The main and co-main event of UFC 209 have been getting all sorts of attention and rightfully so. They are easily the two best contests of the year thus far. Granted, the UFC hasn’t given us much to get excited about for the first two months… wait. Why the hell am I short-circuiting my argument? Moving on.
The other three contests on the main card all have a certain degree of intrigue of their own. What does Rashad Evans have left? Can Dan Kelly continue his unlikely run? Will Lando Vannata continue to progress into the star many believe he is going to become? And then there is the whole Mark Hunt saga which may be the most improbable narrative outside of the cage between fighter and promoter the sport has ever seen. If the UFC is going to have to do PPV’s without their cash cows Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, I’ll gladly take them if they measure up to the promise of this one.
The main card begins at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Rashad Evans (19-5-1) vs. Dan Kelly (12-1), Middleweight
In one of the most unlikely contests ever thrown together by the UFC, former UFC champion Evans meets perpetual underdog Kelly in Evans’ middleweight debut. What truly makes this contest even more improbable is that the contest actually makes a lot of sense.
Evans is amongst the biggest mysteries in the fight game at this point. He decided to middleweight after an apparent decline in speed following multiple knee surgeries rendered him ineffective against larger opponents at 205. Upon doing so, not one, but two commissions deemed him unfit to step into the cage. An MRI on his brain revealed an irregularity that Evans has declared he – and other commissions – have been aware of for years, but felt it was something Evans could continue to fight with. The New York commission -- and subsequently the Ontario commission -- felt otherwise. Many now question whether Evans should be fighting. Clearly, he believes he can, as does the UFC.
The reason why this contest makes sense is it is unclear what Evans has left to offer even if he is physically fit to continue fighting. At 37-years old and appearing to no longer possess his signature speed and quickness, it’s questionable whether dropping to middleweight is the remedy to what ails him. Competitors are quicker at middleweight and though Evans will no longer be at a size disadvantage, no one knows just how he will handle the cut.
Enter Kelly. Perhaps the slowest 185er on the roster, Kelly is also a sloppy striker and proud owner of the definitive dad-bod in all of MMA. And yet, the former Olympic judoka continues to find ways to win despite being the underdog in every single one of his UFC contests. The best name on his list of victims is Chris Camozzi; hardly a name that launches anyone into title contention. But a 5-1 record when everyone expects you to lose every one of your contests is nonetheless impressive.
What carries Kelly to victory is his grit and toughness, refusing to allow anyone to outwork him nor allowing himself to quit even if he falls into an early hole. Possessing incredible balance honed by his years of judo, Kelly has also proven difficult to takedown and even harder to keep down. Opponents look to avoid the clinch at all costs and not just because of his variety of trips and throws. Kelly struggles fighting at range with his ugly boxing, but finds way to bully his opponent in the clinch with dirty boxing and a surprising amount of pop in his punches.
Evans’ boxing has always been helped by the threat of his takedowns as he changes levels very quickly. Using feints to fake both takedown attempts and striking engagements, Evans was unable to pull the trigger against Ryan Bader much like he was unable to against Lil’ Nog four years ago. If Evans can find his jab early on and develop a rhythm, expect a dominant performance from the former champion. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if the Australian once again finds a way to surprise the masses.
While it’s clear Evans has declined, it’s difficult to say just how far he has fallen. Bader is a solid opponent who was fortunate to be facing Evans after two years on the shelf while Glover Teixeira is rightfully amongst the top at 205 for a reason. If Evans is unable to get past Kelly, there will be calls for him to hang it up. I expect he’ll be able to win, but I fear he could end up having more problems with the 39-year old Kelly than most would expect. Evans via decision
No doubt the UFC sees a lot of star quality in Vannata as they are lining him up against an opponent whose UFC victories consist of wins over Martin Svensson and Jason Novelli. Translation: the UFC is looking to showcase Vannata by giving him an opponent even hardcore fans aren’t familiar with.
Regardless of whether you’re familiar with Teymur, this should end up being a hell of a contest. Teymur finished both Svensson and Novelli in impressive manner. Coming from a Muay Thai background, Teymur is almost strictly a striker, though he has shown the ability to catch a kick and throw an opponent to the ground in addition to a fantastic sprawl. However, he hasn’t exactly faced anyone noted for their wrestling abilities. Nonetheless, as Teymur gains more experience in MMA, he should continue to improve in his wrestling and grappling as he has been a professional for less than four years.
Teymur’s wrestling and grappling aren’t what are going to make this such an entertaining contest though. It’s his technical kickboxing and excellent timing on his counters that are such a contrast to Vannata’s unorthodox style that make this so intriguing.
Vannata comes at his opponent from all sorts of angles, exacerbated by his tendency to keep his hands low. His movement and footwork were once more style than substance, though it’s safe to say that they are now equal parts. Considering how flashy it is, that is quite the compliment. Like Teymur, Vannata prefers to throw off the counter, though he is also a bit more liable to throw a spinning head kick out of nowhere than Teymur is. Don’t underestimate Teymur’s abilities either; he has the same type of spinning techniques in his arsenal.
Vannata’s near-upset of Tony Ferguson coupled with his KOTY of John Makdessi have gotten him all sorts of attention from fans, developing a cult-following. It’s still too early to know if he is really the next big thing and we won’t find out from this contest either. Though I am predicting a Vannata victory, this contest is much closer than what most are giving it credit for. The one thing that is giving me confidence in a Vannata victory is something that isn’t receiving much attention: Vannata’s wrestling. It isn’t elite, but it is more than serviceable and the best that Teymur has faced thus far. Even if Vannata is unable to find his range on the feet – and I think he will – he still has his wrestling to fall back on. Vannata via TKO of RD2
No joke, this is one of the most intriguing fights in the history of the UFC… and it has very little to do with what is going on in the cage. Not that this battle of two of the top KO artists in the history of the heavyweight division isn’t intriguing. No, it’s the fact that Hunt is currently suing the UFC….
After the UFC decided to waive the mandatory four-month testing period for fighters returning to the UFC for Brock Lesnar only for the former heavyweight champion to test positive for PED’s, Hunt filed suit in regards to the way the UFC handled the situation. What makes this even more intriguing, Hunt filed suit after this contest had already been made, essentially daring the UFC to remove him from the contest. There are a lot more details that can be read about here, but it does create an interesting dynamic the which has never been seen before in MMA where the fighter is suing his promoter while actively participating in a contest. Will the UFC cut him – win or lose – after the contest? How will they promote him in the contest? Will there be any word of the lawsuit over the course of the broadcast?
As for the actual contest, it isn’t an easy one to pick. The immediate reaction for many fans has been to pick Hunt given his reputation as one of the most durable big men in the business as opposed to Overeem’s glass chin. It isn’t that easy. Overeem’s four-fight win streak to a title shot featured wins over Roy Nelson, Junior dos Santos, and Andrei Arlovski, all notable hard hitters. Don’t forget that Overeem had hurt Stipe Miocic before gassing himself out going for the guillotine choke finish. Overeem has made adjustments to make his chin less of an issue, staying on the outside and picking his spots to engage wisely. Better attention to his footwork and head movement have also played a key part in protecting his chin.
As for Hunt, there are signs his durability isn’t what it once was either. He’s been finished in each of his last three official losses by strikes, not exactly an indication of someone who is ultra-durable. Granted, he did take a lot of punishment in those contests before conceding the loss, but he will be 43 before the end of March and his conditioning hasn’t always been where it needs to be either. Has his unhappiness with the UFC interfered with his camp at all? Is his age going to begin revealing itself?
Hunt is used to dealing with a reach disadvantage, but his 72" reach will be considerably smaller than the 80" reach possessed by Overeem. Out of all of Overeem’s losses in the UFC, the shortest reach possessed by one of his opponents was 78". Nobody is better at mitigating a reach disadvantage than Hunt, but Overeem isn’t Stefan Struve. The Demolition Man knows very well how to use his length to his advantage. Nonetheless, Hunt is very crafty and knows how to use his jab very effectively to test his range and prevent his opponent from rushing in on him.
What will be worth watching as well will be Hunt’s takedown defense. Though it has usually been solid, he was taken down with relative ease by both Lesnar and Miocic with single-leg takedowns. Overeem doesn’t have the wrestling pedigree of either Lesnar or Miocic, but he’s better than advertised with a very underrated submission game. Hunt has greatly improved his own submission defense and part of the reason that Miocic got him down so easy was poor conditioning on Hunt’s part. Has Hunt been so preoccupied with the lawsuit and his general unhappiness with the UFC that he has let his conditioning slide or has he been focused? We won’t know until fight night.
There are so many what-ifs with this contest that I can’t begin to give a proper assessment of how this fight will play out. Hunt’s decline in durability makes it more plausible that Overeem could put him away and Hunt could put down a horse much less the glass cannon that is Overeem. Overeem has also shown an improved ability to avoid danger. I’ll admit I want to see Hunt win just because I think the lawsuit drama gets that much juicier if Hunt emerges victorious, but I worry about his focus. He could be ultra-focused hoping to upset the UFC apple cart, but I’m going to lean towards Overeem until I see otherwise. Overeem via decision