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.
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