Given this is a FS1 card, the opening bouts on the main card of UFC Atlantic City aren’t too bad. There’s a contest between promising heavyweights, a clash of fringe top ten middleweights, an exciting grappling contest between bantamweights, and one of the premier action fighters in the history of the UFC looking to turn away a youthful upstart looking to take over his role. In fact, that member of the old guard – Jim Miller – will tie the record for UFC appearances when he steps in the cage with Daniel Hooker. Thus, despite how the action in the cage turns out, it can be stated this will be a historical card.
The main card begins on FS1 at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Saturday.
I feel like I’ve said this a million times, but the UFC has been exceedingly short on talented young big men. Though it is too soon to expect big things from either Willis or Sherman, both have flashed enough to provide signs of hope.
Willis in particular is an intriguing talent. A teammate of Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez, Willis has been learning from some of the best in the business. He has some nice athletic gifts to boot too despite a flabby looking frame that leaves many questioning how he’d do in a fast-paced contest that goes the distance. Nonetheless, he’s shown the ability to slow down a fight, timing his counters well, and pressing forward with his jab when needed. Training with Cormier and Velasquez, you know he’s a competent wrestler too.
Sherman represents a different type of challenge for Willis as he’ll be able to match his reach and exceed his height. Not that Sherman is a master of controlling the distance – he was pieced up by Justin Ledet’s jab in his UFC debut – but he has made strides offensively and defensively on the feet. Granted, neither Rashad Coulter or Damian Grabowski are exemplary comparisons to Willis’ fighting style. Sherman is willing to get in the face of his opponent, but he has also been finished twice in his last four contests, indicating his chin isn’t made of granite.
It’s common knowledge that heavyweight is the most unpredictable division in the entire sport. Given Willis isn’t a proven commodity yet, I’d caution against leaning too heavily in his favor. Still, I feel fairly confident that he’ll dispose of Sherman as Willis has shown excellent timing whereas Sherman doesn’t look fully confident as he tries to reign in his brawling nature. If nothing else, Sherman should make this a fun contest. Willis via TKO of RD2
For the second time in his UFC career, Santos has put together a four-fight win streak. Not an easy accomplishment by any means. Santos had his previous streak snapped by Gegard Mousasi as the Dutchman completely outclassed him. Is Branch on the same level as Mousasi? We’re about to find out.
Branch has acquitted himself well since immigrating to the big stage from the WSOF. He emerged victorious in a close contest with Krzysztof Jotko while giving former champion Luke Rockhold a run for his money before Rockhold found his footing. While there are serious doubts whether Branch can make a run for the title, he’s still a difficult out for anyone at 185. Not the most aesthetically pleasing fighter, Branch prefers to operate in the clinch where he commonly outmuscles the opposition or takes them to the ground. It isn’t pretty, but is high effective when combined with his brand of dirty boxing.
Santos has shown a strong ability to operate in the clinch himself, making great use of his elbows and knees. Despite that, Santos would rather have space to operate. That’s because he needs room to throw his thunderous kicks, perhaps the best in division. Seriously, there may not be anyone in the sport who throws body shots with the accuracy and velocity he does. It isn’t just the body either as he put Steve Bosse to sleep with a thudding shot to the side of the head.
What this contest will probably come down to is how each handles operating in the world of the other. Branch isn’t helpless from a distance, using a steady jab to march forward in hopes of utilizing his dirty boxing. He’s proven to be durable too, having been stopped only twice in his career, a stretch that includes taking Anthony Johnson to decision.
On the flip side, Santos has improved his takedown defense throughout his UFC run, but hasn’t shown any progress in his grappling skills. He compensates with his ability to get back to his feet as quick as possible. Branch isn’t a flashy grappler, but he is very positionally sound and capable of capitalizing on a mistake should Santos expose himself.
There isn’t anything sexy about Branch’s approach. His highlight reel is quite short for someone with the amount of time put into the sport, but that isn’t an indication of his abilities. He doesn’t look to put on an entertaining contest. He’s looking to win. Santos is among the most dangerous opponents Branch has faced – he’s fully capable of putting Branch to sleep – but Branch has shown the ability to weather a storm. He does that here. Branch via decision
At one point, Sterling was the darling prospect of the bantamweight division. He scored impressive submission victories over tough vets Johnny Eduardo and Takeya Mizugaki, looking like he was on his way to stardom. While he hasn’t been a bust since that time, his 2-3 record from that time wasn’t what was expected. Even worse, he was on the receiving end of one of the most brutal KO’s of 2017 when Marlon Moraes clipped him with a knee that put Sterling out cold. Can he recover?
Johns is in the position Sterling once occupied as the rising star, submitting Joe Soto in impressive fashion in his last appearance. Johns isn’t quite the athlete Sterling is – very few are – but he is on the plus side of that equation and owns a more developed boxing game in the pocket than Sterling. A lot of that has been due to the threat of the takedown as Johns has proven to be fundamentally sound on the mat with the occasional flash of brilliance… such as his calf slicer he forced Soto to tap to.
Sterling is a former Division III All-American in wrestling. However, despite his impressive accolades, he has struggled to stuff the attempts of his opponents to take him down. Part of that may be Sterling’s confidence in his own ground game – there may not be a more creative submission artist – but no one doubts Johns will look to use his rabid chain wrestling to take Sterling to the ground.
Should the fight remain standing, Sterling has taken to using his length to attack with kicks and jabs. Every now and then he’ll use his explosive athleticism to burst in for a power shot, but Sterling hasn’t been mistaken for a power threat by any means. His combination striking has been improving, but he still has a way to go.
There is a part of me that is ready to give up on Sterling making a leap into contention. Then I remind myself that his losses to Caraway and Raphael Assuncao were extremely close and the knee he ate from Moraes would put down a water buffalo. However, the fight game seems to come much more naturally to Johns as Sterling still hasn’t found a true comfort level on the feet. I’ve been going back and forth on who I want to pick. Bottom line: There is a reason the odds on this contest are dead even. Johns via decision
Jim Miller (28-11, 1 NC) vs. Dan Hooker (15-7), Lightweight
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Miller’s recent losing skid indicates that the end is near for the longtime UFC veteran. That was the narrative two years ago after Miller dropped four of five, including a flat performance against Diego Sanchez. Impending doom was predicted for Miller’s career, only for him to rip off a three-fight win streak after it was discovered he had been suffering from Lyme disease. Miller has now dropped three in a row, but it’s hard to say if he is genuinely in decline or if he has simply been facing a higher level of competition than he can now handle. It’s likely a combination of both scenarios.
Hooker represents an appropriate challenge to help determine just how far Miller has slipped. A former featherweight who has yet to lose since making lightweight his new home, Hooker entered the UFC as a distance striker, honing his skills on the kickboxing scene prior to transitioning to MMA. He surprised many when he displayed a sneaky good clinch, only to raise more eyebrows in recent contests as he has added a new wrinkle to his arsenal: wrestling. Miller hasn’t exactly proven difficult to get to the mat in recent contests either. However, Marc Diakiese – Hooker’s most recent victim – doesn’t exactly pose much of a submission threat either whereas Miller holds the record for most submission attempts in UFC history.
Miller isn’t merely a submission threat. Though there is nothing flashy about his standup by any means, his combination boxing mixed with his low kicks is complimented by his underrated Muay Thai in the clinch. While Miller doesn’t own a lot of power in his strikes, he does know how to pile on the volume in a hurry, though he also tends to absorb a lot of damage in the process himself.
Fun fact about Hooker: all of his UFC victories have come by stoppage. On the flip side, he’s lost every one of his UFC contests that have gone to a decision. There is a possibility that trend comes to an end, but in what manner? Miller could nab a submission or Hooker could steal a decision over the gritty vet after Miller fades late in the contest, a trend that has haunted Miller for a while now. Then again, Miller’s durability could begin to deteriorate after a decade of fighting in the Octagon. As much as it pains me, I feel obligated to pick against Miller as Hooker’s improvements have been steady. Regardless of the outcome, expect this to be one of the most entertaining contests of the evening. Hooker via decision