And lo, the UFC’s ESPN era is upon us.
In somewhat of a fun house mirror reflection of the UFC’s debut on FOX back in November 2011 that saw heavyweight Cain Velasquez defend his title against Junior dos Santos in the main event, Saturday’s ESPN+ debut card will be headlined by two fighters competing in the promotion’s smallest division, flyweight champion Henry Cejudo and challenger T.J. Dillashaw.
This champion vs. champion matchup — Dillashaw is in his second reign with the bantamweight title — won’t be airing on television, instead it will be the first carrot dangled in front of fight fans to convince them to subscribe to the ESPN+ streaming service. However, there will be a four-fight preliminary portion on ESPN headlined by lightweights Donald Cerrone and Alexander Hernandez.
On the main card, former NFL player turned heavyweight prospect Greg Hardy makes his debut against Allen Crowder in the co-headliner, unbeaten lightweight Gregor Gillespie takes on all-action fighter Yancy Medeiros, two-time flyweight title challenger Joseph Benavidez fights the streaking Dustin Ortiz, Paige VanZant and Rachael Ostovich meet in a flyweight encounter, and light heavyweight veteran Glover Teixeira fights short-notice replacement Karl Roberson.
What: UFC Brooklyn
Where: Barclays Center in Brooklyn
When: Saturday, Jan. 19. The three-fight ESPN+ early preliminary card begins at 6 p.m. ET, the four-fight ESPN preliminary card begins at 8 p.m. ET, and the six-fight ESPN+ main card begins at 10 p.m. ET.
Henry Cejudo vs. T.J. Dillashaw
Whether you put much stock in the eye test or not, basic logic dictates that T.J. Dillashaw will not be the same fighter he is at bantamweight after having to cut an extra 10 pounds to challenge Cejudo. The question is how much this drop will deplete him and to what degree that might affect his performance.
Because if this fight were at 135 pounds, Dillashaw would be the clear favorite. A thinned out version of him should still be good enough to do the job and he looked healthy enough at Friday’s weigh-ins, coming in at a lean 124.4 pounds.
Dillashaw will be the taller, longer athlete on fight night, and he won’t be giving up much in the speed department. His rapid movement and agility have always been strengths, and he should have more pop in the standup as well. Cejudo is greatly improved as a boxer since making his MMA debut almost six years ago, but any extended action on the feet is going to tilt towards his opponent.
That leaves Cejudo’s wrestling as the one area where he’ll have a distinct advantage. As cliche as it is to talk about how a strong wrestler can dictate where the fight goes, that’s a major key to a Cejudo victory. The more he mixes it up and keeps Dillashaw off-balance, the better chance he has of getting this one to the end of the fifth round ahead on the scorecards.
Dillashaw has a wrestling background too, one that’s not even in the same universe as Cejudo’s as far as accomplishments, but when it comes to making use of it in the Octagon he’s as good as anyone in the lighter weight classes. Even if he strictly wrestles defensively, it should be enough to neutralize that part of Cejudo’s game plan.
This is bad news for people tired of “champ champs” and anyone who fears that a Dillashaw win signals the end of the flyweight division; it could end with a bang though, in this case a flurry of Dillashaw strikes.
Greg Hardy vs. Allen Crowder
There might be controversy surrounding Greg Hardy’s past, but as far as in-cage prospects go his future is looking bright. The fact is that there simply aren’t a lot of heavyweights with his natural power and athleticism. That point has been repeated ad nauseum by anyone who’s talked about Hardy’s upside because it’s true. He moves fast and he hits hard, exactly what you’d expect from a guy who was able to compete at a high level in the NFL.
What Crowder brings to the table is decent fight IQ and enough grappling to get by, which may sound like a backhanded compliment, but considering that Hardy’s grappling game is completely untested so far, Crowder’s work in the clinch and ability to set up takedowns could help him steal a win here. As impressive as Hardy has looked, once you get to the UFC its a whole different story and its entirely possible that he has no idea what to do once he’s put on his back and he ends up laying a goose egg.
But just looking at this from a matchmaking perspective, officials couldn’t have done a better job of giving Hardy a beatable fighter with a respectable-looking record. Crowder doesn’t have the physical gifts to keep up with the former defensive end and that’s going to spell disaster for him and a lot of the opponents that Hardy is likely to face in the early stages of his UFC career.
Gregor Gillespie vs. Yancy Medeiros
Gregor Gillespie is one of the biggest favorites on the main card and justifiably so. With his deep gas tank, overwhelming wrestling ability, and nose for the finish, he has all the makings of a future contender at 155 pounds. Yancy Medeiros will be his biggest test yet, an effective brawler with good reach who is difficult to put away.
This is the definition of a step-up fight for Gillespie, who is already 5-0 against the lower tier of the UFC lightweight division. That’s no disrespect to his opponents, all of whom sported solid records before Gillespie ran through them. His most recent victory came against Vinc Pichel, who was on a four-fight win streak.
It’s been a while since Medeiros has fought a specialist like Gillespie and while he’s fairly adept at matching his opponents skill-for-skill, if Gillespie wants to ground him and keep him there, Medeiros won’t have much say in the matter.
I actually like this one to go all three rounds, which will be only the third time that one of Gillespie’s opponents makes it to the scorecards. The outcome will be the same though, another win for “The Gift”.
Joseph Benavidez vs. Dustin Ortiz
It’s been over four years since Joseph Benavidez won a convincing unanimous decision over Dustin Ortiz, and Ortiz has only recently got back to the winning ways that once had him entrenched in the top 10 of the flyweight rankings. A knee injury cost the 34-year-old Benavidez a chunk of his career, but he didn’t look like he’d lost much of a step in a close split-decision loss to Sergio Pettis and a thrilling first-round TKO of Alex Perez. Long renowned for being one of the few 125ers with consistent knockout power, Benavidez will get a second chance to finish Ortiz on Saturday.
A high-paced bout suits Ortiz just fine. He is extraordinarily difficult to finish, with zero KO losses and just one loss by submission on his resume, and even in that instance he only stayed down after being choked nearly unconscious. The results may not always reflect it, but Ortiz is a more complete fighter since losing to Benavidez and a legitimate threat to become just the second fighter to stop Benavidez inside the distance.
Fights between elite flyweights tend to be coin tosses; however, given what we saw in their first fight, so long as you don’t think Benavidez is experiencing a significant decline or that Ortiz has made some quantum leap in his capabilities, there’s reason to expect a similar outcome in this rematch. Look for Benavidez to consistently beat Ortiz to the punch en route to another decision nod.
Paige VanZant vs. Rachael Ostovich
Paige VanZant has looked like anything but a world beater in her last three losses, and it’s easy to point out where things went wrong for her. She dropped a decision to Jessica-Rose Clark after breaking her arm in the second round, was choked out by the more experienced and submission savvy Michelle Waterson, and just outclassed in every conceivable way by future champion Rose Namajunas.
So why is it a smart bet to pick her to beat Rachael Ostovich?
Nobody will question Ostovich’s toughness as she brings that trademark Hawaiian spirit to the cage every time, the problem is that she doesn’t have a standout skill with which to give VanZant any serious problems. Her best bet is to take the springy VanZant down, otherwise this will become a kickboxing match that “12 Gauge” will be right at home in. Mix in a healthy dose of scrambling to avoid Ostovich’s takedowns and this one should go VanZant’s way.
Glover Teixeira vs. Karl Roberson
Instead of a fight that could get him back on the contender track, Glover Teixeira finds himself in matchup with little to gain. The one-time light heavyweight title challenger was scheduled to fight Ion Cutelaba, only to lose that opponent to injury and instead face middleweight Karl Roberson.
A Dana White Tuesday Night Contender’s Series signee, Roberson is a lethal finisher who has competed at light heavyweight before; in fact, the last time two times he fought at 205 pounds, he won by 15-second KO and 61-second submission. Teixeira has to be cautious.
Given that Roberson is such a wild card in this situation, expect Teixeira to close the distance with strikes and look to grapple early to wear Roberson down. From there, he’ll drag Roberson to the mat and set up a submission with his overlooked jiu-jitsu skills.
Beating Teixeira is a tall task under ideal circumstances. On short notice, Roberson can’t be blamed if this fight ends with him tapping out.
Donald Cerrone def. Alexander Hernandez
Ariane Lipski def. Joanne Calderwood
Vinicius Moreira def. Alonzo Menifield
Mario Bautista def. Cory Sandhagen
Te Edwards def. Dennis Bermudez
Geoff Neal def. Belal Muhammad