The UFC’s 2015 Valentine’s Day offering was originally supposed to showcase welterweight fan-favorite Matt Brown facing former Strikeforce 170-pound champ Tarec Saffiedine. This was a very exciting match-up, indeed, but one that was ultimately scrapped when Saffiedine withdrew with an injury. No big deal. Brown was moved to a different card, and the co-main event between prolific strikers Stephen Thompson and Brandon Thatch moved into the headlining spot.
The injury bug was not, however, finished with its mayhem, and Thompson would soon make his own exit from the card, leaving Thatch without an opponent and UFC Fight Night 60 without a marketable main event; that is, until Benson Henderson stepped in.
The former lightweight champion, late of a decision loss to Donald Cerrone, moves up a division on Saturday to face a man in Thatch who will quite literally be Henderson’s biggest challenge to date. A win for Thatch proves he likely has what it takes to challenge the UFC’s better fighters, while a win for Henderson might mean a new home (and possible near-term title contention) for the longtime 155er.
Saturday’s card also features a couple of fighters in the midst of impressive winning streaks. Featherweight Max Holloway has notched victories in each of his last four fights, and on Saturday he’ll try to extend that run further with a win over UFC veteran Cole Miller. Neil Magny was even more impressive than Holloway in recent months, and set a UFC record for most wins in a year after having his hand raised a whopping five times in 2014. Magny faces Kiichi Kunimoto on Saturday, with a win all but guaranteed to give him a top opponent.
UFC Fight Night: Henderson vs. Thatch comes to us on Saturday, Feb. 14, from the 1stBank Center in Broomfield, Colo. The night begins at 7:30 p.m. ET with a single Fight Pass bout, followed by the remaining preliminary contests airing on Fox Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET. The main card also airs on Fox Sports 1 and kicks off at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press staff writers Vince Carey and Eric Reinert break down the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Benson Henderson has been a fixture in the WEC and UFC lightweight divisions, but now he’s stepping up to welterweight on short notice to fight Brandon Thatch. Does Henderson’s UFC welterweight debut end in success for the longtime lightweight, or is he biting off more than he can chew?
Carey: I made it pretty clear that I think Henderson needs to stick around at welterweight for far more than a single fight, so it probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that I think “Smooth” passes his first (and only?) Octagon test at 170 pounds with flying colors.
It’s a little nerve-racking picking Henderson to defeat a potentially lethal striker in Thatch given Henderson’s willingness to stand and exchange on the feet regardless of the opponent, but “Smooth” has gone toe-to-toe with enough elite strikers that Thatch shouldn’t provide anything too overwhelming. Furthermore, we haven’t seen a whole lot of Thatch’s ground game in his UFC appearances and I wouldn’t put it past Henderson to drag things to the mat if he starts to feel uncomfortable with Thatch’s size and length. Thatch’s best chance to win is going to come by knockout, and an early one at that. However, Henderson’s too smart to get caught by such an obviously dangerous striker in the opening frame of the fight.
I’m actually really high on Thatch as a prospect, but the fact that he’s favored over a former champion and proven UFC contender has me as confused as I’ve been since I saw Interstellar a few months ago. Thatch seems like a future title contender at 170 and he looked like an absolute killer against Paulo Thiago and Justin Edwards, but those guys aren’t Henderson. This fight puts Thatch up against an opponent that’s far beyond what he has seen thus far. Thatch is going to be extremely good one day, but most fighters have to get humbled once or twice in the Octagon before they can truly make the leap into title contention and I think that’s what happens here.
More than anything, this fight comes down to conditioning. That’s the one area where Henderson’s experience is going to help him the most. While Henderson has gone 25 minutes over a half dozen times during his career, Thatch has only been out of the first round once in his entire career and that was six years ago. That’s a major red flag in a long fight against a solid point fighter like Henderson. That’s enough reason for me to feel good about picking “Smooth” by decision.
Reinert: I think Vince sums it up very nicely here. Thatch is a very exciting up-and-comer, having gone 11-1 as a professional and finishing eight opponents with strikes along the way. Getting past Stephen Thompson would certainly have given Thatch some more well-deserved attention, but getting past a former UFC champion like Henderson would catapult him into the UFC’s contenders’ mix, even despite the fact that Henderson previously held reign over a lighter division.
One of Henderson’s primary advantages at lightweight has been his size. He’s definitely not what you’d call a slender fighter, and he has been able to use his build to push opponents around and control them against the cage. On Saturday, that size advantage is nullified against Thatch, who stands a full three inches taller than Henderson and will also enjoy a four-and-a-half-inch reach advantage. While Henderson has shared the cage with many talented strikers (and often emerged victorious), he’d be foolish to stand in front of Thatch and turn himself into target practice.
Striking prowess — along with any height and reach advantages — means nothing when you’re on your back, though, and that’s likely where Henderson is going to try to put Thatch ASAP. From there, it will be up to Thatch to overcome the former champion’s formidable control, and I think he gets too frustrated before he figures out how. Thatch has a bright career ahead of him in the UFC, but I expect Henderson to bounce back from his recent professional setbacks and earn a convincing decision victory.
Max Holloway has suffered three defeats in his UFC career, but he’s now riding a four-fight winning streak that has put him in the UFC’s top 15 featherweights. He fights Cole Miller in the co-headliner of this card. Can Holloway keep this streak going and vault himself into contention?
Reinert: Holloway was actually one of my contenders for “Fighter of the Year” in 2014. Not only did he win the four straight fights, but he won all of them by stoppage. He most recently put away Akira Corassani with a first-round knockout to continue his impressive winning ways. The three UFC losses are also somewhat deceiving, since they came against Conor McGregor (the nominal top title contender currently ranked third on the UFC’s featherweight list), Dennis Bermudez (No. 6) and Dustin Poirier (No. 7). Let’s also not forget that Holloway is just 23 years old and hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface of his full potential.
Holloway’s four consecutive wins have been impressive, but a victory over Cole Miller — a man on a two-fight winning streak of his own — will prove that Holloway’s recent success has been no fluke. Miller isn’t exactly contender material right now, but he’s compiled a 10-6 UFC record in a promotional tenure that dates back to 2007. At age 30, Miller isn’t quite ready to be put out to pasture just yet, and if he can stop Holloway’s momentum, he’ll likely be able inject himself into the UFC’s top 15 and maybe make a late-career run.
In this particular fight, though, I’m going with youth over experience. Holloway has looked too good over the course of his four-fight streak to bet against, and after dispatching Miller he’ll be more than ready for a top-10 opponent.
Carey: I’m also going to pick Holloway in this one. I’m starting to get really excited about the young Hawaiian’s future. His talent was obvious from the first day that Holloway stepped in the cage and took the fight to Poirier. Since he was just 20 years old at the time of his Octagon debut, it was expected that it would take him some time to develop his skills. Over the course of this winning streak, Holloway has really come into his own while developing into a top-10 fighter. He’ll prove it against a tough veteran in Miller.
If Miller is going to win this fight, he’s going to have to avoid exchanging with Holloway, the far superior fighter on the feet, and get the fight to the floor. That being said, Miller’s jiu-jitsu has come through for him multiple times in the Octagon. Holloway’s ever-improving ground skills may not be up to task compared to a legit black belt like Miller. The man who can control where this fight takes place is going to have a major advantage here. Holloway can land combinations and stay on his feet, but this pick could easily go up in flames if Miller can get a good position on the mat.
I’m not quite as confident in Holloway as I want to be, but I think he actually keeps his momentum going and scores a late TKO over Miller to earn a step up in competition for his next stop in the Octagon. Holloway may not get a top-10 guy for his next fight, but at the very least he’ll get someone with a number next to his name.
Tucked away in the preliminary portion of Saturday’s card is a featherweight fight featuring No. 8-ranked Nik Lentz. Despite having gone 4-1 in the UFC’s 145-pound division, Lentz’s is a name that is seldom mentioned when one talks about the best featherweight fighters in the world. Can Lentz actually make a run at the featherweight title, or will he be forever stuck just below the division’s true elites?
Carey: At this point, I’m actually starting to feel bad for Lentz. Heading into his 15th UFC bout this weekend, Lentz has been on the preliminary card 13 times and Saturday will mark his 14th, yet he’s the second highest ranked fighter on the card behind only Benson Henderson. He has a solid 8-3 record in the Octagon and his only loss at featherweight came to perennial contender Chad Mendes, but his original opponent for this card, Thiago Tavares, was an unranked veteran and the replacement opponent, Levan Makashvili, is actually a major step down from there. Some fighters complain about not getting opportunities or getting promoted, but Lentz has lived these problems the majority of his UFC career. Even after five years, it seems like he just can’t catch a break.
Sadly, I don’t really see things changing for Lentz anytime soon, mostly because his style doesn’t exactly have fans clamoring to see him get in the cage. A “lack of excitement” has been the standard reason given by most fight fans as to why Lentz has had a hard time getting noticed throughout his UFC tenure, and it’s true that unlike similarly ranked fighters Cub Swanson or Charles Oliveira, Lentz’s style is dull. That means Lentz is not only going to have to keep winning more fights than some of his counterparts in order to get opportunities, but he’s also going to have to take out a really big name if he ever wants a realistic chance at winning the belt.
Jose Aldo. Chad Mendes. Frankie Edgar. Conor McGregor. Those are the only four guys in the division that Lentz could defeat in order to seriously be considered for a title fight, and they represent the cream of the crop when it comes to the featherweight rankings. To be completely honest, I can’t see Lentz beating any of them.
“The Carny” will dominate in his usual fashion this weekend and probably win another fight or two while the UFC continues to throw him mid-tier competition. Eventually, though, Lentz is going to end up on the wrong side of an upset or run into one of the featherweight fantastic four I brought up earlier. Either way, it doesn’t seem like becoming a legit title challenger is in the cards.
Reinert: I won’t go so far as to say I feel bad for Lentz, since he’s currently in his fifth uninterrupted year of UFC employment, but I could certainly see how his place among his 145-pound peers might be a little frustrating. While he’s had little problem against the sorts of lower-ranked featherweights he has faced since making his divisional debut in 2012, he was easily defeated by the aforementioned Mendes when the two met in late 2013. At the time, the result seemed like a pretty clear indicator of Lentz’s performance ceiling.
A win over the Wikipedia page-less Makashvili is not going to do anything significant for Lentz’s place in the division, but if he’s able to secure a fight against the likes of Dennis Bermudez or maybe a rematch against Charles Oliveira, he could make another run toward contention.
In the end, though, I have to agree with Vince. Maybe if Lentz was a few years younger, he might be able to make further evolution into a contender. At age 30, though, time is running out. Lentz will win on Saturday and then will likely carve out a place as a featherweight gatekeeper for a few more years, but the “Featherweight Four” that Vince mentions above seem to have a pretty strong grip on the existing contender spots.
Neil Magny was outstanding in 2014, notching five wins inside the Octagon and tying the UFC record for wins in a year. However, that success hasn’t led to the big-time fight that many fans feel Magny deserves. Instead, he gets another low-profile opponent in Kiichi Kunimoto this weekend. Will a sixth straight win for Magny finally get him a top-10 opponent, or does Kunimoto play the spoiler and erase a record-breaking year in one night?
Reinert: There’s no denying Magny’s accomplishments in 2014. Five professional MMA wins in a calendar year is difficult enough on the local/developmental circuit, let alone in the world’s best promotion, and Magny certainly deserves the praise he’s received. I believe, however, that the hang-up preventing Magny from advancing more quickly in the UFC’s welterweight division has been the quality of his opposition.
None of the five fighters Magny defeated last year could be confused for anything close to a title contender, but that’s not the main issue. Unlike the aforementioned Max Holloway, whose UFC losses have all come against some of the best featherweights in the world, Magny’s two straight losses to close out 2013 came against opponents whose names have never been uttered in the UFC’s welterweight championship conversation. Even with the current winning streak, then, one can understand the UFC’s hesitation to book him against a top-10 opponent.
If Magny is successful against Kunimoto, though, the promotion will be forced to take a closer look at his upcoming fight schedule. Six straight wins is six straight wins, after all, and even with Magny’s questionable 2013 outings, that ought to do enough to slot him in against one of the welterweight division’s officially ranked fighters. Kunimoto is no joke, either. With seven straight wins of his own (three in the UFC), he’ll certainly be out to make a name for himself by putting an end to Magny’s impressive run.
I think Magny takes it here, though, and then probably gets the ranked opponent for which his hardcore fans have been clamoring. We’ll then see if Magny truly has what it takes to compete at 170 pounds.
Carey: Magny was briefly rumored to be fighting Josh Koscheck at one point late last year, so at least it seems as if the UFC is thinking about booking him against a big name even though the company has hesitated to pull the trigger. As long as Magny can continue to do what he’s been doing and earn another “W” on Saturday, the promotion won’t have a choice but to give him a ranked opponent.
Magny’s resume over the course of this winning streak certainly isn’t a who’s who of the welterweight division, but the important thing is that Magny is on a serious hot streak at the moment. Now, he needs to fight as often as possible to keep his momentum going. It wasn’t too long ago that Matt Brown went from the verge of being cut to fighting in a No.1 contender’s fight for the welterweight title. If Magny can keep things rolling for another fight or two, he’s going to be in a similar position.
Before any of that can happen, Magny has a tough test in front of him in Kunimoto. The Japanese vet showed his toughness when he survived a first-round beating at the hands of Richard Walsh, and his quick submission win over Daniel Sarafian was pretty impressive as well. Even though it’s not a huge jump in competition and it definitely isn’t the big name that fans expected, Kunimoto is probably the best fighter that Magny has fought since beginning his winning streak last year. A win isn’t a given, but I do think Magny is going to pull it off and make it six straight.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Carey: It seems like this happens every card, but we’ve got ranked flyweights on the prelims, people! I’m a bit of a sucker for the flyweight division and tend to get excited for some pretty lackluster-on-paper 125-pound fights on occasion, but a potential war between Tim Elliott and Zach Makovsky should have quite a few MMA fans drooling.
Elliott needs a win badly after dropping his last two fights to top-ranked contenders Joseph Benavidez and Ali Bagautinov. Even with his exciting style, he could be on the chopping block heading into this weekend. Losing three in a row in the UFC is career suicide for 95 percent of fighters. Even though Makovsky is a more-than-capable opponent and a legit top-10 guy, Elliott can’t afford to drop a trifecta of fights. On the flipside of the coin, Makovsky was considered a dark-horse candidate to eventually fight Demetrious Johnson for the title before dropping a decision in his last fight, and a loss for the former Bellator champ will send him completely out of the flyweight title scene.
Obviously, there’s a lot on the line for both guys. However, even if neither of these two were ranked, this would still be my “Fight of the Night” pick. Even for a flyweight, Elliott is extremely active, and his ability to create some chaos on the mat will bode well for him against a strong grappler like Makovsky. I’m expecting an extremely fast pace and a lot of action from these two in a fight that should steal the show on the preliminary card.
Reinert: I’ll actually go with the other flyweight fight on Saturday’s card, the one between Ray Borg and Chris Kelades. While this fight lacks the rankings luster of Elliott/Makovsky, Borg is a young prospect who could very well find himself in the contenders’ conversation with a little more seasoning.
Despite being just 21 years old, Borg already has eight professional fights, including two in the UFC. The Albuquerque native has only been to decision twice while also racking up five victories by submission. His first professional loss came by split decision to Dustin Ortiz in Borg’s UFC debut, but Borg came back in impressive fashion when he choked out Shane Howell last June.
Kelades also has just one professional loss (and eight wins), but he is more than 12 years Borg’s senior. While 33 isn’t that old for the sport’s heavier divisions, it’s practically ancient in flyweight years. More power to Kelades for making it this far, and for winning his UFC debut over Patrick Holohan in October, but Borg will pick him apart on Saturday and establish himself as someone to watch closely in the flyweight division.
Pair this card with…
Reinert: A carefully negotiated Valentine’s Day schedule with your significant other*. The main card begins at 10 p.m. ET on Saturday, which should allow those of us east of the Rocky Mountains to arrange dinner reservations early enough to get back in time for the action. You West-Coasters might have a bit more trouble, but that’s what DVRs are for.
(*If you don’t have a significant other, you should pair this card with six beers, an entire pizza and a fervent commitment not to do anything stupid on your phone Saturday night.)
Carey: If you’re attached, I’m going to have to piggyback on Eric’s idea and tell you to pair this card with your DVR. That is, unless you’re lucky enough to have a badass significant other who wants to watch the fights on Valentine’s Day (congrats to all three of you). But if you’re single, I say you make fight night a party. Valentine’s Day isn’t kind to single folk and many people are probably going to drink a bit too much anyway, so you might as well call up as many single friends as possible and use the fight night as an excuse to drink a bit too much as a collective unit. Nothing’s quite as anti-Valentine’s Day as two guys punching each other in the face, so rebel against the Hallmark holiday and watch some violence instead.
Main Card (10 p.m. ET)
WW: Benson Henderson vs. Brandon Thatch
FW: Max Holloway vs. Cole Miller
WW: Kiichi Kunimoto vs. Neil Magny
MW: Daniel Kelly vs. Patrick Walsh
LW: Michel Prazeres vs. Kevin Lee
FlyW: Ray Borg vs. Chris Kelades
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
FW: Nik Lentz vs. Levan Makashvili
LW: Efrain Escudero vs. Rodrigo de Lima
FW: Jim Alers vs. Chas Skelly
FlyW: Tim Elliott vs. Zach Makovsky
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 7:30 p.m. ET)
LW: James Moontasri vs. Cody Pfister
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