There will be even more testosterone than usual on the last train back to the city Saturday night as the UFC descends on Long Island. It needs to be mentioned that this is a really cool moment for both the UFC and the local scene, as Long Island has long been a sneaky hotbed of MMA – particularly the fighters – beginning with TUF 4 winner and the UFC’s Rocky, former welterweight champ Matt Serra. As expected, a number of native sons line the card, headlining middleweight and Serra protege Chris Weidman and light-heavyweight contender Gian Villante included. All in all, this is an excellent card top to bottom, so let’s dig in.
The Main Event
Our main even pits two fighters with similar skill sets but at different points of their careers against each other.
In one corner you have Gastelum, a “finally arrived” contender who after just seeming to sort of not get it for awhile (missed weight, testing positive for the devil’s lettuce), now appears serious about making a run. I can really can only describe the Yuma, AZ native as a gorilla. Although short and somewhat undersized for the division (he flubbed multiple cuts to 170 and was forced to move up), The stocky 25 year old is incredibly strong and agile and uses both the threat of and actual takedowns to set up his heavy power punches, moving fleetly across the cage, somewhat rushed, to engage his opponents. I could go on and on about the raw, primal aspects of Gastelum’s game, but don’t let his lack of accolades fool you. He may not have the pedigree of his adversary, but he is one of the better functional wrestlers in the division and has extremely quick, crisp hands. There are a few knocks on Gastelum, one of which I’ll get to at the end. The main thing he has trouble with is his defense. The way he rushes in and the frenetic nature of his attacks leave him exposed. The fact that he is a smaller, shorter fighter, especially at this weight class, only compounds his susceptibility. All in all however, what seems to be a finally focused, properly motivated Kelvin Gastelum is making quite the charge at the 185lb belt.
In the other corner we have hometown hero and former middleweight champion Chris Weidman. What is there to say about Weidman? Where do we begin? This is the guy who cut 35 lbs in 2 weeks to take a short notice fight to to get into the UFC, only to beat the invincible Anderson Silva for the belt a short two years later. Weidman then polished off Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort before entering a sudden and bizarre downward spiral. He has lost 3 in a row, all by KO/TKO, and has simply looked like a fish out of water in all three, unsure of the divine natural skill and immaculate technique that shot him to the top. There is no greater example of this than his last fight against Gegard Mousasi, where Weidman seemed cautious and timid on the feet, getting boxed up by “The Dreamcatcher” while looking and waiting for a take-down.
I’m going to jump into what I think may be a cause of Chris Weidman’s decline. It’s a bit of read so feel free to skip the next paragraph
Now let me say loud and clear. Chris Weidman is a clean athlete. He is a not a juicer, however his last win and first loss straddle when the stringent USADA testing protocol went into effect. So what does this mean? Well, USADA doesn’t only prohibit the use of and test for performing enhancing and illicit drugs, it does the same for IV use, due to the use of IVs in blood doping. IVs were ubiquitous in MMA training camps, particularly with guys/girls who made use of large water cuts (literally sweating to lose weight) to make weight and then would need to rehydrate quickly in order to walk into the cage not completely drained. Weidman was one of those guys. He is a good sized middleweight who I’m guessing likes to regularly train well nourished, slim down as camp progresses, and then make a big cut – the wrestler’s life. Now, because IVs are gone and thus such huge water cuts would leave him vulnerable in the cage, he has to train smaller/lighter and probably weaker and in general not like he is used to. In my mind he’s even looked smaller than he used to in terms of pure body size. At such an advanced age for such a physical sport it can’t be easy.
When he gets in the cage, Weidman will bring a very similar skill-set as Gastelum’s, although he deploys it differently. Weidman likes to use his footwork and movement, as well as his opponent’s own offense, to set up his Ray Longo-trained hands and D1 All-American take-downs. Considering Gastelum likes to lunge in with strikes and Weidman is capable of defending the takedown, which creates scrambles and breaks, The Hofstra alum should have some openings for his patented counter punches and nasty elbows.
One last thing since I haven’t dropped any hanging paragraphs yet, both combatants have ok but not great gas tanks – this is the lingering chink in Gastelum’s armor I mentioned – so if there is an active first round, expect them both to be look eager for a finish by the mid-2nd
Summary: My feelings for each fighter have been completely inverted. As Weidman’s losing streak began I kept saying not to count him out, he’ll be back. At this point however, it’s hard not to wonder if the lack of IVs, the shots he has taken, and father time have finally come to collect from Strong Island’s own. With Gastelum on the other hand, I’ve been skeptical of how he would do with each rung of the ladder he’s climbed. I guess the last selected contestant of TUF 17 just isn’t meant to be the favorite. That isn’t the case for me Saturday night though, as I believe his youth and power ends Weidman’s night early. Gastelum by KO/TKO in the 2nd/3rd round.
Fan/MMA Nerd Fight of the Night
In a battle of two bantamweights that are both max-two fights away from a title shot, Jersey boy Jimmie Rivera takes on Brazil’s Thomas Almeida. Two fights ago, the interloper “Thominhas” fought Cody Garbrandt in what I can remember as only the 2nd ever “whoever wins this is the next big thing in this division” fight after Jones-Bader at ligh-heavyweight in 2011. Although Almeida was knocked out, Garbrandt now holds the 135lb belt so there’s really no shame in such a loss. The Brazilian buzzsaw has since rebounded with a TKO over fellow prospect Albert Morales and looks to inch closer to either a rematch with “No Love” or a bout with whoever holds the belt when he is given a shot. In terms of how he fights, Almeida is pure violence, to put it mildly. He boasts a remarkable 77% TKO/KO rate over his 22 wins and has finished all but his debut win in the UFC. While a well rounded Muay Thai kickboxer with some great kicks and excellent knees, he primarily uses both to set up his leaden hands, particularly the straight or overhand right.
Across the cage stands Rivera, who has looked beyond impressive and yet with only 1 loss on his resume is still a bit underappreciated in my opinion. While not the soul-crushing finisher that Almeida is, Rivera is about as well-rounded as it gets. Across 3 rounds, Rivera is equivalently dominant, as shown in his unanimous decision win his last time out in September, where he spent 15 minutes convincing Urijah Faber to maybe take one last fight and then retire (long live the California Kid). A Team Tiger Schulman product, Rivera likes to put the pressure on his opponent while also looking for counter punches, although he seems to lack the same power, or possibly hunger, as his opponent to get the finish. It’s also notable that Rivera likes to work the body as a means to soften up and slow down whoever is standing across from him, and in this case it could make Almeida begin thinking twice about his next onslaught.
Summary: This one is honestly a goddam toss up so I’m just going to go for broke. Although the Garbrandt fight showed Almeida does not like to be backed up the way Rivera backs his opponents up, I don’t see that ever happening as the bigger man from Sao Paulo will use his length and aggression to bring the fight to the regional favorite. It could go the distance but that’s a boring prediction. Almeida by TKO/KO in the 1st round.
Intriguing Fighter to Watch
This one has to go to Chris Weidman as so many questions abound. What does he have left? Can he get the win? Will he even look comfortable? With a guy with a similar bag of tricks across from him, where will he look to bring the fight? I guess we’ll see.
Another Fighter to Watch
This could be a big, and long delayed, coming out party for Jimmie Rivera. Make no mistake about it, this fight is not just about whether he wins or loses, but how he looks against a fellow agile, young, hungry striker such as Thomas Almeida. Depending on whether he can get the win, and if so how dominantly, we may have a very good idea of who Jimmie Rivera is coming out of this fight.
– The full list of local fighters on the card, non-Long Island noted: Chris Weidman, Gian Villante, Jimmie Rivera (Ramsay, NJ), Lyman Good (Manhattan, NY, NY), Ryan LaFlare, Shane Burgos (Bronx, NY, NY), and Chris Wade.
-Additionally, Rafael Natal trains with Renzo Gracie in NYC.
-Gian Villante will be cornered in part by UFC Heavyweight Champ Stipe Miocic. I know they train together a bit although I don’t know the connection. They’re both big, hilarious guys so if you catch a preview with them interacting it’s worth watching.
-Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira is criminally underrated with only 3 career losses, one of them to fellow “Cowboy” Cerrone on short notice. Since then he’s won 3 of 4 with 1 no contest.
-It’s hard not to like Darren Elkins but after his last fight he got a chest tattoo of his nickname “The Damage” and it’s awful. No more chest tattoos please.
-The main event was originally supposed to Ricard Lamas vs. “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung but the Zombie destroyed his knee and will be out awhile. Lamas now fights Jason “Hick Diaz” Knight at UFC 214.