While I haven’t expressed much enthusiasm for the preliminary contests of UFC Fresno, there are legitimately some solid fights worth paying attention to on the main card. Though it was put together relatively late, Marlon Moraes and Aljamain Sterling is about as good as the main event. A couple of other contests should be pure barnburners. Jason Knight is never in a boring fight and Gabriel Benitez should bring the best out of him. Albert Morales is akin to Knight and he should have a willing dance partner in Benito Lopez. While I admit some of these contests aren’t the highest level of MMA, they should represent the cream of the crop in terms of entertainment. After all, isn’t that all we really want?
The main card begins on FS1 at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Jason Knight (20-3) vs. Gabriel Benitez (19-7), Featherweight
Everybody loves them some Hick Diaz as Knight is affectionately known. Brandishing a standup style heavily reliant on volume sprinkled with a healthy dose of trash talk, it’s impossible to miss the comparisons to MMA’s preeminent brother duo. Though there is no major difference between the renowned brothers style and Knight on the feet, Knight does tend to be more aggressive in putting his pace on his opponents whereas the Diaz tend to lure opponents into what their trying to do using their savvy and trash talk. At 25-years-old, Knight still has a lot of time to learn the nuances of the sport that will help him avoid taking the type of damage he took in his loss to Ricardo Lamas.
Benitez is often overlooked in the deep featherweight division, a bit of a surprising development given his penchant for action fights. His basic strategy is simple enough; circling around his opponent with a steady stream of kicks to the legs and body in hopes of drawing out some reactions he can counter with his left hand. The southpaw’s power has been overlooked before, dropping Sam Sicilia last year. The big hole that Benitez can no longer cover up: his takedown defense.
Knight is a potential star for the UFC. His attitude and rambunctious style are an easy sell for fans. Though Benitez isn’t a pushover, he’s being matched against Knight to get the 25-year-old back on track. Don’t be surprised if Knight looks to utilize his improved wrestling and perhaps secure a submission, but a decision appears to be more likely. Knight via decision
Marlon Moraes (19-5-1) vs. Aljamain Sterling (14-2), Bantamweight
The true co-main event of the evening, Moraes and Sterling may very well be the top talents in the bantamweight division if we’re talking strictly about athleticism. Despite their talents, they have yet to fully harness all their gifts to make themselves legitimate title contenders. A victory for either one could potentially launch them into that stratosphere.
Moraes secured a controversial victory over John Dodson less than a month ago. He made some in-fight adjustments against Dodson, something he struggled to do against Raphael Assuncao in his UFC debut. Instead of allowing Dodson to wait for the counter, he mixed in some wrestling and pushed a much faster pace. Is he likely to try that approach on Sterling? It sounds unlikely given Sterling’s biggest strength is his wrestling, but you never know.
Though wrestling is Sterling’s strength, he has struggled to get his opponents to the ground as he began facing a higher level of opposition. Though he relentlessly chains his attempts together and is extremely creative with his submissions, he isn’t the strongest man and he can end up draining his gas tank in the process. Given that, Sterling has adjusted his approach to include a striking game centered on low, push, and side kicks from a distance. It has proven to be a functional way for Sterling to win points battles, but he isn’t a threat to finish anyone. It should be noted though that Sterling has made enough strides in his boxing that he is competent standing in the pocket and trading punches.
Moraes’ standup is similar to that of Sterling, except Moraes is far more explosive. Sure, Moraes throws low kicks and will throw in side kicks, but it is his head kicks that opponents truly fear as he can throw them out of nowhere from odd angles. Like Sterling, his fists are competent, but nothing more than that. Nonetheless, he has more confidence in his fists than Sterling and that in itself can often make all the difference in the world. On the ground, Moraes is difficult to put away and opportunistic with the guillotine.
This is a very difficult contest to predict. Moraes didn’t necessarily show any new skills in his repertoire against Dodson, only a better way to employ them. On the other hand, Sterling continues to either add or improve on his skill set. Nonetheless, I’m picking Moraes as his takedown defense should be stout enough for him to keep the fight standing enough of the time for him to emerge victorious. Moraes via decision
Even though he picked up a victory in his last appearance, Horcher didn’t look that great. A lot of that can be attributed to him making a return from a motorcycle accident, but it was unknown whether Horcher was a legit UFC talent before the injury. Horcher was a combination counter puncher prior to the injury. Upon his return, he was a lot more tentative against Devin Powell, limiting most of his return fire to a single punch. He wasn’t just tentative on the feet either, merely maintaining position when he was able to drag Powell to the mat.
Though Holtzman probably has a leg up on Horcher in terms of physical gifts, he isn’t an amazing athlete himself. He gets the job done as his gas tank, toughness, and activity level make him a difficult opponent for anyone to deal with. Holtzman is a bit of a conundrum as he prefers fighting dirty, grinding away at his opponent against the fence with dirty boxing and elbows while looking for the occasional takedown. The part that is a conundrum? His takedown defense has been surprisingly weak. He does help to make up for that deficiency as he is difficult to keep down, but being dragged to the mat is what has cost him thus far in each of his UFC losses.
I’d probably favor Horcher if I felt he was the same fighter he was before the motorcycle injury. But if he resembles the same fighter who fought Powell – and I’m going to think he is that fighter until I see otherwise – I have to pick Holtzman. Holtzman has struggled to put away opponents and Horcher has always been a tough bastard, so it probably goes to a decision. Holtzman via decision
Fun fact: Anders is the former LFA middleweight champion. The man who filled in the title he vacated: Perez.
It’s hard to find a more dominant debut than Anders. Bullying established UFC middleweight Rafael Natal across the cage – literally – Anders put Natal to sleep in less than three minutes and straight into retirement. The former University of Alabama linebacker hits with the power of a Mack truck, requiring little space to put the hurt on his opponent. He doesn’t utilize a lot of craft, but he can get by in the mid-to-lower regions of the middleweight roster thanks to his physical talents. Anders isn’t one-dimensional either, showing some takedown ability with brutal ground-and-pound.
Perez isn’t quite as physically gifted as Anders, but he is technically superior. A patient striker who is often too patient, he throws a lot of feints and fakes before making his attack. Kicks are usually what he decides to go with, but he also has a propensity to go with spinning attacks more than you’d expect out of someone so patient. Though only an adequate wrestler, Perez has shown a decent array of submissions in his repertoire along with some excellent defensive grappling.
Anders isn’t a stupid fighter. Relying on athleticism to overwhelm physically inferior opponents is a smart strategy. As he moves up the ladder though, he’ll want to start diversifying his approach and sharpening his technique. Perez may be able to outfox Anders by catching him in a submission or with a spinning technique out of nowhere, but the more likely scenario is Anders outworking and overwhelming the newcomer. Anders via TKO, RD2
Albert Morales (7-2-1) vs. Benito Lopez (8-0), Bantamweight
If you want an exciting standup contest, Morales is the man to call. Using constant pressure to come forward to throw heavy leather and low kicks, he has incorporated a greater use of the jab since making his way into the UFC. He doesn’t pay a lot of attention to defense, which is what has made him so much damn fun to watch. To be fair to Morales, he isn’t completely one-dimensional as he’ll shoot for one or two takedowns a contest. Despite that, expecting him to win the ground battle in most contests would be a stretch.
Lopez makes his way into the UFC via the Contender Series. A long and lanky prospect at 5'10" with a 73" reach, he isn’t your typical Team Alpha Male product that relies heavily on their wrestling to drive his opponent into the ground. Instead, Lopez uses the wrestling learned from his teammates to keep himself standing, preferring to throw fisticuffs with a complete disregard for defense. Though he doesn’t make good use of his length to prevent his opponent from teeing off on him, he has a natural feel for explosive offense with flying knees being a particular favorite of his.
It’s hard not to be excited about this contest. How can you not love two iron-chinned youngsters who love to throw down? It’s almost a toss-up who is going to win. Some may point out Morales has been KO’d by Thomas Almeida, but only Tim Gorman and Jimmie Rivera have gone the distance with Almeida. This is hard to figure. I have to find a quarter….tails. That means… Lopez via decision