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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Utica: Rivera vs. Moraes - Main card preview

Get the scoop on the main card of UFC Utica, featuring rising prospect Gregor Gillespie meeting Vinc Pichel, plus hard hitting light heavyweights Gian Villante and Sam Alvey slugging it out.

Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

All that needs to be known about the depth of UFC Utica is Vinc Pichel is in the co-main event. Sure, it isn’t quite as bad as Artem Lobov headlining a card, but it’s still pretty bad. His opponent, Gregor Gillespie, has the talent to headline a card, but has yet to prove himself. Gillespie’s list of victims: Glaico Franca, Andrew Holbrook, Jason Gonzalez, and Jordan Rinaldi. It wouldn’t be a surprise if you haven’t heard of any of them. The hope here is the UFC stopped trying as the FOX deal dies out. Hopefully things turn around when the ESPN deal commences.

The main card starts at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Friday.

Gregor Gillespie (11-0) vs. Vinc Pichel (11-1), Lightweight

Who would have guessed Pichel would win four UFC fights in a row after Rustam Khabilov suplexed him straight to hell in his UFC debut? Granted, that was over five years ago, but that still sticks out in my mind as the most memorable moment of his career. Too bad it isn’t a positive moment for the TUF veteran. Nonetheless, Pichel has found ways to pull out win after win despite owning a less-than impressive skill set. Pichel isn’t very quick, nor is he extremely big. Though he puts together slick and creative combinations, he doesn’t have a great deal of power. What he relies on is an aggressive takedown game to wear down his opponent over the course of the entire contest.

One major thing that has worked in Pichel’s favor during his recent winning streak has been the lack of wrestlers amongst his opposition. That’s about to change in a drastic way as Gillespie is a four-time All-American wrestler, using slick angles and dogged determination to get his opponents to the ground. Gillespie has taken like a duck to water with his submissions too, showing an affinity for the arm-triangle choke in particular. Gillespie’s striking hasn’t come together quite as well as many hoped it would, though he is hardly harmless in that aspect. His punch packs far more power than his undersized frame would suggest.

I really don’t see any way Pichel wins this contest… provided Gillespie doesn’t fight stupidly. Gillespie’s ground-and-pound may be more impressive than his wrestling. That’s saying something as Gillespie is a champion wrestler. Pichel’s feel good story comes to an unceremonious end at the hands of the self-proclaimed best fisherman in the UFC. Gillespie via submission of RD2

Walt Harris (10-7) vs. Daniel Spitz (6-1), Heavyweight

Harris has been dealt a rough hand recently. Firstly, he gets an opportunity to face Fabricio Werdum on about a day’s notice, only to be quickly submitted by the submission expert. Then, once his contest with original opponent Mark Godbeer was rescheduled, he was seemingly on his way to victory before a controversial DQ ensued when he landed a head kick late after a referee break in the action.

Though he is one of the better pure athletes within the heavyweight division, Harris was only beginning to hit his stride prior to his two recent losses. He’s developed good timing on his kicks while throwing them with extreme power to the head and body, set up by his quick hands putting together formidable combinations. As Werdum proved, Harris is still ridiculously unpolished on the ground. Fortunately for the former collegiate basketball player, the majority of the division is unable to take advantage of that disparity.

Surprisingly enough, Spitz may be one of those who can expose Harris’ ground deficiencies. Provided Spitz can get the fight to the ground, the big man is far more adept at securing a choke than anyone would guess at first glance. However, Spitz is also one of the least experienced fighters on the roster, making his professional debut less than three years ago. Fortunately for the 6’7” big man, he possesses the durability to go with his natural size and power to make him a threat should he land a punch cleanly as Anthony Hamilton found out. The problem is catching people as Spitz still has no clue how to properly use his length and is among the slowest fighters on the entire roster.

There are two things that have me leaning towards Harris. First, his footwork has always been impressive, honed by his years playing basketball to make for a natural transition into fighting. Second, Spitz trains at Sikjitsu. While the Washington-based camp does produce some slick grapplers, they also tell their fighters not to block body shots. Harris could have a field day if he picks up on this. Harris via TKO of RD2

Jake Ellenberger (31-13) vs. Ben Saunders (21-9-2), Welterweight

Once upon a time, Ellenberger was a legit contender. With a victory over Rory MacDonald back in 2013, there was a strong possibility he would earn a title shot. Instead, he couldn’t find a way past MacDonald’s jab and his career has been in a tailspin ever since, logging a 2-7 record in that time. Granted, he has faced some top talent in that time, but his performance hasn’t been up to par with what it once was either.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Ellenberger has been fighting professionally since 2005 with 44 fights under his belt. That’s a lot of wear and tear for a body to endure. It has reflected in his performances as four of his losses have come via strikes. Ellenberger still has ample power in his own fists, becoming the first fighter to ever finish Matt Brown with strikes a few fights back while hurting Jorge Masvidal and Mike Perry in his most recent contests before he himself was finished. One thing that hasn’t changed – and not for the better – is his gas tank has remained shallow, struggling to put together consistent offense outside the first round.

Saunders hasn’t exactly had a deep gas tank himself, but he does offer a higher level of energy in the latter rounds than Ellenberger. Saunders’ problem is he’s just as chinny as Ellenberger, if not more chinny. Owning one of the lankier frames at 170 at 6’2” with a 77” reach, Saunders has never learned to keep opponents at the end of his jab on a consistent basis. That doesn’t mean his offense isn’t lethal. In fact, Saunders clinch may be the most dangerous aspect of his attack, brutalizing opponents with varied knees and elbows.

What could prove to be the deciding factor is the ground game. Ellenberger is a bullish wrestler… when he wants to be. Too often, Ellenberger has fallen in love with the idea of the KO and neglected to look to go to the mat. Perhaps he’d be wise not to do so against Sauders as Killa B has one of the most dangerous guards in the game. It’s also the reason why his lack of takedown defense hasn’t ever been a major concern.

Regardless of everything else I’ve already stated, it all comes down to whether Ellenberger is willing to pull the trigger. Ellenberger has been unwilling to throw fisticuffs, being far too patient in picking his spots. However, Saunders may have a lot of sting in his strikes, but he lacks the one punch power possessed by many of Ellenberger’s past opponents that have put him away. It doesn’t feel right picking either fighter, but Ellenberger’s power is enough for me favor him. Ellenberger via TKO of RD1

Julio Arce (14-2) vs. Daniel Teymur (6-1), Featherweight

After a long-delayed UFC debut, Arce proved to a national audience why so many clamored for him to get onto the big stage long before he actually did. A former Golden Gloves champion boxer out of New York, Arce put those boxing skills to good use against Dan Ige, piecing up the Hawaiian with short combinations on his way to landing more than twice as many significant strikes. Perhaps most impressive given his reputation as a striker was Arce’s ability to repel almost all attempts from Ige to get the fight to the ground.

Arce’s ability to stuff takedowns may not matter a bit as Teymur is a former kickboxer, much like his older brother David. Daniel’s debut came at lightweight and the extra weight appeared to slow him down as he rapidly faded after a quick start. Nonetheless, Teymur showed a surprising amount of aggression early on, proving the counter puncher is capable of pressing the action as well as operating off the back foot.

Though neither is particularly known for their ground games, that could prove to be the X-factor in this contest. Though Teymur is the more explosive grappler thanks to his aggressive pursuit of submissions, Arce’s fundamentally sound approach should prove to be more reliable. Arce’s edge in experience is another factor in his favor that makes it hard not to favor the American in this battle of strikers. Arce via decision

Gian Villante (16-9) vs. Sam Alvey (32-10), Light Heavyweight

There may not be a more matchup dependent fighter on the roster than Alvey. A patient counter puncher with TNT in his fists, opponents have refused to engage in the pocket with the former middleweight on a regular basis. What results is a tedious contest in which Alvey throws his strikes all too infrequently. Alvey has recognized this and upped his output a bit with low kicks and occasionally pressuring himself, but the impact of these additions has been marginal.

Fortunately for fans, Villante doesn’t know how to be patient, nor does he have a consistent striking arsenal from the outside. In fact, Villante has been one of the most consistent brawlers on the roster, engaging early and usually winning the first round before exhausting himself in the process. While some might justify this strategy due to Villante’s durability and impressive KO power, that would be ignoring his collegiate wrestling background. Villante has done a fantastic job of stuffing opponent’s takedown attempts, so it isn’t like it’s completely gone to waste. The problem is Villante has secured one takedown in his last nine contests, most of his takedown attempts coming after he has already drained his gas tank.

Both Alvey and Villante are known for their durability, though they have both had their chins cracked. That makes this contest a bit harder to predict. Villante has relied heavily on being the bigger, stronger, and more athletic specimen, something he almost always is. However, so long as the gap isn’t too massive, he can be beat. Alvey’s accuracy on his counters has never received the credit it deserves. There have been occasions where all it took was a single exchange and Alvey had his opponent out cold or wobbled. It’s hard to not see Villante engaging early. Alvey via KO of RD1