The main reason I’m writing this preview is that I’m really excited to talk about the JDS-Hunt fight (We’ve secured a visa for Mark! Hallelujah!), as well as the return of Cain Velasquez. As I started really studying these prelims, though, something stuck out to me, and that is this: I think most, if not all, of these fights are going to end in highlight reel fashion. You have the return of Jeremy Stephens, who will surely be aggressive and surly coming off of his first career knockout loss. You have Stephen “Wonderbread” Thompson fighting for the first time in forever against a greenhorn from Philly who passes the “I wouldn’t want to meet this guy in a dark alley” test. You have George Roop, who never met an overhand right he didn’t try to eagerly run face first into. You even have Dennis Bermudez making his return, even though he should have retired after his fight with Matt Grice. How could you possibly top that? I’ll shut up now and get to my breakdown, but we’d better have plenty of doctors and maybe even a priest on hand for this collection of fights, just in case.
Jeremy Stephens vs. Estevan Payan
If “Estevan Payan” sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because of this:
And if not, well, you’re welcome. What’s strange is that, when this fight was announced, I immediately remembered Payan as the guy who KO’d Reyes with the spinning backfist, not the other way around. History isn’t about what happened; it’s about what we THINK happened. Maybe I just subconsciously thought “There’s no way the UFC would sign the guy that face planted like that.”
Speaking of face planting, UFC mainstay Jeremy Stephens is coming off of his first career knockout loss, which came at the hands of Yves Edwards. Stephens got into one of his wild and wooly exchanges, and Edwards dropped him with superior speed. What was strange is that usually Stephens has an admirable chin, and Edwards just lambasted him. Is this a sign that Stephens is becoming shopworn? Possibly. But I don’t see him having too much trouble with Payan, who should serve as adequate cannon fodder for the right hand of Stephens. Jeremy by knockout.
Brian Bowles vs. George Roop
Brian Bowles is one of those guys that can do it all. Good wrestler, good hands, early ’60s Beatles haircut. Everything. The problem is that he fights so seldom that every time he gets a fight announced, I think “Brian Bowles is still fighting? I had no idea!”
This dude is just woefully inactive. At 32 years old with only 12 professional fights, you have to think that he’ll only be fighting for a limited amount of time, and it’ll be a bummer to have to see him waste one of the fights in a promising career against a human scarecrow in George Roop.
Look, I can appreciate the things that Roop brings to the table, but this is one of those fights that I can already see in my mind’s eye. Roop will leave his head straight up in the air like he always does, Bowles will close the distance and land an overhand right, and that’ll be the end of it. Roop just isn’t good enough. Bowles by knockout.
Dennis Bermudez vs. Max Holloway
Bermudez returns to the octagon coming off a victory in a fight that, to me, was the fight of the year so far. Dennis and Matt Grice just beat the tar out of each other. One of my biggest mistakes this year was deleting that fight from my DVR after only two viewings. I could have (and should have) gone for about five more.
Anyway, he takes on Max Holloway, who is coming off of a narrow decision victory over Leonard Garcia.
This fight is black and white. If Bermudez wants to stand and trade, he’s going to put himself in peril. Both men have dangerous hands, but Holloway’s are a bit more polished, and to say his striking defense is better would be an understatement. If Bermudez comes in wanting to grapple, he significantly increases his chances of success. Holloway’s takedown defense has improved, but once he’s on his back, he’s still at a disadvantage against much of the featherweight division.
Bermudez is the more well rounded fighter, but he’s also the guy who is more likely to get into unruly firefights. His heart cannot be denied, as he made a spirited third round comeback against Matt Grice after being batted around the octagon for two rounds, but I think Max Holloway puts his hands on him here and either TKO’s him or cruises on points. Holloway by decision in a back and forth one.
Colton Smith vs. Robert Whittaker
I’m sorry, but I can’t even pretend to be psyched about these dudes fighting each other. Robert Whittaker is solid, but Brad Scott made him look like a god amongst men. Those are the kind of things that happen on TUF Finale cards. Colton Smith is an awful striker, and his name is Colton. Whittaker by decision.
Nah-Shon Burrell vs. Stephen Thompson
The snooty bad guy from every eighties teen movie gets his third go round in the UFC, this time with rough and raw Philly product Nah-Shon Burrell. This fight is a true clash. Thompson has fought a million karate matches and has been a martial artist his whole life. Burrell is just a naturally gifted fighter from Philadelphia who probably has lots of fights that will never show up in the Fight Finder, for obvious reasons.
Burrell is still pretty green, but he could absolutely rock Thompson’s world with his boxing. I see Thompson getting back on track here, though, as he ran into real trouble when Matt Brown took him to the ground and started throttling him with strikes. Burrell is less likely to employ that kind of strategy. Thompson will land a few flashy strikes, and might have his chin tested, but will ultimately put Burrell away with punches in the second round.
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Abel Trujillo
It’s time for people to start paying attention to Nurmagomedov. Those elbows he used to put away Thiago Tavares in January were downright evil, and it’s not like they were big winging bombs. They were just downward shots that were deadly accurate, and no steroid on the planet was going to help Tavares beat Khabib that night. On top of his cold blooded ground and pound, Khabib excels in both wrestling and the clinch game. He’s improving each time out, he’s undefeated at 19-0, and he’s only 24 years old.
Abel Trujillo, on the other hand, was the beneficiary of a late replacement opponent in his UFC debut. Not only that, but his replacement opponent was Marcus LeVesseur, who happens to be a bit of a softy. Don’t get me wrong; Trujillo absolutely lit up LeVesseur, dropping him in a punching exchange and savaging him to the body the entire fight, as Marcus fished for takedowns that never came. It’d be hard to imagine a better debut. I just see Trujillo as being a tier or two below Khabib.
A finish seems probable here, and it will come by way of a submission by Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Mike Pyle vs. Rick Story
I know Rick Story is coming in as a late replacement, but these are two guys that are heading in opposite directions. Mike Pyle has inexplicably reinvented himself as an excellent striker at the ripe old age of 37, while Rick Story has perfected his “run at guys recklessly with hopes that I can bully them, and if I can’t, I’m screwed” strategy to a tee.
I also know Story is coming off a win, but he hasn’t made any tangible improvements in his game in quite some time, and he isn’t exactly well rounded. What Demian Maia was able to do to his face was mind-boggling. Blood flew out of his nose like those blue paint packets they put in bank vault money bags.
This fight will inevitably end up on he ground, where Pyle’s gangly and experienced submission game should carry him to a tapout victory midway through the fight. If blood cartoonishly flies out of Story again, consider that a bonus. Story is still dangerous if he starts winging bombs, but give me Pyle by triangle.