If the UFC was still into giving its events a creative title, UFC Fight Night 102 could be called “The Best of the Rest.” The event, scheduled to take place on a Friday evening in Albany, N.Y., and air in its entirety on UFC Fight Pass, is thin on elite talent. There are no title challengers on the cusp to be seen here. Instead, this is about fighters who are trying to break into the top tier.
It starts with the heavyweight division, where the headliner and co-headliner take place. In the main event, Derrick Lewis, a beast of a fighter who holds a 16-4 mark overall and a 7-2 record inside the UFC, takes on Shamil Abdurakhimov, a Dagestani fighter with just three losses in his 20-fight career. The co-headliner showcases Francis N’Gannou, a fighter who exploded onto the UFC scene with three straight knockout victories inside the Octagon. N’Gannou takes on Anthony Hamilton, another striker who is quite capable of sending opponents crashing to the canvas.
The heavyweight division isn’t the only place where the UFC is out to develop new stars. The card also features some promising light heavyweights. Corey Anderson is the big name among this group. The Ultimate Fighter 19 light heavyweight tournament winner has gone 5-2 since officially debuting inside the Octagon. He’ll seek to add to his win total when he locks horns with Sean O’Connell. Meanwhile, a staph infection forced Patrick Cummins off the card and opened the door for undefeated UFC newcomer Saparbek Safarov. Safarov receives a tough test right off the bat when he meets Gian Villante.
The action kicks off on UFC Fight Pass at 5:45 p.m. ET with eight preliminary card bouts. The four-fight main card follows at 9 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Sal DeRose and Bryan Henderson preview the Friday night affair in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
There are four borderline top-15 heavyweights high on this bill. Derrick Lewis and Shamil Abdurakhimov headline, and Anthony Hamilton and Francis N’Gannou also appear on the main card. Are any of these men future staples at the top of the division?
DeRose: I don’t know how much you can call guys like Hamilton or Abdurakhimov the “future” of any division. They’re both in their mid to late 30s. Granted, the heavyweight division gets better with age, but that alone leads me to rule them out. It could be too little, too late at this stage in their respective careers. However, heavyweight is also pretty shallow in terms of fighters near the top and lacks a lot of true, fresh challengers, so anything is possible.
I’ll stick with Lewis and N’Gannou here, though.
Of these two men, Lewis is the more intriguing prospect. The 31-year-old has rattled off a nice little winning streak over his last four fights. This includes his last two wins, which came against Roy Nelson and Gabriel Gonzaga. Those are two significant names that allowed Lewis to crack the top 15 in the heavyweight division. Lewis has been around for a while in the UFC, too. He has nine Octagon fights under his belt with a 7-2 record to show for his efforts. Abdurakhimov is at the very back of the top 15 in the heavyweight rankings, at best, and a win doesn’t catapult Lewis to the top of the division, but it should do well enough to put him into the top eight or so.
N’Gannou is also a top-15er among heavyweights. The 30-year-old hasn’t earned a signature win yet, but he is undefeated through three fights so far in the UFC. If he beats Hamilton, then he has a solid win off which he can build. Furthermore, he’d earn a high-ranked opponent if he gets through Hamilton. N’Gannou has impressively stopped all three of his opponents in his UFC career. If he keeps this up, he will certainly become a more loved name in the division.
Henderson: Age isn’t the only factor that eliminates Abdurakhimov and Hamilton from the discussion of the future of the heavyweight division. Their UFC resumes have a very pedestrian feel to them. Abdurakhimov might be a headliner for UFC Fight Night 102, but this Dagestani fighter has gone 2-1 inside the Octagon with a loss to fellow fringe heavyweight Timothy Johnson, a unanimous decision win over Hamilton and a split verdict over Walt Harris. Hamilton, meanwhile, has gone 3-3 with the aforementioned loss to Abdurahimov, as well as defeats at the hands of Oleksiy Oliynyk (by first-round submission) and Todd Duffee (by first-round knockout). Hamilton’s wins include two finishes via strikes, including a quick knockout of Damian Grabowski, but he tends to be a fighter who only does really well when he lands one big shot. It’s hard to forge a consistent path through the heavyweight ranks in that manner.
N’Gannou seems like he could be a beast in the UFC’s heavyweight division. He’s an explosive big man who has finished all of his UFC foes with strikes. He’s earned stoppages in all of his career victories and only went the distance in his lone career loss. The caveat, though, is that he has not seen the upper echelon of the heavyweight division. Hell, we can barely say he’s seen the top tier of any notable promotion. He fought primarily in Europe before joining the UFC, and then his list of opponents featured a Watch Out Combat Show fighter, a one-fight Resurrection Fighting Alliance veteran and a 13-fight European MMA journeyman. N’Gannou still has a lot to prove. He could be a big player in the division’s future, or he could turn out to be just another in a long line of heavyweights that started strong and quickly faded into mediocrity.
Lewis is slightly more proven, at least. He does have four career losses, but they came against Shawn Jordan (twice), Tony Johnson and Matt Mitrione. These aren’t the best the division has to offer, but they’re far from the worst. The “Black Beast” did manage a 3-0 mark under the Legacy FC banner and a one-fight stint with the RFA in which Lewis handed Justin Frazier his first career loss. Lewis did go just 3-2 over his first five UFC fights, but he made a huge impression with first-round knockouts of Jack May and Guto Inocente before the loss to Mitrione, and he disposed of Ruan Potts via strikes before falling to Jordan in 2015. Since the loss to Jordan, though, Lewis has really come into his own. He’s defeated his four most recent opponents, including three via strikes. The only man who didn’t get knocked out by Lewis? Roy Nelson. Lewis still won, too, which is why he’s headlining this card.
N’Gannou’s fight with Hamilton is a toss-up. If N’Gannou wins, he joins a whole slew of borderline contenders. My colleague’s suggestion to give the French-based fighter a bigger name is one I, too, fully support. Lewis, meanwhile, should run through Abdurakhimov and continue his ascent up the heavyweight ladder. The win over Nelson gave Lewis his credibility. This time he has to put on another highlight-reel performance to cement his name as one of the up-and-comers among the big men.
If N’Gannou and Lewis emerge victorious, the future of this division would start looking much brighter. What comes next? How about pairing these two up to headline a future card? Sounds good to me.
This card is arguably one of the most lacking when it comes to true star power. Is this a sign that the UFC needs to scale back its efforts?
Henderson: Absolutely. Don’t be surprised if it happens under the new ownership of WME-IMG either. The UFC has been busy cutting costs, and that’s probably going to mean less shows where the main event features two guys who could barely make the cut to open a five-fight pay-per-view card.
MMA isn’t like football or soccer, no matter how much UFC President Dana White might compare it to these sports. It’s more like boxing, where a Floyd Mayweather fight draws and Joe Nobody doesn’t. WME-IMG is in this for the money, and that could mean a scaling back to the days where pay-per-view cards — or major televised events, if the new owners decide to eschew the pay-per-view model — are actually stacked on a regular basis.
Regardless of whether WME-IMG decides to scale back or not, this card is evidence that the brass should consider the option at the very least. Unlike football or soccer, MMA relies on a devoted fan base that tunes in for all of its shows. If you provide too many shows, you’re going to push these fans to the point where they only tune in for the Conor McGregors and Brock Lesnars of the MMA world. They’ll see the names of Derrick Lewis and Shamil Abdurakhimov and opt to tune out, which won’t help anyone. Hell, even the UFC seems to realize this: the company has scrapped the ceremonial weigh-ins for this event. Think that’s an admission of how little interest there is in the event? I’d say so.
DeRose: Yeah, the roster isn’t built strong enough to warrant this many events a year and keep each one afloat with a decent main event. If Lewis were to pull out due to injury, it would be catastrophic and the card would most likely be canceled. WME-IMG will most likely scale back these efforts, especially considering the roster cuts that have already happened. A smaller roster would translate into less cards over the course of the year.
The only positive that really comes from such a busy lineup is that the UFC is breaking into new markets and hitting every single market in the course of a year. Every place is going to want a card, and pleasing those fans and bringing in new fans from those areas is essentially the main game of having this many cards. However, at a certain point, you have oversaturation. The UFC is almost surely there.
No major sports league has games every week of the year. Baseball is probably the closest, and depending on your level of interest, you’re watching it from March to October, at most. MMA, meanwhile, does have a card every week if we factor in the offerings from promotions like Bellator, the World Series of Fighting, Rizin, the Resurrection Fighting Alliance and ONE FC. The UFC is obviously the supreme product, but, at a certain point, it all adds up to oversaturation.
You eventually end up like this, with cards that, quite frankly, nobody cares about. These cards do nothing to move any divisions and have no huge relevance for any casual fan. Even devoted fans will consider skipping an event like this.
When a promotion starts losing the fans who follow everything at every moment, there’s a problem. These types of cards are a huge issue, too, considering how many cards the UFC has been forced to scrap in recent years due to injuries that absolutely decimated the lineup. UFC 206 is a good example of a card that would have taken a huge hit if they couldn’t put the featherweight interim title as the main headliner. The UFC had to go and take Conor McGregor’s belt specifically to keep the card there. Otherwise, money would have flown out the window.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
DeRose: Justine Kish and Ashley Yoder.
Kish made her UFC debut in January after injuries kept her out of action from The Ultimate Fighter and the TUF Finale card. It wasn’t an overwhelming victory for Kish, who had been my darkhorse pick to win her season of TUF. She left a lot to be desired in her debut appearance opposite Nina Ansaroff. We can chalk it up to jitters or general cage rust, but her previous fights displayed a lot of great striking that made her entertaining to watch. We saw glimpses of it against Ansaroff with some heavy leg kicks from Kish, but Kish’s striking defense just generally seemed not to be there. Maybe having the debut out of the way will allow her to focus for this fight.
Henderson: Juliana Lima and JJ Aldrich.
Maybe my affection for Invicta FC cards makes me a bit biased, but I’m wondering why this fight is buried so far down the lineup for a UFC Fight Pass event. Lima might be just 2-2 inside the Octagon and 8-3 overall, but she’s only suffered losses to Katja Kankaanpää, Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Carla Esparza. That’s not too shabby. Remember, Esparza was long considered the best strawweight in the world and Jędrzejczyk is the best strawweight in the world. Lima has now had fights scrapped in which she was supposed to meet Jessica Penne, Jessica Aguilar and Tatiana Suarez, all very relevant fighters in the division. She deserves more of the spotlight.
Aldrich is stepping in to replace the aforementioned Suarez. The 24-year-old Colorado-based fighter made her name as a member of the Invicta roster before appearing on The Ultimate Fighter 23, where she was eventually eliminated by Suarez. Aldrich made two appearances after her TUF stint, including a return to Invicta in mid-November for a winning effort against Lynn Alvarez. This will serve as her official Octagon debut.
Aldrich and Lima should combine for a competitive affair that could place one of these fighters on the fringe of the top 10. Lima already sits at No. 15 in the UFC’s own poll, and an Aldrich victory over someone that prominent would be a great way to launch her own UFC career. This might be listed as the opening fight on the card, but it might have just as much relevance to its respective division as the evening’s main event.
Pair this card with…
Henderson: Spoilers. Yes, spoilers. This event happens on the same weekend as UFC 206 and Bellator 168, and it comes one weekend after fights fans received a UFC card and back-to-back nights of Bellator. We’ve been saturated with MMA, and even the most committed of fans probably needs a breather. So, check out the results here on Combat Press, read the buzz on Twitter and determine which fights are worth your time. Log in to UFC Fight Pass an hour or so before UFC 206 kicks off and make those chosen few fights part of your UFC 206 prelim viewing itinerary.
DeRose: A breather sounds nice, so I’ll go with filling this void with some preparation for the later cards or, you know, playing your favorite video game. Watch your favorite TV show or head over to Netflix and check out some of the new movies coming out this weekend. I may take this as my time to do what I do every year and watch Jingle All the Way and enjoy the holiday time.
|Fight||DeRose’s Pick||Henderson’s Pick|
|Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 9 p.m. ET)|
|HW: Derrick Lewis vs. Shamil Abdurakhimov||Lewis||Lewis|
|HW: Francis N’Gannou vs. Anthony Hamilton||N’Gannou||N’Gannou|
|LHW: Gian Villante vs. Saparbek Safarov||Villante||Safarov|
|LHW: Corey Anderson vs. Sean O’Connell||Anderson||Anderson|
|Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 5:45 p.m. ET)|
|Women’s StrawW: Justine Kish vs. Ashley Yoder||Kish||Kish|
|WW: Randy Brown vs. Brian Camozzi||Camozzi||Camozzi|
|MW: Gerald Meerschaert vs. Joe Gigliotti||Gigliotti||Meerschaert|
|MW: Andrew Sanchez vs. Trevor Smith||Smith||Sanchez|
|FW: Tiago Trator vs. Shane Burgos||Trator||Trator|
|LW: Marc Diakiese vs. Frankie Perez||Diakiese||Diakiese|
|MW: Keith Berish vs. Ryan Janes||Berish||Berish|
|Women’s StrawW: Juliana Lima vs. JJ Aldrich||Aldrich||Lima|