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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Pittsburgh: Rockhold vs. Branch - Main card preview

Take a look at the at the opening contests on the main card of UFC Pittsburgh, featuring up-and-coming welterweight contender Kamaru Usman and hard-hitting Hector Lombard.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Lewis vs Browne-Weigh Ins Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Though I said some things that could be seen as disparaging remarks about the main card in my preview from yesterday, it was more of an endorsement of the prelims than a knock on the matchups on the main card. That doesn’t mean the main card couldn’t have been better, though injuries didn’t do the card any favors. However, the main card does have some intrigue.

As Kamaru Usman continues to blaze a path towards a title shot at welterweight, he gets his first real test against a grappler. Highly regarded lightweight prospect Gregor Gillespie continues his development. Plus, we get to see if Hector Lombard has anything left in the tank. We aren’t being offered filet mignon, but it isn’t mulligan stew either.

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

Hector Lombard (34-7-1, 2 NC) vs. Anthony Smith (27-12), Middleweight

At 3-5 with a no contest on his UFC record, it’s safe to say that Lombard is one of the biggest free agent disappointments in UFC history. At 39-years old, it’s unlikely he has enough time left in his career to reverse that legacy. Nonetheless, he can still serve as a dangerous gatekeeper to the top 15 of the middleweight division… and try to salvage what he can of his reputation.

Lombard was once vaunted for his durability, going 12 years into his career before suffering the first defeat of his career via stoppage. Once the first one came against Neil Magny, he suffered another one against a 45-year old Dan Henderson. Not encouraging as it seems the accumulation of damage over his long career is finally adding up. One thing that hasn’t gone away is his own power, hurting both Magny and Henderson before they finished him off. His shallow gas tank is a large part what hurt him in those contests – particularly against Magny -- as he tired quickly when he was unable to get the finish. It also helps to explain Lombard’s tendency to throw very little volume.

Volume has never been a problem with Smith. Looking to use his 77" reach to his advantage, Smith throws a variety of jabs, straight punches, and rangy kicks to wear down his opponents. While his range does help him to avoid damage, his actual defensive technique is very limited, leading to the lanky 185er to take far more damage than someone with his reach should. Smith has deepened his gas tank considerably, learning to do a better job of conserving his energy and when to go for the kill… unlike someone else….

What has continually been an Achilles heel for Smith is the ground game. His long frame makes it easy for opponents to get underneath his hips when they get close to him. He has improved his submission defense to the point that isn’t nearly the concern it once was – five submission losses in his career – though he still tends to take quite a bit of damage thanks to his tendency to work off his back. Granted, Smith does have a dangerous triangle choke, but he has yet to catch a truly high-level opponent with it.

Lombard’s own ground game is very meat-and-potatoes: get the takedown, look to pound out your opponent from there. Many fans tend to forget he represented Cuba in the Olympics in judo, in large part due to Lombard’s tendency to head hunt. Nonetheless, when Lombard wants to go to the ground, his wide variety of trips and throws usually gets the trick done and he’s damn near impossible to ground himself.

It’s simple to break this contest down. If Lombard still has something in the tank, he should emerge victorious. If not, Smith walks out with the biggest win of his career. Smith hasn’t been finished in any capacity in nearly four years, but he also hasn’t ever faced someone as dangerous as Lombard at any point in his career… provided Lombard still has something. I think he has enough that he’ll finish Smith, but I won’t be surprised if he can’t before gassing and being finished himself. Lombard via KO of RD1

Gregor Gillespie (9-0) vs. Jason Gonzalez (11-3), Lightweight

A highly regarded prospect upon his UFC entry, Gillespie has done nothing to dissuade anyone that he’s going to become something special. His 21-second KO of Andrew Holbrook may have upped the expectations placed on him. Regardless, the UFC is taking their time with him, giving him an opponent on the lower end of the totem pole in the deep lightweight division in Gonzalez.

That isn’t to say that Gonzalez is a chump. In fact, he creates a very difficult style matchup for Gillespie owing to his additional five inches of height, three inches of reach, and fighting out of a southpaw stance. The lanky lightweight typically throws a high volume of strikes, constantly pumping a jab complimented with a variety of kicks. He does struggle to keep opponents at the end of his reach and pressure, resulting in having his back up against the fence with his opponent teeing off on him or getting underneath his hips for a takedown.

That’s music to Gillespie’s ears. Though he showed prominent punching power when he disposed of Holbrook, his bread and butter is and always will be his vaunted wrestling game. A four-time All-American and D-1 national champion in 2007, Gillespie has found ways to compensate for his lack of size by covering his attempts with punches as he looks for his preferred blast double, though that is hardly the only skill in his deep bag of tricks to get the fight to the floor. Gillespie has shown some ability to scramble as well, though he’s more likely to pound out a finish than nab a submission. His boxing is still progressing with a jab the most consistent element, though it is obvious he’s making progress in his overall striking game.

There is a strong possibility Gonzalez spends a lot of time on the ground in this one. His wrestling has never been very good and he tries to make up for that with a dangerous guard. He’s not too bad in scrambles either, nabbing a d’arce choke in his last contest against JC Cottrell. Though he offers some elements of danger to Gillespie, it’s still Gillespie’s world on the ground. Expect the former collegiate wrestler to find a stoppage as Gonzalez’s durability has long been a question mark. Gillespie via TKO of RD1

Kamaru Usman (10-1) vs. Sergio Moraes (12-2-1), Welterweight

Welterweight is full of guys who appear to be just a notch below title contention with Usman being one of the most notable names. The thought was if he could get a win over a notable opponent such as Neil Magny, Donald Cerrone, or Jorge Masvidal – opponents most believe he could beat – he could have been the next emerging title contender. Instead, he agrees to a bout with Moraes. With all due respect to Moraes, this was a letdown of a contest for many fans.

Moraes is hardly a trash fighter. He is unbeaten in his last seven contests and certainly deserved his opportunity to face a ranked opponent. The problem is that he hasn’t been facing much in terms of quality competition as injuries have forced either him or his opponent out of action on a regular basis, leading to only one of his last five contests featuring his originally scheduled opponent. Translation: he’s beating up on short-notice opponents.

Nonetheless, Moraes should not be taken lightly. A highly decorated BJJ world champion, Moraes has struggled to secure submissions lately. It isn’t that his abilities are slipping; it’s that opponents immediately go into survival mode once Moraes gains an advantageous position with little attempt to get back to their feet. Moraes is a slick guard passer and a solid scrambler. The effectiveness is dependent on timing his reactive takedowns well, but settling for creating a scramble usually works out to his advantage too.

Usman is a different beast than any of Moraes past opponents. A collegiate All-American in wrestling, Usman beautifully blends his exceptional athleticism with his technical wrestling to create an argument as the best wrestler in the division. He used it almost exclusively upon his UFC entrance, but has taken a different approach in his last couple of contests, trying to prove that he can strike too. He’s been mostly successful in that endeavor. Though his kickboxing has become more than functional, it’s still several levels behind his wrestling and unlikely to ever catch up. The point is that Usman is fearless, opting to stand and trade with opponents better known for their striking than abilities on the ground.

Moraes has shown himself to be a dangerous if inconsistent striker, throwing a high volume of power strikes in hopes of landing a KO blow. Mid-to-low kicks are thrown with more frequency than a jab with hooks being the staple of his boxing game. His stamina tends to flag late, but Moraes remains active regardless of his energy level. Usman throws rote combinations, but they’re effective nonetheless and he’s adding power now, delivering a knockdown against Sean Strickland.

Though not initially excited about this contest, it’s looking better to me after doing a bit more homework. Usman likes to make a statement in his fights and the best statement he can make in this contest is to take Moraes to the ground. Yes, it’s where Usman is most comfortable, but Moraes is dangerous from any position on the ground. I still expect Usman to secure a victory, but I’m very curious to see if he can finish the Brazilian grappler. I think he can. Usman via TKO of RD3

Justin Ledet (8-0, 1 NC) vs. Azunna Anyanwu (10-0), Heavyweight

It appears the MMA gods really don’t want to see Ledet fight Dmitry Sosnovskiy. Originally scheduled to take place in February, Ledet was removed following a positive test for PED’s. After it was discovered one of his supplements was tainted, Ledet was let off with a four-month suspension and ended up being rescheduled to face Sosnovskiy again on this card. However, Sosnovskiy was removed about a week before the contest was set to take place with Anyanwu stepping in on short notice.

Displaying his professional boxing chops in his UFC debut against Chase Sherman, Ledet flashed an active jab with a sharp cross. His footwork ensures he gets near-maximum efficiency out of his 80" reach, making it difficult for less-crafty strikers to get a clean punch in on him. He hasn’t shown a lot of power, but he did display a deep gas tank and the ability to lay the punishment on thick, landing 113 significant strikes against Sherman. If there is a weakness in his standup, it’s that he has shown an aversion to checking leg kicks.

Anyanwu is familiar to those who watched the Contender’s Series this summer as he scored an impressive KO the first week of the series. Anyanwu isn’t impressive physically as he clocks in at 6'1" and is quite doughy, but he knows how to use his 77" reach effectively and is more athletic than his frame would lead you to believe. He paws with his jab, looking to set up his right hand or draw his opponent into firing something significant first as Anyanwu’s counter right is particularly vicious and accurate. He operates at a slow pace with little volume, though he does mix things up with the occasional shot to the body.

Though neither is known for their ground games, it’s hard not to give Ledet the edge following his last contest. He secured a takedown and ended up securing a RNC amidst a scramble, bringing the amount of his career victories by submission to five. The biggest question mark is Ledet’s ability to stuff takedowns, an aspect that hasn’t really been challenged thanks to his ability to keep opponents at range. Anyanwu hasn’t shown much of anything besides the ability to avoid being submitted by lesser competition.

Though I found Anyanwu’s KO of Greg Rebello to be impressive, I didn’t see anything to indicate he can hang with the bigger, stronger, and faster heavyweights of the UFC. Ledet is a more technical striker, makes better use of his range thanks to his footwork, and is a better athlete. Anyanwu does have more power, but Ledet has shown the ability to prevent his opponents from using that when they have that advantage. I don’t expect to see a decision. Ledet via TKO of RD2