Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is back on FOX Sports 1 this weekend, because fuck your plans, WE’RE GOING TO BOISE!!! That’s right my fellow mixed martial arts (MMA) fans, the combat sports-deprived community in Idaho is FINALLY getting some face-punching action on Saturday night (July 14, 2018) inside the one-and-only CenturyLink Arena.
I’m actually pretty interested in the heavyweight main event between Junior dos Santos and Blagoy Ivanov, as “Cigano” represents the last of the old guard, at least in terms of title contenders, and just when you think his goose is cooked, he comes back and surprises you. It also gives “Blaga” a chance to put the division on notice by proving he’s not just a regional can crusher.
Also in action is Sage Northcutt, who for some reason compels me to watch because I want to see him win by highlight-reel knockout, or tap to some one-arm choke that’s not even that tight. Is that weird? Oh! And we get Chad Mendes back (finally) to shake things up at featherweight, not long after Cat Zingano tries to prove she’s still got something left at 135 pounds.
Now then, let’s chop down the six-fight main card:
265 lbs.: Junior “Cigano” Dos Santos (18-5) vs. Blagoy “Blaga” Ivanov (16-1, 1 NC)
Junior dos Santos, at one time, was the most feared heavyweight in UFC and had that incredible run where he turned Shane Carwin into corned beef hash, then scored consecutive knockout wins over Cain Velasquez and Frank Mir. Then Velasquez got his revenge — twice — in a pair of fights that likely changed the Brazilian’s career. In fact, the second five-round massacre was so violent and so difficult to stomach, there were calls to have “Cigano’s” cornermen sent packing. Fortunately for Dos Santos, he was able to extend the lease on his combat sports life with a razor-thin decision win over the still-green Stipe Miocic back in 2014, and showed that he can still outbox middling journeymen in 2016. But getting dry cleaned by both Alistair Overeem and the reborn Miocic were enough to finally convince me that Dos Santos is just a shell of his former self.
He hasn’t won back-to-back fights in over six years.
We also have to wonder aloud about his recent run-in with United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). While I’m sympathetic to the cries of shady supplements, it’s a tough pill to swallow these days because USADA has been around for a couple of years now and no one should be able to plead ignorance. So that means something really unfortunate happened, or Dos Santos was trying to game the system and came up snake eyes on his last roll. I don’t mention it because I like to pile on, but it’s certainly relevant here, particularly if “Cigano” was being assisted by “supplements.” At age 34 and with the face of a catcher’s mitt, one thing we can say for sure is that Dos Santos can still box, has good cardio for a heavyweight, and remains dangerous until he’s face down on the mat, no matter how many times you tag him. I know I’m not alone when I say that zombie Dos Santos is fun to watch in spite of the guilt I feel knowing it’s going to cost him another round of brain cells.
This being a five-round fight is of little consequence to his opponent, Blagoy Ivanov, as the Bulgarian bruiser has already done 25 minutes in victory. That was against Josh Copeland under the now-defunct World Series of Fighting (WSOF) banner, which recently transmogrified into Professional Fighters League (PFL) because rich white guys with lots of money don’t seem to mind wasting it. Anyway, Ivanov was undefeated in five appearances for WSOF/PFL and also went 5-0 for Bellator MMA before running into Alexander Volkov in 2014. That loss becomes more forgivable now that “Drago” has proven to be a top-five heavyweight and let’s not forget that Ivanov dethroned Fedor Emelianenko back in their Sambo days circa 2008. He’s not going to get outgrappled by Dos Santos and he hits just as hard, but he will have to overcome a four-inch reach disadvantage.
This is a fight that Dos Santos should win. Unless he’s just completely gone, I can’t imagine the decade of experience he’s accumulated fighting the best in the world has just magically dissipated. “Cigano” has faced great grapplers, deadly strikers, and just about everything in between. His size advantage, coupled with his opportunity to take time off to rest his brain, leaves me feeling pretty optimistic about Saturday night’s performance. Unless Ivanov can get him tied up against the cage, where he can drop a few Bulgarian bombs and crumple the Brazilian, a fleet-footed Dos Santos should be able to box his way to a sweep on the judges’ scorecards, though I would caution that we may hear from the boo birds on more than one occasion during this fight.
Final prediction: Dos Santos def. Ivanov by unanimous decision
170 lbs.: “Super” Sage Northcutt (10-2) vs. Zak “The Barbarian” Ottow (16-5)
I’ve kind of been fascinated by the Sage Northcutt experiment ever since it got underway at UFC 192 back in 2015. Originally the “pretty boy who made Dana White shut up,” the bodybuilder masquerading as an MMA fighter has done pretty well for himself, racking up a 5-2 record at just 22 years old. Unfortunately, he’s gone to a decision in his last three wins and looked amateurish against the likes of Mickey Gall and Bryan Barberena. Part of his problem is that he’s never been able to settle on a weight class, oscillating between lightweight and welterweight, and his megalomaniacal father still calls all the shots in training. Not unusual for his age, but a handicap nonetheless.
His bread-and-butter is striking and always has been, but his natural athleticism has allowed him to be a pretty decent offensive wrestler, building on his mat work from high school. I’m less worried about his submission defense and more concerned about his panic button, which appears to get pressed like one of those Staples “That was easy!” toys from a few years back. On top of that, his decision wins over Michel Quinones and Thibault Gouti — the occasional flashy kick notwithstanding — were unspectacular in every way. Where are all the stoppages? Hard to explain how a guy starts his career with six-straight finishes then can’t seem to close the deal, and it’s not like he’s been fighting the top 10 of his division, so I have to wonder where his head is at.
Zak Ottow has been something of an enigma himself, at least in terms of finding his identity as a fighter. He had a pretty remarkable run on the regional circuit where he spent most of his time running the table at King of the Cage (KOTC). That trend appeared to continue when he graduated to UFC in late 2016, capturing a hard-fought decision win over the venerable Josh Burkman. Then came a ho-hum 2-2 run which not only resulted in another pair of split decisions, but also a knockout loss to Jingliang Li. While he rebounded from the fight with a finish of his own, I’m not sure how much stock I want to put into a victory over the 42 year-old Mike Pyle, who entered that fight on the heels of two consecutive knockout losses.
Ottow bills himself as a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, though he’s yet to register a submission in six trips to the Octagon. One of my concerns is that he’s co-owner of his own gym and may be the big fish in a little pond and I always approach with caution when fighters start making up their own forms of tap out, which in this case, is the “Ottowplata.” I guess that makes sense when you consider his favorite strike is the dart punch, also known as the cobra strike (and a few other things), but that’s primarily to set up his takedown because his stand-up attack is average, at best. If he strikes to throw hands or stay in the pocket against Northcutt, he’s going to be looking up at the lights. Ottow is going to need to get “Super” to the floor and when he does, exploit the gaping holes.
While I earlier complimented Northcutt for his offensive wrestling, his defensive wrestling is atrocious, having been taken down 13 times in seven UFC fights. That said, I think the best is yet to come for the blonde bomber because he’s just 22 and improving every fight. Conversely, we’ve already seen the best Ottow has to offer and I’m not expecting much different when the cage door closes in Boise. A fresher, stronger, and healthier Northcutt — no longer depleted to make 155 pounds — shucks off a couple of early takedowns and turns this into a three-round, lopsided sparring match.
Final prediction: Northcutt def. Ottow by unanimous decision
145 lbs.: Dennis “The Menace” Bermudez (16-8) vs. Rick “The Gladiator” Glenn (20-5-1)
Dennis Bermudez hasn’t really changed much in the seven years we’ve watched him compete since cutting his teeth on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 14. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because one thing you’re guaranteed from “The Menace” is nonstop action, regardless if it carries with it any elite-level technique. We know what to expect from Bermudez and so does his opponent, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stop. Aside from his punishing left hook, the 31 year-old New Yorker was ranked in the top 25 in NCAA Division-1 wrestling. He’s going to come after you, he’s going to tie you up, and he’s going to swing for the fences every second his arms are free. Keep your chess match, that shit is fun to watch, though it hasn’t really paid off in the win column. Bermudez is mired in a dreadful 0-3 stretch and needs get the ship righted sooner, rather than later.
I might have picked this fight differently a couple of years back as Rick Glenn entered the UFC on a torrid 11-1 streak dating back to summer 2011, which included a string of appearances for WSOF. “The Gladiator” was known as a prolific finisher on the regional circuit, racking up an impressive 15 stoppages in 18 wins. I’m not sure what happened after hooking up with UFC just under two years back, but he’s been unable to close the deal in four trips to the Octagon. The result is a tepid 2-2 record, including last December’s unanimous decision loss to Myles Jury. Was the jump in competition that much greater? Jury was his only opponent who’s currently ranked in the top 15, so I’m not sure if he’s fighting not to lose or just having trouble pulling the trigger. Glenn doesn’t have a foundation in an existing discipline and simply went from his couch to the gym, which makes his record all the more impressive.
By that same token, he seems to have stalled since becoming a UFC fighter and that’s really not where you want to be against a lunatic like Bermudez. Glenn owns a brown belt in jiu-jitsu and has some sneaky leg locks, but when was the last time you saw “The Menace” hanging around long enough to slap one on? Glenn calls himself “The Gladiator” and that moniker will be put to the test in Boise. Without some exceptional skill set to make him a clear-cut favorite anywhere this fight goes, I’m not sure his significant height and reach advantage will be sufficient — or utilized quickly enough — to repel the sustained blitzkrieg.
Final prediction: Bermudez def. Glenn by technical knockout
170 lbs.: Randy “Rude Boy” Brown (10-2) vs. Niko “The Hybrid” Price (11-1, 1 NC)
One of the things that I liked the most about Randy Brown’s victory over Mickey Gall is that it showed us he fights with confidence and a strong mind. Prior to their UFC 217 showdown, Brown laid out exactly what he was going to do, as well as the areas that Gall was weak in, then went out and hit all his marks, walking forward and aggressively pushing the action. It was also an important performance because it immediately followed his unanimous decision loss to Belal Muhammed at UFC 208, which did raise some questions about Brown’s place in the 170-pound division. At 28, “Rude Boy” is in his athletic prime and this is probably the best time for him to put something together and try to crack into the Top 15.
The same can be said for Niko Price, who looks every bit of his “Hybrid” nickname, but can’t seem to stay consistent. He entered UFC after racking up a perfect 8-0 record on the regional circuit, then promptly ended the hype train of Brandon Thatch — while announcing himself in the process. What followed was three straight knockout finishes, but his stoppage over Alex Morono got overturned when Price flunked his UFC Fight Night 104 drug test (marijuana). From that point, Price put together a 1-1 record that included a submission loss to the venerable Vincente Luque. Like his opponent, the former American Top Team (ATT) product is a true mixed martial artist; meaning, he did not come from a competitive sports background and thus trained every discipline from day one. The results speak for themselves.
Brown holds an advantage in both height (3”) and reach (2”) and if he plans to win this fight he’s going to need to use them. Both fighters match up well in every department: good wrestling, competent striking, and cardio for days. Where Price has the advantage is in his fluidity. He’s a much more creative striker and his attacks are difficult to prepare for. Expect a competitive three rounds that has Price come out on top, simply because Brown will get frustrated trying to “fight his fight” without “The Hybrid” sticking to the script.
Final prediction: Price def. Brown by unanimous decision
145 lbs.: Chad “Money” Mendes (17-4) vs. Myles “Fury” Jury (17-2)
It’s been over two years since we last saw Chad Mendes inside the Octagon and considering the kind of slump he was in — back-to-back knockout losses — he was probably glad to get the time off to rest his brain. “Money” was popped by USADA back in July 2016 for using skin cream that contained growth hormone and to his credit, he owned his mistake and took his punishment with little fanfare.
Prior to his hiccups against Conor McGregor and Frankie Edgar, Mendes terrorized the featherweight division with a punishing wrestling attack and legitimate knockout power in his hands. You can see just how far his striking came by hearkening back to his Jose Aldo rematch in the UFC 179 main event, which we can attribute to the coaching of Duane Ludwig back when “Bang” was still employed by Team Alpha Male (TAM). Those days are over and I don’t expect Mendes to be the same striker when he steps into the cage on Saturday night.
Fortunately, he doesn’t need to be. Let’s overcompensate and assume the 33 year-old Mendes has regressed all the way back to his first Jose Aldo fight, which he earned by winning 11 straight fights, seven of them by decision. He would still be the kind of wrestler who can blast through just about any defense, including the one presented by opponent Myles Jury, because that is something he’s been doing his entire life and it’s basically in his DNA at this point.
Jury is a former lightweight wunderkind who first made his mark on TUF 13, which he abandoned after suffering a mid-season injury. Upon his return he continued his winning ways, racking up six straight wins before getting emasculated by Donald Cerrone at UFC 182. That prompted a drop to featherweight and Charles Oliveira gave him the rudest of welcomes, though undeterred, he hung around and rebounded with consecutive wins over Mike de la Torre and Rick Glenn, two unranked fighters who are just kinda “there.”
One of my biggest complaints about Jury is how poorly his resume holds up over time. The best thing he has going for him is his 17-2 mark, but there isn’t a single fighter on his record who’s currently ranked in the top 15. As for his skill set, he’s good at just about everything but great at almost nothing. His biggest asset is his wrestling, scoring takedowns in just about every fight. That’s not going to work against a bigger, stronger wrestler and he doesn’t have the kind of power Conor McGregor did that made “Money” too timid to set up his shots. Unless something crazy happens, I expect Mendes to dump-and-hump his way to the cards, largely uncontested.
Final prediction: Mendes def. Jury by unanimous decision
135 lbs.: Cat “Alpha” Zingano (9-3) vs. Marion “The Bruiser” Reneau (9-3-1)
I kinda get the feeling that UFC matchmakers are slowly working their way down the women’s bantamweight ladder in the hopes they’ll eventually find someone who Cat Zingano can beat. I understand it’s hard to let go of what could be one of the last of the old guard and let’s face it, there aren’t a whole lot of fighters with knockout wins over reigning champion Amanda Nunes and “Alpha” is one of them.
That earned her a spot against then-champion Ronda Rousey where she was summarily booted from the UFC 184 main event. She attempted to rebound the following year at UFC 200, but ran into a fighter in Julianna Pena who can do hustle-and-muscle better than Zingano can, probably because “The Venezuelan Vixen” is eight years her junior.
I mention the age because at 36, it’s a factor, and that showed against Ketlen Vieira back in March. You can argue that her two-year layoff was also a factor, but Zingano’s bulldozer style is built on pressure, not finesse, and that sort of thing is not easily eroded as say, the striking mechanics of someone elite like Conor McGregor.
So, with that in mind, UFC did the only thing it could and found someone even older than Zingano, though I’m not sure the 41 year-old Reneau is necessarily a downgrade in competition. “The Bruiser” has won two straight and three of her last four, with a majority draw to Bethe Correia sandwiched somewhere in the middle. She’s also fought some of the best in the world, including one former UFC champion and two former title contenders, and finished eight of her nine wins. For my money, Reneau should be ranked ahead of Zingano, who’s the loser of three straight, and not behind her.
Zingano has done some pretty remarkable things in her UFC career and it’s hard to pick against her in this fight. But Reneau is a jiu-jitsu black belt under Cleber Luciano and trains Muay Thai under Rafael Cordeiro. She’s able to perform at this level despite her advanced age simply because she’s that damn good. So too, is Zingano, but also a little more shopworn. Expect a competitive first round but the tide is likely to change midway through the fight and eventually Reneau is going to take over. “The Bruiser” — who got her nickname by bruising testicles in training — has a ton of momentum and more importantly, more tools to fall back on when it counts.
Final prediction: Reneau def. Zingano by decision
There you have it.