Top to bottom, the main card for UFC on FOX 23 is one of the best the UFC has put on television in a very long time. Obviously, I don’t cover the co-main and main events, but I’m perfectly content with the first two contests. While there aren’t any title ramifications in either contest, I’d be shocked if there isn’t a KO in the heavyweight contest between Andrei Arlovski and Francis Ngannou, and Alex Caceres and Jason Knight are two of the more entertaining featherweights in the sport — and I’m not just referring to their fighting styles.
The main card kicks off on FOX at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Andrei Arlovski (25-13, 1 NC) vs. Francis Ngannou (9-1), Heavyweight
There couldn’t be two fighters heading in more opposite directions. After his stunning revival upon returning to the UFC, Arlovski has now lost three contests in a row, being finished in every contest. On the other side, Ngannou has every appearance of being the next big thing at heavyweight as he is the rare pure athlete his size that hasn’t been swallowed up by the better paying professions of pro football or basketball. Do the trends continue or do they come to a screeching halt?
The odds heavily indicate that Ngannou should handle Arlovski handily, with Ngannou being roughly a 4-to-1 favorite. While I’m not saying that Ngannou shouldn’t be a favorite given his abilities, that seems a bit steep to me even it isn’t difficult to decipher why.
While Arlovski has lost three in a row, let’s look at who he has lost to: Stipe Miocic, Alistair Overeem, and Josh Barnett. One is the current champion, another just fought for the title, and the last one is one of the top heavyweights in the history of the sport even if he is past his prime. Arlovski didn’t just lose to nobodies. Those are some heady names. The other side of the coin is revealing too as Ngannou’s four UFC wins are over Luis Henrique, Curtis Blaydes, Bojan Mihajlovic, and Anthony Hamilton. Did I mention three of those men were making their UFC debuts when they fought Ngannou? Hardly a murderer’s row.
While there is no debate that Arlovski’s chin is fragile, it probably isn’t as bad as many of us would like to make it out to be. He took some heavy shots from Travis Browne almost two years ago and many forget that he lasted 15 minutes with Anthony Johnson despite having his jaw broken over the course of the contest. He’s also learned better defensive tactics in recent years, better rolling with punches as they land while also exercising more caution than in his youthful days. I’ve never seen a fighter so reliant upon one hand as Arlovski is upon his right, but he makes his odd style work without utilizing much of a jab by substituting it for the occasional kick to the legs. Keep in mind that Arlovski has seen just about everything there is to see in the cage as one of the few who began plying their trade in the 1990’s who is still around.
Ngannou hasn’t seen too much, beginning his fighting career in France while mostly fighting opponents who are similarly inexperienced. There is no denying the growth he has shown, utilizing a different strategy in his victories. Jabbing Blaydes to death. Stalking Mihajlovic until trapping him against the cage to unleash his fury. Outmuscling the 260 lb. Hamilton to the ground with a sick standing kimura. Ngannou has is proving himself to be an apt student in addition to a physical specimen. What he is typically doing over the first minute of the contest is figuring out what his opponent is attempting to do and reacting accordingly. Heady stuff for someone who turned pro just over three years ago.
Arlovski typically stays on the outside where he can exploit his athletic gifts. Considering this will be one of the rare occasions where he is the lesser athlete, expect him to dirty things up and fight in the clinch or perhaps even go for a takedown. Though they haven’t been seen in many years, Arlovski does possess some slick submissions that Ngannou hasn’t dealt with in an actual contest yet. Ngannou’s takedown defense has been awesome and on the rare occasions he has ended up on his back, it isn’t for long as his explosion allows him to overpower the opposition. Then again, Ngannou has yet to face an opponent who wants to stand and trade with him….
The simple math for this contest is as follows: Arlovski’s weak chin + Ngannou’s raw power and athleticism = breakout performance for Ngannou. I don’t want to overthink this as that is sound logic, but I also don’t want to overlook Arlovski’s abilities and veteran savvy. Basically, I expect a changing of the guard, but I won’t be surprised to see Arlovski decide he wants to hold on to the torch a bit longer with a bit of guile. Ngannou via KO of RD2
Alex Caceres (12-9, 1 NC) vs. Jason Knight (16-2), Featherweight
If we were going strictly off of personality, Caceres and Knight are near the top of the featherweight division. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case, though nobody will argue that the two of them aren’t entertaining competitors anyway. Thus, the reason why they are opening contest on the card.
Part of the reason for the expectations of excitement is the unpredictability of where the contest might take place. Both Caceres and Knight are volume strikers with slick submissions and just enough wrestling to get by. Are they going to stay on their feet and trade or does one of them believe they can outgrapple the other?
Leaving the narrative of them being similar fighters is a disservice to each of them, particularly Caceres. He has been around the UFC long enough that he has picked up a savvy that belies his 28 years. Yes, he does tend to throw a lot of flashy kicks and spinning attacks that make it appear as though he’s just throwing out random strikes, but Caceres is very aware of what he’s doing out there. That wasn’t always true in his early UFC contests. A steady jab and sound angles as he dances around on the outside are now the foundation to set up the eye-popping maneuvers, not the other way around. Still, Caceres has been prone to mental lapses from time to time despite his experience.
Knight’s striking approach is far more straightforward, marching down his opponent while jaw-jacking with them in hopes of frustrating his opponent into doing something stupid. His toughness is key to his approach as his defense is almost nonexistent. Knight doesn’t have a whole lot of power, though he has enough to keep his opponent on their heels when he lays the volume on nice and thick as he tends to do, leading his arsenal with a jab.
Much like the standup, it’s difficult to determine exactly who has the definitive advantage on the ground. More than just creative grapplers, both are known for their active guards and ability to chain together submissions. Caceres is a better natural athlete which should give him the advantage in scrambles and transitions, but that could be negated by the recent improvements Knight has shown in his takedowns.
Knight is a slight betting favorite, likely due to the aforementioned wrestling improvements. I’m prone to believe it’s Caceres’ reputation too as he is still seen as a bit of a bonehead, an unfair label at this point. I’ll admit that Caceres can be overrun by a physical specimen, but that doesn’t describe Knight. Knight’s last two opponents lack the cunning possessed by Caceres, allowing Knight’s straightforward approach to find success. It won’t be the same against Bruce Leroy. Caceres via decision