It’s time for James Vick to back up his tall tales.
“The Texecutioner” has been telling everyone that he’s ready for a big-name opponent and a main-event opportunity for some time now, and he got just that with a headlining bout at UFC Lincoln against fan-favorite slugger Justin Gaethje. Now all he has to do is put away one of the most dangerous fighters in the lightweight division. On the other side, Gaethje has to prove that he’s willing to evolve and possibly change his style after suffering the first two losses of his career.
Also featured on the main card, Cortney Casey and Angela Hill jockey for a top-10 spot in the increasingly crowded strawweight division, veteran welterweight Jake Ellenberger looks to get back on track when he fights Bryan Barberena, flyweight contenders John Moraga and Deiveson Figueiredo collide in a bout with possible title implications, and Eryk Anders tries to rebound from his first pro loss when he takes on Tim Williams.
What: UFC Lincoln
Where: Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Neb.
When: Saturday, Aug. 25. The three-fight UFC Fight Pass preliminary card begins at 6:30 p.m. ET, the four-fight FOX Sports 2 preliminary card begins at 8 p.m. ET, and the six-fight FOX Sports 1 main card begins at 10 p.m. ET.
If there’s such a thing as quietly winning nine out of 10 UFC fights, that’s what James Vick has done since joining the promotion in 2013 following his appearance as a cast member on The Ultimate Fighter 15. Standing 6-foot-3, Vick is hard to miss, but somehow he’s flown under the radar despite owning recent wins over Francisco Trinaldo and Joe Duffy.
It’s not for lack of definitive wins either, as five of his UFC victories have come by way of knockout or submission. Vick is as comfortable fighting from distance on the feet as he is using his wiry frame to hunt for chokes on the mat. Regarding the latter, will the fight even go down there?
Fans and pundits alike have been imploring Justin Gaethje to find a greater balance between his devil may care approach to striking and the wrestling ability that earned him All-American honors in college, but he’s rarely employed offensively in his MMA career. Everyone knows he’s going in there to knock Vick out, but if he can establish the threat of a takedown early, it might make his job a lot easier.
The blueprint for beating Gaethje has been laid out by Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier: fight smart and be patient at the start, weather the storm, look for the finish in a later round. That’s easier said than done, and it’s not a sure bet that Vick can navigate the same waters as artfully as they did.
On the first losing streak of his career, expect Gaethje to implement just enough tweaks to his game to throw Vick off and open him up for a KO in round two or three.
There are few fighters who are more predictably unpredictable than Michael Johnson.
As disappointing as the returns have been for “The Menace” recently, it’s not difficult to see glimpses of the fighter that convincingly beat Dustin Poirier, Edson Barboza, and Tony Ferguson. Let’s not forget that he had a measure of success on the feet against Khabib Nurmagomedov before being wrestled into oblivion, and that he was arguably winning against both Gaethje and Darren Elkins before fading in the second round.
But the fact is that he’s lost five of his last six fights and in Fili, he’s getting another opponent who is not going to wilt in the face of early pressure. Johnson hasn’t won a decision in more than three years, while Fili has been adept at doing so with a mixture of steady striking and timely takedowns.
Fili’s standup also tends to be more diverse than that of Johnson, who has a habit of getting into brawls with mixed results. He’s also proven to be tougher to finish and resiliency will be a key factor in this matchup.
If they go to the scorecards, it’s Fili who walks out with the close decision victory.
In Angela Hill, Cortney Casey is facing another opponent who will walk her down and test her ability to counter-strike. Strangely, Casey has actually shown herself to be a good defensive fighter, but the judges have not agreed. “Cast Iron” has lost three of her last four fights by decision, two by split call.
Casey just doesn’t have the one-punch KO power that is a signature of many of the sport’s best counter-strikers and that means she’s vulnerable to pressure and volume. Specifically, a steady diet of leg kicks from Hill could cause her some serious problems during this bout.
On the other hand, the grappling that frustrated Casey in her most recent fight against Michelle Waterson won’t be an issue here unless Hill employs a dramatic change in strategy from her previous fights. This one should be contested primarily on the feet where Hill will likely make good use of her powerful legs to edge out a win.
If this is Jake Ellenberger’s last fight, as Bryan Barberena predicts it could be, the UFC has certainly given him the opportunity to go out swinging.
“The Juggernaut” was once one of the most feared knockout artists at 170 pounds, but as his reflexes have slowed and his chin has deteriorated, he’s been the nail far more often than the hammer in recent years. In fairness, he’s not losing to nobodies, but the fact stands that he can’t take a hit like he used to and that’s resulted in eight losses in his past 10 appearances.
Barberena is no stranger to exciting fights, but don’t mistake him for an undisciplined wild man. He’s going to give Ellenberger every opportunity to think he’s setting the tone of the fight, only to catch him with a hard shot as soon as he sees an opening. It doesn’t take a lot to rock Ellenberger anymore and when Barberena smells blood, he is quick to pounce.
At some point, Barberena is going to wound Ellenberger and when that happens, the end will soon follow.
The name of the game for Figueiredo is aggression. Few flyweights have a nose for the finish like Figueiredo, but Moraga could be his equal in this regard.
A strong grappler, Figueiredo has also shown he has legitimate power in the standup. He employs strong jab, which he puts to good use to set up strikes from unexpected angles. Rapid side-to-side movement has also been key to him befuddling his first three UFC opponents.
What will help Moraga avoid the pitfalls of Figueiredo’s past challengers is his experience. He’s faced a considerably higher level of competition than Figueiredo, having squared off with pretty much every elite fighter at 125 pounds and rarely been blown out. He is an expert at keeping his composure when opponents attempt to walk him down and at the same time doesn’t over-commit against fighters that are reluctant to engage.
Figueiredo is a gifted offensive fighter, but Moraga’s ability to adapt is going to give him headaches. Even if Moraga doesn’t get the finish, he should do enough to score his fourth straight win and possibly a long-awaited second shot at the flyweight championship.
Eryk Anders wants to be known as more than just an athletic striker and he’ll get the chance to prove that against Tim Williams.
The former Alabama Crimson Tide football standout actually prides himself on his grappling, it just hasn’t come into play much inside the Octagon as he’s been able to use his natural power and agility to get the better of his foes on the feet. He’s no brawler either, and he’s keen to take his time setting up his attacks, a strategy that worked against him in his most recent fight against Lyoto Machida where a lack of volume cost him on the scorecards.
Williams is tough as nails, but he’s going to have a hard time getting anything going against Anders. Even if the submission specialist does prove to be the superior grappler, something Anders is looking to test, it will be difficult to keep Anders down or put him into a position where Williams can finish.
Anders shouldn’t have too much trouble winning over the judges this time around and if he’s willing to take a risk or Williams gets desperate, a knockout in the first two rounds isn’t out of the question either.