It’s difficult to keep a zero in the loss column. Everyone eventually tastes defeat. And it’s certainly no easy task to maintain that unblemished mark with a monster of a submission specialist gunning for you.
Welcome to Ryan LaFlare’s world. The 31-year-old tore his way through seven opponents in the Ring of Combat cage and arrived in the UFC with a perfect mark. Four opponents later, and he still carries that zero. But now he meets Demian Maia and faces the most significant threat yet to his stellar run.
Maia may be 37 years old, but the Brazilian has seen five rounds against the legendary Anderson Silva and three more against Silva’s successor, Chris Weidman. The grappler has defeated Chael Sonnen, Dan Miller, Jorge Santiago, Dong Hyun Kim, Rick Story and Jon Fitch, to name a few. Now, he has LaFlare in his crosshairs.
The two welterweights collide in the evening’s headliner for UFC Fight Night 62. If Maia wins, he can begin his climb toward the top of the division and make what could be his final run at UFC gold. The stakes are just as high for LaFlare, who could put his name on the map with a win over a high-profile opponent.
The UFC’s latest trip to Rio de Janeiro is all about up-and-comers. While veterans Erick Silva and Josh Koscheck occupy a featured slot on the main card, eyes will be on the likes of lightweight upstarts Gilbert Burns and Alex Oliveira, as well as Team Alpha Male featherweight hopeful Andre Fili.
The Maracanazinho Gymnasium plays host to the 12-fight card, which kicks off at 7 p.m. ET with a pair of fights on UFC Fight Pass. The action shifts to Fox Sports 1 for the remainder of the evening, with four preliminary bouts beginning at 8 p.m. ET and the six-fight main card set for a 10 p.m. ET start. Combat Press writers Eric Reinert and Bryan Henderson take a look at the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Ryan LaFlare remains undefeated four fights into his UFC tenure. He’s headlining the UFC Fight Night 62 card against Demian Maia, an established veteran of the promotion and former title contender. Does LaFlare emerge from this fight as a new addition to the welterweight title picture?
Reinert: Of the current group of officially ranked UFC welterweights, LaFlare (No. 15) is without question the least well known. Since making his UFC debut in 2013, LaFlare has quietly put together a string of four decision victories, including wins over highly regarded guys like Court McGee and (at the time) John Howard. LaFlare will certainly have his work cut out for him against Maia, who is currently ranked seventh among the UFC’s 170-pounders after defeating Alexander Yakovlev last May.
Both fighters are coming off extended layoffs after suffering from injury-related setbacks, so we’ll see if ring rust is a factor for either. While I’d initially be tempted to pick Maia, the long layoff combined with his age (37) and nature of his injury (a pretty serious staph infection) gives me serious pause. LaFlare is a full six years younger than Maia and comes to Saturday’s fight having yet to experience professional defeat.
That said, however, if this one goes to the ground, age and previous success are likely not going to be a factor since Maia is one of the best grapplers in MMA history, and when one fighter has such a tremendous advantage in one particular area of combat, it’s difficult to bet against him. Look for Maia to introduce LaFlare to truly elite MMA grappling en route to a submission finish on Saturday.
Henderson: It’s been a long time since Maia flashed his intimidating grappling game to the extent of regularly posting big submission wins. This is the same guy who tore through his first five UFC opponents, submitting all of them with ease. Then came his knockout loss to Nate Marquardt. He did work his way back to a title shot in the middleweight division and contenter status as a welterweight, but he’s gone the distance in 11 of 13 fights since suffering that jaw-rattling defeat. His two finishes, which came against Dong Hyun Kim and Rick Story, upon moving to the welterweight division were a nice return to form, but he has once again slipped into a decision funk. It may be difficult to bet against Maia, but it has become more difficult to bet on him finishing his opponent.
LaFlare has performed well since gracing the Octagon for the first time in mid-2013. McGee and Howard provided LaFlare with a pair of opponents who are quite capable on the mat, and the New Yorker overcame both men on the scorecards. The up-and-comer is a former state champion in high school wrestling, and he has displayed enough of a ground game to put away three opponents via submission. Of course, he will be outclassed on the mat by Maia, but the question is whether Maia can even get the fight to the ground.
When Maia first showed up in the UFC, and when he shifted to the welterweight division just under three years ago, I’d have been more inclined to answer such a question in the affirmative. Now, however, I’m leaning in the other direction. We’re back to the hesitant Maia, not to mention one that, as my colleague pointed out, is on the road back from a serious injury. I can’t trust that Maia, even to bet on the judges giving him a nod. LaFlare might not be well known right now, but he’ll make a case for inclusion in the title picture with another decision win on Saturday.
Erick Silva was slated to meet Ben Saunders in the evening’s co-headliner, but with Saunders out due to injury, Josh Koscheck is stepping in on short notice. The last time we saw Koscheck, he was literally foaming at the mouth while attempting to escape from a submission. Does the change in opponents turn this into an easy win for Silva?
Henderson: The last time Koscheck won a fight? 2012. We just watched him get brutally submitted a couple weeks ago. How does he still get prime slots on the main card? How is he still given a legitimate (or any) shot at winning?
To answer those questions, we have to look at the competition that has accounted for Koscheck’s four-fight losing streak. He dropped a split decision to Johny Hendricks, a fighter who went on to enjoy a short reign atop the division. Then, he fell via first-round TKO to Robbie Lawler, who eventually edged Hendricks for the title. Then came a first-round knockout at the hands of Tyron Woodley, a serious contender within the division, and the submission loss to Jake Ellenberger, who only recently fell from the top 10. It might be a list of losses, but it’s not exactly embarrassing to lose to that crew of welterweight studs.
So, Koscheck has been competitive, and he’s done so after the eye injury he endured in his title bid against Georges St-Pierre. UFC commentators Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg put a lot of emphasis on Koscheck’s eye during his bout with Ellenberger, as if the wrestler had stumbled in every subsequent outing. That’s not true, though. The eye issue could be a contributing factor — the eye was obviously bugging him in the Ellenberger fight — but Koscheck did top Matt Hughes and eke out a split verdict over Mike Pierce in his first two fights after losing to GSP. Still, more than three years removed from his last win? Yeah, it’s difficult to see Koscheck as much of a threat to anyone on the UFC’s roster.
I won’t go as far as to guarantee a Silva win. The Brazilian already has nine UFC fights under his belt, and he has never won two in a row with the promotion. And guess what? He’s coming off a win. Maybe it’s Koscheck’s lucky day after all.
However, despite a Silva win-loss pattern that’s so simple even a two-year-old could predict what comes next, I still can’t persuade myself to pick Koscheck for the victory. Two champions and two contenders may account for his current losing streak, but it’s also apparent that this isn’t the same fighter who once challenged St-Pierre for the welterweight crown. His skills are declining, his eye may still be causing him problems and he has become increasingly easy to defeat on the feet and on the ground. Silva went from dealing with a scrappy fighter who is hungry to firmly plant his anchor inside the Octagon in his second go-around to fighting an aging veteran who doesn’t carry the same reach in the stand-up or savvy in the grappling department. So, yes, Silva does have the chance for an easy win, and he should get it within the first frame.
Reinert: Another thing to take into account is the length of time between Koscheck’s four most recent losses. That first loss (to Hendricks) was all the way back in May 2012, and Kos took a whopping 15-month layoff between his losses to Woodley and Ellenberger. Sure, he only lost to Hendricks by split decision, but he was obliterated by his next three opponents.
While I certainly appreciate Koscheck’s willingness to step up a.) on ultra-short notice while b.) riding a four-fight losing streak, I just can’t see a way for him to win. While Silva has faltered against some of the better fighters in the welterweight division, Koscheck is clearly no longer in that category. I won’t blather on any longer, since Bryan pretty much covered it all. I, too, predict a quick finish for Silva and likely retirement for Koscheck.
There are quite a few fighters on this card who are still in the early stages (three or less Octagon appearances) of their UFC careers and sport records with three or fewer losses. Which one of these prospects has the most potential to land a title shot within the next year?
Reinert: This card is heavy on featherweights, lightweights and welterweights — the three most crowded divisions in the UFC — and I strongly doubt any of them will break through the dense packs of more established, popular contenders by 2016.
There are, however, two flyweights competing on Saturday that might be worth keeping an eye on. Fredy Serrano only has one professional fight, but he is a former Olympic wrestler, which can’t be discounted. Serrano will face Bentley Syler, who makes his official UFC debut after competing alongside Serrano as bantamweights in the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America. Like Serrano, Syler lost in the elimination round during his TUF season, but he does have five pro wins under his belt.
Are either of these guys really going to see Demetrious Johnson across the cage before the end of the year? Probably not, but the flyweight division is much less populous than most others in the UFC, so all it will take is a short string of impressive performances and we could see one of these two fighting for the belt sooner than we think.
Henderson: The flyweight division does feature the shortest road to the title, especially with Johnson shutting down elite fighters in rematches and silencing those from the lower half of the top 10 who have also received title bids. Syler, thanks to his 5-0 mark, could definitely realize his title dreams within a year if he puts together a strong run. However, since my colleague already touched on those 125-pounders, I’ll look elsewhere for another potential fast-rising contender. That brings me to the lightweight division and Gilbert Burns.
Yes, the 155-pound weight class is crowded, but there is room for Burns to insert his name into the title picture by year’s end. It would take some impressive streak of victories against top-15 names and, of course, a win against his UFC Fight Night 62 opponent, Alex Oliveira, to get Burns into the mix, but that’s not completely out of reach.
The 28-year-old Brazilian entered the UFC on the strength of an undefeated seven-fight resume consisting entirely of first-round finishes. In his Octagon debut, Burns was forced to go three rounds by Andreas Stahl, but “Durinho” walked away with the win. He quickly returned to his habit of first-round finishes by stopping Christos Giagos via armbar in his sophomore UFC outing.
The Blackzilians fighter is a multiple-time World champion in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He certainly has the pedigree to be a dominant force on the mat, and he has also flashed power in his three victories by some form of knockout. Oliveira is an effective striker, but Burns should be able to get him to the canvas and finish him early. Give the Brazilian a few top-15 foes like Tony Ferguson, Josh Thomson or Al Iaquinta, and if he emerges unscathed, a title shot might not be all that far out of reach.
Shayna Baszler is, without question, one of the pioneers of women’s MMA. She’d been competing for two years before the first season of The Ultimate Fighter was broadcast, and a decade before we’d ever see a woman compete in the UFC. That said, her career has taken a bit of a skid lately. Her loss to Bethe Correia in her UFC debut was her second defeat in a row, and dropped her to 1-3 since 2012. On Saturday, Baszler fights Amanda Nunes. Is this Baszler’s last UFC stand? That is, will a loss to Nunes mean a demotion (of sorts) back to Invicta for Baszler?
Henderson: I don’t think the answer to that question is quite as clear as it might seem at first glance. In the UFC women’s bantamweight division, the pool of talent isn’t quite as deep as it is in, say, the men’s lightweight division. Furthermore, Baszler has a personality that has polarized fans, leading her to have a strong following and a strong base of critics. Positive and negative attention is all attention, and the UFC may factor that into the equation and decide that Baszler is worth keeping around.
Yes, Baszler hasn’t fared well in her recent fights. However, look at who she has faced en route to the 1-3 mark. Sara McMann and Alexis Davis went on to challenge for the title, and Correia appears to be the next challenger in line for Baszler’s good friend and UFC champion Ronda Rousey. I know it may sound like a broken record of my analysis of Josh Koscheck from earlier in this preview, but level of competition does matter. In Nunes, Baszler is fighting someone with a 2-1 UFC mark and only a loss to recent title challenger Cat Zingano, so her string of top-tier competition will continue.
The UFC probably isn’t going to look too heavily at Baszler’s Invicta losses when deciding her fate. The company is going to look at how well she does in the fight against Nunes. If she turns in a boring, conservative performance and loses, then she’s definitely headed back to Invicta. If she presses Nunes like she pressed Correia in her Octagon debut and still loses, then the UFC might give her one more chance.
The thing is, Baszler is good at what she does. She has just had the misfortune of running into a group of fighters who can match her on the mat and tear her apart on the feet. Nunes only has one of these qualities. The Brazilian is a dangerous striker who has notched eight of her wins by some form of knockout. If given enough time and the opportunity, she can add another TKO finish against Baszler. Yet, Nunes lacks the skills needed to counter Baszler’s strong wrestling and grappling base. Sarah D’Alelio was able to grind her way to a decision win based off takedowns, ground-and-pound and top control when she met Nunes in the Invicta cage. Baszler, who has worked extensively with catch-wrestling specialist Josh Barnett, could find a similar level of success in this outing. And if Baszler wins, we can table any talk of her dismissal from the UFC roster.
Reinert: Like Bryan, I’m going to have to go broken-record here and emphasize the age difference between Nunes and Baszler, specifically that Baszler is 34 years old and has been fighting for more than decade. At some point, the training and general athletic wear and tear catch up to a person, and that’s far more likely to happen at 34 than at 26 (Nunes’s age).
I agree that Baszler could mount a successful Randy Couture-style offense predicated on closing the distance and pressing Nunes against the cage, but all it would take is one reversal from Nunes and Baszler is in the same position she was in just before she was TKOed by Correia.
Bryan is correct in pointing out Baszler’s popularity relative to a lot of her women’s MMA contemporaries, and that could work in her favor even in the event of a defeat to Nunes, but the UFC needs to focus on the future rather than the past, and Baszler is increasingly becoming part of that latter category. While she’d definitely make a good analyst for the Fox Sports 1 pre-shows, a loss to Nunes on Saturday will put Baszler on the fast track out of the Octagon.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Reinert: It has to be the lightweight fight between Gilbert Burns and Alex Oliveira. Burns is 9-0 with two UFC wins and has finished all but one of his opponents inside the distance. Of a similar destructive caliber is Oliveira, who will put his own eight-fight unbeaten streak on the line against Burns. Oliveira has notched eight of his 10 pro wins by knockout or TKO, so this one should be a barn-burner.
Henderson: When I look for sleeper match-ups, one of my first areas of focus is on finishes. Burns vs. Oliveira succeeds there, but so does the preliminary-card fight between Christos Giagos and Jorge de Oliveira. The two lightweights check in with a combined 21 fights and just three decisions. That almost duplicates the former pair’s 21 combined fights (not counting a no-contest) with four decisions. Giagos and de Oliveira are strikers first, and they have 11 combined victories by some form of knockout. We might not have to wait for the main card to get to a barn-burner.
Pair this card with…
Henderson: A tablet or a small laptop. Obviously, casual fans will rely on the UFC and Fox Sports broadcast crews to get them caught up on all of these undercard and prelim fighters. But, if you’re a more dedicated follower of the sport, you might want to have an Internet-capable device on the standby so you can familiarize yourself with the past deeds of a bunch of guys you probably haven’t heard of before.
Reinert: Your DVR. Unless you’re a pretty hardcore fan of MMA, there aren’t too many names on this one that really stand out. What’s more, Saturday night will also feature a full slate of third-round NCAA tournament games that are sure to capture the attention of the majority of the sports world. If you’re into both MMA and college basketball, the choice on Saturday night is pretty easy, but this card does have enough bright spots to warrant viewing on its own later on.
Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 10 p.m. ET)
WW: Demian Maia vs. Ryan LaFlare
WW: Erick Silva vs. Josh Koscheck
LW: Leonardo Santos vs. Tony Martin
Women’s BW: Amanda Nunes vs. Shayna Baszler
LW: Gilbert Burns vs. Alex Oliveira
FW: Godofredo Pepey vs. Andre Fili
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
LW: Francisco Trinaldo vs. Akbarh Arreola
FW: Kevin Souza vs. Katsunori Kikuno
LW: Leandro Silva vs. Drew Dober
LW: Leonardo Mafra vs. Cain Carrizosa
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 7 p.m. ET)
LW: Jorge de Oliveira vs. Christos Giagos
FlyW: Bentley Syler vs. Fredy Serrano
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