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Diggin’ Deep on UFC on FOX 31: Lee vs. Iaquinta - Main card preview

Get the scoop on the final UFC on FOX card, featuring a lightweight scrap between strikers Edson Barboza and Dan Hooker, plus Sergio Pettis’ return to the bantamweight division.

It feels surreal for those of us who remember when the FOX deal was announced all the way back in 2011, but we’ve reached the end of the line for FOX cards. No disrespect to Kevin Lee and Al Iaquinta as they are two quality fighters, but the FOX era is going out with a whimper in comparison to the bang in which it began when Cain Velasquez attempted to defend his title against Junior dos Santos. Sigh….

Even if the UFC isn’t putting forth much of an effort to make this card awesome, it isn’t the worst showing the UFC has put forth on FOX. Remember the main event between Jeremy Stephens and Josh Emmett? That was just earlier this year… and neither of those men are anywhere near the top of the featherweight division right now. The main card does feature at least one person in each contest who have deservedly headlined cards. Granted, none of those fighters are at their peak at this time… but Dan Hooker is. Bottom line: this isn’t the sexiest card, but the main card is still worth tuning into.

The main card begins on FOX at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Edson Barboza (19-6) vs. Dan Hooker (17-7), Lightweight

Barboza was a hyped prospect when he entered the UFC all the way back in 2010. He may not be a champion or even fought for the title, but it’s safe to say Barboza has lived up to the expectations at this point. Perhaps the most dynamic striker in the division, the protégé of Mark Henry no longer relies strictly on his spinning back-kicks or his devastating low kicks – perhaps the best in the sport -- to win fights. He’s become a competent boxer in the in that time and though it may not look like it based on his last two performances against Khabib Nurmagomedov and Lee, Barboza’s takedown defense is incredibly stout. Let’s not forget that Khabib and Lee may be the best wrestlers in the division.

Fortunately for Barboza, Hooker isn’t going to threaten takedowns in the same manner his previous opponents did. That doesn’t mean the Kiwi doesn’t stand a chance. In fact, Hooker has been a revelation since moving up to lightweight, unleashing his full arsenal now that he’s no longer depleting himself to make 145. Sure, he’s no longer the bigger man in the cage, but he’s also no longer guaranteed to be the slower man either. Well… perhaps I should say his lack of speed isn’t as obvious. Hooker also returned to his kickboxing roots as opposed to grinding away in the clinch. He still clinches up, but it’s a far more active clinch with elbows and knees than what he was at featherweight.

It’s hard not to notice the momentum factor of this contest, especially given many UFC fans are still used to the Joe Silva style of matchmaking in which winners face winners and losers face losers. Barboza was on the receiving end of two of the most brutal beatings, riding a two-fight losing streak. On the other hand, Hooker has won four in a row since his change in weight, including a finish in every one of those contests. Was Barboza mentally broken from those contests? Is Hooker going to be swinging above his average?

Everyone knows the way to defeat Barboza is to pressure him. Everyone who has defeated him has done so effectively. Hooker is an effective pressure fighter… but he also lacks the wrestling that Barboza’s recent opponents possessed. There are some components that make this contest similar to Barboza’s win over Beneil Dariush as Hooker’s fighting style is most similar to Dariush. Dariush was piecing up Barboza before eating a devastating knee that put him to sleep. However, Dariush had a bit of an advantage in both wrestling and athleticism. And Barboza did find a hole. His knee that KO’d Dariush wasn’t an accident. So long as his confidence isn’t shot – and he never quit in either case – he should beat Hooker. Barboza via TKO of RD2

Rob Font (15-4) vs. Sergio Pettis (17-4), Bantamweight

Fans have come to accept that Sergio will never match the flash his older brother Anthony became known for. However, it’s also become common knowledge that he’s the far more consistent and technically sound of the brothers. He has yet to secure a single win outside of the judges’ decision in his 13 UFC appearances, though that does fit in with his consistency. Pettis’ mechanical approach includes a steady jab, slick combinations, and the occasional takedown for good measure. There’s nothing sexy about it, but it has been getting the job done… at least it has at flyweight.

Pettis announced his return to the bantamweight division before the rumors of the impeding dissolution of the 125 division began to surface. It makes one wonder if he knew something, though the talks of his massive weight cuts were prominent before that. Nonetheless, Pettis may be on the smaller side at bantamweight, but it’s also likely he’ll find more energy reserves… much like Hooker has. Could we see a brand new Pettis buoyed by the experience he lacked the last time he fought at bantamweight?

He’d better hope so as the UFC isn’t giving him an easy challenge in Font. One of the lankier fighters in the division, Font isn’t the range fighter you’d expect out of someone with his frame and reach. Instead, the Sityodtong product throws heavy hooks with not just ill-intentions, but surprising accuracy as well. His head kick finish of Thomas Almeida proved he’s got more in his toolbox than just his boxing too. Font has added a bit more dynamism to his attack with the occasional takedown attempt of his own and has a tight squeeze when he can wrap up a choke.

Pettis struggled with the size of his opposition during his first stint at bantamweight. It’s unlikely it will be as big of an issue now that he’s more experienced, but I don’t think that’s an issue that’s going to completely dissipate. Font has struggled with strikers who are either heavy-handed or disciplined. Pettis is certainly disciplined… but he’s missing the other part Raphael Assuncao and Pedro Munhoz had to beat Font: wrestling. Regardless, it should be a close contest. Font via decision

Jim Miller (29-12, 1 NC) vs. Charles Oliveira (24-8, 1 NC), Lightweight

For those of you who only became hip to MMA in recent years, it may be a bit of a shock that this a rematch, the original taking place eight years ago. Oliveira was the hot new thing at the time while Miller was the savvy vet. Miller is still the savvy vet, but many believe Oliveira has hit his ceiling.

If it’s true that Oliveira isn’t going to climb the ranks any higher than where he currently resides, he only has himself to blame. The BJJ wiz has as history of missing weight, mental gaffes, and has been perceived as a quitter after some funky conclusions to some of his contests. When the Brazilian’s head is right, his vaunted submission skills aren’t the only prominent weapon he possesses. A lanky Muay Thai practitioner, Oliveira’s front kicks and jab make him a potent outside striker. However, it’s his Thai clinch where he does the most damage as opponent’s worry more about his trip takedowns than they do his attack.

Miller isn’t what he once was, but he is still a valid veteran test who can capitalize on mistakes made by his opponents… just like he did eight years ago. Even when he was in his physical prime, Miller was usually at a physical disadvantage, having to make up for it with guile and savvy. He’s an effective pocket boxer with occasional pop and can usually hold his own in the clinch, but it’s on the ground where Miller usually finds the holes he can best exploit. Can he do so to Oliveira again?

If there is one thing that hasn’t changed since the first time these two met, it’s that Oliveira is still his own worst enemy. The former phenom hasn’t matured as hoped. Despite that, he has matured some while Miller has aged. Oliveira’s recent strategy has been to fire out of the gate like a man possessed, drag his opponent to the ground and secure a submission. Miller isn’t as durable or spry as he used to be. He stands a great chance of taking a decision if he can survive, but I struggle to see that. Oliveira via submission