The UFC’s return to Sacramento feels underwhelming to say the least. Often times, I’ll point to injuries as a reason for a card to feel that way. Though there are injuries aplenty on this card, they don’t completely explain away that feeling. Yes, the originally scheduled contests felt more competitive, but only just barely. To be fair, I will throw out one potential caveat. Y’all remember Julianna Pena? Last time we saw her, she was a single victory away from challenging for the women’s bantamweight title. However, that was all the way back in January 2017. After taking the time off to become a mother, she returns – replacing an injured Sara McMann -- against former flyweight champion, Nicco Montano. It’s hard to predict how either performs, but it certainly could have major implications on the bantamweight division if both can flash signs of their old selves. We’ll soon find out.
The prelims begin on ESPN+ at 5:00 PM ET/2:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Julianna Pena (8-3) vs. Nicco Montano (4-2), Women’s Bantamweight
There has never been any mystery to what Pena wants to do: Aggressively pursue her opponent, ground them, and pound them out. However, as I’ve already stated, we last saw her 30 months ago. Since that time, she has become a mother in addition to spending all that time away from the training camp that instilled her trademark style, Sikjitsu. Has motherhood affected her at all? What has the extended time at a new camp done to her? Even if those things haven’t changed her, 30 months is a long time, long enough that she could be exceptionally rusty. It feels highly unlikely we’ll see the same Julianna Pena we were all familiar with.
For all the discussion for how long it’s been since we’ve seen Pena, it’s not like it’s been a short time since Montano last fought, having last appeared in a cage in December 2017. That’s 19 months. Plus, she’s moving up a weight division after being unable to make weight for her one scheduled title defense, forcing her to forfeit the title. Montano is a much more skilled striker on the feet than Pena, throwing a wide variety of strikes to wear down her opposition with sheer volume. However, she also hasn’t faced a wrestler of Pena’s caliber. Will she be able to stand up the Pena’s pressure?
It needs to be stated there is no reason to feel confident to pick either woman. There are too many unknowns for both. The biggest weapon each one of them possesses will be negated as they won’t be able to use it against one another in the way they usually do: their deep gas tank. As a result, this comes down to a stylistic matchup. If Montano had greater finishing ability – all her victories in the TUF tournament went to decision – I’d feel much more confident in picking her to capitalize on Pena’s aggression. Alas, despite low confidence picking one way or another, I’m less confident in her ability to stuff enough of Pena’s takedowns to secure a victory. Pena via decision
Andre Fili (19-6) vs. Sheymon Moraes (11-3), Featherweight
The temptation is still there to call Fili a prospect as it doesn’t feel like he’s reached his potential yet in addition to an overall youthful spirit. However, his six-year anniversary in the UFC will arrive in October. He’s not a prospect anymore. That doesn’t mean the longtime member of Team Alpha Male isn’t still improving. Though he’s the rare camp product that is a better striker than wrestler, Fili long had a bad habit of shooting for takedowns while in the midst of winning striking battles. Fortunately, he’s cut down on that habit and has improved at staying on the outside to take advantage of his length. It isn’t like he doesn’t hit takedowns every now and then too, but he times them better than he used to.
His opponent, Moraes, will test him exceedingly on the feet. The Brazilian hits exceedingly hard, has a deep arsenal, and has proven to be durable. He doesn’t get enough credit for his work on the ground either given he’s never secured a submission victory thus far in his career. In other words, he’s the perfect test for talented prospects making their way up the featherweight ladder. Though he can be inactive, that’s due to him being almost exclusively a counter striker. In other words, he allows his opponent to dictate the pace of the contest. Though that is overall a bad trait, Moraes has little trouble upping his output in a brawl.
Fili is far from a defensive stalwart, leaving open the possibility of Moraes to put him to sleep. However, Fili also has a deep gas tank and possesses enough of a game from the outside to give the shorter Moraes problems. Fili tends to push a fast pace and it would be wise to expect Moraes to slow down towards the end. There’s a good possibility this scores FOTN. Fili via decision
As for the rest….
- At first glance of lanky Mike Rodriguez, there is a lot to like about him. A gifted striker who has been showing tremendous progress towards using his length to great effect. He’s also committed greater to his training and has shown signs of a tricky submission game, something few at light heavyweight appear well-equipped to defend against. Unfortunately for him, he has also shown no known takedown defense. Is John Allan going to make him pay for that? Probably not, but fans should be thankful otherwise as the Brazilian is an entertaining striker with enough power to put away Rodriguez if he can connect cleanly. However, without even the threat of a takedown, Rodriguez should be able to tee off on his less athletic opponent as his nearly 7-inch reach advantage should cinch up the win for him before the final bell rings. Rodriguez via TKO of RD2
- The run of Darren Elkins up through last year when he won six in a row was one of the better stories in MMA in recent years. One of the least physically impressive members on the UFC roster, Elkins put together a six-fight win streak up the featherweight ranks that saw him rip off several upsets on the back of his toughness, determination, and endless gas tank. However, he’s lost two in a row since his improbable streak and faces a difficult stylistic matchup in Ryan Hall. Hall isn’t particularly durable and may be the worst striker on the entire roster, perhaps making this matchup the first time Elkins is the more technical striker in his UFC run. Despite that, there may not be a trickier submission expert than the heel hook specialist. Elkins isn’t easy to put away, but Hall will be ready for his constant pressure and should find a way to secure a sub. Hall via submission of RD1
- Few knew who Pingyuan Liu was when he first entered the UFC, much less knowing anything about him aside from the UFC wanting to expand into China. He’s proven to be incredibly scrappy, reeling off two wins in two attempts. However, most people won’t put too much stock in wins over Damian Stasiak and Martin Day. Nonetheless, he’s proven durable and is at his best moving forward, though his time at Team Alpha Male hasn’t made him a powerhouse wrestler quite yet. His opponent, Jonathan Martinez, is similarly tough and loves his kicks, throwing them to all levels. He showed a better ground game than expected in his last contest, though his value suffers from the same issue as Liu: no one is putting much stock in a win over Wuliji Buren. Nonetheless, I favor the American. Martinez via decision
- If it feels like the UFC is slow playing Livia Souza – many expected her to be near the top of the strawweight division shortly after her UFC debut -- it isn’t their fault as her original opponent has pulled out from her last two contests, including this one. However, her new opponent, Brianna Van Buren, is the type of physical bulldog that has given Souza trouble in the past. Even worse, Souza isn’t a skilled enough striker to take advantage of the 5’0” Van Buren’s short reach. So why am I still favoring Souza to come out on top? Souza is a wiz on the ground and it’s hard to see Van Buren avoiding the mat given wrestling is her bread and butter. It won’t be a shock if Van Buren bullies her way to victory, but say Souza catches her in a compromising position before that happens. Souza via submission of RD2
- I owe an apology to Vince Morales as I completely underestimated his abilities. After coming up short in a competitive contest with Song Yadong, Morales really got to show his striking prowess when he easily outclassed Aiemann Zahabi. The Tony Fryklund product with have his counter striking abilities tested by the aggressive Team Alpha Male product, Benito Lopez. Lopez emerged from the Contender Series as a favorite of Dana White as he goes 100 mph with little regard for defense. Despite his lack of attention to avoid damage, Lopez is a lanky 135er and I expect his length allows him to overwhelm a game Morales with his volume. Lopez via decision