Excluding the main event, what bout are you most excited for?
Daniel DeMarco: As good as that Ricardo Lamas vs. Charles Oliveira bout is looking in terms of a high quality featherweight bout of two top 10 fighters, I have a special interest in seeing Marcin Held’s UFC debut against the veteran brawling Diego Sanchez. Longtime Bellator viewers should know Held quite well. He was a finalist of Bellator’s season seven lightweight tournament, and he won the season 10 tournament with his impressively dangerous ground-game. I have a particular fancy towards leglock submission artists. They are hard to come by at the top level of the sport and always make fights seem a little more dangerous. Leglocks are known to be extra vicious submissions in particular, in their various forms, and there is just something cruelly fascinating about them compared to other limb or choke submissions. Held is being thrown in there with Sanchez who will always force his opponents to fight. It’s an overall great matchup to serve as a litmus test for Held’s potential on the big UFC stage, and a Sanchez fight is always something to get excited about.
Riley Kontek: It’s a tie between Marcin Held-Diego Sanchez and Alexa Grasso-Heather Clark. The main card will feature two debuting fighters that are likely to be contenders in the not-so-distant future. Grasso is a young, marketable fighter from Mexico with great all-around skills and the ability to jump into contention immediately. Held is a young Pole that found great success in Bellator that can certainly translate to the UFC. Both excite me as an MMA fan.
Jordy McElroy: I’m particularly excited about Marcin Held’s UFC debut against Diego Sanchez. That’s not an easy task for any fighter right out of the gates, even a former Bellator lightweight contender. Sanchez doesn’t pose a wide variety of technical skill sets, but you would be hard-pressed to find a fighter with more heart and determination. He’s the type of fighter that can beat opponents on willpower alone. I haven’t seen craziness like Sanchez since Hulkamania. YES! YES! YES!
Jay Anderson: After Holloway vs. Lamas, I almost wanted to go with Lamas and Oliveira here, but I have to give the nod to Marcin Held’s UFC debut against Diego Sanchez. Here you’ve got a three time Fight of the Year winner in Sanchez, admittedly on the downside of his career, welcoming the fiercest leg lock specialist this side of Rousimar Palhares. Only, you know, he actually releases the hold on time. Held had a heck of a run in Bellator, and his only recent loss was to Will Brooks in a title fight. He’s got a ridiculous amount of experience for his age, and at 24 hasn’t even hit his prime. If he comes up with a slick submission in his debut, he might just have a heck of a future at lightweight in the UFC.
What sort of ceiling do you expect for Alexa Grasso in the UFC?
DD: Full disclosure: My Invicta viewing experience is incredibly limited. Therefore, my input should be taken with a grain of salt. With that said, I can easily see Alexa Grasso being a mainstay in the top 10 of UFC’s strawweight division. As far as a ceiling, as long as Joanna Jedrzejcyzk is around, Grasso can consider her ceiling to be achieving No. 1 contender status. I do not see a single woman in the strawweight division that could reasonably dethrone the champ. But that top five mix of women is a highly competitive area of women who are just out of reach to Jedrzejcyzk’s talent. My relatively inexperienced opinion would be Grasso, within the next year (as long as she stays healthy and active), will emerge as one of those top contenders. Admittedly, at only 23, she has the time to be a much greater talent, so we shall see just how much she blossoms, but I do not see a future UFC strawweight champion in Grasso; which is not a knock on her so much as it is a compliment for Jedrzejcyzk.
RK: She has a high ceiling. She is in a shark’s tank of fighters that are similarly good, but she’s among the youngest and has the most time to develop into a title challenger and a champion. She’s already beat some great fighters, some of whom were in dominant faction. That said, she needs to stay healthy, as injuries have stunted her progress in the past.
JM: Grasso is already a talented submission artist so it was surprising to see her actually knocking people out when she chose MMA as a profession. It’s tough to say how she’ll fare in the UFC because most of her wins came against lackluster opposition.
The decision win over Mizuki Inoue was easily the most significant of her career. Heather Jo Clark is no joke. She isn’t currently ranked as a strawweight contender, but she is a veteran fighter with significantly higher quality of opposition on her resume than Grasso. My biggest concern is some of the sloppy exchanges Grasso engages in on the feet. That might propel her up the ladder for the time being, but I have a hard time seeing that kind of offense hold up against the division’s elite.
JA: Stucco? Drop? In all seriousness, this depends on what approach the UFC takes to booking her. Grasso’s had an impressive run in Invicta FC, and she’s undefeated in her first eight fights. She has all the makings of a star that can draw in the coveted Hispanic demographic, and that may be key. There are inevitably going to be comparisons to Paige VanZant, but that’s not a bad thing. Grasso is young, marketable, and soft spoken. There’s no need to rush her into the deep end of the strawweight division, and the UFC has wisely paired her up with Heather Jo Clark for her debut. If she prevails, a slow, steady build-up similar to VanZant’s, allowing her to develop, is crucial. If it all works out, she has top 10 potential, though she may struggle with those at the very top. She’s young enough, however, that the sky’s the limit.
Fact or fiction: The winner of RDA vs. Ferguson will one day become UFC lightweight champion.
DD: With much uncertainty and back-and-forth thoughts, I say fact.
First of all, I’m going with the underdog on this one. I think Tony Ferguson is going to pull this one out and his wild, unpredictable style will once again be too much for his opponent; even the great Rafael dos Anjos. The much harder question is whether Ferguson will hold UFC gold. The lightweight division is full of championship-caliber fighters. Lightweight, perhaps more than any division, is the proverbial shark tank of the UFC. But the reigning champ is Eddie Alvarez. Of all the top lightweights currently, I firmly believe Alvarez was the guy people would have had the least faith in winning the title. Not because he is not a good fighter; he’s a great fighter. But his top UFC wins were not the most impressive compared to his companions, squeaking by with two split decision victories. Yet when push came to shove, he went out there and took out dos Anjos in highly impressive fashion.
Ferguson can win a fight anywhere. And if Alvarez could do it, Ferguson can as well. And I think he will.
RK: Fiction. RDA already had his run as champion, but I can see several top UFC fighters that would take him out at this point. Ferguson has a better chance, which is why I think he wins this fight. He is the better striker and has the wrestling to deflect RDA’s takedowns. Ferguson has a chance at UFC gold, but I think he falls to either Alvarez or Nurmagomedov.
I’m going with Rafael dos Anjos in this fight. You can bank on the UFC going in the direction of a trilogy fight between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz, if McGregor wins the lightweight title, and Khabib Nurmagomedov would likely be the first on deck for a crack at the title if McGregor loses.
The division is a logjam at the moment. Putting it into simpler terms would be saying dos Anjos will have to go through Nurmagomedov to win the lightweight title, and I don’t see it happening.
JA: Fact. If I had to choose (and after all, I’ve been asked to), I’d pick dos Anjos. Ferguson has gone on a storybook run, but that run ends here. He tends to gamble in his fights, and those risks have often put him in the line of fire. Against a fighter like Rafael dos Anjos, that just won’t cut it. He’s too dangerous, too likely to capitalize on mistakes. Lightweight right now is anyone’s ballgame. Call it the McGregor effect. RDA has held gold there before, and there’s a good chance he will again. Nurmagomedov should earn the next shot with a win, but dos Anjos won’t be far behind.