Sunday, 31 December 2017

UFC 219 Report: Cyborg sees off Holm to defend UFC women's featherweight title

By Alistair Hendrie

Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino dodged a bullet on Saturday night at UFC 219, outpointing Holly Holm in the main event to hang on to her UFC women’s featherweight title. The Brazilian was expected to power through Holm with raiding combinations, but in her first defence of the belt, she was made to chase Holm around the cage and had to settle for one or two-punch salvos. In fact, Holm nullified the titlist early on and made it competitive through her work-rate and conditioning.

The challenger, a former boxing world champion and a one-time UFC 135lbs queen, landed leg kicks at will in the first round and scuttled low with her back to the cage. She scored with two and three punches at a time, but Cyborg connected with the more powerful counters. Indeed, the champion started to find inroads with body kicks and head kicks in the second, despite conceding underhooks against the fence.

By round three, Holm was still circling at pace and throwing out jabs and straight punches. However, the American insisted on wheeling towards Cyborg’s more dangerous right side, and after a while her attacks become predictable. Cyborg began to grow in to the fight. She read Holm’s head movement and snapped her head back with a jab, also bashing the body with step-in kicks.

Holm continued her fleet-footed tactics in the final two frames, befuddling the favourite and making a mockery of pre-fight predictions for a Cyborg blowout. She upped her output but Cyborg pulled ahead with her snapping jab and knees to the body on the break. Eventually, the Curitiba-born striker generated more openings for power kicks and violent combinations, and she was fair value for scores of 49-46 and 48-47 (twice) in her favour.

Cyborg never looked in danger despite eating plenty of kicks to the body and forearms. She displayed strong cardio and astute game-planning which showed coach Jason Parillo in an excellent light. But given her fearsome reputation – this was her ninth knockout on the bounce – and Holm’s lack of pedigree at 145lbs, shouldn’t she have prospered in more explosive fashion? Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn primed their charge well for this bout, but it was always going to be an uphill struggle. Cyborg needs a tougher test, and the Australian Invicta featherweight titlist Megan Anderson, who would be Cris’s most menacing opponent yet, should be waiting in the wings.

Khabib Nurmagomedov dominated the lightweight co-main event, exhibiting a tirade of ground-and-pound to shut out Edson Barboza by scores of 30-25 (twice) and 30-24. Those scores were perfectly accurate too. The Russian sambo specialist scored vice-like half guard and full mount positions throughout the fight and peppered his rival with hammer fists, elbows and forearms, inflicting a miserable beating on Mark Henry’s man.

Keep in mind Barboza is one of the most dangerous fighters at 155lbs, the only man to finish two UFC outings with leg kicks. Nurmagomedov nevertheless closed the distance, and even rubbished accusations that he’s a pure grappler by landing his own kicks to the head and offsetting the action with leg kicks. Khabib spent most of the decider posturing up, bloodying up Barboza with punches, completing one of the most vicious displays of ground-and-pound ever seen in the UFC. Bouts with world champion Conor McGregor or interim belt-holder Tony Ferguson await.

Also at lightweight, New Zealand’s Dan Hooker saw off Britain’s Marc Diakiese, telegraphing a takedown attempt to seal a guillotine choke in round three. Hooker, a bean-pole striker with a 75inch reach, engaged in a patient battle of kicks and scrambles before earning his seventh victory by tapout. His rival deviated from his corner instructions though, and shot for the takedown despite coach Conan Silveira telling him not to. Hooker can now attack the top 15 with his length and crafty jiu-jitsu, while Diakiese slips to 3-2 in the UFC.

Carla Esparza went some way to retrieving her old women’s strawweight title by taking a decision over Cynthia Calvillo, with three scores of 29-28 which were perhaps unfair to her opponent. One of the best prospects in the sport, Calvillo showed excellent timing and execution of the takedown in the first round before fending off an armbar in the second. Eventually Esparza’s boxing - which has improved leaps and bounds - and more active wrestling game perhaps saw her through.

Neil Magny put the welterweight division on notice with a cast-iron decision over Carlos Condit, the verdicts of 30-27 (twice) and 29-28 bringing him the biggest win of his career. The New Yorker stifled the better striker with beautiful takedowns against the fence, dominating with his superior wrist control, head positioning and shoulder strikes for good measure. Condit enjoyed more success with varied combinations in the closing moments, but Magny showed too many fakes and level-changes for “The Natural Born Killer” to turn it into a war.

On the UFC Fight Pass Prelims, Polish light-heavyweight Michal Oleksiejczuk debuted in the UFC with a hard-fought victory over Khalil Rountree Jr, all three judges seeing it 30-27. The newcomer, buoyed by three consecutive first round Kos/TKOs, fought fire with fire and earned the upper hand with front kicks and crafty hooks to the head and body. A powerful striker, Oleksiejczuk, 22, could be a contender if he develops more size and muscle at the weight.

At featherweight Miles Jury shut out Rick Glenn 30-27 on all cards, showing spiteful counters and an active clinch game to have it all his own way. Meanwhile, at middleweight, Omari Akhmedov and Marvin Vettori threw caution to the wind in a back-and-forth fist fight which culminated in a draw – two 28-28s and one 29-28 for Vettori.

Elsewhere on the Prelims, Brazilian flyweight Matheus Nicolau grabbed a decision over Louis Smolka, dropping his man three times for a 30-26 (twice) and 30-25 victory. Bantamweights Tim Elliot and Mark De La Rosa opened up the event, as Elliot earned a submission in round two with an anaconda choke.  

Read more reaction on Cyborg's standing in the sport and why she should tackle Megan Anderson next


Thursday, 28 December 2017

UFC 219 Preview: Cyborg aims to silence the naysayers against Holm

By Alistair Hendrie

UFC women’s featherweight champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino will look to silence her critics on Saturday, when she faces Holly Holm in the main event of UFC 219 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Brazilian has earned eight consecutive KO/TKO victories since 2013, but her reputation has dipped thanks to a lack of competition at 145lbs, and a doping suspension in 2012 after testing positive for stanzolol. 

Cyborg looked outstanding in her last contest at UFC 214 in June, as she broke down Tonya Evinger to seal the KO with a flurry of knees to the face. However, the doubters will point out that Evinger had never previously fought at 145lbs. Plus, Cyborg’s only previous UFC run-outs were at a 140lbs catchweight against Lina Lansberg and Leslie Smith, both of whom were undersized and dispatched within the distance. Still, Cyborg’s leg kicks, left-right combinations and relentless ground-and-pound make her one of the most destructive fighters in the sport. Her body of work includes vicious finishes over trailblazers such as Gina Carano and Marloes Coenen (twice), helping her live up to her nickname. 

Unfortunately for the Brazilian, a win over Holm may not be enough to enrich her legacy. Although Holm won multiple boxing world titles between 140lbs and 154lbs, her form has plummeted since she upset Ronda Rousey to win the bantamweight title at UFC 193 in 2015. She has dipped to 3-1 since then, shutting off Bethe Corriea with a head kick last time out at UFC Fight Night: Singapore in June 2017. That prior trio of defeats included a rear naked choke to Miesha Tate, and dour scorecard defeats to Valentina Shevchenko and Germaine de Randamie, the latter for the 145lbs strap which Germaine subsequently vacated. That bout in particular resembled a staring contest, with neither woman willing to pull the trigger. 

So, Holm might not be the highest level of contender – then again, the UFC are yet to build a talent pool at 145lbs – but it’s at least a match-up which will test out Cyborg’s skills. Both women like to probe with legs kicks and kicks to the body, although Holm is much more likely to keep the distance with oblique kicks. The Jackson-Winkeljohn product waits patiently to look for the head kick, so it will be interesting to see how or when Cyborg lets rip with boxing combinations. The pick is for Holm to befuddle Cyborg in the opening exchanges, but the champion should come through by rounds three or four. That said, Cyborg would be better off challenging the likes of Invicta FC’s featherweight queen Megan Anderson, who boasts reach and size and plenty of pedigree at 145lbs. 

The lightweight co-main event features returning Russian phenom Khabib Nurmagomedov, who tackles Brazilian striker Edson Barboza. Nurmagomedov is one of the best wrestlers in the UFC, boasting a broad range of suplexes and slams, not to mention shrewd strikes from half guard and knee-on-belly position. He scored a brutal kimura over Michael Johnson in his last visit to the Octagon, at UFC 205 in November 2016, but his career has been blighted by his struggles to boil down to 155lbs. He was hospitalised during his weight cut for his UFC 209 grudge match with Tony Ferguson, which was eventually cancelled, and you can understand the sceptics who wonder if “The Eagle” will even make it to the cage on Saturday night. 

Keep in mind it’s not only the scales the Eastern European will have to battle. Barboza exhibits a stunning range of kicks, not least his unforgettable wheel kick knockout of Terry Etim at UFC 142 in 2012. He’s the only man in UFC history to finish two bouts by leg kicks, against Mike Lullo and Raphael Oliveira, while he also winds up on his kicks with velocity and disguise. He’s currently on a tear of 3-0, boasting decisions over legendary pair Anthony Pettis and Gilbert Melendez, not forgetting a flying knee knockout of Beneil Dariush at UFC Fight Night: Fortaleza in March that sent shockwaves through the division. 

You could argue that Nurmagomedov would enter as the favourite thanks to his superior grappling, fight IQ and well-rounded skill-set. If he can secure half guard or back mount, the American Kickboxing Academy man should be able to dominate, rain down strikes and earn a cast-iron decision. Still, he should watch out for kicks and knees when shooting, and of course, he’ll need to make sure his weight cut and rehydration are on point. If he comes through, marketable showdowns against the likes of lightweight king Conor McGregor or interim champ Ferguson could be on the cards. 

Also at 155lbs, hot prospects Dan Hooker and Marc Diakiese will clash in a battle to enter the rankings argument. New Zealand’s Hooker starched Ross Pearson with a knee at UFC Fight Night: Auckland in June, snapping the Brit’s head back and sending his mouthguard flying above the canvas. He mixes up his jab well, but does leave his chin high at times. 

His rival Diakiese, another Brit, tore through the domestic scene with a highlight reel of spinning kicks, jumping guard passes and raiding combinations. He entered the UFC with three wins, featuring a check hook that dropped Teemu Packalen like a stone in the ocean at UFC Fight Night: London in March. Still, he suffered his first loss at The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale in July, as Dakkar Klose nuffilied the striker on his way to a decision which nobody could debate. If Hooker keeps his guard up and works behind his jab, he could scrape through with the verdict. Either way, if Diakiese backs his man up to the fence and unloads his flamboyant striking, this could be a sleeper for fight of the night. 

Speaking of prospects making their name in 2017, strawweight Cynthia Calvillo is another one. The 30-year-old, who only turned pro in August 2016, is one of the most in-form fighters in the world and owns scalps over the likes of Montana De La Rosa, Pearl Gonzalez, Amanda Bobby Cooper and, most impressively, Joanne Calderwood, despite giving up plenty of experience to the Scot. On Saturday Calvillo battles the former world leader, Carla Esparza, and could get her hand raised if she follows Team Alpha Male’s instructions as well as she did against Calderwood. That said, Calvillo has never faced a wrestler like Esparza, who works doggedly from top position, so this is the acid test the Californian needs. 

Rounding off the main card is a welterweight scrap between crowd-pleaser Carlos Condit and the long, rangy striker Neil Magny. Despite getting past the likes of Rory MacDonald, Thiago Alves and Dan Hardy in a stand-out career, Condit’s defeats have come against the likes of Robbie Lawler, Georges St-Pierre and Johny Hendricks, when all three were at the peak of their careers. After losing five of his last seven bouts, “The Natural Born Killer” needs to utilise his cardio and end combinations with kicks to outlast Magny. His rival is an awkward customer but can be gun-shy. You feel the UFC fanbase will be rooting for Condit whatever happens, though. 

Heading up the UFC Fight Pass prelims, powerful light-heavyweight Khalil Rountree Jr takes on surging UFC debutant Michal Oleksiejczuk. Neither man takes it to the ground much, while Oleksiejczuk loves a slugfest and has finished his last three outings by TKO or KO in round one. Expect fireworks if either man lands flush, but Oleksiejczuk should start as the favourite. Elsewhere on the prelims, featherweights Myles Jury and Rick Glenn collide, while middleweights Marvin Mattori and Omari Akhmedov will also look to put on a show. Flyweights Louis Smolka and Matheus Nicolau start off the prelims, while a 135lbs showcase, Tim Elliot against Marc De La Rosa, takes place on early UFC Fight Pass prelims.

After you've enjoyed Cyborg's showdown with Holm, visit Alistair Hendrie Sport for the latest news, reports and opinion from UFC 219.