Outside of the main and co-main event of UFC Minneapolis, there isn’t a whole lot in terms of stakes on the main card. In fact, there are several names that I’m sure fans don’t recognize. Vinc Pichel? Drew Dober? Alonzo Menifield? Who the hell are these guys? At least, that’s what I’d imagine many are asking.
However, Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard did a solid job of matchmaking here, putting together several contests that look like they should be good. I won’t go so far as to say any of them look like instant FOTY contenders. But if you’re happy with consistent action, solid pace, and perhaps a Submission of the Year – Paul Craig is on the card – then settle in for a night of fights on Saturday. Otherwise, you might just want to catch the final two contests.
The main card begins on ESPN at 9:00 PM ET/6:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Jussier Formiga (23-5) vs. Joseph Benavidez (27-5), Flyweight
Many fans remember the first time these two matched up all the way back in September 2013. Benavidez was at the height of his powers at the time, under the tutelage of Duane Ludwig, and delivered a blistering KO in the first round. Even though Benavidez is walking into this contest as the favorite, this is hardly a repeat of their first contest. The first contest felt like a foregone conclusion Benavidez would walk out the victor. That isn’t the case this time.
Benavidez has slowed down over the past few years. It shouldn’t be a surprise after coming back from a torn ACL and over 30 professional fights under his belt, including the past decade fighting under the Zuffa/WME banner. That’s a lot of wear and tear. That isn’t to say Benavidez isn’t still effective. Even at this advanced stage of his career, he’s still amongst the best scramblers in the division, his lost speed and reflexes showing up more in his standup than on the ground. Much like his ground work, that doesn’t mean he isn’t effective on his feet either. In fact, his win at the end of 2018 over Alex Perez was one of the best striking performances of his career. Despite remaining relevant amongst the best at 125, his slight decline is visible to the naked eye.
On the flip side, Formiga’s improvements are just as visible as Benavidez’s decline. Formiga was the best pure grappler at flyweight when they first met and he still is. Call him a pint-sized human backpack akin to Demian Maia. However, he lacked confidence and skill on the feet, two aspects he has significantly improved upon. Sure, he still hasn’t picked up a KO/TKO win in his career, but his spinning back fist on Ben Nguyen was the type of club-and-sub that has long been a signature of Donald Cerrone. Sure, he isn’t going to win a boxing contest with Benavidez despite his improvements, but his stinging low kicks should supplement him enough that he could have some moments.
Formiga NEEDS to get the fight to the mat. He hasn’t progressed on the feet enough to close the gap with Benavidez and though he hasn’t shown the physical regression Benavidez has, a lot of that has to do with Formiga never possessing much athleticism to begin with. All that said, there is an outside chance Formiga could pull the upset with Formiga’s improved fight IQ and Benavidez’s decline, but the likelihood still favors Benavidez winning the striking battle with the ground engagements largely proving to be a draw, becoming the flyweight #1 contender in the process… whatever that means. Benavidez via decision
Demian Maia (26-9) vs. Anthony Rocco Martin (16-4), Welterweight
Didn’t I already mention Maia? Oh right, I referred to him as a human backpack, one of the most accurate analogies regularly associated to any fighter in the business. Perhaps the most technically proficient grappler in the history of MMA, Maia proved he can still be a threat at the age of 41 when he subbed Lyman Good in less than a round in February. Yes, Maia did lose three contests in a row prior to that contest. However, look at the opponent looking across from him in each of those losses. Tyron Woodley, Colby Covington, and Kamaru Usman. All three have held welterweight gold in the last year – in one form or another – and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wouldn’t agree they represent the three best wrestlers in the division. Maia couldn’t get them down and ended up losing in the process. However, Maia’s technical wrestling is still enough to get down the majority of the division.
Does Martin fall in with that majority? Well, we’re about to find out. The former lightweight has been on a tear since moving up to 170, winning four in a row against increasingly difficult competition. He’s shown significant improvement in his striking, emerging as a proficient boxer and bringing out the power everyone knew he had within himself. He’s been able to do so without sacrificing his excellent submission game and solid wrestling. However, those things likely would have been improved upon even had he remained at lightweight. What has really brought everything together is he is no longer cutting a ridiculous amount of weight to make 155, improving his stamina exponentially in the process.
In contests like this where the young lion looks to overthrow the old one, the smart money says to go with the youngster. However, the one thing Martin can’t allow to happen is let Maia get him down. Martin’s takedown defense is still very much a concern. Sergio Moraes, hardly a wrestling marvel, took him down on all three of his attempts in Martin’s last appearance. Maia, still amazingly durable, will get the younger lion down and there’s a strong chance he eventually gets the sub. Maia via submission of RD2
As for the rest….
- Though many would agree Roosevelt Roberts was rushed to the UFC too soon, the organization has handled him with care thus far. The lanky striker still has much to learn, eeking by regional journeyman Thomas Gifford in his last contest. Rather than give him a lateral move, the UFC opted to give him a step up in competition against Vinc Pichel as Pichel is stronger than Gifford, a better boxer, and every bit as scrappy. That said, Roberts is physically superior to Pichel in almost every category, strength excepted. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the lightweight has grown significantly since beating Gifford two months ago, but I wouldn’t count on it. Pichel via decision
- Many have developed a soft spot for Polo Reyes. Though the lightweight’s ceiling is limited, the hard-hitting Mexican has a tendency to engage in brutal slugfests with little regard for his own physical regard. If the fight remains standing, his timing on the counter makes him a favorite if the contest devolves into something less than technical. However, he also has terrible wrestling. Enter his opponent, Drew Dober. Dober isn’t known for his wrestling. In fact, Dober is known for his willingness to exchange in the pocket. That’s why this contest was made. However, so was Damir Hadzovic and Hadzovic took Reyes to the ground and pounded him out when he realized how easy it was to do that. Dober is a better wrestler than Hadzovic. If you need me to spell out my conclusion from here, you’re an idiot. Dober via TKO of RD3
- In five of his six UFC contests, Paul Craig has had the crap kicked out of him. Despite that less-than-encouraging track record, the light heavyweight Scot still has a respectable 3-3 record in the Octagon, pulling literal last-minute submissions – and in one case, last second – to swing two of those ass-whoopings in his favor. His lanky frame makes him dangerous off his back, though he doesn’t know what to do with his length on the feet, performing best in the clinch. No coincidence given he can either pull guard or secure a trip from there. Alonzo Menifield knows what he needs to do: maintain his distance and piece up his lanky opponent. The former professional football player was able to do that against a similar opponent in Vinicius Castro and is still young enough in his career that improvement in each subsequent contest is to be expected. Though I’m picking Menifield, I’m not counting out Craig until the final buzzer rings. Menifield via TKO of RD1