I’m not stupid enough to suggest any of these main card contests are as intriguing as the main and co-main event of UFC 241. However, I’m more than happy to recommend all three of these main card contests to anyone who enjoys fighting. Hell, I’d probably recommend them to people who doesn’t like fighting. Yoel Romero and Paulo Costa both represent whirling dervishes of violence. It’s hard to believe someone isn’t going to sleep in that one. Ian Heinisch is one of the more promising products to come out of the DWCS. He gets a major test in Derek Brunson. And while neither Gabriel Benitez and Sodiq Yusuff are known quantities to casual fans, they are rarely ever in boring contests. This is their opportunity to make a name for themselves. You better believe they’re going to put on a show.
The main card begins at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Saturday
Yoel Romero (13-3) vs. Paulo Costa (12-0), Middleweight
There aren’t a pair of middleweights more chiseled in this sport than Romero and Costa. Then again, Romero has missed weight for his last two fights, making it fair to question whether he should be regarded as a middleweight. Nevertheless, this fight is scheduled to take place at 185.
Though their frames make late 80’s-era professional wrestlers jealous and they tend to finish off their opposition in violent fashion due to their sudden power, that’s about where the similarities end. Costa looks to finish his job as quick as possible. He loads up on his kicks and punches, launching them with enough force that he ends up off-balance at times on his swing-through. When he hurts his opponent, he begins to swarm, throwing with both power and accuracy. Nonetheless, it isn’t like Costa charges into his opponent like a wild man. He has developed nuance, though he still has some work to do there as Uriah Hall was able to keep his jab in Costa’s face. However, his pressuring style leads to many questions whether he can keep that type of pace up for the entirety of a three-round fight. None of his fights have ever entered the third round, let alone gone the distance. Part of the reason those at the top of every division is they know how to avoid damage or are extremely durable. Regardless of what it is, it screams that Costa is going to have his stamina tested in short order.
Romero tends to potshot, throwing out the occasional shot in hopes of keeping an opponent’s respect and getting a read to counter. As boring as it can be – and several of Romero’s fights have been yawners up until the violent conclusion – nobody is better than Romero at reading an opponent’s tactics and storing it away for how they can use it later. It’s no coincidence that Romero has picked up six finishes in the third round. He looks for openings so he can exploit them when they again present themselves. The last three contests he was in that did go the distance saw him sprint out to an early lead on the scorecards, either landing some sort of offensive flurry that depletes his tank or not properly pacing himself in a point fight. Even when tired, Romero is dangerous, but he’s most dangerous when he hasn’t blown his wad – thank you Joe Rogan – early.
Something to look for is Romero’s oblique kicks. He landed one off the bat in his first contest with Robert Whittaker and had the Aussie fighting on a bad wheel for the rest of the night. The other thing that Romero has in his back pocket: his Olympic-level wrestling. Well… it may not be Olympic level anymore – it was 2000 when he medaled – but it is still highly effective and could allow the explosive Cuban to take a bit of a breather if needed from a pressuring Costa. Costa has exhibited strong takedown defense so far, but an unmotivated and bloated Johny Hendricks has been the only true wrestling threat Costa has faced… if he still was a wrestling threat at that point.
Romero has continually proven himself to be one of the toughest and most intelligent fighters in the business today and has consistently done so against top competition. The last time he competed against someone who wasn’t a current or former UFC or Strikeforce champion: September 2014 against Tim Kennedy. Though I understand age could catch up to him at any moment – Romero is 42 -- I still feel more comfortable with what I do know about Romero than what I don’t in Costa. Romero via TKO of RD3
Gabriel Benitez (21-6) vs. Sodiq Yusuff (9-1), Featherweight
There are some out there that believe Yusuff is the best prospect in the UFC at this time. No joke. The native of Nigeria has been fighting professionally for just over three years and has already shown the savvy and fight IQ of someone with a decade of experience. One fight he’s staying on the outside, almost looking aloof as he looks to lure in his opponent for the counter. In another, he’s up in their face, pressuring them into a faster paced fight than they would prefer. That type of versatility usually isn’t developed for years. Yusuff hasn’t shown much of a wrestling game thus far – aside from solid takedown defense -- but it hasn’t been needed either.
Benitez represents the most experienced opponent Yusuff has faced to this point by a longshot. He isn’t noted for his power, but he has a sharp counter left that has caught opponent’s off-guard. With all of Benitez’s experience, he has developed quite the opportunistic nature when it comes to securing a finish. However, those finishes have also come against underwhelming opposition. Benitez is slick enough to outpoint more skilled opponents – like Yusuff – but he has also struggled when given opposition on a clear level above him in terms of athleticism. Given Yusuff is one of the more athletic prospects in the organization, that doesn’t bode well for the proud Mexican.
The UFC is trying to help Yusuff gain experience before pushing further up the ladder, thus why he’s getting Benitez, a move that is considered a sideways move at best from Sheymon Moraes. Benitez should draw out an exciting fight from Yusuff, a key ingredient required for the UFC to push him as a future star. I wouldn’t count out Benitez from finding a sub amidst a scramble, but I’m not confident enough in his wrestling to get him to induce that type of situation. Yusuff via TKO of RD2
Derek Brunson (19-7) vs. Ian Heinisch (13-1), Middleweight
One of the busiest members of the middleweight division since coming aboard in 2012, Brunson has settled into a role as a gatekeeper to the top ten of the division. Though he’s now 35, Brunson is still one of the better athletes in the division, often using those physical gifts to immediately blitz his opponents with a barrage of punches, having secured seven first round finishes over the course of his UFC career. However, that strategy has left him vulnerable if he fails in his endeavor to end the contest early for two reasons: he leaves himself wide open defensively and he tends to expend a lot of energy early, leaving him gassed in a hurry. As a result, he has also been finished three times in the first round.
Should the fight leave the opening frame, Brunson’s wrestling has been his course to victory. Known as ”The Blanket” when he first entered the organization due to his tendency to ensnare his opponent in painful to watch lay-and-prey, he still occasionally flashes signs of his old self… much to the chagrin of fans. He’ll probably find success in getting Heinisch to the ground as the gritty American’s takedown defense hasn’t been particularly impressive. However, keeping Heinisch on the mat has been a completely different story as Heinisch has already proven himself to be one of the better scramblers in the division, pursuing submissions while effectively avoiding those of the opposition. While no instructor in their right mind would advise replicating Heinisch’s approach on the ground, his determination, toughness, and wiliness have made it work for him.
Brunson has a chance to win this. Heinisch is tough, never having been KO’d in his career, but never say never in this sport. After all, where were you when Ronda went down? Or when Fedor tapped? While it wouldn’t be nearly as colossal if Brunson were to break Heinisch’s chin, it would still be an impressive feat. Nonetheless, Heinisch’s time in prison has made him double-tough mentally, an area where Brunson has crumbled on multiple occasions. If he doesn’t finish Heinisch early, bank on Heinisch breaking Brunson’s mind before breaking his body. Heinisch via submission of RD2