While I maintain the UFC would have been better off ending on the note of a PPV, it doesn’t look like they’ll be going out with a whimper by any means. UFC Vegas 45 is not only topped by perennial fan favorite Derrick Lewis, it features several other contests of divisional importance running down the main card.
Is Stephen Thompson still worthy of being called a top welterweight? Is Amanda Lemos a real threat in the strawweight division? Does Raphael Assuncao or Diego Ferreira have anything left in the tank? While I’m sure a solid chunk of the MMA world would claim none of these names have a chance of being relevant in the title picture beyond this point, I would point y’all to the likes of Michael Bisping and Glover Teixeira. Never say never in this sport. And here’s hoping the year goes out with a bang.
Derrick Lewis vs. Chris Daukaus, Heavyweight
It feels like a waste of time putting too much effort into analyzing Lewis. The big man hits as hard as anyone else who has ever fought in this sport and doesn’t win by any other way than blasting his opponent into orbit. While he has had some of his fights go to decision, deit’s on the strength of those explosive attacks as those short moments tend to wipe out anything else his opponent has done that round. I suppose the Francis Ngannou fight is an exception to that rule, but the less said about that fight, the better....
To be fair to Lewis, he has grown more intelligent as the years have gone by. He has become a bit of a student of the game, noticing what tendencies his opponents have and looking for the perfect punch to exploit those tendencies. His uppercut KO of Curtis Blaydes is a perfect example. He knew Blaydes would be looking for the takedowns, so he waited until the wrestler shot in and blasted Blaydes away. Sure, he gave away the opening round, but with power like that, it’s a worthwhile gamble to give rounds away either waiting for the right opportunity or resting up if his sprint of energy doesn’t provide the desired results.
Thus, even if Lewis wins, expect Daukaus to land a significantly higher amount of punches than Lewis. The formerly chunky heavyweight has been slimming down while adding muscle and has hand speed that may be the fastest in the heavyweight division. There isn’t a lot of flash to his boxing, but it’s effective and technically tight as he piles up the punches in a hurry. However, what has truly been a big difference maker for Daukaus thus far is the diversity in his striking. For instance, his knees in the clinch have been debilitating for a pair of his UFC opponents... and Lewis is notoriously prone to body shots.
The issue there is whether Daukaus can handle the brute strength of Lewis. There’s been some who believe Daukaus’ best home might be at light heavyweight, indicating it may be a fool’s errand to fight in close quarters with the big man. Given that, the obvious edge Daukaus has in grappling may be rendered moot. It isn’t necessarily that getting Lewis down is an impossibility. In fact, his takedown defense is notoriously poor. The issue is keeping him down. Lewis’ brute strength has allowed him to bench press opponents off him. The only opponents who have kept Lewis down for long stretches have possessed have possessed extensive wrestling or sambo backgrounds. That doesn’t describe Daukaus.
The motivations of Lewis is another question that has been bantered about. He’s now lost two title fights and appears likely to settle into a role of a gatekeeper. Does he have the desire to continue to put in the effort to fight at a high level. I say yes. Lewis has been more concerned about lining his bank account throughout his career more so than becoming champion. Lewis is in a prime opportunity to secure a Performance bonus. Daukaus is tough, but he has been KO’d. Perhaps Daukaus can surprise Lewis with a flurry and wear down the big man, but it takes a LOT to wear down the big man and he tends to get in a big shot or two before all is over. Sure, he didn’t get that against Ciryl Gane, but Daukaus isn’t the striking technician Gane is. I think Lewis finds the big shot he’ll be looking for. Lewis via KO of RD2
Stephen Thompson vs. Belal Muhammad, Welterweight
As Thompson edges up on his 39th birthday, it feels more appropriate to refer to him as Wonderman as opposed to Wonderboy, but you’d never guess the former kickboxing champion is getting anywhere near the end of the line as far as his career is concerned based on how he looks in the cage. Thompson is still spry and well-conditioned, launching an incredible volume of jabs and side-kicks to keep his opponents from closing the distance.
However, it hasn’t been volume that has been the issue for Thompson. It’s been the lack of killer instinct. The purpose behind keeping his opponents at range when Thompson first joined the UFC was to give him the time and reads to set up a killshot, typically an explosive kick to the head. We’re now creeping up on six years since Thompson last secured a finish. Some of that can be attributed to opponents having a better feel of what to look for, but Thompson has also been reluctant to pull the trigger. Perhaps that has something to do with being blasted by Tyron Woodley in their first title fight – that seems to be the biggest turning point – but it just hasn’t been happening. Thompson still has power, it’s just a matter of him being willing to pull the trigger.
Thus, it feels safe to assume we can expect a point fight in this contest, especially given that’s Muhammad’s own typical path to victory. Exceptionally well-rounded, it’s hard to pinpoint a weakness in Muhammad’s game. However, it’s also hard to point to a single area where he can reliably claim to the better fighter at in fight after fight. Perhaps conditioning, but I can’t say I’ve seen Thompson tired in a fight either. Regardless, Muhammad’s conditioning allows him to push an insane pace and overwhelm his opponents with simple, but lengthy, boxing combinations. Unfortunately, given Thompson’s use of angles and distance, it might be too much to ask of Muhammad to pull too many of those combos.
It can be expected Muhammad will attempt to take the fight is either clinched against the cage or on the mat. Despite his showing against Gilbert Burns, Thompson’s takedown defense has proven to be a strength of his. What Thompson does once the fight hits the mat is a completely different story as he has spent prolonged periods stuck on his back once his opponent gets him down. Thus, the question becomes whether Muhammad can gain the top position.
I love rooting for intelligent fighters and Muhammad is an exceptionally intelligent fighter. He doesn’t lose based on his own mistakes. For him, it boils down to whether he has the physical capabilities to carry out his strategy. I don’t think he can against Thompson. Those who have beaten Thompson – aside from Matt Brown nearly a decade ago – have all been explosive athletes who can stun him with a single strike or nail a quick takedown. I haven’t seen that capability out of the workmanlike Muhammad. Thompson via decision
Amanda Lemos vs. Angela Hill, Women’s Strawweight
Even if the mainstream MMA audience has no clue who she is, Lemos has gathered a hell of a following amongst those who tend to catch fights on a regular basis. A four-fight win streak in which she has secured consecutive first round KOs will do that. Not only does Lemos have unmatched power in the division, but she also has a hell of a chin, marching down her opponents with little regard for whatever they might throw back at her. I’m sure her willingness to eat punches will come back to bite her at some point. The question is, will Hill be the one to make her pay?
Hill has been a long vaunted Muay Thai practitioner, putting together loads of volume on her opposition with surprisingly little empty volume. However, part of the reason she’s known as a volume striker is due to the lack of oomph behind Hill’s strikes. That isn’t to say they don’t have anything behind them, but it’s more of a sting than it is a clubbing. The chances are good Hill can land a considerably greater number of strikes and still come out short on a decision if Lemos is able to land enough power shots.
The question is how effective Lemos can be should the fight go beyond the opening round. The lone fight in her current win streak that didn’t end in the first round did go the distance and Lemos did outland Mizuki Inoue in every round, but Inoue isn’t the striker Hill is and Lemos’ most effective round was the opening frame by a mile. Throw in the fact that Hill has never been finished by strikes in her MMA career and there’s plenty of reason to believe Hill can pull off the upset.
Lemos’ ability to win a decision could very well come down to her ability to secure takedowns. Hill has vastly improved her wrestling and grappling from the time of her first UFC stint, but she can still be controlled for lengthy periods of time. Lemos has flashed a better ground game than expected, but not enough against quality competition to get a proper feel for whether it could be a consistent weapon against Hill.
I know I have already mentioned that Hill has never been KO’d in her MMA career, but there are two things that concern me. First, Hill is no defensive savant. She’ll be there for Lemos to touch up, especially early in the fight. Secondly, Hill has been involved in several brutal slugfests against some of the more reputed heavy hitters in the division. Jessica Andrade. Cortney Casey. Claudia Gadelha. It’s hard to believe her chin can continue to hold up as she inches into her late 30’s. It’s not an exact science by any means, but if someone is going to crack Hill’s chin, there is an exceptionally good chance it’ll be Lemos. Lemos via KO of RD1
Raphael Assuncao vs. Ricky Simon, Bantamweight
A compelling argument could be made the wheels have fallen off for Assuncao. At 39, he is positively ancient for the bantamweight division and is on a three-fight losing streak. Those who believe he still has something to offer would point out his losses came to the likes of Marlon Moraes, Cory Sandhagen, and Cody Garbrandt, all fighters who have either held a form of the bantamweight title or fought for it. Then again, the combined record of those fighters since they beat Assuncao is 3-9. Looking too deeply into all this isn’t going to provide a definitive answer, so I’ll move on....
Assuncao was never the type to skate by on his athletic prowess even when he was at his physical prime, largely because he couldn’t afford to. The Brazilian grappling ace has always relied on utilizing superior technique in all phases. However, that also explains why he never received a title shot despite having a stretch where he went 11-1: there is next to no flash to his game. Despite being one of the better grapplers in the division, he only has one submission win under the UFC banner as he prioritizes position over submission. On the feet, he prioritizes defense over offense. Creating opportunities for offense isn’t a strength of Assuncao, but he’s good at taking what his opponent will give him.
Simon creates an interesting dichotomy for Assuncao. An aggressive pressure fighter always on the lookout for takedowns, he’ll give Assuncao every opportunity to land a counter hook or hunt for a submission on the mat. Of course, that’ll be dependent on getting Assuncao to the ground, no easy task as the Brazilian has only been taken down two times at most in a UFC contest. Much of that has something to do with opponents respecting Assuncao on the mat, but it would fundamentally alter how Simon fights if he were to give Assuncao that level of respect. Ever since being blasted by Urijah Faber, Simon has landed at least six takedowns in every one of his fights.
Two years ago, I’d be picking Assuncao with little hesitation, taking advantage with Simon’s aggressive tendencies. However, it’s not 2019 anymore. Simon has shown maturity in his approach, showing profound respect for the grappling of Brian Kelleher in his last contest in a way that caught some off-guard given all the takedowns he did land. There’s no reason to expect he wouldn’t be able to instill a similar approach against Assuncao. Couple that with the strides Simon has made on the feet and Assuncao struggling to dictate the pace of a fight as well as he once upon a time could and I see the younger fighter running roughshod on the fading veteran. Simon via decision
Diego Ferreira vs. Mateusz Gamrot, Lightweight
At the beginning of this calendar year, Ferreira looked like a dark horse to be a title contender by the end of the year. Two losses later and he’s fighting for any sort of relevancy near the top of the division. A pressure fighter with an exceptionally skilled BJJ game, Ferreira was beaten at his own game by Beneil Dariush and Gregor Gillespie. There’s no shame in losing to either individual, but it either puts a hard cap on the ceiling of Ferreira or indicates the 36-year-old has already peaked. I’m more likely to put money on the latter.
That isn’t to say Ferreira is washed up. The native of Texas had his share of success against both, particularly Gillespie. Where things went south for him was the superior wrestling technique of Dariush and Gillespie allowing them to exert far more control over Ferreira and wearing him out in the case of Gillespie.
Gamrot has traditionally been a patient fighter, much of that due to his long history of five-round fights while in KSW. However, ever since dropping his UFC debut, Gamrot has offered a different side of himself, fighting with a new aggressiveness, securing a KO and a submission against a pair of opponents who’ve proven difficult to put away. However, in his lone career loss, he struggled with the pressure of Guram Kutateladze, much in the same way Ferreira pressures his opponents.
In terms of a pure grappling match, I’d give a sizeable edge to Ferreira. However, this is MMA and there are several other aspects of the fight game to consider. Gamrot is the cleaner striker, traditionally operating behind his jab. Ferreira has been more consistent in displaying his power and Gamrot’s chin appears to be crackable, though it hasn’t been cracked yet. Regardless, Gamrot’s wrestling is far superior to Ferreira’s and his ability to chain takedowns together should prove problematic for Ferreira. Gamrot via decision
- It doesn’t feel all that long ago that both Cub Swanson and Darren Elkins were in talks to fight for the featherweight title. Then both hit lengthy losing streaks, the realities of age setting in on a pair of veterans that have endured many hard-fought battles that have taken a hell of a toll on their bodies. Swanson was easily the more explosive of the two back in the day, possessing excellent boxing and plenty of pop. For Elkins, his blood and guts style has often been ugly to watch, but it’s also extremely difficult to overcome. Despite being a poor athlete with little punching power, Elkins’ constant forward motion and relentless pursuit of takedowns has proven too much for more talented opponents several times over. Elkins can be outslicked. It’s extremely hard to do, but he can be stopped. However, Elkins’ spirit can’t be broken. Several years ago, I would have had no doubt that Swanson would be able to outwork Elkins on the feet and avoid Elkins’ takedowns. I don’t know if he can do that anymore, especially given Swanson appears to be showing more signs of age than Elkins, no surprise given he has more consistently fought a higher level of competition. Elkins via decision