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Diggin’ Deep on UFC 216: Ferguson vs. Lee - Fight Pass preview

Get the inside scoop on the early prelims for UFC 216, featuring a heavyweight clash between Walt Harris and Mark Godbeer as well as flyweight uber-prospect Magomed Bibulatov.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Harris vs Asker David McIntyre-USA TODAY Sports

After a week away, the UFC returns with one of the better top-to-bottom offerings of 2017. Though there was a brief period of time in which the UFC was putting at least one quality fight on Fight Pass, that hasn’t been the case for quite some time. Hell, in recent weeks, there haven’t even been prelims on Fight Pass! For UFC 216, two of the contests will have an impact on the UFC’s divisional rankings and perhaps even a third. Title contention is another thing, but you take what you can get on Fight Pass.

The Fight Pass prelims begin at 6:15 PM ET/3:15 PM PT on Saturday.

Walt Harris (10-5) vs. Mark Godbeer (12-3), Heavyweight

Heavyweight MMA. When it’s between two athletic, well-conditioned big men who fight technically, it’s the pinnacle of the sport. We rarely tend to get that and this contest should be no exception.

That isn’t to say Harris and Godbeer are slobs. They aren’t. Hell, an argument could be made that Harris is the most naturally gifted big man on the roster this side of Francis Ngannou. A former collegiate basketball player, Harris has finally begun to put the footwork he learned on the hardcourt to good use in the cage. Using angles and simply avoiding the pocket outside of his explosive attacks, he has begun taking advantage of his athletic gifts and is on the verge of emerging as a potential rising star in a division badly in need of fresh blood. Though 34 years old, Harris is still relatively youthful in the land of dinosaurs and is still improving.

Godbeer is well-conditioned himself – for a heavyweight -- but no one will mistake him for an extraordinary athlete. He is fortunate enough to largely match Harris in the height and reach department and should have the edge in the pocket. There’s nothing fancy about Godbeer’s punching; it’s just basic combinations that opponents can figure out before too long. Still, Godbeer hits hard enough that opponents can’t just stand in the in front of him and hope they can eventually land a big shot on the chinny big man.

Neither man has successfully executed a takedown in their UFC tenures. However, if Harris were to ever do so, this would be the contest to test his wrestling prowess as Godbeer is notoriously poor at stopping opposing takedowns. That may be a wise option for Harris should Godbeer insist in fighting in the pocket as Harris’ chin hasn’t been ironclad either. Regardless, I like the steady improvements Harris has shown and expect to see more of the same here. Given the durability issues of both, don’t count on this one lasting too long. Harris via KO, RD2

John Moraga (17-6) vs. Magomed Bibulatov (14-0), Flyweight

Admittedly, Moraga looked great in disposing of Ashkan Mokhtarian in his last appearance to snap a three-fight losing streak. Then again, Mokhtarian was making his UFC debut and wasn’t exactly a hyped prospect. As a result, we still aren’t quite certain where Moraga fits in the divisional picture at this juncture.

This contest has him playing a gatekeeper role to a major prospect in Bibulatov. Bibulatov is the most hyped flyweight prospect since Henry Cejudo. He may not have the same physical gifts that Cejudo possesses, but Bibulatov is still a fine athlete himself with a far more developed game than Cejudo possessed upon his UFC entry. Bibulatov’s wrestling is very technical with precise timing, though he struggled more than expected to get Jenel Lausa to the mat in his UFC debut. His wild striking was on display too as he allowed more than one kick to go astray – he landed multiple groin shots -- but his kick-centric offense has a lot of potential.

It has long been difficult to identify exactly where Moraga excels. Though he was a collegiate wrestler, Moraga has struggled in the wrestling department, tying his UFC career high with two takedowns against Mokhtarian. That brings his career total in the Octagon to seven. By comparison, Demetrious Johnson secured twelve against Moraga in their contest. Ouch. Though he has developed into a solid counter fighter, no one will ever accuse Moraga of being a power puncher. More than anything, Moraga is one of the greatest opportunists in the sport with the best transitions in the division this side of Mighty Mouse and a nose for the submission. Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of his game is his BJJ chops, passing through Mokhtarian like butter on more than one occasion.

Though I focused upon Moraga to open up this preview, Bibulatov is the real story here. Even if Moraga pulls off the upset, nobody is going to start campaigning for a title run out of the Arizona native. However, if Bibulatov can win as he is expected to and do so impressively, don’t be surprised if the talk is about fast-tracking him on the title path. Moraga has struggled to keep the fight vertical when that is what he wants. Provided Bibulatov avoids Moraga’s submission attempts, he should post a competitive-yet-comfortable victory. Bibulatov via decision

Thales Leites (27-7) vs. Brad Tavares (15-4), Middleweight

One of the better contests put together by UFC matchmakers on the card in terms of pure competitiveness, this contest has strong potential to be a stinker as this isn’t a great stylistic matchup in terms of pure entertainment value.

Leites has been in quite a few snoozers, including one of the worst title fights in UFC history against Anderson Silva. Nonetheless, he is one of the most efficient gatekeepers the UFC has for entry into the middleweight top ten. Long considered one of the better grapplers in the division, Leites had a brief spell where he was turning out his opponent’s lights once he started gaining confidence in his Muay Thai. Once opponents started showing his striking respect and strategizing accordingly, the KO’s disappeared, Leites began losing confidence in his striking, and a heavy reliance on his wrestling and grappling reemerged. His top game is still primo, but his takedown shots are often telegraphed and he has never had much power in them anyway. Even worse, Leites has been prone to gassing in recent contests if he can’t gain the advantageous position.

Tavares rarely looks to go to the ground, only scoring with the occasional reactional takedown. He has proven difficult to take down though and is quick to get back to his feet should he go down. Instead, Tavares looks to stay on the outside and pick away with a torrent of jabs and low kicks. While this process has led to ten victories in the UFC cage for the Hawaiian, it has also produced only a single stoppage. Basically, nobody fears Tavares’ power. His footwork typically keeps his opponent from returning fire, but he has been overpowered in the clinch and doesn’t have the best head movement.

The most likely scenario for this contest is Tavares picking apart Leites from the outside while stuffing the Brazilian’s subpar takedown attempts. Sounds pretty damn monotonous. If Leites is confident in his standup, this could be an entirely different contest, but that Leites hasn’t been seen for quite a while. Like I already said, the smart money is on Tavares, but you can count on Leites being the one with his arm raised should the fight end before three rounds is up. Tavares via decision

Matt Schnell (10-4) vs. Marco Beltran (8-5), Flyweight

I know I’ve continually stated the UFC hasn’t been cutting anyone, so no need to state someone’s job is on the line…but that may actually be the case for Schnell and Beltran! Given both are on two-fight losing steaks, something has to give.

At first glance, Schnell is the favorite. He comes from a top camp in ATT, had a good showing in TUF 24 when he eliminated Matt Rizzo, and picked up some solid victories on the regional scene. Oh yeah…we know he can make the cut to 125 without issues, something Beltran still has yet to prove after competing at bantamweight for his first four UFC appearances. He did make weight in his last appearance and was dealing with the death of his mother at the time as well, but he didn’t look to be in peak physical performance. Given this will be his second time cutting the weight and any distractions aren’t likely to be as pronounced, we can expect a better idea of whether this is the proper home for him.

One of Beltran’s biggest advantages in moving down would be taking advantage of his 69" reach, quite massive for a flyweight. He isn’t an expert at keeping his opponent at the end of his jab, but he’s made strides in that department while mixing in front kicks and teeps. However, Schnell’s 70" reach is longer and he’s far more aggressive on the feet than Beltran with more power. Where Schnell has gotten in trouble has been in his takedown defense and inability to avoid his opponent’s ground-and-pound. Schnell is a solid scrambler with a knack for finding the choke. Beltran isn’t bad in scrambles either, but has a tendency to remain on his back and play guard.

Both Schnell and Beltran have struggled when the fight hits the ground in recent contests, areas that hadn’t been glaring weaknesses prior to their recent losses. Schnell’s struggles have been partially attributed to not handling his opponent’s aggressive nature very well, something that doesn’t describe Beltran. Beltran’s struggles started when he received a definitive step up in competition. I can’t say for sure Schnell is a definitive step up, but Beltran does represent a favorable stylistic matchup for him. Schnell via submission, RD2