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UFC 264 preview: Can Thompson punch his way into a shot at Usman’s belt?

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Get the lowdown on the main card of UFC 264, featuring a co-main event with former welterweight title challengers Stephen Thompson and Gilbert Burns looking to remain relevant in the title picture.

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I won’t go so far as to call this card a one fight card, but the UFC didn’t put as much effort into stacking the UFC 264 card as they could have. When Conor McGregor tops a card, there isn’t any need to put much effort into it in the least. To co-main event between Gilbert Burns and Stephen Thompson is an acceptable PPV co-main event, but it isn’t going to add any additional viewers beyond what McGregor was going to grab. Thus, it makes sense why the rest of the main card kind of feels like a letdown. Greg Hardy hasn’t developed the way the brass would like and Sean O’Malley fighting someone most MMA fans hadn’t heard of until last week doesn’t do much – if anything – for stock. That is, it doesn’t do anything for O’Malley unless he scores a highlight reel KO… something the UFC is counting on.

Gilbert Burns vs. Stephen Thompson, Welterweight

It wasn’t that long ago many were saying Thompson’s days as a contender were over. Coming off a stretch where he secured just one win over five contests, topped by a KO loss to Anthony Pettis, there was plenty of justification for those beliefs. However, Thompson has required just two contests to change the minds of many of those doubters, showing that whatever he might be losing in terms of his athletic ability, he’s making up for with his expert footwork, spacing, and use of angles. Those areas of technique are so exquisite that if he has lost anything in terms of his physical skills, no one can tell.

Burns has come a long way from where he was a few years ago in terms of his striking, but no one is going to mistake his own technique as being anywhere on the level of Thompson’s. Then again, the list of those who do come close to the former kickboxer is exceedingly short. Regardless, many remember Burns piecing up reigning champion Kamaru Usman with his heavy artillery, mixing in kicks and power shots. The problem was, Burns’ effectiveness was effectively stunted when Usman started getting his jab going with regularity… and Thompson’s jab is far more efficient than Usman’s. Perhaps not as powerful, but Thompson’s ability to keep opponents at the end of his jab and kicks makes it hard to believe Burns will be able to effectively pressure and effectuate his own brand of striking.

Where Burns has a major advantage is on the mat. One of the most decorated BJJ practitioners in the sport of MMA today, there are few who are willing to voluntarily try to outgrapple Burns. While Thompson has diligently worked to shore up his ground game since he joined the organization back in 2012, most of his focus has been on avoiding being taken down and getting back to his feet on the occasions he does get taken down. If Thompson gets stuck underneath Burns for any significant period of time, it’s very easy to see the contest coming to an end in a hurry.

There are two things that has me leaning towards Thompson. First, his technique and spacing isn’t just for attacking from the outside. It keeps his opponents from getting in on his hips and in the first place, often requiring the likes of Burns to shoot from way outside. Secondly, as with many fighters who begin to see the fruits of working on their striking, Burns hasn’t placed a great emphasis on getting the fight into his universe in recent contests. Burns would be wise to do so against Thompson, but I don’t trust that occur. Look for Thompson’s usual array of side kicks and jabs to do most of the damage as he cruises to a relatively comfortable decision… and punch his way into his own contest with Usman. Thompson via decision

Irene Aldana vs. Yana Kunitskaya, Women’s Bantamweight

The UFC is doing everything in their power to line Irene Aldana up for a potential title shot. Now’s about as good of a time as ever for Aldana to grab that opportunity. There aren’t any major roadblocks preventing her from fighting for the title should she win here and the Mexican MMA scene is hot given Brandon Moreno’s recent flyweight title win.

Even though there’s a good chance Aldana gets a title shot with a win here, it doesn’t feel like the same courtesy will be offered to Kunitskaya, even though she’s the one on the winning streak heading into the contest. The native of Russia has already had a title shot – she was a sacrificial lamb to Cris Cyborg several years ago – and her grinding style against the cage doesn’t draw many eyes on a voluntary basis. Regardless, Kunitskaya is very strong in the clinch, effectively neutralizing her opponent for long stretches while chipping away with whatever free limb she has available. It doesn’t do a lot of damage, but it does score points.

She’s going to have a hell of a chore tying up Aldana. While Holly Holm found success getting Aldana to the mat, Aldana was also forced to move forward. Against Kunitskaya, Aldana will look to stay where she’s most comfortable: on the outside leading with a jab and putting together the occasional punching combinations. She has also been utilizing kicks with greater frequency, adding more diversity to her boxing striking base. Of course, the occasions when Kunitskaya is at range, low kicks are the only steady part of her offense. They won’t end the fight, but they score points.

In terms of physical tools, this contest should belong to Aldana all day. She’s one of the most talented strikers in any of the women’s division, but she struggles to fight her fight, typically allowing herself to be dragged into whatever her opponent wants to do. Even worse, her best win say Ketlen Vieira voluntarily fight her fight. Kunitskaya isn’t the athlete Aldana is, but she is strong and has the advantage on the mat and has the better fight IQ. I favor the Russian in this one. Kunitskaya via decision

  • The list of those cheering for Greg Hardy to win is very short. Sure, the former NFL All-Pro has successfully kept his head down since focusing on his MMA career, but people still remember his discretions from his football days. Hardy’s physical gifts have been made manifest as he does have some scary power and explosion, but his fight IQ is still very much in question. He has proven capable of executing a measured performance, touching up his opponent over the course of three rounds if given the right type of fight. However, he has also drained his gas tank prematurely by looking for the kill… such as in his most recent appearance against Marcin Tybura. In the case of Tai Tuivasa, his fight IQ has definitively improved. Rather than rushing forward launching heavy leather as he has in the past, Tuivasa has been far more measured in his approach, low kicks becoming a consistent weapon to weaken his opponent’s base, improving his chances of delivering his own killshot. While Tuivasa is a plus athlete by heavyweight standards, he’s not quite on Hardy’s level, in part to his shorter frame. Despite that, Tuivasa has a fighter’s mentality whereas Hardy is an athlete trying to be a fighter. There won’t be any shock if Hardy is able to put away Tuivasa – Tuivasa’s defense is still questionable – but Tuivasa’s improved game planning has me feeling comfortable picking him. Tuivasa via TKO of RD2
  • The UFC is in danger of putting Sean O’Malley in Michael Page territory. Like Page, O’Malley is clearly a special physical talent. Possessing a 5’11” frame at bantamweight, a creative kicking game, and KO power, the 26-year old has already established a nice little highlight reel just six fights into his UFC career. His ability to switch stances seamlessly makes it easy for him to find the angle he’s looking for and though he still makes frequent use of feints and fakes, his more judicious use of them make them more effective. What could hurt O’Malley is if the UFC continues to protect him the way Bellator has done with Page. Louis Smolka, O’Malley’s original opponent, was forced to pull out due to a staph infection. A slew of contracted UFC fighters lined up to face O’Malley, but the UFC goes out of it’s way to sign someone new: Kris Moutinho. Moutinho is a perfectly acceptable late notice replacement, but he’s not better than those who wanted to step in. Moutinho slings his strikes together smoothly and has a deep gas tank, but he’s also wide open defensively and O’Malley’s sniping style and long reach makes Moutinho a perfect potential victim to add to O’Malley’s highlight reel. Moutinho doesn’t lack for toughness, but his durability is fair game to be questioned. O’Malley via KO of RD1