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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Mexico City: Rodriguez vs. Stephens - Main card preview

Get the lowdown on the main card action out of Mexico City, including a strawweight battle where Alexa Grasso will look to break out by attempting to upend former champion Carla Esparza.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that every contest on the main card of UFC Mexico City features a fighter of Mexican descent. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise either that most of them aren’t facing top-flight competition, or at least an opponent that pushes them up the ladder. Like I said in my earlier preview, the UFC has had a hard time getting fighters to visit the high altitude – and dirty air -- of Mexico City. The lone exception: Alexa Grasso hoping for a breakout performance against former titleholder Carla Esparza. Grasso looked fantastic returning from a year layoff to dispatch of Karolina Kowalkiewicz. The problem is Kowalkiewicz has been a shell of her old self, so no one knows if Grasso is that damn good or if Kowalkiewicz is that deteriorated. We’re about to find out.

The main card starts on ESPN+ at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Carla Esparza (14-6) vs. Alexa Grasso (11-2), Women’s Strawweight

The first thing detractors of Esparza will point out is that she is far removed from the title picture at this point in her career. Her recent loss to Tatiana Suarez ensures that. Some may also point to her loss to Claudia Gadelha, though many were of the belief that Esparza won that contest. The combined result of those contests pretty well sum up where Esparza stands: good enough to turn away the vast majority of the division and at least push all but the elite.

Where Esparza’s detractors aren’t being fair is that she may even be a better fighter now than when she was champion. Her combination boxing has grown in leaps and bounds since that time, allowing her to win fights even when she is unable to get her wrestling going. Her short frame does stunt her effectiveness, limiting where she wants to keep the fight to the pocket and clinch. However, what hurts her more is her lack of power - her last finish from any sort of strikes coming all the way back in 2012. We all know how tricky relying on the judges can be.

Most of that sounds like good news for Grasso. She’ll have a significant height and reach advantage on Esparza and she looked like a million bucks in her performance against Kowalkiewicz. Despite Kowalkiewicz’s pressure, Grasso attacked with punching combinations, jabs, and low kicks…the most complete striking performance of her career. All the while, she was retreating out of danger from Kowalkiewicz, showing improved footwork. To make it a trifecta in terms of major improvement, Grasso was the more effective fighter in the clinch, an area that Kowalkiewicz has historically been a monster.

Should Grasso look as sharp on the feet as she did against Kowalkiewicz, Esparza will resort to her wrestling. It’s possible that could prove to be enough as Grasso has been prone to takedowns at times, depending on the opposition. Esparza has been hit or miss succeeding in that approach against Virna Jandiroba and Maryna Moroz while struggling against Cynthia Calvillo. Grasso is closer in nature to the former than the latter, meaning the path for victory for Esparza should be there regardless of what happens on the feet.

There have been occasions where a fighter seems to have a breakout performance like Grasso did against Kowalkiewicz, only for it to prove to be an aberration. Given the long layoff Grasso had coupled with her youth, the smart money is that this performance is for real. Despite that, Esparza is a tough matchup for her given that the Mexican native struggles with wrestlers. Regardless, I’m favoring youth in this one as Grasso has experience in Mexico City. Esparza doesn’t. In a close contest, I’ll go with the fighter who knows what it’s like to fight in extreme elevation. Grasso via decision

Brandon Moreno (15-5) vs. Askar Askarov (10-0), Flyweight

The UFC once saw Moreno as a rising star, pitting him in a main event against Sergio Pettis two years ago. Despite that, they still let him go in the great flyweight purge. However, it became clear the UFC still saw great potential in the 25-year old when they signed him back up very shortly after the organization decided to keep the flyweight division around.

While no one is denying that Moreno showed a lot of potential, he also exhibited an immense amount of inconsistency. Two of his three UFC victories saw him on the receiving end of a butt-whooping before an opportunistic moment immediately swung things in his favor for the win. His resiliency and toughness are his greatest attributes at this point due to inability to put together a complete performance. Though neither have been on point for an entire contest, his wrestling is more reliable than his striking. Fortunately for him, his scrambling has been reliable, with most of his wins coming via submission.

Newcomer Askarov is also a youthful talent – only 26 – who also relies heavily on his opportunistic nature. Despite having faced some top regional competition, the Russian has yet to go to decision in his career. Perhaps that’s not all that rare for a heavyweight before making it to the UFC, but keep in mind we’re talking about a flyweight. Askarov is aggressive with a good offensive wrestling game, but he has been controlled on the ground himself for long stretches of time. If Moreno’s wrestling is on point, Askarov could be in trouble.

Moreno’s experience in Mexico City’s elevation makes it difficult to bet against him in this contest. Moreno also put together the most complete performance of his career in his most recent contest, a win over Maikel Perez for the LFA flyweight title. Nonetheless, Askarov tends to do a better job of formulating and sticking to a winning strategy. Plus, Perez isn’t quite the same level of Askarov or Moreno’s previous UFC opponents. I’m taking a risk going against Moreno in Mexico, but I believe Askarov is capable of BIG things. Askarov via decision

  • No offense to Vanessa Melo, but it was a major disappointment when Marion Reneau was forced out of her contest with Irene Aldana for an undisclosed reason. Nonetheless, the Mexican fans will still get to cheer their countrywoman to a hopeful victory, so it isn’t a loss on the local level. A counter-punching Brazilian, Melo has won seven of her last eight contests to punch her ticket to the UFC. However, she isn’t a great athlete and hasn’t faced competition nearly at the level of Aldana. Aldana does have a history of shoddy defense, but she’s much bigger than Melo, has made small strides in tightening up her defensive tendencies, and has proven to be extremely tough. Plus, she’s one of the better technical strikers in the division. A late stoppage seems likely. Aldana via TKO, RD3
  • Martin Bravo won TUF Latin America late in 2016… and hasn’t won a contest since. The youngster isn’t without talent, but like many other products of Latin descent the UFC has called up to their ranks, he was brought up to the big stage before he was ready. An aggressive striker with heavy punching combinations, his maniacal approach plays right into what Steven Peterson likes to do: step into the pocket and throwdown. Peterson isn’t a technical savant himself, but he’s proven to be durable and there’s no way in hell he’s going to back down. Peterson may have lost his fair share of fights, but he’s also done so against much better competition than Bravo. Peterson finds a way to pull it out with his back against the wall. Peterson via submission, RD2

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