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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Copenhagen: Hermansson vs. Cannonier - Main card preview

Get the dirt on the main card action of UFC Copenhagen, featuring grappling chess match between Gunnar Nelson and Gilbert Burns.

I know I’ve already indicated this in my prelims preview, but UFC Copenhagen is a sneaky good card… for what it is. Normally, the cards that kick off in the AM’s in the western hemisphere tend to feature a LOT of debutants who don’t elicit much excitement or fighters on the fringe of the roster. While there is some of that, there’s more fights than usual that might pique the general MMA audience’s interest. For instance, Gunnar Nelson and Gilbert Burns are two of the best pure grapplers on the roster. That isn’t all though. Khalil Rountree is always fun. He’s going to get an opponent who refuses to back down in Ion Cutelaba. And there’s always some sort of ridiculousness when Ovince St. Preux and Alex Oliveira are involved. Yes… this should be a hell of a good time.

The main card begins on ESPN+ at 2:00 PM ET/11:00 AM PT on Saturday.

Gunnar Nelson (17-4-1) vs. Gilbert Burns (16-3), Welterweight

It’s rare when an injury produces a more competitive contest, but that was the case when Thiago Alves pulled up lame, allowing Burns to jump at the opportunity to face Iceland’s most famous MMA fighter in Nelson.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that Nelson was the hottest new thing on the scene. Then I realize it’s no longer 2013 and it hasn’t been for quite a while and I’m forced to immediately sober up. Though Nelson never became the megastar some predicted he would be, he’s turned in a UFC run most would be jealous of. Though small for 170, he’s crafty with his trip takedowns, allowing him to operate where he’s most effective for long stretches: the mat. Out of Nelson’s eight UFC victories, seven of them have come either by RNC or guillotine choke. You don’t want this guy anywhere around your neck. Because he’s so effective on the ground, most opponents tend to think twice before taking Nelson to the mat, partially making up for his takedown defense that has been spotty at times.

Something I can guarantee for this contest: Burns won’t hesitate a single moment to get Nelson on the ground. A former World BJJ champion, Burns’ grappling credentials are up there with the best in the world. Burns doesn’t have the killer instinct on the ground Nelson possesses, but few are more technically sound from a positional standpoint. One of the biggest worries many had – myself included – was Burns’ ability to secure takedowns now that he’s fighting at welterweight. He alleviated those concerns when he took a bricked up Aleksei Kunchenko down without too much of a struggle.

What usually happens when two awesome grapplers collide is a standup battle. Burns was timid in his early UFC run as he was under the tutelage of Henri Hooft. Though he’s still under the watchful eye of Hooft, it usually takes a few years to really latch on to what the former kickboxing champion preaches. Burns is a confident kickboxer now with one-punch KO power. Nelson is a counterpuncher, often standing on the outside with his hands down waiting for his opponent to react. His fast hands can catch his opponent by surprise, but he’s generally not much of a power puncher.

One of the biggest reasons I’m excited about this contest is I have no idea how it plays out. I can see either competitor walking away with their hand raised. I’m going in the direction of Burns as Nelson has struggled against strong wrestlers and/or technically superior grapplers. Burns wrestling isn’t great, but his grappling is fantastic and he tends to throw more volume than Nelson. Regardless of the outcome, it should be a lot of fun. Burns via decision

Ion Cutelaba (15-4) vs. Khalil Rountree (8-3, 1 NC), Light Heavyweight

I wouldn’t be opposed to this contest being on the main card of a PPV. Seriously, it feels like an impossibility that this contest doesn’t provide some sort of violent finish.

Rountree has been a very frustrating prospect for many up to this point. Flashing early in his career in his stint on TUF, his terrible ground game was exposed and took the sheen off his powerful kicks and punches. Then he puts together a solid performance or two only to be upended by another up-and-comer and be set back in his climb up the ladder. Rountree is coming off what may be his most impressive performance, battering Eryk Anders over the course of fifteen minutes. It wasn’t a finish, but it was amongst the most one-sided contests in the UFC’s history. Rountree’s time in Thailand seemed to sharpen his technique more than ever, with a renewed emphasis on low kicks, leaving Anders barely able to stand.

It’ll be shocking if he finds the same amount of success against Cutelaba as the Moldovan never sits back and waits for the action to come to him. Always pressing forward, Cutelaba is one of the physically strongest competitors at 205. Not only is he difficult to take down, but he usually finds a way to get the fight to the mat if that’s what he desires. Part of his problem is that is rarely what he wants to do, preferring to swarm his opposition with a swath of heavy punches. It isn’t technical by any means, but his iron chin and raw power have allowed him to find a decent amount of success. The only time he’s been outstruck on the feet occurred after he exhausted himself pursuing takedowns and firing at will early against Jared Cannonier. Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t look for the takedown very often at this point….

The early impulse is to pick Rountree given how impressive he looked in his last appearance. However, the rule is to brawl with a technical striker and outpoint a brawler, thus why Cutelaba appears to be a bad matchup for Rountree. Cutelaba will do everything in his power to turn this contest into a mess and Rountree’s wrestling – or lack thereof – hasn’t been tested by someone of Cutelaba’s caliber in quite a while. I can totally see Rountree landing something brutal to put down Cutelaba, but I’m going to go out on a limb and pick Cutelaba to remind us Rountree hasn’t faced anyone with much of a ground game in a long time. Cutelaba via TKO of RD2

Michal Oleksiejczuk (14-2, 1 NC) vs. Ovince Saint Preux (23-13), Light Heavyweight

There may not be a fighter who is more consistently inconsistent that Saint Preux. He rides a wave of success into an interim title fight against Jon Jones. Then he losses three in a row. Then he wins three in a row. Now he’s lost three of his last four. Like I said, he’s consistent in his inconsistency.

It’s not like there has been a major decline in Saint Preux’s physical state. His chin has held up well, Jimi Manuwa being the only one to KO him in the last decade. Plus, he still appears to have most of the physical gifts that have served him so well over his career. It seems opponents are now keen to knowing where Saint Preux struggles and have been attacking those areas. Granted, that is easier said than done as Saint Preux’s punching power has saved him several times from being on the losing end of a decision, the most notable case being against Corey Anderson. His physical strength has also served him well on the mat, possessing a penchant for difficult submissions.

On paper, Oleksiejczuk is the perfect fodder for Saint Preux. Whereas Saint Preux tends to slow down quickly – especially if he looks to utilize his wrestling – Oleksiejczuk has never shown any indication of fatigue in any of his contests. Plus, he’s proven to be tough as nails, enduring several hellacious strikes from Rountree in their contest two years ago only to continue marching forward. A sound technical striker who works in combination, Oleksiejczuk also tends to work over the body… a LOT. Given Saint Preux’s tendency to fade quickly, that could spell serious trouble for the longtime veteran.

There are reasons to believe Saint Preux can weather Oleksiejczuk’s storm. Saint Preux is a gigantic light heavyweight and Oleksiejczuk is on the smaller side. Plus, no one has ever listed Oleksiejczuk’s athleticism as one of his strengths. Saint Preux could easily starch him with a single punch or pull a Von Flue choke out of his ass. However, I’m favoring the younger fighter here to not let up, forcing Saint Preux to wilt late. Oleksiejczuk via TKO of RD3

Nicolas Dalby (17-3-1, 1 NC) vs. Alex Oliveira (20-7-1, 2 NC), Welterweight

One of the better stories in MMA circles lately has been the comeback of Dalby. A former top prospect who had a less than inspiring run in the UFC a few years ago, Dalby fell into a bout of alcoholism before turning his career – and life – around. Now, the Denmark native gets to open up the main card of the first UFC event in his homeland.

The Dane has a tough task ahead of him in Oliveira. The Brazilian is a freakish athlete with a tendency to find the finish, whether via KO or submission. His creative flair tends to spark as he gets a good look at his opponent’s movements and tendencies. However, in the process, he also tends to fall into long bouts of inactivity, often leading to him dropping the contest should it go the full 15 minutes. Nonetheless, Oliveira is capable of bullying those who can’t match his strength, turning contests into grinding affairs. Basically, it isn’t out of the question for him to win a decision if he can close the distance.

Dalby was never noted for possessing a supreme set of physical skills, even when many were declaring him a top prospect. It was Dalby’s intelligence, work rate, and toughness that separated him from the pack. As he faced more intelligent and tougher fighters in the UFC, his lack of physical attributes became more glaring. Nonetheless, there’s an outside chance his combination punches and varied kicking arsenal could be enough to outpoint Oliveira, provided he can avoid being finished.

The smart money says to go with Oliveira. He’s not only the more talented fighter, he also has the better track record. However, Oliveira has also been dealing with legal issues surrounding an alleged assault on his ex-wife. There’s a good likelihood he’s been distracted by these issues and unable to focus on what he needs to focus on. Plus, this is guaranteed to be an emotional moment for Dalby. Emotion can certainly work against a fighter, but it can also be a positive. After all he’s been through, I think Dalby can channel it in a positive way. Dalby via decision

  • The co-main event in name only, this contest gets this spot only because Danish Olympic silver medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling Mark Madsen is making his UFC debut. Madsen’s pedigree is spectacular, but he’s also very inexperienced, winning all of his fights thus far off of his physical gifts and wrestling skills. His opponent, Danilo Belluardo, is a more complete fighter despite being a decade younger. The problem is, the youngster’s best skill is also his wrestling and he can’t hope to compete with Madsen there. The one hope for Belluardo: Madsen is making his lightweight debut. Perhaps his weight cut proves to be too detrimental. I wouldn’t bank on it. Madsen via decision