Just hours after their beloved New England Patriots look to dispatch Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts and earn another Super Bowl berth, another Boston crowd favorite will look to earn a championship shot of his own. That man is UFC featherweight Conor McGregor, who will attempt to cement his status as the top contender for the 145-pound belt.
After capturing the attention of the Boston crowd during a preliminary fight the last time the promotion was in town, the UFC’s fastest rising star is returning to the TD Garden in a main-event capacity. He will look to use a partisan crowd to his advantage against longtime UFC veteran Dennis Siver. With a title opportunity against pound-for-pound great Jose Aldo hanging in the balance, this is officially the biggest fight of the young Irishman’s career. And as a heavy favorite, his reputation as a high-level featherweight will be on the line on Sunday in a huge main event.
Also on the card is a fantastic match-up between former UFC champion Benson Henderson and streaking top contender Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. Cerrone is riding high after a lopsided decision win over prospect Myles Jury just two weeks ago at UFC 182, and he’ll put his six-fight winning streak on the line against Henderson, the only fighter to defeat him twice before. If Cerrone were to defeat Henderson, it would be the biggest win of his MMA career and go a long way toward putting him on the short list for a shot at Anthony Pettis’s title. However, it’s going to be a tough challenge against Henderson, who is desperate for a win in order to remain relevant in the 155-pound title scene.
UFC Fight Night 59 takes place on Sunday, Jan. 18, with two fights airing on UFC Fight Pass at 6 p.m. ET. The card then moves to Fox Sports 1 for the remainder of the night, with the rest of the prelims starting at 7 p.m. ET and the four-fight main card kicking off at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Eric Reinert and Vince Carey break down all of the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Conor McGregor continues to endure criticism as an overrated fighter who gets by on his mouth, not his skills. However, the Irishman has put together quite a resume, from his knockout finish of Ivan Buchinger in Cage Warriors to his four-fight winning streak inside the Octagon, which includes victories over Max Holloway and Dustin Poirier. Now, he’s fighting Dennis Siver, a man whose only recent losses have come against Ross Pearson, Donald Cerrone and Cub Swanson. Is Siver poised to play spoiler? Can McGregor pick up the win and, if so, finally hush his critics?
Reinert: McGregor’s opponent actually has a name? You wouldn’t think so from the McGregor-centric promotion that has accompanied this UFC card.
Make no mistake about it, Siver is one tough customer. Many MMA fighters reach the UFC and fizzle out after just a few Octagon outings, but Saturday will mark Siver’s 19th appearance in the world’s premier promotion, and a win would be his 11th in the UFC. That sustained success combined with Siver’s No. 10 ranking on the UFC’s featherweight list make him a very dangerous opponent for most of the 145-pound division.
Will Siver play spoiler, though? I don’t think so. While his lone featherweight loss was to the fourth-ranked Swanson, the fighters Siver has beaten at 145 (Diego Nunes, Nam Phan, Charles Rosa) are all far from being contenders. McGregor, meanwhile, finished the aforementioned Poirier in less than two minutes in his most recent outing and previously looked very impressive against the 13th-ranked Holloway. McGregor is currently a -950 favorite on Bovada.lv, and I agree with the betting experts that there’s little doubt of a victory for the Irishman on Saturday.
That said, a win over Siver will not do much to silence the primary criticism of McGregor’s UFC success: He has yet to fight and defeat one of the featherweight division’s elite wrestlers. A win over Siver gives McGregor a title shot, but until he defeats a Chad Mendes or a Frankie Edgar, his ability to overcome that style of fighter will remain in question.
Carey: I’ll get my prediction out of the way quickly: McGregor by knockout in the first two minutes. Why? Because he told us that’s what’s going to happen, and in a fight where I think he’s going to be able to dominate at will, I’m inclined to believe him.
For all of the criticism that McGregor takes for not beating enough top-tier talent and for using his mouth to get to the top, sometimes we tend to forgot that “Notorious” is a damn good fighter. He’s going to remind us of that this weekend, and he’s going to make a definitive statement to Jose Aldo that he’s for real and coming for the belt. Then, he’ll get on the microphone for his post-fight interview, call out Aldo, talk some trash and we’ll all go back to criticizing McGregor and his title shot. The man’s a good fighter and he’ll put on a great performance Sunday, but Eric’s right when he says that a win over Siver isn’t going to do anything to stop the criticism.
McGregor doesn’t deserve a title shot with a win here, especially since, as Eric mentioned, he hasn’t fought a single wrestler since making his UFC debut. However, with apologies to the aforementioned Edgar, there isn’t a featherweight title fight that comes close to reaching the same levels of anticipation as a potential scrap between Aldo and McGregor. With the Irishman’s popularity booming, now is the perfect time for that fight to happen. Until he gets beaten inside the Octagon or becomes the champion, the “McGregor is overrated” talk is never going to die, so we might as well get it over with and find out if McGregor is every bit as good as he says he is.
Donald Cerrone has been tearing his way through the UFC’s lightweight division. However, he’s now set to do battle with Benson Henderson, a man who defeated him twice under the WEC banner. Has Cerrone improved to the point where he can finally overcome Henderson?
Carey: It’s funny, because even though he’s dropped the two fights to Henderson in the past, I still don’t feel like Cowboy was ever in over his head when fighting the former champion. Regardless, this is a huge opportunity for both fighters to show how much they’ve improved. With extremely high stakes in the lightweight division, this is going to be the most talked-about fight on the card.
For Cerrone, this is a chance to defeat a clear-cut top-five fighter for the first time in his UFC tenure and solidify his claim for the UFC title fight that has eluded him despite a ridiculous 13-3 record since 2011 inside the Octagon. The problem is, Cerrone has consistently struggled when asked to take a step up in competition and defeat a top-level guy, and he’s quickly running out of high-profile opponents to compete against at the top of the division. If he’s forced to the back of the line again, Cowboy is going to have to seriously reevaluate his career before starting his next run to the top.
As for Henderson, he needs this win just to right the ship. “Smooth” has looked a bit lost since dropping his UFC belt to Anthony Pettis over a year ago. After getting knocked out for the first time in his MMA career in his last outing, he needs to prove that he’s still a top contender. As a last-minute replacement for Eddie Alvarez, Cerrone is going to get a bit of a free pass from some fans and media member with a loss, but Henderson isn’t going to enjoy the same luxury. A loss here will push “Smooth” to 2-3 in his past five bouts and eliminate him from the title picture entirely.
There’s a lot on the line here, and for that reason, among others, I’m going to give the nod to Henderson. Cerrone is every bit as talented as his former WEC counterpart, but his tendency to fall apart in big moments is too much to overlook. Throw in the fact that this will be his second fight in less than a month, and there’s just too much working against Cowboy. I’m expecting a “Fight of the Night” battle and a hell of an effort, but Henderson controls enough of this fight to score a close decision.
Reinert: There is simply no denying that Cerrone is currently one of the top three contenders for the UFC lightweight belt, and while I admire his willingness to compete as often as possible, I question his decision to take this specific fight from a career-health standpoint. Simply put, Cerrone has nothing to gain here and a hell of a lot to lose.
If Cerrone has, in fact, improved enough to finally beat Henderson, he’ll be in the exact same spot he’s in now. Even with a win, he’s probably still sitting behind undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov in the lightweight title queue and at least one more fight away from the title. Vince mentions the “free pass” that Cerrone is apparently being granted, but I don’t believe it’s deserved (nor do I think Cerrone would want it). Cowboy has freely elected to return to action after less than a month to face a former lightweight champion. If he loses to Henderson on Sunday night, he should be bounced from the title picture, at least temporarily.
Henderson, meanwhile, needs a win to remain in the elite group of lightweights himself. His loss to Rafael dos Anjos probably did more good for dos Anjos than bad for Henderson, but it still showed that there are others besides current champion Pettis who can get the better of the “Smooth” one. Henderson is surely looking to reassert himself as a 155-pound force to be reckoned with, and Cerrone’s No. 3 ranking on the UFC’s lightweight list should only increase his motivation.
It’s always tough to bet against Cerrone, especially with the streak he’s been on, but I have to go with Henderson here. As a former champion, he’s had a higher quality of opposition overall, and let’s not forget his own seven-fight winning streak during which he captured and thrice successfully defended the UFC lightweight belt. Cerrone has beaten some great fighters during his current run of six wins and counting, but none has been the same caliber as Henderson, who will grind out a decision victory on Sunday.
Two dangerous strikers in John Howard and Lorenz Larkin are set to face off on Sunday’s preliminary card, and odds are that the loser will be receiving their walking papers following this weekend’s bout. Which fighter leaves Boston with some job security?
Reinert: Obviously, all fighters who battle their way to the UFC are talented mixed martial artists (or, in the extremely rare case, spectacular draws), but one only needs to look at the records of Howard and Larkin to see that there is a clear delineation between UFC fighters and UFC contenders. While both fighters have seen success in the Octagon, each has struggled when facing opponents from the upper echelons of his division. With two straight losses for Howard and three for Larkin, both of these guys have to be pretty desperate for a win.
There are, however, a couple of key differences between these two fighters that I believe will push things in Howard’s favor. For starters, while both fighters have secured the majority of their wins by knockout or TKO, Larkin has not put an opponent away inside the distance since April 2011, whereas Howard has notched five such victories in that time. Let’s also not discount too heavily the “home field advantage” Howard will experience fighting in front of a hometown crowd.
The factor that I think seals it for Howard, though, is that Larkin is dropping down to welterweight for the first time for his fight on Sunday. Unless Larkin can put Howard away early, the capacity of his gas tank is going to be tested in a big way. Larkin does own a win over current UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler, but the win came before Lawler’s recent renaissance, not to mention that it happened at 185 pounds.
All of this leads me to believe Howard will emerge victorious Sunday and save his UFC job for at least a few more months.
Carey: I don’t think I’m quite as confident in a Howard victory, but I’m still going to pick the Boston slugger to pull off the win. Howard has been in this position once before, when he was out-grappled by Matt Brown in a 2011 fight where the loser would likely receive his walking papers. “Doomsday” was caught completely unprepared when Brown, who usually pushes forward with reckless striking and tenacity, decided to take the fight to the floor and play it safe in order to save his UFC career. An obviously frustrated Howard was released by the UFC soon after the loss, but it may have been a blessing in disguise, as he knows exactly what to expect now that he finds himself in the unfortunate situation again.
Larkin’s striking is his bread and butter, but since he’s going to have a questionable gas tank and a likely size advantage in his first fight since dropping to 170 pounds, I have a strong feeling the former Strikeforce title contender is going to look to get this fight to the mat in the opening moments. If he succeeds, he very well might be able to grind out Howard and earn a decision win, but I don’t see Howard making the same mistake he made against Brown. Instead, I think Howard stuffs a few shots and eventually finds his range on the feet. From there, I’m mostly expecting fireworks as these two go to war and look to save their jobs.
I’ve got Howard picking up the win and saving his skin. However, if Larkin lets his hands go and puts on a good performance, he might be able to buy himself one last opportunity as well.
Because Saturday’s event is headlined by MMA’s most popular Irish fighter competing in the American city most closely associated with Irish heritage, the UFC has appropriately booked a number of other fighters who hail from the Emerald Isle to appear as well. Which of these other Irish fighters has the brightest UFC future?
Carey: Despite suffering the first loss of his MMA career last year in a bonus-winning defeat to Chris Kelades, Patrick Holohan has the potential to become a top-10 flyweight down the road. The Dublin native has a nasty submission game, having earned eight of his 10 wins by tapout with all but one of those fights ending inside the first round. He proved how dangerous his skills are when he wrecked Josh Sampo in his UFC debut. His opponent this weekend, Shane Howell, has dropped five of his seven career losses by submission and was tapped out in the first round earlier this year in his UFC debut. Needless to say, I feel good about Holohan’s chances here and his potential going forward.
Holohan isn’t going to be fighting the Demetrious Johnsons, John Dodsons and Joseph Benavidezes of the weight class for a while, but I do think he’s going to add some depth to the shallow flyweight talent pool and stick around in the Octagon for quite some time. I don’t know if he’ll ever be considered a title contender, but at the very least I see him competing in the division for the next half decade or so.
Reinert: While perhaps not the most creative pick, it’s looking more and more like Cathal Pendred could soon be a name to watch in the welterweight division. Pendred is known to many fans as one of the most highly thought of prospects from The Ultimate Fighter’s 19th season, but a split-decision semifinal loss to eventual champion Eddie Gordon derailed those prospects. He’s come back strong, though, etching a 3-0 mark in the Octagon since his unofficial loss to Gordon.
On Sunday, Pendred faces Sean Spencer, who will no doubt be looking to spoil the Boston-born Irishman’s party plans. If Pendred is victorious, and especially if he wins in highlight-worthy fashion, he’ll surely be in the running for a main-card appearance when the UFC makes its inevitable return to Ireland sometime this year.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Reinert: I’ve gotta go with Norman Parke vs. Gleison Tibau here. Parke is a real up-and-comer, with four wins and a draw in his UFC tenure thus far. Tibau, despite being just 31 years old, has been fighting professionally since 1999, and he has compiled a respectable 15-8 UFC record since debuting in the promotion in 2006. While the stout Brazilian is far from being a contender in the lightweight division, he does represent the toughest test yet for Parke. If Parke should emerge victorious, he’ll definitely deserve a fight with one of the lightweight division’s ranked fighters to see if he can rise to UFC stardom.
Carey: I’m going to dive into the preliminary card and pick a lightweight match-up between UFC newcomer Frankie Perez and an interesting young prospect named Johnny Case.
Case made a successful UFC debut this past September when he scored a minor upset victory over Kazuki Tokudome in Japan, dominating the Japanese fighter in front of his hometown crowd before locking in a submission in the second round and securing his victory. The win marked the 19th victory on the 25-year-old’s surprisingly deep resume, and its one-sided nature forced fight fans to keep an eye on the young Iowan.
As for Perez, he’s an equally intriguing prospect fighting out of Ricardo Almeida’s camp in New Jersey, and his resume suggests he’s a terror on the mat.
I’m not saying either of these fighters is the next big thing or a future title contender, but this is a good fight between two young fighters with a lot of potential and I’ll definitely be keeping tabs on the winner going forward.
Pair this card with…
Carey: Is it too cliché to say Guinness? How about whiskey? Screw it, I’m doing it anyways. This card in a nutshell comes down to two things and two things only: Boston and Conor McGregor, both of which are decidedly Irish. With that in mind, grab some Irish beer or whiskey or whatever else it takes to put you in the mood for fights (notice I said for fights, not to fight — be careful with the whiskey), invite over some violence-loving friends and watch the UFC’s newest superstar look to earn the title fight he’s been begging for. All in all, it’s not a bad way to spend a Sunday night. Actually, since it’s a Sunday night, I’m going to repeat myself: be careful with the whiskey!
Reinert: The NFL’s conference championship games. The UFC has done a great job promoting Sunday night’s card during Fox’s playoff broadcasts, and I can’t think of a better way to follow up two high-stakes football games than with some high-stakes fights. (If you’re a Boston-area sports fan who happens to have tickets to both the Patriots/Colts game and the UFC Fight Night event, pair this event with some strong stimulants and plenty of water.)
Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 10 p.m. ET)
FW: Conor McGregor vs. Dennis Siver
LW: Donald Cerrone vs. Benson Henderson
MW: Uriah Hall vs. Ron Stallings
LW: Norman Parke vs. Gleison Tibau
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 7 p.m. ET)
WW: Cathal Pendred vs. Sean Spencer
WW: John Howard vs. Lorenz Larkin
LW: Zhang Lipeng vs. Chris Wade
FlyW: Patrick Holohan vs. Shane Howell
LW: Johnny Case vs. Frankie Perez
FW: Charles Rosa vs. Sean Soriano
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6 p.m. ET)
LHW: Matt Van Buren vs. Sean O’Connell
FlyW: Tateki Matsuda vs. Joby Sanchez
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