Preview And Predictions: UFC Fight Night Zagreb – Dos Santos vs. Rothwell

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After a three week break from UFC action, it’s back to business this week for the Las Vegas based fight firm as the Octagon heads to Europe once more. On this occasion, the Croatian capital of Zagreb will have its maiden UFC card as the Arena Zagreb hosts UFC Fight Night 86.

In the headlining bout of the night, veteran heavyweights meet for a chance to climb the rankings as former UFC champion Junior Dos Santos takes on former IFL star Ben Rothwell over five rounds.

From Salvador, Brazil but now also training with ‘American Top Team’ in the US, Junior Dos Santos has been a top grade heavyweight since he quite literally burst onto the scene during his 2008 UFC debut with a first round knockout win over current UFC champion Fabricio Werdum.

That win was the start of an eight fight unbeaten streak – something which is basically unheard of amongst modern UFC heavyweights. In that period, Dos Santos took out the likes of Mirko Cro Cop and Shane Carwin before beating Cain Velasquez for the title, and defending it against Frank Mir.

In the rematch with Velasquez, though, Dos Santos lost his title and took a beating along the way, before a third fight between the pair saw JDS violently defeated again. Another five round war in his win over Stipe Miocic followed that before, last time out, the wear and tear appeared to show when he was knocked out by Alistair Overeem.

Although Ben Rothwell is around the same age as Junior Dos Santos, he has been around the game a lot longer.

A fifteen year MMA veteran, Rothwell had fought in KOTC, IFL and Affliction, amongst others, before finally getting the UFC call in 2009. When it came, he was thirty-seven fights deep as a professional with wins over names like Travis Fulton, Ricco Rodriguez and Roy Nelson.

Since then the Wisconsin native has amassed a 6-3 record with his most recent outings producing four wins on the bounce over messrs Vera, Overeem, Mitrione and Barnett, meaning “Big” Ben is within seconds of a UFC title tilt.

As a contest this one is very intriguing. Dos Santos is by far the better technical fighter but Rothwell, with thirty-four wins inside the distance, is an extremely dangerous finisher with his strikes and submissions.

Expect Dos Santos to come out light on his feet from the start as he uses his athleticism to dazzle his hefty opponent. As always, Rothwell will be happy to play the waiting game as he looks for a chance to pounce and land his big shot, like he did against Overeem, or jump on a submission, like he did against Mitrione and Barnett.

For Dos Santos the ability to use a detailed gameplan of movement and speed to avoid the dangerous hitman, while landing shots of his own, will be very import. Something which, in the past, he has been able to do against certain opponents but against high pressure fighters like Cain Velasquez, it can all quickly go out the window. And although Rothwell is no Cain Velasquez, he has shown an ability put on pressure in fights when needs be.

Another reoccurring theme in Rothwell’s recent winning streak is an ability to absorb powerful shots before replying with some of his own. The opposite is increasingly the case for Dos Santos. Against Miocic he didn’t look himself despite the win while the Overeem fight looked like he was playing the shadow of his former self.

For that reason you can expect this one to be relatively cagey early. For Dos Santos, there will be an obvious need to protect himself more than usual early but also a realisation that he likes to start fast and that Rothwell often takes a while to get going. Blending those two things will be key.

If his chin can hold up, and he can weather the storm, Rothwell will probably end up bringing the heat and winning but not many men on his earth hit as hard and accurately as Junior Dos Santos early doors.

Outside of that, this card really is lacking in high level quality but there are some interesting people on show.

Maybe most notable of all is French heavyweight Francis Ngannou. Standing 6’4″ inches tall and with a 6-1 record the 250 lbs behemoth might be just the man to breath some much needed life into an increasingly decrepit heavyweight division.

Although still very green as a professional, having made his debut in late 2013, Ngannou looks to have all the physical attributes to succeed and made a winning start to his UFC career with a three minute KO last time out. On Saturday he meets 5-0 debutante Curtis Blaydes in what could be, in hindsight, a breakout fight.

Also featured on Saturday night worth watching out for are UFC up-and-comers Maryna Moroz, Nicolas Dalby and Mairbek Taisumov while the co-main event sees veteran Gabriel Gonzaga take on the sometimes very terrifying Derrick Lewis.

FULL FIGHT PICKS

Ben Rothwell vs. Junior dos Santos – I fancy an early JDS KO
Gabriel Gonzaga vs. Derrick Lewis – Lewis via mount and pound
Francis Ngannou vs. Curtis Blaydes – Hoping to see NGannou improvements & a big KO
Timothy Johnson vs. Marcin Tybura – Tybura
Igor Pokrajac vs. Jan Błachowicz – Błachowicz
Maryna Moroz vs. Cristina Stanciu – Moroz

Nicolas Dalby vs. Zak Cummings – Dalby
Mairbek Taisumov vs. Damir Hadzović – Taisumov
Ian Entwistle vs. Alejandro Pérez – Enty
Filip Pejić vs. Damian Stasiak – Pejić

Robert Whiteford vs. Lucas Martins – Martins
Jared Cannonier vs. Cyril Asker – Asker
Bojan Veličković vs. Alessio Di Chirico – Veličković

BET OF THE WEEK

Junior Dos Santos via first round KO at 9/2

START TIMES (Sunday) 

Early Prelims – 3.30pm on Fight Pass

Prelims  –  5pm on Fight Pass

Main Card – 7pm on BT Sport 1 or Fight Pass

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