Rory MacDonald (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC Fight Night 54 Preview and Predictions

The UFC is back in Canada this weekend for UFC Fight Night 54, and all eyes will be on Canadian welterweight Rory MacDonald.

For years, MMA fans and Canadian fans in particular have declared MacDonald the successor to Georges St-Pierre and the next face of the UFC in Canada. From the day of his UFC debut almost five years ago, there was something about the then “Waterboy” that made fans take notice. Ten UFC fights later, “Ares” has lived up to his hype thus far and is on the verge of getting a shot to sit atop GSP’s old throne.

With a potential welterweight title shot on the line, MacDonald will have to get past former Strikeforce champion Tarec Saffiedine, who absolutely dominated Hyun Gyu Lim in his UFC debut early this year. Saffiedine is a dangerous striker riding a five-fight winning streak, and after spending his first year on the UFC roster stuck on the sidelines due to injury, he’s looking to make up for lost time against the highly ranked MacDonald.


Throw in an exciting co-main event with title implications for at least one of the fighters involved, two recent The Ultimate Fighter winners and a card stacked top to bottom with homegrown Canadian talent, and this should add up to a pretty fun night of fights.

The card will kick off from the Scotiabank Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, with the first fight getting underway on UFC Fight Pass at 7 p.m. ET. Televised prelims will begin at 8 p.m. ET and the main card kicks off on Fox Sports 1 a few hours later at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Sal DeRose and Vince Carey square off to preview the card in this addition of Toe-to-Toe.

Rory MacDonald’s rise to the top of the welterweight division was knocked off course when he lost to Robbie Lawler, but he righted the ship with two wins. He’ll look to make it three when he fights Tarec Saffiedine, a former Strikeforce champion who is still trying to establish his credibility inside the UFC. Is MacDonald still the future of the welterweight division and eventual long-term successor to Georges St-Pierre? Can he prove as much against Saffiedine?

DeRose:This is a great question because MacDonald’s hype has taken a dip since that decision victory over B.J. Penn at UFC on Fox 5. MacDonald is 3-1 since that bout, but his victories haven’t been the type of wins that anointed him the successor to St-Pierre.

MacDonald will have a tough time in the welterweight division considering all the names who call the 170-pound division home. You have guys like Robbie Lawler, Matt Brown, Hector Lombard, and that isn’t even mentioning champion Johny Hendricks or soon-to-be-welterweight Benson Henderson.

Sequels never really pan out, and to say MacDonald will have the same amount of success as St-Pierre would be like comparing Weekend at Bernie’s 2 with the original—they just aren’t comparable. Luckily, MacDonald, at 25 years old, is still young, so there is plenty of time to claim the division and cement his own legacy. His skills have improved with every fight, and that loss to Lawler is starting to look more and more like an anomaly in an otherwise bright career.

MacDonald can prove as much against Saffiedine, a top-10 welterweight in the UFC. But MacDonald needs an emphatic win to do so. He needs a finish to put that final touch on his resume to prove he deserves a title shot against either Hendricks or Lawler. Adding Saffiedine’s name to a winning streak that already includes names like Tyron Woodley and Demian Maia would certainly help his cause.

Carey: First things first, this is Rory MacDonald. If he’s going to get compared to any terrible sequel, it needs to be American Psycho 2. Come on Sal, you’re better than that.

Even though Sal screwed up the movie reference, he made some solid points on MacDonald. At just 25, the Canadian fighter has plenty of time to live up to the wealth of expectations he has earned in his long UFC tenure. Earning his third straight win against a fighter the caliber of Saffedine would be a hell of a start. To call the loss to Lawler “close” would be a huge understatement, and another win should be more than enough to earn him his long-awaited title fight.

I hate to use the word “showcase” when it means a guy as good as Saffiedine is going to be hopelessly outgunned, but MacDonald is just better than the former Strikeforce champ, and it’s going to show on Saturday. I’m not entirely sure MacDonald will finish his opponent, because he sometimes gets caught up in his opponent’s defenses and loses his aggression, but at the very least I expect a one-sided decision win for the Canadian.

Although their styles aren’t quite the same, MacDonald and GSP share a key similarity in their struggles to finish fights, but that may hurt “Ares” more at a championship level than it did St-Pierre. MacDonald doesn’t have the same grinding style St-Pierre was able to use time and time again once he held the title, and it’s a lot harder to be a point fighter on the feet and hold on to the belt than it is for a grappler. So, do I think MacDonald will take over St-Pierre’s throne and be the next long-term champion at 170 pounds? Yes. But he’s not going to dominate anywhere close to the way St-Pierre did.

Raphael Assuncao’s current six-fight winning streak includes a split decision win over current champ T.J. Dillashaw. Is Assuncao destined for a rematch, this time with gold on the line, should he beat Bryan Caraway? If Caraway wins, does he enter the title picture immediately?

Carey: All signs point to a rematch between Assuncao and the bantamweight champ if Assuncao can pull off a win here. And, to be honest, Assuncao probably shouldn’t have had to take this fight in the first place. While his win over Dillashaw was far from convincing, Assuncao still ended the night with his hand raised. That should have gotten him first dibs on Dillashaw over Renan Barao last month.

Regardless, now Assuncao’s likely a victory away from attempting to repeat his success against Dillashaw, and all he has to do is take out recent top-10 addition Caraway in order to make that happen. This seems like Assuncao’s fight to lose, and it’s not hard to figure out why when you look at his recent resume. Since dropping to 135 pounds shortly after his UFC debut, the Brazilian has won six straight bantamweight fights and holds a win over the current champion of the division. Throw in the motivation of a shot at UFC gold and it makes sense that Assuncao is the favorite here.

There’s a lot on the line for Assuncao on Saturday, but unfortunately for the Brazilian I don’t see things going his way. Caraway looked impressive against an aggressive and crafty Erik Perez earlier this year, and outside of a controversial loss to Takeya Mizugaki, he’s been just as solid in the UFC as Assuncao, if not the more consistent finisher. Since Caraway looks like he just walked off of the Dawson’s Creek set most of the time, it’s sometimes easy to forget that he’s a pretty damn good bantamweight himself.

I think Caraway pulls off a surprise victory here, and while he might not be ready for a title shot right away, a shot at a top guy like Urijah Faber or the aforementioned Barao would make for a really fun title eliminator.

DeRose: Assuncao should be next in line for the bantamweight title shot, but he has some competition, as Dominick Cruz’s return the cage could play spoiler to Assuncao’s title aspirations. Cruz had to vacate the bantamweight title not because he lost, but because he had been hurt for so long. The next title shot could very well come down to who has the more impressive victory.

After pitting Joe Soto against Dillashaw on extremely short notice, the UFC could look to legitimize Dillashaw’s title by having him fight the dominant former champion. Regardless of who emerges as the next challenger, the UFC wins. There is certainly a storyline in either direction. Assuncao beat Dillashaw before and that could certainly sell. Considering Barao won’t get the next title shot, it comes down to either Assuncao or Cruz.

Even though I think Caraway fits better on Saved by the Bell than he does on Dawson’s Creek, he is in an interesting spot here. A win certainly vaults him up the rankings at 135 pounds. That’s not to say Caraway would be a top-five fighter, but I could see him being safely in the top 10 with a win. Say what you will about the guy, but Caraway has four finishes in the UFC, all by submission (three by rear-naked choke and the fourth via guillotine).

I disagree with Vince on this one. I don’t think Caraway pulls off the surprise victory here. Caraway is good against the mid-tier fighters, but Assuncao isn’t a mid-tier fighter.

Chad Laprise and Elias Theodorou are both getting main-card spots this weekend after winning The Ultimate Fighter: Nations earlier this year. Which fighter looks better this weekend, and who do you have higher hopes for in the long run?

DeRose: In terms of success, I have higher hopes for Elias Theodorou. Lightweight is a deep division and it’s tough for even the current crop of extraordinary 155-pounders to have consistent success at that level. Middleweight is more wide open and easier to navigate. The skill Laprise would need to hone at 155 pounds at age 28 is just far too great.

That being said, Theodorou didn’t really show me a lot on the show, and definitely not enough for me to sit here and say “Wow, look out for this kid!” That has typically become the case with any former TUF cast member. Laprise certainly has some great striking skills that give me the overall thought that he has the capability to put together a longer run inside the Octagon. Facing that kind of competition at 155 pounds will certainly help plug up his weakness on the mat while also putting his striking skills on display.

I like Laprise to also look better this weekend when he faces off against Yosdenis Cedeno, and it’s because of those striking skills. Theodorou, who fights Bruno Santos, is more of a grinder and looks to wear his opponents out, which is never really a great look, even if it locks up the victory. Laprise hasn’t finished a fighter since Bellator 64, but I think he gets a knockout this weekend against Cedeno.

Carey: Like Sal, I’m not sure if I see either one of these guys making it to the top of their respective divisional ladders any time soon. Although both fighters showed flashes of top-flight ability on The Ultimate Fighter, they both also have a long way to go before they have a chance at defeating even a mid-tier UFC veteran.

On Saturday night, I’m pretty confident that both men can gain victories and look good doing it. Laprise should be able to use his striking skills to put a hurting on Cedeno, and I think Theodorou is going to use that grinding style to secure a dominant victory of his own. Laprise will get a bit more hype if he’s able to get the finish, but I doubt people will be sleeping on Theodorou.

As for the future, I’m also going to go with Theodorou, mostly for the same reasons as Sal. Laprise has a lot of catching up to do if he wants to compete with the best fighters at 155 pounds, whereas Theodorou is both in a weaker division and is three years younger. With some more work on his striking, the young Canadian could stick around the UFC for a lot of years and possibly break into contention some day. I can’t say I see the same happening for Laprise.

On the preliminary card, the lead fight between Daron Cruickshank and Anthony Njokuani puts both fighters in an interesting spot. With a win, could Cruickshank begin an ascension to the top? For Njokuani, does a loss spell the end to his UFC tenure? Are both men really stuck at being mid-tier UFC fighters?

Carey: I really hope this fight lives up to the ridiculous expectations I’ve built up in my head, because these two are capable of putting on a show if they decide to duke it out on the feet. However, with both men sitting in precarious situations in the UFC’s lightweight division, I’m not sure if we’ll be lucky enough to get a straight-up kickboxing bout.

I don’t think Njokuani is fighting for his job quite yet. The WEC and UFC vet fights a style that the UFC brass seems to love, so a loss to a rising prospect like Cruickshank probably won’t spell the end. However, it will definitely put him in that position heading into his next fight. But Njokuani didn’t look great in his loss to Vinc Pichel earlier this year and another lackluster performance is going to make it extremely difficult for him to get his UFC career back on track. Considering Njokuani is 34 years old and has been a .500 UFC fighter for a couple of years now, it’s pretty safe to say that the middle of the pack is where he’s going to reside until he’s either cut or decides to hang up his gloves.

Things aren’t quite as black and white for Cruickshank. He still has a lot of goodwill with the fans following the knockout of Erik Koch. With Jorge Masvidal earning another big win this past weekend to put himself on the verge of breaking into the UFC’s top 10, Cruickshank’s recent loss to Masvidal doesn’t look so bad.

My gut tells me “The Detroit Superstar” is going to look good this weekend in a pretty lopsided win over Njokuani, and that should lead to a jump up in competition his next time out. Cruickshank would still have to beat a fighter in the top 15 in order to break away from the pack, but the fact that he could easily get that opportunity won’t let me count him out yet.

DeRose: I’ve also built up absurdly high expectations for this fight. It is one of the top fights on paper from the combined lineups of the weekend’s two Fight Night cards. However, as Vince suggested, we may not get a fight that lives up to those expectations because both men are in tough situations.

Njokuani is on the fringes here. A loss should see him get his walking papers, and his age is another deterrent when the UFC considers whether to keep him around. He is 3-4 so far in his UFC tenure and hasn’t been the same fighter he was in his WEC days, when he looked like a feared striker. Njokuani simply hasn’t developed with the rest of the sport, causing him to fall behind. His style simply isn’t enough to keep him around when he has a sub-.500 record. Furthermore, he has just one knockout victory since coming to the UFC.

Cruickshank is one of those guys who could be kept as a mid-tier fighter on the UFC roster. His ceiling is that of a fringe top-15 fighter. At age 29, we’re not likely to get much more from him in terms of development. And lightweight isn’t a shallow division either. It is very deep, and for Cruickshank to overcome the gap between him and the top 10 is no easy task. He is a very skilled fighter, but he is cursed with a weight division that is filled with other equally or greater skilled fighters.

Cruickshank’s loss to Masvidal showed where he is right now, but Cruickshank will eventually need to overcome a top-15 guy like Masvidal. Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe Cruickshank will hit his stride like Matt Brown and rocket to the top.

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

DeRose: Honestly I’m looking forward to a fight airing on UFC Fight Pass between Albert Tumenov and Matt Dwyer.

The two men have combined for 20 wins, and out of those 20 wins, 16 came by way of knockout. Both guys are young—ages 22 and 24, respectively. Dwyer is making his UFC debut, and Tumenov’s last fight was a great knockout of Anthony Lapsley.

Tumenov looks like a stud in the making. Dwyer, meanwhile, is coming off a knockout victory over former UFC fighter DaMarques Johnson. These two are great prospects for the welterweight division, and they are entertaining fighters as well.

I don’t think there is any doubt that this fight ends in a knockout, an outcome everybody loves. So everybody should fire up the old Fight Pass account this weekend purely for this under-the-radar contest. This isn’t your typical “I can miss this prelim because it’s on Fight Pass” fight. Grab a beer, sit down and watch two young guns slug it out.

Carey: The one fight on the main card we haven’t talked about yet is the bantamweight clash between Mitch Gagnon and Rob Font. That might be my favorite match-up on the card.

I’ll admit I was a little bummed when Font replaced Gagnon’s original opponent, Aljamain Sterling, but Font is a pretty sick consolation prize. Font may only have one fight in the UFC, but the Team Sityodtong fighter made sure to get noticed when he knocked out longtime veteran George Roop in just over two minutes at UFC 175 this summer. However, it will be interesting to see how he plans on dealing with the dangerous and crafty ground game the Canadian Gagnon brings to the table.

These are two talented bantamweights with really good win-loss records, and since Gagnon has yet to be in a boring fight, I don’t think he starts here. If they stay standing, I’ve got Font. If it hits the mat, I’ve got Gagnon. Either way, I’m picking these two to earn a bonus check at the end of the night. [Ed. note: Font withdrew from the fight after this feature was written. The fight picks listed in the table below reflect Gagnon’s new opponent, Roman Salazar.]

Pair this card with…

Carey: UFC Fight Night 53. These double-card Saturdays can wear you down, but there are enough quality fights between the two bills to keep everyone entertained. Plus, you get two UFC free weekends after this until UFC 179, so you may as well get your Octagon fix while you still can. It may mean missing some college football, but Saturday should be fight day this week.

DeRose: A nice cold bottle of Molson, your finest mini-Canadian flag and some preseason hockey. Pretty much anything Canadian. This card is filled head-to-toe with Canadians in the UFC’s first trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and these guys are just itching to show the world what they have to offer. Coming in as the second fight card of the night, these fighters have some competition already. However, they most certainly could steal the spotlight, as they are the better card on paper. UFC Fight Night 54 will most likely have me singing “O Canada” by the end of the night.

Fight Picks

Fight DeRose’s Pick Carey’s Pick
Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 10 p.m. ET)
WW: Rory MacDonald vs. Tarec Saffiedine MacDonald MacDonald
BW: Raphael Assuncao vs. Bryan Caraway Assuncao Caraway
LW: Chad Laprise vs. Yosdenis Cedeno Laprise Laprise
MW: Elias Theodorou vs. Bruno Santos Santos Theodorou
WW: Nordine Taleb vs. Jingliang Li Li Taleb
BW: Roman Salazar vs. Mitch Gagnon Gagnon Gagnon
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 2, 8 p.m. ET)
LW: Daron Cruickshank vs. Anthony Njokuani Cruickshank Cruickshank
LW: Olivier Aubin-Mercier vs. Jake Lindsey Lindsey Aubin-Mercier
LW: Jason Saggo vs. Paul Felder Felder Saggo
FlyW: Chris Kelades vs. Patrick Holohan Holohan Holohan
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 7 p.m. ET)
WW: Albert Tumenov vs. Matt Dwyer Tumenov Tumenov
BW: Pedro Munhoz vs. Jerrod Sanders Munhoz Munhoz