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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Vegas 26: An awesome card despite all the late replacements

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Get the scoop on the main card action of UFC Vegas 26, headlined by a bunch of late replacements, including both Michelle Waterson and Marina Rodriguez accepting a five round main event on about 10 days notice.

Michelle Waterson fighting Angela Hill at UFC Vegas 10
Michelle Waterson fighting Angela Hill at UFC Vegas 10
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

For all of the changes at the top of this UFC Vegas 26 card – only one of the names attached to the main and co-main event just over a week ago is still appearing on the card – it has turned out to be a solid card. Of course, it would be better if TJ Dillashaw and Cory Sandhagen were still headlining, but getting Michelle Waterson and Marina Rodriguez to step in on the short amount of time that they did was a hell of a coup. And while the co-main event is still underwhelming – it would have been if Diego Sanchez was still attached – there are three other contests on the undercard that more than make up for the underwhelming co-main. After all, few would disagree they’re all more meaningful than Donald Cerrone and Alex Morono. So yeah, I’d say this card is pretty damned awesome.

Marina Rodriguez vs. Michelle Waterson, Women’s Flyweight

There’s a question of who will benefit the most from not having to cut the extra 10 pounds to 115. Waterson, already small for strawweight, won’t have to cut much weight, which should allow her gas tank to remain relatively deep considering she’s taking a five-round contest with about 10 days notice. Then again, Rodriguez is a huge strawweight and is likely to retain a large amount of strength. If the fight is fast paced, I’d guess it favors Waterson. If it proves to be a grind, I’d lean towards Rodriguez.

Given how they typically fight, the fight leans in favor of Waterson at first glance. Despite her small size, her deep arsenal of kicks and surprisingly effective jab have made her one of the better outfighters in the division. Waterson retains plenty of explosion too, allowing her to selectively burst into her opposition with a power shot. However, where Waterson has been at her best is on the mat… provided she can get the fight to the ground.

Waterson has never been the best wrestler, no surprise given her lack of size. At the very least though, she has a strong base and has proven difficult to wrest to the mat herself. Regardless, Waterson’s ground game is technically sound and there’s usually a good chance a submission will follow if she can find her opponent’s back. Of course, that’s easier said than done as her opposition has been wary of her talents on the ground. While Rodriguez rarely looks to take the fight to the ground – and has had shaky takedown defense of her own – she has shown solid defensive grappling chops while actively attacking from the bottom.

Given that, it’s obvious Rodriguez will want to stay standing. Though she’s a sizeable strawweight and a technically sound Muay Thai practitioner, it could be argued Waterson’s range attacks give her the advantage on the outside. However, the pocket is Rodriguez’s wheelhouse and she’s an absolute buzzsaw in the clinch… if her opponent is willing to clinch up with her. Knees and elbows fly with impunity and can do some severe damage. Waterson is tougher in the clinch than she would appear, but there’s no doubt she came up on the short end of the stick against Angela Hill in that aspect. Hill may be more technical than Rodriguez in that aspect, but she doesn’t appear to be as physically strong.

The fact this contest was made on short notice adds an interesting wrinkle to the contest that makes it a bit harder to predict as there is no consensus who is benefitting from the fight taking place at 125. It would have been hard to predict without that fact. I have very little confidence in my pick, but I’ll go with Rodriguez. Both are difficult to hurt, but Rodriguez consistently has more power in her shots, which has me leaning towards her to get a decision. Rodriguez via decision

Donald Cerrone vs. Alex Morono, Welterweight

Morono may not have the name value of Sanchez, but he does present a more competitive contest than the original TUF winner at this stage. Regardless, he has a tall task ahead of him stepping in on short notice against Cerrone, even if Cowboy is clearly in decline at this stage.

Having been unable to secure a win in his last five contests, the verdict is in that Cerrone is no longer a contender. However, in his last two appearances against Anthony Pettis and Niko Price, he showed he still has enough left in the tank that he can still add to his legacy with a few more wins, even if they aren’t coming against top competition any longer. Cerrone is still a savvy grappler just as dangerous off his back as he is from top position and can still throw with plenty of power. Where Cerrone appears to be hurting is in the speed department. His reaction time isn’t what it once was and shots that his opponents wouldn’t have seen coming are now visible. Whether that means being able to brace for it or block it – even partially – makes a big difference.

Fortunately for Cerrone, all his losses have come against opponents known for their athleticism, an aspect Morono has never been known for. Morono’s success has come from sharpening up his technique, constant volume, and a deep gas tank. That has been enough against the lower half of the welterweight division, but he’s struggled when brushing up against the gatekeepers to the upper half of the division. Whether Cerrone is still in the upper half of the division appears to be what we’re going to find out.

There’s going to have to be a visible decline in Cerrone from his last appearance against Niko Price for him to drop this contest. Morono doesn’t have the burst, power, or slickness on the ground to finish off Cerrone. Perhaps he can catch the notoriously slow-starting Cerrone off-guard in the first with sheer volume and find a way to squeak out another round, but that seems unlikely, especially on short notice. Besides, I’d venture to guess the extended absence for Cerrone – at least what would count as an extended absence for Cerrone – does him some good and he comes back looking strong. Cerrone via submission of RD2

Neil Magny vs. Geoff Neal, Welterweight

For some reason, everyone seems to love crapping on Magny. He’s not a KO specialist. He’s not an overpowering wrestler. He’s not a grappling savant either. However, Magny is above average in all those areas, usually attacking his opponent wherever it is they are at their weakest. It hasn’t resulted in many finishes and he appears to have a firm ceiling around the top ten of the division, so fellow fighters tend to think of him as a beatable gatekeeper whom they can use to help boost their profile.

More often than not, Magny’s opposition find out he’s better than they anticipated. His 6’3” frame and 80” reach present a unique dilemma at the welterweight division. More troubling for his opponents, Magny has continually learned to effectively maximize his reach, keeping the jab in their face with the occasional power right. However, where he’s been most consistently effective is in the clinch, leveraging his long frame to smother his opponent against the fence and chip away with knees, elbows, and short punches while threatening the takedown.

In the case of Neal, his power is by far his biggest strength, securing finishes in four of his five UFC wins. That one fight he didn’t get a finish? You could say Neal made up for it by getting two knockdowns. His most impressive feat was disposing of Mike Perry in a scant 90 seconds. Say what you will about Perry’s regression, he’s still one of the most durable members of the roster. Neal’s approach is very straightforward, putting together punching combinations while landing his full-throated power shots when he’s got the timing of his opponent down on the counter. He’s been picking up that timing quicker too.

Neal easily has the higher ceiling between himself and Magny, but he is also easier to plan for given his singular focus on boxing. One of the more underrated aspects of Magny is his ability to gameplan. Granted, Neal has proven exceptionally difficult to take down – which would undeniably be part of Magny’s strategy as he won’t want to strike with Neal anywhere outside the clinch – but Neal also hasn’t faced any opposition noted for their wrestling ability. It also leaves many questions about his abilities on the mat, a rarity for someone who has headlined a card. Granted, Neal has benefitted from a strong team himself and consistently seems prepared, but it’s hard to discount Magny’s experience. Magny isn’t chinny, but he has been finished on several occasions. Neal could catch him and end the contest early, but Magny clinching up and using his wrestling and grappling appears to be the most likely outcome in my eyes. Magny via decision

Diego Ferreira vs. Gregor Gillespie, Lightweight

Prior to each of their prior contests, Ferreira and Gillespie looked like they were on the verge of becoming contenders. Then respective losses to Beneil Dariush and Kevin Lee derailed each of them and both are in desperate need of a victory to remain relevant.

Most are aware that Ferreira is likely nearing the end of his prime at the age of 36. What seems to escape the attention of many of those same people is Gillespie is already 34, having started his MMA career late. Despite their advanced ages, there are signs both are still improving, in part because conditioning has never been an issue for either competitor. Both have worn down their opposition in the past, but it doesn’t look like they’ll be able to do so this time as their cardio will likely be cancelled out by the other.

Sticking with the similarities, both are mat based fighters, but on different ends of the spectrum. Ferreira’s background is that of a highly skilled BJJ practitioner, Gillespie that of a decorated collegiate wrestler. Aside from their ground work Ferreira has had more consistent success on the feet, though part of that can be attributed to his longer resume. Ferreira can be technical, but it’s in his nature to be a brawler, especially when he’s pressing. Regardless of how technical he with his punches, his pressure and aggression often leads to his opposition making mistakes. Given his struggles with his wrestling, Ferreira needed to become a proficient pressure fighter.

Speaking of those wrestling deficiencies, part of Ferreira’s inability to stop takedowns can attributed to his confidence in his ground game, though that wasn’t the case against Dariush. It’s hard to believe it would be the case with Gillespie either as Lee was the only fighter Gillespie was unable to take down at will. Gillespie’s top pressure on the mat is insane, designed to force opponents into mistakes as he picks away with busy GnP which either forces a stoppage from the strikes or opens up a submission. He’s going to have a very hard time stopping Ferreira that way, but he has know-how and the gas tank to take Ferreira down whenever he wants at any point. He’ll be able to hold his own on the feet enough to squeak out a decision… provided he doesn’t suffer any PTS from the first KO loss of his career at the hands of Lee. Gillespie via decision

Amanda Ribas vs. Angela Hill, Women’s Strawweight
UPDATE: Bout Cancelled due to COVID-19 Protocols when Amanda Ribas tested positive to COVID-19, cutting the card down to just nine bouts by Saturday night.

There’s a part of me that absolutely hates this contest. Ribas’ enthusiasm is completely infectious, making her one of the most likeable members of the entire UFC roster. In the case of Hill, her willingness to fight anyone, anytime, anywhere makes her a fan favorite somewhat akin to Cowboy. When two likeable personalities collide, someone has to come out on the losing end.

The UFC tabbed Ribas as a future star following her win over Mackenzie Dern, the proof being they served up a departing Paige Van Zant on the last fight of her contract, a privilege several other ladies were jockeying to receive. Ribas hit a wall against headliner Rodriguez, but at 27 with 12 fights under her belt, there’s plenty of time for her to continue to grow. Despite that, she’s still a plus athlete with a good technical base in all areas who simply needs more seasoning.

In the case of Hill, she’s a finished product. Not to say there aren’t small kinks to iron out and twerks to be made here and there, but she has figured out how to maximize what she does best. She had a stage where she attempting to replicate Dominick Cruz’s constant lateral movement, only to find herself fading hard by the time the final round rolled around. Though there are still some remnants of that style, Hill has pared down the movement while still making herself a sound defensive fighter amidst her high-volume attack.

What Ribas will look to do is maximize her athleticism and grappling advantage as those are the areas where she has a clear advantage on Hill. The athleticism will prove difficult to exploit as Hill is one of the best volume strikers in the division, applying enough pressure it typically negates any physical advantages her opponents have. As for the ground game, Hill has shored up her takedown defense so much from her early UFC run that it isn’t the glaring weakness it once was. Plus, while no one will mistake her for a submission threat, Hill has become difficult to put away, the likes of Claudia Gadelha and Waterson being unable elicit a tap from her. Even if Ribas secures a takedown or two – her wrestling has shown real progress – Hill typically doesn’t stay down for long. Ribas could make some massive strides and pull off the upset, but it seems more likely Hill outworks her to a clear decision. Hill via decision

  • It’s been over six years since Marcos Rogerio de Lima put together either consecutive wins or losses. The hard-hitting Brazilian is the ultimate kill or be killed fighter with an overwhelming majority of them ending in the first round. With his Muay Thai stylings, de Lima throws everything with maximum power in hopes of ending the contest in a hurry. The problem is he tends to gas in a big hurry if he can’t get his opponent out of there quickly and usually gets submitted shortly thereafter. There’s a good chance that trend could continue as Maurice Greene has proven himself to be one of the better submission artists in the heavyweight division. Much of that has to do with Greene’s lanky 6’7” frame, both variations of triangle chokes being his preferred methods. However, Greene also hasn’t figured out how to use his length on the feet to make himself an efficient defender, something de Lima could expose before the fight even hits the ground. That isn’t to say Greene isn’t progressing on the feet, nor that he is without power. The problem is that he lacks consistency on the feet, often feeling like he’s throwing out whatever without much rhyme or reason. This is very much a contest Greene should be winning, but my gut tells me he’ll walk into his demise. De Lima via KO of RD1