The more I think about it, the better this card looks. That is saying something as usually I'm the other way around. I'd have to say what initially threw me off was the apparent lopsidedness of the main event as Benson Henderson is a former world champion who has dethroned less than a year ago against a dude whose UFC debut was less than 18 months ago and it seems most UFC fighters don't even know who he is (more on that if you keep reading). But if you compare it to the main events from last week, I'd be willing to bet this one will be the closest contested.
What actually makes the card work is depth. The original TUF champion (back when it meant something) is on the card, along with two former #1 contenders at flyweight squaring off and a pair of up-and-coming bantamweights hoping to keep their momentum going. Hell, some PPV cards as of late (I'm looking at you UFC 170) haven't had depth this good.
Here's the breakdown:
Story Thus Far: There was a rumor that when Henderson accepted this bout he thought that he was accepting a fight with the 'other' Russian Khabib Nurmagomedov. The rumor turned out to be true which is the same mistake Rafael dos Anjos made a few months earlier in a bout that never came to fruition due to injury. Wow.
Henderson is turning into the King of Controversial Decisions as he has earned the nod in 3 bouts that at least half if not more of the pundits thought he lost to in Frankie Edgar, Gilbert Melendez, and Josh Thomson. Still, no one is debating that the former champ is still one of the best in the business. But if he wants a title shot he'll have to get a finish at some point... something he has yet to do in 8 UFC victories. As talented as he is, that is a shocking statistic.
Khabilov is probably best known for being the actual 'other' Russian as everyone seems to mistake him for Nurmagomedov. He'll take it if it gets him high profile matches and he just got about as big of a fight as he can get. He only has 3 UFC fights at this point (all victories) and is making a huge step up in competition to face Henderson. If he scores the upset, he'll be inserted right into title talk.
Fighting Style: Bendo has received a lot of criticism from fans in this area as he tends to play it safe. He can be dominating with his wrestling as you might recall from his bout with Nate Diaz, but for someone as gifted as him to not pursue finishes can frustrate the audience. If he is willing to take chances and initiate scrambles he does have excellent submission ability (3 of his 5 WEC wins came that way) and his chin allows him to stand a trade with anyone (he ate the Showtime kick and continued fighting people!). His standup features a lot of kicks and his boxing is good but really nothing spectacular.
Khabilov showed he is somebody you don't want to take your back as he will flip you head over heels in the literal sense. No one has shown the devastating suplexes that he has with the same level of consistency. If that was all that he had though then he wouldn't be fighting in the main event. His boxing is fundamentally sound and he has shown a flair for highlight kicks too... not that I'd expect them all the time, but he is more than capable. Overall his sambo base has created a more well-rounded fighter than initially thought.
What to Expect: Bendo is very well noted for his grappling and as well coached as Khabilov is (Team Jackson) he probably isn't going to go straight into a grappling war with Bendo. He showed a lot of confidence in his hands against a talented striker in Jorge Masvidal and it turned out quite well for him. Bendo will likely have plenty of confidence in his own striking and be glad to turn it into a standup battle.
This will be Bendo's 11th fight scheduled for 5 rounds and 7 of them have gone the distance thus far. He knows what to expect. This is Khabilov's first. There is a big difference between going 15 and 25 and it would be fair to expect Khabilov to slow down in the last two rounds. Look for Bendo to use his grappling at that time... when he is less worried about Khabilov being able to suplex him or win any scrambles.
A large part of the reason Bendo is successful in his grappling is his strong base. Have you ever seen his legs? A lightweight should not be able to make 155 with those tree trunks! Khabilov might consider leg kicks to weaken the base, but that would likely initiate an exchange of kicks that Bendo's Tae Kwon Do background gives him an edge in. But then again, Pettis took the fight right to Bendo and used a lot of kicks to soften him up... and Pettis has the belt now.
X-Factors: The aforementioned 25 minutes is easily the biggest one. Khabilov's poise will be key. With this card in New Mexico, it is right in the backyard where Khabilov trains, but Bendo trains next door in Arizona and may have a bigger home field advantage considering Khabilov is Russian.
Who Will Win: I totally admire Khabilov for being willing to take big names so early in his progression, but I do believe that he is in over his head in taking on Bendo. The fact that it is a 25 minute affair really convinces me that this is going to go Bendo's way. Henderson by Submission 4th Round
Story Thus Far: Its hard to believe that Sanchez has now been fighting in the UFC for 9 years now. In other words, he is a veteran at this point and appears to be on the downside of his career as he has now lost two in a row to Gilbert Melendez and Myles Jury and he looked very flat against Jury. Word is that he was ill against Jury which contributed to his poor performance. This is his opportunity to prove he can still hang with the top dogs.
Pearson has yet to lose in his return to the lightweight division, though it is worth mentioning that his last bout with Melvin Guillard ended in a no contest thanks to an illegal knee. The likeable Brit can't be considered a prospect anymore, but that doesn't mean that he hasn't shown improvement in his last few bouts. A victory over Sanchez would represent the biggest in his career and a potential shot at a ranked opponent.
Fighting Style: Sanchez has always been a straight ahead fighter and will be so until the day his career is over. He is about as indestructible as a fighter comes as he'll be around with the cockroaches if an H-bomb ever hit New Mexico (again) and is willing to take two shots (or more) to deliver one. He was once a great grappler, but the evolution of the sport has left him a little behind in that area. He is still dogged in shooting for double and single legs, but doesn't have the success he used to.
Pearson is first and foremost a boxer and a damn good one at that. He can pick his opponent apart with his jab and will mix in a quick 1-2 combination as well. He isn't flashy, but I'll take solid technique over flash any day if I were a coach. His grappling has improved greatly since he first arrived in the UFC and he can hold his ground with most at this point. He prefers to stand, but seems to get about one takedown every fight and has an excellent sprawl.
What to Expect: While Sanchez can still be fun to watch, he is frustrating too as he hasn't implemented much strategy beside his straightforward approach in a long time. Considering that, Pearson is going to pepper him with his jab all night long. It isn't going to look too different from what we saw with Melendez or Jury with the pace being somewhere in the middle of those.
Sanchez didn't even both to attempt a takedown against Jury for reasons unknown, but I find it hard to believe that he won't do so here... time and time again. Pearson's sprawl will make it difficult to get him down, but Sanchez is a dog. He'll get him down at least once and exhibit why so many once sang praises about his ground game with a submission attempt or two, but won't seal the deal.
Blood and guts is to always be expected from a Sanchez fight and Pearson is the perfect type of fighter to expound upon that expectations. Look for the fight to go to a decision with both of them bleeding profusely.
X-Factors: This will be Sanchez's first fight at home in New Mexico and you know damn well that he will be motivated to put on a show for home. Pearson required knee surgery a few months back and hard to say if the procedure will hinder or help at this juncture.
Who Will Win: This one is hard for me to predict. Sanchez always seemed capable of pulling something from deep down to at least make a fight a nail-biter to the end, but may have lost that ability. He isn't that old at 32... but he has been threw countless wars and the mileage adds up. Pearson by Decision
Story Thus Far: Dodson has only had one fight since coming up short in a decision loss to the flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson due to a partially torn ACL... but damn he looked awesome in dusting off Darrell Montague. This is his first match back from the injury and it will be interesting to see how he comes back. He isn't too far off from getting another title shot as Johnson has been doing a good job of dusting off challenges.
One of those recently dusted challenges was Moraga who was dominated throughout the match against Johnson. He did recover with a win over Dustin Ortiz, but there was some controversy over who won the fight. If Moraga wants to make a statement and establish himself as an elite flyweight, he can do so with a victory over Dodson.
Fighting Style: Few look like they are having more fun in the Octagon than Dodson as he is often smiling and laughing during the fight and as a result he is very relaxed in there. Many consider Dodson to be the fastest fighter this side of Johnson and what makes him most effective are the short boxing combinations that he throws together and with his punching power he often can put his opponent away... just as he did to our current bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw. He also has an excellent sprawl as Johnson has been the only one to take him down.
Moraga is the opposite of Dodson as he looks pissed off in there and looking to hand his opponent their ass. He is very much a straightforward plugger as he largely looks to connect with boxing combinations over and over again. Admittedly, that makes him sound worse than he actually is, but that is his preference. At least it is efficient and backed up by some power and a bit of speed. He does have a wrestling background at Arizona St. and has a fantastic sprawl himself. If he is on the ground, he has a very strong submission game that is worth noting.
What to Expect: Dodson usually has a strength advantage over his opponent and likes to utilize it. But it probably won't exist here, so look for him to rely more on his speed than he has recently. He'll still look for combinations, but he'll be darting in and out looking to fluster Moraga more than landing a kill shot on him... at least until he has figured out the range and timing.
Neither one of these guys has utilized their wrestling much in the UFC thus far, but I would expect both of them to be willing to do so against one another. Moraga is probably at an advantage here with his combination of submission abilities and guard passing ability. But as both have excellent sprawls, it will be a hell of a chess match to see who can get the takedown. Look for Dodson to win that battle though as Moraga couldn't handle Johnson's speed and was taken down at will.
If Moraga can get a hold of Dodson to at least clinch up or against the fence (if unable to get the takedown), he'll likely be at an advantage. Dodson was obliterated in the clinch by Dodson and Moraga has shown a good game in close distance.
X-Factors: How will the ACL hold up for Dodson. For someone who relies on speed this could be a devastating injury. Lucky for him it was only a partial tear... but still. These two have fought before with Dodson emerging as the victor in 2010. How does that weigh on their minds.
Who Will Win: Dodson is still without a doubt one of the top 3 flyweights in the world (with Johnson and Joseph Benavidez) and will prove that here. Moraga is certainly a good fighter... but he is a notch below those guys. Dodson by Decision
#5 Rafael dos Anjos (20-7) vs. Jason High (18-4), Lightweight
Story Thus Far: It was less than two months ago that dos Anjos was used as dish rag to clean up the floor by Khabib Nurmagomedov, a fact that has to be eating at the highly competitive lightweight. Wanting to erase that taste from his mouth as soon as possible, dos Anjos signed up for this fight to get back on the road to contention. Don't let the drubbing by Khabib fool you... dos Anjos truly is one of the best in the division.
High is making his debut at lightweight after a largely successful run at welterweight and draws a tough test here. Coming back from a ruptured appendix, High had little trouble disposing of James Head and Anthony Lapsley in his previous bouts. He is too old to be considered a prospect, but it doesn't seem he is done improving either. It'll be a while before a truly accurate reading can be taken on High.
Fighting Style: What makes dos Anjos so tough is he quietly has improved what were thought to be weak points in his career. He entered the UFC as a BJJ submission expert, but his wrestling and boxing have both been improved to the point that he has used those to beat his opponents. He is also the owner of one of the more underrated Muay Thai games in the business. It really is very shocking that he has yet to put an opponent to sleep with his knees yet.
High is a grappler in every sense of the word. His goal is to get his opponent to the ground and keep them there while launching submission attempt after submission attempt at his opponent. Not a traditional BJJ grappler, his college wrestling is apparent as he is usually quite top heavy and not the most effective off of his back. His striking... needs a lot of work to be blunt. He knows this though which is why he insists on taking the fight to the ground.
What to Expect: Look for this fight to get ugly. High doesn't want to stand with dos Anjos at all and will look for the takedown as soon as he sees an opening. Expect him to push dos Anjos against the fence as a result. Here is where it gets interesting as dos Anjos does some of his best work against the cage. He can reverse High against the fence and use his Muay Thai or pull High's legs out from underneath him. Whoever wins the battle against the fence is going to win the fight.
dos Anjos will have no problem keeping his distance with High and splashing his legs with some of dos Anjos' vaunted leg kicks, especially early. If he can wear down High's base he'll have an easier time dictating where the fight takes place. All the more reason to expect High to be aggressive.
On the ground will be interesting. High will be a big lightweight and could end up being a very top heavy opponent for dos Anjos. But dos Anjos doesn't get enough credit in the strength category himself and is capable of sweeping High for a reversal. If that happens, High is in trouble as he struggles off of his back. On the other hand though, dos Anjos is fairly comfortable from his back.
X-Factors: This will be High's first weight cut to 155 and how that goes will have a massive impact on how this fight will go. He won't stand a chance if he struggles with the cut. dos Anjos is coming off of a lopsided fight to Khabib and it will be interesting to see how he bounces back.
Who Will Win: I don't like High's chances here at all. He was getting some momentum going before his appendix burst and rather than take a... we'll say warm up fight in his first excursion to lightweight he is jumping head first into the shark tank. My only question is by what method dos Anjos will win. dos Anjos by Decision
Story Thus Far: There have been a lot of whispers of retirement swirling around the longtime veteran Edwards. At one point he was considered the best lightweight in the world. But that was 10 years ago and after 64 fights at the age of 37, what does he have left to prove? If a Yancy Medeiros drug test hadn't run hot, he'd be riding a 3-fight losing streak at the moment. This could be his last chance to remain in the UFC.
Hallmann took many by surprise in his UFC debut as he pulled off the upset over respected veteran Francisco Trinaldo. After a competitive opening round in his sophmore effort against Al Iaquinta though, he gassed out and dropped the decision. He is likely on more solid ground than Edwards being a native of Poland (being from an area the UFC is trying to make headway in helps) and younger at 26, but he could be on shaky ground as well.
Fighting Style: Edwards' Muay Thai was once upon the stuff of legend, but the rest of the MMA would has caught up to him. That isn't to say it sucks, but being a relatively small lightweight and the evolution of the sport has brought those abilities down to earth to the point it is no longer a stand out ability anymore. With age comes a multitude of veteran tricks of the trade and Edwards can surprise with his technique that allowed him to floor Jeremy Stephens... something no one else has done. His kicks are a large part of his arsenal as well.
Hallmann has shown to be very aggressive thus far, but it has also left him open to taking a number of shots himself. Still, when he is patient he shows technically sound and powerful punches and has some good kicks too. Big for a lightweight, he has shown good takedowns utilizing singles and double legs. From there his best weapon is his GNP which he has used to end quite a few fights. As his debut showed though, he is capable on the ground and knows how to use his strength there as you gotta be strong to lock in a kimura.
What to Expect: Even though it is no longer considered to a loss, Edwards was dominated by Medeiros as his much larger opponent continued to move forward and bullied him until the stoppage. Hallmann may not be quite as big as Medeiros, but he is still a very big lightweight. Considering Hallmann likes to push forward anyway, you can guess where this is going.
Edwards was able to land some good shots on Medeiros in their short bout, but as he was pressured it didn't have the same power that he has going forward. Edwards is going to want to push the pace himself and will have to utilize lots of movement to do so. He has the kicks to keep Hallmann at range, so this isn't as unlikely as it might seem to some.
You can be certain Hallmann will try to get the fight to the ground at some point and pound out the smaller Edwards. Edwards is better on the ground than he often gets credit for and is slick enough to pull off a submission from the guard. Hallmann hasn't faced someone with Edwards' experience (but then again, most haven't) and could be lulled to sleep. Keep an eye on the chess match on the ground... so long as Edwards doesn't get overwhelmed from Hallmann's GNP.
X-Factors: Easily Hallmann's gas tank. He stayed competitive, but did gas in the later rounds against Iaquinta. He could have problems with that if he tries to push the pace early as is expected. Edwards clearly isn't the same fighter he once was and has been going downhill for a while. How much steeper has been his descent since his last fight?
Who Will Win: I love Edwards and have seen all of his UFC fights. The guy really was one of the best at one point and is still capable of schooling some of the youngsters on the regional circuit... but I think he is no longer quite UFC caliber. I hate saying it since he is a legend in his own right, but I don't think he can do it anymore. Hallmann by TKO 1st Round
Story Thus Far: Perez would count as one of the UFC's golden boys thanks to his young age (24) and Mexican blood as they look to make headway into that market. He isn't without talent and has ran up a 4-1 UFC record, but when Edwin Figueroa is your best win that isn't saying too much. To be a bit more fair though, his lone blemish was to Takeya Mizugaki in a competitive split decision loss. That says more about his talent than his victories.
It's likely that Caraway will always be best known for being Miesha Tate's boyfriend and will find it difficult to ever be a fan favorite as a result. What people seem to pass over is he does have some actual talent. Caraway made his way to the UFC through season 15 of TUF (did previously fight in the WEC however) and has put together a 3-1 record with his loss also from Mizugaki. Its been over a year since he was last seen due to injury, but he looked very good submitting Johnny Bedford in that effort.
Fighting Style: When Perez first entered the UFC, he looked to blitz his opponents as quick as possible with as many strikes as possible and had good results. Facing higher competition, he has taken a more measured approach and the results have been better in terms of his development. His 7 submission wins are a little deceiving as he is a striker first and foremost who usually hurts his opponent before applying the likes of a RNC. He possesses a hell of a Muay Thai arsenal and does a lot of damage from the clinch.
Caraway was a college wrestler, though I would say he is more of a grappler than a wrestler. His sprawl is excellent he maintains great positional control on the ground. He is as savvy as they come using all the little tricks (such as covering an opponents mouth) to improve position so he can sink in a submission... of which he owns 16 victories by. He'll work hard to get his opponents back for his signature RNC. His standup isn't great, but is good enough that he can survive as he utilizes a boxing base more than anything.
What to Expect: Perez is going to be even yet more measured. Caraway doesn't possess one-punch power, but he is tricky and could take Perez down and submit him before he even knows it. Especially seeing how much Perez enjoys utilizing the clinch from where Caraway would be in close enough quarters to hit a trip, Perez is going to be very careful with Caraway. Don't get me wrong, Perez will be the aggressor, but not what you would usually expect from him.
Both are solid boxers, but Caraway doesn't possess the one-punch power that Perez possesses that give Perez the substantial advantage. Perez also has better overall movement. Due to Caraway's craftiness, look for Perez to use his boxing more than the clinch in this fight. Caraway will get the better of some exchanges... but for the most part Perez will be the better striker.
Perez can be quite ballsy, so I would look for him to utilize some takedowns on Caraway despite the obvious dangers that could come with that. Even if he doesn't don't be surprised to see Caraway pull guard with Perez and Perez be happy to oblige. It is worth mentioning all of Caraway's UFC wins have not only been submissions, but they've been chokes. Perez needs to watch his neck.
X-Factors: Ring rust could be a factor for Caraway. Perez hasn't fought since November which is a fair amount of time too... but over a year? Long time to overcome. Also, Perez is fighting in his current (i.e. not his hometown, but where he trains) stomping grounds. Gotta be motivation.
Who Will Win: This is a very close fight. Caraway is a smart dude and relatively big for bantamweight. But Perez looked improved in his last fight and the hometown motivation should count for something. Gotta go with Perez. Perez by TKO 3rd Round
Record for last Card: 10-2
Record for Year: 123-75-1