While on paper, the two heavyweight contenders couldn’t be more different, they both find themselves facing a potential reality check at UFC Paris on Saturday: Is Gane a champion-in-waiting who simply faltered in his first shot at Francis Ngannou? Is Tuivasa a legitimate threat to win a UFC title or is he just on a thrilling win streak that is destined to end just short of its destination?
It’s unfair to both fighters to tie their future prospects so tightly to one fight, but given that we can expect Ngannou, Stipe Miocic, and yes, Jon Jones to factor into the title picture sooner rather than later — not to mention the perpetual chaos realm that is the heavyweight division — who’s to say how long it will take for either man’s contender reputation to be restored should they suffer a devastating loss?
The smart money is on Gane, but given how far Tuivasa has come since nearly being tossed aside as a never-was, few things would be more MMA than Tuivasa finding a way to take Gane out in front of a crowd of screaming Parisians.
In other main card action, Robert Whittaker fights Marvin Vettori in a highly anticipated middleweight clash, slumping 185ers Alessio Di Chirico and Roman Kopylov seek a much-needed win, John Makdessi fights Nasrat Haqparast in a lightweight matchup with a sprinkling of bad blood, featherweights William Gomis and Jarno Errens make their UFC debuts, and Charles Jourdain and Nathaniel Wood both make quick turnarounds as they navigate the perilous featherweight division.
What: UFC Paris
Where: Accor Arena in Paris
Ciryl Gane (3) vs. Tai Tuivasa (5)
Your boy has been pushing the “Tai Tuivasa is a REAL contender” wagon for a while now and there’s no way I’m stopping now. This is it. This is the ultimate test of whether or not the power of punching and positive thinking can take you all the way to a title shot.
Tuivasa isn’t the same guy who was once on a three-fight losing streak and on the cusp of a release. He’s legitimately become more focused and disciplined and that’s evident in his results. I know it sounds somewhat condescending to say that Tuivasa got better just because he started making an honest effort, but when you’re talking about a fighter with his talent, that can make all the difference.
That said, even the best version of Tuivasa might not be enough to get past Ciryl Gane. Sure, Gane fell short in his quest of becoming the undisputed heavyweight champion (for now), but he’s still arguably the best athlete in the division and a fantastic technical striker with underrated power. He should win this fight. I get it.
Still, I’m picking Tuivasa. It’s not just that he could score a knockout at any moment (though that’s a huge factor), it’s that he genuinely believes he can. This is my theory for what went wrong with guys like Derrick Lewis and Jairzinho Rozenstruik when they fought Gane. I don’t think they believed they could knock him out. So they froze. Tuivasa won’t freeze. He might get rocked or *gasp* submitted, but he won’t freeze.
Or at least it won’t take him long to thaw. I’m predicting that Tuivasa struggles to come up with a strategy to score against Gane in the first round, then just goes bananas in Round 2 and catches Gane for a knockout win.
Shoeys are gross, but Tuivasa will earn his on Saturday.
Robert Whittaker (2) vs. Marvin Vettori (3)
You thought one knockout pick at the top of the card was shocking? What do you think of Robert Whittaker becoming the first fighter to finish Marvin Vettori?
I understand Vettori has an unbreakable chin. We’re talking Drew Dober-quality iron here. I’ve just got this feeling that Whittaker is the one who can find the off-switch. “The Reaper” has never been known for just raw punching power, but rather his speed and precision, and those traits are what you need to put down a bigger guy. That’s exactly what Vettori is, which is what makes this fight so dangerous for Whittaker.
Because it could definitely go the other way. Vettori isn’t known for finishing with strikes, but he’s become increasingly confident on the feet during his time with the UFC and while he won’t win a pure striking battle, all it takes is one good shot from “The Italian Dream” to put Whittaker in trouble. Neither man is close to getting a third fight with Adesanya, so fans should look forward to this being a fun, loose, and occasionally wild banger.
I still expect Whittaker to pull it together and pull away in the third as he gets his combinations going and puts it on a wilting Vettori.
Whittaker by knockout in Round 3.
Alessio Di Chirico vs. Roman Kopylov
Some of you might be inclined to ask, what is this bout between two middleweights with a combined 4-8 UFC record doing on the main card when there’s a perfectly good middleweight bout between top 15-ranked Nassourdine Imavov and fan favorite Joaquin Buckley just sitting right there on the prelims? I don’t have a great answer for you.
What we do have here is a couple of fighters hungry for a win, which means they’ll either be inspired to put on a fiery performance to silence the doubters, or they’ll fight safe to preserve their jobs. The good news for fans hoping for the former is that Alessio Di Chirico has gotten over his inability to pull the trigger, for better or for worse. His more assertive style has resulted in two first-round head kick knockouts in his past two outings; unfortunately for him, he was on the receiving end in his most recent fight.
Can he put the pressure on Roman Kopylov? If so, this is easy work for Di Chirico. Kopylov just hasn’t shown the finishing ability that made him an intriguing signing in 2018. And when things start to go badly for him, they get worse in a hurry.
There’s reason to believe that the best is yet to come for Kopylov, but I’m skeptical that it happens in the UFC, so I have to lean towards Di Chirico here.
Pick: Di Chirico
John Makdessi vs. Nasrat Haqparast
This is a bounce-back opportunity for Nasrat Haqparast, but it could also be his last fight in the UFC if he’s not careful. He can’t let his emotions get the best of him here, because while Makdessi doesn’t fit the physical profile of Haqparast’s past two opponents (Bobby Green and Dan Hooker), he is a veteran striking specialist and Haqparast has had issues dealing with that type of challenge in the past.
What I like for Haqparast in this matchup is that he has a size advantage over Makdessi, which will make all the difference for the still-developing 27-year-old. Makdessi is a brilliant striker who has had the misfortune of being a tweener. He’s definitely on the short side for a lightweight, but way too thickly muscled to drop to 145. So Haqparast should get off to a quick start here and make things uncomfortable for Makdessi.
As long as Haqparast can keep Makdessi on the back foot, he can take control. The last thing he wants is to give Makdessi space and give him an opportunity to unleash his dazzling spinning attacks. I have Haqparast advancing intelligently and cutting off the cage en route to a decision nod.
William Gomis vs. Jarno Errens
Some of you might be inclined to ask, what is this bout between—you know what? We’ve done this dance already. Imavov and Buckley should be on the main card.
But since that’s not the case, let’s appreciate the opportunity being given to fresh faces William Gomis (a Frenchman who is sure to have a significant cheering section) and the Netherlands’ Jarno Errens. Based on their brief careers so far, there is potential for this to be an exciting striking battle, so it’s placement isn’t a complete mystery.
Both fighters are tall featherweights who use plenty of movement to set up their attacks. Gomis is more willing to mix it up inside, while Errens mixes bursts of aggression with prolonged periods of counter-striking. This should be a standup duel, but Errens has had issues with grappling defense and that could be an area that Gomis targets if just to change the pace.
Gomis’ more methodical style gives him the edge here as I don’t expect him to make the kind of mistake that Errens can capitalize on in any meaningful way, nor do I see Errens dictating the action. This one goes to Gomis on points.
Charles Jourdain vs. Nathaniel Wood
I like Nathaniel Wood at featherweight. I don’t like this matchup for him.
Charles Jourdain is more than just a striker, but when he focuses on that aspect of his game, few are better at 145 pounds. He’s a plus-athlete, he’s creative, and he knows how to pick his spots. On Wood’s side, he’s plenty athletic as well and he’s got a nasty streak that should make for a compelling contrast once he and Jourdain start exchanging. Wood has a diverse arsenal and loves to throw with volume and from unexpected angles.
That’s nothing Jourdain can’t handle. He’s super sharp from a technical standpoint and his striking defense is going to frustrate Wood. As that frustration builds, he’ll make more mistakes, and that will create openings for Jourdain to go to work. At the same time, Wood won’t go away easy, which is why this is an ideal main card starter and a front-runner to win the Fight of the Night award.
It wouldn’t surprise me if these two meet again somewhere down the road. But this first meeting belongs to Jourdain.
Nassourdine Imavov (14) def. Joaquin Buckley