The main card of UFC Washington presents an interesting collection of contests. None of them are worth fawning over. However, it does feel like several of the contests could set up the winner to be in a high profile contest that would elicit oohs and ahhs out of potential viewers. In essence, it could be said the card looks like a prelude to bigger things for several fighters. If all you care about is the primary sticking points to the UFC, you probably don’t need the prelude. However, if you enjoy knowing the background of the narrative, there’s plenty worth looking into. It better be. As much as I like the matchups for the card, I’ll be the first to admit excitement isn’t a guarantee.
The main card begins on ESPN at 9:00 PM ET/6:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Marina Rodriguez (12-0-1) vs. Cynthia Calvillo (8-1), Women’s Strawweight
As quickly as things change in the MMA world, it seems like a different life when Calvillo was being pushed as the next big thing in the strawweight division. Instead, it was just two short years ago when that push went up in flames upon Calvillo coming up short against former champion Carla Esparza. Even though Calvillo was competitive against Esparza and hasn’t lost since, she has largely become just another name on the roster based on the brass’ handling of her. Perhaps her 32 years of age has come to the forefront of their minds. Perhaps it was the marijuana drug test that followed after the contest. Regardless, Calvillo shouldn’t be disregarded.
Except for never having a push behind her, Rodriguez is in a similar situation to Calvillo. Also 32, she has several nice wins minus the type of signature win needed to push her into contender status. The Brazilian has proven to be a physically imposing presence, dominating her opponents in the clinch with her vaunted Muay Thai skills. It isn’t just in the clinch she has showcased her skills either, picking apart the opposition from a distance with a jab and a LOT of low kicks for an impressive amount of volume in every UFC contest thus far.
It could be said Calvillo has abandoned her wrestling base – her biggest strength – on account of her falling in love with her boxing. There isn’t a soul out there with an inkling of understanding of the sport that doesn’t believe she’d be better off emphasizing her ground skills. Given Rodriguez’s abilities on the feet – she may be the most talented striker Calvillo has faced thus far – and struggles on the mat, it would be foolhardy for Calvillo to make it a kickboxing match. She has the ability to dictate where the fight takes place. That should put her in the driver’s seat. However, she is the betting underdog because of her questionable fight IQ. It’s hard to trust her for that reason, but I’d like to believe Calvillo is savvy enough to recognize the clearest path to victory. Calvillo via decision
Stefan Struve (29-11) vs. Ben Rothwell (36-12), Heavyweight
No disrespect intended for the 7-footer, but there were few who believed he was done for good when he announced his retirement in February. It was only his first retirement and everyone in the MMA community knows several are needed before fighters are truly done with the sport. Hell, Nate Marquardt announced he’s coming back to action this week at the age of 40. Struve is still just 31.
Despite having a distinct advantage in the height and reach department, Struve has never been all that effective in keeping the fight on the outside. Even worse, he leaves his chin out there to be touched up for opponents that know how to navigate his unique frame. Nonetheless, that massive frame isn’t a conundrum that can be solved by all opponents. It also makes Struve a problem to navigate on the mat as his spindly limbs are adept at threatening with submissions from his back. Plus, at this point in his career, Struve is one of the more experienced members of the roster. There’s very little he hasn’t seen.
Unfortunately for Struve, Rothwell is one of the few who has seen more. The lumbering big man isn’t as tall as Struve, but he is far thicker with more natural power and the ability to take a hell of a beating. Though I described Rothwell as lumbering, that description could also be considered generous as he may very well be the slowest fighter afoot on the roster, noticeably missing a step he couldn’t afford to lose when he came back from a PED suspension earlier this year. Nonetheless, Rothwell adapts with unique timing on his punches and a surprisingly deep knowledge of chokes. Worth noting is Rothwell is the only person who has ever submitted Josh Barnett.
Struve lost something of himself when Mark Hunt broke his jaw back in 2013 as he hasn’t been the same fighter since that time. Even though he won his last contest, he was dominated up until finding the submission. He’s not going to submit Rothwell. It’s plausible he could land more volume than Rothwell, but the more likely scenario sees Rothwell land one of his big ham hocks upside Struve’s head, either knocking him silly enough he can’t defend himself or putting him to sleep. Rothwell via TKO of RD2
Aspen Ladd (8-1) vs. Yana Kunitskaya (12-4, 1 NC), Women’s Bantamweight
All the attention heading into this contest has been focused on Ladd. After being pushed into the spotlight too soon – and lasting just 16 seconds against former champion Germaine de Randamie – many are wondering how the 24-year old prospect rebounds following the first defeat of her career. However, in the process of keeping tabs on how the talented youngster bounces back, it seems many are forgetting Kunitskaya is a talented fighter herself.
I’ll be the first to admit Kunitskaya isn’t the gifted athlete Ladd is. Then again, there is a reason many have been so excited by Ladd. That doesn’t mean Kunitskaya is a chump either. Physically strong, Kunitskaya has proven to be a beast in the clinch, outworking her opponent and supplementing her dirty work with a barrage of low kicks from the outside. It isn’t very pretty, but it is smart and has allowed the Russian to rack up a pair of wins in the Octagon since dropping her debut to Cris Cyborg. Opponents can’t sleep on her aggressive ground game either, particularly off her back.
Ladd has also relied on overwhelming her opponents with her physicality, doing so more forcefully by securing a pair of finishes to open her UFC career. What she hasn’t displayed is the ability to outsmart her opposition. She nearly experienced her first loss against Sijara Eubanks when she insisted on engaging in a boxing contest despite having faded considerably in the final round. If Ladd remembers to establish her wrestling early and often – and get her awesome GnP going in the process – she would make things much easier on herself as she has the perfect skill set to ground and break her opponents with her physicality.
The impression I get is Ladd is looking to prove her critics wrong; not much of a surprise given most fighters carry that type of attitude. That could cost her dearly as Kunitskaya is a well-conditioned and disciplined fighter. Ladd isn’t in bad shape herself, but often depletes herself so much in cutting down to 135 that her energy reserves come up short by the time the third rolls around. Kunitskaya isn’t on Ladd’s level as far as her wrestling goes, but she’s no slouch either. Ladd is the rightful favorite, but I’ve got a hankering Ladd is ripe for an upset. Kunitskaya via decision
Cody Stamann (18-2) vs. Song Yadong (15-4, 1 NC), Bantamweight
There wasn’t a lot of hype behind Yadong when he entered the UFC. He had beaten up on a bunch of cans on the Chinese scene and he was still super green, not yet out of his teenage years. Since his debut two years ago, it’s impossible to deny the UFC has something special in the youngster. Even if he’s still a bit stiff in his standup, Yadong displayed rare power and explosion in disposing of Alejandro Perez in a matter of minutes with a devastating cross. As he continues to improve in his boxing and gains in experience, Yadong will only become more dangerous.
There is still cause for concern though as Yadong has been fortunate to avoid a single fighter who would count wrestling as a primary part of their arsenal. Enter Stamann. The collegiate wrestler opened his UFC career taking down his opposition at will. The problem is the takedowns have been drying up now that he’s been facing tougher competition. Yadong hasn’t been taken down in his UFC career yet, but again, he hasn’t faced someone who provides a threat to do that. How Yadong responds to Stamann’s repeated attempts to take the fight to the mat will answer a lot about just how far he can climb.
If Stamann can avoid Yadong’s power, he’s the superior striker in terms of technique. He does struggle to put together combinations and doesn’t have much power, but he has a good understanding of angles and knows how to rack up the volume if provided the opportunity. Plus, he’s a beast in the clinch, another area where Yadong hasn’t been tested. Yadong also hasn’t shown he can remain effective into the third round. Yadong is physically superior and is the rightful favorite, but Stamann has plenty of experience playing the spoiler. It’s a risky pick as Yadong’s physical strength could negate Stamann’s apparent advantages, but I’m going with Stamann to stifle Yadong’s attack. Stamann via decision
Rob Font (16-4) vs. Ricky Simon (15-2), Bantamweight
Simon blew his big opportunity to secure a massive scalp when he allowed Urijah Faber to land a brutal haymaker seconds into their contest. He didn’t lose because he wasn’t talented enough to overthrow the legend. No, Simon underestimated how much Faber still had in his tank despite being 40-years old. The hope here is that Simon has learned his lesson and never underestimates another opponent. Otherwise, he’ll let his considerable talents go to waste.
Even if he doesn’t underestimate Font, there is no guarantee Simon will be able to walk out of the cage with a win. Font is one of the taller 135ers with real one-punch KO power. In just over five years in the organization, Font has four KO/TKO stoppages. Keeping in mind we’re talking about bantamweight, that’s incredibly impressive. It isn’t like he’s completely dependent on the KO either as he has improved his combination striking. However, there are two major issues that has kept Font from breaking into the top ten: his piss poor takedown defense and his tendency to lose his confidence as soon as he faces serious resistance.
While Simon has the power to put away his opposition, he’s too inconsistent with his heavy hooks to be counted on to have consistent success on the feet. What he does have is an endless gas tank and a large supply of wrestling takedowns… the exact arsenal required to defeat Font. The last fighter ground based fighter Font defeated was Matt Schnell… a natural flyweight with a suspect chin. There may be questions about Simon’s chin now, but there weren’t heading into his contest with Faber. Regardless, Simon’s striking defense has enough holes in it that Font could floor him before Simon gets rolling – much like Faber did – but it’s hard to see Font winning if Simon is able to establish himself early. That makes a Simon victory the most likely outcome. Simon via decision