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Diggin’ Deep on UFC 238: Cejudo vs. Moraes - ESPN prelims

Get the scoop on the awesome televised prelims of UFC 238, featuring a potential title eliminator at bantamweight between the Funk Master, Aljamain Sterling and the Young Punisher, Pedro Munhoz.

There’s no need to beat around the bush: the televised prelims of UFC 238 are awesome. Outside of the type of supershow the UFC usually puts on about once a year, it doesn’t get better than this. Two contests could realistically be title eliminators and the other two contests feature former title contenders looking to remain relevant by turning away a pair of upstarts looking to make their own run. There are entire Fight Night cards that aren’t as relevant as these four preliminary contests. I will throw out the caveat that just because the stakes are high in these contests, that doesn’t mean they’re all going to be knockdown, drag out, barnburners. In fact, I don’t see any of the contests being favorites to be FOTN. However, if you’re cool with high stakes and competitive matchmaking, prelims don’t get any better than this.

The ESPN prelims begin at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Tatiana Suarez (7-0) vs. Nina Ansaroff (10-5), Women’s Strawweight

It blows my mind the first thing that often comes to mind of fans when they hear Ansaroff’s name is that she is the girlfriend of Amanda Nunes. WAKE UP PEOPLE!!! Ansaroff’s spot on the roster is anything but token, currently riding a four-fight win streak capped off by a win over former title challenger Claudia Gadelha. Sure, her UFC career started rough when she debuted against the human blanket known as Juliana Lima and lost a controversial decision against Justine Kish. Since that time, Ansaroff has tightened up her striking technique, improved her takedown defense, and maximized her endless gas tank to her advantage.

Suarez has been tabbed the future champion of the division by an overwhelming majority of fans and it isn’t difficult to see why. The former Olympic wrestling hopeful – before cancer dashed those dreams – has manhandled every one of her opponents with ease thus far. They just can’t compete with her wrestling technique. Even when they get back to their feet, Suarez drags them right back down in no time flat. That wasn’t a surprising development against Amanda Cooper or Viviane Pereira. But quickly subbing Alexa Grasso and dominating former champion Carla Esparza before securing a late stoppage has made everyone a believer in her.

On the feet, there is no question Ansaroff is the better fighter. Suarez has shown little growth in her striking, though hasn’t had to make progress there when no one has been able to stuff her takedowns. Ansaroff has become a tough customer to take down, as Gadelha and Randa Markos, two noted wrestlers, struggled mightily in that endeavor. However, neither of them possess the technical dominance of Suarez. Suarez likely punches her ticket to a title shot. Suarez via TKO of RD3

Aljamain Sterling (17-3) vs. Pedro Munhoz (18-3, 1 NC), Bantamweight

Anyone else find it funny Sterling dominates Jimmie Rivera in his last performance, yet it’s Rivera that ends up on the main card? Just saying.

It seemed inevitable these two would meet some day after making their UFC debuts on UFC 170 back in February 2014. Both were hyped prospects then, filling in on short notice due to injury. Now, they both have wins over former champions in the can, looking to get their own cracks at the belt.

For all their noted similarities – including possessing a wicked ground game – there are more than enough differences to make their styles impossible to confuse. The short, stout Munhoz operates more as a powerhouse, looking to engage in the pocket with his powerful boxing combinations and ironclad chin. That combination proved to be the downfall of Cody Garbrandt this past March as Munhoz had every reason to believe his chin could stand up to the power of the recent champion. However, that isn’t all Munhoz has. His grappling is very milquetoast, though it’s as fundamentally sound as there is with a guillotine that ranks among the best in the business.

Sterling’s game features a lot more finess, picking apart opponents from a distance with his lanky frame. It was a work in progress for several years, though he finally seems to have put it all together, culminating in his masterful performance against Rivera, a noted boxer who outcrafted Munhoz several years earlier. Sterling appears to be the more technical wrestler – thanks to his collegiate days – though he lacks the power possessed by Munhoz. However, Sterling’s creativity on the ground is Van Gogh-esque. He subbed Takeya Mizugaki with an arm triangle from the bottom and executed a beautiful Suloev stretch on Cody Stamman.

This is one of the harder contests on the card to predict. Though Sterling has proven tough, his chin isn’t invulnerable. It isn’t like he’s known for his power either, so he’ll look to avoid a firefight at all costs. However, his discipline, always a strength, has only gotten better. Owning an extra 7-inches of reach over Munhoz will allow him to execute his range striking effectively and keep the heavy hitter at bay. Sterling via decision

Karolina Kowalkiewicz (12-4) vs. Alexa Grasso (10-2), Women’s Strawweight

In July 2016, Kowalkiewicz upset Rosa Namajunas to remain undefeated, cinching a title fight against then-champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. It’s pretty much been all downhill since then, managing just two wins in her next six appearances to effectively bump her from conversations of the divisional elite. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to say Kowalkiewicz is washed up as her losses have only come against the best of the best. She’s still an efficient volume striker with a crafty clinch game. What has been her downfall has been a lack of physical gifts as she is an average athlete at best and has fallen victim to the powerhouses of the division.

Grasso isn’t a powerhouse, but she is certainly a plus athlete. The question facing the Mexican hopeful is if she can put it all together at this point… and stay healthy, this marking her first appearance in over a year due to frequent injuries. The UFC had hopes of making her an inroad to Mexico as she has looks to turn heads and talent, but it hasn’t all come together the way the UFC hoped. However, it would be dumb to give up on the 25-year old already. She’s a skilled boxer who does an excellent job of supplementing her output with low kicks. Part of becoming an experienced veteran is developing consistency. She’s still working on that part.

Six months ago, Kowalkiewicz would have been the obvious pick. However, her flat performance against Michelle Waterson has left many wondering if we’re witnessing a rapid decline from the Pole. I wouldn’t argue against a decline, but I wouldn’t call it rapid either. Kowalkiewicz is still a tough customer. While I fully believe Grasso has everything she needs in her arsenal to turn away Kowalkiewicz, I haven’t seen her put together that type of performance. I don’t think this is where she does it either. Kowalkiewicz maintains some semblance of relevance. Kowalkiewicz via decision

Ricardo Lamas (19-7) vs. Calvin Kattar (19-3), Featherweight

Lamas has had a fall from grace somewhat similar to Kowalkiewicz in the sense that it wasn’t that long ago he was seen as one of the divisional elite. While we know he isn’t at that level anymore, he did prove he can still function as a gatekeeper of sorts when he was able to turn away the always tough Darren Elkins. While his durability isn’t quite what it once was, Lamas still has possibly the best finishing instincts in the division, knowing when to snatch a guillotine or when to unload with his vicious GnP. Lamas has always been a low volume striker, making him susceptible to losses in decisions, but he’s been willing to throwdown when a fight devolves.

Kattar isn’t the typical up-and-comer as he’s already 31 and even had a two-year absence from in-cage competition as he focused on coaching. Regardless of where he was at a few years ago, Kattar is fully committed to his own career at this point and presents a viable challenge to Lamas. At 5’11” with a 72” reach, Kattar possesses the type of lanky frame that usually causes issues for the opposition. That Kattar knows how to use his size is what has made him so effective, making up for his lack of overall athleticism. Given his coaching background, it shouldn’t be surprising Kattar is as savvy as they come, knowing when to sit back and when to engage in a firefight.

Another hard to call contest, I’m favoring Kattar. Kattar was dominated by Renato Moicano, but Moicano is not only one of the divisional elite, he’s also a far superior athlete. Lamas won’t be able to neutralize Kattar’s outside attack the same way Moicano did. Kattar is hard to pin down to, meaning he’ll limit Lamas’ opportunities to secure a finish, leading to Kattar outpointing the longtime veteran. Kattar via decision