One title fight at UFC 228 was altered dramatically by weight issues, but not the one that people expected.
After coming in heavy for his last fight, undefeated welterweight Darren Till came in a pound under the 170 limit on Friday to make his main event bout with champion Tyron Woodley official. Much was made of Till’s failings on the scale, but it was UFC women’s flyweight champion Nicco Montano who ended up being hospitalized due to weight-cutting issues, leading to both her and would-be challenger Valentina Shevchenko being removed from Saturday’s card.
That means the spotlight will be shining even brighter on Woodley, who it seems has been searching for greater respect ever since he became champion two years ago. “The Chosen One” has been criticized for a pair of recent lackluster title defenses and openly campaigning for fights with marquee names outside of the contenders’ rankings, but he has the chance to put much of that behind him with a convincing win over Till.
In the new co-main event, strawweights Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Jessica Andrade meet in what could be a No. 1 contender’s bout. Both lost unanimous decisions to Joanna Jedrzejczyk in their previous championship opportunities, but outside of that Andrade has been a wrecking ball at 115 pounds and Kowalkiewicz actually holds a split decision win over current champion Rose Namajunas.
Also on the main card, featherweight prospect Zabit Magomedsharipov looks to win his 12th straight bout when he takes on short-notice replacement Brandon Davis, top-ranked bantamweights Jimmie Rivera and John Dodson battle to stay in the title picture at 135 pounds, and welterweight finishers Abdul Razak Alhassan and Niko Price look to open up the pay-per-view portion of the show with a bang.
What: UFC 228
Where: American Airlines Center in Dallas
When: Saturday, Sept. 8. The four-fight UFC Fight Pass preliminary card begins at 6:15 p.m. ET, the four-fight FX preliminary card begins at 8 p.m. ET, and the five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET.
It’s not a stretch to call Darren Till the biggest threat to Tyron Woodley’s welterweight reign.
Till is over 10 years younger, considerably taller, and has shown a strong all-around skill set that has kept him undefeated in 18 professional contests leading up to UFC 228. However, if there are holes in his game, Woodley is the kind of cerebral fighter that can exploit them.
Praising Woodley’s intelligence has become somewhat of a backhanded compliment given his penchant for being involved in highly tactical, low volume fights. But he’s an expert at defusing the most dangerous aspects of his opponents’ arsenals. Demian Maia could do nothing in the clinch and was unable to score a single takedown against Woodley; Stephen Thompson, a vaunted striker, failed to string together much meaningful offense in two tries at Woodley’s title.
That means Till could be a problem for Woodley early on. Like Thompson, Till uses his kicks well to score points from distance and he can generate a lot of power in close as well. That’s one reason why wrestling with him isn’t a sure path to success. That said, he’s never faced a wrestler of Woodley’s caliber.
None of Woodley’s previous three defenses have seen him dominate with his offensive wrestling, but look for that to change on Saturday as he takes advantage of a possibly depleted Till and drains away what’s left of the Englishman’s reserves on the mat.
It will be another decision win and another successful defense for Woodley.
Theoretically, all Karolina Kowalkiewicz — a gifted striker in her own right — has to do is follow the blueprint that her rival and fellow Pole Joanna Jedrzejczyk used to foil Jessica Andrade at UFC 211.
But game planning for “Bate Estaca” and actually facing down the stone-fisted Brazilian are two different things.
Simply put, there aren’t a lot of strawweights that can stand in the pocket and trade with Andrade for long, nor many that can keep up with her furious pace. Constant movement will be the key for Kowalkiewicz and she’ll also have to be at her most accurate to keep Andrade honest, lest she be walked down for 15 minutes. Before Jedrzejczyk was beaten by Rose Namajunas, Kowalkiewicz was one of the only fighters to score a definitive knockdown against the former champion.
On the ground, Kowalkiewicz is more than capable of defending herself as long as she’s not dealing with a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt like Claudia Gadelha. She won’t want to spend much time there though as Andrade’s ground-and-pound is fierce.
As long as this stays on the feet, Kowalkiewicz has a good chance to outpoint Andrade. It’s just that Andrade’s power gives her a leg up on the competition every time she steps into the Octagon and that’s likely to be enough to carry her to a win and possibly another title shot.
With respect to Brandon Davis, who accepted this ridiculously tough matchup on less than two week’s notice, this should be a showcase bout for Zabit Magomedsharipov. Figuring out the wildly creative Dagestan native is difficult under the best of circumstances. With such little time to properly prepare? Nearly impossible.
The good news is that Davis typically enters his fights with a carefree attitude, so he certainly won’t suffer from a case of mentally losing the fight before it starts. He’ll march forward, demand that Magomedsharipov engage, and do his best to chop away at the rangy featherweight with leg kicks.
The bad news is that Davis doesn’t have the striking vocabulary to keep up with Magomedsharipov, nor the takedown defense to stop this fight from ending up on the mat should Magomedsharipov decide to go that route. Magomedsharipov might have a tough time putting away the gritty Davis, but he should control the majority of the action en route to taking a convincing unanimous decision.
This is an intriguing matchup between two of the bantamweight division’s premier point fighters. Rivera’s last four wins all came on the scorecards and Dodson has not been in a fight that ended early since April 2016. With those results in mind, this could end up being a frustrating fight for both men and one that has all the makings of a split call.
Rivera and Dodson are masters at ducking in and out, using tons of lateral movement to set up explosive bursts of offense. They’ve both shown solid wrestling as well, but don’t expect that to come into play much other than to set up strikes or disrupt the other man’s rhythm.
It will also be interesting to see how Rivera recovers mentally from being knocked out by Marlon Moraes in June. That was the first time he’d ever lost in that fashion and it snapped Rivera’s 20-fight win streak. He hasn’t faced the ups-and-downs that Dodson has, though whether that’s actually an advantage on fight night for the two-time flyweight title challenger remains to be seen.
One clear-cut advantage that Dodson has over every bantamweight is speed and that will be the key here. In a bout where the striking numbers are inevitably going to be close, it will be the fighter who creates the illusion of greater effectiveness to fool the judges. And in that department, there are few better than “The Magician”.
For anyone not familiar with the work of Abdul Razak Alhassan and Niko Price, you’ll find out quickly why these two were chosen to open up the main card.
Between the two of them, Alhassan and Price have only gone to the scorecards twice in their combined 24 pro bouts. All of Alhassan’s nine wins have come via first-round knockout. All four of Price’s UFC wins are by knockout or submission. These guys finish.
Obviously, if this ends in a KO it will simply be a matter of who lands first, which is nearly impossible to predict. What we can predict is how this fight will unfold should it stretch into the later rounds and that outlook has to be in Price’s favor. “The Hybrid” has shown that he can take punishment and turn the tables in the blink of an eye as he did against George Sullivan and Randy Brown. Alhassan is untested in this department, having lost a split decision in his lone fight that went past the opening frame.
Alhassan’s outrageous punching power makes him a threat to end this one early, but Price will walk out with the win if he can weather the early storm.