On their own, the main and co-main events of UFC 238 are fine contests. Marlon Moraes is a highlight reel machine and Henry Cejudo absolutely demoralized the previous champion at bantamweight in TJ Dillashaw. In the co-main, Valentina Shevchenko is a surgically precise champion at women’s flyweight who we should appreciate, even if her opponent, Jessica Eye, feels underwhelming as a title challenger. But let’s be honest, they were never going to get a large swath of people to tune in. They just don’t have enough of a pull to get casual viewer to tune in. Donald Cerrone on the other hand….
The main card of UFC 238 on ESPN+ begins at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Tony Ferguson (24-3) vs. Donald Cerrone (36-11, 1 NC), Lightweight
Perhaps the most popular fighter in the history of the promotion who has never tasted gold, Cerrone is experiencing a late career surge that no one saw coming, on the heels of the birth of his first son. We’ve all heard fighters claim they’ve found a new fire before, only to flame out in quick fashion. Cerrone’s inspiration appears to be legit, showing a determination and fierceness that had been missing in recent years from the Cowboy.
Cerrone had previously had stints marked by a similar determination and fierceness, but there’s something there that had been missing before: focus. Think of Cerrone’s contest with Nate Diaz. Cerrone wanted that fight more than any fight that I could remember up until recently. However, Diaz was also in his head and Cerrone abandoned discipline, giving Diaz the exact kind of fight that he wanted. That hasn’t happened recently. Cerrone appeared to be giving Alexander Hernandez exactly the type of fight the youngster wanted. It turns out Cerrone was luring Hernandez in, countering the hard hitter with even harder shots. Eventually, Hernandez crumbled when he was dragged into deeper waters he had never before tread. Against Al Iaquinta, Cerrone picked him apart, selectively landing some murderous blows amongst the softer shots meant to just touch him up. Cerrone’s always had a diverse skill set. He just hasn’t always been able to utilize it to the greatest effect. That appears to be changing.
Some would label Ferguson as controlled chaos, but there is nothing controlled about the former interim champion. Ferguson is one of the most reckless fighters in the sport. He has the unique mindset of believing he’s indestructible – and I mean he believes it – that allows the usually foolhardy outlook to work for him. Regardless, it doesn’t go without its faults as he seems to get hurt in every fight he’s in, being dropped by the likes of Lando Vannata. Despite his defensive deficiencies, Ferguson always seems to bounce back, only to hurt his opponent worse than they got him. His intense pressure and endless gas tank have broken several opponents, including former champion Rafael dos Anjos. However, there is an intangible that could derail Ferguson’s 11-fight win streak. His wife issued a restraining order against him in March due to erratic behavior, his insane in-cage persona appearing to bleed into his personal life. Ferguson has always been a bit out there, so this could be a big nothing-burger. Or it could be Ferguson finally cracking under his erratic frame of mind. It’s hard to say.
I have no worldly idea how this contest will go down. Ferguson has long been a madman while Cerrone has been fighting like a man possessed. Ferguson is the better boxer, but Cerrone possesses a more diverse striking attack overall. Cerrone is the better grappler and submission artist, but Ferguson is the better wrestler. Something has to give. You could point to Cerrone’s previous frailties as a reason to pick against him, but Ferguson’s life outside of the cage could catch up to him. I don’t want to pick against either fighter, but I’m required to do so and will reluctantly make a pick. However, you better believe that I’ll enjoy every second of this fight, only regretting that it isn’t scheduled for five rounds. Ferguson via TKO of RD3
Jimmie Rivera (22-3) vs. Petr Yan (12-1), Bantamweight
I’d ask you to find a fan in the know about MMA who isn’t excited about Yan, but I’ll just save you some time and tell you that person doesn’t exist. Making his UFC debut a year ago this month, he has ripped off four consecutive wins in impressive fashion, the type of run in recent memory that has only been surpassed by Israel Adesanya. Is Yan capable of grabbing gold in short order like Adesanya? We haven’t seen anything yet to indicate otherwise.
Yan isn’t the quick twitch athlete that jumps off the screen ala recent Rivera opponent, Aljamain Sterling. However, it would be a mistake to call him a poor athlete as his hand speed is amongst the best in the business. He puts together punching and kicking combinations fluidly and has a knack for knowing the perfect strike to throw next. One punch power isn’t something he possesses, but he’s so technical and adds the damage up in such a hurry that it doesn’t take long for his opponent to wilt under his attack. Yan has also proven to be a capable wrestler and grappler. It’s hard to find a chink in his armor.
If there is anyone who can do so before Yan fights for a belt, Rivera is as good of a candidate as any. Yes, he’s coming off a flat performance against Sterling – effectively knocking Rivera out of discussions of the divisional elite – but he’s been a workman-like technical machine prior to that loss. Like Yan, Rivera doesn’t have one punch power, but his ability to box in the pocket could very well be the best in the division strictly from a technical standpoint. He doesn’t land many takedowns himself, but Rivera’s stocky frame is perfect for keeping him upright, having never been taken down in his UFC career.
Either Rivera is the perfect kryptonite to Yan or he’s about to be on his way to his third loss in his last four contests after going nearly a decade without a loss. Yan isn’t going to shy away from a firefight in the pocket which is where Rivera is most comfortable, throwing his counter combinations with impeccable timing. But can he match Yan’s speed? I don’t think so. Yan’s fluid and instinctive combinations find a home more often than Rivera’s rote brand of offense. Yan via decision
Tai Tuivasa (10-1) vs. Blagoy Ivanov (17-2, 1 NC), Heavyweight
So… does the winner of this face Derrick Lewis? I mean, it seems like we’re just pairing up the most recent victims of Junior dos Santos here….
There are some who might label Ivanov as a disappointment thus far in his UFC career. Despite hanging tough for five rounds, he was thoroughly outclassed by JDS before eeking out a razor thin decision over a rusty Ben Rothwell. At 5’11”, his short frame is always going to keep him from being a truly elite heavyweight. However, if Ivanov’s opponents are foolish enough to park out in close quarters of the former Sambo champion, Ivanov is a beast on the mat, equally capable of pounding out his opposition or securing a power sub such as a keylock or a guillotine. If we’re looking at things from a broader view, Ivanov being able to win a standup battle against Rothwell when that’s one of his weaker areas is one hell of an impressive feat given that’s one of his weaker points.
In terms of height, Tuivasa isn’t a giant himself, checking in at 6’2”. However, his girth may be second to none, cutting down to make the 266-pound limit. The way he moves completely belies his frame, showing off his athleticism in his UFC debut with a flying knee right into the jaw of Rashad Coulter. He’s shown plenty of punching power since then, dispersing of Cyril Asker with ease and battering JDS with several hard shots before being put down by the hard-hitting Brazilian. Despite the stoppage loss, Tuivasa wasn’t completely out and probably could have finished the job he started had he shown more discipline. As Tuivasa advances in his career, he’s sure to grow wiser in his approach. Tutoring under the watch of Mark Hunt doesn’t hurt either….
Any heavyweight who has gone 20 fights into their career without being stopped by strikes has got to have a hell of a chin. However, any heavyweight with that much mileage under his belt – like Ivanov – also has a lot of wear on that chin. Tuivasa still isn’t the most technical striker, but he’s young, bold, and willing to take chances without the fear of what his opponent can do to him. I see Tuivasa looking to make a statement following his first career loss. Scoring a stoppage of Ivanov with strikes is a good way to do it. Tuivasa via TKO of RD2