T.J. Dillashaw (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 177 Preview and Predictions

When Chris Wade and Cain Carrizosa take to the Octagon in the opening fight of UFC 177, it will mark the beginning of the UFC’s first numbered event in nearly two months. Although there have been seven events in the span since UFC 175, none have included a pay-per-view main card. UFC 176, the company’s Aug. 2 venture, met its end, also known as “postponement,” when headliner Jose Aldo fell victim to an injury during his training camp. In the meantime, the UFC has relied on cards gracing the Fox family of networks and its Fight Pass digital subscription service. On Aug. 30, however, the promotion returns to its pay-per-view model with a card featuring a bantamweight title rematch between champion T.J. Dillashaw and Renan Barao, the man Dillashaw bested for that title at UFC 173.

The Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, Calif., plays host to the 10-fight lineup, which airs across UFC Fight Pass, Fox Sports 1 and pay-per-view. Combat Press writers Rob Tatum and Bryan Henderson discuss the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

After schooling formerly dominant Renan Barao for nearly five rounds and winning the UFC bantamweight crown by way of a TKO finish, T.J. Dillashaw has to turn around and do it all over again. Will this be a repeat performance for Dillashaw, or will Barao reclaim his spot at the top?


Henderson: Let’s just put it this way: any title challenger facing an established champion—a champion who has had several successful title defenses—should know that he’ll have to go 10 rounds with the champ if he truly wants to secure that strap. Dillashaw can ask Frankie Edgar about that. Or Chris Weidman. Or Benson Henderson. Or…well, you get the picture.

Dillashaw’s first effort against Barao was nothing short of an eye-opener. His movement and speed were too much for the Brazilian, who was rattled a mere 90 seconds in. Barao never could catch up with Dillashaw and finally succumbed to blows in the fifth frame.

The performance earned Dillashaw high praise, but I have my reservations about anointing him as the next great champion. Many people have done exactly that, but the Team Alpha Male product has suffered losses to John Dodson, a natural flyweight, via TKO and Raphael Assuncao by way of a split decision. He showed his cards in that first match-up, so Barao knows what to expect and how to better prepare. On a positive note, former Alpha Male coach Duane Ludwig is still providing guidance for Dillashaw and even lived with the champ during his camp for this title defense.

Dillashaw’s striking has been dynamic under Ludwig’s tutelage, and the 28-year-old always has his wrestling pedigree to fall back on. As much as those losses to Dodson and Assuncao could indicate holes in Dillashaw’s game, they came before Ludwig’s arrival at Alpha Male and can’t be viewed as anything more than setbacks in Dillashaw’s development as a fighter. It may be premature to view him as the next great champ, but he is definitely an improving fighter who should be in the title picture as a champion or challenger for several years.

Barao will put up a tougher fight this time, but he’ll still find it difficult to cut off the cage and turn Dillashaw into a more stationary target. If the Brazilian can’t slow Dillashaw down, we are indeed headed for a continuation of the last fight and another mid- to late-round stoppage victory for the Team Alpha Male fighter.

Tatum: Count me among those that completely (and wrongly) wrote off Dillashaw against Barao in their first meeting. As Bryan pointed out, Dillashaw hadn’t consistently shown the type of striking in his previous outings to give much indication he could so easily handle the Brazilian.

Given the performance that Dillashaw delivered at UFC 173, it would be disrespectful to assume that it was a fluke. However, the pressure is squarely on the shoulders of the champion in the rematch. The 28-year-old must find a way to defeat one of the most dynamic, athletic bantamweights on the planet not once, but twice. It’s something that no one, including Dillashaw’s mentor and teammate Urijah Faber, has done previously.

For Barao, UFC 173 was his worst nightmare. The Brazilian simply never got started. The performance was very reminiscent of Mauricio “Shogun” Rua’s title fight with Jon Jones at UFC 128. After getting rocked early in the bout, the Brazilian appeared to be on autopilot before ultimately falling to strikes late in the bout. It may have been overconfidence or Dillashaw might just be the superior fighter; that’s what will be determined come Saturday night.

Dillashaw has evolved so much as a fighter since his time on The Ultimate Fighter 14, but it’s impossible to overlook Barao’s resume. While it was Dillashaw that had the blueprint on Barao in the first meeting, now Barao knows what to expect from the American. Look for Barao to fight smarter and submit Dillashaw in round four via rear-naked choke to set up a rubber match sometime in 2015.

UFC 177’s co-headliner changed from a championship tilt between flyweights Demetrious Johnson and Chris Cariaso to a lightweight showdown between Danny Castillo and Tony Ferguson. Was this the fight deserving of the co-main event slot, and can Castillo and/or Ferguson make something of this opportunity?

Tatum: There’s really no way to sugarcoat it: this fight is not worthy of a pay-per-view co-main event. Ferguson and Castillo are exciting lightweights and have combined for 23 finishes in their 32 total wins, but neither is the type of household name that will help convince casual fans to spend $54.99 on this card.

The reason that this card originally had two title fights was that it lacked star power. And after UFC 178 lost its main event due to injury, the UFC had little choice but to shift the Johnson-Cariaso fight to Las Vegas. However, that’s certainly not the fault of Castillo nor Ferguson. The promotion simply didn’t have a choice.

Ferguson’s TUF 13 crown and 5-1 record inside the Octagon make him a strong prospect at 155 pounds, but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone clamoring for him to headline a card or challenge for the title at this point in his career.

The same can be said for Castillo. Although he carries a 7-3 record under the UFC banner, the WEC veteran was tabbed for the co-main event more because he trains in Sacramento than because of his appeal to viewers at home.

All of that said, this fight has the chance to entertain. With both fighters’ propensity to finish fights, it will be a spirited affair. The winner will walk away with another feather in their cap and a case for top-15 consideration in the rankings.

Henderson: Castillo is 6-2 over his last eight fights and 3-1 over his last four. Ferguson has that TUF championship and just one defeat on his UFC resume. The numbers add up to a compelling bout, but it’s just missing that special ingredient of a pay-per-view co-headliner. Maybe it lacks the hype, or perhaps it just doesn’t have the inticing built-in heated rivalry necessary to get people talking. Regardless, it doesn’t belong in the co-main slot of this card.

These two men are on the cusp of contendership, but they don’t have many big names on their list of previous victims. Ferguson has a decision win over Yves Edwards and a knockout of Katsunori Kikuno to his credit, but that’s not enough for most fans to view him as a legitimate threat at the top of the division. Castillo is in the same boat, with his highlights including decision wins over Paul Sass and Tim Means, plus a knockout of Charlie Brenneman. Both men have lost to Michael Johnson, and Castillo also suffered a loss to Edson Barboza.

The beauty of this spot on the card is that it provides each fighter with an opportunity to take this unexpected spotlight and turn it into the catalyst for a run toward the top of the division. Ferguson is the man most capable of achieving exactly that in this fight. He has proven knockout power, and fans like nothing more than a jaw-rattling finish.

Can former Olympic wrestling gold medalist Henry Cejudo overcome his past weight issues and prove that he’s taking mixed martial arts seriously? The flyweight has struggled to reach the 126-pound threshold in multiple appearances with Legacy FC. Now that’s he in the UFC, will he live up to his potential and best former WEC title challenger Scott Jorgensen?

Henderson: Cejudo’s career can be described as, um, interesting. Does anyone realize that this top flyweight prospect has never actually fought as a flyweight in his professional MMA career? He competed as a 135-pounder through his first four fights, then signed with Legacy with the intention of moving to 125 pounds. He weighed in at 128.5 pounds for what ended up being a catchweight bout at Legacy FC 24, then missed his scheduled Legacy FC 25 fight when he came down with the stomach flu. At Legacy FC 27, he again tipped the scales at 128.5 pounds. His next two scheduled appearances, at Legacy FC 31 and Legacy FC 34, were scrapped when he withdrew from his fights. And now, in the build-up to his Octagon debut, Cejudo is talking about how he was close to signing a deal with the WWE.

I’m surprised the UFC took the risk on Cejudo. He could fail to hit the mark on the scales, or he could withdraw just days prior to the event. Obviously, the UFC is gambling on the high reward portion of the equation here. Cejudo is an Olympian who could do big things if he does get serious about making weight and making it to the fight. This is a talented fighter still in his prime, unlike many other Olympic medalists who turn their eyes to MMA in their late 30s. He smashed his way through his first four opponents and decisioned his two Legacy foes. He has the pure abilities necessary to skyrocket to the top and challenge Demetrious Johnson in the near future.

However, the talk about WWE contracts, combined with Cejudo’s past struggles, makes it difficult to put much faith in the talented UFC newcomer making good on all of his potential. Cejudo will make it into the cage and win his fight against Jorgensen, who has become a very average fighter over the last two years, but he’ll do so after losing the battle with the scale.

Tatum: Bryan’s assessment of Cejudo’s career thus far is a little more flattering than necessary. In reality, Cejudo’s stint with Legacy was nothing more than a circus. And like my cohort, I’m surprised that the UFC was willing to take a risk on a fighter that has never been able to reach the flyweight limit. Given his past struggles, you have to think that Zuffa will give the wrestling stalwart a very short leash in that regard. It has cost other fighters their jobs in the past and it has prevented another flyweight, John Lineker, from fighting for a belt.

Adding to the bizarre career path of the 27-year-old was his revelation about the WWE. With his struggles on the scales, many have questioned whether he is serious about mixed martial arts. Given the fact that he was considering walking away after just six professional fights, it’s hard to argue with those doubters. While the UFC would love to be able to sell another Olympic medalist or another WWE superstar to its fan base, Cejudo doesn’t seem to have the persona of a Brock Lesnar or Ronda Rousey to pull it off.

Through six fights, Cejudo has yet to encounter much resistance beyond the scales, but that will quickly change in his UFC debut. Bryan is right that Jorgensen’s career has taken a step backward in recent years, but he’s much more experienced in the cage than Cejudo. Jorgensen may not be able to match Cejudo’s credentials on the wrestling mat, but he’s faced a myriad of top challengers at both bantamweight and flyweight in his career. Assuming Cejudo wins his battle with the scales, he’s facing an uphill battle when the cage door shuts. Look for Jorgensen to use his superior stand-up and experience to derail Cejudo’s hype train with a decision win.

Bethe Correia is undefeated through eight fights, but the Brazilian has just one finish on her resume. If she defeats Shayna Baszler with anything less than a highlight-reel stoppage, will her rivalry with the Ronda Rousey-led Four Horsewomen be enough to cause the UFC to overlook her decision-heavy record and grant her a title shot?

Tatum: Let’s pump the brakes for a second. I think we’re talking about the wrong fighter being even remotely close to title contention.

Correia is undefeated, but there are many people who felt she lost her UFC debut to veteran Julie Kedzie. Couple that with her inability to finish fights and she’s just a fringe top-10 bantamweight at best. Yes, she fought smart against Rousey’s and Baszler’s teammate Jessamyn Duke in her last Octagon appearance, but she’s sloppy with her footwork and tends to loop her punches.

Many are eager to write off Baszler because of what happened on The Ultimate Fighter 18. The longtime veteran was the clear favorite, but fell to the show’s eventual winner, Julianna Pena, in the opening round of the reality show. But let’s not forget that Baszler has just four official losses in the last seven years and those losses weren’t exactly against no-name fighters. She fell to current Invicta champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, former Strikeforce champion Sarah Kaufman and the last two challengers to Rousey’s UFC belt, Sara McMann and Alexis Davis. And outside of the fight with Justino, Baszler was competitive. She’s a crafty veteran with some of the best submissions at 135 pounds.

If Correia were to find a way to stop Baszler in this fight, she’d cement her place as a top-10 fighter, but she’s going to have to beat another top-ranked fighter before she’s deserving of title talk. As evidenced by the location of this fight on the card, Baszler has the chance to shake any Octagon jitters she may have encountered during TUF and put her name in the mix at bantamweight.

Henderson: To return to the subject of a prior question, I’m actually surprised this isn’t the co-headlining fight of the evening. Correia’s rivalry with the Four Horsewomen has been a buzzworthy topic in MMA circles, and she’s facing her toughest test yet in Baszler.

It certainly shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion that Correia emerges with her hand raised. Her undefeated run consists of victories over middling competition, a pair of strikers in Kedzie and Elaine Albuquerque, and an inexperienced fighter in Duke who has yet to master the use of her reach advantage. Baszler is the first elite grappler to face Correia. However, Correia does have a grinding style that could lead to a lot of points on the scorecards, even if Baszler is the one going for the finishes. If this fight goes the distance, Correia will take the decision. If it doesn’t go the full 15 minutes, then the result will be a Baszler submission victory.

A stoppage victory would go a long way to guaranteeing Correia a place near the front of the line, but a decision might be enough to get the Brazilian there. Yes, she is a decision machine and only a fringe top-10 fighter, but the UFC has been known to lean on rivalries to sell fights. Rousey is the promotion’s most marketable star at the moment, and it would make sense to capitalize on the tension between the champ and a fighter who has defeated two of her stablemates. If Correia wins and plays up the gimmick in her post-fight celebration, she could “talk” her way into that title shot.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Henderson: There are a couple of great choices for sleeper fights on this card, but I have to single out a pair of debuting bantamweights, Joe Soto and Anthony Birchak. The pair have combined for a 26-3 record, and their Octagon debuts are long overdue.

Soto has had a long road back since his Bellator title reign was cut short by Joe Warren. A detached retina and another loss—a first-round submission defeat at the hands of Eddie Yagin—hampered his chances to quickly rebound. However, he bounced back from the two-fight skid to pick up six wins, claiming a Tachi Palace Fights title along the way. Soto could follow in the footsteps of another former Bellator champion, Zach Makovsky, and quickly establish his name in UFC contender discussions.

Birchak doesn’t have quite the reputation of Soto, but he impressed at Maximum Fighting Championship 37 in a “Fight of the Year”-worthy battle with Ryan Benoit. The two men went back and forth, trading superior position on the mat and relentlessly pursuing the finish. Birchak claimed the win via unanimous decision. That fight took place in May 2013, but he has only fought once since then before obtaining his release from the MFC. He’s on a five-fight winning streak, though, and has only lost once in 12 pro fights.

Both men have a lot of potential, making this a key fight lingering far down the card’s lineup (initially, it was even scheduled as the lone Fight Pass bout on the card). We should see some good exchanges from both men, whether it be standing or in scrambles on the mat, but Birchak was sloppy in that fight against Benoit and that style could cost him against Soto. Soto should announce his arrival with the win here, and he’s not doing so against enhancement talent either.

Tatum: I won’t argue with my colleague on the intrigue of the Birchak-Soto match-up, but the fight that piques my interests the most on this card is the lightweight clash between former Legacy FC champion Carlos Diego Ferreira and TUF 13 runner-up Ramsey Nijem.

Ferreira is a lethal submission artist, as evidenced by his sub one-minute finish of Colton Smith in his promotional debut. Prior to that, the undefeated Brazilian had bested UFC veteran Carlo Prater and went five rounds with MMA legend Jorge Patino. Six of the 29-year-old’s 10 wins have come via tapout.

At just 26 years of age, Nijem is entering his ninth fight in the Octagon. After falling short in his reality show quest, the Pit Elevated product reeled off three straight wins before dropping back-to-back fights to Myles Jury and James Vick. The loss to Vick had some questioning if Nijem would get another opportunity with the promotion. Luckily for Nijem, he did and has bounced back with two straight wins. In each, his striking has shown tremendous improvement, leading to the TKO finish of another astute grappler in Beneil Dariush.

This fight comes down to who imposes their will first. Ferreira has shown he can finish fights in a lightning-fast manner and Nijem has fallen victim to similar submissions in the past. However, if Nijem can use his wrestling to keep the fight upright, his continued evolution on the feet may be the difference. Look for Ferreira to eke out a decision win in a spirited affair.

Pair this card with…

Tatum: Your fantasy football draft at a local sports bar. While buying UFC pay-per-views has become a normal part of my monthly budget, this card will be much harder to justify for the majority of fight fans. There will be good fights on this card, but you’ll enjoy catching them out of the corner of your eye while you’re debating between taking Peyton Manning or Calvin Johnson with your opening-round pick.

Henderson: Your favorite appetizer at that sports bar. Forget the fantasy football draft, just order a beer and some grub, then pay attention. The card might be a sports bar undertaking, but there are a lot of potential future stars here. There’s the rivalry for the bantamweight crown between Dillashaw and Barao, a pair of fighters who have yet to turn 30. There are the debuts of Baszler, Cejudo, Soto, Birchak and Damon Jackson. And there’s the sophomore appearance from Ferreira. Like a good appetizer whets your palette for the main course, this lineup whets the palette for the future of the UFC.

Fight Picks

Tatum’s Pick Henderson’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
BW Championship: T.J. Dillashaw vs. Renan Barao Barao Dillashaw
LW: Tony Ferguson vs. Danny Castillo Ferguson Ferguson
Women’s BW: Shayna Baszler vs. Bethe Correia Baszler Correia
LW: Carlos Diego Ferreira vs. Ramsey Nijem Ferreira Ferreira
LW: Yancy Medeiros vs. Damon Jackson Jackson Jackson
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
MW: Derek Brunson vs. Lorenz Larkin Larkin Larkin
FlyW: Henry Cejudo vs. Scott Jorgensen Jorgensen Cejudo
HW: Anthony Hamilton vs. Ruan Potts Potts Potts
BW: Anthony Birchak vs. Joe Soto Birchak Soto
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 7:30 p.m. ET)
LW: Cain Carrizosa vs. Chris Wade Wade Wade