On Saturday night, the UFC will make its first stop in Chile. UFC Fight Night 129 lands at the Movistar Arena in the capital city of Santiago. The event’s headliner is a welterweight battle between fifth-ranked Demian Maia and seventh-ranked Kamaru Usman. Usman was originally supposed to fight Santiago Ponzinibbio, but the Brazilian had to pull out on four weeks’ notice due to injury and was quickly replaced by the former two-division title challenger.
Usman has been quietly streaking his way through the highest echelon of the sport for five years now. He was 5-1 in his pro career upon entering The Ultimate Fighter: American Top Team vs. Blackzilians in early 2015. He breezed through the competition and won the show with a “Performance of the Night” submission of ATT’s Hayder Hassan. Since then, Usman has strung together another six victories, with notable wins over Emil Weber Meek and Sean Strickland. He is widely considered one of the best 170-pound fighters in the world, but Maia is no slouch.
The fourth-degree Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt and multiple-time ADCC, Pan-American, Brazilian and World champion has a history as the best submission artist in MMA. Over one-third of his pro fights have ended in a submission in his favor, and another 10 ended in victory by decision. However, after the most lackluster title challenge in history last summer, followed by a decision loss to the surging Colby Covington in October, the 40-year-old Maia needs a win to prevent falling into complete irrelevance.
The main card also showcases a women’s strawweight battle between Mexico’s Alexa Grasso and undefeated The Ultimate Fighter 23 winner Tatiana Suarez. Grasso bounced back from her first loss to Felice Herrig with a win over Randa Markos in August. In addition, the lineup includes the undefeated Dominick Reyes, who looks to keep his streak alive against hard-hitting Jared Cannonier. Fans will also get to see the long-awaited UFC debut of Andrea “KGB” Lee.
The UFC Fight Pass preliminary card begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, followed by the remainder of the preliminary card on Fox Sports 2 at 8 p.m. ET. The Fox Sports 1 main card kicks off at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Bryan Henderson and Dan Kuhl preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
After a dominant run to a welterweight title shot, Demian Maia dropped a lopsided decision to Tyron Woodley in the championship contest and lost his next bout to Colby Covington. Does the Brazilian right the ship against Kamaru Usman, or is this Usman’s launching pad to a title bid of his own?
Henderson: It’s almost a surprise that Maia has done as well as he has throughout his UFC career. His early run at middleweight was understandable, as nobody had quite figured him out yet, but now the blueprint is there for getting past the Brazilian. His ability to still win the majority of his fights speaks to how hard it is for anyone but the very best to expose his weaknesses and neutralize him.
The answer to the question therefore hinges on whether Usman is a true member of the elite. The 31-year-old former Blackzilians and current Hard Knocks 365 fighter could definitely make an argument for consideration into this group at the very least. He cruised to two victories on The Ultimate Fighter 21 and defeated Hayder Hassan in the finals of the season that pitted the Blackzilians against members of American Top Team in a swerve on the typical tournament format. He’s added six victories since then, and all of those victories have come against solid opponents. However, Usman hasn’t really been tested at the elite level. He went the distance in contests against Leon Edwards, Alexander Yakovlev, Warlley Alves, Sean Strickland and Emil Weber Meek, and he managed a knockout of Sergio Moraes. Only Edwards currently resides in the UFC’s official welterweight rankings, and he’s only No. 14 on the list.
This isn’t to say that Usman isn’t a great fighter, but he still needs to post some victories over consensus top-10 fighters before he makes true believers out of the majority of MMA fans. Maia serves as a great test for Usman.
Can Usman follow the same game plan that Woodley and Covington used? If his coaches were smart, then they had the TUF alum drilling takedown defense around the clock. Woodley and Covington both proved that the key to victory against Maia is to make him struggle to drag the fight into his world. It takes a strong stand-up game and an ability to stuff takedown after takedown to really frustrate Maia. You know you’ve beaten him when he starts shooting from ridiculously far out for a single leg.
Usman has gone the distance with many of his UFC foes, but he also has a history of knockout finishes. He should be comfortable trading blows with Maia on the feet. He’s also long enough — a 77.5-inch reach to Maia’s 72 inches — to stay on the outside and pepper Maia with strikes. Usman’s takedown defense should hold up to Maia as well. The 40-year-old Brazilian had a great run, but it seems like he’s going to be overtaken by yet another rising welterweight.
Kuhl: I guess the good thing about this one is that Usman is not going to sit around and watch the clock wind like Woodley did against Maia. That fight, frankly, sucked.
Let’s be clear about something: Maia can win any fight on any night. It only takes one mistake to get caught in a submission, and he can do that from just about anywhere. It’s just amazing that an ADCC no-gi world champion does not have better wrestling. BJJ experts have notoriously terrible wrestling takedowns, and BJJ takedowns are not super effective against high-level wrestlers like Woodley and Covington. The ultimate question is whether or not Usman’s wrestling is at the same level, and I think it is.
Usman is an NCAA Division II wrestler out of University of Nebraska-Kearney, where he was a three-time All-American and also won a national title. In addition, the “Nigerian Nightmare” is also a powerful and fast striker, whereas Maia is not a great striker. Usman also has momentum on his side.
Maia can easily win this or any fight, but, as my colleague suggested, his run is likely over. Usman takes it by decision, if this fight even goes the distance.
The Ultimate Fighter 23 winner Tatiana Suarez has put up a strong run, but Alexa Grasso is by far her toughest opponent yet. Can Suarez get past the Invicta FC veteran and prove herself to be a top-10 strawweight?
Kuhl: Grasso is tough, and she also has more experience than Suarez. That being said, she hasn’t finished anyone in three and a half years, and her most recent loss came on the wrong end of a suddenly dominant run by Felice Herrig. Grasso’s last fight was a split-decision victory over Randa Markos that could have easily gone the other way. The point to all of this is that I’m not sure Grasso is by far the toughest opponent to date for Suarez.
Suarez may only be 5-0 as a pro, but she went 3-0 on TUF 23, where she ran through Chelsea Bailey, J.J. Aldrich and Kate Jackson, the latter of whom I believe was her actual toughest opponent to date. Grasso looks good on paper, but she has finished only one opponent in her last seven fights, which combines her UFC and Invicta careers. Suarez, on the other hand, is an extremely dominant fighter.
Suarez is a freestyle wrestler who was a two-time bronze medalist at the World Championships. She was training for the 2012 Summer Olympics when she was diagnosed with cancer, from which she has since recovered. She has knockout power, fantastic wrestling and a jiu-jitsu background. It’s not a matter of whether or not she can get past Grasso, but vice versa.
Suarez takes this one by early stoppage as she continues on her undefeated path.
Henderson: Grasso has Jackson beaten as Suarez’s toughest opponent, primarily as a result of her level of opposition and how she’s performed against them. While Jackson couldn’t get past the likes of an upstart future UFC champion in Joanna Jędrzejczyk or a semi-successful Swedish journeywoman fighter in Hanna Sillen, Grasso has at least conquered perennial Invicta strawweight contender Mizuki Inoue and tough scrappers Ashley Cummins, Jodie Esquibel and the aforementioned Markos. Yes, Grasso dropped a fight to Herrig, but let’s reiterate that the loss came during a surprise surge from the veteran Herrig and remains Grasso’s only career loss.
However, let’s end the debate about whether Grasso stands as Suarez’s toughest test yet. Instead, let’s look at why Suarez will pass that test. The answer lies in the accolades my colleague listed for Suarez. The 27-year-old TUF winner is a very skilled ground technician. She can plant Grasso on the mat and grind away at her for three rounds. Or, she could end up doing exactly what she did to the aforementioned Jackson and Amanda Bobby Cooper by scoring a first-round submission finish.
Grasso excels in stand-up exchanges. When she was finishing fights, the Mexican athlete was stopping opponents via strikes. Her finishing rate has declined as she’s met tougher competition, though, and Suarez seems likely to avoid Grasso’s deadliest weapon. Grasso is much more uncomfortable in the clinch and on the ground. Markos and Herrig both employ heavy clinch and ground work into their games. Herrig beat Grasso, while Markos came extremely close to doing the same. Suarez is better than Herrig and Markos, and she’ll utilize a similar approach en route to a win over Grasso.
Andrea Lee — do we need to know this name?
Henderson: Well, we really should have already known this name, but then “KGB” was forced out of her anticipated UFC 216 debut opposite Kalindra Faria so that she could fulfill a testing window implemented by the USADA. Hopefully, things go more smoothly this time around.
Lee is one of the more high-profile debuting UFC fighters that we’ve seen on the women’s side of the sport. She made six appearances under the Invicta Fighting Championships banner, and she also made two stops in the Legacy Fighting Alliance, where she was crowned as the promotion’s female flyweight champion. She also held the Legacy Fighting Championship title at 125 pounds.
Lee’s accolades came as part of a campaign that included wins over such notables as Rachael Ostovich, Ariel Beck, Jenny Liou, Heather Bassett, Liz Tracy and Jamie Thorton. Her only losses came at the hands of Roxanne Modafferi and Sarah D’Alelio. That’s a pretty solid list that suggests a decent run for Lee inside the Octagon. And instead of the accomplished veteran Faria, Lee now draws the less-heralded Veronica Macedo. This should spell victory in her opening performance on the big stage.
Kuhl: My fellow writer pretty much covered the background on Lee. She also has a large social-media presence and carries the persona of a red-blooded American. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably already know who she is. Lee has a good ground game, decent striking power and a lot of hype as she enters the cage against Macedo.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Kuhl: Humberto Bandenay and Gabriel Benitez.
The Peruvian Bandenay is a solid finisher. His last fight was a successful promotional debut that ended with a highlight-reel knockout of Martin Bravo. At only 23 years old, but with 19 fights under his belt, Bandenay has a really bright future.
Benitez is a former contestant of The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America. Since the reality show ended, he has gone 4-2 in the promotion. He, like Bandenay, has a lot of experience. Benitez is 29 years old. He has 26 pro fights, trains at a stacked camp at AKA, and can pretty much finish anywhere.
This should be a really great fight for the fans.
Henderson: It’s difficult to call a main-card bout a sleeper, but Dominick Reyes hasn’t received as much attention as he deserves heading into his fight opposite Jared Cannonier.
Outside of a 2015 decision win, Reyes posted his longest fight yet when he stopped Jeremy Kimball at 3:39 of the first round at UFC 218 in December. His UFC debut against Joachim Christensen ended in just 29 seconds. His lone Legacy Fighting Alliance outing went 53 seconds. He also has stoppages that came in 27, 55 and 95 seconds. This guy gets things done, and he wastes little time on the way to recording his victories.
Reyes draws a tough opponent in Cannonier. The “Killa Gorilla” is a not-too-shabby 10-3 in his professional career. He won his first seven fights on the regional circuit before joining the UFC as a heavyweight. The 34-year-old was steamrolled by Shawn Jordan in his Octagon debut, but he rebounded to knock out Cyril Asker and then dropped to light heavyweight. Since moving to 205 pounds, Cannonier has alternated wins and losses. However, his wins came against lower-level fighters Ion Cutelaba and Nick Roehrick, whereas his defeats were served up by Glover Teixeira and Jan Blachowicz.
Reyes always looks for the quick finish, but Cannonier has some knockout ability of his own. This fight checks in as part of the main card, but it could outperform the two fights above it in the lineup and deliver one of the biggest highlights of the night.
Pair this card with…
Henderson: A Demian Maia retrospective. Look, the Brazilian is a legend. He’s knocked on the door of two champions during his storied career. However, he’s been defeated in back-to-back fights and celebrates his 41st birthday later this year. There’s not much tread left on these tires, and the route to victory against the grappling ace has now been made clear. It’s time to enjoy a look back at his best moments before he takes on another up-and-comer who’s more than capable of handing him a defeat.
Kuhl: Well, it’s the first event in Chile, so let’s try a nice Chilean wine. It’s not fancy, but neither am I, so I’ll go with a Concha y Toro Cabernet Sauvignon. It will go great with a nice juicy ribeye.
|Fight||Henderson’s Pick||Kuhl’s Pick|
|Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 10 p.m. ET)|
|WW: Kamaru Usman vs. Demian Maia||Usman||Usman|
|Women’s StrawW: Alexa Grasso vs. Tatiana Suarez||Suarez||Suarez|
|LHW: Jared Cannonier vs. Dominick Reyes||Reyes||Reyes|
|BW: Guido Cannetti vs. Diego Rivas||Cannetti||Rivas|
|Women’s FlyW: Andrea Lee vs. Veronica Macedo||Lee||Lee|
|WW: Vicente Luque vs. Chad Laprise||Laprise||Luque|
|Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 2, 8 p.m. ET)|
|WW: Michel Prazeres vs. Zak Cummings||Prazeres||Cummings|
|FlyW: Brandon Moreno vs. Alexandre Pantoja||Pantoja||Moreno|
|Women’s StrawW: Poliana Botelho vs. Syuri Kondo||Kondo||Botelho|
|FW: Humberto Bandenay vs. Gabriel Benitez||Benitez||Bandenay|
|Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)|
|FW: Enrique Barzola vs. Brandon Davis||Barzola||Barzola|
|BW: Enrique Briones vs. Frankie Saenz||Saenz||Saenz|
|LW: Felipe Silva vs. Claudio Puelles||Silva||Silva|