The UFC has consistently been giving us quality Fight Night cards for quite a while, particularly when the main event stays intact. For instance, we had Jiri Prochazka and Dominick Reyes give us an instant classic at the beginning of the month. There’s a good possibility we could get something similar between Rob Font and Cody Garbrandt at UFC Vegas 27, this weekend. Both are two of the better KO specialists in the bantamweight division and have no problems fighting at a high pace. Plus, there’s another former champion in the co-main event – Garbrandt being one himself – not to mention a title contender a little further down. There is a LOT of promise for this card.
Rob Font vs. Cody Garbrandt, Bantamweight
Garbrandt is difficult to get a handle on. His winning the title doesn’t feel like a fluke despite him dropping three in a row after claiming the belt. His hand speed may be the fastest in the sport, possesses legit one-punch KO power, and is a fantastic wrestler. Unfortunately, his chin has since been exposed and his tendency to fight emotionally puts his chin at an even higher risk of being tested. Now, not only will Garbrandt’s opposition look to land clean shots on his chin, they’re going to look to get under his skin – both pre-fight and during the fight – in order to get him to fight stupidly. Can he overcome this?
Garbrandt has been trying to slow things down and pick his shots as exhibited by his performance against Raphael Assuncao. He did so successfully when he found a walloping right hand right before the second round bell, but it was also a depressingly slow paced contest, landing less than two significant shots per minute in a fight that was entirely on the feet. In other words, Assuncao gave him the exact type of fight he was hoping to have.
Font won’t give him that in the least. Though they are the same height, Font owns a 6-inch reach advantage on Garbrandt and throws a plethora of volume at his opponent no matter who he’s fighting. Well… unless he’s thrown off by his opponent’s power. John Lineker and Assuncao both were able to connect cleanly early and forced Font to think twice about swarming. However, the most recent of those contests was also three years ago and Font has looked better and better in each successive contest since then.
Against Sergio Pettis, Font kept the smaller Pettis at the end of his reach, jabbing him into oblivion. Against Ricky Simon, it was clear Font worked on not just his takedown defense, but his ability to get back to his feet, tiring out the wrestler with his cardio and turning up the volume as the fight went deeper. Finally, he put the pressure on Marlon Moraes and swarmed him with power shots to get him out of there in the opening round. Font employed a different strategy in each contest and did so to perfection.
Perhaps Garbrandt has discovered a newfound ability to keep his emotions in check, but the Assuncao contest doesn’t provide very good evidence. Perhaps Garbrandt will turn to his vaunted wrestling, but he has rarely taken that out of his back pocket, averaging less than a takedown over 15 minutes. Based on what has been seen in the past, the most likely scenario appears to be Font’s length and volume frustrating Garbrandt and the former champion lashing out with his brawling nature. Garbrandt could catch Font clean, but Font has never been KO’d. In a brawl, I trust his chin to hold up over Garbrandt’s. Font via KO of RD2
Yan Xiaonan vs. Carla Esparza, Women’s Strawweight
Given the short length of her title reign – it was less than 100 days – many tend to forget Esparza is a former champion. That she’s on the verge of getting another crack at the belt six years after she lost it is a testament to her grit and determination. Of course, many choose to forget that reign given her heavy reliance on a style that borders on lay-and-prey and the lack of dominance in her showings, eeking out close decision win after close decision win. How much longer can her blotting stylings serve her well?
There’s a chance Esparza could have developed into a fan favorite had her stint on TUF not portrayed her as a mean girl as she portrays an underdog spirit. A strong wrestler despite her undersized frame, technique and timing are the keystones to her success. Given there is never any secret to how she wants to win, opponents are often prepared to stuff the takedowns and frequently find success in thwarting her attempts. That’s where Esparza’s boxing in the pocket comes into play. It isn’t elite by any means, but it’s more than functional and her surprising pop tends to catch her opposition off guard. However, its effectiveness doesn’t extend beyond the pocket, which is why many tend to write off Esparza’s striking.
Esparza’s ineffectiveness from the outside alone might be enough to favor Xiaonan. Even though her reach is short in proportion to her frame, her ability to stick and move with speed and frequency has been the backbone of her undefeated UFC run. She’s beyond capable of stringing together lengthy punching combinations, but that also means she has stopped moving. When she stops moving, that’s when Esparza will capitalize, most likely with a takedown and execute her lay-and-prey strategy.
Can Xiaonan keep moving enough for the entirety of the contest? She hasn’t shown signs of slowing down in any of her UFC contests yet and hasn’t landed less than 71 significant strikes in any of her contests. The likelihood appears very good she’ll be able to outland Esparza by a significant enough margin that there won’t be a judging controversy. There is concern that Xiaonan’s takedown defense is questionable – Claudia Gadelha got her down twice with ease before gassing – and all Esparza might need is two takedowns at just the right time, early in a couple of rounds. Xiaonan’s ability to get back to her feet has improved enough as well that those concerns are on the low end. Xiaonan via decision
Jack Hermansson vs. Edmen Shahbazyan, Middleweight
Coming off the first loss of his career – in which he appeared to be in over his head – Shahbazyan appears to be falling upward. Given he’s a youngster who is far from being a finished product, it appears to be a very curious move from the UFC. No one is doubting his talent – he’s flashed plenty of that thus far in his five-fight UFC stint – but one would think the organization would want to slow things down and help him regain his confidence rather than slam his development into hyperdrive.
Shahbazyan has a lot of the traits typical of most physically gifted youngsters: aggression, power, and a faulty gas tank. It isn’t necessarily that he’s poorly conditioned; it’s more that he has no idea how to pace himself. His aggression and power have allowed him to end most of his contests in a hurry – only two of his fights have left the first round – but he’s struggled once the fight drags beyond the opening frame. Then again, given he’s a protégé of Edmond Tarverdyan and Ronda Rousey, none of those characteristics are surprising. Even scarier for Shahbazyan was the inability of Tarverdyan and Rousey to make adjustments to their approach. It makes it questionable Shahbazyan can apply the lessons there to be learned from that first loss.
Making adjustments has never been an issue for Hermansson. A versatile fighter who is good at everything without really excelling at anything, Hermansson has won fights using a variety of different strategies. His most consistent weapon is his jab that he attacks with at all angles, with everything else revolving around that. He can use it to set up lengthy punching combinations or to disguise his double leg takedowns. Though Hermansson is at his best pushing forward, he can counter. He’d better be able to as Shahbazyan will be pressing the action.
Because Hermansson’s chin has cracked several times, it’s not hard to theorize Shahbazyan will catch him off-guard early and get him out of there. However, Hermansson will expect that and there’s no secret to what Shahbazyan will be trying to do: rush forward with punches, look for trips in the clinch, and aggressively pursue submissions. Hermansson’s grappling is underrated, making it difficult Shahbazyan can catch him on the mat and I like Hermansson’s savvy to ensure he can avoid the early onslaught from the younger fighter. I also expect Hermansson to find a late finish after Shahbazyan tires. Hermansson via submission of RD3
- The biggest thing Jared Vanderaa has going for him is his size. At 6’4” with an 80” reach, he’s absolutely massive. Though he is lumbering in general, the big man does have a quick burst that has caught more than one opponent off-guard. At his size, you know he has plenty of power to go with that burst too. The problem is, Vanderaa can only make use of that burst so many times in a contest before exhaustion catches up to him and he’s left looking to lean on his opponent. Justin Tafa may not push the same type of pace as Vanderaa, but he still has KO power by the time the final round rolls around and is efficient with his offense. Plus, he has legit one punch power. I’d immediately pick him to overcome Vanderaa… if he wasn’t so compact and his takedown defense is largely untested. I’m taking him anyway for two reasons: Vanderaa’s defense is porous and Tafa has beat someone with a similarly monstrous frame in Juan Adams. It isn’t hard to see Vanderaa overwhelming him with his size, but I don’t believe he has the discipline to do that. Tafa via TKO of RD2
- It’s impossible not to root for Felicia Spencer. A soft-spoken high school math teacher, she has proven herself to be exceptionally tough and durable by going the distance with both Amanda Nunes and Cyborg Justino. It wasn’t just that Spencer went the distance either. She stayed in their face for the entirety of those contests, never once giving up. That explains a lot of her success. An argument could be made that Spencer is the most lethal grappler from the top position in the history of women’s featherweight. The issue for her has been getting the fight to the mat… at least against Nunes and Cyborg. Against everyone else, her persistence has gotten the fight to the mat pretty damn quickly. The question becomes is Norma Dumont in the class of Cyborg and Nunes, or is she lumped in with everyone else? If you’ve paid the slightest attention to this division, that question doesn’t need to be answered. Dumont has promise, displaying a functional striking arsenal and owning a strong BJJ base. In fact, she may have the advantage in the striking. Unfortunately, Spencer isn’t going to let the fight stay upright for very long. Spencer via submission of RD1
- After four UFC appearances, Raulian Paiva is still a mysterious figure. Though the 25-year old is clearly physically gifted, it’s hard to determine if he’s going to be able to put all of those tools to the best usage to become a contender. At 5’8” with a 69” reach, he’s got a lanky frame for the division and generally puts it to good use with kicks to the body and legs and a jab that is still in development. However, he’s still struggling when opponents don’t allow him to operate from the outside. That’s music to the ears of David Dvorak. Though he isn’t in the same neighborhood in terms of explosiveness as Paiva, Dvorak is an incredibly smart fighter whose reads allow him to make positive adjustments throughout the contest, gaining steam the entire way. He puts together slick kick-punch combinations and is above average at avoiding the return fire that would come back his way. Dvorak is also an underrated grappler whereas Paiva is unproven against more established competition on the mat. Part of the reason Paiva is unproven is due to his ability to avoid hitting the mat, but it’s hard to believe Dvorak won’t be able to test his ground game at some point. Paiva is still young enough in his career that a loss here won’t define his trajectory, but I don’t like his chances against the savvy vet. Dvorak via decision