Cornucopia of Combat: UFC 198 Card Shaping Up

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The media is all abuzz lately over the ultra-stacked UFC 198 card, which features an incredible breadth and variety of exciting fights across many divisions. The stacked line-up is a gratuitous gift to both the casual and the hardcore fan, including an olive branch to first-timers: a cornucopia of combat that bridges the gap between entertainment and sport.

Amongst the plethora of marquee, divisionally relevant, and exciting fights, UFC 198 inaugurates a new name to the UFC: Cris Cyborg Justino. One of the most dominant female fighters to ever compete in the sport of MMA, Cyborg rides a 15 fight win streak into the octagon and has finished her last five opponents by knockout. For those who haven’t watched Cyborg, she has ferocious punching power and has a penchant for the knockout, dispensing those who lie in her wake into heaps of unconsciousness.

The card kicks off with Cyborg making her UFC debut at a catchweight fight at 140 lbs against Leslie Smith, an aggressive striker and pressure fighter. Despite Cyborg’s more impressive resumé on paper, both she and Smith have roughly the same pro experience. Smith’s flurry of punches against Jessamyn Duke is her most recent highlight-reel knockout, and was winning the fight against Jessica Eye until a doctor stopped the fight after her ear exploded.

The Cyborg fight is guaranteed action and gives the Brazilian bomber a platform to launch her into MMA stardom, thrusting her into the mix with Rousey, Holm, and Tate. Ultimately, the UFC wants to groom Cyborg into a top contender and potential bantamweight champion, assuming she can make the weight. If she decides to stay at 145 lbs, the UFC will have to bring opponents in from other organizations until either A) a division is born, or B) the UFC and Cyborg agree to bill high-profile fights and keep the golden goose laying her eggs.

Arguably the biggest card announced to date (some are speculating this event will rival the hallmark UFC 200 card in July), the event sold over 32,000 tickets in the first 90 minutes and features a heavyweight title fight between Stipe Miocic and Fabricio Werdum in the main event.

The co-main event between number two contender Ronaldo “Jacaré” Souza and Vitor Belfort appears to be a middleweight title eliminator, with the victor likely facing the winner of the rematch between division kingpin (c) Luke Rockhold and former champion and #1 contender Chris Weidman. Yoel Romero (7-0), who many believed was next in line for a shot at the title, is mired in USADA controversy stemming from a failed PED test in January and has been removed from the UFC rankings. Jacaré’s striking has come a long way, and his power is to be respected – but make no mistake – he will want to bring the fight to the ground the first opportunity he gets against Belfort.

In 1997, Belfort broke onto the scene and stamped his legacy on the primordial UFC 12, winning the heavyweight championship by knocking out Scott Ferrozzo. He would return at UFC 46 to earn the light heavyweight championship against Randy Couture by TKO. Amazingly, nineteen years later (double his age at his debut), Belfort is not only incredibly dangerous, but remains relevant in a stacked division, sitting at number three in the UFC middleweight rankings. He has won 18 of his 25 victories by way of knockout, and poses a legitimate threat to his fellow countryman, one of the most decorated grapplers to ever compete in MMA. If Jacaré can weather the storm and survive early against the flurry of Belfort, he will likely drag the old lion into deep waters where he will use his jiu jitsu to drown his prey like a giant squid.

Three other divisionally relevant fights are billed for the blockbuster event in Curitiba, Brazil, including a welterweight bout between sensational grappler and decorated BJJ black belt Demian Maia and the always exciting Matt Brown. Maia is riding a four-fight win streak capped by a dominant win over another world-class BJJ black belt in Gunnar Nelson. Brown, who snapped a two fight skid by submitting Tim Means with a guillotine choke at UFC 189, looks to steal Maia’s thunder and re-emerge as a title contender by thwarting the jiu jitsu ace’s submission attempts and pounding his opponent into the canvas with his heavy hands and inhuman durability. This is both a fun fight for the fans as well as an important fight for the division, as both men are highly ranked welterweights (Maia is #6 while Brown sits at #8).

Long time veteran and former PRIDE champion Mauricio Rua (#8) takes on Corey Anderson (#12), who makes a quick turnaround after defeating “Filthy” Tom Lawlor at UFC 196 in March. This fight is interesting because, while Rua is a big draw (particularly in Brazil), it’s unclear where he goes from here with either a win or a loss. It’s highly unlikely Rua establishes himself anywhere near title contention, and despite being 34 years of age it’s abundantly clear that his best years are far behind him. The upswing is that he’s hardly ever in a boring fight, which makes him a good antidote to Corey Anderson, a wrestler with a big gas tank and a grinding style that occasionally puts fans to sleep. That makes this bout another example of excellent matchmaking from UFC brass Sean Shelby and Joe Silva.

In another meaningful bout at light heavyweight, we have Patrick Cummins and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, aka Lil Nog, locking horns in a fight reminiscent of Lil Nog’s battle against Ryan Bader back at UFC 119, where the Brazilian lost a unanimous decision. Bader’s takedowns and ground-and-pound ultimately won him that fight in the third round after a closely contested technical boxing match in the first and second. Lil Nog is a three-time boxing champion in Brazil and possesses both power and precision in his striking, a strong deterrent for Cummins to avoid the stand up and utilize his superior wrestling. Look for Cummins to initiate the clinch and dump Lil Nog on his back, using his massive size and strength to implement his wrestling and his top game. He has outstanding hip pressure which allows him to posture up and rain down shots without his opponent getting back to his feet.

Despite Cummins’ wrestling ability, Glover Teixeira was able to thwart both the control and the ground-and-pound of Cummins, getting back to his feet and blasting the wrestler with thunderous hooks and uppercuts en route to a brutal TKO stoppage victory. If Lil Nog can take a page from Teixeira’s book, he stands a chance at keeping the fight on the feet. That scenario is far less likely, however, so I anticipate a three-round drubbing where Cummins is the hammer and Lil Nog is the proverbial nail.

This brings us to the most surreal fight on the card, a matchup conceived by a mastermind of a Mortal Kombat dreamscape between Anderson Silva and Uriah Hall. Both men are paragons of precision striking, lightning speed and fast-twitch muscle fibers. Had Hall reached his prime at the zenith of Silva’s career, a dominant reign over the middleweight division that featured a 16 fight win streak and a record 10 successful consecutive title defenses, this fight could have been touted as a fantasy fight come to life, a medley of magic and madness manifesting inside the UFC’s octagon, a dream come true for both fight fans and video game aficionados.

Alas, having eclipsed the twilight of his career, and at 40 years old, the post-Weidman Anderson Silva is not the same fighter he once was. His killer instinct has waned, and there is an undeniable low-grade, ambient anxiety watching him fight, a feeling of impending doom as though he might be stricken and collapse at any moment. Perhaps the imagery of Weidman’s left hook connecting square on his chin and his head bouncing off the canvas like a basketball dribble has illuminated the fragility of a once fearless and frightening fighter who has danced with the devil one too many times.

Hall emerges from a spectacular knockout victory over the always dangerous and dynamic striker Gegard Mousasi, showcasing his power, precision, and diversity of attack that make the fight with Silva all the more compelling. As of one week ago, Anderson Silva is still the betting favorite, opening at -165 to +135 for Hall. When strikers of this caliber meet in the octagon, anything can happen…but with that said, I’m taking Hall to win this fight since he’s the younger fighter with fewer miles on him. Although both fighters are coming off a loss, Hall is likely the hungrier fighter with more to prove to himself and to the fans. Silva’s performance against Michael Bisping evinced his declining killer instinct, as well as his propensity to showboat and clown around in the cage.

The last notable fight on this card is a bout between bantamweights John Lineker and Rob Font. Lineker was dancing with title contention at flyweight, but weight cutting issues have pushed him up to his more natural weight class of 135 lbs. He’s carrying a three-fight win streak into the fight with Font, including his most recent submission victory against slugger Francisco Rivera at his bantamweight debut.

Font is riding an 11-fight win streak into the Lineker bout, having finished his last four opponents, specifically the last three by way of knockout. This fight could easily go either way, especially given Lineker’s penchant for throwing caution to the wind and winging wild punches in the pocket. Font fights more intelligently, but don’t be surprised to see him eschew a gameplan in favor of fan-friendly theatrics in the cage. Whatever happens, this is a guaranteed fun fight and everyone should tune in.

Much has been said about this historic May 14th card in Curitiba, Brazil, and there will continue to be copious commentary on the changing tide of betting favorites and (most likely) opponent swaps as we march into battle.

Let’s all hope this card remains intact and all fighters show up to weigh-ins healthy, and stay tuned for more updates. What a time to be alive!

 

 

SAN JOSE, CA – AUGUST 15:  (L-R) Cristiane ‘Cyborg’ Santos punches Gina Carano during the inaugural Strikeforce Women’s Championship event at HP Pavilion on August 15, 2009 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Esther Lin/Forza LLC/Forza LLC via Getty Images)