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Diggin’ Deep on UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje - ESPN prelims

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Get the down-low on a loaded televised prelims, featuring four former UFC or Strikeforce champions and the inimitable Donald Cerrone.

Given the tough economic times brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a good chance the ESPN prelims will be the only bouts most fans can watch. It isn’t like people can jam into a bar to catch the main card at this time to catch the fights, but fortunately, the UFC is doing them a solid by providing some excellent quality. Just under four months ago – a lifetime ago given the difference in circumstances – Donald Cerrone was headlining UFC 246 against Conor McGregor. Now, he’s headlining the televised prelims. Adding to the presence of the Cowboy, there is at least one former UFC or Strikeforce champion in every televised contest. Whether you want to praise or criticize the UFC for holding an event in these times, credit to them for giving us a high quality card.

Anthony Pettis (22-10) vs. Donald Cerrone (36-14, 1 NC), Lightweight

It’s easy to forget these two have met before, all the way back in 2013 when Pettis was making his ascent to the lightweight title. In other words, it feels like it was a lifetime ago.

While Pettis managed to capture the lightweight title in 2013, he has been the definition of inconsistency ever since. In his defense, the inconsistency can partially be explained due to injury. It could be argued Pettis is a better fighter than he was when he claimed the belt as he has improved his wrestling and become a more technical striker. The problem is no one is willing to give him the space he needs to be at his best on a consistent basis. When they do, Pettis proved he’s still capable of fireworks, KO’ing Stephen Thompson with a brutal Superman punch. It’s a matter of whether he’ll be provided the space.

Cerrone has had similarly poor results when pressured throughout his career. His losses to Rafael dos Anjos (their second go-around) and Conor McGregor are proof of that. Fortunately for him, Pettis isn’t a pressure fighter. Unfortunately for Cerrone, he does his best work when he’s given space to work as well.

Like Pettis, Cerrone has made enough adjustments since the first time they met that he isn’t the same fighter, mostly subtle tactical moves. What those tactics are have been dependent on his opponent. Sometimes he resorts to his quick double-leg to take the fight to the mat. Other times, he’ll catch an opponent with a step-in knee. Basically, he’s diversified his attack. However, he doesn’t appear to be as durable as he once was, being finished in his last three contests. To be fair to Cerrone, he tends to come back strongest when the doubts are piled on top of him. Right now, those doubts are heavy as hell.

Many have referred to Pettis as soft due to his injury history, but it’s not true. Brittle would be a better word as his body can’t seem to stand up to the beating his spirit is willing to endure. His losses to Tony Ferguson and Dustin Poirier illustrate that perfectly. The question is if Cerrone can put that type of a beatdown on him. Cerrone is more of a flash KO artist and Pettis isn’t prone to those type of losses. On the other hand, Cerrone is prone to the single big shot… and Pettis specializes in those. Pettis via TKO of RD1

Aleksei Oleinik (58-13-1) vs. Fabricio Werdum (23-8-1), Heavyweight

Wait… this contest is between a pair of 42-year heavyweights? And this isn’t taking place in Bellator?

Promotional jokes aside, Oleinik and Werdum are amongst the greatest submission specialists in heavyweight history. Oleinik is the true definition of a specialist as his skill is largely limited to his work on the ground and his unique ability to secure neck cranks and Ezekiel chokes. That doesn’t mean Oleinik isn’t dangerous on the feet. Despite his poor striking technique, Oleinik has an incredibly long reach at 80” and has plenty of power behind his ham hocks. Should Werdum get lazy, Oleinik sure as hell can put him to sleep.

Despite that, this may be the first contest Werdum has no interest in taking to the mat. Not that Werdum would be lost against the like of Oleinik on the mat, but he has such a massive technical advantage on the feet, it would be foolish for him not to exploit that edge. Then again, that’s provided Werdum hasn’t lost a step as it has been two years since he last stepped into a cage thanks to a USADA suspension. Few believe he can climb back to the top of the mountain, but crazier things have happened in the heavyweight division.

Oleinik is as crafty and savvy as they come. He isn’t a great wrestler in the traditional sense, but he knows how to get the fight to the ground with various takedowns, often trips and throws. However, even though he was never very quick to begin with, he appears to have lost a step, having issues putting away Maurice Greene. It’s likely Werdum has lost something, but there’s also the possibility the layoff was good for him. Even if it wasn’t, I’d favor Werdum as Oleinik doesn’t appear to have much left in the tank. Werdum via TKO of RD2

Carla Esparza (15-6) vs. Michelle Waterson (17-7), Women’s Strawweight

It’s obvious to anyone who follows the sport that the UFC brass has done everything within their power to prop Waterson up as a star. It helps when your agency representation is the owners of the company. However, Waterson has busted her ass to take advantage of the opportunities presented to her and continues to make whatever the present-day version of herself is, the best version of herself despite now being 34-years old. At heart, she’s still an out-fighter with a wide arsenal of kicks. However, she has improved her boxing to the point that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her outslicking Esparza in the pocket… at least for portions of the fight.

Esparza’s wrestling background and tendency to ground her opposition early in her career had her pigeonholed as a grinder for a long time. Only in her last few fights have critics begun to acknowledge her boxing as a plus skill. It has its limitations as Esparza stands just 5’1” with a 63” reach, but she’s technically sound so long as she can keep the fight within striking distance. There is some belief Waterson may be able to submit Esparza, but that task has proven easier said than done. Remember Esparza’s escape from the armbar Alexa Grasso slapped on her? Yeah, not only was it gruesome, it left zero room for anyone to question Esparza’s toughness.

Thanks to her explosiveness and creativity, Waterson has more ways to win this contest. However, more ways doesn’t necessarily translate to being the favorite as some outcomes are more likely to occur than others. That’s what makes this contest so difficult to predict. I’ve doubted Waterson plenty of times in the past, only for the former Invicta atomweight champion to surprise me. The most notable area of improvement from Waterson that has me convinced she’ll pull this out: the clinch. Waterson has held her own with everyone this side of Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Esparza won’t have the size advantage past Waterson opponents have had either. Waterson via decision

Uriah Hall (15-9) vs. Jacare Souza (26-8, 1 NC), Middleweight

After one of the single most boring fights in the history of MMA following his move to light heavyweight, Jacare returns to middleweight. It’s a move many are questioning given Jacare is now 40 and has reportedly had issues with his most recent weight cuts at 185. If Jacare can make weight without any issues, he’s the easy favorite. Then again, no one is better at snatching victory out of the mitts of their opponent than Hall….

There’s a reason Hall once received comparisons to Anderson Silva. He’s as explosive as they come, able to swing the entire momentum of a contest in an instant. His win over Gegard Mousasi is the best example of that, scoring no significant offense until he lands a spinning back kick from out of nowhere. He has worked hard to add offense that builds the bridges to his killshots, developing a stout jab in the process. Hall still has long bouts of inactivity due to his tentativeness, but those are becoming more infrequent.

Jacare can also have long bouts of inactivity – as his match with Jan Blachowicz clearly demonstrated – but it’s usually because he’s stalking his opponent. Jacare isn’t the most technical striker, but he hits hard and benefits from opponents being wary of his takedowns thanks to his elite grappling and submission skills. He doesn’t have the same burst he did just a few years ago and it’s showing up in the amount of damage he has taken in his recent contests. Fortunately, he can still take a hell of beating. If Jacare can keep the pressure on Hall, it will be difficult for Hall to generate the power needed to put down the Brazilian. Even in his advanced age, the smart money says Jacare can find a way to get the fight to the mat and find a submission. Jacare via submission of RD2