Usually, fighters want to be on the main card. There’s generally more attention given to those bouts. In the case of the UFC’s ESPN debut, that may be true in spirit, but not in execution. Sure, the hype is going towards the champion vs. champion fight in the main event, Greg Hardy’s official UFC debut, as well as the controversy of Rachael Ostovich being on the same card. But none of those combatants are fighting on national television. The contests on this preview are. Knowing that, is it really a surprise reliable standby Donald Cerrone is on the prelims for this event? When you think about it, it isn’t surprising at all.
The ESPN prelims begin at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Alexander Hernandez (10-1) vs. Donald Cerrone (34-11, 1 NC), Lightweight
Once the busiest fighter at 155, Cerrone is returning to his old home for the first time in three years. Now motivated by the birth of his first child, the record holder for most UFC wins believes he has one final run left in him to get the belt. However, given his 2-4 record since 2017, there is more evidence to the contrary than ever before. Some might say it can be attributed to Cerrone fighting outside of his natural weight class, which is a valid point. Then again, it’s hard to argue against Cerrone looking older too. Plus, can Cerrone comfortably make weight the way he used to? It only gets harder to make weight as fighters get older and Cerrone turns 36 in March.
If Cerrone is who we thought he is – to quote Dennis Green – he’s still prone to slow starts and pressure. His issues with pressure should be alleviated some by facing men closer to his own size – I’m sure he still has nightmares of Darren Till pressing him – though I have a hard time believing they’ll be completely solved. Regardless, Cerrone’s jab should be enhanced with the weight drop and he still has a wide variety of kicks he’s proficient at mixing to all levels. Don’t forget about Cerrone’s submission skills either. Mike Perry found that out the hard way, leaving their contest with a badly injured arm.
While Hernandez may not have the same name value as Cerrone, he does have youth on his side… and a skill set that’s ideal for beating Cerrone. He’s built like a brick house. He’s aggressive with his pressure. He’s proven to be a solid wrestler too, winning the grappling exchanges with noted judoka Olivier Aubin-Mercier. Hernandez answered many questions about his gas tank when he went the distance in that contest, though there are still major questions about his striking defense. Aubin-Mercier has come a long way as a striker, but Cerrone’s ability to find holes in his opposition’s defense is far superior to that of Aubin-Mercier. We’ll find out a lot more about Hernandez against Cerrone… provided Hernandez doesn’t blast Cerrone out of the gate the way he did Beneil Dariush.
So much of Cerrone’s success can be attributed to where his head is at. If he’s disinterested or too intense, he struggles to put on a good showing. It’s possible his baby boy was just the thing he needed to light a fire under him… but how long can Cerrone burn with that type of intensity? Cerrone has been in a lot of violent battles and his chin is not what it once was. Hernandez’s skill set allows him to attack Cerrone’s noted weaknesses and walks away with the biggest scalp of his young career. Hernandez via TKO of RD2
Joanne Calderwood (12-3) vs. Ariane Lipski (11-3), Women’s Flyweight
While I understand the hype behind the debut of Hardy, Lipski is flying under the radar in terms of fighters making their UFC debuts upon this card. She very well may deserve more attention than the former NFL All-Pro if we’re talking about championship potential. I know many of you reading this are as excited about her as I am, but there are plenty who have never heard – much less seen – the one known as the Violence Queen. If that’s all you know about her, that should be reason enough to tune in.
The 24-year old Brazilian left the renowned KSW organization to come over to the UFC, so it’s not like she’s been beating up on cans. Though she’s a pressure fighter and throws a lot of volume, Lipski is selective about when she lets her fists fly. When she does, she piles on the punches in a rapid fashion with incredible accuracy. She has shown continual growth in her ground game too, picking up submissions in two of her last three contests. Lipski’s defense leaves a lot to be desired as she trusts her chin – with good reason – though that tends to come back and bite everyone who goes that route sooner or later.
That she’s squaring off against Calderwood in her UFC debut should say something about how the UFC feels about Lipski. While Calderwood hasn’t come close to living up to the lofty expectations placed upon her when she first came into the UFC, that doesn’t mean the Scot is a walk in the park. A bit of a slow starter, Calderwood tends to take a lot of early damage before finding her footing beneath her. When she’s warmed up, there are few who can match the technical prowess of Calderwood’s striking, either from a distance or in the clinch. She has improved her ground game too, though she has also shown a willingness to fight off her back. Sure, she nabbed a triangle submission in her last appearance… but is it wise to rely on that strategy in this day and age?
Given Calderwood’s tendency to start slow, I have to go with the hyped newcomer in this one. Calderwood did overcome a slow start against Cortney Casey, but Casey was also taking that contest on short notice and was far greener than Lipski. Even though the odds would probably say this goes the distance as Calderwood is tough as nails, I’m going out on a limb and say Lipski secures a late stoppage. Lipski via TKO of RD3
Alonzo Menifield (7-0) vs. Vinicius Castro (9-1), Light Heavyweight
While it has been a longer wait for Menifield to make his official UFC debut from the Contender Series than it has been for most, it’s easy to forget he was supposed to combat Saparbeg Safarov back in November. The former professional football player has wowed observers with his athletic gifts and power, securing stoppages before the second round is up in every one of his fights. However, he’s also faced a very questionable range of opponents and shows the tendency to burn himself out in a hurry with the amount of power he puts into every strike. Plus, he has yet to show much of a ground game.
That’s music to the ears of Castro. The lanky Brazilian has secured eight of his nine wins via submission, already marking him as one of the better submission specialists at 205 upon his UFC debut. Not the cleanest wrestler, Castro is dogged in his takedowns and has a nice array of trips to get the job done. However, there are plenty of reasons to be wary. The list of submission specialists who find success at the heavier classes is very small as their lights are often turned out before they can take the fight into their world. Castro is very awkward on the feet with poor defense. Plus, he’s not a good athlete at all.
I enjoy watching Castro operate on the ground. He’s methodical in his transitions and rarely makes a mistake. He is facing the right guy to put on a grappling clinic, but I have major doubts he’ll have an opportunity to get Menifield to the mat. The American runs circles around him in terms of physical gifts and I have my doubts Castro hiding behind his forearms will be sufficient enough defensively. Menifield via TKO of RD1
Cory Sandhagen (9-1) vs. Mario Bautista (6-0), Bantamweight
Sandhagen doesn’t get mentioned very often as one of the rising prospects at bantamweight, though that could change if he impresses here in a similar manner in what he did in his first two UFC performances. A product of Elevation Fight Team – Dillashaw’s camp – Sandhagen is a big dude for 135, measuring in at 5’11” with a 70” reach. Despite the long limbs, he isn’t a really a distance fighter, preferring to close the distance and outmuscle his opposition in the clinch. More noticeable is his relentlessness, landing close to ten significant strikes per minute according to Fight Metric. He has yet to go the distance in the UFC, so there are questions how effective he’ll be late in contests.
Based on raw tape, it could be argued Bautista is more physically gifted than Sandhagen. What Bautista is short on is experience and quality opposition. The six fights under his belt isn’t as concerning to me as the fact his professional debut came just 20 months ago. Bautista has shown some good grappling and wrestling skills, specifically exhibiting top control. His striking still needs polish – he is less than two years into his career – but there is a lot of tools to work with. I just fear the MMA Lab product is getting pushed to the big stage too soon.
Though Sandhagen will probably nudge his way into the conversation of notable 135ers, this is unlikely to be the contest to do the trick. Bautista is taking the fight on short notice and is one of the greenest fighters on the roster. The 25-year old has a bright future. He’s just in the same boat as many of the Contender Series products. Sandhagen picks up his third finish in a row. Sandhagen via TKO of RD2