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Diggin’ Deep on UFC 224: Nunes vs. Pennington - Main card preview

Get the scoop on the main card of UFC 224, featuring hot prospect Mackenzie Dern in her sophomore effort and MMA legends Vitor Belfort and Lyoto Machida squaring off for the first time.

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Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

UFC 224 hasn’t garnered much attention for a PPV and every contest on the main card helps to tell the story why fans haven’t been excited for this card. Given the main and co-main event will be covered later by David and Phil, I’ll hold off why they aren’t ideal contests for where they are on the card. As for the other contests, it’s easy to pick them apart.

The UFC has already decided Mackenzie Dern is going to be a star moving forward, but she isn’t there yet. Given she’s a long way from being the star the UFC believes she will become, is she worth being part of a package you’re being asked to pay $65 for? I’d say not yet.

John Lineker has proven himself as one of the most exciting lighter weight fighters on the roster. He absolutely deserves to be on the main card of a PPV. But against Brian Kelleher? Kelleher is a very exciting fighter and I’ll admit this contest will probably be worth spending the money on. But I’m not sure Kelleher is ready for the jump up in competition Lineker provides.

And of course, there is Vitor Belfort and Lyoto Machida clashing. Five years ago, this fight would be able to headline a PPV… and both of them were past their primes five years ago! Seriously, this would have been a dream fight circa 2010. Now, both are well past their primes and no longer have the physical skills to hang with the elite, making them a difficult sell to shell out some serious money for fans. Do we really want to see them eking out wins over the likes of a shot Nate Marquardt or a very green Eryk Anders?

The main card kicks off at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Mackenzie Dern (6-0) vs. Amanda Cooper (3-3), Women’s Strawweight

There were mixed reviews coming out of the massively hyped debut of Dern. Her impressive physical talents were on display against Ashley Yoder, but her lack of discipline and experience were obvious too, reckless being the operative word to describe her striking. A few positive things did come out of her performance as Dern’s comfort on the feet offers promise, in addition to her ability to stay in the pocket and eat leather. However, Dern also showed her vaunted BJJ skills are legit, coming close to snagging a submission the brief period the fight was on the ground. Getting the fight to the ground is a whole other story….

It’s hard to say whether Cooper represents a true step up in competition from Yoder, but there is no doubt she offers a larger threat on the feet than the scrappy grappler. Cooper was a boxer in her youth, but hasn’t shown a consistent ability to put those chops to good use in the Octagon. A large part of that has been her inability to stay upright, displaying some of the worst takedown defense in the division. To be fair, her UFC losses have come to two of the better wrestlers at 115 in Tatiana Suarez and Cynthia Calvillo, so perhaps her wrestling isn’t as bad as it has appeared to be. Nonetheless, Cooper appears to have fallen in love with grappling herself, opting to go to the ground in her other UFC contests. That will be that last thing she’ll want to do with Dern.

Though I expect this contest to go the way the UFC expects it to – Dern pulling out a win and gaining invaluable experience – I do find one aspect of this fight intriguing. Despite each possessing a clear advantage in either striking or grappling, they have both insisted on proving they can fight in the world they are less comfortable with. If that trend continues here, poor fight IQ could cost either one a W. Still, the strengths of each fighter is so defined that I don’t expect that to happen here. Cooper has the striking background to pull off the upset, but confidence in her standup has been noticeably absent. Regardless, expect Dern to pursue the takedown with more aggression. Dern via submission of RD1

John Lineker (30-8) vs. Brian Kelleher (19-8), Bantamweight

Following a surprisingly easy decision victory over former bantamweight kingpin Renan Barao, Kelleher called out the hard hitting Lineker. Though it sounded like an entertaining contest, many scoffed at the likelihood of Kelleher getting the fight he asked for. Now that he has the fight, it just goes to show that it never hurts to ask for what want… you just might get it, for better or worse.

At best, Kelleher is an average athlete. Despite limited physical skills, he has displayed a surprising amount of pop in his fists, putting Barao to the mat with a single overhand right. Most of that is due to Kelleher’s reckless nature which he’s been able to get away with due to his incredible durability, never being finished due to strikes in his career. He’s willing to take risks too, throwing spinning and jumping techniques with regularity. He has been caught and submitted on numerous occasions, the biggest drawback to his manic aggression. Fortunately for Kelleher, Lineker isn’t known for his submission prowess.

Unfortunately for Kelleher, what Lineker is known for is the things Kelleher is known for too. He has KO power, an iron chin, and an intense pressure game. The difference is Lineker has proven himself against a higher level of competition than Kelleher has. Plus, Lineker’s pressure is far more fundamentally sound than Kelleher’s in addition to showing far more consistent punching power. Despite his penchant for securing KO’s, there may not be a bantamweight on the roster who works the body more consistently. Since moving to bantamweight, Lineker has only struggled with TJ Dillashaw’s takedowns, managing to stay on his feet against every other opponent at 135.

If there is one contest on the card I feel I can promise entertaining violence out of, it’s this showdown. Lineker’s footwork allows him to stay in the face of the opposition while mitigating the risk. If he’s going to be exposed, Kelleher stands as good of a chance as anyone to do the job due to his risk-taking nature. However, that also means Kelleher is likely to find out just how hard his chin is. If anyone is going to crack his chin, it’s going to be Lineker. Given the difficulties Kelleher is expected to have getting Lineker to the mat, expect that to happen. Lineker via KO of RD2

Vitor Belfort (26-13) vs. Lyoto Machida (23-8), Middleweight

It’s crazy to think Belfort and Machida have never squared off, but when you stop and consider the many factors that have kept these two from squaring off – PED suspensions, fighting in different weight classes, etc. – it makes sense. Even if we aren’t able to witness a battle between these two in their primes, it’s nice to see them compete against one another on a seemingly level field.

A long and illustrious career it has been for Belfort with wins over the likes of Wanderlei Silva, Randy Couture, Rich Franklin, Michael Bisping, Luke Rockhold, and Dan Henderson. Many fighters would be satisfied with just one win over any of Belfort’s list of victims. Nonetheless, it’s clear Belfort has finally fallen victim to the ravages of age and PED testing. He still has enough of the explosion that made him so dangerous and his hands don’t appear to have lost any speed. However, his durability has declined and so has his already shallow gas tank. Plus, opponents have long known what to expect from Belfort. He was simply too overpowering for them to stop in his heyday. Age has now made his bursts of violence much more manageable for the opposition.

Machida’s decline has some similarities to Belfort’s. Also heavily reliant on his explosive burst in his prime, Machida has also relied on being elusive, quickly moving in and out of striking distance to outpoint the opposition. Sure, he’s secured some impressive KO’s over the course of his career as nobody has consistently come out on the winning end of violent collisions – where someone was guaranteed to go to sleep -- as consistently as Machida. However, his lost step has made that an endeavor he’s far more likely to lose now. Given Machida rarely took a lot of damage early in his career, it is difficult to know how sturdy his chin was at its peak. Now that he’s dealt with years of damage in the cage, it’s damn-near disappeared.

It will be shocking if this fight hits the mat for any extended period of time. Both are standup competitors and rarely go to the ground. There is a strong possibility of a KO due to Machida’s declining chin and Belfort’s shallow tank and tendency to quit when the going gets rough. However, both have made adjustments to compensate for their declining skills, making a greater effort to avoid taking damage. Expect Machida to do what he did in his last contest against Eryk Anders: throw a high volume of low kicks and play keep away to score a decision victory… provided Belfort doesn’t put him to sleep early. Machida via decision

Purchase UFC 224: Nunes vs. Pennington pay-per-view on Amazon