This weekend, the UFC could be the only game in town.
With concerns about the coronavirus affecting sporting institutions across the globe from the NBA to the MLB to the Premier League to March Madness and leading to mass cancelations, it’s Dana White’s merry crew of misfits that are soldiering on through the storm. Whether that’s wise or not is up for debate, but what we can say is that UFC Brasilia is one of the strongest cards the promotion has brought to the South American nation.
Brazilian submission specialist Charles Oliveira goes for his seventh straight finish in the main event when he faces Kevin Lee, who is coming off of a first-round knockout of the previously undefeated Gregor Gillespie. Both can stay in the general vicinity of a lightweight title shot (despite Lee missing weight for this contest) with a win on Saturday.
The intrigue in the welterweight co-main event lies not only in Demian Maia facing one of the few fighters who can hang with him in the jiu-jitsu department, but Gilbert Burns’s vow that he is going to finish Maia, a competitor who has only failed to make it to the scorecards once in his 18-year career.
In other main card action, longtime featherweight contender Renato Moicano makes his lightweight debut against Damir Hadzovic, Johnny Walker meets Nikita Krylov in a dynamite light heavyweight contest, and Francisco Trinaldo looks to extend his UFC record for the most wins in Brazil to 13 when he fights John Makdessi.
What: UFC Brasilia
Where: Nilson Nelson Gymnasium in Brasilia, Brazil.
When: Saturday, March 14. The entire event will air on ESPN and ESPN+, with the seven-fight preliminaries starting at 3 p.m. ET, and the five-fight main card starting at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+.
Kevin Lee vs. Charles Oliveira
Call me a fool, but Kevin Lee’s improved standup has me sold.
“The Motown Phenom” always had wrestling and submissions to fall back on, but he showed a new dimension to his game with a vicious knockout of Gregor Gillespie last November. As much as you never want to read too much into one performance and a splashy training camp change (Lee joined Tristar Gym last year), Lee was scuffling before the move and at his best he’s already shown that he can compete with the upper echelon of the lightweight division.
Three years Lee’s senior, Oliveira appears to have already made it past the roughest stretches of his career and he is now ready to make that leap into the top-5 of the rankings. Six straight finishes in the modern UFC is an astounding achievement. “Do Bronx” has always been elite finisher on the feet and on the ground, though his standup tends to be wild and that could be the difference could this matchup.
Lee shouldn’t be afraid to strategically mix in takedowns, a specialty of the Tristar team, but he’ll want to be conservative with his ground techniques. In the standup, he’ll surprise Oliveira with his distance striking. Oliveira is used to being the rangier fighter and he’s going to have a hard time landing a power shot on Lee.
If Lee has truly turned a corner, this fight marks the next major milestone in his mission to entrench himself as an established lightweight contender.
Demian Maia vs. Gilbert Burns
Hold up, Father Time.
With apologies to Rodolfo Vieira, it’s fun to look at Gilbert Burns as the successor to Demian Maia’s throne as MMA’s pre-eminent grappler. He’s ridiculously strong, quick to initiate the action, and he’s also more open to talking up a fight than his fellow Brazilian. There’s no reason he can’t lead the charge for BJJ artists for the next few years as Maia, 42, has for so long (other than the fact that if it were up to Burns he’d fight 10 times a year).
Still, nobody beats Maia on the ground. And I don’t have faith in Burns to stop him from taking it there.
Maybe it will be Burns’s pride that leaves him open to the challenge, maybe it will be Maia making expert use of leverage to drag Burns down, maybe Maia will have to go all-out on his takedowns to avoid a Burns power punch, but I’m confident Maia can make this his fight. Because if he can’t, Burns is probably going to turn his lights out.
Maia by decision.
Renato Moicano vs. Damir Hadzovic
Renato Moicano needs to go back to basics and get this one to the mats ASAP.
Damir Hadzovic is a stiff test for Moicano’s first fight at 155 pounds. His takedown defense deficiencies should be at least somewhat mitigated by his size, but Moicano was a large featherweight so it might not be an issue. Hadzovic’s striking is exactly what Moicano needs to face right now to see if a change in divisions revitalizes him after his last two TKO losses or if his chin is a fundamental flaw.
I’m betting it isn’t. Moicano is still relatively fresh as far as MMA mileage goes despite being in the sport for over 10 years and a nine-month break can only have done him good. Even so, he can’t stand and bang with Hadzovic. He’s capable of point fighting, but that’s not a road he wants to go down here.
Moicano should tie Hadzovic up, get the submission, and move on to the next one.
Johnny Walker vs. Nikita Krylov
One guarantee I’m willing to make: Someone is getting KO’d.
Yes, there’s always a chance that we get an unpleasant Francis Ngannou vs. Derrick Lewis or Israel Adesanya vs. Yoel Romero surprise, but for now let’s credit the matchmakers with matching up two prime light heavyweights who are always eager to throw down.
Anytime you’re predicting an explosive finish, it’s hard to lean in either direction. In this case, I favor Johnny Walker’s outstanding speed and his elite reach. Unless we see a kinder, gentler Nikita Krylov—which would be an unfortunate side effect of him going to a decision for the first time in 32 career appearances in his last outing—I imagine “The Miner” wanting to make up for lost time and willingly engaging with Walker. Plus, if Walker’s physical tools give him a significant advantage, it may be in Krylov’s best interests to muck this one up as much as possible and turn it into a 50-50 brawl.
Walker’s loss to Corey Anderson may have been the gut check he needed after romping through his first three UFC appearances. It’s a lesson he should take to heart and if he does, he’ll be a better fighter not just on Saturday but for the foreseeable future.
Francisco Trinaldo vs. John Makdessi
Francisco Trinaldo doesn’t lose in Brazil.
The numbers don’t lie. Twelve men have tried and 12 have failed to topple Trinaldo when he fights in his home country. There’s a reason he’s one of Brazil’s most beloved fighters despite never approaching a title shot and being a .500 fighter over the last few years. “Massaranduba” always comes to fight, is as happy scrambling on the canvas as he is winging haymakers, and he’s incredibly difficult to finish.
John Makdessi is the next one up and given that he’s never come close to submitting anyone, he’ll have to finish Trinaldo by KO, which is something that hasn’t been done. He could be the one to do it though, given his fast hands and dazzling array of spinning techniques. However, Trinaldo has so much experience that should the standup exchanges get too hot, he’ll probably just shoot in and put Makdessi on his butt at the first sign of trouble.
There’s a good chance Trinaldo will feel superheroic in front of his adoring fans and decide to stand and bang with Makdessi, but as long as he’s smart about it and throws in the occasional takedown, he should win this one on the cards.
Brandon Moreno def. Jussier Formiga
Amanda Ribas def. Randa Markos
Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos def. Alexey Kunchenko
Rani Yahya def. Enrique Barzola
Mayra Bueno Silva def. Maryna Moroz
David Dvorak def. Bruno Silva