The UFC has put together a fine card for its first show in Orlando since 2018.
The last time the promotion was in “O-Town,” future PFL fighter Jeremy Stephens knocked out soon-to-be interim featherweight title challenger Josh Emmett in the main event, Sam Alvey was winning fights, and the UFC was still on FOX. A respectable card, but Saturday’s UFC Orlando lineup has it beat.
Stephen Thompson, a longtime contender for welterweight is now facing Kevin Holland. Thompson has been fighting infrequently over the years and has struggled to win when he did. Following back-to-back, lopsided decisions losses to Gilbert Burns and Belal Muhammad, Thompson is now in a difficult position.
Two-time UFC champion,
Thompson still holds the No. 10 spot in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings, but the 39-year-old has been hanging onto that ranking by a thread and Holland could be the man to take it. “Trailblazer” has impressed since dropping down to 170 pounds (outside of an unanticipated catchweight bout against Khamzat Chimaev at UFC 279). Thompson’s win will guarantee him a number.
In the main card, Bryan Barberena, welterweight, faces Rafael dos Anjos (flyweight), Matheus Nicoau and Matt Schnell battle it out, Tai Tuivasa, Sergei Pavlovich and top-ranked heavyweights go knockout hunting and Jack Hermansson fights Roman Dolidze, while Eryk Anders, Kyle Daukaus and Kyle Daukaus start the broadcast.
What : UFC Orlando
Where: Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.
When: Saturday, Dec. 3. The eight-fight preliminary card begins at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+, followed by a six-fight main card at 10 p.m. on ESPN and ESPN+.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Stephen Thompson (10) vs. Kevin Holland
At 170 pounds, Kevin Holland hasn’t lost any of the striking creativity and finishing power that made him a top 10 middleweight contender. I am leaning towards Holland for this pick because he has an advantage in both length and youth.
Stephen Thompson remains one of the most confounding puzzles to solve in MMA, particularly if you’re a striker. By now, the secret is out that if you have a potent wrestling game, then you can ground “Wonderboy,” so if Holland can put any emphasis on his offensive grappling now would be a good time to start. However, Holland’s submission opportunities typically arise from his striking so it would be somewhat surprising to see him focus solely on taking Thompson down.
So why go with Holland? Size matters. Age matters.
Thompson has lost one decision to another standup fighter, current middleweight Darren Till. That fight was tough to watch and, regrettably, fans could be in store for a similar game of inches on Saturday. Holland is capable of producing incredible offensive bursts when he locates the range. As difficult as this can be against Thompson, I expect Thompson to be slower than Vicente Luque and Geoff Neal a few years back. A step that will make all the difference.
Look for Holland to drop a round or two to Thompson before turning it up in Round 3 en route to a convincing decision win or possibly a late finish.
Rafael dos Anjos (10 LW) vs. Bryan Barberena
Let’s start by saying I love Bryan Barberena’s current matchmaking strategies. After earning a decision win over a bona fide legend in Matt Brown, he followed that up by punching out former UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler and could now add another former UFC champion to his hit list with Rafael dos Anjos. Even though “RDA” was a champ in a lighter division, that would still be a hell of a three-fight run for Barberena.
Unfortunately for Barberena, dos Anjos is just better at mixing the martial arts than he is.
Although Lawler’s fighting style was always going to be less effective as he got older, dos Anjos has the potential to train lower-tier fighters with his varied skills. Barberena isn’t the biggest welterweight either, so dos Anjos shouldn’t have much trouble engaging him in a boxing match or taking him down if the situation arises.
Barberena, a striker who is busy but not with the power to make a big impact on dos Anjos’s performance should be cause for concern. That day may come for dos Anjos soon, it just won’t be on Saturday.
Dos Anjos should be more like Raphael Assuncao’s recent schooling Victor Henry. Another comfortable win for a Brazilian veteran.
Pick: Dos Anjos
Matheus Nicolau (10) vs. Matt Schnell
Matt Schnell excels in chaotic scraps, but don’t expect Matheus Nicolau to accommodate.
Nicolau is a flyweight contender in UFC. This may be partly because he’s better known for his consistent performances than his lightning fast punches. The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 4 standout has won five straight fights and 11 of his past 12, getting past the likes of past title challengers Tim Elliott and John Moraga, and former RIZIN champion Manel Kape.
He’s methodical and won’t be rushed, though Schnell certainly has the toughness and experience to test that approach. Schnell might make it ugly. But Nicolau has a solid grip on his guns and can control distance well. On the ground, I also favor Nicolau.
If Nicolau is looking to win fans and make a statement, he will take some risks. If he wants to fight Schnell, he’ll keep doing business the same way as Matheus Nicolau.
Nicolau by decision.
Tai Tuivasa (4) vs. Sergei Pavlovich (6)
I have a confession to make: Tai Tuivasa could be Derrick Lewis’s replacement.
Let me end.
For years, Lewis was the always dangerous top 5 gatekeeper at heavyweight. Good enough to knock out anyone outside of a handful of names, good enough to earn a title shot, not quite good enough to win it all. This sums up Tuivasa’s career. I think Lewis was knocked out by him two years ago. The gatekeeper torch was then passed to another worthy successor.
So it is upon Tuivasa that he takes revenge on his brother in swangin’ and bangin’, Sergei Pavlovich having also just won over Lewis.
All of this is to say that we’re talking about a matchup of heavyweight sluggers here and I cannot predict with any confidence who is going to win this one. Tuivasa is a worthy contender, but he showed that with his thrilling performance against Ciryl Gane (an opponent he had little to no chance against), he has not been forgotten. But Pavlovich is legit, a Russian machine who has just been walking through the opposition. He has everything it takes to be UFC champion in 2023.
My heart says Tuivasa because I don’t want to believe that the good times are done rolling. My gut says Pavlovich. I’m going with my gut.
Jack Hermansson (13) vs. Roman Dolidze
While it is clear that Roman Dolidze will finish the race, he faces a significant challenge in Jack Hermansson’s absence and with very short notice.
Dolidze is so aggressive, even off of his back, which is both a plus and a minus when calculating his chances of beating Hermansson. He could be hurt by Hermansson’s willingness to fight on ground. This one will be full of visually appealing scrambles as the two look to grab a neck and a limb.
On the feet, Hermansson’s reach and durability gives him the edge, though Dolidze is yet to be finished in his 12-fight career. Hermansson is a much more challenging challenge than Dolidze’s faced thus far. This would impact how Dolidze will be judged as a potential future competitor.
I still believe Dolidze is a great fighter, even though he lost. Dolidze needs to see this as a learning opportunity, even though I am going along with Hermansson in order to get a submission.
Eryk Anders vs. Kyle Daukaus
Eryk Anders has always had all the tools to be a factor at 185 pounds, but he’s rarely been able to put them all together. Kyle Daukaus, on the other hand, knows his identity as a submission specialist and is determined to use it as much as possible.
There’s a clear path to victory here for Anders, one that sees him stuffing takedowns and stifling submission attempts until Daukaus tires and becomes vulnerable in the second half of the fight. However, Daukaus is such a strong grappler that I don’t see Anders being able to last long enough to implement that game plan. Anders can be effective with his feet but not enough power to scare Daukaus. Daukaus came in, pushed Anders to the ground, and then went about his business.
It might take a round or two, but Daukaus wins by submission.
Niko Price def. Phil Rowe
Angela Hill (13) def. Emily Ducote (14)
Scott Holtzman def. Clay Guida
Michael Johnson def. Marc Diakiese
Jonathan Pearce def. Darren Elkins
Natan Levy def. Genaro Valdez
Francis Marshall denied. Marcelo Rojo
Yazmin Jauregui def. Istela Nunes