Attempting to view Saturday’s main event strictly in the context of the matchup itself is a fool’s errand.
First and foremost, Walt Harris’s headlining heavyweight bout opposite Alistair Overeem marks his first fight since the murder of his stepdaughter Aniah Blanchard, a nightmare that began with her disappearance this past October. The tragedy pushed back an initial booking with Overeem that was to take place in December, and after some more schedule shuffling caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the bout has landed on a UFC on ESPN card in Jacksonville, Fla.
Harris looks to continue his climb up the rankings, which was bolstered by two knockouts of 50 seconds or less in his previous two outings. One can only imagine the emotional weight he’ll carry with him on fight night and how much just getting the chance to get back to doing what he loves might lighten that load.
Add in the fact that Saturday’s headliner will cap off the third UFC card in one week as the promotion resumes operations following a series of coronavirus pandemic-related cancellations and postponements in March and April, and you get the sense that a lot of demons will be exorcised when the show comes to a close in Jacksonville.
In other main card action, Claudia Gadelha looks to hold off ubiquitous strawweight scrapper Angela Hill, Dan Ige welcomes longtime lightweight contender Edson Barboza to the featherweight division, Eryk Anders meets veteran Krzysztof Jotko in a middleweight bout, and bantamweight contenders Song Yadong and Marlon Vera make a one-time move up to featherweight for a surefire banger.
What: UFC on ESPN 8
Where: VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla.
When: Saturday, May 16. The entire event will air on ESPN and ESPN+, with the six-fight preliminaries starting at 6 p.m. ET, and the five-fight main card starting at 9 p.m. ET.
Walt Harris has said that Alistair Overeem is a fighter that he’s looked up to throughout his career, and that’s evident in their shared in-cage composure.
Don’t let his history of blink-and-you-missed-it knockouts fool you, Harris is a patient hunter. He’ll certainly rush in against opponents with inferior standup skills, but against a striker of Overeem’s caliber, you can expect a more measured approach. Overeem is the same way, having made a career of analyzing his opponent’s weaknesses before crushing them with a precision flurry. He knows what Harris is capable of, and he’s not going to play around with him.
That could mean we see stretches of inactivity here as the two heavyweights dart in and out while utilizing plenty of feints to coax a mistake out of their opponent. Keep in mind, there will be no restless crowd to jeer the fighters into action. When the limbs do start flying, major damage will be done.
This is such a coin toss prediction for me, because either fighter is capable of landing that finishing shot at any moment. Overeem’s experience is always a factor, but so is his well-worn chin, and it’s because of that history of knockout losses that I have to go with Harris here.
Even though The MMA Gods are anything but sentimental, Harris wins one for Aniah here.
Against talented strikers, Claudia Gadelha has occasionally faltered. Her rival Joanna Jedrzejczyk beat her twice, and her last two losses were to confident standup fighters Nina Ansaroff and Jessica Andrade. However, that only matters if Angela Hill can keep this fight on the feet.
I’m skeptical when it comes to Hill stopping Gadelha’s takedowns for three rounds. “Overkill” improves with every fight, but her wrestling remains a question mark, and against a relentless grappler like Gadelha, that area hasn’t evolved enough yet to stop Gadelha from imposing her will. She won’t make it easy for Gadelha at the start, as her muay Thai techniques will piece Gadelha up. But it’s only a matter of time until Gadelha gets this one to the mat.
On the ground, few strawweights can hang with “Claudinha,” so there’s no shame in being handled by her down there. A budding contender, Hill is going to learn why Gadelha has been a mainstay in the top-10 for years.
Gadelha finds the submission in the first or second round.
As great as Ige has looked during his five-fight win streak, I have to enact the Edson Barboza rule here: I don’t believe anyone can beat Barboza on the feet until I see it.
That is to say, any time Barboza is involved in a fight that is projected to take place primarily on the feet, I’m going to pick him (the one time I broke this rule was when he fought Justin Gaethje – justifiably so, as it turned out). That’s not to say he can’t be out-struck. In fact, he lost a narrow split decision in a back-and-forth striking battle with Paul Felder in his most recent fight. It just takes a near-flawless performance on the part of his opponent to do so.
Ige has solid standup, he just doesn’t have the speed or versatility of Barboza. However, he could benefit from Barboza having to cut an extra 10 pounds for this featherweight debut, as there’s no telling how the lifetime lightweight will look dropping down a division. Ige will also have the advantage on the ground should it go there, which is easier said than done given that Barboza has only struggled to stop shots from elite wrestlers.
What I do expect is for Ige to go the distance with Barboza here and put in a fine effort that falls short on the judges’ scorecards.
Congratulations Eryk Anders, you’re in the thick of the middleweight pack now, and breaking through means having to get past wily vets like Krzysztof Jotko.
With his long limbs, all-around game and durability, Jotko is one of the toughest outs at 185 pounds. He’s going to frustrate Anders with his ability to score from distance, and the ground exchanges could result in exhausting scrambles for both men. If neither finds a finish in round one, expect this to become a bit of a slog in the second half.
Given how athletic he is, it can be frustrating to watch how straightforward Anders is with his striking. He’s confident with his hands, but that only takes you so far once you start running into opponents with Jotko’s defensive capabilities. If Anders doesn’t pace himself, he’ll become vulnerable to body shots later in the fight that will only further sap his reserves.
Anders is always a threat to catch a slower opponent with that heavy left hand, he just hasn’t proven that he can land it consistently yet. I’m going with Jotko to win a decision.
Normally, I’d say this is too much too soon for a prospect like Song Yadong, who only turned 22 in December. But stylistically, this is a great matchup for him.
Song has proven to be a load on the feet. He’s light and springy, evasive when he needs to be, and a devastating puncher once he finds the range. There’s a lot of room for him to grow in the striking department, but what’s already there is scary.
He’s facing finisher of the highest order in Vera. All five of Vera’s past five wins have come by way of knockout or submission and he’s emerged victorious in a variety of ways, sometimes overwhelming his foes early and other times battling back from adversity with stunning ferocity. “Chito” does everything in his power to avoid the scorecards, which makes sense given that all five of his losses have come by way of decision.
I see Song becoming the sixth fighter to outpoint Vera. These two are going to brutalize each other for three rounds, and unless Vera can get close enough to trip Song to the ground where he’ll have a distinct advantage, it’s Song who should consistently beat Vera to the punch.
A close win against a dangerous fighter like Vera is exactly what Song needs to further his development.
Don’Tale Mayes def. Rodrigo Nascimento