The final UFC card of the year hopes to send the promotion out with a bang this Saturday night, as the MMA Leader caps off an up and down 2017 with the annual New Year’s Card at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. While this card didn’t get the bang up main event that it would have wanted (i.e., Conor McGregor), it is rock solid card with interesting fights from beginning to end, concluding in a bang up lightweight battle and a clash of two of the greatest females in the history of combat sports.
Here’s the main card.
Carlos Condit (30-10, 7-5 UFC) vs. Neil Magny (19-6, 12-5 UFC)
Ah, The Natural Born Killer. One of the best welterweights ever and one of the most popular UFC fighters of his era, Condit will be returning from a sixteenth month layoff, but one that was probably needed. Condit is coming off two straight losses, a five-round war with then UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler that could have easily gone his way in January 2016 and being crushed in a vintage Death By Jiu-Jitsu performance by Damien Maia in August. In other words, he needed the break. He also most likely has good opponent on this night in Magny, who has lost two of his last three, including being dominated and choked out in one round against Rafael dos Anjos in his last fight in October.
The reality is that these guys are kinda made for each other at this point. Both need a big win badly if they want to stay relevant in the division, they are both probably going to want to stand and bang, and they are well matched in size. Magny will need to get off to a quick start here, especially since Condit will probably need most of the first of the first round to shake off the rust. For Condit, the key is simple-leg kicks. Magny was hurt by leg kicks against both Dos Anjos and Lorenz Larkin, and if Condit lands them to set up everything else-he wins this fight.
Cynthia Calvillo (6-0, 3-0 UFC) vs. Carla Esparza (12-4, 3-2 UFC)
This is a crossroads fight as Calvillo looks to move from being the top prospect in all of WMMA to a bonafide contender against Esparza, the first ever UFC strawweight champion. Calvillo burst onto the scene this Spring, choking out both Amanda Cooper and Pearl Gonzales within the first month of her UFC career, then winning a close decision against Joanna Calderwood in Scotland in July. Meanwhile, this is only Esparza’s fourth fight since Joanna Jedrzejczyk took her title and her soul in March 2015. In many ways, it seems that Esparza has never really recovered from that loss.
Esparza has relied on her wrestling for most of her career, but Calvillo’s excellent jiu-jitsu is likely to cancel that out. If Esparza wants to win this fight, she is probably going to have get some stuff done on the feet, especially since Calvillo still has ways to go in that department. Whether she has the skill and acumen to this however, is something that I doubt. If Esparza forces something in the grappling department, I expect Calvillo to make her pay.
Marc Diakiese (12-1, 3-1 UFC) vs. Dan Hooker (14-7, 4-3 UFC)
This was moved to the main card only this week when a replacement could not be found for John Lineker against Jimmie Rivera, and it is a golden opportunity for Diakiese, perhaps the biggest prospect in all of British MMA. Diakiese looked great in his first three UFC appearances, including a thirty-second demolition of Teemu Packalen in March. But in his last fight, he was tamed by a more versatile and disciplined Drakkar Klose. Enter Dan Hooker, the New Zealander who is coming off the biggest win of his career, a one knee KO of Ross Pearson.
This is an interesting fight because both guys like to strike, and are more likely than not to keep it standing. Diakiese will have a significant speed advantage over Hooker, which should make him the favorite in this fight. Hooker will have to use something that worked very well for Klose—leg kicks. If Hooker get off first with that move and take away Diakiese’s mobility, he will have a chance. But my hunch is that the Brit will pull off another big knockout, which is probably what the UFC is hoping for, putting them in this slot. Hooker is definitely the underdog.
Khabib Nurmagomedov (24-0, 7-0 UFC) vs. Edson Barboza (19-4, 13-4 UFC)
This is classic UFC matchmaker to the umpteenth degree, as you have the best grappler in the division and maybe all of the UFC—Khabib taking on the best kickboxer in the division and maybe all of the UFC in Barboza, in a matchup that seems almost guaranteed for fireworks. Add that the winner of this bout in sure to get some type of title shot, this is probably the most anticipated matchup of the entire card. At the same time, there hasn’t seemed to be enough people talking about this fight, and I believe that is because many doubt Khabib’s ability to make the weight. But all systems seem to be a go for this one, and man, is this going to be good.
What makes this matchup even more interesting is that Barboza actually has very good takedown defense and is usually very hard to hold down, and Khabib showed in his last fight against Michael Johnson that he has vulnerabilities on his feet. The question as far as Barboza goes is how many of his vaunted kicks will he choose to use and how does Khabib react to them? Normally throwing a leg kick or body kick against “The Eagle” would be a massive mistake, but Barboza might be the only one fast enough to throw those kinds of kicks and not pay for it.
For Khabib, it’s about how fast he can get Barboza down. One thing about Barboza is that the majority of his knockouts occur in the second and third rounds, while he is capable of a one-shot KO, it’s not something he always does. But the longer the fight goes, the more chances Khabib will get to take it to the world where he is king. It is a crazy, unpredictable fight, and Barboza has much more of a chance than he is being given. If he wins, I would not call it an upset at all…
Cris Cyborg (C) (18-1 1 NC, 3-0 UFC) vs. Holly Holm (11-3, 4-3 UFC) for the UFC Women’s Featherweight Title
The women known most often as Cyborg will be a unique position on Saturday, as for the first time in a long time-she will be going against a fighter who actually has a chance of beating her. Cyborg has established herself as probably the most dominant fighter in all of MMA, winning eighteen fights in a row and having not gone the distance in a ridiculous nine years. She has been dominant since finally coming to the UFC last year, but for the first time in many years, she is not fighting someone will just roll over.
While Holly Holm is not an eighteen-time world boxing champion (it’s more like ten or eleven) as Joe Rogan screams she is, she is a unique athlete who was not only once the best women’s pound for pound boxer in the world, but was also a national kickboxing champion as an amateur. While she did lose three straight fights before she kicked Bethe Correia’s head off in June, she was never dominated and never lost confidence in herself. Indeed, this should probably be her belt, as she lost a close fight to Germaine De Randamie for this same title in February in a decision she probably should have gotten, and where her opponent probably should have been disqualified for hitting after the bell several times.
What makes this fight so interesting comes down to two factors. One, and this has been overlooked, is that Cyborg is fighting in a more careful, measured style. It was one of the reasons Tonya Evinger did better than anyone else in years has against her in July. If Cyborg fights at that pace come Saturday, Holm is likely to pick her apart. Second, if Cyborg fights the way she is accustomed to, Holly might catch her anyway. But to me, it is more an advantage for Cyborg to fight in that style-to crowd Holly and let her get space to do her thing. The more space Holly has, the better it is for her. Cyborg must close that space and do it fast.
In the end, what may be the determining factor in this fight is that Holy Holm will not be afraid of Cris Cyborg, just as she wasn’t afraid of Ronda Rousey twenty-three months ago. In fact, Holm seems to believe that destiny once again is on her side. We could finally see how tough Cris Cyborg is this Saturday, especially if Holly lands something early, it could get real interesting real fast if that happens.
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