The famous classic-rock group Three Dog Night once sang that “One Is The Loneliest Number.” In a way, that might hold true for this particular installment of UFC Fight Night, the 101st such edition. Originally, the card had a bona fide main event that featured Luke Rockhold and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, with the victor likely to be considered as a top contender for the UFC middleweight title. But, alas, fate wielded its cruel hand yet again, as Rockhold was forced to withdraw due to injury and a replacement was not found for Jacare. While we shed no tears for Rockhold as he gets nursed back to health by his new squeeze Demi Lovato, the show, as they say, must go on. So another pair of middleweights, Derek Brunson and Robert Whittaker, step to the plate and look to stake their own claim to title contention.
Since this particular Fight Night card takes place in the Land Down Under — Australia, for those who didn’t pay attention in geography class — many a favorite fighter of the Aussies will also take part in this card, including Jake Matthews, Kyle Noke and Daniel Kelly. Oh yeah, and Whittaker is from neighboring New Zealand. So will our neighbors to the south of the Equator have a good night? Will Whittaker and Brunson make fans forget about the awesome main event they almost had with this card? Most importantly, will Paul Hogan or Men At Work make an appearance?
The UFC Fight Night 101 main card kicks off at 10 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1. The prelims of the event, which takes place at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, will air on UFC Fight Pass and Fox Sports 1. In the meantime, Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Vince Carey are here to get you ready for the evening’s festivities in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
UFC Fight Night 101 became the third Fight Night show in a row to lose its big headliner when Luke Rockhold pulled out of his scheduled bout against Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza. Derek Brunson and Robert Whittaker step up to fill the void. Who wins this fight, and how many more wins will that man need before he’s considered as a title challenger?
Carey: The new main event may feel like a bit of a letdown after losing a legit No. 1 contender’s bout between Rockhold and Jacare, but this isn’t a bad consolation prize if you can look past the names and just recognize how damn good Brunson and Whittaker have been in their recent outings. Both men are riding extremely impressive five-fight winning streaks and are likely a win over a top contender away from being in the mix themselves.
Brunson, in particular, has been on an absolute tear. He’s knocked out his opponent within three minutes in four consecutive fights. That’s just stupid impressive, and what makes it even more eye-opening is that Brunson has been doing this to quality competition. Sure, guys like Uriah Hall and Sam Alvey aren’t seen as the cream of the crop, but they’re solid UFC veterans that have been competing against high-caliber competition for years now. The fact that Brunson is making these guys look like amateurs is ridiculous, and the Jackson-Winkeljohn product is more than deserving of this headlining slot.
Whittaker has earned himself a major opportunity as well with his showing over the last couple of years. After winning The Ultimate Fighter: Smashes as a welterweight and starting his UFC career at 170 pounds, Whittaker went a respectable 3-2 before deciding to make a change. The Aussie moved up to the middleweight division at the end of 2014, and the results have been stellar thus far. Whittaker has earned four straight wins, with two by knockout. It’s not like Whittaker has been beating up on scrubs either. His competition is at the least on par with the competition Brunson has had to deal with in his own run. Whittaker has looked like a contender since the move in weight classes, and that’s something he’ll look to continue in front of a crowd that will be firmly behind him on Saturday.
The crowd is a major reason why I’m picking Whittaker to score the win. “The Aussie” is 5-0 inside the Octagon while competing in his neck of the woods, and some of his best performances have come at home as well. In a fight between two guys who both have looked awesome and are riding winning streaks that make them tough to pick against, this might just be the X-factor.
Regardless of who wins this fight, they’re still going to need a win over one of the marquee names at 185 pounds before they can even think about getting a UFC title shot. Whittaker and Brunson currently sit inside the top 10 in the UFC rankings, but every spot in front of them features a big name. With current champ Michael Bisping’s sights currently set on Yoel Romero, this still leaves three former champions — Rockhold, Chris Weidman and Anderson Silva — ahead of the winner of this fight. This is without mentioning Jacare, who’s been calling for a UFC title shot for almost two years now, or Gegard Mousasi, who solidified his spot as a top middleweight with a win of his own this past weekend. Needless to say, there’s a long list of men who stand between Brunson and Whittaker when it comes time for a title bid.
Huntemann: Both Whittaker and Brunson have been on an absolute tear, there’s no doubt about that. However, Brunson has won his last four by first-round knockout. That’s incredible. Though Whittaker and Brunson have each faced some notable names in their past, including recent title challenger Stephen Thompson, the aforementioned Jacare, Rafael Natal and Kendall Grove, among others, their toughest opponent in recent memory may end up being each other, if their current resumes are any indication.
Both guys are fairly even when it comes to the ratio of their knockout and submission victories. They even have almost the same number of pro fights. On paper, they’re about as evenly matched as it gets, making for a true pick-’em fight. But if there’s one philosophy that’s served me well, it’s to always follow the hot hand.
Even though both guys are on hot streaks, I have to go with Brunson. The guy has knocked out his last four opponents in the first round (Did I mention that before? I don’t remember). Whittaker is definitely no slouch, and I expect an exciting bout where the fists fly and the judges need not be consulted, but Brunson seems like a man on a mission who is marching his way to the top of the middleweight division. Whittaker can be his equal, but he will not be Brunson’s superior this night. If Brunson notches a fifth consecutive knockout, it’s really hard to dispute that he deserves consideration for a title shot.
This card lacks a bona fide co-headliner featuring present-day contenders. This means it’s time to look for future stars. So, out of the remaining 12 fights beyond the main event, single out one or two fighters who will be future perennial contenders.
Huntemann: I don’t know about you, Vinny, but I’m jumping on the Daniel Kelly bandwagon. Did you see his last fight against Antonio Carlos, Jr.? If not, you should definitely find it. Kelly was down early in that fight, but he brawled his way back, to the delight of his fellow Aussies, whom he performed in front of on that card.
Kelly made his bones on the Australian MMA scene before joining the UFC in 2014. He has all the tools to become a contender. He’s tough as nails with a great stand-up game to complement his five submissions out of his 11 total victories.
Kelly’s match-up against UFC veteran Chris Camozzi will be a good barometer to see if Kelly is ready for the middleweight top 15.
Carey: While Kelly definitely made a fan out of me with his “holy shit” comeback earlier this year, I can’t quite join my colleague on that bandwagon. Kelly looked awesome in knocking out Carlos, Jr., and he has a judo resume that proves he isn’t to be trifled with on the mat, but the man is 39 years old and has yet to crack the top 15 in the division. Time just isn’t on his side. So, as much as I enjoy seeing the man fight, I can’t call him a perennial future contender.
There really isn’t a guy that sticks out as a guaranteed future star on this card. However, while time isn’t on Kelly’s side, 22-year-old Jake Matthews still has a ton of it. Arguably Australia’s top UFC prospect, Matthews laid a bit of an egg in his last performance. Making his debut on American soil against another top up-and-comer, Kevin Lee, Matthews was dominated on the ground and mauled en route to a TKO stoppage in the opening frame.
Despite the tough loss, “The Celtic Kid” is still young enough to shake it off and come back stronger. I’m not giving up on him quite yet.
If it seems like Kyle Noke has been in the UFC forever, it’s because he has. He was a cast member on season 11 of The Ultimate Fighter and has 11 fights in the UFC. But, at 36 years old, is Noke too old to become a contender in an increasingly crowded welterweight division? If he loses in front of his fellow countrymen to Omari Akhmedov, will this be the last we see of Noke in the Octagon?
Carey: Noke is one of those guys that has been in the UFC for so long that it’s going to be really strange to one day look at the welterweight roster and not see the Aussie veteran on the list. He’s currently riding a two-fight losing streak, though, and is on the tail end of his career, so I fully expect this to be Noke’s last UFC outing if he loses this weekend.
It feels like the term “increasingly crowded” has been used to describe the welterweight division for years now. The division just keeps getting deeper and gaining more and more talent. Eventually, guys like Noke just aren’t going to be able to hang any longer. That time is growing close for one of the roster’s longest tenured welterweights.
I like watching Noke fight. He’s been a valuable member of the roster for a while now, too. However, I don’t remember thinking he could become a contender when he emerged from TUF 11 six years ago and I still don’t think he can become one now. At age 36 and having not won this year, Noke is possibly fighting for his UFC life this weekend. He is going to have to win — and keep winning — in order to keep his job. His 6-5 Octagon record doesn’t scream future contender, and with over 100 guys listed on the UFC’s welterweight roster, there isn’t a lot of room for the veteran unless he can get started on a winning streak.
Huntemann: One of the favorite bits of ESPN radio host Bomani Jones is when he hears the name of an athlete who he thought faded into obscurity, but who is actually still competing. Jones asks, “Wait, he’s still in the league?” That’s sort of how I feel about Noke. When I tune in to a fight card and see him on the screen, I find myself saying, “Wait, he’s still fighting?”
Noke has had a pretty solid career, though, with 22 overall wins and a 6-5 record in the UFC. That said, I think his probable hopes of becoming a title contender will not be realized. He is fortunate to be facing Omari Akhmedov, who’s been on the receiving end of a few knockout losses lately.
Noke can stave off a pink slip for this fight, at least. If the UFC holds another card Down Under in the very near future, I’m sure they’ll give Noke a ring, too. But that’s about all I see for his career prospects.
Chris Camozzi has had a roller-coaster ride of a UFC career, from his start on The Ultimate Fighter to being cut from the promotion on two separate occasions. His current stretch has been a solid one, though. Camozzi has posted a 3-2 record, but he recently dropped his last outing to Thales Leites and has been known as a streaky fighter in the past. Does Camozzi get back on track against Dan Kelly this weekend, or does the Aussie judoka become the latest fighter to catch Camozzi on the mat?
Huntemann: Welp, as I said above, I’m going to start carrying the flag for Kelly. His last fight against Carlos, Jr., was just fun as hell to watch. I like Camozzi; he seems like a nice guy. I once interviewed his brother (shameless plug alert!), and the brothers Camozzi just seem like a pair of solid, down-to-Earth dudes. But as the question states, the elder Camozzi — that would be Chris — is a streaky fighter.
He seems to struggle against the bigger names, the Ronaldo “Jacare” Souzas and Thales Leites of the world. I’m not saying that Kelly is in the same league as either of those guys, but I can’t say enough how impressed I was with Kelly’s last performance. He displayed tremendous grit and resilence in coming back for a victory, which I think serves him well here.
Camozzi will present a tough test, but Kelly will prevail.
Carey: I think I’m starting to get caught up in all of my colleague’s Dan Kelly hype, because, despite my head telling me Camozzi could easily take a decision here, I’m going to lean toward the Aussie as well.
Camozzi is at his best when he can mix up his takedowns with some quick combinations on the feet, but he tends to get himself wrapped up in the clinch a little too often. Kelly may have made fans with his knockout win in his last fight, but his judo is still his bread and butter. Camozzi might end up walking into Kelly’s wheelhouse a bit too often.
If Camozzi can stay active and mix things up like he has done in some of his better performances in the Octagon, then he should skate to a decision here. However, I see Kelly earning a takedown or two and putting the UFC veteran in trouble often enough to at the very least earn a decision win, if not a stoppage.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Carey: This is more of a sleeper fighter than a sleeper fight, but I’m really curious to see how Alex Volkanovski performs in his UFC debut.
I hate to compare anyone to Conor McGregor, but Volkanovski, much like the Irishman, boasts serious success in multiple divisions heading into his first Octagon bout. He has dominated the Aussie 145- and 155-pound regional scene over the past few years. The Tiger Muay Thai product is currently riding a 10-fight winning streak. He’s ended all but one of those bouts by stoppage.
Now set to take on Japan’s Yusuke Kasuya on this weekend’s prelims, Volkanovski is one of the fighters I’ll be watching particularly closely on a night that doesn’t feature as much potential as one would like to see on a UFC card.
Huntemann: I was reeeeeeeeeally hoping we could get through this fight preview without any McGregor references. I mean, I like the guy, but… sigh. Oh well. Hey, did you know that Damien Brown has won six in a row, including his last two fights by knockout? And did you know that his opponent, Jon Tuck, won his first seven MMA bouts?
These two will face each other on this card, and though Tuck has alternated wins and losses since he started his career with that winning streak, both he and Brown have a nose for the finish. So, this is one fight you don’t want to sleep on (pardon the pun).
Pair this card with…
Huntemann: Your Thanksgiving leftovers. I mean, what else are you going to be eating for the next two days after the holiday? If you’re anything like my family, you’ll still have a good amount to feast on. So, assuming you don’t suffer a Thanksgiving Coma 2.0 on the day of this card, you can hold the turkey drumstick in one hand and your remote control in the other.
Carey: You know what’s even better than watching the fights with a turkey drumstick? Doing it in front of a brand new TV! Two days after Thanksgiving means one day after Black Friday sales, and while I’ve never been one to join in on the early morning fun, I’m guessing a few of our readers are crazy enough to give it a shot. So cheers to those of you bold enough to go out and put it all on the line in order to watch Brunson and Whittaker on a bigger screen with some badass surround sound. I salute you!
|Fight||Carey’s Pick||Huntemann’s Pick|
|Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 10 p.m. ET)|
|MW: Derek Brunson vs. Robert Whittaker||Whittaker||Brunson|
|MW: Daniel Kelly vs. Chris Camozzi||Kelly||Kelly|
|LW: Jake Matthews vs. Andrew Holbrook||Matthews||Holbrook|
|Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET/UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)|
|WW: Richard Walsh vs. Jonathan Meunier||Meunier||Walsh|
|FW: Daniel Hooker vs. Jason Knight||Knight||Knight|
|FlyW: Ben Nguyen vs. Geane Herrera||Nguyen||Herrera|
|LW: Damien Brown vs. Jon Tuck||Brown||Brown|
|LW: Yusuke Kasuya vs. Alex Volkanovski||Volkanovski||Volkanovski|
|Women’s StrawW: Seo Hee Ham vs. Danielle Taylor||Ham||Ham|
|FlyW: Jenel Lausa vs. Zhikui Yao||Lausa||Yao|
|WW: Kyle Noke vs. Omari Akhmedov||Akhmedov||Noke|
|LHW: Khalil Rountree vs. Tyson Pedro||Pedro||Rountree|
|BW: Marlon Vera vs. Guangyou Ning||Vera||Vera|