After a single event since the turn of the new year, prime yourself for four consecutive weekends of UFC action. The event kicks off with a pair of lower profile contests. Sure, there isn’t a lot of name value between the two, but the action should be good. Plus, don’t be surprised to see Alexandre Pantoja and/or Eric Shelton develop into top contenders in a short amount of time.
The Fight Pass prelims begin at 4:00 PM ET/1:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Alexandre Pantoja (16-2) vs. Eric Shelton (10-2), Flyweight
Hard not to be excited about this contest. Pantoja and Shelton both had impressive stints in the last season of TUF, each making it to the semifinals before bowing out of the field. Shelton’s run was completely unexpected as he entered the 16-man tournament as the no. 15 seed while Pantoja was the seeded favorite. Regardless of how they entered the reality show, they make their UFC debuts in the same situation: prospects who stand a great chance of making an impact in a division starved for new contenders.
There is a bit of worry about how much more Pantoja can grow despite being only 26-years old as he has been fighting professionally for almost 10 years. Regardless, there isn’t anyone who believes he doesn’t deserve to be in the UFC as his lone loss over the last seven years came to UFC mainstay Jussier Formiga. The general opinion is that he is primarily a grappler, though that is entirely unfair to his striking abilities. At 5'5", he possesses a slightly freakish 70" reach that he utilizes effectively as he wades forward with punches and leg kicks. Pantoja is at his best in the clinch where he’ll either wrack the body and head with devastating knees from the Thai clinch or simply grind away at his opponent. Though a good scrambler, Pantoja is more noted for his technical grappling and dangerous guard.
Explosive is the best word to describe Shelton. The 25-year old is an incredible athlete with the ability to go from 0 to 100 mph in no time flat with a gas tank for days. A fantastic scrambler and grappler, Shelton is still a bit raw on the feet. He has shown progress as a counter puncher as he can stay disciplined, but his technique breaks down a bit when he goes on the offensive as he tends to go for the kill. Shelton has never been finished by strikes in his amateur or professional career, indicating his chin will allow him to hold up in a brawl, an environment likely to come to pass against Pantoja.
Because Shelton’s first taste of tough competition came in the TUF tournament, it’s difficult to get a good feel for him as the TUF environment is a completely different ball game. Pantoja comes out of the Nova Uniao camp which is noted for its preparation and game planning, something Shelton didn’t have to worry about as much in the house. I could see him finishing Pantoja in a brawl or simply wearing him down to steal a decision, but I like Pantoja to catch the athletic youngster with a hard shot and securing a finish. Pantoja via submission of RD2
Jason Gonzalez (10-3) vs. JC Cottrell (17-4), Lightweight
Does either Gonzalez or Cottrell appear to have much of a future in the UFC? No. Thus why they are opening up the card. They do have similarities as they both made their entry by being short-notice replacements only to lose convincingly in their debuts. However, while Cottrell was handled pretty easily by Michel Prazeres over the course of 15 minutes, Gonzalez was finished in less than two minutes by Drew Dober.
Regardless of how anyone feels about the quality of these two, they should put on an entertaining scrap at the very least. Gonzalez is a lanky dude at 6'2" with a 76" reach and does a pretty good job of using that to his advantage with a pumping jab and a deep arsenal of kicks. He puts heat on everything he throws, though he isn’t exactly a pure power puncher. Where Gonzalez struggles is with defense in just about every category. It isn’t too difficult to get inside his range and he struggles to stop takedowns after stuffing the initial effort. His active guard does help to make up for that when the fight hits the ground, though it also ends up being troublesome as he doesn’t make a concentrated effort to climb back to his feet from time to time.
That’s good news for Cottrell who owns a strong wrestling background. Largely a positional grappler, he’s grabbed most of his submissions in transition where he can grab a guillotine or rear-naked choke. Possessing a professional boxing contest under his belt, Cottrell has some good fundamentals on his feet as well. He rarely delivers a finish with his fists, though he does possess some sneaky power in his hooks if his opponent is willing to stand and trade with him.
In terms of pure physical skills, I want to favor Gonzalez as his length makes him a difficult matchup for most of the division. I can’t bring myself to pick him though based on his shaky defense and poor wrestling. Cottrell is no defensive savant himself and could easily be dropped by a power shot from Gonzalez, but I anticipate Cottrell’s rounded approach to sway the judges in his favor. Cottrell via decision