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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Norfolk: Poirier vs. Pettis - Main card preview

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Get the inside scoop on the main card of UFC Norfolk, featuring former heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski looking to turn away young Brazilian heavyweight Junior Albini.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Tybura vs Arlovski David McIntyre-USA TODAY Sports

Strictly on the strength of the names of the competitors on the main card, this is a hell of an event. Andrei Arlovski is a former heavyweight champion, Nate Marquardt once fought for the middleweight title, Raphael Assuncao is a top contender at bantamweight, and Joe Lauzon and Clay Guida were once upon a time considered top contenders for their division. However, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed, only one of those five that I mentioned are currently at the top of their game. That isn’t to say their tank is running on empty, but I wouldn’t recommend picking them simply because you might recognize their name.

The main card starts on FS1 at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Junior Albini (14-2) vs. Andrei Arlovski, (25-15, 1 NC), Heavyweight

Less than two years ago, there was talk of Arlovski getting a shot at the title that he once held. Five losses in a row later and most are surprised to see the Belarussian still on the UFC roster.

To be fair, Arlovski’s four-fight win streak upon reentry to the UFC isn’t nearly as impressive as it was upon first glance. His opposition proceeded to go 2-10 in the UFC following their loss to Arlovski. Just to clarify, that is after the loss, not including them dropping their bouts to Arlovski. Perhaps the question we should be asking isn’t how far Arlovski has slipped. Maybe it should be how Albini compares to Arlovski’s opponents during Arlovski’s winning streak as opposed to those he’s faced in his current losing streak.

Albini is very much a mystery. Mostly beating up on tomato cans on the Brazilian circuit, Albini showed fast hands and technical boxing combinations in his debut victory over Timothy Johnson, leading many to hint at him being a big part of the heavyweight division’s future. He showed the striking skills to justify that, but there are also some caveats worth noting before anointing him a contender for the future. For example, Johnson isn’t exactly a skilled striker himself with limited speed, hindering his ability to avoid damage. How will Albini fare against a skilled striker?

Arlovki’s weak chin makes him a perfect test for up-and-comers as he can’t take too much damage while still possessing impressive striking skills of his own. Despite his 38 years of age, Arlovski can still be counted as one of the most athletic heavyweights in the sport, moving with the grace of a welterweight. Though he’s incredibly reliant on his right hand, Arlovski has made some strides to make better use of his left, though there is no denying all his KO power comes from orthodox.

Arlovski lost his last contest when he couldn’t escape Marcin Tybura’s takedowns, eating a lot of damage from the Pole’s ground-and-pound. Typically, Arlovski has demonstrated sound takedown defense and even better submission defense. Albini’s wrestling is still very questionable as it has yet to be seen against credible competition. However, there is far more consensus that he has shown more than adequate submission skills in a division often short on reliable grapplers.

I know the popular pick is Albini and I totally get it. Arlovski is on the decline and has never had a reliable chin to begin with. However, Arlovski’s losses have all come against far more proven talent. Is Albini on the level of those whom Arlovski lost to? The current answer is an emphatic no. That doesn’t mean Albini still can’t find Arlovski’s chin, but I worry about Albini’s defense considering Timothy Johnson was able to find considerable success before Albini put him out. Arlovski can pile up far more damage far quicker than Johnson. I’m closing my eyes and holding my breath, but… Arlovski via TKO, RD1

Nate Marquardt (38-18-2) vs. Cezar Ferreira (12-6), Middleweight

It’s been about two years since the consensus on Marquardt was that he was shot. He has been able to change the narrative since that time, though no one can deny his fragility at this juncture. Then again, the same thing could be said about his opponent…

It would be generous to refer to Marquardt and Ferreira as chinny. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to state they have the weakest chins within the division. However, they’ve learned to make the necessary adaptations to limit the amount of damage delivered to their chin, allowing them to find more success than anyone thought possible after the revelation of their delicate states. Largely what that means is both avoid brawling of any type with limited time spent in the pocket.

To help mitigate his damage, Ferreira has resorted to a wrestling-heavy attack. Despite his lack of a formal wrestling background, Ferreira has developed a keen sense of timing to secure his takedowns with dominant top control. It isn’t exciting, but it is effective. He’s also become more efficient in his guard passing skills, hunting for submissions while loosening up the opposition with strategic ground-and-pound. If Ferreira is going to finish a fight, it’ll be on the ground.

Marquardt doesn’t have the energy level that he once had, making him wary to engage in contests heavy with wrestling and grappling. Instead, he prefers to hover on the outside and pick apart his opponent with a jab and low kicks while trying to induce his opponent to throw back at him. At that point, Marquardt’s veteran savvy and timing allow him to deliver a kill shot.

Marquardt was once a top athlete. Now 38 years old in a career that has spanned 18 years and over 50 fights, that athleticism has declined, though he still flashes it in short bursts. He could still catch Ferreira as he comes in on a takedown attempt, but I see Ferreira using his athletic advantage over Marquardt at least control him in the clinch if he can’t get him to the ground. Barring a well-timed KO from Marquardt, I wouldn’t count on this being a bout worth watching. Ferreira via decision

Raphael Assuncao (25-5) vs. Matthew Lopez (10-1), Bantamweight

It’s safe to assume Assuncao is never going to get a title shot despite having won nine of his ten contests as a bantamweight, including wins over current champion T.J. Dillashaw, Aljamain Sterling, and Marlon Moraes. Instead, he’s relegated to a role as the ultimate gatekeeper for the division, now attempting to turn away Lopez.

After only three contests in the UFC, Lopez has already established himself as one of the better grapplers in the division. He went toe-to-toe with Rani Yahya on the ground – impressive even if he was ultimately subbed -- before dominating a solid veteran in Mitch Gagnon. Lopez’s wrestling has been a major key to his success, showing excellent timing to score reactive takedowns. He’s aggressive in looking for the submission, creating scrambling situations where he has a knack of getting the back and great survival instincts when he gets himself into sticky situations. Don’t underestimate his ground-and-pound either; Lopez beat Johnny Eduardo into a mud hole after stuffing a reckless leglock attempt from the Brazilian.

Known mostly as a grappler when he first came to prominence in the sport, Assuncao is now one of the most technically proficient boxers in the division. A very patient fighter relying mostly on an accurate counter right hand to land most of his significant offense, low kicks being a nice complementary weapon as well. He’s developed into an excellent wrestler too, though he has struggled to secure any takedowns since his ankle surgery a few years ago. Despite his own takedowns drying up, Assuncao has retained his rock-solid takedown defense.

This isn’t an impossible task for Lopez to pull off the upset, but it’s close. Assuncao doesn’t make mistakes and the weaknesses he has – a weakness to leg kicks – aren’t likely to be exposed by Lopez as the American rarely throws low kicks. Assuncao is a master of tempo and doing just enough to sway the judges in his favor. He’ll do the same here against an overwhelmed Lopez. Assuncao via decision

Joe Lauzon (27-14) vs. Clay Guida (33-14), Lightweight

Wait…Lauzon and Guida have been on the UFC roster since 2006 and have never fought one another before? How in the hell has this fight not happened?

Guida’s drop to featherweight for a few years is probably what kept this fight from taking place earlier, but it truly feels like this was a contest that was destined to happen at some point. It’s a bit of a shame that it is only happening after both are clearly on the downside of their career, but at least they aren’t completely shot.

Most assumed Guida was done heading into his contest with Erik Koch. Instead, he looked revitalized upon his return to 155, securing well-timed takedowns and maintaining top control for long periods at a time. He avoided getting into a brawl as would have been his modus operandi in his prime as he knows he no longer has the chin to survive those situations the way he once did. Instead, Guida was intelligent in his approach, playing to his strengths and grinding out a decision.

Lauzon has also slowed down in recent years, but he still can end a fight at any time, an ability Guida has never possessed. Well…it’s more like he can end a fight at any time within the first round. Lauzon goes balls to the wall in the first round, hitting blast doubles early in the contest and attempting a submission with every opportunity that presents itself. Once the first round has passed though, Lauzon is typically forced into survival mode, too exhausted to mount any serious offense of his own. Despite that, Lauzon is still a threat with his deep arsenal of submissions that opponents need to be wary of as he can still catch an opponent with if they get too careless.

Now that his chin is no longer ironclad, Guida has a tough road ahead of him if he hopes to win this one. Yes, he is still a good wrestler, but Lauzon is an absolute ball of fire in the first round and I’m not just referring to his submission abilities. Lauzon possesses underrated power and it’s easy to see him putting Guida out cold with his swarming offense. Guida has never had the power to win brawls should the fight break down that way. Lauzon picks up his eighth first round finish in the UFC via club and sub. Lauzon via submission, RD1