After a bit of a blip in the summer – UFC 278 had Harry Hunsucker on the main card — the UFC has returned to stacking their PPV’s from top to bottom. In the case of UFC 281, there’s a pair of contests that could conceivably be Fight Night headliners and a contest between the fastest rising star in women’s MMA and the fastest rising prospect in women’s MMA. I assure you, I’m not repeating myself when I say that. Molly McCann has made a hell of a name for herself, but there are questions about her level of competition. It could be argued Erin Blanchfield, the prospect in that scenario, has not just the best win, but the top two victories in terms of quality between the two of them.
As for the other two contests, I’ll admit Renato Moicano vs. Brad Riddell and Dominick Reyes vs. Ryan Spann wouldn’t exactly be the highest quality of Fight Night main event, but we did have Aspen Ladd vs. Norma Dumont last year. Just saying....
For my early prelims preview, click here.
Renato Moicano vs. Brad Riddell, Lightweight
It’s hard to believe it was just a year ago that Riddell was one of the hot risers up the lightweight division. Sure, he had been unable to secure finishes in any of his four UFC wins, but there was never any shortage of excitement and action in those contests. Riddell engaging in violent firefights every time and managed to come out with his hand raised every time. Two losses later and the question is whether Riddell was ever as good as we thought or is it growing pains?
To be honest, given his small frame for 155 and the late start to his MMA career in earnest, it should have been clear his ceiling would have some limitations. It’s hard to keep that in mind though when he’s delivering consistent entertainment. However, there is limitations in just about every area. While Riddell has crisp, tight technique, his natural power is lacking. While he has proven to be difficult to hold down, he can be taken down and potentially smothered by someone with a slick grappling game.
Unfortunately for Riddell, Moicano has one of the better submission games in the division. A back-take artist who excels at finding the RNC once he has attached himself, it isn’t hard to see him wrapping up Riddell as he does his impression of a human backpack. Moicano is often overlooked for the rest of his ground abilities given the only way he’s found finishes since migrating to the UFC in 2014 is via RNC. It’s not like Moicano is helpless on the feet either. He has developed a functional boxing game, a jab being the centerpiece of his attack on the feet. Hell, it was damn near the only thing he needed to derail Jeremy Stephens back in the day. That isn’t saying anything about the calf kicks he throws that can be debilitating.
What has prevented Moicano from fulfilling the potential his skillset indicates he has is his questionable chin. There’s some evidence part of that issue has been solved by his moving up from 145 as he was cutting a ridiculous amount of weight to get to the featherweight limit. Plus, Moicano was able to take an insane amount of punishment at the hands of Rafael dos Anjos in his March contest with the former lightweight champion. However, he also had his lights turned out by Rafael Fiziev since moving up.
As for Riddell, there’s no doubt he’ll be performing a balancing act in terms of his range of attack. To far out and he could be sitting at the end of Moicano’s jab. To close in and he’s subject to being wrapped up by Moicano’s body-lock takedowns. Fortunately, Riddell’s pretty damn good about executing that balance. However, he may be reluctant to mix things up with takedowns, something he has been surprisingly effective at doing. But why would he want to voluntarily go to the ground with Moicano?
The issue for Moicano will be getting Riddell to the mat without absorbing too much punishment. Riddell hasn’t put his opponents away in the UFC, but he has hurt them. It’s hard to believe someone with the striking prowess of Riddell won’t find a finish at some point. Moicano knows taking the fight to the ground is his best route to victory and has shown greater urgency in his recent contests to get the fight there as opposed to leaving his chin out there to be tested too much. I’ve gone back and forth on whether Riddell puts Moicano away or if the Brazilian finds Riddell’s back. Ultimately, it’s a bit of a coin flip. Moicano via submission of RD2
Dominick Reyes vs. Ryan Spann, Light Heavyweight
We’re creeping up on three years since Reyes went toe-to-toe with Jon Jones. Ultimately, Jones was awarded a unanimous decision, but that doesn’t even begin to illustrate the contentious nature of the decision, many believing Reyes should have been the rightful winner. Given how things have gone for Reyes since that point, it feels like it was a lot more than three years ago.
Reyes has won just as many fights as Jones since that point: zero. Reyes fought for the title Jones vacated only to be brutally KO’d by Jan Blachowicz. That was followed by current reigning champion Jiri Prochazka making Reyes a permanent fixture of his and the UFC’s highlight reel. Reyes took some time off to clear his head and perhaps regain his confidence, this contest marking his first fight in 18 months. Some fighters are capable of regaining their confidence; others never do.
What many people seem to be forgetting is Reyes looked great against Blachowicz until his lights were put out. He even had some good moments against Prochazka. And while Reyes isn’t thought of as a power puncher, he’s turned the lights out on several of his opponents. Again though, it all comes back to confidence and durability....
The UFC is giving him a fair test in Spann. Spann isn’t the heavy-handed threat the likes of Blachowicz or Prochazka, but he isn’t exactly a pillow-fisted puncher either. In fact, Spann has appeared to suffer from a lack of confidence himself from time to time. In fact, that’s probably what holds Spann back more than anything. Yes, he has a questionable chin, but his imposing frame, solid boxing fundamentals, and impressive grappling chops should be enough for him to remain a consistent fixture in the top ten of a shallow light heavyweight division. Instead, he’s wilted every time he’s had the opportunity to break through.
There’s several theories to ponder on for that. Given his physical prowess, it could put a mental block for him dealing with someone who can match his physical gifts in some way. Perhaps he wilts under a spotlight. Regardless, if Reyes looks like the fighter he was when he arguably beat Jon Jones, it’s hard to believe Spann can secure the win. Reyes may not be quite as tall or as long as Spann, but he is the more effective striker from the outside. It’s worth remembering he spent the majority of his contest with Jones fighting from the outside. Spann is better off in the pocket, but Reyes typically doesn’t allow the fight to stay there for long periods, utilizing a lot of lateral movement.
The other area where Spann could win the fight is if he can take Reyes down. Reyes isn’t a spectacular wrestler, but he has focused his energies on ensuring he does not hit the mat easily. Spann’s frame has made it awkward for him to get lower than his opponents, meaning he has struggled with his takedowns. Even worse, he repeatedly has put himself in position to get elbowed in the side of the head in attempting takedowns against the fence.
The only way I see Spann winning this is if Reyes can’t return to form. Reyes is a nightmare matchup stylistically for Spann. Granted, even if Reyes is in a good place mentally, it won’t mean a thing if his chin really is gone. Reyes has done the right things to try and preserve it, but there’s some cases it just doesn’t matter: the chin can’t hold up to anything any longer. And while Reyes has only been KO’d twice, they were vicious KO’s. Regardless, liking the steps I’ve seen from Reyes, I’ll trust he can return to form enough to get past Spann. Reyes via TKO of RD2
- Her association with Paddy Pimblett isn’t the main source of the rise of Molly McCann, though it certainly has helped. She has put the work in the cage and produced the results that have made every little bit of accolade she has received well earned. McCann is still very much the same fighter stylistically who produced a .500 record through six UFC contests, but she has sharpened her technique and displayed an insane amount of confidence to be willing to take chances she didn’t take previously. Given her last two victories came via spinning back elbow, she has reason to be confident. However, McCann has also received favorable stylistic opponents, those who are not just willing to trade with her, but reluctant to go to the mat. There will be no such hesitation from Erin Blanchfield. There are many who have labeled Blanchfield as the best woman’s prospect in MMA as it isn’t just a dominant ground game exhibited by her; she’s slick on the feet as well. Blachfield isn’t flashy by any means, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a youngster better drilled in the fundamentals. Despite her shortcomings on the mat, there’s still a road to victory for McCann. If Blanchfield gets sucked into a brawl by McCann, she could end up giving the fight away. However, Blanchfield has shown a maturity far beyond her 23 years thus far in her career. Even when she has faced adversity, Blanchfield has shown the grit to push through and the intelligence to adapt. It’s hard to believe she won’t be able to against McCann, especially given the huge edge she’ll have on the mat. Blanchfield via decision
- There’s no doubt that Andre Petroski has impressed in his three UFC appearances. The physical brute has secured finishes in every contest thus far, bullying his opponents with dogged wrestling and wearing them down to the point they are forced to submit to his physical submissions. However, before prognosticators get their hopes up too much, they should be aware that none of Petroski’s three UFC opponents remain on the roster any longer, indicating he hasn’t been facing the highest level of competition. Then again, the same argument could be made about his opponent, Wellington Turman. Turman isn’t the physical presence Petroski is, but there’s no denying he’s more skilled, particularly on the mat. Turman has also shown major progress on the feet, proving he can do some damage himself in the standup when it appeared all he could hope was to survive until he found a way to get the contest to the mat. Petroski won’t have any hesitation taking the fight to the mat, but given Turman has proven he can be dangerous off his back, Petroski will need to proceed with caution. Petroski isn’t just a meathead. I think he can avoid the danger and will prove to be too much of a physical force. Petroski via TKO of RD2