlev proved himself to be a capable grappler by not only surviving on the ground with Maia, but sweeping the BJJ ace. Usman has struggled with positioning at times, so be on the lookout for Yakovlev to create some scrambling situations with the hopes of getting the top position or nabbing a choke as Usman will get him down at some point. It isn't that Yakovlev has poor takedown defense; Usman is just that good.
Another excellent matchup by Joe Silva, though this actually came together when Ryan LaFlare got hurt and Usman stepped up. Yakovlev can threaten from everywhere making him the type of all-around threat that Usman hasn't faced yet. Yakovlev could put together a powerful punching combination or catch Usman from off of his back with a triangle choke. But I'm going with Usman to grind out his usual type of fight with Yakovlev being responsible for the flashes of excitement. Usman via decision
Michel Prazeres (19-2) vs. JC Cottrell (17-3), Lightweight
Oh crap. Prazeres knows what he needs to do to win and he does it well. But does it have to be so boring!? We'll find out if newcomer Cottrell can pull out an entertaining performance out of Trator.
Prazeres has served as a low level gatekeeper since his UFC entry three years ago and has done well in that capacity, sporting a 3-1 record at lightweight since that time. Between having been around the sport for over 15 years and turning 35 before the end of the month, a late career run up the rankings seems unlikely for Prazeres. Despite that, this is the perfect match for him as that experience has taught him some tricks that allow him to beat youngsters with greater physical gifts than him.
Originally scheduled to face Tony Martin, Prazeres now faces Legacy and Bellator veteran Cottrell, who made his last appearance in a cage less than a month ago. His opportunity comes on the heels of a six-fight winning streak. Though best suited for featherweight, he's been bouncing between there and welterweight the last few years, taking fights where he can get them. Despite his high amount of experience, Cottrell is only 26 years old.
With his stout 5'6" frame and 67" reach, Prazeres has had his struggles on the feet. He does mix an occasional jab with powerful hooks from both hands, though those have proven to be most effective when he uses them to close the distance when he wants to clinch up for the takedown. His best weapon from range is actually his leg kicks. Prazeres is at his best when he drags his opponent to the ground and use his heavy base to maintain control and slowly grind them out from there. He's a smooth guard passer with a preference for arm triangles and sinking in a RNC once he gets the back.
Cottrell has a more traditional wrestling background than Prazeres in addition to being able to disguise his single and double-leg attempts better. He loves lifting and slamming his opponents if he can deep enough on their hips, something he does with regularity. His grappling and transitions aren't anything special overall, but he does have a knack for latching on with a guillotine choke. Powerful hooks and straights are the biggest staple, though Cottrell has a deep enough bag of tricks to pull out athletic high kicks from time to time. His biggest weakness is his tendency to leave his chin wide open as he attacks, making him vulnerable to a sharp counter artist.
Cottrell has a very good chance to pull off the upset. He's a better technical wrestler than Prazeres in addition to having a deeper striking arsenal. His 71" reach doesn't hurt either in comparison to Prazeres shorter reach. The question is how much the short notice is going to hurt him. I should be comfortable enough to pick him on the heels Lando Vannata's impressive performance last week, but I still can't do it. Prazeres uses a steady diet of leg kicks - Cottrell has shown a vulnerability to them - and does just enough to grind out another boring decision. Prazeres via decision