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Diggin’ Deep on UFC: Rodriguez vs. Penn - Fight Pass preview

Take a close look at the opening portion of the first UFC card of the new year, featuring a contest between exciting strawweights Nina Ansaroff and Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger.

MMA: UFC 194-Torres vs Jones-Lybarger Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

After a break from the watching face punching for about two weeks – and I’m not just talking about the UFC – the fight game returns about two weeks into the new year. The UFC’s offering feels more than a little bit underwhelming, though there are a number of contests that offer intrigue beneath the surface.

Case in point: there is no clear favorite on any of the fights showing up on the Fight Pass portion. I realize that doesn’t necessarily mean the fights will be closely contested, much less worth watching. But I look at what is being offered between the heavyweight contests and the women’s showdown and I think there is more than a bit of potential. The light heavyweight fight? Eh, go ahead and skip it.

The Fight Pass portion begins at 6:15 PM ET/3:15 PM PT

Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger (6-3) vs. Nina Ansaroff (6-5), Women’s Strawweight

Neither Jones-Lybarger nor Ansaroff has picked up a UFC win in either of their two attempts, though their entertaining styles have afforded them a third chance to make good that many others don’t often get. Some may point to Ansaroff’s relationship with women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes for why she is still around, but I’m not taking that side given my belief that Ansaroff was robbed by the judges in her contest with Justine Kish.

Jones-Lybarger has received a difficult hand in her opposition as no one will sneer at loses to Tecia Torres and Randa Markos. There isn’t a lot of dynamism to her strategy as she looks to move forward with her basic boxing combinations. She does use solid angles and has a big frame for the division, finding a lot of success in the clinch bully her opposition. She made greater use of leg kicks in her last outing too, indicating she is continuing to improve.

Ansaroff will hold a decided athletic advantage in this contest, a factor that could make all the difference in the world as both prefer to stand and trade. That athleticism shines through the most when she displays her tae kwon do skills to complement her still developing boxing. Showing more comfort throwing off of the counter, Ansaroff wasn’t able to land her offense without eating damage more often than not in return. Also like Jones-Lybarger, Ansaroff shows strong takedown defense with offensive wrestling that is nothing more than functional.

Unless Ansaroff has made strides in the year since she last fought – a very good possibility – there are too many similarities between Jones-Lybarger and Kish that lead me to believe Ansaroff will again fall short in a judge’s decision. Jones-Lybarger rarely takes a step backwards and judges seem to award that aggression the majority of the time. If nothing else, it should be an entertaining contest. Jones-Lybarger via decision

Walt Harris (8-5) vs. Chase Sherman (9-2), Heavyweight

Many fans will gloss over this contest as the names are unfamiliar to most. Those that do recognize Harris’ name are likely aware of his poor UFC record of 1-4. But they are also probably aware of Harris’ awesome physical gifts while the lesser-known Sherman is durable, willing to slug it out, and still entertaining even when he’s exhausted. Considering neither ever looks for takedowns, my money is on this to be the sleeper for FOTN.

It isn’t a hyperbole to declare Harris is one of the most physically gifted heavyweights to step foot in the UFC in terms of pure athleticism. The problem is that he started his career late so that he is still raw even at the age of 33. Nonetheless, he has shown steady progress since his UFC debut. He’s added sound footwork which greatly compliments his explosion to make him a serious KO threat. His striking variety is diverse as well as the big man is capable of landing an exemplary head kick.

Sherman isn’t a horrible athlete himself, but it his toughness that will give him the best chance to upend his counterpart. He’s willing to eat a punch in order to deliver one while also possessing a fundamentally sound boxing game.

As my cohorts Zane Simon and Connor Ruebusch commonly state, don’t bet on heavyweights. I’m going with Harris due to his experience against a higher level of competition more than anything else as he has continued to improve. But I also fully acknowledge that Sherman has just as much chance of putting out Harris. Regardless, I’m looking forward to this contest quite a bit. Harris via TKO of RD2

Bojan Mihajlovic (10-4) vs. Joachim Christensen (13-4), Light Heavyweight

It’s hard to find a UFC contest with less intrigue. Both Mihajlovic and Christensen were brought into the UFC to serve largely as talent enhancers. Mihajlovic fell quickly to Francis Ngannou while Christensen was submitted by Luis Henrique da Silva. With Mihajlovic at 36 and Christensen at 38, neither offers much of a future. Expect this to be the career highlight for whoever emerges the victor.

Mihajlovic is dropping down to 205 as he was severely undersized at heavyweight. It will suit his 5'11" frame well at the smaller class. The question is whether or not slimming down will enhance his stamina as he gets into better shape or if it will deplete him to cut the additional pounds. He isn’t a skilled striker on the feet, relying on an aggressive kicking game as his primary weapon. Where the weight drop will probably have the biggest impact is where he can more easily flip smaller opponents to the ground with his trips and throws from the clinch.

Christensen is your typical regional journeyman in that he doesn’t have a major strength. However, he doesn’t have any major weaknesses either. Christensen has been known to let loose with lengthy punching combinations when he has his opponent hurt. Aside from that, Christensen employs as basic and measured of an approach on the feet as you will ever find.

There are too many questions surrounding Mihajlovic’s cut for me to find any comfort in picking him. Like his standup, Christensen’s grappling and wrestling is very basic, but fundamentally sound. He may not be much of an athlete, but neither is Mihajlovic. In what will likely be a boring contest, Christensen does enough to keep his UFC career alive. Christensen via decision

Dmitrii Smoliakov (8-1) vs. Cyril Asker (7-2), Heavyweight

Smoliakov and Asker present the same story: relatively youthful heavyweights who started in the European scene and offer a bit of promise. With the limited amount of depth in the division, all it takes is a bit of promise for the UFC to sign them on.

Smoliakov is a hard hitter with a limited gas tank. The single fight of his career that went out of the first round was also the lone loss of his career, his UFC debut. He started out strong enough, showing his Greco-Roman background to keep from being taken down, but it only took about halfway through the round before he was gassed. That doesn’t bode well for the Russian. He could put Asker out with one of his bombs, but it will have to come before he begins to fade.

Asker, who eventually migrated to the South African circuit, doesn’t have quite the same stamina issues, but is hardly conditioned for a marathon himself. Nonetheless, that could be a big advantage for him as he often employs a similar grind it out strategy that could exhaust Smoliakov in a hurry. Asker is a more technical striker than Smoliakov and has just enough power to finish him.

The difficult thing about predicting the fight game is not knowing what type of progress the fighters have made in between their fights. Has Smoliakov addressed his stamina issues? If he has, I actually like his chances to get the fight to the ground and execute his power submission game. I can’t gamble that has, so I’m going to pick Asker to try and wear him out before finishing him off in the second round much like Luis Henrique did. Asker via TKO of RD2