MMA maths can be a tricky thing. While it can be fun to speculate how one fighter might match up with another, the fact of the matter is that you never know how a fight, or even a whole card is actually going to turn out. The much hyped UFC 200 didn’t seem to live up to expectations, while the unheralded Fight Night Card in Sioux Falls blew away anyone who bothered to watch it.
In reality MMA maths is less like addition and subtraction and more like Schrodinger’s Cat: the styles of the two opponents could cause the fight to go one way, or it could send the fight in a completely different direction. Until the fight happens we have to admit that we don’t know which way the fight will actually go, and by that logic (if you’re a physicist) the fight goes every way you can imagine, both good and bad, until we open up the box and the fight happens, when we are left with the one true answer of how the fight would turn out.
We all remember the avalanche of speculation over last years “Aldo’s leg kick vs McGregor’s left straight” debate that had half the people saying that because McGregor was a southpaw, he was wide open for Aldo’s patented leg kicks, while the other half argued that Aldo’s penchant for the kicks would leave him open to a counter left that would turn his lights out. That fight perfectly illustrates that even if you have an idea of what the two participants in a fight are likely to attempt to do, sometimes you don’t know how these two things will play off each other. The idea that people have “A level striking” or “B rated takedown defense” is nonsense: It is how they work against the specific opponent that counts, and that depends on what their opponent is doing. Aldo didn’t even get one of his leg kicks off before he rushed headlong into a right hand/left hook combo that saw him get caught clean on the chin by McGregor’s killshot and that was that.
Sometimes crazy things happen, sometimes people forget to fight to their gameplans and let emotions get the run of them, sometimes they have an off night, and sometimes they do things that are just plain stupid. That is the reason why we make sure to actually have the fights before we announce a winner. Even if all potential roads lead to one outcome, come fight night you always have the chance of seeing an upset due to good old human error.
Holm/Shevchenko is the perfect example of a card which could be great, but it could just as easily be a snooze fest. On one hand the card has a nice smattering of intriguing matchups, finish friendly fights and potential contender building fights, with a nice mix of up and coming talent with well known veterans and a few new comers to boot. Some of the talent on the card has the potential to shine brightly in the afterglow of what has been a massive month for the UFC.
On the other hand, every single fight on this card could just as easily turn in to a grinding, slogging, upset-the-odds mess that could make this one of the most forgettable cards of the year, and it is this weird dichotomy that has drawn me to this event. Its like watching a dare devil walking a tightrope: if there was no danger, you wouldn’t watch, but the possibility of succeeding in the face of that danger makes it all the more fascinating to see if he can pull it off. If this card works, it’s really going to work. Without further preamble, lets take a look at what to watch for on this card.
Holly Holm/Valentina Shevchenko:
On the good side, this fight should be a gimme fight for Holm. She is a striker who’s last loss can be ascribed specifically to her deficiencies on the ground in her 5th round submission loss to Miesha Tate. She is being matched up with a striker in Shevchenko who is coming off a loss to the much less technically sound striker Amanda Nunes and who seemed in that fight to be a little undersized (her claim to fame before her UFC run was that she holds a win in Muay Thai over the 115 pound champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk). Holm will not be taken down and will be allowed to ply her much vaunted boxing game without fearing the takedown, which would lead her back to a rematch with Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate, or a title fight with Amanda Nunes, all of which are fights where the pundits would favour Holm.
The problem with this is that Valentina Shevchenko is a patient counter striker who has strong clinch work and a good gas tank. Holly Holm has done her best work on the counter, and her worst performances have come against people who have refused to engage and made her come to them, and those performances were against much less accomplished strikers than Shevchenko.
When two counter strikers meet, the results are often boring staring matches where both fighters wait for the other to throw the first strike so that they can counter them. I cannot see anyone shooting double legs out in the open in this fight, but a grinding clinch up against the fence is certainly on the cards, and while Holm showed herself to be adept in the clinch against Ronda Rousey by denying her the opportunity to throw her, defending strikes and defending takedowns are two very different things, in fact doing one thing opens you up to the other. Shevchenko prefers to striker from the clinch and she may look to put the much larger and longer Holm on the fence and grind her out.
In terms of the striking game Shevchenko is very similar to Holm in that she loves to counter with the left straight or the right hook and lead with the 1-2, punctuating this with front kicks, leg kicks, and spinning back fists/kicks, while Holm either counters or leads, Shevchenko does a bit of both. When she is leading she is constantly looking for her opponent to counter her first shot, at which point she will lean back, out of the way of their incoming strike, and land her right hook. This is exactly the kind of striking that could cause problems for Holm, drawing the counter and then countering that.
Holm is capable of forcing Shevchenko in to a defensive shell with her volume and if there is a fatal flaw in Shevchenko’s style, it is that much like Jorge Masvidal, she is too happy to simply avoid damage even when that doesn’t actually win the fight. Holm as a boxer was all about volume and pace, so it is possible that she may use this to overwhelm Shevchenko, and Shevchenko’s style of drawing the counter and heavy clinch striking certainly have the opportunity to derail Holm’s comeback, so there is definitely a chance for a great fight here, but if both decide to sit back and wait for the other to make the first move, this could be a very boring fight.
Edson Barboza Versus Gilbert Melendez:
This is a really meaningful fight in the lightweight division. Striking dynamo Barboza is looking to build off the biggest win of his career against the former champ Anthony Pettis, while Melendez is looking to rebound from the first back to back losses of his career, against Pettis and a split decision loss to the current champ Eddie Alvarez. These men are both at the top of the division, but while Barboza finally seems to be hitting his stride, Melendez has been at the top for the better part of a decade and at 34 he definitely isn’t a young gun anymore. That being said the elbows he added to his arsenal in the bout with Alvarez showed that even at this late stage, an old dog can still learn new tricks.
The two things to watch for in this fight are Melendez’s takedowns and Barboza’s counter left hook. Melendez’s strength has always been his viscous ground and pound, but somewhere along the way he decided he was a top rated striker. On the feet Melendez lacks the clever set ups or feints of a truly nuanced striker, he doesn’t double up and his feet aren’t particularly educated either. What Melendez has is big power in his right hand and a basic understanding of boxing, by which I mean he can throw a 1-2 and an uppercut and that’s about it. That same power is much better put to use when he is on top of his opponents, and they don’t get the opportunity to hit him back.
Barboza meanwhile is a truly gifted striker. Coming from Nova Unaio to train with Mark Henry, Frankie Edgar’s Coach, Barboza has had some of the best Muay Thai and Boxing coaching MMA has to offer, and it shows. His kicks are ferociously fast, and he likes to throw all lead leg kicks with a switch. While some would consider this a tell, Barboza uses it to mask his destination, as the head, body and leg cannot be defended at the same time without taking yourself well out of position, and Barboza like any good kicker uses this to his advantage, working a few shots to the body before taking one to the legs as his opponent braces for a body shot or vice versa.
What may make the difference in this fight is a weapon that Barboza displayed beautifully in his latest fight with Pettis, the counter left hook. As a right handed brawler, Melendez loves to initiate wild exchanges (watch his fight with Diego Sanchez for a 3 round example of this) and use his left hand to cover up/ reset his position while his right hand lobs power shots to his opponents chin. While this works great against fighters like Sanchez, it leaves his chin right out there for the left hook. Melendez has always been slow to recover his right hand and it was in situations after Pettis threw his right hand that Barboza marked him up with his sharp left hook, using it to encourage Pettis to stay at distance where he could get eaten alive by Barboza’s kicks.
This fight is going to come down to Melendez’s approach and how much he has left in the tank after fighting at the top for so long. He is reaching the end of his career and his UFC record currently stands at a criminal 1-3, possibly the worst run of a world class fighter in the UFC since Wanderlei Silva. If he comes out to wrestle, like he did against Pettis, he might be able to drag Barboza down (a big if) and grind him out in an unexciting affair. If he comes to fight, as he always does, he either catches Barboza’s famously suspect chin early, or more likely gets battered with left hooks and chewed up with kicks on the outside. Either one of those results is bound to produce a more exciting fight than using his wrestling pedigree, but it also is the path that offers Melendez the slimmest chance of success, and if Barboza wins don’t expect it to be too long until he is up there with Khabib Nurmagomehdov and Tony Ferguson asking for his title shot.
Francis Ngannou Versus Bojan Mihajlović:
Francis Ngannou is poised to become the new thing in the heavyweight division. At 2-0 in the UFC currently, Ngannou has scored one impressive knockout and one doctors stoppage that most people weren’t even mad about, which when you think about it might actually be more impressive than the knockout.
He is tall, long, and knows how to throw his hands. His mixing of the uppercut into combinations seems to be his favorite trick to pull out, and with his height that’s hardly surprising, but unlike other heavyweights (and a lot of other fighters in lower divisions too) he actually seems to understand when to throw it and when to use straight shots. If he keeps piling up the knockouts he could well find himself in the top 15 by next year, and it’s been a long time since we’ve had anyone new in the heavyweight division, so we should be excited by this.
The UFC apparently is, because they’ve matched him up with UFC newcomer Bojan Mihajlović, who is 5 inches shorter, 15 pounds lighter, and from what I could find on him seems to duck his head and swing wild every time he wants to punch, or stand outside and look to catch jabs and swing big overhand rights in over the odd leg kick. What the UFC and Ngannou are undoubtedly hoping to avoid is the ground game of Mihajlović, who seems quiet adept at securing double underhooks in the clinch and wrapping a leg around his opponents’ to drag them down, where he sits on them and works them over Jon Fitch style, holding and hitting without power to stop the referee standing him up while not really doing any damage until he gets to mount, where he really begins to unleash the punishment.
His top control isn’t great but Ngannou has showed in his UFC debut a habit of getting stuck on bottom and it definitely tires him much more than the striking realm does. At just 29 he is practically still a child for a heavyweight and with only 8 pro fights he is obviously still learning so it remains to be seen how much he can do to shore up his ground game before he steps in with Mihajlović, who seems an almost tailor to provide a knockout on the feet, but nevertheless is a grinding, tiring, non-fan-friendly nightmare if the fight hits the floor.
The Prelims on this card are packed with a few interesting matchups to draw in the fight fans, and a few stand out as ones you will want to keep an eye on as the night progresses.
Eddie Wineland has always had an interesting style of fighting, with his hands down by his side, his chin up in the air, and his feet constantly in motion. His ability to keep himself so open and yet avoid a lot of damage thrown his way is by virtue of his underrated footwork, and when he’s on he can place 2/3 strike combinations like few others. What he brings beyond this is a lot of feints and some serious knockout power. His fight with Scott Jorgenson is a perfect example of all things Eddie Wineland, lots of feints, lots of movement, and a beautiful knockout.
While he hasn’t fought well in his last two fights and he may be past his best, he is still worth watching simply for the uniqueness of his style and the chance that he might put those heavy hands or dancers feet to work against Frankie Saenz, who at 35 and still a relative unknown is looking to add Wineland’s accredited head to his mantelpiece.
The rest of this card has some things worth mentioning, Godofredo Pepey is bound to try something crazy (and probably flying) in his fight with Darren Elkins because, well that’s what Godofredo Pepey does. James Moontasri and Alex Oliveira are bound to put on an entertaining scrap, as are Felice Herrig and Kailin Curran, and you can expect a solid performance from Kamar Usman.
This has the potential to be a great night of fights, but just as easily could end up as a dud, and I think most people are writing it off as such. It is true that the star power of a UFC 200 isn’t there, and neither are the knockout friendly matchups like MacDonald/Lineker that were on the Sioux Falls card, but don’t let that discourage you. As I said at the start of this article, you don’t know how a fight card will turn out until it happens, and the only way you’ll know for sure how any of these fights play out is to tune in and watch.