Typically, I’m of the opinion the fight with the most title implications of a Fight Night card should be the headliner. Given the heavyweight contest between Tai Tuivasa and Sergei Pavlovich is unlikely to go three rounds, much less five, I’m happy the UFC didn’t opt for that option with UFC Orlando. I’m open to the idea Matheus Nicolau and Matt Schnell would have been a better choice to slide into the main event ahead of Stephen Thompson and Kevin Holland, but the fact a different contest on the card could be argued as the main event it indicative of how good the card is. Credit to the UFC as they do tend to give live audiences a worthwhile card. UFC Orlando is no exception.
Stephen Thompson vs. Kevin Holland, Welterweight
I have no doubt Thompson will end up on the short list of the all-time most technical strikers in the history of MMA. There are few who are better judges of distance, nor who make better use of angles. It was enough to lead Thompson all the way to a title shot back in the day. It can be argued it was also enough to keep him near the top of the division for a long stretch after coming up short for the title. However, at this point, it looks like it might not be enough to make up for Thompson’s declining physical skills.
In his two most recent contests, both losses, Thompson was taken down a combined 10 times. While both Gilbert Burns and Belal Muhammad are noted for their takedown abilities, Thompson had been known for his ability to remain standing... at least up to that point. Prior to those losses, the last time Thompson had been taken down more than once in a fight was all the way back in 2012, the second UFC contest for the former kickboxing champion. That’s even with the likes of prime versions of Tyron Woodley (twice) and Rory MacDonald on his list of opponents.
That Thompson was taken down so often is indicative of a decline in his speed and reaction time. Thompson had always had lightning quick reflexes, allowing him to either quickly skirt out of the way or sprawl out to avoid hitting the mat. That Thompson has taken a year off since the last of those losses isn’t likely to help matter out as Thompson is thisclose to his 40th birthday.
Granted, Holland has never been known for his wrestling. Thus, there’s a very strong case to be made that Thompson will be able to stave off his decline a little longer. After all, disciplined hasn’t really been a word associated with Holland, making it easy to see Thompson picking apart Holland. However, there are several factors that indicate Holland could get the win over Thompson, even without taking a ground based attack.
Given Thompson has only been finished once in his career, he’s developed a reputation as a fairly durable fighter. However, he’s been knocked down to the mat four other times in his UFC career outside of his lone KO loss and rattled in several other contests. As Thompson gets older and the miles pile up, it’s easy to see Holland finishing him off with his underrated power.
If Holland can’t touch the chin of Thompson, it won’t matter how faded Thompson’s chin is. Then again, Thompson has never faced someone with anywhere near the reach of Holland. At 81” long, Holland’s reach poses a real problem for anyone who can’t put him on his back. Thompson hasn’t secured a takedown since 2015, so it seems like Thompson is going to have to navigate Holland’s freakish length for 25 minutes.
Even if Thompson had a killer instinct – he hasn’t secured a finish of his own since 2016 – I wouldn’t be too sure about him getting the win. Holland is extremely durable, the only time being stopped via strikes over his career coming off an accidental head butt that was overturned to a no contest. And while Holland isn’t the technical striking savant that Thompson is, he isn’t a sloppy striker at all. Plus, Holland happens to have a uniquely natural feel for striking. Think of how he continued to land power shots on Joaquin Buckley until putting an end to that fight with a power shot.
It’s hard for me to pick someone on the verge of 40 who has lost four of his last six when he’s up against a fighter who doesn’t appear to have peaked and can credibly be matched up with them in a competitive contest. I’m not convinced Thompson can win a strictly standup contest against Holland anymore. Holland isn’t a great wrestler, but he has acknowledged his weakness there and has shown signs in improving his takedown defense. I’m sure it isn’t just stopping takedowns that he has improved at. Now that he’s at welterweight, Holland should be more effective in pursuing takedowns himself. Holland is a creative grappler too and could steal a round or two with control if the fight somehow hits the mat. I do worry that Holland might end up just going with the flow and give the fight away, but I feel foolish betting against Father Time in this contest. Holland via TKO of RD4
Rafael dos Anjos vs. Bryan Barberena, Welterweight
It appears dos Anjos has given up on the idea of one last run at the lightweight title, returning to 170 to fight Barberena. Dos Anjos isn’t an elite fighter anymore, whether he’s fighting at lightweight of welterweight, but he’s still plenty good. In fact, there’s a very clear disparity between dos Anjos and the guys Barberena has been beating.
That isn’t to trash Barberena. The definition of tough, Barberena came thisclose to dying a few years ago from internal bleeding just two years ago. A year before that, Barberena had back surgery. It looked like Barberena’s career was coming to a close, his loss to Jason Witt proving to be his fourth loss in six contests. Since that loss, Barberena rattled off three straight wins, proving he still has something left in the tank.
Even when he was in his physical prime, Barberena was never a great athlete. In fact, his lack of physical talent has been the thing that has made him notable in any way. His durability, ability to continually move forward, and constant volume made him a tough customer for anyone to deal with. His recent physical ailments have clearly made a major difference as Barberena is lacking in any sort of fluidity. Despite that, the scrapper appears to have doubled down on his determination, something that most would have appeared to be an impossibility. However, a green Darian Weeks and severely faded versions of Robbie Lawler and Matt Brown don’t exactly scream that Barberena is on course to challenge for the title.
Make no mistake, dos Anjos has an incredible amount of mileage on his 38-year-old body and it wouldn’t be the biggest shock in the world if the wheels began to come off. But there’s a huge difference between the wheels coming off and the slowing down that dos Anjos has exhibited. He’s still one of the most fundamentally sound BJJ practitioners on the roster, can still hold his own on the feet, and is still incredibly well-conditioned... three factors that will make it difficult for Barberena to do to dos Anjos what he has done to his last three opponents.
This feels like one of the easier contests of the night to pick. Dos Anjos isn’t at the level he was at when he won the belt in 2015, but he’s not fallen as far as many might claim. There’s no shame in losing to Rafael Fiziev and dos Anjos fought competitively with him into the fifth round. Even as Barberena has racked up three straight wins, he had moments where he was hurt badly against Lawler and Brown. Plus, while Barberena thrives in a brawl, dos Anjos isn’t likely to give him that. Look for the Brazilian to place a heavy emphasis on his ground game and coast to a relatively easy win. Dos Anjos via decision
Matheus Nicolau vs. Matt Schnell, Flyweight
Even though flyweight tends to be an overlooked division as it is, Nicolau may be the most overlooked member of the division. Given there is very little flash to the Brazilian’s game, it shouldn’t be a surprise he’s often forgotten about. Regardless, there’s something to be said for a technically sound fighter who just wins.
Of course, there tends to be a cloud of doubt over someone who seems to win close decision after close decision whether they can develop into a contender. At this stage of his career, Nicolau seems unlikely to be able to change his stripes, nor would it appear to be wise. Part of the reason Nicolau tends to have close fights is his counter striking style. It tends to keep the striking totals between himself and his opponents relatively close, the cleanliness and power of Nicolau’s strikes often proving to be the separating factor for his victories.
Well, it would be dishonest of me to say it was simply his striking. Nicolau is one of the better ground fighters in the division. Much like his striking, there isn’t a lot of flare to what he does. He tends to time his shots well with clean entries and tends to threaten with submissions regularly. Of course, he’ll need to be wary of the submissions coming from the tricky Schnell. The American offers one of the most dangerous guards in the division, scoring three triangle submissions off his back in the course of his UFC run, one of only two fighters in UFC history with that many wins via triangle. Schnell’s gambling nature has gotten him into trouble before, but he’s had far more successes than failures thus far on the mat.
What most would consider Schnell’s biggest weakness would be his chin. In a division that doesn’t produce a lot of finishes, Schnell has had the lights turned out on him three times within the first round of the UFC. For a while, Schnell completely revamped his style to take advantage of his length, staying on the outside and attacking largely with a jab. However, in recent contests, Schnell has thrown caution to the wind, securing mixed results. Schnell didn’t get KO’d, but he did get knocked down against Su Mudaerji. He did ultimately get the win, but will it provide a false sense of confidence?
Perhaps the most overlooked fight on the card, a win here could very well earn Nicolau a shot at the title. A few other things would have to fall into place, but it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Schnell is dynamic enough to ruin that for Nicolau, especially if Nicolau gets overconfident. I wouldn’t expect that. Following a rough start to his UFC run, Schnell’s only losses have come against plus athletes with sufficient experience to deal with whatever Schnell might present him. Schnell has wins over fighters with either an edge in athleticism – Mudaerji – or experience – Tyson Nam – but not both. Nicolau has both. Nicolau via TKO of RD3
Tai Tuivasa vs. Sergey Pavlovich, Heavyweight
Even though both of these men have successfully KO’d Derrick Lewis within the calendar year, Tuivasa has clearly proved to be the bigger beneficiary. There’s two reasons for that. First, he did so before Pavlovich, meaning it was more of a stunning result when he did it. Second, his fun-loving personality – highlighted by his propensity for shoey’s — makes him far more marketable than the rather dry Pavlovich.
While personality certainly plays a part in marketability, it doesn’t mean a whole lot in the cage, at least not in the sense of how likeable a fighter is. Thus, most would agree that Pavlovich has the higher ceiling between these youthful heavyweights on account of him having an offensive ground game outside of GnP. For some, it’s easy to reason they’re unaware of Pavlovich’s wrestling as he hasn’t displayed any of it since making his way to the UFC. Four consecutive first round finishes may very well have pushed his wrestling ability out of his own mind. After all, it isn’t hard to fall in love with flinging fists if you’re knocking out everyone....
Pavlovich has to be aware that he’d be giving Tuivasa the exact fight he wants if that’s going to be the case. Of course, if Tuivasa opts to stay in the pocket and box, he could be giving Pavlovich the fight the Russian wants. Though a bit stiffer in his movements, Pavlovich is more technically sound in the pocket and appears to be just as durable as the iron-chinned Tuivasa. Some will point out his chin hasn’t been tested as much as Tuivasa’s, but is it really a negative that he tends to avoid damage much better than Tuivasa does?
While Pavlovich is the better boxer, that doesn’t mean he’s the more dangerous striker in general. Tuivasa has always thrown low kicks on the regular, but he’s placed a greater emphasis on them since putting an end to his three-fight skid. Those kicks were key to a couple of his KO victories, putting some serious strains on his opponents’ mobility, making it easy for him to find the shot he’s looking for. Tuivasa’s KO of Lewis is also indicative of his improved dynamism on the feet, perfectly placing that elbow from the clinch.
Ever since Tuivasa started taking his MMA career seriously, he has displayed a vastly improved fight IQ, something that was a major question mark at one point. Thus, I’m reluctant to say Pavlovich is favored due to him being the more intelligent fighter. If Pavlovich doesn’t at least threaten with his wrestling, I’m prone to believe Tuivasa is fighting the smarter fight. As it is, Pavlovich is likely to punch a ticket against one of the elite fighters in the division if he can find a way to win this fight. The same can’t be said of Tuivasa as he’s coming off a loss to Ciryl Gane. I would anticipate Pavlovich is going to do everything in his power to ensure he scores a win. Pavlovich via TKO of RD2
Jack Hermansson vs. Roman Dolidze, Middleweight
At the age of 34, after six years in the UFC, it feels like we know who Hermansson is. He’s settling into the role that Michael Bisping fulfilled for so long in the middleweight division as the gatekeeper to title contention. What should give Hermansson hope is Bisping did eventually break through and claim the title, but Bisping was the exception to the general rule we’ve seen established in the fight world. In other words, he’s going to have a lot of doubters, but he’ll also have his opportunity to shut them up.
Hermansson has a lot of similarities to the aforementioned Bisping. He’s never been a great athlete, utilizing guts, guile, and brains to outpoint his opposition, finishes largely drying up now that he’s consistently facing better competition... but not entirely. Bisping developed a reputation for being pillow fisted, only to secure the title on a KO. Hermansson’s power is comparable to that level as his power doesn’t garner much respect, but he can rack up the volume enough to make his opponents feel what he’s throwing at them.
The biggest difference between Bisping and Hermansson is two particular factors. First Hermansson doesn’t have the ridiculous level of durability possessed by Bisping. Secondly, he does have a superior ground game, offering sound, technical wrestling and underrated grappling. In fact, Hermansson’s guillotine and GnP is amongst the best in the division.
However, the durability is going to be the hinge this contest plays on. Dolidze is unorthodox in his approach to the fight game. Sometimes he seems to be wandering aimlessly through the fight, other times he’s pursuing his opponent with abject aggression. One of the most underrated athletes on the entirety of the roster, Dolidze tends to surprise with both his speed and power as he has an innate ability to lull his opponents to sleep. That will be when he looks to put Hermansson to sleep with... something. Dolidze has no hesitation to throw any of a wide variety of strikes, all with the requisite power to end the fight immediately.
The factor that many tend to forget about Dolidze is he entered the UFC with a reputation as a grappling savant. He’s shown flashes of that ability when he does get the fight to the mat, but Dolidze’s wrestling is far more dependent upon his brute strength and burst as opposed to utilizing technique. Given Dolidze’s incredible durability, it appears the only way for Hermansson to win would be by decision. Despite that, I would still say that is the most likely outcome. Dolidze is HUGE for the division and is taking the contest on short notice. It’s hard to imagine he won’t be somewhat compromised. Hermansson tends to have sound strategies for his fights as well. Dolidze is the type of fighter who can spoil his plans, but I struggle to see him outpointing Hermansson. It will likely all hinge on the first round. If Hermansson survives that, he will likely cruise to victory. Hermansson via decision
- Where Kyle Daukaus currently sits, Eryk Anders once was. Anders was seen as a bright prospect with big things in front of him. Hell, he headlined two of his first five UFC contests. Daukaus hasn’t received that big of a push, but he’s still seen as a prospect with a lot of potential who just can’t seem to get over the hump. Anders has settled into playing a gatekeeper role at middleweight who still flashes occasional brilliance, but is ultimately held back by his questionable fight IQ. That very much describes Daukaus. Daukaus has a strong base in all aspects of the game. He can strike some. He can wrestle some too. He’s at his best grappling, but he can have too much confidence in that phase, opting to operate off his back as opposed to getting back to his feet. Anders either spends large chunks of time in space doing a lot of nothing or grinding away at his opponent, though he tends to struggle to finish takedowns. While both have shown improving mental acuity, Daukaus has more tools to work with and has the higher ceiling at this stage. There is reason to be concerned about how he returns from being KO’d for the first time in his career – it was brutal as hell – but I’m still willing to say he gets it done, especially as Anders’ vaunted explosion reveals itself less and less all the time. Daukaus via decision