It was touch and go there for a while, but ladies and gentleman, we have ourselves a fight card.
That may be damning UFC Vegas 26 with faint praise, but it is impressive that we have ourselves a respectable lineup on Saturday despite the top two fights not even being set as of six days ago.
When an injury to T.J. Dillashaw forced him to withdraw from his highly anticipated return to action against top bantamweight contender Cory Sandhagen, strawweights Marina Rodriguez and Michelle Waterson were immediately targeted to take their main event spot. However, that matchup wasn’t officially announced until Monday, and for one reason or another the UFC was hesitant to commit to bumping up one of the existing fights into the headlining spot.
Fortunately for the matchmakers, everything worked out and now Rodriguez and Waterson have themselves a main event booking, and they wisely agreed to make it a 125-pound affair. It’s essentially a strawweight bout without a weight cut and the winner keeps themselves in the conversation for a title shot in a division that just saw a shakeup at the top.
There’s at least one thing that went right for UFC Vegas 26, because so much else hasn’t. Aside from losing Dillashaw-Sandhagen, a legacy fight between Donald Cerrone and Diego Sanchez was also spoiled by the ongoing Joshua Fabia debacle that has consumed Sanchez’s life and contributed to his release from the UFC, plus two more preliminary bouts were cancelled Friday morning.
We’re left with a main card featuring “Cowboy” taking on short-notice replacement Alex Morono, the epic “Neil on Neal” matchup between welterweights Neil Magny and Geoff Neal, a heavyweight clash between Maurice Greene and Marcos Rogerio de Lima, the return of Gregor Gillespie against Diego Ferreira, and another pivotal strawweight bout between Amanda Ribas and Angela Hill.
What: UFC Vegas 26
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
Don’t you love it when matchups come full circle?
It was Marina Rodriguez who got the call to replace Michelle Waterson at UFC 257, where she defeated Amanda Ribas by TKO to continue her climb up the strawweight ladder. The opportunity kept her ahead of Waterson in the rankings, and now Waterson gets her chance to take Rodriguez’s spot, while Ribas faces Angela Hill—who Waterson beat last September—elsewhere on the main card. Matchmaking!
Not that Waterson needs any extra motivation to beat Rodriguez. It’s Mother’s Day weekend, and the former Invicta atomweight champion is still aiming to become a UFC “Mom Champ.” To do so, she has to get past Rodriguez, who’s proven to be a tough out in all six of her UFC appearances thus far. Don’t let Rodriguez’s modest 3-1-2 record inside the octagon fool you, she’s faced nothing but legitimate competition and taken each of those opponents to the limit.
Rodriguez’s win over Ribas felt like a breakthrough and while Waterson shouldn’t be counted out of any striking matchup, I give the rangy Rodriguez the edge there. Where Waterson could find success is with her oft-overlooked grappling and submission game, but even then, Rodriguez has good wrestling defense, so she should be able to force Waterson to waste energy on ineffective takedown attempts.
Size matters and there’s just going to be too many instances where Waterson either fails to get past Rodriguez’s reach or has to take damage to close the distance. She’ll give as good as she gets, it’s just that Rodriguez should be the one dishing out the punishment more often than not.
Rodriguez wins a competitive decision.
It’s not his old pal Diego Sanchez, but Donald Cerrone shouldn’t be too disappointed with having to fight Alex Morono.
“The Great White” is exactly the kind of opponent that Cerrone made his name off of in the past, a hard-headed scrapper with a deep gas tank that will bring out the best of Cerrone as the fight goes on. But is that version of Cerrone still in there or has Father Time finally caught up to him?
Morono doesn’t always bring the prettiest approach to the octagon, but he’s effective and entertaining. He’ll welcome a brawl with Cerrone and if he’s feeling rambunctious, might even take the fight to the veteran early to take advantage of Cerrone’s infamously slow starts. Morono is no Conor McGregor or Justin Gaethje, but he has enough pop to potentially end this one early.
Once Cerrone gets going though, this is his fight to lose. He’s more experienced, more well-rounded, and even having recently turned 38, still has a competitive fire that few can match. Technically speaking, he’s also the better striker, which is really the most important factor here.
Cerrone by decision.
Neil. On. Neal.
That’s right, it’s finally time for the battle for Neil/Neal supremacy, with the winner—according to our own Jose Youngs—having to change the spelling of their name to match their opponent’s. The stakes could not be higher.
Okay, maybe that’s just all in our heads and in reality this is a compelling matchup between two talented welterweights. Neil Magny, seeking to scratch and claw his way past his perpetual gatekeeper status; Geoff Neal, seeking to rebound from his first UFC loss, a humbling defeat to the mystifying Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson.
Much like with the co-main event, I’m going with Magny due to his high-level experience. He also has a significant reach advantage over Neal and unlike some fighters with his physical gifts, Magny has proven he knows how to make the most of his length. It will be key for him to control the distance early on, lest he be overwhelmed by the harder-hitting Neal.
Magny has dealt with KO artists before, usually by outlasting them, and that should be the case again Saturday. A fiery Neal will be a constant threat and will probably even sting Magny a couple of times, but Magny can take a licking. Eventually, he’ll mix in some well-timed takedowns with his range striking and put Neal away late in the fight with ground-and-pound or a choke.
Long live the one true Neil.
Where do we begin with this heavyweight oddity?
Even before we lost the Ben Rothwell-Philipe Lins matchup (tears), I’m not exactly sure why this heavyweight matchup was put on the main card instead. Perhaps they wanted to boost the prelims, but Rothwell and Lins deserved to be on ESPN proper, with respect to Maurice Greene and Marcos Rogerio de Lima.
These two are just so inconsistent and it’s difficult to predict whether we’ll get a compelling contest between talented big men or a potential snoozer. If I knew I was getting the best version of both fighters, I’d easily pick de Lima, but he’s let me down before.
My gut is telling me to go with Greene, a tall heavyweight who has yet to consistently show his kickboxing skills inside the octagon, though some of that has to do with the fact that he’s got a slick submission game as well. As long as he doesn’t mess around, Greene has a good chance for the upset here.
But the same could be said of de Lima, who’s due for a win if you believe in that sort of thing. “Pezao” has alternated wins and losses in his previous 10 (!) fights and guess what? He’s coming off of a loss. So I’m taking the easy way out here and predicting that the trend continues, with de Lima shaking off a bad start to take this fight to the ground and submit Greene in round two.
Pick: De Lima
Gregor Gillespie is a supreme wrestler, but there’s a couple of things working against him in this one.
First, he’s facing Diego Ferreira, one of the most versatile lightweights in the UFC. Second, he’s dealing with a Ferreira who egregiously missed weight for this contest by over four pounds. I was already planning to pick Ferreira before his weigh-in gaffe, now I’m even more confident that he spoils Gillespie’s return to action.
Look at Ferreira’s resume. He knows how to deal with wrestlers. Admittedly, the top pressure of Gillespie is something else, but I’d argue that Gillespie has yet to face anyone with Ferreira’s submission skills. Ferreira has also taken a liking to striking as his career has progressed and Gillespie is still somewhat of a question mark when it comes to the standup game.
It’s a shame that Gillespie’s originally scheduled comeback fight in March against Brad Riddell fell through because that was a more favorable matchup. As it is, it’s been over 530 days since Gillespie’s most recent fight and he’s going to have to wait even longer to get back in the win column.
This fight will go a long way towards determining whether Amanda Ribas really is on the cusp of stardom or if she needs more seasoning before being considered a serious contender at 115 pounds.
Ribas separated herself from the middle of the pack with wins over Paige VanZant, Randa Markos, and Mackenzie Dern, and now she has to show that she belongs in the top-10. A veteran like Angela Hill is just what the she needs to make that statement.
“Overkill” will bring the heat to Ribas from the opening bell. Hill has matured a lot since her days as the most green cast member of The Ultimate Fighter 20, building upon her already strong striking base and becoming better defensively. This evolution is what has made her one of the most consistent fighters in the strawweight division. And that consistency could be what carries her to a win on Saturday.
We know Ribas is capable of incredible flashes of offense. She loves getting in her opponent’s face, throwing punches and knees in close, and taking the fight to the ground where she can take advantage of her top-notch jiu-jitsu. What we don’t know is whether her getting caught by Marina Rodriguez in her most recent fight was a fluke or perhaps a sign that she still has significant weakness that need to be addressed.
I think it’s the latter, or at least I see the weaknesses she has as being exploitable by seasoned competitors like Hill. Hill has reached the point where I don’t feel comfortable picking against her unless it’s against a more established name and while Ribas is on her way to becoming one, I don’t think she gets past Hill just yet.