Fabricio Werdum (R) (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 180 Preview and Predictions

While the UFC and its fans generally prefer the lineups on fight cards remain unchanged after their initial announcement, UFC 180 is probably the event that most needed to maintain its originally scheduled headlining contest. On Saturday, the UFC makes its debut in Mexico with a pay-per-view card from the country’s capital city, and Mexican-American heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez was slated to defend his belt in the evening’s main event. Velasquez is, without question, the biggest star of Mexican descent in the UFC and Saturday’s event was meant to be an extravaganza of a first visit to America’s neighbor to the south.

That vision was promptly dashed when Velasquez pulled out of his fight against Fabricio Werdum due to a knee injury. Additional misfortune was heaped upon the card when both Joe Lauzon and Diego Sanchez (who were slated to fight each other) similarly withdrew from their fight, so the UFC did what it could to salvage the rest of the card.

The most significant move it made was replacing Velasquez with resurgent fan-favorite Mark Hunt. Fresh off a knockout win over the iron-chinned Roy Nelson, Hunt will look to score a significant upset over Werdum en route to capturing the UFC interim heavyweight title. Elsewhere on the main card, welterweight standouts Jake Ellenberger and Kelvin Gastelum will battle for maintained relevance at 170 pounds, and Dennis Bermudez will try to score his eighth straight win when he takes on fellow featherweight contender Ricardo Lamas. Add in a women’s bantamweight bout between two ranked fighters, Jessica Eye and Leslie Smith, and the two tournament finals from The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America and it’s not the worst card we’ve ever seen, all things considered.


UFC 180 takes place in Mexico City, with the preliminary fights airing on UFC Fight Pass and Fox Sports 1. The main card, broadcast on pay-per-view, begins at 10:00 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Sal DeRose and Eric Reinert square off to preview the card in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

With Cain Velasquez out, Fabricio Werdum is now fighting Mark Hunt for the interim heavyweight championship. This is a battle between two men who were once viewed as one-dimensional fighters, but they’ve come a long way since then. Will Werdum still opt to attack Hunt’s weaknesses on the mat, or will the Brazilian showcase his newfound striking against the kickboxer? And will either route lead him to success against MMA’s biggest underdog story?

DeRose: It’s very disappointing to see Velasquez fall out of this fight due to yet another injury. But, to answer a very popular question raised by Al Michaels after the “Miracle on Ice,” seeing Hunt fighting for an interim title makes me a firm believer in miracles.

It wasn’t long ago that Hunt was barely over the .500 mark in his career and was losing steam from his Pride days. Hunt has strongly turned that around by scoring walk-off knockouts and leaving it all in the cage. That, sadly, ends at UFC 180 against Werdum.

Werdum possesses possibly the best grappling of anyone at heavyweight. As for Hunt, well, it’s his glaring weakness. Werdum isn’t going to keep this fight standing and risk Hunt knocking him out. The only reason for Werdum to keep it standing is to give the fans a great fight in the UFC’s first foray into Mexico. Werdum’s striking has improved, yes, but his chin doesn’t magically gain superpowers that make him impervious to an overhand right. Hunt can and will knock out Werdum if given the opportunity. The smart play for Werdum, then, is to take that opportunity away.

This is a five-round fight, and Hunt will have trouble navigating the waters later on. Hunt’s chances lie in his striking and in landing that knockout shot. If that doesn’t come, it will be trouble for Hunt. Werdum will take this fight to the mat as often as possible early on, wear out Hunt and then, maybe later in the fight, we’ll see Werdum display his striking.

Hunt is a great story. He’s someone a lot of people cheer for because he is very inspiring. There’s not even an adjective in the English language to describe what Hunt has accomplished. He is certainly the feel-good story here and everybody likes an underdog, but Cinderella’s coach will turn back into a pumpkin.

Reinert: Yeah… I mean, how do you not root for Hunt here? Not only is there the admirable career-resurgence stuff for fans to appreciate, but, quite simply, the man is a knockout artist who has left fans nearly as dazed as his fallen opponents on several occasions in his UFC tenure. No one in the UFC had been able to stop Nelson before his fight with Hunt, and Nelson has faced some heavy hitters. We all saw what Hunt did to him in September, so he’s clearly got a ton of power in his hands.

Unfortunately, that power doesn’t mean much when you’re not on your feet, and Werdum is going to try to remove Hunt from his as quickly as possible. Sal is correct that Werdum’s striking has improved as his career has progressed, but the only way Werdum would make his bout with Hunt “a great fight in the UFC’s first foray into Mexico” by standing with the former K-1 Grand Prix champion would be by placing himself at the wrong end of a highlight-reel knockout. Ain’t happening.

This fight likely ends one of two ways. The smart money is on Werdum moving as quickly as possible to put Hunt on his back before moving for the submission. Less likely, but still very possible, is that Werdum traps Hunt against the cage to set up the takedown, but Hunt reverses position, thus trapping Werdum against the cage. At that point all Hunt would need is one or two clean shots at Werdum’s chin to earn his first MMA championship.

I agree with Sal here that Werdum will likely take the fight and the interim title, but I think he’ll stop Hunt on the mat, rather than grind him out over the full five rounds.

Some might say Jake Ellenberger is tumbling from the upper echelon of the welterweight division, but his losses came against Rory MacDonald and Robbie Lawler, two of the division’s finest. Is Ellenberger really declining as a factor in the division? Will he simply turn into a stepping stone for Kelvin Gastelum?

Reinert: This might not be the sexiest fight on paper, but it’s certainly one with no shortage of importance for both competitors.

Ellenberger might have lost his last two in a row, but he’s still ranked eighth in the UFC’s stacked welterweight division, and there’s a reason. Ellenberger’s 8-4 record in the UFC includes wins over Jake Shields, Diego Sanchez and Nate Marquardt. Until his recent setbacks against Lawler and MacDonald, he was absolutely considered among the elites at 170 pounds.

Gastelum was a 5-0 prospect when he entered The Ultimate Fighter house for its 17th American season. He’d finish all three of his opponents before defeating Uriah Hall by decision to win the season’s middleweight tournament. Since the show, Gastelum dropped to welterweight, where he’s remained undefeated in three subsequent fights. He did miss weight before his most recent fight, which he would go on to win, but still finds himself ranked 11th on the UFC’s welterweight list.

The stakes are fairly simple here. Ellenberger needs this win to prove he can still contend at welterweight. Even more than that, given the UFC’s occasional penchant to release high-profile fighters who lose their competitive edge, Ellenberger might need this win to keep his spot on the roster. A win for Gastelum would be his first over a top-10 opponent, and would truly establish his place as a young contender.

Tough one to call here, but I’m going to side with experience over youth. Gastelum has looked impressive, but Ellenberger has been on a different level for quite some time. Yes, “The Juggernaut” has lost his last two fights, so maybe he’s not going to battle for the belt anytime soon, but he’s still won far more than he’s lost in the UFC and at 29 is still far from being past his prime. Look for Ellenberger to stifle Gastelum’s considerable physical gifts en route to a decision victory.

DeRose: This fight is a wildly important fight for both fighters for the reasons Eric mentioned. Ellenberger needs the win to stay relevant, and Gastelum needs this fight to be considered a top-10 welterweight.

I don’t want to say Ellenberger is done in his career. It seemed like a short time ago when he knocked out Shields quickly and violently. That isn’t to mention that Ellenberger isn’t some over-the-hill 35-year-old or anything. He hasn’t even exited his twenties yet. There is still some time to right this ship.

As long as Ellenberger is in the division, he is a guy to watch. He has power in his hands and can really pose a threat to many in the division. Losses to MacDonald and Lawler are not losses to scoff at. That is the premier part of the division, and those men just happened to be better than Ellenberger on those days and perhaps had better camps leading up to the fight.

I, too, am taking Ellenberger over Gastelum. Gastelum has been impressive, but Ellenberger is a different level of competition.

Dennis Bermudez has won seven straight fights and looked particularly impressive against Clay Guida in his most recent contest. That said, Bermudez hasn’t exactly faced a murderers’ row of elite featherweights. Against the higher-ranked Ricardo Lamas on Saturday, can Bermudez keep his winning streak alive? If he can, where would he find himself in the UFC’s featherweight title picture?

DeRose: This card sure isn’t short of meaningful fights at the top of the bill. This is a very important fight in the featherweight division and there are a couple of reasons as to why.

Bermudez would find himself in title contention with a win over Lamas, a top-10 fighter who recently fought for the title. Sure, Bermudez hasn’t fought the competition you want to see for a guy challenging arguably one of top fighters on the planet in champion Jose Aldo, but eight straight wins is wildly impressive in the UFC, especially considering Bermudez’s loss to Diego Brandao on The Ultimate Fighter 14 Finale. In fact, that loss to Brandao furthered Bermudez’s losing streak to three straight fights.

I’m probably crazy for picking Bermudez to win this fight. People like to look at strength of competition. Admittedly, to an extent, it is an important factor that can’t be overlooked, but Bermudez is a killer. I like what he brings to the table in his wrestling and striking.

I’ve been impressed with Lamas throughout the years. His fight with Aldo for the title really showed a lot of people just how good he is. However, it’s Bermudez’s time to shine here. Bermudez will outpoint Lamas on the feet and bring the fight to the mat, leaving Lamas stuck in the Bermudez Triangle. Ok, that was corny, can’t fault a guy for trying.

Reinert: Here’s a round of slow, non-sarcastic applause for the Bermudez pun.

If Sal is crazy for picking Bermudez, then I’ll be there to join him in the asylum. Perhaps this is wishful thinking borne of a desire to see Aldo take on a new challenger, but Bermudez has the sort of well-rounded game that could give almost anyone in the featherweight division some trouble. After the loss to Brandao, Bermudez has yet to taste defeat again, and Lamas is an ideal opponent here.

The fourth-ranked featherweight rebounded from his loss to Aldo with a win over Hacran Dias, bringing his UFC record to an impressive 5-1. A win on Saturday wouldn’t do much for Lamas’s title prospects, given the recency of his loss to Aldo, but it could set up a very attractive top contenders’ bout between Lamas and fellow former title challenger Chad Mendes. Either way, a win keeps Lamas in the title conversation while a loss likely replaces him with Bermudez.

Lots on the line here, but I like Bermudez to take this one via decision.

UFC 180 ends The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America with two tournament finals, Yair Rodriguez vs. Leonardo Morales at 145 pounds and Alejandro Perez vs. Jose Quinonez at 135 pounds. With this show being the first time the UFC heads to Mexico, could any of these fighters be the guy the UFC needs to really keep a foothold in the country? Do any of these guys have a legitimate chance to be stars, or is the UFC stuck with Cain Velasquez as its sole star in Mexico for the time being?

Reinert: I think the key phrase in the question is “for the time being.” While UFC 180 will certainly do a lot to introduce Mexican fans to the wonder that is a live UFC pay-per-view event (and all the production that goes along with it), the absence of Velasquez hurts a lot. That said, he’ll no doubt be in attendance if only to wave to the crowd and say a few things about Mexico City being awesome to at least get the reaction from the crowd.

Perhaps, then, the lesser-known Mexican fighters showcasing their skills on Saturday can use Velasquez’s crowd-pleasing presence to show their countrymen that they, too, deserve attention. It won’t be their nationality that garners it, though. If any of these men hope to join the heavyweight champion as the UFC’s ambassadors and faces in Mexico, they’ll have to put on the sort of performance that forces the audience to take notice.

DeRose: Eric hit the nail on the head with Velasquez. He is going to be like the Queen of England in this fight. He’ll sit, wave to everybody, pump his fist and maybe enter the cage after the interim title fight.

I don’t envision any of these guys being on the level of Velasquez in terms of drawing fans in Mexico. Very few guys on The Ultimate Fighter have become champions in the UFC, and Mexico needs a champion to pull its attention away from boxing and toward MMA. Good luck with that. While boxing may not have an Oscar De La Hoya right now or anybody near that level, it still has a rich tradition and history in Mexico.

Velasquez is the best bet for the future of Mexican MMA. The UFC needs him to keep going back to the country. With all his injuries, though, it seems highly unlikely that he’ll do so on a consistent basis, and perhaps then, if one of these TUF hopefuls becomes a champion, the UFC can turn to that fighter as one of its prominent figures south of the border. However, for right now, Velasquez is the key to Mexico.

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

DeRose: I’ll go with Jessica Eye’s return to the cage against Leslie Smith. Smith dominated Jessamyn Duke in her last fight and demonstrated tenacious striking to get the TKO. That performance leads me to believe another one could be coming. Eye is a tough fighter, but her UFC career has been a mixed bag so far. Smith certainly has experience in her corner, but Eye’s submission of Zoila Frausto in Bellator still sticks out in my mind years later. Eye has a lot to prove and Smith’s style is always fun to watch, so I’ll pick these two to give us a good performance.

Reinert: I like this recently announced The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America featherweight final between Mexico’s Yair Rodriguez and Nicaragua’s Leonardo Morales. Both of these guys are younger than 23 and hold a combined record of 7-1. Morales has finished all four of his previous professional fights inside the distance, as has Rodriguez in two of his three pro wins. Only once did either of these fighters reach the final bell during their season of TUF (Morales, in his semifinal bout against Gabriel Benitez), and each will be looking to represent their team and their country in the Octagon. This has all the trappings of a great fight, and I can’t wait to see them throw down.

Pair this card with…

Reinert: The satisfaction that you didn’t spend all that money on a ticket to this event before Velasquez withdrew from the headlining fight. Sure, the champ’s absence makes this card less appealing to purchase on pay-per-view, but at least you’re not stuck with tickets to an event that lost its two biggest stars (Sanchez is the other) after it had already sold out.

DeRose: Bellator. The dreaded other MMA promotion is going head-to-head with UFC 180 with its own Bellator 131. I’m biased here, as I did the predictions for Bellator 131 on this site and I love this card. It really is a great card outside of the headlining sideshow fight. Maybe you’re into the build-up for the fight between Stephan Bonnar and Tito Ortiz, but if not, you also have Michael Chandler vs. Will Brooks and Mike Richman vs. Nam Phan on the main card. And since this is the UFC’s first trip to Mexico, I’ll also try to dine on some fine Mexican cuisine to add to the cultural experience.

Fight Picks

Fight DeRose’s Pick Reinert’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
Interim HW Championship: Mark Hunt vs. Fabricio Werdum Werdum Werdum
WW: Jake Ellenberger vs. Kelvin Gastelum Ellenberger Ellenberger
FW: Dennis Bermudez vs. Ricardo Lamas Bermudez Bermudez
WW: Chris Heatherly vs. Augusto Montano Montano Montano
WW: Edgar Garcia vs. Hector Urbina Garcia Garcia
TUF: Latin America BW Finals: Alejandro Perez vs. Jose Quinonez Perez Quinonez
Women’s BW: Jessica Eye vs. Leslie Smith Eye Eye
BW: Henry Briones vs. Guido Cannetti Briones Cannetti
TUF: Latin America FW Finals: Yair Rodriguez vs. Leonardo Morales Rodriguez Morales
BW: Marco Beltran vs. Marlon Vera Vera Vera
FW: Humberto Brown vs. Gabriel Benitez Benitez Benitez