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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Phoenix: N’Gannou vs. Velasquez - ESPN prelims preview

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Get the scoop on the televised prelims on ESPN of UFC Phoenix, featuring a pivotal bantamweight scrap between Aljamain Sterling and Jimmie Rivera in the featured contest.

Based on the way the UFC presented their cards over the last year or two on FOX, the televised prelims of UFC Phoenix could easily pass as a main card. Jimmie Rivera and Aljamain Sterling is just as good if not better contest than roughly half of the Fight Night main events on FS1 and FS2 last year. However, like my colleagues Zane Simon and Connor Ruebusch have already pointed out, the FOX era started in a similar fashion. Remember how highly anticipated the contest between Benson Henderson and Clay Guida was on the very first FOX card? It was relegated to the prelims… the untelevised prelims. Enjoy them while you can folks. The cards of this quality aren’t likely to last for very long.

The televised prelims begin on ESPN at 7:00 PM ET/4:00 PM PT on Sunday.

Jimmie Rivera (22-2) vs. Aljamain Sterling (16-3), Bantamweight

Make no mistake, behind the main event, this is the most impactful contest on the card in terms of divisional consequences. Unfortunately for Rivera and Sterling, Uncle Dana doesn’t appear to be concerned that there is a logjam at the top of the bantamweight division which allows this bout to be stashed on the prelims.

Rivera was on the verge of a title shot himself, lined up opposite of former champion Dominick Cruz before Cruz’s long injury history flared up again, leaving Rivera without the opportunity for a signature win. Since that time, the Tiger Schulmann product was blasted by Marlon Moraes only to right his ship with a decision over John Dodson. Built like a brick house, Rivera favors a strategy of marching down his opponent and piecing them up with his steady boxing combinations. Never much of a power puncher, Rivera’s endless gas tank and threat of a powerful double-leg make him a difficult opponent to prepare for even when his opponents know what is coming.

Sterling, on the receiving end of a similar type of KO loss to Moraes, may be the best pure athlete in the bantamweight division. In conjunction with his technical wrestling and creative grappling, many expected him to launch himself to the top of the division. However, Sterling has suffered some growing pains. From learning how to conserve his gas tank to developing his pocket punching, the Serra-Longo product has made strides to address those holes. Worth noting has been his struggles to get some of the better wrestlers in the division to the mat. For all his technical prowess, Sterling’s lanky frame doesn’t lend itself to allowing him to build up the necessary oomph needed to blast through to finish many of his takedown attempts.

I’m not positive in my pick for this contest. Rivera is the easy pick at first glance as he has the better track record, but Sterling continues to address his deficiencies. However, for all of his progress on the feet, Sterling hasn’t shown enough power to make opponents believe he can put them to sleep. That leads me to believe Rivera can march him down and lay down enough lumber to take the decision. Rivera via decision

Benito Lopez (9-0) vs. Manny Bermudez (13-0), Bantamweight

Is it just me, or does the UFC see more in Lopez than most of the media? Not that the Team Alpha Male product doesn’t have talent. He’s got a good frame and a fearless arsenal that has him willing to throw any type of strike he is physically capable of. What he seems to lack is any semblance of a strategy, relying on his toughness and creativity to throwdown with little regard for defense. One surprising aspect has been the lack of wrestling he has displayed as that is what Alpha Male is best known for, though he has shown strong takedown defense.

That could be worrisome for Bermudez as the lanky 24-year old is a submission wiz, forcing his opponent to tap or sleep in 10 of his 13 victories. However, he also proved in his UFC debut he doesn’t need to drag his opponent to the ground to secure a sub, nabbing a standing guillotine on Albert Morales. Bermudez’s standup needs a lot of refinement as enthusiasm defines it more than effectiveness, marching ahead with his head held high. Nonetheless, he has shown power, indicating he could become a threat with refinement.

I can understand why the UFC would prefer to promote a talent like Lopez over Bermudez. His brawling style tends to capture more eyes than Bermudez’s grappling stylings, not to mention submission artists tend to top out before approaching the top of the division. However, neither of these fighters are near the top of the division yet and Lopez’s attention to defense is lacking. I have confidence Bermudez will catch him in something slick as Lopez doesn’t have the one-punch power to make Bermudez pay for his poor striking defense. Bermudez via submission of RD1

Ashlee Evans-Smith (6-3) vs. Andrea Lee (9-2), Women’s Flyweight

Y’all remember when Evans-Smith was best known for beating Fallon Fox? That was over five years ago now and the promise than many saw in her – not just because of her victory over Fox – hasn’t been fulfilled. Perhaps she was fighting in the wrong weight class to do that as she used the massive size advantage she had over Bec Rawlings to overwhelm the Aussie. Given wrestlers are usually the ones to benefit the most from cutting more weight, it shouldn’t be too surprising Evans-Smith – a former collegiate wrestler – it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.

While Lee isn’t a terrible wrestler herself, her background comes on the standup side of the sport. It isn’t just one discipline either as she has experience in both Muay Thai and boxing prior to committing to her MMA career. Though the talent is obvious, the former LFA champion has struggled to pull together all of the aspects of the sport into a neat little package. Lee can wrestle some. She can certainly strike. She has submissions too. It’s just putting them all together for a complete performance.

This is a tough contest to pick. Lee should have a clear advantage in the standup, but Evans-Smith has made some progress in her boxing. There’s also the concern about Lee’s mental state as she suffered a domestic assault at the hands of her husband – who also served as a cornerman -- several months ago. It’s impossible to say how that affects her. With some reluctance, I’m picking Evans-Smith as I feel more confident about the direction of her career… for now. Evans-Smith via decision

Scott Holtzman (12-2) vs. Nik Lentz (29-9-2, 2 NC), Lightweight

I find it humorous when people refer to Holtzman as a prospect as he’s already 35-years old. However, to his credit – and also due to his late entry into the sport – the former hockey player’s career arc is still on the ascent. For example, Holtzman’s Achilles heel upon his UFC entrance was his takedown defense. In his last contest against Alan Patrick, he stuffed every one of the Brazilian’s attempts to take him to the mat. That’s a hell of an accomplishment as Patrick is a good wrestler. Though he’s most comfortable grinding out an opponent against the fence, Holtzman’s boxing is another aspect that has seen growth.

No disrespect to the savvy vet, but the younger – if you can believe it -- Lentz is on a downward trajectory. The Carny has visibly lost more than a step while also having trouble going the distance without slowing down. That doesn’t mean there aren’t aspects Lentz hasn’t been able to shore up. He’s been able to translate more power into his striking, helping him to secure stoppages in his last three wins. Given he only had two in his first ten UFC wins, that’s a hell of a change. However, there’s also a noticeable difference in his frame, carrying more muscle than he did in his first lightweight run. While that likely explains his improved power, it also explains why he gasses earlier than he used to as well.

Lentz’s bread and butter has always been his grinding wrestling, even now that he’s having a harder time applying it later in fights. However, he’s struggled to implement it early in fights too when facing good athletes. Holtzman is definitely a good athlete and has displayed an endless gas tank thus far. Both men are amongst the toughest SOB’s in the division, so don’t expect a finish in this one. I’m favoring Holtzman’s improvement to continue. Holtzman via decision