Fight Picks And Preview – UFC 189

Rory Robbie

Although you might not think it because of the build-up, there are actually other fights on UFC 189 apart from Conor McGregor vs. Jose Aldo Chad Mendes (although if you do only care about that you can read my in-depth breakdown here.) In fact, even without the main event, this card is arguably the best of the year with titles on the line, an abundance of tremendous fights and plenty of Irish athletes on show.

Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald

In the co-main event, even though it has almost completely flown under the radar, the welterweight title will be up for grabs as champion Robbie Lawler takes on Rory MacDonald in a rematch of a 2013 meeting which saw Lawler win the narrowest of split decisions. That fight, which went all three rounds, was a back-and-forth affair which, in the end, was decided on a tight first round after Robbie clearly won the third and Rory clearly won the second. Saturday night is likely to be another close affair.

As experienced fighters go, Robbie Lawler is right up there near the top of the current UFC stars having made his MMA debut way back in 2001 as a nineteen year old. A year after that initial fight, Lawler was in the UFC and on a fast track to the top. Unfortunately that train quickly hit the breaks as he was released from the promotion in 2004 having lost three out of four fights, most notably to Nick Diaz. A nine year stint out of the Octagon followed that as Lawler plied his trade in PRIDE, IFL, EliteXC and lastly Strikeforce before the UFC takeover saw him back in the biggest MMA league of them all. In the seven fights since his return, Lawler has won six and, last time out, beat Johny Hendricks to take back his one defeat and win the UFC welterweight title.

For Rory MacDonald his job on Saturday is to stop Lawler from getting in even one defence of his strap. Like Lawler, Canadian MacDonald was a young, super-talented prospect who had much success early on. After making his MMA debut at just sixteen years of age, MacDonald won nine fights in a row before his tenth bout saw him get a debut UFC win over Mike Guymon. And although he was beaten by Carlos Condit in his next outing, MacDonald has remained in the UFC since. Wins over Nate Diaz, BJ Penn and Tyron Woodley were stand-out moments over his eleven fight stint but recurring injuries and the fact his teammate Georges St-Pierre was the long time welterweight champion have stopped MacDonald from getting to the very top. That all changes, though, on Saturday night with a win.

As we know from their first meeting, these two men are very different fighters but very evenly matched at the same time. With nineteen of his twenty-four wins coming via knockout, Lawler is a hard hitting, power puncher who likes to push guys back while attacking with combinations of kicks and punches in the pocket. His wrestling is constantly improving but it’s his newly polished takedown defence which has been largely to thank for his late career resurgence.

MacDonald, on the other hand, is more of a technician. He likes to set his stall out early, get his jab going and add power strikes behind it. Since the first Lawler fight his output has improved a lot and the frequency with which he throws those power strikes has gone up. As a wrestler MacDonald has the clear advantage and is also more likely to win any jiu-jitsu battles.

Like the first fight between the pair, I expect this one to be fought out at close striking quarters early with Rory jabbing constantly and Robbie hand fighting his way inside. Expect most of the wrestling attacks to come from Rory once the half way point of round one comes which will give a big indication of who will come out on top. If Lawler can stop the shots, that’ll be his best hope to win. As the fight progresses, if he can stay off of his back, Lawler will land a big shot on MacDonald and how he recovers from that will be huge. Since their last outing, as previously mentioned, MacDonald’s increased rate of power punching has been his biggest improvement. With that added string to his bow and his, almost unmatched, ability to stick to a gameplan I see MacDonald doing enough to take the judges’ decision and the welterweight strap.

Gunnar Nelson vs. Brandon Thatch

Outside of the welterweight title fight there are two more 170 lbs match-ups with Irish interest attached. The first of those sees SBG Ireland student Gunnar Nelson take on dangerous American Brandon Thatch. As a former stand-out both on the jiu-jitsu and local MMA scene, Gunnar Nelson has long been talked about as one of the biggest prospects in the sport. And, after winning his first four fights inside the Octagon with consummate ease, the Iceland native looked to be on the fast track to the top. That was all halted last time out, though, as, in his first headlining slot, Rick Story deservedly beat him to a decision.

His opponent on Saturday night, Brandon Thatch, has mapped a pretty similar route. Entering the UFC on nine consecutive first round finishes, the American added two more once he stepped into the Octagon against Paulo Thiago and Justin Edwards. Like Nelson, though, Thatch’s momentum hit the breaks last time out as he lost to former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson. For both men, this Saturday is a perfect chance to bounce back to winning ways.

As mixed marital artists these two welterweights are about as different as possible under the unified rules. Thatch is a fast, attacking striker who will hit with kicks and punches to the legs, body and head from all angles. He has a very good clinch game with hard knees on the inside and is adequate off of his back although wrestling and jiu-jitsu are undoubtedly his weakest areas.

The opposite is true of Nelson. The Iceland native is a black belt under Renzo Gracie and is an absolute submission whizz when his wrestling and exquisite trips get the fight to the floor. As a striker Nelson fights out of a karate stance which you see from a lot of SBG fighters and, unlike his opponent, is more of a technician than a knockout artist.

Like many MMA fights this one will be won or lost by the area it takes place. If the fight stays standing the whole way through Thatch will probably win but if Nelson can get a superior position on the floor he has a great chance of getting a submission. Against Benson Henderson, the blueprint was shown on how to beat Thatch and Nelson will know that. Weather the early storm, survive, test his cardio and take him down. That might be easier said than done but Nelson definitely has the ability to do it. Even though you can’t rule out the early Thatch KO, this looks like a nightmare match-up for him and I see Nelson getting the submission win.

Cathal Pendred vs. John Howard

The second 170 lbs SBG fighter on the card is Dublin’s own Cathal Pendred who takes on tough veteran John Howard. Entering the UFC as a former Cage Warriors welterweight champion, Pendred has had a successful, if somewhat unconvincing, quartet of fights in the Octagon so far following a stint in the Ultimate Fighter house. In his UFC debut “The Punisher” was involved in a comeback of the year candidate against Mike King and quickly followed that submission win with a tight, but deserved, decision win over an unwilling Gasan Umalatov in Sweden. Then, in January, a controversial judges’ decision gave Pendred the win over Sean Spencer while last time out the former DCU student took his UFC record to 4-0 against Dodger Montano at altitude in Mexico just four weeks ago.

For Howard, he has had a much longer and more up-and-down MMA career. After making his debut way back in 2004, it took “Doomsday” five years and fourteen fights to reach the UFC. Incidentally, that Octagon opening outing came just three weeks before Pendred’s MMA debut and saw Howard start off a run of four consecutive wins. A step in up class followed that and three losses saw Howard cut from the organisation before he returned two and a half years later for his second run in the UFC. In the time since, Howard has won two fights against Uriah Hall and Siyar Bahadurzada but enters Saturday night on three consecutive losses and with his job in the balance.

As MMA fighters both of these guys are pretty similar in their in-cage approach. Howard, after playing American football as a teenager, found martial arts at a young age and has put together a well rounded game. The American is purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and puts it to good use with a tight wrestling game. On the feet he has fast, powerful hands which are a tough task for anyone.

For Pendred, a former schools rugby star, his game is largely predicated on pressure. The Dubliner is a solid, and improving, striker who loads up with power shots rather than letting them go constantly. The grappling, though, is where he really shines. Pendred has a very good clinch game against the cage and can work takedown from there, or in open space, to show off a nifty ground game which hurts with his ground and pound and is dangerous with submissions.

Expect this one to be a very close affair. Despite all of Howard’s strong points he isn’t getting any younger and needs a win here. To do that he’ll need to start very fast and exploit some of the defensive frailties which have seen the Dubliner knocked down multiple times in his career so far. With his quicker hands and takedown defence, I’d expect Howard to have the better of this early. As the fight goes on, though, that should change. Questions are there about Howard’s cardio while Pendred has a gas tank which lasts for days. I wouldn’t be surprised by a late Pendred stoppage here but I think Howard, due to his fast hands and greater striking output early, might have just enough to nick the first two rounds on the judges’ scorecards.

Neil Seery vs. Louis Smolka

Kicking off the Irish interest on the night, though, will be Team Ryano flyweight Neil Seery who takes on dangerous American Louis Smolka. A former local stalwart and Cage Warriors champion, Seery entered the UFC on short notice back in March 2014 and, against many people’s expectations, it has been an extremely impressive stint for the gregarious Dubliner. His debut, against highly ranked Englishman Brad Pickett, might have ended in defeat but it was a real sign that Seery could handle the big time while the two wins that followed it, against Phil Harris and Chris Beal, solidified Seery’s spot as a 125 pounder not to be taken lightly.

After an undefeated 6-0 start to his MMA career, like Seery, Hawaii native Louis Smolka entered the UFC in early 2014 and, also like Seery, has won two of his three fights since then. His only career loss to date came against former title challenger Chris Cariaso in a split decision which was sandwiched in between wins over Alptekin Ozkilic and Richie Vaculik.

As even as their records are of late, so is this fight. Smolka is a tremendous karate stylish who throws from all angles and areas. His kicks are some of the best in the division and, like his superkick KO of Richie Vaculik, can end the fight at any minute. To that striking arsenal, as a Judo brown belt, he adds some nice throws when he gets tied up while his wrestling and submission game are good but not as necessary to be worried about.

Like Smolka, Seery is an excellent practitioner on the feet. Having sparred for the last couple of years at Celtic Warrior gym with the likes of pro boxers Stephen Ormond and Jono Carroll, Seery has improved greatly his already slick technical boxing. Wrestling may be the one weak link in his game but it’s made up for by an extremely attacking bottom game and dangerous submission attacks.

The combination of all of those traits makes this one an unmissable match-up which should be fought out mostly on the feet. Having dealt with a Judo guy in Phil Harris previously, Seery should be used to the kind of takedown attempts Smolka uses. In the striking exchanges it should be pretty exciting with Smolka’s varied attacks but the crisp, silky hands of the Liverpool fan, coupled with his solid chin and ferocious determination, should see him outscore the American.

FIGHT PICKS

Conor McGregor vs. Chad Mendes – McGregor stuffs enough takedowns to get the mid-fight KO
Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald – The Red King dominates, win the title
Dennis Bermudez vs. Jeremy Stephens – Bermudez out-wrestles and out-works Stephens
Gunnar Nelson vs. Brandon Thatch – Nelson gets it to the floor, puts Thatch to sleep
Thomas Almeida vs. Brad Pickett – Almeida via brutal KO

Matt Brown vs. Tim Means – Amazing fight ends in a Brown KO
John Howard vs. Cathal Pendred – Tight decision goes to Howard
Alex Garcia vs. Mike Swick – Garcia retires Swick
Henry Briones vs. Cody Garbrandt – Cody takes the decision

Neil Seery vs. Louis Smolka – Seery dominates, gets his first UFC finish
Yosdenis Cedeno vs. Cody Pfister – Cedeno decision

BET OF THE WEEK

Gunnar Nelson via submission at 11/4

START TIMES

Early Prelims – 12am on UFC Fight Pass

Prelims – 1am on BT Sport 2 HD

Main Card – 3am BT Sport 2 HD

Lead MMA writer and analyst for SevereMMA. Co-host of the SevereMMA podcast, out every Tuesday. Economics and Mathematics graduate from UCC. 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