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Diggin’ Deep on UFC 245: Usman vs. Covington - ESPN2 prelims

Get the inside scoop on the televised prelims of UFC 245, featuring a slugfest between action fighting welterweights Mike Perry and Geoff Neal.

I stated in the preview for the early prelims that UFC 245 is a deep card. The televised prelims have an action fight that is one of the most anticipated contests of the year based on the pure potential for violence. There is a potential title eliminator. Even the fight that will make the least amount of waves features a pair of longtime veterans who were known for their exciting contests back in the day. Rather than complain about the faults of how the UFC promotes their fighters as I did on the last preview, I’ll praise the UFC for the package of fights they’re giving the fans. For all the things they do wrong – and there is quite a bit – they do just as much, if not more, right.

The televised prelims begin on ESPN2 at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Geoff Neal (12-2) vs. Mike Perry (13-5), Welterweight

Perry may be the better known name to the casual fan, but those who follow the sport closely are drooling over the future of Neal in this battle of violent up-and-comers. He isn’t as brash as Perry, nor is he as politically incorrect, two things that have helped Perry gain the recognition he possesses. He doesn’t have Perry’s natural power either, but he does have far more nuance to his game than Perry. Whereas Perry tends to throw everything with full power, Neal adjusts his speed with regularity, among other things. Sometimes he stays on the outside, piecing up the opposition with a technical attack. Other times, he chooses to brawl. It’s all dependent on the matchup.

Given Perry is as durable as they come – most fighters who suffered the broken nose Perry did against Vicente Luque would have been done – his brawling nature suits him well in addition to making his fights a fan-friendly affair. He isn’t without strategy, but his opposition has caught on to his counter punching strategy and done a great job of mitigating what he does best, explaining his 2-4 record over the last two years. Perry has tried to make up for that by improving his wrestling and supplementing his power with a bit more volume with low kicks, but he is still – and always will be – a KO artist at heart.

A BIG caveat worth noting: the broken nose Perry suffered occurred just 4 months ago. Noses can be tricky, as we all learned with Rory MacDonald. If Perry is returning to action too soon, he could end up paying a painful price.

Though Neal adjusts his fighting style accordingly, aggression is still the defining adjective of his approach. Even when he tends to stay on the outside, he’ll selectively choose when to go for the kill and has been wise in when he does so. Perhaps more encouraging for his chances against Perry has been his ability to stuff takedowns, making it unlikely Perry will be able to pound him out on the mat. Perry is always dangerous and can’t ever be counted out as long as he’s standing, but I like Neal’s versatility on the feet to ensure he walks out with the biggest scalp of his career. Neal via decision

Ketlen Vieira (10-0) vs. Irene Aldana (11-5), Women’s Bantamweight

It has been 21 months since Vieira last stepped into a cage due to a knee surgery. Often times, knee surgeries are routine for athletes. However, Vieira’s recovery took longer than anticipated. Does that mean the recovery went poorly? Or perhaps she was simply being extremely cautious, waiting until she was positive her knee was battle ready. The only way for us to know is to watch her upon her return.

One thing that works in Vieira’s favor is her brand of physicality isn’t overly dependent on excess movement. In fact, Vieira is at her best after she has gotten the contest to the mat, employing heavy pressure from the top position while working away at her opponent with short punches. The punches aren’t typically intended to finish the contest. They’re more of an annoyance to open up the path for her to pass guard into a potential submission… or at the very least smother her opponent. She does have power on the feet, but she’s also incredibly sloppy. Nonetheless, her constant pressure keeps the opposition close enough for her to wrap them up in the clinch where she can effectuate her trips and throws.

Aldana presents the type antithesis of Vieira’s physical style. Not that there isn’t any physicality to Aldana, but her outside striking is the heart and soul of her attack. One of the more technical boxers in women’s MMA, Aldana would be well-served to mix up her combinations as she can be very rote in her approach. Nonetheless, her 1-2 combo is sharp and few do a better job of ripping shots to the body. She’s a sound wrestler and grappler too, but she’s prone to mental lapses in that area.

This contest is damn near impossible to predict due to the unknown nature of Vieira’s knee. If her wheel spins the way it should, she’ll be able to close the distance at some point as Aldana’s defense is her primary weakness. However, if her knee isn’t up to par, Aldana will probably piece her up as Vieira’s defense is also a weakness. Even if Vieira’s knee holds up, ring rust is real – despite what Dominick Cruz says – and I expect she won’t be sharp for this contest. That said, I still expect it to be a razor thin decision. Aldana via decision

Ian Heinisch (13-2) vs. Omari Akhmedov (19-4-1), Middleweight

In hindsight, we all should have seen Heinisch’s loss to Derek Brunson coming. Heinisch is a good – not great – athlete with a very rote style. While none of that is likely to change at any point, that hardly means Heinisch has already topped out. He just needs to make a few slight adjustments….

Take Akhmedov for example. The Russian is largely the same hard-swinging wrestler who was on the verge of being cut a few years ago. Now, Akhmedov is on a five-fight unbeaten streak. So, what did he do? For one, he became far more patient on the feet while making use of a jab. He doesn’t use it a lot, but just enough to add a new wrinkle his opponents needed to be wary of. In the process, his patience allowed him to better see what his opponents throw at him in addition to helping him to better time his takedown attempts. The patience has also led to Akhmedov remaining more effective late in contests as he isn’t draining his gas tank the way he did in the past. That isn’t to say he doesn’t maintain some limitations, but he’s learned to work around them for the best stretch of his UFC career.

I’m not necessarily advocating for Heinisch to be more patient. What I’d really like to see out of the American is more nuance. There is no disguising his intent. He plows forward, telegraphing whether he’s going for a takedown or launching a heavy kick. He’d be well served to mix in some feints. Perhaps disguise his level changes with a punch. If Heinisch could hide his intent a bit more, he’d make better use of his plentiful power on the feet. After all, it’s always the ones you don’t see coming that tend to put one to sleep. That Heinisch has been as successful as he is despite telegraphing everything speaks volume to his determination.

Many like to claim Heinisch has a deep gas tank. That isn’t true, but there is no denying that he’s willing to work through his exhausted state in a manner more effective than most. Even as Akhmedov has been more effective later in contests, he’s also been fortunate to face opponents who allow him to be patient. Heinisch won’t do that. He’ll be pushing the pace from the word go. Even if it doesn’t break Akhmedov physically, it could break him mentally as it did to Antonio Carlos Junior. Akhmedov likely jumps out to an early lead with takedowns, but Heinisch will be the one scoring points in the end to steal the decision. Heinisch via decision

Matt Brown (21-16) vs. Ben Saunders (22-12-2), Welterweight

If these two insist on continuing their careers, I’m happy the UFC appears to be matching them up against similarly traveled veterans as they are. That said, there’s still a part of me that’s a bit sad to be tuning in for this one.

Brown is the better known of the two, having been on the UFC roster continuously since 2008 with several epic battles under his belt, including the underrated five round battle with Robbie Lawler. However, the man known as the Immortal has led a hard life outside of the cage as well as inside. Those effects have begun to take a visible toll. This will be his first fight in two years as Brown has been recovering from a torn ACL and his durability was beginning to wane prior to that. Nevertheless, Brown proved he can still provide epic levels of violence with brutal trademark elbow that put Diego Sanchez to sleep. Brown appears to be as technical as ever, slowing with the effects of age a little, but he still shows a weakness to body shots as much as ever.

Saunders is one of the tallest members of the welterweight division, but has always preferred to close the distance. It’s with good reason as his Muay Thai skills shine when he’s in the clinch, working over his opponent with knees and elbows. The problem is that Saunders’ chin, never as strong as Brown’s, has eroded at a faster pace than that of his opponent. Saunders is aware of this and has made a greater effort to stay on the outside and use his long limbs. Unfortunately, staying on the outside goes against type for Saunders and it’s hard for him to resist walking into the range of his opponent’s power. The long-time veteran has lost five of his last six, four of those via KO.

Saunders’ lack of durability makes him the rightful underdog. Brown can’t endure the levels of violence he did in his prime, but it hasn’t been as easy to turn out his lights as it has been for Saunders. Some will point out that Saunders’ has one of the better offensive guards in the game and Brown has been vulnerable to submissions in the past, but Demian Maia is the only one to submit Brown in the last eight years. No shame in that. Regardless of who wins, it’ll be a shock if this goes the distance. Brown via TKO of RD2