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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Pittsburgh: Rockhold vs. Branch - FS1 prelims preview

Get the bare essentials for all of the televised prelims for UFC Pittsburgh, including a contest between rising lightweights Olivier Aubin-Mercier and Tony Martin.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Gouti vs Aubin-Mercier Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

The positioning of some of the contests on UFC Pittsburgh is curious. A couple of the main card contests would appear to be of lower quality than most of the televised prelims. The only contest that I’d say is of lower quality on the prelims is the heavyweight contest. Why mention this? This card has been getting quite a bit of crap from fans for its lack of quality. Looking strictly at the main card, I can see why fans would think that, even though there are some solid contests there. However, if you want to look at the card as a whole, it’s a bit harder to dog on it too badly. Tony Martin and Olivier Aubin Mercier could be cracking the top fifteen of the lightweight division by next year and Uriah Hall was headlining a card in his last contest. His opponent Krzysztof Jotko… well, keep reading and you’ll know what’s up with him.

The televised prelims begin on FS1 at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Tony Martin (12-3) vs. Olivier Aubin-Mercier (9-2), Lightweight

Going back to his stint on TUF Nations, many have seen Aubin-Mercier as a talent that could make some noise for quite a while. 24-years old at the time of the taping, Aubin-Mercier is now 28 and more than just a wrestler and grappler at this stage. If there is one thing that Tristar knows how to develop in its fighters, it’s a jab. It may have taken Aubin-Mercier longer than expected to do so, but he proved against Drew Dober that he has a very good one now. He’s still a bit stiff overall, especially when it comes to putting together anything beyond simple one-two combinations. Nonetheless, he has progressed continually and there is no reason to believe he’s peaked.

Martin has followed a similar narrative in having to rely on his grappling upon his UFC entry to win. However, against Johnny Case in his last outing, Martin rarely looked to take the fight to the ground, landing effective counters and working a steady jab of his own. He is a bit of a headhunter who could stand to mix up his strikes a bit more, but progress is progress. Given his height and reach advantage on Aubin-Mercier, it’s reasonable to believe Martin will have a slight advantage on the feet.

There is a reason why grappling fans are excited about this contest as this will be an interesting clash in styles. Martin is more of a classic wrestler with a penchant for powerful submissions while Aubin-Mercier comes from a judo background heavy on trips and back takes. Aubin-Mercier would appear to have a slight advantage in speed and quickness as he has traditionally been difficult to beat in scrambles. However, Martin is about as strong as they come at 155. Regardless, it’s difficult to predict who will have the advantage on the ground.

I love contests that are difficult to predict as these are they type of contests where we learn the most about fighters. This is a perfect example of that. My gut says most will side with Aubin-Mercier given Martin’s history of gassing, but he’s made some adjustments in his diet and training to fix that, eradicating that issue in recent contests. Where Aubin-Mercier has struggled is against larger opponents with solid wrestling. Then again, Martin’s losses have come to similar opponents. Hard to decide. I’ll go with what I believe is the less popular pick. Martin via decision

Anthony Hamilton (15-7) vs. Daniel Spitz (5-1), Heavyweight

Wait… Hamilton is still in the UFC? Oh yeah… the UFC isn’t cutting anyone anymore. About the only people leaving the premier MMA organization are free agents. Thus, the UFC ends up losing fighters like Gegard Mousasi with a 9-3 record against top competition in the organization and keeping guys like Hamilton with a 3-5 record against mostly lower level competition. Anyone else seeing something wrong with this picture?

Now that I’ve ripped Hamilton, it needs to be stated that he isn’t complete crap. He does have some UFC wins after all. At 6'5" and tipping the scales near the heavyweight limit, he’s a better athlete than you’d think at first glace. He knows how to do a little bit of everything, from boxing to wrestling to grappling, making him an ideal test for young prospects making their way through the UFC waters early in their career. Hamilton’s killer instinct is his greatest strength, letting loose a torrent of punches that usually end his opponent’s night. Though his wrestling is average at best, he is dogged in his attempts to get the fight to the ground and has proven difficult to take down himself.

Spitz is exceptionally raw and probably shouldn’t be fighting under the bright lights at this stage of his career. Nonetheless, it isn’t hard to see what the UFC sees in the big man. Clocking in at 6'7" with a long 82" reach, Spitz showed promise with his jab against Mark Godbeer in his UFC debut. But aside from that and some durability, he didn’t show much else. Then again, Spitz did take the fight on short notice. On the regional scene, he showed solid grappling skills and better takedowns than you’d expect out of someone his size. Perhaps the biggest advantage he has in this is the likelihood that he could have improved exponentially in the time since his last contest given his inexperience.

I really wish Spitz was still on the regional scene. The dude has some potential, but he should still be gaining experience against lower level competition. Having said that, Hamilton is a winnable fight for the bigger man. However, Hamilton has a history of working over the body and Spitz comes out of a camp, Sikjitsu, reputed for having a disdain for defending leg and body shots. Not a good mixture. Hamilton via decision

Krzysztof Jotko (19-2) vs. Uriah Hall (12-8), Middleweight

Jotko fought David Branch in his last contest to a split decision. It was a close contest that could have gone either direction. Since the judges decided to give the decision to Branch, he’s in the main event of this card and Jotko ends up on the prelims. MMA can be a very fickle sport….

Jotko has come a long way since first entering the UFC. Originally a clinch fighter with the occasional takedown, Jotko has developed a more than competent outside striking game to take advantage of his 77" reach. Though he has upped his output, he still fights at a measured pace heavy with feints from a southpaw stance that opponents often have a difficult time figuring out. Jotko isn’t known as a KO artist, but showed considerable punching power when he took out Tamdan McCrory in just under a minute a little over a year ago. On second thought, calling him more than competent could be selling him short….

Hall has some similarities to Jotko in that he has a long reach at 79" and likes staying on the outside. Unlike Jotko, Hall’s technical improvements haven’t made a difference in recent contests. Few possess the combination of power, speed, and fast-twitch movement that Hall possesses, but he has been unable to put all of his skills together on a consistent basis. Regardless, he showed in his upset victory over Gegard Mousasi that he cannot be taken lightly as all it takes is one shot for Hall to change the fortune of the fight. After all, he is the only one to have finished Mousasi by strikes over the course of the Dutchman’s long career. If Hall can do a better job of setting up his power shots with his jab, consistency should follow… something that has eluded him his entire career.

If the wrestling and grappling aspects end up proving to be the deciding factor, Jotko is likely to end up on the winning end. His ability to score takedowns from the clinch hasn’t gone anywhere. He simply hasn’t had to rely on them as much as he used to. Hall has good takedown defense and is difficult to submit, but he has regularly been controlled for long periods at a time when his opponent is able to get him down. He’s been known to hit the occasional change-of-pace takedown, but rarely does much with it.

Hall may be on a three-fight losing streak, but he has also faced some tough competition in the process with Robert Whittaker, Derek Brunson, and Mousasi being his losses. Jotko hasn’t faced that level of competition, which could prove to be an X-factor. Regardless, I favor Jotko’s consistency and ability to put together a good game plan, though Hall’s striking prowess keeps him from ever truly being out of a contest. Jotko via decision

Luke Sanders (11-1) vs. Felipe Arantes (18-8-1), Bantamweight

The last time we saw Sanders in the cage, he was dominating Iuri Alcantara right up until the moment he tapped to a leglock. For clarification, when I say “he tapped,” I’m referring to Sanders as the one doing the tapping. Ouch.

Sanders looked as good as could have been expected up to that point, showing good reactionary takedowns and brutally relentless ground-and-pound. Having shown a greater tendency to settle for top control prior to the Alcantara fight, the new-found aggression on the ground was a welcome change for the American. He has a little bit of submission ability in him too, though most of those come in scrambling situations rather than his own ability to create them. On the feet, Sanders is a solid combination puncher in the pocket with an emphasis on the basics.

Arantes is establishing a reputation as one of the organizations better bets for excitement by consistently putting on entertaining scraps, particularly since he dropped to bantamweight. He’s proven to be exceptionally durable, never having been finished in his 10-fight UFC stint despite some more than questionable defensive decisions and an extreme comfort for operating off his back. To be fair, he is very capable from there as his pair of armbar submissions off his back in his last two victories indicate. Arantes’ standup is a bit wonky as his punches have traditionally been wildly inaccurate, though he showed improvement in his last outing. The most consistent part of his striking: his wide array of kicks.

This has great potential to be the FOTN as Arantes’ lack of detail to defense often leads to some fun exchanges. I don’t see Sanders being able to throw his ground strikes as relentlessly as he did against Alcantara as Arantes’ active guard will force him to defend submission attempts, but I also don’t see him being submitted a second time in a row. Arantes will have his moments, but Sanders’ more steady approach should garner the judges’ favor. Sanders via decision