The UFC is putting a card with two stories. On the one hand, the UFC heavyweight title is up for grabs. There’s a top contender bout directly under it as well. On the other hand, a person whose only qualification to even be in the Octagon is having the right kind of celebrity, and a willingness to try new things, is making his MMA debut. It’s a bizarre conflation of opposites as the UFC hosts a show in Cleveland for the first time.
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What: UFC 203
Where: Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, Ohio
When: Saturday, the two-fight Fight Pass preliminary card starts at 7 p.m. ET, the four-fight FOX Sports 1 preliminary card starts at 8 p.m. and the five-fight pay-per-view card kicks off at 10 p.m. ET.
Stipe Miocic vs. Alistair Overeem
This card is full of very, very close fights, a fact reflected in how tight many of the betting lines are. This bout is no different. Overeem is riding a ton of momentum and arguably looks better than ever. His style is more cautious than it used to be. He’s patient and works from the outside rather than trying to bulldoze opposition with size and power. It’s a sleeker, smarter Overeem. He’s definitely the better striker of the two.
Still, Miocic has serious pop in his hands. He also can take a shot much better than Overeem, at least that’s what he’s shown. I don’t doubt Overeem can give Miocic fits on the outside, but I have a harder time believing he can do that for five rounds.
My guess is if Miocic is able to get inside on Overeem at all – something that won’t be easy, but in the course of a long fight, quite doable – he can cause trouble early and often. To the extent Overeem is able to maintain distance, it’s his fight to lose. There’s no doubt he’s capable of winning, but I just wonder how he’ll hold up under Miocic’s ability to take his best shot and dish out his own.
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Fabrício Werdum vs. Travis Browne
MMA is crazy and no division is less predictable than heavyweight, but this is a tough one to see for Browne. ‘Hapa’ already lost to Werdum once and did so rather one-sidedly. Add to that he’s coming in on short notice this time around. He does have big power and cleaned up defensive striking fundamentals, but Werdum appears to be too far ahead in every department for Browne to catch up with him.
CM Punk vs. Mickey Gall
There are two truths about this fight. First, while no one can predict the future, we are truly flying blind here. There’s some tape on Gall, but not much and what’s there isn’t particularly revelatory. There’s even less than that on Punk. We are working with an overwhelming amount of unknowns heading into this one. That’s not uncommon in bouts between 0-0 and 2-0 fighters, but that scenario itself is exceedingly rare in the modern UFC.
Second, we must have very managed expectations about what a win or a loss here means. Sure, there are some moral victories or personal achievements either can take from this, but in terms of their future in the UFC? This isn’t meaningless, but it’s far, far away from meaningful. Both fighters are in the embryonic stage of their development, although Gall’s youth and early advantages give him (on paper, anyway) a higher upside.
Forced to make a choice, you go with what evidence is there. Gall is younger, has at least some experience and a brown belt in jiu-jitsu. That’s not much of a basis by which to make a choice, but in contrast to someone we know almost nothing about, and who has no competitive athletic background at all, it makes for a straightforward if uncertain call.
Urijah Faber vs. Jimmie Rivera
This and the fight below it on this card are perhaps the two toughest bouts to make any kind of call. Faber has definitely aged and can’t quite take punishment like he used to (not that he takes a lot, necessarily, but is showing signs of aging). That said, he’s still quick, agile and capable of delivering big shots or winning tight scrambles. Rivera is not much of an offensive dynamo, but he does have good shot selection, excellent body-head combinations and largely stays out of trouble. He doesn’t pour on the offense, but he doesn’t let his opposition do that to him either. Considering Faber still leaps in and out of range for striking, I don’t think he can win a potshot battle with Rivera. The issue is if he can catch the upstart with a submission from, perhaps, a lazy takedown or improper setup. Rivera doesn’t put himself into compromising situations too often and with Faber’s slow if noticeable decline, it’s so hard to say. I’ll flip a coin and say no.
Jessica Andrade vs. Joanne Calderwood
I can’t think of a tougher call on this card. Andrade was a physical beast at bantamweight and is only more so now at strawweight. Calderwood has had some rough moments along the way, but has recently shown her class against Cortney Casey and Valerie Letourneau.
The problem is the style matchup here. Andrade is a physical hulk and barrels forward with heavy, winging shots. Calderwood has good offense, but has shown a propensity to eat strikes along the way with a clear lack of head movement, defensive shells or evasive footwork. That doesn’t bode well for her.
On the other hand, Calderwood has also shown far more weapons and different ranges and phases of the game. She can kickbox at distance, control an opponent in the clinch, demonstrate excellent top control and more.
So, the question comes down to: Can Calderwood get her game going before Andrade shuts it down? I suspect this to be a slow start for Calderwood no matter what. Will she be able to turn it around? It’s so incredibly hard to say. I’ll take a gamble on her, though.
From the preliminary card:
Jessica Eye def. Bethe Correia
Nik Lentz def. Michael McBride
Brad Tavares def. Caio Magalhaes
Yancy Medeiros def. Sean Spencer
Drew Dober def. Jason Gonzalez