Preview and Predictions – UFC 188: Velasquez vs. Werdum

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After the best fight night of the year last week, the UFC returns immediately with its latest numbered offering this week as UFC 188 sees one of MMA’s most prestigious titles unified. For just the second time in company history, the Octagon returns to Mexico as the Arena Ciudad de Mexico plays host to 22,000 adoring fans.

The last time Mexico City played host to the UFC, Cain Velasquez and Fabricio Werdum were due to headline the event but when Cain was injured, Mark Hunt stepped in and lost to Werdum for the interim strap. Now, on Saturday night, those titles will be unified as the pair are set to meet again in the main event.

As the UFC heavyweight champion it has been a very mixed time for Cain Velasquez. Following wins over the likes of Ben Rothwell and Antonio Nogueira before his championship stint, Velasquez beat Brock Lesnar to take the belt in his ninth professional fight back in 2010. Since then, the Mexican-American has lost and regained his belt against Junior Dos Santos but has only fought a total of five times (against JDS again and twice against Bigfoot Silva) due to a series of injuries. Currently, Velasquez is 20 months without a fight and will have a tough task coming back against someone as experienced and well rounded as Werdum.

As a thirteen year, twenty-six fight MMA veteran, Fabricio Werdum has pretty much seen it all in his time. Entering the Octagon as a PRIDE veteran at UFC 70, Werdum had already beaten top ranked heavyweights like Alistair Overeem and Gabriel Gonzaga and was expected to shine on the biggest stage. It didn’t quite work out that way, though, as he bounced out of the promotion following a devastating knockout against Junior Dos Santos just four fights after signing. A year later, Werdum found himself fighting for Strikeforce and reinvigorated his career by ending the famed unbeaten streak of Fedor Emelianenko just before the Zuffa takeover saw him return to the UFC where he currently has five wins in a row.

As heavyweight fighters go, these two are significantly different. Velasquez is best known for his unrelenting pace, unbelievable ability to control a fight and never ending cardio. After starting out his MMA journey as a respected collegiate wrestler, Velasquez has put his base skillset to good use as a grinding clinch, fence and takedown merchant. As a striker, he is more about output than power but he does have to ability to finish it at any moment, given the opportunity. On the ground Cain is a dominant controller of position and a ground and pound machine but has yet to submit someone in his career.

That is something which is unlikely to change on Saturday night against a former world champion in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with nine MMA submissions on his record. Werdum, though, isn’t just a BJJ player anymore and that’s largely why he is fighting at the highest level now. To his undeniably elite grappling resume, the Brazilian has added a striking arsenal which has seen him out-strike Travis Browne and knockout former K1 kickboxing world champion Mark Hunt. As someone who is more than comfortable fighting off of his back, Werdum has had no problems using a muay-thai game with power kicks and punches which may leave him open to be taken down.

The fight itself should be an extremely riveting battle. Velasquez will, more than likely, want to put the pressure on early and get Werdum out of his game by pushing him against the fence, controlling him and using dirty boxing to sap his energy. For Werdum, he will be hoping to make it a competition in open water early where he can circle around Velasquez and land power shots – that’s easier said than done, though. After almost two years out of the cage, Velasquez will need to be extremely careful against Werdum because of his sneaky attempts to pull guard which usually come after being hit with shots which probably didn’t hurt him too much. To do that, though, Velasquez might have to lessen the amount of time he spends controlling on the floor, and for someone who is all about control and pressure, that’s probably an unlikely mode of action. For that reason, despite Velasquez being a solid favourite, I give Werdum a huge chance to tie up a submission and win the unified heavyweight title. Certainly one not to miss.

After that blockbuster headliner, there’s another meeting of champions in the co-main event as former Bellator 155 lbs belt holder Eddie Alvarez meets the last ever Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez. As two high level fighters who have both plied their trade outside of the UFC for almost all of their careers, this fight has been long talked about. As a former EliteXc, Bodog, DREAM and, most recently, Bellator fighter Alvarez has had a long and varied career since making his debut way back in 2003. Wins over the likes of Shinya Aoki, Patricky Pitbull and Michael Chandler had Alvarez ranked amongst the top lightweights in the world although a loss to Donald Cerrone in his UFC debut has cooled that talk for the moment.

Although not as nomadic as Alvarez, Melendez has garnered even more plaudits for his MMA curriculum vitae thus far. After winning the inaugural WEC lightweight championship, Melendez went on to hold a Stikeforce belt for a good portion of four years in three different spells as champion and interim champion. Wins over Josh Thomson, Clay Guida and Jorge Masvidal amongst others had Melendez pinned as real threat following the Zuffa takeover of Strikeforce but, like Alvarez, he was unsuccessful after the transition losing two title fights in his first three Octagon bouts.

Unlike the main event, these two lightweights are pretty similar in their make-up as fighters. As strikers, both men have no problem trading in the pocket. Alvarez may have a slight speed and power advantage and will want to get inside to land his shots while Melendez will have reach and output advantage and will want to use his defence to quell the loaded attacks. As wrestlers it’s a similar story. Melendez is more likely to take his time, shove you against the fence and put you on your back while Alvarez is more of an explosive, fast double and single leg player. Once it goes south, both men have nifty submission and are wizards in the transitions with not such of an advantage going either way. With all that said, this one could really go either way although I’d give the slight advantage to Melendez due to his defensive capabilities.

With a huge summer of MMA for the country off and running, there is more big Irish interest on the card this weekend as SBG Ireland’s Cathal Pendred goes into the lion’s den to take on Mexican favourite Augusto “Dodger” Montano. A former Cage Warriors welterweight champion, Pendred has had a successful, if somewhat up-and-down, trio of fights in the UFC so far following a stint in the Ultimate Fighter house. A “comeback of the year” contender against the PED aided Mike King in his UFC debut was quickly followed by a close, drab decision win over Gasan Umalatov in Sweden before, last time out, a controversial judges’ decision gave Pendred his third UFC win in a row over Sean Spencer. As well as moving to 3-0 in the UFC that win extended Pendred’s unbeaten MMA run to eleven fights; a record he will be looking to add to on Saturday night.

It will be no easy feat, though, against Augusto Montano who himself has won six fights on the spin. As a six-year stand-out on the local Mexican MMA scene, Montano entered the UFC last year as a 14-1 fighter with his only loss coming to current UFC high flier Sam Alvey. Like Pendred, Dodger was successful in front of his home fans in his Octagon debut as he put on an impressive display to finish Chris Heatherly in the first round.

As a style match-up, this has the makings of a a very interesting fight. In the stand-up, both men have a very similar attacking style as they load up and throw hard with often slow, lumbering hooks and uppercuts. Montano probably has the speed advantage while the power is about even; but it’s the defensive frailties which make this one potentially exciting as both men eat plenty of shots. In the wrestling, Pendred should have a huge advantage against a man who was taken down easily three times in his UFC debut. On the floor, though, Montano is dangerous off of his back while Pendred’s ground and pound is not to be messed with either. A huge factor in this one, as well as the rest of the fights on the card, could also be how both men cope with the Mexico city altitude. Montano, who lives in the city, should be used of it (although he did show signs of tiring in his UFC debut) while Pendred has done all he can to acclimate by holding his full camp in the country.

Expect this one to be played out of the feet in the early goings. Pendred usually likes to feel out his opponent in the striking department before deciding whether or not to change up his attacks. That might favour Dodger early as he comes out guns a blazin’ and looks to land with hard shots from the start although in previous fights that has led to him being dropped on numerous occasions. Once they tie up, I expect Pendred to get him against the cage and to put him on the floor without too much trouble. As a former middleweight, Dodger is usually the bigger, stronger man at 170 lbs but against Pendred he will have no such luxury and should be outmuscled on the floor. The fact that all of Montano’s wins have come via stoppage and his only loss was via decision to a wrestler, with Pendred’s wrestling advantage and him notoriously being a hard man to finish, I can only see this fight going one way.

Although the rest of the card isn’t really stacked with known entities, there are a few fights which are definitely worth keeping an eye on. Exciting prospects Albert Tumenov, Kelvin Gastelum and Olympic gold medallist Henry Cejudo all have favourable match-ups to move them up their respective ranks while Tecia Torres, Charles Rosa and Clay Collard should make staying up into the wee hours pretty exciting!

FIGHT PICKS

Cain Velasquez vs. Fabrício Werdum – Cain wins the early exchanges but Werdum eventually submits him
Gilbert Melendez vs. Eddie Alvarez – Extremely close and fun fight goes to Melendez
Kelvin Gastelum vs. Nate Marquardt – Gastelum dominates and finishes
Yair Rodríguez vs. Charles Rosa – Submission win for Rosa
Tecia Torres vs. Angela Hill – Torres wins an easy decision

Chico Camus vs. Henry Cejudo – Cejudo all day
Efrain Escudero vs. Drew Dober – I’m taking the rejuvenated Escudero in the upset
Alejandro Pérez vs. Patrick Williams – Perez via decision
Francisco Trevino vs. Johnny Case – Johnny Case wins without too much drama

Augusto Montaño vs. Cathal Pendred – Pendred gets multiple takedowns, wins a decision
Gabriel Benitez vs. Clay Collard – Should be fun, Collard picks up the win
Albert Tumenov vs. Andrew Todhunte – Einstein Tumenov wins relatively easily

BET OF THE WEEK

This week I’m going for a 9/1 double of Pendred and Werdum

START TIMES

Early Prelims – Midnight On UFC Fight Pass

Prelims – 1am on BT Sport 1

Main Card – 3am on BT Sport 1

Podcaster, lead MMA writer and analyst for SevereMMA. Host of the SevereMMA podcast, out every Sunday. Economics and Mathematics graduate from UCC. Also write for Sherdog. Previously of hov-mma and fightbooth. As heard on 2FM, Red FM, Today FM and more. Follow me on twitter for updates @SeanSheehanBA and on Facebook Facebook.com/seansheehanmma