The UFC tried real hard to make UFC 256 a card to remember. After all, it’s the last PPV of a tumultuous 2020. Unfortunately, the best laid plans of mice and men. Kamaru Usman pulled out of his scheduled contest with Gilbert Burns. Amanda Nunes pulled out of her scheduled fight with Megan Anderson. Petr Yan withdrew from his scheduled bout with Aljamain Sterling. All were title fights. Deiveson Figueiredo may not have much clout, but the flyweight champion was willing to defend his belt against Brandon Moreno less than a month after he last did so to give the PPV a title fight to build around… and it ended up being pretty good.
For many, the true main event is the lightweight contest between Tony Ferguson and Charles Oliveira. That shouldn’t be seen as a slight towards Figueiredo. Lightweight is such a shark tank that there are several non-title fights in that division that leave fans needing a drool cup. Former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos and former Strikeforce middleweight champion Jacare Souza also dot the main card. They may be past their prime, but I wouldn’t say either is shot. If you’re on the fence about whether to purchase the card, I’d nudge you to do so.
Tony Ferguson vs. Charles Oliveira, Lightweight
It’s anyone’s guess how this fight is going to play out. Sure, everyone’s initial impulse is to pick Ferguson. Physically durable and mentally tough, Ferguson has appeared to won some of his classic contests during his record winning streak through sheer will, being unwilling to give in to whatever his opponent throws at him while throwing back just as much, if not more. On the flip side, Oliveira has been known to be finished in some rather odd manners, typically because he appears to break mentally rather than physically. And yet, it isn’t as simple as it would have seemed even just a year ago.
There are signs Oliveira is getting past his mental block. In his most recent contest against Kevin Lee, there were a couple of moments where it seemed Oliveira would break. Instead, he maintained his composure, striking when the moment finally revealed itself when Lee went for a takedown. Even if Oliveira doesn’t have the mental toughness of Ferguson, he still has a chance – especially early – as he could very well be the greatest submission specialist in the history of the UFC. He does have the record for most submission wins after all. His abilities on the mat – whether he has the top or bottom position – afford him a swagger on the feet that most other fighters can’t afford as he isn’t afraid of being taken down. Oliveira chains together his submissions expertly too, often using the chain to simply maneuver to the hold he’s really looking for.
On the flip side, Ferguson is coming off of one of the most brutal beatdowns in recent memory at the hands of Justin Gaethje earlier this year. It isn’t that Ferguson was absolutely dominated or that he quit. Hell, he landed 136 significant strikes on Gaethje. It’s that he couldn’t break Gaethje. Gaethje not only swung back, he landed the harder punches. Ferguson was used to his opponents wilting under his intense pressure and Gaethje was still there in the end… which may have broken Ferguson’s spirit. Will Ferguson maintain the mental toughness that led to his 12-fight win streak or was his beatdown at the hands of Gaethje a career altering affair? He wouldn’t be the first to have that happen to him.
Interviews indicate Ferguson is still the insane Wildman that isn’t scared of anyone, but we’ll never know until we see him back in action. For Ferguson to find success, he’ll need to be having fun. Oliveira does present the type of challenge he has never seen before as Ferguson has never been afraid to go to the mat. Will he exercise caution against Oliveira? It’s hard to say… and it may very well cost him if he doesn’t respect Oliveira’s abilities. Of course, Oliveira has gone out of his way in recent bouts to prove he can win fights with his fists… and that bring about his doom. It isn’t that there won’t be opportunities to hurt Ferguson – Oliveira is actually the more technical striker – but it’s whether he’ll be able to stand up to the onslaught as Ferguson has long been one of the best conditioned athletes in the UFC.
I’ve waffled badly on this contest. Ferguson turns 37 in February, placing him at an age when most lightweights are on the backside of their careers. It’s not like his fighting style has been one that promotes longevity either. But at the same time, it feels like there have been several occasions for Oliveira to have his breakout moment… only for him to falter. Oliveira benefits from this being a three round contest, but I still have to go with Ferguson as I can’t ignore Oliveira’s history of falling to pressure. Ferguson via TKO of RD3
Renato Moicano vs. Rafael Fiziev, Lightweight
It’s easy to forget Moicano may have been a win over Jose Aldo away from challenging Max Holloway for the featherweight title. His loss to Aldo coupled with a loss to the Korean Zombie prompted his move to lightweight and many fans ended up forgetting about him in the process. Even though his win over Damir Hadzovic was very impressive, it came right as the COVID-19 panic was sweeping the globe and it was largely forgotten about. Moicano is very much a dark horse in the division.
Moicano one of the best at nabbing the RNC. It isn’t just that he’s a gifted scrambler, he baits his opponents into giving up their back by leaving just enough room for them to think they can escape. From there, he snatches the back and is quick to sink in the choke. On the feet, Moicano’s tendency is to find what’s working and do it over and over again. Against Jeremy Stephens, it was a consistent jab. Against Calvin Kattar, it was the inside low kick.
It won’t be as easy to find that with Fiziev, the Muay Thai coach at Tiger Muay Thai in Thailand. Fiziev has a lethal arsenal of kicks that he mixes to all levels, but seems to specialize on working over the body of his opponents. Fiziev also has fast hands and throws them in combination. However, what he has become notorious for is his Matrix-like dodging of high kicks from his opposition, leaning backwards to avoid the attack. While it’s clearly a nifty move, it doesn’t make up for the rest of his defensive deficiencies as he tends to take quite a bit of damage.
Of course, the biggest question with Fiziev is what will happen if he ends up on the mat. He has yet to be tested against any decent competition, but it’s hard to believe he’d be able to more than just merely survive, and even that may be a stretch. Moicano isn’t a great wrestler, though he has been effective in securing takedowns when he looks to complete him. Given Moicano’s ability to make reads and adjustments – and underrated part of him – I think he’ll eventually get Fiziev where he wants him, though it’s hardly a guarantee. Moicano via submission of RD2
Kevin Holland vs. Jacare Souza, Middleweight
It can’t be denied anymore; Jacare isn’t what he once was. Granted, he’s still an awesome force to be reckoned with given he was once an absolute physical marvel, but there’s no way in hell anyone can kid themselves into believing he should be fighting for the title in the future. Jacare has never worked at a fast pace, but even that has slowed to a crawl in his last couple of contests. To be fair, those were five round fights and Jacare was likely trying to conserve energy. In his last three-round fight, Jacare pushed an insane pace against Chris Weidman, resulting in a KO victory in the final round. That’s not to say Jacare didn’t get tired – he was exhausted – but he was still effective enough to put away his opposition late.
Of course, even though Jacare was a top-notch athlete, that wasn’t the primary focus of what made him such a feared foe. A world-class BJJ practitioner, being underneath Jacare was one of the scariest places a fighter could be. Well, I suppose it still is, but Jacare has struggled to get an advantageous position on the mat, his last submission coming almost four years ago. Aside from opponents being wary of his ground game, there are two things that can be pointed to. First, Jacare hasn’t been facing easy opponents. Second, all of his opponents have had respectable wrestling games. Jacare isn’t a great wrestler, but he is incredibly strong and knows how to use his strength to his advantage.
That’s going to be an issue for Holland. Despite having an 81” reach, Holland has been most comfortable fighting either in the clinch or in the pocket. Holland has been trying to make better use of his reach, but every fight ends up being fought within his reach. Given Holland has fought at welterweight – and talked about continuing to do so roughly a year ago – he’s surprisingly strong in the clinch. However, while most tend to get exhaust in a clinch-heavy contest, it seems to take more out of him.
Should the fight hit the mat, Holland is undoubtedly creative and has gotten himself out of some sticky situations. He’s also worked himself into being finished. He does appear to have grown more disciplined over the course of his UFC career, but he also hasn’t faced anyone who would be labeled a ground threat since his submission loss to Brendan Allen. It’s hard to believe he can survive with the Brazilian on the mat. Holland has the physical tools to stay on the outside and pick apart a slower Jacare, but his tendency for mental errors is something he can’t afford to make. The most likely outcome has Jacare getting his first submission win since early 2017. Jacare via submission of RD1
Junior dos Santos vs. Ciryl Gane, Heavyweight
While I understand the belief JDS is no longer a title contender, it’s preposterous to surmise he’s incapable of serving as a gatekeeper who can sort who is on that level and who isn’t. There isn’t a name in his loss column throughout his UFC career that would leave anyone to question his level of competition. Yes, he’s on a three-fight losing streak, but Francis Ngannou, Curtis Blaydes, and Jairzinho Rozenstruik are capable of beating anyone on any given night. There is no shame in those losses.
The biggest thing holding JDS back from reaching his previous heights is his declining durability. While he deserves credit for being aware of that and attempting to improve his footwork and head movement, he still tends to slip into old habits ever so briefly and that’s when he tends to get railroaded. Another negative associated with that is it has taken away from his willingness to stay in the pocket and unload the lengthy boxing combinations that used to be a signature of his. He still has one punch power, but not being in his opponent’s face as often has also taken away from the element of surprise that is key for any KO artist.
Gane, without the mileage on his body that JDS has endured, is bereft of any fear in the pocket. Not that he is defensively deficient – he’s technically more sound than JDS in that area – but those fundamentals are so ingrained into him that you don’t see the gears turning in his head in the same way you do JDS. The former Glory kickboxer has supreme confidence when he trades with kicks to the body quickly becoming his signature. Some may point to his lack of striking finishes since he reached the UFC, but that’s because he isn’t looking to put that extra oomph into his strikes that often leads to finishes. He believes they’ll come with time and it’s hard to argue with his results thus far.
The problem with picking this contest is the question of the ground game. Though we’ve seen very little of it, it has been constantly suggested that JDS has a very good ground game. Gane, though he has secured a couple of submissions against lesser competition, is still thought to be very raw. Despite that, I still favor Gane as JDS has had several contests over the years where it would be advisable for him to go to the mat and he never does. There’s no reason to believe it would change at this point. JDS doesn’t have the swagger in the pocket anymore that made him a champion in the past and Gane is skilled enough on the feet to outpoint the vet… if he doesn’t KO him first. Gane via decision