While neither Marlon Moraes nor Cory Sandhagen have caught the attention of the casual fan quite yet, those who follow the sport closely are salivating at the main event for this weekend’s Fight Island 5 event. There are potentially high stakes at play as there isn’t a clear next man up after Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling clash for the bantamweight championship. In other words, it’s plausible the winner of this contest will get a crack at the gold should things fall into place. The main card also features an interesting contest between highlight reel machine Edson Barboza and part-time model Makwan Amirkhani and a plethora of prospects who appear to be worth taking a look at. This fight night card isn’t quite the level of the Covington vs. Woodley line up from about a month ago, but it’s a damn good one.
Marlon Moraes vs. Cory Sandhagen, Bantamweight
When it comes to in-cage work, Moraes has everything it takes to be a star on the level of Conor McGregor. Perhaps the most explosive striker in the lower weight classes, he has an impressively creative submission game to compliment it. Unfortunately, Moraes doesn’t have the gift of gab that seems to be a requisite part of ascending to another level.
When I said Moraes was explosive, I meant it. Of his five UFC victories, two went to decision. The other three he won in under five minutes… combined. His head kicks are usually the first thing that comes to mind as he has several wins in that manner. But to focus exclusively on that would sell him incredibly short. Moraes is a very patient fighter, willing to pick apart his opponent with low kicks from the outside until he finds an opening, helping to explain why his decision victories were so nip and tuck. What has given him the edge is the oomph he can put into those kicks seriously compromising his opponent. Given the length of Sandhagen – he’s 5’11” with a 70” reach compared to 5’6” and 67” for Moraes – expect that to be the primary focus of the Brazilian.
Sandhagen’s size is easily the biggest thing going for him at bantamweight, given that he knows how to use it. He’ll march down his opposition behind an aggressive jab, some heavy hooks, and a LOT of low kicks. One wouldn’t think a bantamweight his size could push such an unrelenting pace, but Sandhagen has yet to show signs of fading late in his contests. He knows how to use his long limbs on the mat too, entangling his opponents with his arms and legs. All the tools are there for him to become champion, and it could happen sooner rather than later.
All that said, that doesn’t mean Sandhagen doesn’t have holes. No surprise for someone so aggressive, he can be exploited on the feet. It took Raphael Assuncao a while, but he continually found a home for his left hook as Sandhagen voluntarily closed the distance. Given Moraes has a knack for exploiting those types of openings, it isn’t hard to see Moraes finding a home for a heavy hook of his own… or one of his patented head kicks. Of course, Sandhagen helps combat that with his constant movement, but he can still be caught.
Where Sandhagen might be most vulnerable is on the mat. While he’s very opportunistic on the mat – his armbar of Mario Bautista proves that – he can also be outslicked, just the way Sterling did. While I said Moraes’ submission game is creative, it doesn’t get the attention is deserves, in large part because he rarely looks to wrestle. However, the opening could be there to go to the mat as Sandhagen closes the distance.
I admit my tone thus far is pretty clearly in favor of Moraes to find a hole at some point, I’m not saying it’s in the bag for him. Moraes can be broken, as Henry Cejudo proved. Cejudo pushed a ridiculous pace after losing the first round, leaving Moraes merely looking to survive by the third round. Sandhagen is perfectly capable of doing the same thing. However, Sandhagen doesn’t have the power, nor does he have the wrestling of Cejudo to compliment it. Sandhagen’s height might be able to make up for that, but Moraes also expended a lot of energy early in that fight. If Sandhagen can force Moraes to move and work early, he could win this. Unfortunately for him, I see him leaving enough openings that Moraes can exploit at least one of them. Moraes via TKO of RD1
Edson Barboza vs. Makwan Amirkhani, Featherweight
Though it was incredibly difficult to find anyone who thought Barboza’s drop down to 145 was a good idea, the longtime staple of the lightweight division didn’t look bad upon his debut at his new home against Dan Ige. His kicks were as snappy as ever and he didn’t look exhausted at the end of the contest, something many expected as he added 10 more pounds to cut. He may not have gotten the nod on the judges’ scorecard, but the overwhelming majority of the MMA media scored the contest in his favor, including yours truly.
Having now answered the question of what he looks like at featherweight, it feels safe to say Barboza looks like he could be a force to be reckoned with at his new home. The thought behind his drop was that he wouldn’t be manhandled by the larger wrestlers anymore, not to mention exacerbating his long reach even more. He didn’t appear to lose any power as he laid his low kicks into Ige’s legs and held his own in the boxing for stretches, so Barboza may still be able to deliver a late career resurgence into relevance at his new home. Of course, that will depend on how well he deals with pressure, his longtime weakness.
Amirkhani will put that Achilles heel to the test. Mr. Finland busts out of the gates of every contest like a man on fire, either looking for a highlight reel KO or a takedown, both delivered with massive amounts of explosion. Given he’s a plus athlete with a technical enough wrestling base, it has worked incredibly well… up to a point. While several opponents have wilted under his immense pressure, Amirkhani tends to fade hard if his opposition can survive his early onslaught, shooting for desperation takedowns and looking to merely survive by the final round. Amirkhani has stated he’s rededicated himself to the sport by eliminating distractions, but that’s something many fighters have proclaimed in the past. Sometimes it holds true, many times it doesn’t. I’m not believing it until I see it.
If Amirkhani has refocused on fighting, he has the skillset to give Barboza a lot of problems. Throw in the fact many believe Barboza is on the downslide as he has lost five of his last six. However, look at the names Barboza has lost to and add in two of those losses are very sketch. Barboza was taken down with ease by Khabib Nurmagomedov and Kevin Lee, but Amirkhani isn’t either of them. Barboza has also significantly improved his submission defense from his early UFC days, only Tony Ferguson wilting him enough to sink in a submission in recent years. Amirkhani may be willing to pressure like Ferguson, but he can’t maintain it like the former interim champion. Amirkhani threatens early, but Barboza will get him out of there as he tires. Barboza via TKO of RD2
Ben Rothwell vs. Marcin Tybura, Heavyweight
Even though he’s been on the MMA scene since 2001, Rothwell is still floating south of 40. Given this is the heavyweight division, it’s plausible he’s still in his prime. Given Rothwell was never a great athlete – and never relied much on what little athleticism he did have – it means what little slippage he might have suffered is largely negligible. The things Rothwell has relied on – toughness, durability, size, strength, and power – are all very much present and accounted for. It’s been proven many times over that a savvy striker who knows how to cut angles and avoid Rothwell’s power can outpoint the big man with ease. The question is whether Tybura is that striker.
It’s not an easy question to answer. Tybura at times has been a technical striker, attacking from the appropriate advantage point to keep from getting clipped and putting together combinattions. Given he’s on the plus side of athletes in the heavyweight division with occasional power, he has the tools to win a striking battle with Rothwell. Having the ability and doing it are two very different things. Tybura’s confidence appears to have been shattered when Derrick Lewis got his mitts on him late in their contest from almost three years ago. Since that point, Tybura has been gun-shy about exchanging on the feet. In the process, he’s been KO’d two additional times since that contest, only adding further to his apprehension.
Tybura has been able to survive and pick up some wins on the strength of his wrestling and grappling. He’s no Fabricio Werdum on the mat, but Tybura is one of the better heavyweight grapplers in the sport and isn’t a terrible wrestler. However, Rothwell has never been easy to takedown. Even when he’s taken down, he’s incredibly difficult to keep down as he’s very sound with his defensive grappling and can often just power up to his feet. Tybura might be able to get the bigger man down a time or two, but I struggle to see him keeping him down. When it is on the feet, Rothwell won’t stop advancing. My guess is he’ll eventually corner Tybura and finish him off. Rothwell vis KO of RD2
- No one can doubt the toughness of Markus Perez. Not only has the Brazilian never been finished in his career, it’s hard to remember a time when he appeared to be rocked or on the verge of submitting. Despite his high level of durability, his UFC run has been “meh” at best as he has a terrible tendency of allowing his opponent’s to dictate the pace and where the fight takes place. Floating through a fight until an opening appears might work on the regional scene. It doesn’t cut it in the UFC, even if Perez is pretty damned crafty. He gets to welcome Dricus Du Plessis, a prospect out of South Africa, to the Octagon. A former K-1 kickboxer, Du Plessis tends to be a lot of fun to watch, in large part due to his lack of attention to defense. Even though the majority of Du Plessis’ wins have come via submission, the mat is where he’s weakest – which also coincides with where Perez tends to catch most of his opposition. The problem for Perez is he struggles to take opponents to the mat – when he’s even making the effort to do so. Du Plessis should utilize his striking experience to pick apart the crafty Perez. Du Plessis via decision
- Tom Aspinall made one hell of an impression in his UFC debut. He may not have eliminated a big name in Jake Collier, but he looked dominant in the manner in which he did. Nailing Collier with a lightning quick right cross, Aspinall evoked some memories of an up-and-coming Francis Ngannou in the process. There is still a lot of questions to be answered by Aspinall as his regional competition left much to be desired, but his accolades – boxing and Muay Thai experience, plud a BJJ black belt – indicate he’s going to be a handful. Unfortunately, we aren’t likely to find out a whole lot as his original opponent, Sergey Spivak, pulled out. Instead, Alan Baudot, will be Spivak’s replacement. The best way to describe Baudot is as a poor man’s version of Ovince Saint Preux... and I do mean poor man’s version. He’s got a tall frame like OSP and is a natural 205er. What Baudot doesn’t have is the core strength and power of OSP. His level of competition has been even worse than Aspinall’s too. I’d be shocked if Aspinall not only loses, but if he doesn’t secure an early finish. Aspinall via KO of RD1
- Youseff Zalal is a rarity: someone for whom 2020 has been very good to. Entering the UFC at the beginning of the year with little hype, he now possesses three wins in the organization with no losses, looking to be the first to go 4-0 in the organization for the year. The youngster has shown a well-rounded game, alternating between relying on his striking and wrestling, depending on what area represents his opponent’s greater weakness. He appears to have given up on dropping to bantamweight, accepting his 5’10” frame would be dehydrated beyond effectiveness. Besides, he’s not small at 145. In fact, he’ll be significantly larger than his opponent, Ilia Topuria. That’s because Topuria, a natural bantamweight, is taking the contest on short notice. A slick wrestler with a quick shot and a deep arsenal of chokes, Topuria has a LOT of physical tools to work with. However, he’ll be at a disadvantage getting his wrestling going being the smaller man and his striking is still raw despite increasingly positive developments. Zalal hasn’t exactly faced a series of world beaters, but his level of competition easily exceeds what Touria has seen. Combine that with Zalal’s clear advantage in striking and he should emerge with a win. Zalal via decision