clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Diggin’ Deep on UFC on FOX 28: Emmett vs. Stephens - FOX prelims preview

Get the scoop on UFC on FOX 28’s televised prelims, including former bantamweight champion Renan Barao looking to get back on track against the opportunistic Brian Kelleher.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Barao vs Nover Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

If I were to tell you the prelims before the big FOX card featured a former champion, you’d probably think the UFC is throwing the best they can at UFC on FOX 28. However, Renan Barao isn’t near the caliber of competitor he was back in his title days. Since his last successful title defense, Barao has gone 2-4 with his victories coming over Mitch Gagnon and Philippe Nover. Hardly impressive. Nonetheless, there is hope for the former champion. Recognizing his development has stalled, Barao switched camps, going from Nova Uniao to ATT in Florida. It won’t guarantee automatic improvement for the Brazilian, but an attempt to change things up is certainly better than the status quo.

The televised prelims take place on FOX at 6:00 PM ET/3:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Renan Barao (36-5, 1 NC) vs. Brian Kelleher (18-8), Bantamweight

Four years ago, Barao knocked off Urijah Faber for the second time and was in the contention for pound-for-pound best fighter in the world. Then he ran into a buzzsaw no one saw coming in TJ Dillashaw and has been a shell of himself ever since. While it’s understandable that most champions aren’t the same fighters four years after they lose the belt, Barao is still only 31-years old… a time when most fighters are in their prime.

Though it’s clear Barao will never regain the form that once made him so dominant, he can still be a solid piece to the bantamweight puzzle. A more technical striker than when he was the 135-pound kingpin, Barao has made better use of angles and footwork. Plus, his kicks – the trademark staple of Nova Uniao -- are still as lethal as they ever were. The issue is that is where the recent improvements end. He lacks the confidence he once had which allowed him to take risks he no longer does. He’s lost a bit of his athleticism too. Nonetheless, Barao’s 70” reach and near-impenetrable takedown defense still provide him with enough tools to be a viable threat in just about any contest.

Opportunistic is the best way to describe Kelleher. He isn’t a standout athlete by any means, but his toughness and determination keep him in contests where others would likely be overwhelmed. He has enough power in his fists that he’s always a threat while being just skilled enough in his wrestling and striking to be passable. Where Kelleher truly shines is in the grappling aspect as well in the midst of scrambles where he has proven adept at snatching at snatching his opponent’s neck with the guillotine in particular being his specialty.

Though Barao has had a precipitous fall, it’s still worth noting only Dillashaw has been able to finish him, going the distance with Jeremy Stephens and Aljamain Sterling. Kelleher isn’t walking away the winner unless he can find a way to finish off Barao. Given Barao has had issues with his gas tank, it’s plausible Kelleher could find a finish late, but the smarter money says to go with Barao pulling out a decision. Barao via decision

Sara McMann (11-4) vs. Marion Reneau (8-3-1), Women’s Bantamweight

Following McMann’s loss to Ketlen Vieira last September, it seemed like her hopes of getting another title shot at bantamweight were dead. Then a mass exodus of fighters to the newly formed flyweight division – including Valentina Shevchenko, Liz Carmouche, and Alexis Davis – and that path doesn’t seem like a pipe dream anymore. The former Olympic wrestler is still one of the better athletes in the division while demonstrating an improved power submission game in the run up to the Vieira fight. Yes, McMann’s striking is still stiff and she has had a tendency to panic when opponents attack her with submission attempts of their own… but everything is golden beyond that!

Reneau continues to defy age, putting together a strong performance against Talita Bernardo. Owning one of the more dangerous guards in the division, Reneau welcomes a fight going to the ground as she has the type of submission chops that puts a scare into McMann. However, Reneau doesn’t have the wrestling chops to get the fight there in an advantageous position. No one will deny Reneau is also the more fluid striker, but her confidence in her ability on the feet tends to come and go. She was doing fine against Bethe Correia, but then showed reluctance to kickbox with Bernardo.

As much fun as Reneau’s improbable run has been, McMann appears to be a nightmare matchup for her. Reneau’s lack of confidence on the feet doesn’t inspire me to believe a KO is coming and though Reneau has an underrated clinch game, do we really expect her to outmuscle McMann? Plus, Reneau’s takedown defense is hardly impenetrable. Reneau could catch McMann from the guard, but the odds of that happening are slim enough that I’d rather pick McMann to pull out a decision. McMann via decision

Angela Hill (7-4) vs. Maryna Moroz (8-2), Women’s Strawweight

Far better than her 2-4 UFC record would indicate, Hill has defied the odds to make it to this point. A Muay Thai fighter who debuted in the UFC in just her second professional contest, Hill washed out of the UFC after being thrown into the deep end and won the Invicta strawweight title to claw her way back into the UFC. There are still little nuances she has to work out before she can be considered one of the divisional elite, but it’s clear she continues to make the necessary steps to improve.

On the flip side, Moroz has been losing steam ever since her shocking UFC debut in which she upset Joanne Calderwood via armbar. Since then, she has been afraid to commit to her striking, sticking to the outside while prodding with a jab. While a jab it typically highly effective, it doesn’t do any good when it continually falls short of connecting with her opposition without any hint of adjustment. When her inhibitions don’t hold her back, Moroz’s 67” reach causes all sorts of problems for her opponents as she can put together slick punching combinations in addition to picking apart her opponent. Her victory over Calderwood also exhibited underrated submission chops. The key is for the Ukrainian to be aggressive.

While it’s true Hill has evolved into an out-fighter who has taken significant steam off her punches – much like Moroz – she at least has been making consistent contact as the 107 significant strikes landed in her last contest against Nina Ansaroff attributes to. Hill still has a sharp clinch game she can turn to and has shown continued progress in her wrestling on both the offensive and defensive end of things. Given Moroz has some of the worst takedown defense in the sport, that’s just enough to push me in favor of Hill. Hill via decision

Ben Saunders (21-8-2) vs. Alan Jouban (15-6), Welterweight

There has been strong indications that both these strikers are on their way down. Jouban has dropped his last two contests in violent fashion while Saunders has come up short in two of his last three UFC contests with the lone victory being a controversial win over Court McGee.

Believe it or not, it’s been almost 14 years since Saunders made his professional MMA debut. The 6’2” Muay Thai practitioner has always been a little bit chinny – despite his willingness to play face punchy with his opponent – so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise he doesn’t appear to be the most durable guy. Nonetheless, Saunders utilizes his front kick much the same way many use their jab, but that hardly means Saunders doesn’t throw a jab. In fact, Saunders either stays all the way on the outside with kicks and jabs or all the way in with the clinch, brutalizing his opponent’s body with knees. Saunders has never been a strong wrestler, but he knows full well how to use his long limbs to make his guard one of the trickiest in the game. In fact, Saunders owns the only omoplata finish in UFC history.

Not that long ago, Jouban was thought to be one of the more entertaining brawlers on the roster. Employing far more caution in recent years, Jouban has successfully transitioned himself into a patient counter striker with plus power – did you see his short-range KO of Richard Walsh? -- and sound distance management. There are indications his athleticism is fading as Niko Price overwhelmed him in a matter of minutes. Nonetheless, Jouban has shown signs of a wrestling game at times, indicating he may have a method to effectively utilize his often-mentioned but rarely-seen grappling arsenal.

About the only thing I feel comfortable predicting is this contest isn’t going the distance. Jouban’s last two appearances are largely indicative of a fighter who has gone over a cliff for their career as he used to be noted for his durability. Saunders never has been. Though a Jouban win won’t be surprising in the least, I’m going with Saunders as he still looks like the guy we all thought he was. The same can’t be said for Jouban. Saunders via TKO of RD2

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Bloody Elbow Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your MMA and UFC news from Bloody Elbow