The UFC makes their return to Sweden Saturday with a card filled with top European (and some American) MMA talent, albeit missing the key ingredient in the main event: local hero Alexander Gustafsson. No use debating and bemoaning what's already debated and bemoaned, though. Better to look at what's there and what could happen.
Realistically, there's a fair amount of new pressure heaped on headliner Gegard Mousasi. Against Gustafsson, performing well was certainly important, but he's now widely expected to steam roll late replacement Ilir Latifi. If he doesn't or wins unimpressively, he does nothing for his value. He needs to look spectacular, which he is certainly capable of doing.
As for the rest of the card, top bantamweights and fairly high-level lightweights battle for hierarchy. There isn't a ton of deep implications beyond that.
Can Mousasi make his UFC debut count or will late-replacement Latifi score one of the biggest upsets in UFC history? I answer those questions with my predictions for Saturday's fights.
What: UFC on FUEL TV 9
Where: Ericsson Globe Arena, Stockholm, Sweden
When: Saturday, the six-fight Facebook card starts at 10:50 a.m. ET while the six-fight FUEL card begins at 2 p.m. ET.
It's true Latifi's a wrestler, particularly of the variety that translates well to MMA. And believe it or not, Sweden has a respectable tradition in wrestling on the international scene (all things considered). That said, Mousasi's takedown defense is not nearly as bad as it used to be. He showed marked improvement from the Lawal to Jardine fights. While I recognize Jardine isn't exactly Cael Sanderson, Latifi is coming in on short notice and oh, by the way, this isn't wrestling. The Swede might make things interesting early, but this is most certainly Mousasi's fight to lose.
Full stop: Pearson is a better fighter who has faced better competition. He's a better, stronger athlete with better power, quicker reaction time and very respectable all-around ability. This sounds like I'm bashing Couture. I am not. I respect him enormously and he's accomplished more in MMA than I thought he would, proving me wrong. But I really don't see anyway he gets by Pearson. Not even close.
Matt Mitrione vs. Phil De Fries
I'm supposed to think Mitrione is going to land a big shot, stuff takedown attempts from de Fries and either win a decision or by stoppage, but I don't. I think de Fries is going to stay in his face, hold Mitrione against the fence and work for takedowns and wear out the Blackzillian team member en route to an ugly but inevitable decision victory.
Pick: de Fries
I've known Mike personally for years, so much so that I call him Mike. I am delighted to see his development. That said, it's hard for me to pick him in this particular match-up. Not that he can't win, but I can't lean towards picking him. Easton has good head movement, but can be baited into exchanges. I suspect that's a losing proposition long term. Easton loves to strike, but hasn't found the success in terms of landing with power that he enjoyed on the regional circuit. Pickett might also be a better combination striker. Worse, I have to wonder what the scandal at Team Lloyd Irvin has done to Easton mentally. Easton's spent the majority of his time in California at Alliance, away from it all, but being a part of that team has been a central feature in his adult life.
If Garza can last and use some of his tricks, this could be a fight of the night. Ultimately, though, I lean to the Brazilian. Being at Jackson's has improved areas where he used to badly lack - takedown defense, for example - and made what he was already good at even better. He's going to overwhelm Garza in the end.
Akira Corassani vs. Robbie Peralta
Peralta is the little engine that could. Corassani is surprisingly technical, particularly on the floor, but I like the Strikeforce veteran here. Corassani looked none too impressive against Andy Ogle in his UFC return and for whatever reason, Peralta's aggression and speed make me feel confident about his chances.
From the preliminary card: