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Diggin’ Deep on UFC 246: McGregor vs. Cerrone - Main card preview

Dig in to the essentials of the main card of UFC 246, including the co-main event rematch between former champion Holly Holm and the fiery Raquel Pennington.

I’ve seen plenty of complaints about the undercard of UFC 246. While I would disagree with the quality of the prelims, I can see where those complaints are coming from with regards to the main card. Entering 2019, Aleksei Oleinik was one of the more intriguing stories as an over-40 underdog in the heavyweight division, coming off an upset win over Mark Hunt. Two losses later and his story isn’t nearly as fun. And yet, he makes the main card with Maurice Greene? No disrespect to the Crochet Boss – his 3-1 UFC record is respectable – but when your best win is arguably Jeff Hughes, you have no business on a PPV main card. Plus, most believe Holly Holm and Raquel Pennington is an underwhelming co-main event. To be fair, Alexa Grasso and Claudia Gadelha is a quality contest. So is Diego Ferreira and Anthony Pettis. Not all is bad with the main card, but it does feel like the UFC could have given fans more; especially coming off a long layoff.

The main card begins at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Holly Holm (12-5) vs. Raquel Pennington (10-7), Women’s Bantamweight

Nobody has lived off a single win more than Holm has with regards to her win over Ronda Rousey. She has gone 2-5 since that industry-shattering win, her wins coming over Bethe Correia and Megan Anderson, victories hardly representative of the MMA elite. It could be argued she has been facing some of the best competition in that time – four of those losses were title fights with the other loss coming against future champion Valentina Shevchenko – but given the spotlight she continues to receive from the UFC, she should be winning some of these fights.

Despite her struggles, Holm is still a dangerous opponent, even if she isn’t elite. Possessing perhaps the best cardio in all the women’s division, she throws an astounding amount of strikes over the course of her contests with nary a sign of slowing down by the end of the match. Of course, most of those strikes fail to connect as Holm struggles to commit to her strikes, often coming up just short of connecting. In fact, it’s ironic the former boxing champion’s most effective strikes are her wide variety of kicks. Her two KO’s in the UFC were both head kick KO’s, but she also throws a lot of low kicks and side kicks to make up for her lack of accuracy in her punches.

Where Holm doesn’t get much credit is her abilities in the clinch. Huge for the bantamweight division – she hasn’t been undersized in her excursions to featherweight in the least – Holm does a good job of smothering opponents in the clinch and wearing them down. Then again, she isn’t very active in close quarters either. However, Holm doesn’t get a lot of credit for her wrestling either, though she only chooses to go in that direction when she has a clear advantage as she did against Megan Anderson.

She won’t have that against Pennington. Pennington isn’t a powerhouse wrestler by any means, nor does she go that route very often, typically only when she’s eating too many shots on the feet which contributes to her poor takedown percentage. Regardless, she’s tough to takedown and an underrated grappler, not having been submitted since the first year of her professional career.

However, it would be foolish to focus too much on what these two fighters can do on the mat, even if Pennington tries to go to the mat as Holm stuffed all her attempts in their previous contest. Granted, that contest was five years ago, but Pennington’s wrestling hasn’t changed since then. However, her standup abilities… those have matured. Pennington would have issues letting her fists fly at times, attempting to be a counter fighter… sometimes without the countering. She’s become an effective counter puncher now and more controlled on the attack too. She leads with a jab and rarely throws single strikes, usually putting together a large amount of simple kick-punch combinations.

This is a difficult contest to pick. Pennington is a better fighter since the first time they fought and she nearly pulled off the upset the first time. Based on that, it should be a given that she should get the win this time, especially given her increased level of activity in the clinch compared to Holm. However, Holm has also become a better fighter, even if her record doesn’t reflect it since the Rousey contest. Holm is coming off the first KO loss of her MMA career, leaving speculation of where she is mentally. However, she recovered beautifully to her KO loss to Anne Sophie Mathis. Then again, Holm is now 38 and has never dealt with an extended losing stretch like this. I’ll go with Pennington to take a tick for tack decision. Pennington via decision

Aleksei Oleinik (57-13-1) vs. Maurice Greene (8-3), Heavyweight

I’m sure it sounds like I was crapping all over Greene in the introduction paragraph. Let me make it clear: I have no problem with Greene. He has a lot of promise. He sports a 6’7” with an 80” reach with minimal flab. He’s not a powerhouse, but he has enough power to put a scare into his opposition. At 33, he’s still young by heavyweight standards. Plus, he has a functional submission game from off his back, a function that’s less valuable at heavyweight than it would be at other divisions, but nevertheless a skill set that’s unique and nice to have. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility for him to develop into a top ten heavyweight by the end of the year.

The problem for him is on the mental end of things, an issue that was first revealed during his stint on TUF. When Greene has his head in the right space, he puts together solid punch-kick combinations. Other times, he appears to be throwing whatever comes to his mind in hopes of his opponent running into it. Most disappointing is his inability to use his height and length to his advantage defensively, opponents having little trouble navigating his reach.

Despite being 5-inches shorter, Oleinik has the same reach as his American counterpart. Though he isn’t known for being much of a striker – in fact, Oleinik is downright awkward – Oleinik’s experience helps him to see holes most fighters don’t see and land some powerful bombs. However, everyone knows Oleinik may be the most dangerous choke artist in the history of the heavyweight division, if not MMA. Who else is capable of performing an Ezekiel choke from their back when their opponent has mount? Neck cranks, arm triangle chokes, and RNC’s are other frequently used tools for the longtime vet.

There are legit concerns about Oleinik’s durability. He’s been fighting since well before the turn of the century and was violently finished in his last two contests. However, he was also facing two of the heavier hitters at heavyweight in Alistair Overeem and Walt Harris. Plus, Overeem and Harris had experience against better opposition than Greene has faced. Oleinik has feasted on inexperienced competition in the past, finding a way to get the fight where he wants. I see no reason why he won’t here. Oleinik via submission of RD1

Claudia Gadelha (17-4) vs. Alexa Grasso (11-3), Women’s Strawweight

UPDATE: Fight cancelled

Remember when Gadelha was the undisputed #1 contender in the strawweight division? Many believed she was the woman to end the reign of Joanna Champion, believing Gadelha was the rightful winner in their first contest all the way back in 2014. Gadelha got her rematch in 2016 and came out on fire, dominating the first two rounds. Then she flamed out, dropped the decision, and hasn’t come close to returning to the title picture, even after Joanna lost the belt.

Though just 31, Gadelha has been fighting since she was a teenager. Add some difficult weight cuts to the mix and it isn’t too hard to see why she doesn’t have the same pep she once did, her stamina being her biggest weakness. Gadelha isn’t oblivious to this and has worked hard to adjust her style so she doesn’t flag late. In her most recent contest, gone was the aggressive pressure fighter who constantly looked for takedowns. Instead, Mark Henry, while maintaining the pressure, turned her into a patient counter striker. Gadelha herself admitted she didn’t look great in that contest, but it usually takes fighters a while to fully integrate Henry’s system. If Gadelha can find a way to integrate takedowns, she’s still one of the better BJJ practitioners in the division, maybe even the best.

One thing Gadelha benefitted from in that contest was an opponent in Randa Markos who wasn’t pushing a hard pace. She’s unlikely to get that from Grasso, one of the more active fighters in one of the most active divisions. Grasso almost always throws in combination, owning some of the better pure boxing in the division. She’s shown more confidence in recent bouts, resulting in more oomph in her strikes. That confidence has even translated to her ground game, showing more aggression in her pursuit of submissions. It’s not like she was a bad scrambler before that either. While I wouldn’t count on her submitting Gadelha – no one ever has – I doubt she’ll shy away from a scramble on the mat, especially given Grasso is a cardio machine.

Kudos to UFC matchmakers on this one. It’s not too difficult to see Gadelha smothering Grasso for the first two rounds only to survive the final round. Then again, it feels just as likely Grasso puts on such an insane pace that she outworks the vulnerable Gadelha to take a decision. I can see a finish from Gadelha, but I can’t see Grasso doing the same. Regardless, I’ll go with Grasso as there’s a fire to the rising Mexican star that has been missing from Gadelha for a while. Grasso via decision

Anthony Pettis (22-9) vs. Diego Ferreira (16-2), Lightweight

Based solely on name value, Pettis should be a big favorite. A former lightweight champion coming off a high-profile contest with the inimitable Nate Diaz, Pettis was even the first MMA fighter to appear on a Wheaties box when he was champion. However, Pettis has been unable to put together consecutive wins since 2014, sporting a 4-7 record since his lone successful title defense against Gilbert Melendez. At least Pettis has gone the route of Melendez since that time….

There have been several iterations of Pettis since that time. He went through a phase where he worked hard to shore up his wrestling, only to see his creativity take a dive. Then he tried moving down to featherweight, only to find the cut was too much for his body. After a brief return to lightweight, he tried his luck at welterweight with mixed results. Back at 155 – where most would agree he belongs – he’s taking a risk accepting this fight with Ferreira. The hard-charging Brazilian presents the type of stylistic matchup that has been nightmarish for Pettis in the past. Pettis needs space to let his flashy kicks flying. Ferreira isn’t going to give it to him. Constant pressure and offense is the name of Ferreira’s game. Ferreira will never be a technical marvel, but he’s cleaned up his offense a bit, allowing him to better show the natural power in his fists along with his relentless attack. He leaves plenty of holes defensively, but his constant attack can make it difficult for opponents to get their own attack off.

Given Pettis is heavily reliant on securing a finish – his lone decision win in the last eight years came against Jim Miller in 2017 – that’s not good news. Pettis is still one of the most creative finishers on the roster, but he needs space on the feet. He has developed a jab and improved his footwork in recent years, but that also came about after the book on him was written and opponents figured out how to attack him. Though his wrestling is better than what it was when he was champion, Pettis has been just fine with the idea of being taken to the ground as his creativity extends to the mat, his guard amongst the best in the sport in addition to his scrambling ability. However, Ferreira is one of the most technically sound grapplers in the division and fighters with his physical strength have given Pettis problems in the past.

Pettis is such a fascinating character that it’s easy to forget about Ferreira. Hell, I’ve mostly talked about Pettis in this preview, proving I’m just as guilty. Ferreira shouldn’t be discounted though. Ferreira compares very much to Rafael dos Anjos, the man who dethroned Pettis in 2015. He’s not as technical on the feet as dos Anjos, but he pushes a harder pace and may hit harder. Given Pettis’ tendency to get hurt – not KO’d, but injured, such as a broken hand or rib injury – in just about every fight, I’m finding it hard to believe Pettis reignites a title run with such a difficult stylistic matchup. Ferreira via TKO of RD3