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Combat Sports Weekend Preview for December 15-17, 2017

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After last week’s monster of a combat sports weekend, the sequel this week doesn’t look to be much of a letdown. While there aren’t as many events this weekend, they are certainly of a higher quality, with the last big shows of the year for HBO Boxing, Ring of Honor Wrestling, UFC on FOX and WWE, and all are bound to be closing a high note.

So, let’s see what we got.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Pro Wrestling

Ring of Honor Final Battle 2017 — Hammerstein Ballroom — New York, New York — 9 p.m. Eastern (PPV)

The second biggest wrestling company in American heads to one of wresting’s greatest venues to close out what has been a banner 2017, which is remarkable considering the amount of talent the promotion has lost this year, particularly to WWE NXT. The main event will have the man largely responsible for a lot of that, Cody Rhodes, in the main event, defending the ROH World heavyweight title against Dalton Castle. The flamboyant Castle is probably ROH’s top domestic babyface and if one guy was going to beat Cody, he would have to be the guy. But given how successful Cody’s run has been for the company, it is hard to see him losing the belt (and ring) at this time.

The other three Ring of Honor titles are also on the line here. Ring of Honor World Television Champion and Bachelor contestant Kenny King will have his work cut out for him, as he faces Punishment Martinez, Shane Taylor, and Silas Young in a four-way elimination match. Young, who had a great year in the promotion, is my dark horse to win his first title here, but my gut is that King will retain as well. The Motor City Machine Guns will defend the ROH World Tag Team titles against one of my favorite teams, The Best Friends, Trent Barretta and Chuck Taylor. These may be the most likely titles to change hands, especially given Trent and Chuck are coming off a great run in the New Japan Tag League and would make great, newish opponents for the Young Bucks.

Speaking of the T-shirt selling machines, they will team with cohort Adam Page to defend the ROH Six Man Titles against Flip Gordon, Dragon Kid, and Titan from the CMLL promotion in Japan. Even though Gordon is getting a sizeable push and Dragon Kid is one of the best flyers in the world, expect the Bullet Club to retain.

This card has two singles matches that could definitely steal the show. First is IWGP junior heavyweight Champion Marty Scurll against former ROH World Champion Jay Lethal, and Scurll’s old hat, Will Ospreay, facing Matt Taven. Both of these are can’t miss matches, and this may be the strongest card ROH has had on pay-per-view all year.

And then what looks to be the swan song for a hardcore legend, Bully Ray will team with his old friend Tommy Dreamer against his former partners, the Briscoe Brothers, in a New York Street Fight. Bully has a bad neck and all signs point to this being as legit as wrestling retirements get, but there’s no way that Bully isn’t going out in a blaze of glory. Expect blood, and lots of it here.

MMA

Bellator 191 — Metro Radio Arena — Newcastle, England — 9 p.m. Eastern (Spike TV)

The latest UFC transplants to Bellator MMA make their debuts Friday night in England, with the main event featuring former UFC interim bantamweight title challenger Michael McDonald, fighting in Bellator for the first time against Frenchman Peter Ligier. McDonald (17-4), was once undisputedly one of the best bantamweights in the world, but has fallen on hard times in recent years. He was choked out by Renen Barao’ in his title shot in February 2013, and was then choked out again later in the year by Uriah Faber. In his last fight eighteen months ago, he was ripped to shreds by John Lineker in one round and reportedly has had trouble paying for training expenses since.
Now McDonald is looking to resurrect his career, and Bellator is probably the best place for that. His opponent, Ligier (8-1-1), is also making his Bellator debut and is taking up a huge stop in class, but he has won three in a row on the European level. Whether he can tell us if McDonald is still a contender or not remains to be seen.

Also making her Bellator debut is Valerie Letourneau (8-6), who in November 2016 faced Joanna Jedrezjczyk for the UFC strawweight title. Valerie fought well, but was leg kicked to death and lost a wide decision. She has lost both fights since and clearly had outgrown the 115-pound weight class. Now is she is fighting 125, which seems to right weight class for her. She will be facing TUF 23 competitor Kate Jackson (9-2-1, 1-0 Bellator), who beat UFC strawweight Ashley Yoder in the first round before being submitted by eventual winner Tatiana Suarez in the semifinals. She made her debut in Bellator in August, but her opponent Collen Schneider, hurt her knee half a round into the bout, so in a sense, this is Jackson’s debut as well. Jackson will have the English crowd behind her, and it looks to be a pretty solid fight on paper. Also that night, UFC vet Phillip DeFries (13-6) meets James Thompson (20-16, 0-1 Bellator) in a battle of English heavyweights which should produce fireworks.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

UFC Winnipeg — Bell MTS Place — Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada — Prelims: 4 p.m. Eastern, Main Card: 8 p.m. Eastern (UFC Fight Pass/FS1/FOX)

The final “big FOX” event of the year will emanate from Winnipeg (you idiot!), as the MMA Leader returns to the City of Jericho for the first time since 2013, and has one of the best matchups of the year in the main event.

The main event will feature former UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler (28-11, 14-5 UFC) against former UFC lightweight champ Rafael Dos Anjos (27-9, 16-7 UFC) in a battle that in a sense is a title eliminator for current welterweight champion Tyron Woodley. It’s a terrific matchup between two guys who can crack. Lawler took a year off before coming back and scoring a close decision over Donald Cerrone, while Dos Anjos moved up to 170 after losses to Eddie Alvarez and Tony Ferguson. He out-fought Tarec Saffedine in Singapore in June and then ran through Neil Magny and submitted him in the first round in October. These are two champions whose strengths complement each other it’s a terrific matchup.

The co-main will see third ranked featherweight Ricardo Lamas (18-5, 9-3 UFC) face off late replacement Josh Emmett (12-1, 9-1 UFC). Lamas is coming off an electric knockout of Jason Knight and a sick submission of Charles Olivera, and was supposed to fight former UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo, but Aldo took Frankie Edgar’s spot against champion Max Holloway. In steps Emmett, who is by far fighting the most high-profile fight of his career. He trains out of Team Alpha Male and has good record, but I literally can’t remember any of his fights. Lamas can’t take Emmett lightly but it’s a case of win and advance for him.

But the one to watch is clearly in ninth ranked Santiago Ponzinibbio (25-3, 7-2 UFC) against fourteenth ranked Mike Perry (11-1, 4-1 UFC) in a battle between guys who simply desire knocking the other guy out, and both who have concussive power. Ponzinibbio has won five in a row and is coming off the biggest win of his career against Gunner Nelson, while Perry won two in row and has scored knockouts in every one of his UFC wins. He had also emerged as one of the most insane characters in the UFC, with his facial tattoos and willingness to say absolutely anything. Someone is getting laid out in this fight and a big fight is on the line for the winner.

The main card opens with a sick light heavyweight fight as third ranked Glover Teixeira takes seventh ranked Misha Cirkunov. Both men are coming off losses, so this one feels hard to call. The prelims will close with another light heavyweight bout, as Jared Cannonier faces Jan Blachowicz in a battle of two guys trying to put together a winning streak. It really is an excellent card in Winnipeg. You idiot.

Boxing

HBO World Championship Boxing — Bell Centre — Montreal, Quebec, Canada — 10:30 p.m. ET (HBO)

HBO heads to the boxing hotbed of Montreal for its final show of the year, as former IBF middleweight champion David Lemieux (36-3, 32 KO’s) challenges England’s Billie Joe Saunders (24-0, 12 KOs) for the WBO middleweight title. Lemieux, an Armenian-Canadian who has been long been a ticket seller in Montreal and has won three in a row since being dominated by Gennady Golovkin in October 2015, including what is probably the devastating knockout of the year in boxing against Curtis Stevens in August.

Saunders is making the third defense of the title he won in December from Andy Lee in December 2015 and has gained the derision of boxing fans for calling out the likes of Canelo and GGG, then deliberately pricing himself out of fights with them. He’s nowhere a big of a star as he seems to think he is, and has faced nowhere the opposition that Lemieux has.

It is an interesting matchup because Saunders is a good boxer with solid movement, and Lemieux is the second biggest puncher in the division. He doesn’t always use it to the best, but has come a long way since his younger years. Saunders has been allergic to big punchers, so how he handles getting hit Lemieux will be interesting. The winner also should be in line for another big fight as HBO is investing heavily in the 160-pound division. I’m all for it.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Pro Wrestling

WWE Clash of the Champions — TD Garden — Boston, Massachusetts — 8 p.m. Eastern (WWE Network)

The final big WWE event comes from Boston and while the E usually delivers on the big shows, it has always been easy for them to build interest for these things lately, especially among smart fans. But this card has a couple of things going for it-one, it’s been four whole weeks since the last one, Survivor Series, and two-they have matches they’ve actually made people want to see.

The first of two main events will see AJ Styles defend his WWE World Championship against the man he beat for the title, Jinder Mahal. Styles beat Mahal for the title about six weeks ago in England, in a moment that was the rare complete shock in WWE. Now Mahal is trying to regain the title he lost, and its not out of the question that Mahal wins the title back, as he was able to cement himself as a star in India with his big match recently with Triple H. But Styles did cause a bump in Smackdown’s ratings for the first few weeks of his title reign so its hard to call. Being that Styles is probably the most popular guy on Smackdown and no less than the second-best wrestler in the world, he should probably go over, but…. well, you know.

The second main event may actually be the bigger matchup as the super heel team of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, who have been on fire since October, facing Shinsuke Nakamura and Randy Orton in a match that if they lose, they have to leave WWE. It is a situation that has escalated over the past month and several weeks ago, Smackdown commissioner Shane McMahon named himself special guest referee. But now Smackdown General Manager Daniel Bryan has named himself the second referee, as to stop Shane from possibly “screwing” Owens and Zayn. There is all sorts of intrigue here! Does Shane turn heel? Does Bryan turn hell? Do Owens and Zayn possibly lose and what happens if that goes down. And there’s also four good workers in there so, heck yeah.

Also this night, Charlotte will be defending the SD Women’s Title against former champion Natalya in Lumberjack Match, and with the Riott Squad (Ruby Riott, Liv Morgan, and Sarah Logan) causing trouble, who knows what’s going to happen in this match. Then Baron Corbin will defend the United States title against Bobby Rood, in his first main roster title match, and Dolph Ziggler, and something in my gut tells me DZ wins the belt here. And the Usos, who have had their best year in the WWE, will defend their tag belts in a four-way bout against the New Day, Shelton Benjamin and Chad Gable, and Rusev and Aiden English. Given the talent in the ring and how the Usos are, I feel like this one might steal the show.

These are the best weekends to me. Big shows, spaced apart, and schedules should fit that fans can watch all of them. This should be a great one.

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Wilder v Fury II: Can ‘heart and determination’ conquer raw power?

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It’s long been one of the great debates in sport – the relationship between technical aptitude and self-belief. Are the greatest sportspeople blessed with an inherent talent that guarantees success, or is it the determination and will-to-win that drives them that extra mile? Can sheer resolve and strength of character get the better of mechanical, tried-and-tested excellence?

This is one of the main topics of conversation ahead of the highly-anticipated rematch between Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury. The English fighter is the slight favourite in the latest Wilder vs Fury odds, and has been vocal recently in saying that his self-will has the power to overcome an opponent whose record of 42 wins and 41 knockouts is frightening. 

“Statistics don’t lie, he is a much bigger puncher than me, a one-punch knockout artist,” Fury said. “The thing is, I don’t believe anybody can match my heart and determination. I will put my iron will on Deontay Wilder and we will see.”

While even the most uninformed boxing fan recognises Wilder’s superior punching power over Fury, it seemed strange for the Gypsy King, normally so brash and headstrong, to make such a concession – that his opponent is a better puncher. But this is the new Fury – the considered, mature Fury, if such a thing exists. There have been no Batman costumes or karaoke performances in his news conferences ahead of this fight, instead it has been all business with the repeated assertion that he will knock Wilder out in round two. 

Perhaps Wilder’s victory over Luis Ortíz in December will have given Fury more cause for concern than he may have felt initially. While the Cuban dominated Wilder for most of the fight, the WBC heavyweight champion showed exactly why he boasts such a formidable record. After almost seven rounds of tough boxing from Ortíz, one swift right hand from the knockout king left the Cuban sprawled on the canvas. For Fury, his intention will be to dominate proceedings, to use his footwork to get Wilder moving and losing energy. But that threat of a sudden light-extinguishing blow means the Gypsy King will have no margin for losing focus. 

Wilder vs Fury is the ultimate showcase of technical excellence against spirited mentality. Wilder has honed a gift for punching, the like of which boxing has never seen. There is no answer to the irresistible brutality of Wilder’s swing and hit – a crunching cannonball of a right hand that shatters all before it. 

Fury’s hope lies in his belief in his personal journey rather than the physical prowess he embodies. He believes that defeating Wilder is the inevitable next step on his voyage from the depths of depression and self-loathing to a glorious return to boxing’s title-winners. The determination that has driven his recovery continues to give him the belief that he will beat every opponent before him, and Wilder is simply the next man in the way.

On its own you would say that such determination would not be enough against an opponent of Wilder’s class, but such a conclusion would be ignoring the exemplary technical qualities Fury himself possesses. He is as nimble a heavyweight boxer as any in history, light on his feet, able to switch between stances at the drop of the hat, and while his punching power might not be on the same level as Wilder, it has been enough to land him 20 career knockouts. 

On February 22nd we will find out if Wilder is simply a step too far for Fury’s remarkable recovery to his former champion status. Will raw power overcome the singular focus and graft that have defined the Englishman’s return to contention? For those who have risen as Fury has, it takes a lot to knock them down again. 

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Andrade Coasts, Paul Shines, and Titles change hands in Miami

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DAZN hosted a rare Thursday Night card in a makeshift arena at the Gardens in Miami Beach, as the gang at Matchroom Sports hoped to capitalize on thousands of people coming into town for this Sunday’s Super Bowl LIV between the Chiefs and the 49ers.

Most of the hype surrounded the “battle” between YouTubers Jake Paul of the United States and England’s AnEsonGib, and it turned out to be a showcase for the bigger and longer Paul, who painted Gib with repeated left jabs which set up the big right hands that dropped Gib three times in the first round and led referee Chris Young to stop the fight just 2:18 into the first round. It was the pro debut for both rivals, and whatever you want to say about it, the Sugar Shane Mosely trained Paul looked good.

The “main event” saw Demetrious Andrade drop Irishman Luke Keeler twice in the first two rounds and then coast for six rounds before finally stepping on the gas and blasting Keeler with repeated big shots in the ninth, forcing veteran referee Telis Assimenios to stop the fight at 2:59 of Round 9. It was Andrade’s third defense of his title and just another blowout of a fighter that it was below his talent level. It should have lasted three rounds. Instead, the game Irishman hit Andrade quite a bit and allowed to survive till the late rounds. Andrade called out the almost equally frustrating Billie Joe Saunders, the WBO 168 titleholder. They deserve each other.

But before the fluff at the end, boxing fans were treated two quality title fights. The main card of the show opened with an excellent technical battle that saw 2016 Olympic Bronze Medalist Murodjon Akhmadaliev lift the WBA/IBF junior featherweight (122 pounds) from reigning champion Danny Roman by twelve round split decision in just his eighth professional fight.

The fight was very close from round one, as Akhmadaliev came out swinging with big left hands from the southpaw positions. The super technical Roman (27-3-1,10 KOs), fighting out of Los Angeles, attacked the body from Round One and looked to time the young Uzbek with good counter punches. The early rounds were good for Roman, who was more accurate and faster with his punches. Akhmadaliev came back in rounds five and six, only for Roman to crank up his pace in rounds seven and eight.

Many thought the late rounds would belong to the more experienced pro Roman, but Akhmadaliev (8-0, 7 KOs) turned that theory on his head, digging down in the late rounds, continuing throwing hard lefts to the head and body. Throughout the fight, the Uzbek commonly referred to as MJ closed rounds strong, and this was especially in the case in these late rounds. Roman did his best to come back with a strong Round 12 and both men let their hands go in the last twenty-seconds, landing some of their best punches of the fight.

In the end, one judge had it 115-113 for Roman, but the other two had it 115-113 for Akhmadaliev, giving the Uzbek the title in a fight that could have gone either way. Fightbooth actually had it a draw, 114-114. With so many close rounds, a rematch makes sense for both, especially in California, where both men are based. Much was made of how Danny Roman did not have to take this fight against such a ballyhooed prospect, but chose to be a great champion. The result was an excellent fight and a rivalry that we can hope is not over.

The second main card bout saw Joseph Diaz Jr, a 2012 Olympian from the United States, notch a dominant performance to lift the IBF junior lightweight (130 pound) title from Philadelphia’s Tevin Farmer in the culmination of a bitter rivalry between the two men that goes back to last May, when the two had a confrontation at the Canelo Alvarez-Daniel Jacobs fight in Las Vegas.

Diaz was aggressive from Round One, pushing Farmer on the inside and unloading with loads of punches. The second round saw the fighters clash heads, leaving Diaz with a GNARLY cut over his left eyelid, which look to put the fight in jeopardy. Yet Diaz stuck to his task, staying on Farmer and being the busier and more accurate fighter.

Farmer is normally one of the most defensively elusive fighters you will ever see, but in this fight, he chose to languish on the inside, allowing Diaz to have his way on the inside and hit him pretty much as he choose. Farmer claimed to hurt his right hand in the first round, and many believe the same clash of heads that opened the big cut on Diaz’ eye compromised Farmer. The announce team, especially Sergio Mora, made all the excuses for Farmer, but whatever the reason, Farmer fought the wrong fight against Diaz.

Diaz built a big lead with his accurate flurries of punches and somehow, his cut-man managed to keep that eye closed. Farmer may have stolen some late rounds but at the end of the result was clear. The scorecards were 117-111 and 115-113, twice, all of Joseph Diaz Jr. Those last two were wayyy too close.

The win is the culmination of a long journey for Diaz (31-1, 15 KOs), who has been built throughout his career by Golden Boy Promotions for this moment. He was thoroughly outclassed in his first title fight two years ago by Gary Russell Jr and couldn’t make weight for his second title opportunity a few months later. But after a mental health break and some changes, Diaz is finally a world champion. It was a sad end of a title reign for Farmer (30-5-1, 6 KOs), who defended his belt four times in fourteen months and saw an eight year unbeaten streak come to an end.

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Rosario shocks Williams, Seizes titles in Philly

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On a night where the UFC and Conor McGregor took center stage in the combat sports world, Jeison Rosario pulled off an absolute shocker in Philadelphia.

The twenty-four-year-old junior middleweight from the Dominican Republican was seen as a pretty good prospect turned fringe contender and was on a modest six fight winning streak against fairly good opposition. But he was supposed to be simply an opponent for WBA/IBF junior middleweight champion Julian “J-Rock” Williams, who seized the titles from previously undefeated champ Jarrett Hurd last year and was making his first title defense in his hometown of Philadelphia. Williams supposed to beat Rosario and move onto a big fight later this year, either a rematch against Hurd or a unification fight with WBC 154 pound champ Jermell Charlo.

But Rosario upset that apple card last night at the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia, knocking out Williams in the fifth round of their title fight on a Premier Boxing Champions show broadcasted on big Fox. The +800 underdog, who looked considerably bigger than the reigning champion, showed himself to be an excellent puncher, throwing to both the head and body, and turned one of boxing’s deepest divisions on its head.

Williams came out strong in the first, boxing behind his jab and looking to land his trademark right hand. Rosario responded by upping the pressure in the second and started to get to Williams body. Then with twenty-five seconds left in the round, Rosario changed the fight with a right hand that stopped Williams in his tracks, and seconds later, the champion pawed his eye, revealing the blood that the punch had drawn, and Rosario jumped on him, landing several combinations before the bell.

The Philadelphia fighter did his best to right the ship in the third round, including landing several crunching right hands in the last minute, but Rosario was making it his fight in the fourth round, forcing power punching exchanges and taking away Williams’ excellent jab. Even though Williams was landing slightly more punches, it was clear Rosario had seized the tone of the fight.

The Dominican seized much more in the fifth as a minute into the round, he hurt Williams with a series of monster left hooks. Williams backed into the ropes and Rosario unleashed a two fisted attack that had Williams holding for dear life and seemingly looking for a double leg, sending him slipping to the canvas. Williams rose from his feet, and Rosario was right on him, and a killer right uppercut followed by a big left hook led referee Benji Estevez to stop the fight at 1:37 of Round 5.

The Philly crowd responded with anger, throwing trash into the ring and a riot seemed to be brewing for a moment before order was restored. Philly may be the town of upsets, but they do not like to see their guys lose.

Williams stated after the fight that he had a rematch clause and given how exciting this fight was there is no reason not to have it. As for Rosario, who moved to 20-1-1 and scored his fourteenth knockout, he is now The Man in one of boxing’s better divisions right now, and with size and power, he is a real forced to be reckoned with.

Philadelphia be damned.

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