The new generation of the heavyweight division faces one of its most esteemed members in Saturday’s UFC Minneapolis main event.
This isn’t some glorified passing-of-the-torch bout either. Whoever wins the headlining clash between Francis Ngannou and Junior dos Santos will be in prime position to challenge for the heavyweight championship. After failing to take that title from Stipe Miocic at UFC 211, dos Santos rebounded with three straight wins, his longest stretch of success in over seven years.
On the other side, Ngannou has strung together back-to-back wins, including a lightning-fast finish of Cain Velasquez, dos Santos’s longtime rival. If Ngannou can knock off another former champion, he’ll restore much of the faith of prognosticators who had billed him as the next big thing in the UFC’s most volatile weight class before a couple of disappointing setbacks.
A flyweight rematch between Joseph Benavidez and Jussier Formiga serves as the co-headliner and should also have major contender implications on paper. Benavidez already holds a knockout victory over Formiga and a decision win over current dual-division champion Henry Cejudo, so all he should have to do is get past Formiga again to earn a title shot, right?
Unfortunately for Benavidez, shoulder surgery is expected to keep Cejudo out of action until 2019 and with no assurances that that Cejudo’s next title defense will even be at 125 pounds, he and Formiga could be left with more questions than answers regardless of how Saturday’s fight shakes out.
In other main card action, Demian Maia looks to stop the streaking Anthony Rocco Martin, who has been a force at 170 pounds, Roosevelt Roberts puts his 8-0 record on the line against lightweight veteran Vinc Pichel, Drew Dober meets Marco Polo Reyes in a potential lightweight slugfest, and Alonzo Menifield faces upset specialist Paul Craig in a light heavyweight bout.
What: UFC Minneapolis
Where: Target Center Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: Saturday, June 29. The entire card will air on ESPN with the six-fight preliminaries beginning at 6 p.m. ET and the six-fight main card starting at 9 p.m. ET.
Old Junior dos Santos has looked liked old Junior dos Santos in his last three outings. His expert boxing has always been his bread and butter, and it’s what’s kept him entrenched in the heavyweight top-5 for so long. He still has a great chin and more importantly, the defensive skill to protect it.
Dos Santos’s UFC losses have only been against Stipe Miocic, Alistair Overeem, and Cain Velasquez, three of the best heavyweights in MMA history. And all of them had much more well-rounded skill sets than Francis Ngannou.
But Ngannou’s raw power is what makes him one of the most must-see attractions in all of combat sports. It’s almost impossible to gauge how much he’s improved since stumbling against Miocic and Derrick Lewis because he’s barely spent a minute in the cage in his last two fights. Should this bout go to the ground, it will likely still be his undoing.
All it will take is one good shot though, and I don’t know if dos Santos has the reflexes anymore to avoid getting caught over the course of a 25-minute fight. There is no doubt in my mind that dos Santos is a superior technical striker; there is also no doubt in my mind that once the fists start flying, that might not matter one bit.
Ngannou by first-round knockout.
Jussier Formiga has been saying all the right things about his rematch with Joseph Benavidez. He’s out to convince everyone that he’s a different fighter than the man that was finished inside of a round by Benavidez back in September 2013. He’s not wrong, but the question is how much has he improved since that first meeting.
His wrestling has definitely leveled up, which is key given that in Formiga’s early UFC fights if he couldn’t get the bout to the ground, he was essentially a dead duck. There have been gains in his striking too, though any game plan that involves out-striking Benavidez would be undeniably foolish. Benavidez has superb hand speed and some of the best pop in his hands at 125 pounds.
I can picture Formiga having success taking Benavidez down this time around only for Benavidez to find ways to escape before Formiga can truly put him in any danger. That resistance can fluster and tire out even the best grapplers, and the door will eventually open for Benavidez to pick up another knockout win over Formiga, this time in round two.
In Anthony Rocco Martin’s last win over Sergio Moraes, he got a glimpse of what it would be like to fight Demian Maia. “Serginho” is an absolute python on the ground and while Martin couldn’t out-grapple him, he did neutralize Moraes’s submission game. Martin then used his strong jab and timely counters to pick up a decision and his fourth straight victory.
Maia is less inclined to stand and strike than Moraes, but he’s far better at imposing his will once he gets his hands on an opponent. Really, Maia is better than almost every fighter in MMA history at forcing his opponents to grapple. He’s also a master at not wasting energy and not sacrificing position to gamble for submissions.
The owner of nine career submission victories, Martin would probably love nothing more than to prove that his jiu-jitsu skills are on par with Maia’s. They aren’t, and that’s going to be evident when Maia wraps him up and either spends 15 minutes peppering him with punches from back control or finishes him with a choke.
At 6-foot-1, Roosevelt Roberts has great height and reach for a lightweight. Unfortunately, there is some Stefan Struve-syndrome there as he doesn’t always make efficient use of it. His striking is work in progress and outside of a nice straight right, he’s limited in his ability to win fights on the feet.
What he does excel at is using those long limbs of his to tie people up and take them down. He has offensive wrestling potential, but is at his best working from the clinch. That might not be a good idea against Vinc Pichel, a 10-year veteran who is comfortable mixing it up in close. As much as Pichel likes stand and bang, he’ll also be quick to initiate the grappling game if Roberts is too tentative.
Roberts is an excellent prospect. He just might not be at the level yet where he can deal with someone as battle tested as Pichel. “From Hell” has more ways to win and his side-to-side movement will be a nightmare for a young fighter like Roberts who favors a straight-ahead approach. This is where Roberts’s undefeated run ends.
Here’s a matchup that’s tailor-made to please the casual ESPN fan. Drew Dober and Marco Polo Reyes have skills outside of just slugging it out, but boy it’s going to be fun if these two make a silent agreement to go for the Fight of the Night and start wailing on each other.
Anytime there’s a brawl, as I expect this to be, discussing strategy is almost pointless, but if I had to breakdown who will have the advantage in striking I’d favor Dober slightly. Reyes doesn’t deal with pressure as well as Dober does and he’s also more prone to favoring single shots as opposed to combinations.
Dober also has some submission skills, so he has the option to take this one to the mat where Reyes has floundered. But where’s the fun in that? This should be three rounds of back-and-forth banging with Dober earning the decision win.
It’s become almost comical at this point to pick against Paul Craig given his proclivity for come-from-behind finishes. He’s as tough as nails and a constant threat to throw up a triangle against foes who carelessly pounce on him.
Tough as he is though, Craig is vulnerable to getting clipped early. That’s an issue when facing someone like Menifield, an absolutely ferocious finisher with devastating ground-and-pound. They don’t start much faster than Menifield and I don’t like Craig’s chances of weathering the storm this time around.
There will be no last-second heroics for Craig this time. Menifield finishes in the first.
Dalcha Lungiambula def. Dequan Townsend