The night of Nov. 15 is an MMA fan’s paradise. Three major events in one night. However, while Bellator puts a lightweight title on the line and the UFC adds an interim heavyweight champion to its royalty, only one promotion can offer an actual night of champions. That promotion is the World Series of Fighting. In its 15th show, which takes place at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa, Fla., the WSOF has lined up three of its champions for title defenses.
In the evening’s headliner, surging middleweight David Branch puts his championship on the line against longtime UFC stalwart Yushin Okami. Branch defeated two opponents in the course of the WSOF middleweight tournament to capture his crown, but his first defense of the strap stands as a much tougher test. Okami, meanwhile, will look to capture the one thing that eluded him for so long in the UFC, a championship belt.
In the co-main event slot, Justin Gaethje seeks to defend his lightweight title against challenger Melvin Guillard. Guillard, a longtime UFC veteran, has struggled to find consistency in his MMA career, but he has an attractive match-up in front of him. Gaethje is no stranger to wild exchanges that end with an unconscious body crumbling to the mat. Usually, the body belongs to his opponent, but Guillard packs the power to change that equation on Saturday night.
However, the WSOF is sticking to the mantra of ladies first. Before the men battle for gold, one of the best female fighters in the world will take to the cage in an effort to defend her strawweight title. Champion Jessica Aguilar has been on a roll since a 2010 loss to Zoila Frausto, and now, thanks to the WSOF, she has a major stage on which to showcase her talents. Her latest challenge comes from Brazilian prospect Kalindra Faria, who leaves the XFC in the rearview mirror as she travels to the United States for the first time in her career.
The four-fight main card, which also includes a three-round lightweight bout between Jorge Patino and Eric Reynolds, airs live on the NBC Sports Network beginning at 9 p.m. ET. The eight-fight preliminary card kicks off at 6:30 p.m. ET and airs live on nbcsports.com.
MW Championship: David Branch (14-3) vs. Yushin Okami (30-8)
When David Branch departed the UFC following a mediocre 2-2 run with the promotion, nobody would have expected him to rise to the top of the WSOF heap. Now, he’s the promotion’s middleweight champion. When Yushin Okami lost to Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, nobody would have expected the UFC to respond by showing the perennial contender the door. Now, he’s employed by the WSOF and challenging Branch for the middleweight crown.
Branch headlines this event in the first defense of his middleweight title. The UFC veteran, who suffered his only Octagon losses against Gerald Harris and Rousimar Palhares, has been nearly perfect outside of the UFC. He exited the Octagon in 2011 and picked up wins under the Shark Fights and Pure MMA banners before running into Anthony “Rumble” Johnson in the Titan FC cage. Rumble handed Branch a decision loss, but the Renzo Gracie product responded by signing with the WSOF and winning four straight on his campaign to the championship. Branch made his promotional debut at WSOF 1 and captured victories over Dustin Jacoby and Paulo Filho before entering the WSOF middleweight tournament. He defeated Danillo Villefort by way of a unanimous verdict in the semifinals and submitted Jesse Taylor with a brabo choke in the finals to capture the gold.
Okami remains a borderline top-10 middleweight, which made his UFC release a shocker for many in the MMA world. The Japanese fighter and Pride veteran debuted in the Octagon in 2006 and remained with the company for more than seven years. In his UFC tenure, Okami suffered just five losses and claimed 13 victories. His losses came against former champ Rich Franklin, multiple-time title challenger Chael Sonnen, champion Anderson Silva, borderline top-10 fighter Tim Boetsch and rising contender Jacare. Okami joined the WSOF not long after his dismissal from the UFC and made his promotional debut at WSOF 9, where he submitted Svetlozar Savov in the second round.
Despite Branch’s recent string of success and his status as the champion, he’s the underdog heading into this fight. The 32-year-old hasn’t been able to clear the hurdle in his most significant fights, from his slam knockout loss to Harris in his UFC debut to his fights with established names like Palhares and Rumble. Branch has eight finishes on his resume, but he can hardly be considered a danger to put his opponent away. Six of those finishes came within his first six fights, whereas his last 11 fights have produced three losses, six decision victories and just two stoppage wins. Furthermore, he’s fighting a man who only loses to the division’s upper tiers, and Branch has yet to prove he qualifies as part of that group.
This isn’t to say Branch cannot win. The Renzo Gracie fighter is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt with adequate striking, and he’ll enjoy roughly a seven-inch reach advantage. Branch needs to maintain separation against Okami, a grinding fighter who loves to work in the clinch. If Branch can stay on the outside, he could pick his shots and work to outpoint his opponent. The problem is that Branch will need to stick to this strategy for a full five rounds, because Okami is no easy out and Branch is no finisher.
Okami’s tendency to dictate pace and grind out wins on the scorecards served him well for his lengthy stay in the UFC. In his WSOF debut, he showed renewed focus and determination. He was aggressive enough to get the finish, but he did so against an overmatched opponent. Branch is a step up from Savov, but he’s hardly an elite fighter. Okami will have to overcome the significant disparity in reach, but he’s quite capable of doing so. His submission defense is sound, leaving Branch with only one surefire route to victory: a knockout. Unfortunately for Branch, knockout power isn’t typically part of his repertoire.
Okami was always in the title picture in the UFC, but he never could take that final step. The one blessing of his UFC release may be a chance to enjoy a title reign, even if it’s not the same belt he chased for seven years. Okami should capitalize on the opportunity. He’ll turn this title fight into a positional battle and dominate it for five rounds to capture the championship.
LW Championship: Justin Gaethje (12-0) vs. Melvin Guillard (32-13-2)
Justin Gaethje has made an impressive rise to the top of the lightweight ranks in the WSOF. Now, the champ will seek to defend his title for a second time when he takes on UFC veteran Melvin Guillard.
The undefeated Gaethje has demonstrated top-notch striking skills during a 12-fight career in which he has captured 10 wins by some form of knockout. Since his 2011 debut, the 25-year-old has seen the scorecards just once. Along the way, he has defeated the likes of Kevin Croom, Marcus Edwards, Drew Fickett, Gesias “JZ” Cavalcante, Dan Lauzon and Nick Newell. He won his first three WSOF contests before fighting and defeating Richard Patishnock for the lightweight strap. The Grudge Training Center product’s stand-up game proved to be too much for Newell, who suffered his first defeat after putting up an admirable challenge.
Guillard is a well-known name to most UFC fans. “The Young Assassin” is only 31 years old, but he already has 47 fights under his belt and a history in the UFC that extends as far back as 2005. The biggest knock on Guillard is his lack of consistency. He has flashed potential at so many stages in his career, but mental lapses and regular changes in gym affiliation have hurt his career. His most recent stint inside the Octagon lasted from 2008 to 2014, but his last eight fights, spanning from 2011 to 2014, produced an ugly set of results. In that stretch, he won on just two occasions, saw one fight end in a no-contest and suffered five losses. Guillard, like Gaethje, is a striker, but he lacks takedown and submission defense. He has 21 wins by some form of knockout, but he has lost by submission an astounding nine times. Guillard found a TKO victory against Cavalcante in his WSOF debut.
This has the potential to be a stand-up battle between two fighters with high knockout rates and nearly identical reach. However, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Gaethje, an NCAA Division I All-American wrestler, test Guillard on the mat. Gaethje would be taking the conservative route by bringing the fight to the ground, but he’d lower Guillard’s chances at victory significantly. On the feet, it’s a case of who can land the first clean punch. On the canvas, it’s not such a closely contested fight. Guillard has very little to offer in the grappling department, and Gaethje can work for submissions while Guillard is struggling to get back to his feet.
As much as Gaethje could play it safe, he’s not that type of guy. He tends to press forward and relentlessly hunt for the knockout. In doing so, he also tends to get hit. Lauzon connected on punches and kicks against Gaethje before ultimately falling victim to a knockout; Patishnock stood toe-to-toe with Gaethje and lit up the prospect before having his own lights turned out; and even Newell was finding some success on the feet before he was staggered and finished. The difference between Guillard and those other three men? Power. Guillard is lightning-fast with his strikes and can score a knockout with just one punch. Gaethje’s chin withstood what Lauzon, Patishnock and Newell had in the way of power, but the same won’t hold true against Guillard’s power. If Gaethje roars forward, Guillard will respond with a big finish. Guillard by knockout.
Women’s StrawW Championship: Jessica Aguilar (18-4) vs. Kalindra Faria (15-3-1)
Jessica Aguilar is arguably the top strawweight fighter in the world. She’s also the WSOF strawweight champion. Aguilar puts that belt on the line when she welcomes highly touted prospect Kalindra Faria to U.S. shores for the first time.
Aguilar, an American Top Team representative, has been competing professionally since 2006. She has suffered four losses, but she has not lost in four years. Her current nine-fight winning streak features a number of highlights, including a Bellator win over future Invicta strawweight champion and top-seeded The Ultimate Fighter 20 contestant Carla Esparza, a pair of wins over the legendary Megumi Fujii, a win over Lisa Ellis to avenge Aguilar’s first career loss, a WSOF title win over Alida Gray and a successful defense of that belt against Emi Fujino. Aguilar has a strong grappling background and has claimed eight submission wins.
Faria only recently entered the strawweight division after previously competing as a flyweight. The 28-year-old has been fighting professionally since 2009 and has not lost since 2011. She has suffered defeat at the hands of Carina Damm (who also topped Aguilar in a 2007 bout), top UFC 115-pounder Claudia Gadelha and Invicta mainstay Vanessa Porto. She has also fought to a draw with Jennifer Maia. Faria has since avenged the loss to Damm and tacked on a pair of wins over Aline Serio. She captured the MMA Super Heroes strawweight belt in her second fight at 115 pounds and remains undefeated since shifting divisions. She sports a fairly balanced record, with six wins by some form of knockout and four victories via submission.
Faria has posted an impressive recent run, but now she’s fighting one of the world’s best strawweights. A win for Faria would be one of the biggest upsets of the year. However, there’s not much in Faria’s game to indicate that she’s capable of topping Aguilar. Faria has more active footwork, but Aguilar showed off her striking capabilities in a one-sided drubbing of Fujino. Faria has lost by submission on two occasions, and Aguilar is a highly accomplished grappler. No matter what angle the Brazilian chooses to play in this fight, Aguilar will have an answer. The pair may trade takedowns and engage in scrambles, but Aguilar has looked dominant lately and should come out on top in those areas. On the feet, the champ is unlikely to score a knockout but has the firepower to batter Faria for five rounds.
Aguilar is going to emerge with her belt. It’s just a matter of whether she gets the submission or has to settle for the judges’ nod.
LW: Jorge Patino (35-15-2) vs. Eric Reynolds (18-8)
In a night filled with championship fights, the opening affair of the WSOF main card is the only televised contest scheduled for only three rounds. The bout features lightweights Jorge Patino and Eric Reynolds.
Patino’s run in the sport of MMA is almost as old as modern-day MMA itself. The Brazilian, who also manages WSOF women’s strawweight title challenger Kalindra Faria, has been competing professionally since 1995. The 41-year-old has held titles in two different divisions under the Legacy banner and made an unsuccessful bid for Pat Miletich’s UFC title way back at UFC 18 in 1999. “Macaco” can hold his own on the feet, where he has picked up 11 wins by some form of knockout, and is truly at home on the mat, where he has score 14 submission victories. He has won just one fight out of his last three, with losses to Carlos Diego Ferreira and Luis Palomino.
The 28-year-old Reynolds doesn’t have the length resume of his opponent. The 26-fight veteran turned pro in 2007 and won 10 of his first 11 fights (the only loss came against the aforementioned Palomino). Then Reynolds entered Bellator’s season-one lightweight tournament, where he advanced past the quarterfinal round, only to encounter Eddie Alvarez in the semifinals. Alvarez submitted Reynolds, sending the Florida native on a downward spiral in which he suffered three losses over the course of his next five fights. Reynolds righted the ship when he joined the XFC and posted a three-fight winning streak. But Nick Newell handed him a loss in a title fight, and Reynolds has gone 2-2 since then. Reynolds tends to avoid the scorecards, with eight wins by some form of knockout and another eight by submission.
Reynolds is a somewhat competitive fighter, but his biggest wins have come against the likes of Anton Kuivanen, Jonatas Novaes, Greg Loughran and Jose Figueroa. Meanwhile, he has suffered losses to the aforementioned Palomino, Alvarez and Newell, as well as Jorge Masvidal, Robert Emerson and Dom O’Grady. He’s on a two-fight skid and has won just two of his last five. Patino may be an aging veteran whose best days are behind him, but he has the combination of striking and grappling necessary to get the upper hand against Reynolds.
This fight will eventually head to the mat, where Reynolds won’t be able to stop Patino. The Brazilian will add to his resume with a submission win.
Preliminary Card Predictions
WW: Maurice Salmon (3-3) vs. Javier Torres (6-2)
Torres by first-round submission
FW: Anderson Hutchinson (3-0) vs. Troy Gerhart (6-3)
Gerhart by second-round TKO
LW: Jose Cortes (1-0) vs. Ryan Keenan (5-2)
Keenan by first-round submission
FW: Tony Way (2-4) vs. Frederico Moncaio (1-1)
Moncaio by second-round submission
MW: Hector Ochoa (2-2) vs. Robert Reed (1-0)
Reed by first-round submission
MW: Reggie Pena (10-6) vs. Joe Johnson (3-7)
Pena by first-round knockout
FlyW: Steven Esquivel (0-0) vs. Christian Reed (0-2)
Esquivel by unanimous decision
LW: Josh Zuckerman (0-0) vs. Matt Frevola (0-0)
Frevola by second-round submission
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