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Diggin’ Deep on UFC 244: Masvidal vs. Diaz - Main card preview

Get the scoop on the main card action of UFC 244, featuring charismatic heavy-hitter Derrick Lewis looking to stop the momentum of Blagoy Ivanov.

It is almost upon us. Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz for the BMF title. Oh, it’ll be a knee-slappin’ good time. However, we’re not there yet and there are going to be several main card fights that will be taking place that we have yet to go over. Like the rest of the card, these are good fights. Stephen Thompson gets what may be his last opportunity to prove he’s a relevant factor in the welterweight title picture as he looks to turn away the streaking Vicente Luque. Derrick Lewis hopes to rebound by also turning away a streaking fighter in Blagoy Ivanov. I’ll admit it could turn into a trash fire, but we usually get at least one good highlight out of a Lewis fight… and some excellent post-fight commentary when he wins. And opening the main card, another fighter looking to rebound – Kevin Lee – looks to turn away yet another streaking upstart in Gregor Gillespie. Hmm… there seems to be a theme here. Nonetheless, these fights make sense and will be competitive even if they don’t fill the entertaining portion very well.

The main card begins on PPV through ESPN+ at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Stephen Thompson (14-4-1) vs. Vicente Luque (17-6-1), Welterweight

Thompson is in desperate need of a win. In his last five contests, he owns a single victory, ironically enough against one half of the main event of the evening, Masvidal. The UFC hasn’t exactly thrown him any softballs, but you can’t lose to the elite and still be considered amongst them. There doesn’t appear to be any physical decline in Thompson, despite his 36 years. He’s as sharp as ever with his wide variety of kicks and his punches still have plenty of sting to them too. Thompson’s issues appear to be more mental than anything as he’s been reluctant to pull the trigger, his last finish coming in his breakthrough performance against Johny Hendricks almost four years ago. Thompson still has as good of an understanding of angles and distance of anyone in the sport, benefitting from his kickboxing career prior to coming over to MMA. However, he seems to be underestimating the ability of some of the better athletes to close the distance in a hurry.

For all the questions many have had about Luque since his UFC entry, athletic ability has never been an issue. In fact, he’s been progressively making better use of his gifts. A pressure fighter with exceptional combination boxing, Luque has also proven to be exceptionally durable, weathering a pair of slugfests with Bryan Barberena and Mike Perry to get to this point. Luque’s ability to get the fight to the ground can be questioned at this level, but what he can do once it gets there shouldn’t be a question as Luque’s BJJ was the most vaunted part of his game before he began beating up his opponents with his fists with regularity.

If this fight hits the ground for any extended period, it’s almost assuredly going to be a Luque victory. However, Thompson’s takedown defense has been one of his stronger points since Matt Brown had his way with him early in his career. Thus, I’d be surprised if grappling of any sorts plays a significant role. Luque isn’t the technician Thompson is, but he is more aggressive – hence, more volume -- and appears to have more confidence. This contest looks like a changing of the guard. I’ve been reluctant to call it when I see it before, but I’m not hesitating this time. Luque’s durability cinches it for me. Luque via decision

Derrick Lewis (21-7) vs. Blagoy Ivanov (18-2), Heavyweight

It’s impossible not to enjoy Lewis. He’s never hid the fact that he’s only in the sport for the money, but he doesn’t hide anything else about himself either. People love when fighters are genuine – thus, why Jon Jones couldn’t get any love in his first title reign – and personable. Those descriptions fit Lewis to a tee, though the descriptive word that usually comes to mind for fight fans is powerful.

Lewis’ inhuman power is only rivaled by that of Francis Ngannou. There have been several contests where Lewis was behind several rounds only to connect cleanly with his massive ham hocks and finish them off on the mat. He did it to Shamil Abdurakhimov. He did it to Marcin Tybura. He did it to Alexander Volkov too. No matter how exhausted he appears, no matter how far behind he is on the judges’ scorecards, Lewis is always dangerous… provided he’s vertical. He can be taken down by less than elite wrestlers, but only the elite – like Daniel Cormier – have been able to keep him down for long periods as Lewis’ raw strength allows him to muscle his way out with mediocre technique. If Lewis can reverse position to where he’s pounding out the opposition, there’s a good chance the contest is going to be over shortly thereafter.

Ivanov is a strong wrestler, better than most in the division. But is he good enough to keep Lewis down? There’s more reason to doubt it, but given Lewis’ back always seems to hinder him one way or another, it’s plausible he could. Otherwise, Ivanov is going to have to rely on his boxing to outpoint Lewis. If this were guaranteed to be a point fight, I’d favor Ivanov. He’s become an effective combination counter puncher over the years. However, there’s no guarantee it becomes a point fight with Lewis’ power and Ivanov is going to have to walk into Lewis’ range due to Ivanov’s short frame and reach.

I don’t hate this fight. Ivanov has put together a pair of wins that warrant an opponent on the level of Lewis. But I don’t like this contest for Ivanov stylistically. He’s proven to be very durable, never having been KO’d over the course of his career. However, his physical limitations have made it difficult to be effective on defense. Lewis shouldn’t need too many opportunities to touch him up. Lewis snaps his losing streak in his typical violent fashion. Lewis via KO of RD2

Kevin Lee (17-5) vs. Gregor Gillespie (13-0), Lightweight

This is the type of contest I’ve been waiting for Gillespie to be in for a while. The fishing fanatic hasn’t shown much urgency to advance his career, patiently disposing of clearly overmatched opposition the UFC continually fed him. That was largely his own fault as Gillespie refused to call anyone out as it goes against his personality. Now 32, Gillespie realized he needed to begin advancing in his career if he didn’t want to waste his physical prime. Now, he gets an opponent who is not only larger than himself, but may also be stronger and a better athlete in Lee.

Then again, to be fair, Gillespie has yet to be larger than any of his UFC opponents as he could easily cut down to 145 if he wanted. However, the former NCAA wrestling champion has been able to use his technique to make up for any strength disadvantage he might be at. Gillespie has also expertly used his smaller frame to his advantage with his speed and quickness to beat his opponent to the spot. It isn’t like he doesn’t have any standup abilities either, having developed some good boxing basics. There’s nothing advanced about his boxing, but it doesn’t need to be as opponents are usually more concerned about his takedowns. Did I mention he’s a hell of a scrambler too? There’s a reason many believe Gillespie is a dark horse.

In terms of pure talent, there may not be a better specimen than Lee at 155. However, discipline has been an issue. For example, he came out extremely aggressive against Rafael dos Anjos, depleting his gas tank rapidly and allowing the former lightweight champion to have his way with him for the last two rounds. A similar contest played out with Tony Ferguson, though it was more condensed. When he’s fresh, there isn’t a lightweight in the world Lee can’t get to the mat. The question is how long he can stay fresh. Lee’s boxing has made huge strides since his UFC entry to the point I’d give him the edge against Gillespie. However, once again, he needs to be fresh. What’s frustrating is Lee has been able to pace himself before, remaining effective into the fifth round of his mud stomping of Edson Barboza. What kind of version of Lee are we going to get?

If Lee has his head on right, there is no reason he can’t turn away the upstart Gillespie. There’s a reason some claim Lee has the best shot of beating Khabib Nurmagomedov out of anyone else in the lightweight division. He has put together everything before, he just can’t seem to do it on a regular basis. Disciplined fighters with a distinct plan have been able to thwart the Motown Phenom. It may not always look like it given the frenetic approach Gillespie pushes, but he always has a plan. Lee might benefit given this is only a three-round contest, but I still like the idea of Gillespie pushing the pace to wear him out and secure a late finish. Gillespie via submission of RD3