There has been a lot of attention on the two title fights for UFC 215. Rightfully so, but fans are forgetting there are a pair of quality contests earlier on the main card featuring a pair of former lightweight champions trying to make names for themselves in new weight classes. The light heavyweight contest offers promise too as the UFC looks to develop more depth in a division in desperate need of active bodies. Of course, we’d all rather have Junior dos Santos clashing with Francis Ngannou, but that was called off once dos Santos tested positive for PED’s. Damn…now I’m a bit depressed.
The main card kicks off on PPV at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Neil Magny (19-5) vs. Rafael dos Anjos (26-9), Welterweight
It used to be you wouldn’t go more than a few months before seeing Magny step into the cage, at one point appearing 12 times in the span of 27 months. That’s a pace even Donald Cerrone can’t match. A medical suspension finally forced him to the sidelines and he makes his return for the first time in over eight months against former champion Rafael dos Anjos. Magny disposed of one former champion in Johny Hendricks in his last appearance. Can he do so again?
Unlike Hendricks, dos Anjos is moving up from lightweight. Given Magny’s extra seven inches of height and ten inches of reach, some may draw the conclusion right away that Magny’s size will prove to be too much of an obstacle for dos Anjos to overcome and that may yet prove to be true. However, dos Anjos has proven to be extremely dogged in pursuing his objective to pressure, willing to eat a few shots to get in his offense. For his part, Magny has slowly become more effective on keeping opponents at the end of his jab, but still isn’t where he needs to be if he hopes to be a title contender. Perhaps more troubling, he is prone to low kicks and generally needs a round to find his range, evidenced by his slow starts against Hector Lombard and Lorenz Larkin.
One of the more interesting battles to watch will be the wrestling. Magny has been a bit of a conundrum in that department, outwrestling Kelvin Gastelum, but being dominated on the ground by Demian Maia and Hendricks. Maia clowns everyone he gets to the ground – and he gets everyone down except Tyron Woodley – but being taken down as often as he was to a bloated Hendricks is a bit of a concern. Given that, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the undersized dos Anjos secure multiple takedowns and perhaps even secure a submission given his impressive BJJ pedigree. Dos Anjos wasn’t known as a wrestler upon his UFC entry, but has developed some quick reactionary takedowns based on the openings his opponent leaves from his pressure.
Based on accolades and style, dos Anjos should be an easy pick. But it is hard to ignore the size advantage Magny has on the much smaller dos Anjos. The last time I remember a similar height and reach disparity was when Stefan Struve demolished Daniel Omielanczuk. However, dos Anjos is a far superior caliber fighter than Omielanczuk, so I’m still going with the former champion… with hesitation. Dos Anjos via submission, RD3
Ilir Latifi (12-5, 1 NC) vs. Tyson Pedro (6-0), Light Heavyweight
Perhaps the UFC has high hopes for Pedro as I can’t see any other reason for them to place this contest on the PPV portion of the card. Not that Latifi doesn’t have his own fanbase, but those people are the type who would be buying the card anyway.
It’s easy to see what the UFC sees in Pedro. He’s young, turning 26 a few days after the event. His frame is perfect for light heavyweight at 6'3" with a 79" reach. He’s an excellent athlete too. Perhaps more important, he has the killer instinct and aggression that often lead to the top. Pedro’s base has proven to be his wrestling and grappling, a bit of an oddity at 205. He is still developing his wrestling technique, relying mostly on his physical gifts at this point. He’s proven strong enough to pull his opponent’s base right out from under them, but that will be a hell of a chore to do against the brick house known as Latifi.
Pound for pound, there may not be a stronger fighter on the roster than the stout Swede. In eight UFC contests, not a single opponent has been able to score a takedown on him. Latifi’s own takedowns are a bit of a different story as quickness and burst are two things he lacks. Nonetheless, if he is able to get underneath his opponent’s hips, few can stop Latifi from finishing the takedown. Once on the ground, he has some brutal ground-and-pound and is near impossible to move once he establishes a good base from the top position.
The standup could end up being somewhat awkward. Latifi prefers to sit back and wait for his opponent to come at him so he can land his powerful counter right. His lack of quickness has traditionally led to trouble for him when he looks to lead the dance as witnessed in his losses to Jan Blachowicz and Ryan Bader as they were able to land KO blows on him. Pedro shows the makings of a solid boxing game, but he’s still a work in progress. For one, he has yet to establish consistency with the jab though his long reach would indicate it would be one of his best weapons. His defense has a lot of holes too. Nonetheless, the Aussie has enough power and fluidity in his punches that his striking can’t be ignored.
I love the matchmaking here. Pedro’s two wins in the UFC have come against competition low enough on the totem pole that those victories don’t mean very much. Basically, it isn’t hard to see him losing to Latifi as the Swede hits very hard and could nullify Pedro’s wrestling. However, Pedro is also young enough in his career that a loss to Latifi would hardly put a cap on the youngster’s ceiling. Still, I don’t expect Pedro to hit the first serious roadblock in his career quite yet. Given how hittable both have proven to be, don’t expect this to go the distance regardless of who wins. Pedro via TKO, RD1
Jeremy Stephens (25-14) vs. Gilbert Melendez (22-6), Featherweight
Prior to joining the UFC, many believed Melendez was the best lightweight in the world…he simply hadn’t faced the high-level competition to prove it. A razor-thin decision loss to Benson Henderson for the UFC lightweight title didn’t sway the minds of most of those same people as a strong argument could have been made in favor of Melendez pulling out the W. He earned another opportunity at the title after emerging victorious from a brutal brawl with Diego Sanchez…and has yet to win another fight since. Sure, losses to Anthony Pettis, Eddie Alvarez, and Edson Barboza are nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s clear Melendez’s days as an elite lightweight were over. Now the former Strikeforce champion is hoping to find success at featherweight at the age of 35.
Perhaps he can mirror some of the success found by his opponent Jeremy Stephens. A longtime staple of the lightweight division before a string of three losses in row – coincidentally kicked off by Pettis as well – prompted him to drop to featherweight where he found new life, including a win over former bantamweight champion Renan Barao. However, Stephens is coming off a disappointing performance against Renato Moicano where the experienced veteran appeared to regress strategically after putting together a series of impressive game plans to belie his reputation as an unintelligent brawler. If Stephens wants to get back on the road to success, he’ll have to avoid chasing Melendez as he did with Moicano.
To be fair, Stephens never completely abandoned his brawling ways; he simply picked his spots in which to engage in a firefight. The Midwest native has brutal power in his fists and a simplistic-but-effective boxing game. Up until the Moicano fight, he was making good use of a jab to feel out his distance and threw out the occasional low kick. Stephens used his wrestling effectively to mix things up initially upon his drop to featherweight, but it hasn’t been utilized much lately. Perhaps a return to his original base would help to open up his striking.
The same thing could be said about Melendez as he hasn’t done much to take contests to the ground in recent years. Perhaps it has something to do with his decline is speed and quickness as he gets older. The decline hasn’t been steep by any means, but just enough to make a difference. As a result, Melendez has been more reluctant to engage in the style of brawls that were once one of his calling cards. Much like Stephens, Melendez has made greater use of his jab to push forward before looking to land his powerful right hand.
Though familiar with both fighters, I didn’t recognize how similar their styles were until I started looking more into this fight. Despite having more fights on his record, Stephens has shown less signs of wear and tear, likely due to his being four years younger. How Melendez performs at featherweight is also a great unknown. Despite those factors in his favor, Melendez tends to stick to his strategy better than Stephens. It will probably be a razor thin decision as I don’t see Melendez finishing off the durable Stephens, but look for the former Strikeforce champion to emerge victorious. Melendez via decision