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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Vegas 11: Covington vs. Woodley - Main card preview

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Get behind the scenes on all the hard-hitting action of this weekends UFC Vegas 11 card, headlined by former welterweight champions Colby Covington and Tyron Woodley settling their longtime grudge.

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Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

I’m sure you’ve already heard it from just about everyone else, but ‘UFC VEGAS 11’… WHAT A CARD!!! I say that with the perspective of this being a Fight Night card and in comparison to some of the other cards we’ve had lately. It wasn’t that long ago Colby Covington and Tyron Woodley were simultaneously holding welterweight gold. A little over a year ago, Donald Cerrone was still considered by many to be one of the best lightweights on the planet. At that same time, Johnny Walker appeared to have the world by the balls. While each of these men have lost some of their sheen, this card also has Khamzat Chimaev, who only happens to be the hottest thing in the sport at the moment. And is it just me, or wasn’t Mackenzie Dern supposed to be the next big thing in WMMA not that long ago? If none of that excites you, there’s always Kevin Holland….

Colby Covington vs. Tyron Woodley, Welterweight

One of the most polarizing figures in all of sports, no objective observer of MMA can deny that Covington is one of the best welterweights in the world. He took the current champion, Kamaru Usman, to the limit before faltering in the fifth round after he already had suffered a serious jaw injury. He was rhisclose to becoming the champion. Now, he’s facing a hell of a road back to challenge for the gold.

There may not be a more overwhelming figure in MMA than Covington. He pushes an insane pace and can do so for five rounds, a rarity even in a sport with some of the best conditioned athletes in the world. When he first entered the UFC, it was almost purely on the back of his wrestling, securing takedown after takedown, wearing out his opponent in the process. Not only do they fight to stop from going to the mat, but Covington makes them work to get back to their feet. After offering next to nothing with his striking early in his career, he’s become at the very least, a credible boxer. No, he doesn’t have much power – neither did Floyd Mayweather – but he makes it difficult for his opponents to take a breath as he works them over incessantly to the head and body. Covington mixes in a bunch of low kicks make sure that he works them over on all levels.

The question is whether Woodley can stop Covington. The ultimate neutralizer, Woodley received some very favorable matchups in his title reign. If he’s facing strictly a striker, the former champion can threaten with his explosive power to keep them at bay, as well as with his takedowns. He did that with Stephen Thompson and Darren Till. If he’s facing a pure grappler, he can shut down their takedowns and potshot them to cruise to victory. That’s what Woodley did with Demian Maia. But what about when his opponent is a credible striker and wrestler/grappler? Well… he did get dominated by Usman and Gilbert Burns.

Woodley appears to freeze up, not knowing what it is he should be prepared to defend. His power hasn’t gone anywhere and few in the division own a more powerful double-leg. He can still be a major threat. At this point, it’s a matter of whether he has lost the ability to pull the trigger. Given the severity of the punishment he received from both Usman and Burns, it’s worth wondering if he’s now suffering from a mental block. It’s worth pointing out Covington endured a hell of a beating against Usman himself and could very well have reservations about returning to the cage. However, those concerns are more prescient with Woodley as it is now two fights in a row he froze.

There is one big X-factor for Woodley that could pull him out of the malaise we’ve seen from him in his last two appearances. He and Covington have had a beef for several years, dating back to when they were teammates at ATT. Nothing provides motivation more than hatred for the opponent standing across the cage from you. Of course, emotion can also cause a fighter to fight stupidly. That’s a big reason why Covington makes every fight personal. Plus, Woodley is now 38. Could it just be that he’s getting old? He doesn’t look physically diminished, but a person’s mindset can change over time too.

All it takes from Woodley is one punch. He has that type of power. He’ll get opportunities to fire too as Covington will come at him. However, if Woodley doesn’t get the job done by the time round two is over, I have a hard time believing he stands a chance. Covington won’t allow him to sit back and conserve energy the way Thompson did, allowing Woodley to be effective deep into their contest. Covington will look to break him in the same way Usman and Burns did. Covington doesn’t have the power to put him away unless Woodley just outright quits. Woodley might end up checking out mentally, but he doesn’t quit. I anticipate it will make for another long night for the former champ. Covington via decision

Donald Cerrone vs. Niko Price, Welterweight

There are some who are declaring the sky is falling for Cerrone. Yes, he is on a four-fight losing streak. Yes, he doesn’t appear to be as durable as he was in his younger days. And yes, his reaction time appears to be a hair slower than what it was in his prime. But there’s a couple of things to note before we declare Cerrone a relic of the past. First of all, we had this conversation near the end of 2018 when Cerrone had dropped four of his previous five only for him to rush back with three impressive wins to launch him back into prominence by the middle of 2019. Secondly, have y’all paid attention to the names he’s losing to? Tony Ferguson. Justin Gaethje. Conor McGregor. Anthony Pettis. At one point or another, all those men have been/are champions of some sort in the UFC. Cerrone may not be elite anymore, but that doesn’t mean he’s finished.

Cerrone may be the most technically sound competitor he’s ever been at any point in his career. He’s worked hard over the years to add new wrinkles – from step-in knees to a power double – and he’s got a very deep bag from which to draw from. Even with all the improvements, his arsenal of kicks is still probably his best weapon. It isn’t just the several head kick KO’s he has on his record either. Early in his career, Cerrone was a classic club-and-sub artist. He doesn’t need his opponent to be dazed either to find a submission. He’s got a good clinch game too and has become a good boxer in the pocket.

However, the story is the same as it has always been with Cerrone: is his head right? When it’s just another fight outside of the spotlight, Cerrone has been at his best. When the lights are brightest, he falters. He’s also a notoriously slow starter. Cerrone has been fortunate at times to quickly reverse his fortunes – the Melvin Guillard and Edson Barboza wins come to mind – but those have been more infrequent as he ages beyond his prime. The other thing he struggles with: pressure from his opponent.

Pressure is something Price will bring. It isn’t the most technical pressure, but Price is always up in his opponent’s face. Willing to eat a shot – or two, maybe three – to get his, Price has developed into one of the most consistent action fighters on the roster. At some point, that type of style begins to come up short on the returns and Price would appear to be tougher than he is durable. However, Price doesn’t appear to be at the point of no return yet. Though he is known for his creativity – his KO’s from off his back of Randy Brown and James Vick come to mind – his base consists of a lot of offense up the middle. Jabs, uppercuts, front kicks to the gut. Part of that is he relies on finding openings as opposed to creating openings with feints and fakes, but he has been evolving.

This is a big opportunity for Price. Even on his skid, Cerrone still has a lot of name value. If Price can style of someone of Cerrone’s notoriety the way he has on some of his past opponents, he could be on his way to stardom. However, until I see Cerrone fall to someone less than elite, I can’t pick against him. This could very well be that point when he finally does – I gave serious thought to picking Price – but I can’t bring myself to say it is until I see it. Cerrone via submission of RD2

Khamzat Chimaev vs. Gerald Meerschaert, Middleweight

Chimaev is becoming the new it thing. After two of the most dominant victories in UFC history – no hyperbole — in his first two contests, in different weight classes no less, people are salivating at the potential of the Swede. Did I mention those wins came just ten days apart? Even more incredible is that there is no secret to what he wants to do: close the distance, throw his opponent to the ground, and maul them from there. The rate at which Chimaev unleashes his fury is ungodly, landing a total of 83 significant strikes in just over nine minutes in his two contests with another 109 no-so significant strikes landed for a total of 192 total strikes. Though the furthest he has gone in a UFC contest is six minutes thus far, there’s been no signs of his slowing down from his relentless pace.

Does Meerschaert stand a chance? Given he’s faced a plethora of opponents in his long career and has seen just about everything… he might. Meerschaert is a tricky submission artist who may very well be able to catch Chimaev off-guard. Throw in the fact that he has plenty of motivation – something that has appeared to be an issue at times with him – given Chimaev is double-booked, a contest with Demian Maia waiting in the wings. With Maia booked in the background, that’s an indication the organization doesn’t think Meerschaert is going to do much to Chimaev, much less beat him. It’s hard to imagine he doesn’t have a fire lit underneath him.

The wild card in this contest is the striking aspect. Chimeav is very much a mystery on the feet as the only thing we’ve seen out of him in the UFC is using his strikes to set up his takedowns, though there is footage of him dropping Alexander Gustafsson with a groin shot in a sparring session, whatever that’s worth. Meerschaert is a crafty striker, though not a particularly powerful one. He’ll catch his opponent off-guard every now and then and drop them, but his primary weapon on the feet is his body kicks. However, kicks would appear to be a risky proposition given Chimaev will likely use that opening to take him to the mat.

Meershaert is by far a better grappler and scrambler than he is wrestler. He can be controlled, but he can also take advantage of an opening an opponent leaves open. Chimaev hasn’t been doing that. His body positioning and limb control – whether it’s wrapping up his opponent’s legs or holding their wrist behind their back – has been some of the best I’ve ever seen. There’s a reason he’s emerged virtually untouched in both of his contests. Meerschaert is a good sized middleweight, so perhaps he can cause some problems. I don’t see it happening. Chimaev via TKO of RD2

Johnny Walker vs. Ryan Spann, Light Heavyweight

A year ago at this time, Walker was the hottest thing in the light heavyweight division. In three UFC contests, he had three explosive first round KO’s against increasingly difficult competition. And when I say explosive, I mean EXPLOSIVE!!! Then he ran up against Corey Anderson, ended up getting blitzed, and appears to have lost his confidence in the process. Confidence can be regained, but the Johnny Walker who lost to Nikita Krylov wasn’t the same Johnny Walker who did all the blitzing in his first three UFC contests.

Even if Walker’s head isn’t in the right place, he’s still a dangerous opponent. At 6’6” with an 82” reach, Walker sports a frame that’s incredibly difficult to navigate. What’s even worse is if you can cut a swath through his reach, the clinch might very well be strongest part of his game. His lanky frame makes it easy for him to utilize the Thai clinch, from where he’ll alternate between driving his knees into the gut and head or landing a flurry of elbows to the head of his opponent. Just ask Khalil Rountree how those elbows feel. However, when Walker’s confidence is high, he’s willing to unleash flying and/or spinning attacks at will… and you better believe they land with the utmost impact.

Walker’s kryptonite was exposed by Krylov, proving a long frame isn’t nearly as effective when it’s horizontal. That’s good news for Spann, another plus athlete with a similar frame. Entering the UFC with a reputation as a grappler, Spann has developed into a skilled boxer in the pocket. While finding moments to trade in the pocket might be rare in this contest, he still has his submission skills that he can fall back on… provided he can get Walker to the mat. Spann isn’t a bad wrestler, but he relies a lot on clinch takedowns, which would walk him right into Walker’s wheelhouse.

There is no doubt Spann is the more disciplined fighter. He’s also won eight fights in a row, four in the confines of the UFC. Throw in Walker’s two consecutive losses and it’s clear momentum is on the side of Spann. Even with that said, I can’t pick him. Spann is used to being the rangier fighter and/or the better athlete. He’s neither of those in this case and I don’t know if he can overcome that. Plus, Spann’s chin has been cracked before. It might take Walker a bit longer than usual, but I think he can find a way to end Spann’s night early and get back on track. Walker via TKO of RD1

  • Through her first three UFC contests, most would agree Mackenzie Dern’s UFC run had been a disappointment, even with a winning record. With a history of missing weight and nearly allowing an opponent without nearly the physical gifts to upend Dern’s UFC debut, there were questions that she wasn’t taking her career seriously. After having a child and suffering the first loss of her career, Dern appears to have discovered her focus, A physically gifted athlete with an extensive – and impressive – BJJ career, Dern could very well be the best pure grappler in the division. She has shown signs of development in her striking and her wrestling, but still isn’t where she needs to be to be a contender. She’ll be tested by Randa Markos, one of the longtime veteran mainstays of the division. Perhaps the most inconsistent member of the division, Markos has looked like she should be on the verge of title contention in one contest only to look aimless the next. She’s at her most consistent when she’s aggressive, pursuing takedowns and letting her fists fly. Unfortunately, that type of strategy would play right into what Dern does well as Dern doesn’t need to be on top to be dangerous. Markos is a skilled grappler in her own right, but it appears Dern is putting it all together. Dern via submission of RD2
  • It’s impossible not to appreciate Kevin Holland on some level. It’s also impossible not to be frustrated by him. Creative in both his trash talk and his fighting style, Holland has been better off at times when his arsenal is limited as he can be aimless in his attack. When he’s limited – as he was when he suffered a shoulder injury against Alessio Di Chirico – Holland is forced to direct his energy in a particular direction. With his incredibly lanky frame, you’d think he’s best suited to fight from the outside. However, he’s had a lot of success in the clinch and puts his long limbs to good use on the mat. Given the questionable ground game of Darren Stewart, you’d expect Holland to do everything in his power to implement his wrestling. Then again, because it’s Holland, you expect him to do whatever his opponent wants to do. In this case, Stewart has developed into a skilled pocket boxer, but an ugly battle in the clinch is still his bread and butter. Most encouraging for the Brit is that he still appears to be adding more wrinkles to his game as his guillotine choke win over Maki Pitolo indicates. It’s impossible to predict a Holland contest, but he’s been coming out on top more often than not. For no other particular reason than that, I’ll go with the irrepressible one. Holland via decision

It should be noted the following contest will be on the prelims. However, it was booked after the prelims preview was submitted. So, with something being better than nothing, here it is:

  • Circa 2014, many were predicting Mirsad Bektic was going to be the next big thing in the sport. All he needed was a bit of seasoning and he’d be challenging for UFC gold before the turn of the decade. We’ve turned the decade and Bektic is scheduled to fight… Damon Jackson. If you’re asking who that is, that’s the point: Bektic hasn’t come anywhere close to fulfilling expectations. Then again, Jackson was a late replacement for Eduardo Garagorri who pulled out due to a cornerman testing positive for COVID-19. An aggressive pressure fighter who did whatever it takes to finish his takedowns. Even now, when Bektic finishes his takedowns and gets proper positioning, he has some killer GnP. For some reason, he’s made his takedowns secondary, attempting to become a standup fighter highly reliant on a jab. Perhaps he that strategy in hopes of remaining fresh in the final round as gassing late has been an issue. Regardless, the sheen is off the rose. Jackson gets back into the UFC after washing out in early 2016. A skilled grappler with a penchant for chokes, Jackson struggled in his initial UFC run with opponents who were physically stronger than him. Given Bektic is exactly that and many have described Jackson as being pillow-fisted, I don’t think his second run in the UFC is going to start off any better than his first one did. Bektic via TKO of RD2