Finally. It’s the only word MMA fans in Kansas City can be thinking as the UFC makes its inaugural trip to a city known for its fountains, barbeque and Midwestern charm.
The promotion offers up its 24th event on network television, headlined by the sport’s current pound-for-pound king, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson. The flyweight champion will look to cement his place in the sport’s history with his 10th consecutive title defense when he battles Brazilian Wilson Reis in the night’s main event.
Also on the main card, former strawweight title challenger Rose Namajunas meets former Invicta FC atomweight champion Michelle Waterson. The winner may very well be the next to compete for the 115-pound belt.
The 13-fight event kicks off Saturday, April 15, from the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. Five fights will stream live on UFC Fight Pass at 4 p.m. ET, with four additional prelims airing live on Fox at 6 p.m. ET. The four-fight main card airs at 8 p.m. ET, also on Fox.
Combat Press writers Rob Tatum and Bryan Henderson break down the card in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson is set to defend his title against Wilson Reis. Will Reis dethrone the longtime champ?
Henderson: Short answer? No.
Long answer? It’s difficult to talk about any fighter set to take on Mighty Mouse without potentially insulting said fighter. It’s not that Johnson is fighting cans — these are the elite of the elite locking horns with the champ — but that Mighty Mouse is just so damned good at what he does. If the flyweight king were to get bored with the division and either move up to bantamweight or simply call it a career, then the doors would be thrown wide open to a frenzy of contenders and capable champions, Reis included. However, with Johnson in the throne, nobody is going to be viewed as a serious threat until they go out there and prove it in action.
This is exactly what Reis must do. He’s going to be counted out by everyone who has watched Johnson run roughshod over the 125-pounders since capturing the belt in late 2012. Just look at this list: Ian McCall (to advance to the inaugural title fight), Joseph Benavidez (for the title), John Dodson, John Moraga, Benavidez again, Ali Bagautinov, Chris Cariaso, Kyoji Horiguchi, Dodson again, Henry Cejudo and Tim Elliott. Who hasn’t Johnson outclassed yet?
Well, Reis happens to be on the short list, but the 32-year-old has been far from dominant in his own career. He went just 6-4 in the Bellator cage while losing to Joe Soto, Patricio Freire (twice) and Eduardo Dantas. Granted, these defeats came in the featherweight and bantamweight divisions. In his UFC run, Reis went 1-1 as a 135er before posting a 5-1 mark as a flyweight. His one flyweight defeat came against longtime contender Jussier “Formiga” da Silva, a fighter who has never quite gotten over the hump to earn his own shot at the belt.
Reis has an uphill battle. He’s not an elite striker — he has never finished a fight via strikes in 28 career outings — and he’s not a strong wrestler. The Brazilian’s only edge comes in the area of submission grappling, where Reis holds a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Yet, Mighty Mouse is a ridiculously good wrestler with a knack for squeaking out of bad spots on the mat. Johnson’s biggest observed weakness so far has been his tendency to get rocked on occasion, but Reis has very little chance of making this happen.
Reis will probably perform better than the aforementioned Cariaso, but he actually stacks up as one of the least likely challengers to topple Johnson.
Tatum: My colleague could have just stopped at the word no. To his point, it’s not disrespect for Reis or his skill set, rather praise for the utter domination of the world’s pound-for-pound greatest fighter, Johnson.
Reis essentially needs a miracle in this match-up. Johnson really is faster, a better striker and the superior wrestler. The best chance Reis has to pull off one of the biggest upsets in recent MMA history is with a hail-mary submission. This was the strategy of Johnson’s most recent challenger, the aforementioned Elliott, who had Mighty Mouse in all sorts of trouble in the opening frame of their title clash. Elliott’s choke attempt was the most adversity the champ has faced since capturing the belt. Reis needs to employ a similar attack. The problem with this approach? Whenever Johnson identifies a weakness, he goes out and fixes it. Given Reis’s credentials on the mat, you know that submission defense has been a focal point of Johnson’s preparation for this fight.
In a division where Johnson has completely outclassed everyone to date, Reis is as deserving as anyone at this point. Unfortunately for the Brazilian, he’s just not on the same level as Johnson in terms of being a well-rounded fighter. Reis has to be aggressive early and hope for that miracle, but, in the end, this fight will turn into a showcase for the world’s most complete mixed martial artist.
Johnson by TKO in round four to retain his belt.
Michelle Waterson has torn through her first two opponents since moving over from Invicta FC’s atomweight division to join the UFC’s strawweight field. Now, Waterson clashes with fellow contender Rose Namajunas. Will Waterson continue her streak? If she gets past Namajunas, will it be enough to earn her a title shot?
Tatum: I won’t lie, I had concerns about how well Waterson would fare at 115 pounds in the UFC. Her track record at strawweight prior to her time with Invicta FC was not something that would have led anyone to believe she would be a contender. However, the Colorado native did cement herself as one of the sport’s best atomweight fighters during her time with Invicta, so her skill set has never been in question.
The match-up with Namajunas is an interesting one for “The Karate Hottie.” Waterson will have a clear height and reach disadvantage against the lengthy Namajunas. But the tradeoff is that Waterson should have a clear speed advantage. On the feet, this fight will come down to who can impose their will first, as both fighters possess black belts in karate — Namajunas also holds a black belt in taekwondo. Namajunas has a long jab, and if she can keep Waterson at range, she can pick her apart. If Waterson is able to capitalize on her speed advantage to get in and out of the pocket with combinations, she’ll frustrate Namajunas much like Karolina Kowalkiewicz was able to do, forcing Namajunas to chase her around the cage.
Where things should really get exciting in this fight is if it finds the mat. Namajunas is a brown belt in BJJ. She’s both unconventional and aggressive with her attacks on the ground — she holds a 12-second flying armbar finish on her record. Waterson, meanwhile, is only a blue belt, but watching her work on the mat would make you question whether this level of belt is appropriate. Her armbar submission of BJJ black belt Jessica Penne at Invicta FC 5 is a perfect example of just how dangerous she is on the ground. Yet, if Waterson plays in the guard of Namajunas, the length of Namajunas might be a huge factor.
Ultimately, this fight comes down to two things: heart and momentum. The physical tools favor Namajunas, but I have watched Waterson find her way out of plenty of tough situations in the past. Waterson has overcome injuries to completely dismantle Angela Magana and Paige VanZant, whereas Namajunas is coming off a tough loss to Kowalkiewicz. I think Waterson continues her run of Octagon success, taking a hard-fought decision win and setting up a title shot against the Joanna Jędrzejczyk-Jessica Andrade winner later this year.
Henderson: The one fight I’m stuck on is Waterson’s submission loss to Herica Tiburcio in the fight where she finally surrendered her Invicta crown. The diminutive Brazilian turned around and lost the belt to Ayaka Hamasaki via decision and then fought to another decision loss against Jinh Yu Frey. Hamasaki and Frey are top atomweights, but Waterson really seems like the toughest and most rounded of those three fighters and yet she was the one who lost to Tiburcio.
If Tiburcio’s submission game was enough to derail Waterson, then Namajunas is going to be a nightmare for “The Karate Hottie.” Waterson has fared well so far in her current strawweight run, but she’s done so with victories over the aforementioned Magana and VanZant. Magana has proven to be far from a UFC-caliber fighter after suffering four official losses in a row and five consecutive losses if you include her exhibition defeat at the hands of Aisling Daly on The Ultimate Fighter. VanZant’s been able to beat Felice Herrig and Bec Rawlings, but she has faltered against Namajunas and Tecia Torres. PVZ also proved that her biggest weakness is her submission defense. Waterson’s facing an elite 115-pounder now, which is something we can’t really say she’s done before.
This is going to be a competitive fight. I’d nominate it as a top contender for “Fight of the Night” honors, too. If Waterson wins, then it will propel her toward a title showdown. However, the length of Namajunas will be the deciding factor. Namajunas will be able to wrap up Waterson for an armbar or choke finish. She’ll need another win or two, though, before claiming another shot of her own.
Tom Duquesnoy — do we need to know this name?
Duquesnoy is a multiple-division champion from one of the top promotions in Britain. If that sounds familiar, it should. Conor McGregor brought a similar resume when he first joined the UFC. Unlike McGregor, the “Fire Kid” has made successful defenses of both belts. Both men are dominant prospects with early blemishes on their records, too.
This is where the comparison ends. It’s highly unlikely that the Frenchman will bring the same brash bravado outside of the cage, but he’s certainly capable of delivering once the Octagon door slams shut. Duquesnoy isn’t a lengthy striker like McGregor, but rather a skilled combat sambo practitioner and wrestler with four submission victories to accompany his seven striking finishes. The 23-year-old is extremely well rounded and has plenty of time to improve even more.
Duquesnoy, who has opted to compete at 135 pounds for his UFC debut, should be a longtime contender inside the Octagon in at least one weight division and perhaps even two divisions. He has great potential, and he also opens up the doors for the UFC to win over another country’s worth of fans. His first contest, which comes against Patrick Williams, seems like little more than a chance for the UFC to show off one of its best recent acquisitions and a potential future UFC star.
Tatum: Not only should you know this name, but you should probably brush up on your French pronunciations. Why? Because Duquesnoy is the real deal.
At just 23 years old, the Frenchman is one of the most promising prospects in the lighter weight classes in quite some time. My fellow panelist definitely hit the nail on the head in establishing that Duquesnoy is not going to be as brash on the microphone as Ireland’s McGregor, but after racking up 11 finishes in his 14 career wins, he might earn the same sort of success as the UFC’s posterboy.
With MMA still banned in France, Duquesnoy has the chance to carry the flag for his country’s combat-sports athletes in the Octagon. By training at Jackson-Wink’s in Albuquerque, N.M., the Frenchman has positioned himself with one of the best camps in the world to further hone his already impressive skills.
My colleague highlighted Duquesnoy’s sambo base and strong ground work, but he’s no slouch on the feet. He’s scored his fair share of violent stoppages in the stand-up department as well. That’s where I envision him finding the most success in his match-up with Williams. Duquesnoy’s lone loss did come against the UFC’s Makwan Amirkhani, but that was in just his fifth pro bout. He has evolved quite a bit since that fight, and it’s going to spell trouble for Williams. Duquesnoy is going to put on a show, stopping Williams with strikes inside the first round.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Tatum: This is one of those times when picking just one fight seems cruel. There are so many strong match-ups on this card. My first thought was to pick the ensuing scramblefest between Louis Smolka and Tim Elliott. Then I thought about the grappler’s dream between bantamweights Aljamain Sterling and Augusto Mendes. In the end, I settled on the middleweight fight between The Ultimate Fighter winner Andrew Sanchez and veteran Anthony Smith.
Sanchez enters his 12th professional fight riding the momentum of winning TUF 23 at light heavyweight and defeating Trevor Smith in his return to middleweight. He was a decorated amateur wrestler prior to his transition to MMA. His only career losses have come against UFC veterans Kevin Casey and Dustin Jacoby. Even with his grappling credentials, Sanchez has showcased power in his hands, stopping five of his nine wins with strikes.
Smith, on the other hand, is very well traveled. He has competed for Strikeforce and Belllator MMA in addition to his two stints in the Octagon. Smith is a go-big-or-go-home fighter that either finishes his opponent or gets finished himself. He’s only seen the scorecards in three of his 37 career fights. Smith has a dangerous guard and is very active with submission attempts. On the feet, he has a propensity for violence, frequently employing skin-splitting elbows.
This fight represents a great measuring stick for both fighters. Smith has struggled with wrestlers at times during his career and Sanchez has the ability to take him to deep waters and test him gas tank. Sanchez, meanwhile, is facing a well-rounded finisher who can truly test his defensive skills on the feet and the mat. My gut tells me to go with the proven finisher with more experience. Smith puts Sanchez away with strikes in round two.
Henderson: Sanchez and Smith should combine for one heck of a scrap, no doubt, but I’ll take a fight that really isn’t getting enough attention on the main card: the featherweight contest between Jeremy Stephens and Renato “Moicano” Carneiro.
The 30-year-old Stephens has been around so long that you might expect him to be almost a decade older than he is, but this veteran has found newfound life as a truly competitive featherweight since moving down to the division in 2013. He’s still not a dominant title contender — his featherweight mark is an uninspiring 5-4 — but he has managed to top Darren Elkins, Dennis Bermudez and, most impressively, Renan Barão. He’s also forced top fighters Cub Swanson, Charles Oliveira, Max Holloway and Frankie Edgar to the scorecards. The “Lil’ Heathen” won’t be taking part in any five-round affairs in the UFC, but he’s one hell of a gatekeeper.
That’s good, too, because Carneiro needs a gatekeeper match-up. Moicano entered the UFC as an undefeated prospect and Jungle Fight featherweight champion who even held a win over Iliarde Santos. He submitted rising prospect and stud grappler Tom Niinimäki in his Octagon debut and then earned a decision nod, albeit a split verdict, over Zubaira Tukhugov. Carneiro’s still a little green, so he hasn’t quite broken into the UFC’s top-15 rankings yet. However, Stephens sits at No. 5 in those rankings. If Carneiro can stun Stephens, then the Brazilian might take a huge leap up the ladder.
Moicano is noted for his wrestling and grappling, and the Brazilian trains out of the Constrictor Team, which is also home to elite grappler Rani Yahya. Stephens likes to brawl, but he has never been a strong grappler — he has three submission losses — and could fall victim to Carneiro’s strengths.
This could be a make-or-break fight for Carneiro. While the headliner is for a title and the next two fights on the card could decide the next title challenger for their respective divisions, fans shouldn’t overlook this clash of relevant featherweights.
Pair this card with…
Henderson: A clearance sale at Total Wine. The only thing better than a quality beer is a quality beer at an unbelievably cheap price. Anyone who frequents Total Wine has probably stumbled across the likes of a Delirium Noël bomber for two bucks, or a Widmer and Kona sampler 12-pack for just six dollars. Well, UFC on Fox 24 is the MMA equivalent. It’s a relatively stacked lineup with a pay-per-view caliber main card, but it’s available at an incredible value — free, technically, for the main card, given its placement on the Fox parent station. It’s one of those deals you just can’t beat.
Tatum: This is a no-brainer: Jack Stack Barbeque. The UFC is finally heading to Kansas City. As a frequent visitor to this city, I can say that I’ve eaten a lot of KC BBQ. None is better than what you’ll find at Jack Stack. If you’re lucky enough to be in town for the fights or ever find yourself in K.C., sit down for sausage burnt ends, pulled pork and cheesy corn bake, but make sure you save room for some amazing carrot cake at the end.
|Fight||Henderson’s Pick||Tatum’s Pick|
|Main Card (Fox, 8 p.m. ET)|
|FlyW Championship: Demetrious Johnson vs. Wilson Reis||Johnson||Johnson|
|Women’s StrawW: Rose Namajunas vs. Michelle Waterson||Namajunas||Waterson|
|MW: Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza vs. Robert Whittaker||Jacare||Jacare|
|FW: Jeremy Stephens vs. Renato Carneiro||Carneiro||Stephens|
|Preliminary Card (Fox, 6 p.m. ET)|
|HW: Roy Nelson vs. Alexander Volkov||Nelson||Volkov|
|BW: Tom Duquesnoy vs. Patrick Williams||Duquesnoy||Duquesnoy|
|LW: Rashid Magomedov vs. Bobby Green||Magomedov||Green|
|FlyW: Louis Smolka vs. Tim Elliott||Elliott||Elliott|
|Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 4 p.m. ET)|
|LHW: Devin Clark vs. Jake Collier||Collier||Collier|
|MW: Anthony Smith vs. Andrew Sanchez||Sanchez||Smith|
|BW: Aljamain Sterling vs. Augusto Mendes||Sterling||Sterling|
|WW: Nathan Coy vs. Zak Cummings||Cummings||Cummings|
|Women’s BW: Ketlen Vieira vs. Ashlee Evans-Smith||Evans-Smith||Evans-Smith|