The heavyweight champion of the world is finally healthy and ready to get back into the Octagon. He’ll get a treat this weekend when he makes his return in front of a partisan home crowd fan base in Mexico City on Saturday.
After trying and failing to set up Cain Velasquez vs. Fabricio Werdum in Mexico last fall — the champion was forced to the sidelines with an injury — the UFC is finally getting the Mexico City main event that it has wanted. The last time the UFC came to town, Werdum showed the Mexican fans exactly how dangerous he can be when he destroyed the heavyweight division’s resident tough man Mark Hunt in order to capture the organization’s interim belt. But there’s something entirely different in store for “Vai Cavalo” when he steps into enemy territory against one of the best heavyweights of all time.
In addition to the headliner, UFC 188 features a co-main event between lightweight contenders Gilbert Melendez and Eddie Alvarez that could easily end up being a “Fight of the Year” candidate. After years spent as the best two lightweights outside of the UFC, both men are finally under the Zuffa banner and ready to kick off a bout that fight fans have been hoping to see for years. With many of the division’s top fighters on the shelf at the moment, this one could end up having some major title implications as well.
UFC 188 kicks off on June 13 from Arena Ciudad de Mexico in Mexico City with three preliminary fights on UFC Fight Pass at 6:30 p.m. ET. From there, the card moves to FX for four more prelims at 8 p.m. ET before heading to pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET for the five-fight main card. Combat Press writers Vince Carey and Sal DeRose break down the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
The main event of UFC 188 is a heavyweight title unification bout that pits champion Cain Velasquez against interim titleholder Fabricio Werdum. Velasquez is 32 years old, five years younger than Werdum, but he’s had an injury-plagued UFC career. Is this the beginning of a longer and more active reign for the champ, or is he destined to be the heavyweight equivalent of Dominick Cruz? And how does he fare against Werdum — will he steamroll the interim champ, or can Werdum continue his run of upset victories?
DeRose: It’s actually kind of surreal to see Velasquez defend his belt considering how inactive he has been as of late. Whether it be the tough training he goes through at American Kickboxing Academy or his body being unable to hold up in general, Velasquez fights have been few and far between.
That isn’t to say Velasquez hasn’t been a great fighter. He has been amazing when he has actually steps inside the Octagon. Outside of one knockout loss to Junior dos Santos that he later avenged in convincing fashion, Velasquez has thoroughly dominated any fighter who dared to cross his path. All of that aside, it’s hard not to call him the heavyweight equivalent of oft-injured former UFC bantamweight champion Cruz. Both fighters are dominant, but they have trouble staying healthy enough to fight more than once a year.
To call a win here the beginning of a longer and more active reign seems kind of hasty considering the injury history of Velasquez. It’ll take more than just one fight this year to prove that he is capable of starting a more sustained and active title reign.
Despite the injury concerns, Velasquez will get the win here. Werdum is a good fighter, but he isn’t at the level of Velasquez. Velasquez is simply a step ahead of the rest of the heavyweights in the division, and he will prove that again at UFC 188. Werdum is known for pulling upsets out of thin air, but that won’t happen against a superior Velasquez. Velasquez should dominate the striking and avoid the ground, preventing Werdum from a repeat of his performance against Fedor Emelianenko where he was able to submit the longtime pound-for-pound king in a stunning finish.
Carey: Injuries be damned. For my money, Velasquez is the baddest man on the planet and will remain in that role until someone can beat him. As good as Werdum has been since returning to the UFC a few years ago, Velasquez is the most dominant heavyweight the UFC has ever seen. If Velasquez comes back even close to 100 percent, he’s going to be an absolute handful for everyone else in the division. If I had to guess, I think Velasquez will be back to form and even improved since the last time we saw him inside the cage.
We’ve seen Velasquez come back from a career-changing injury in the past, and he returned stronger than ever. I don’t see a reason why he won’t do the same thing this weekend. A few months ago, I would have been far more nervous about the champ trying to come back from a knee injury. However, after watching a handful of fighters come back from similar problems in the last few months and look strong, I’m more confident in Velasquez’s chances. Until we’ve seen differently, it only seems right to treat the champ like he’s healthy and will remain so going forward. I’m expecting a vintage Velasquez performance to kick off another stretch of title defenses over the next year or two.
Werdum scares me more than virtually any opponent Velasquez could have fought in his return, if only due to the Brazilian’s ability to shock the world with his finishing prowess. Everyone always cites the Emelianenko fight, but he’s proven himself to be extremely dangerous since then. Few expected Werdum to systematically break down Travis Browne the way the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu expert did last spring, and absolutely no one saw Werdum finishing the nearly unstoppable Mark Hunt with a flying knee when he won his interim title in the fall. Werdum has made a living out of delivering the unexpected and he has a chance to take that reputation to another level if he can catch Velasquez this weekend.
I’ve got Velasquez by either a dominant decision win or a late stoppage, but Werdum is crafty enough in all departments to make that far from a guarantee. This is an excellent test to make sure Velasquez is back to form. If he is in form, then there isn’t a scenario where he walks into Mexico City, of all places, and drops the title.
Former Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez made his UFC debut against Donald Cerrone and dropped the decision. Everyone says a fighter isn’t his usual self the first time he fights in the Octagon, though. So, will Alvarez prove that theory and truly impress when he fights Gilbert Melendez this weekend? Furthermore, considering the historic performances of the past delivered by both men, is this the clear favorite to pick up “Fight of the Night” honors?
Carey: I’ll answer the second question first: of course! Not to get all nostalgic on everyone, but remember when we were dreaming about a possible Strikeforce vs. Bellator event back in the day? This fight was a major reason why people so badly wanted the event to come to fruition. It’s hard to envision a scenario where these two don’t put on an absolute show. Each man has been involved in some of the greatest battles of all time, and I fully expect some fireworks when they go head-to-head this weekend.
As for Alvarez and his case of Octagon jitters, or whatever we’re calling them these days… If Alvarez suffered from any nerves in his debut, he actually dealt with them reasonably well. Cerrone’s height and reach made “Cowboy” a pretty tough match-up for Alvarez regardless of when and where they fought, and while Alvarez came up short and wasn’t quite the fighter we’re used to seeing, he didn’t look bad by any means either. Styles make fights, and while I actually really enjoyed Cerrone vs. Alvarez, Cerrone has a style that would have given Alvarez problems in his 10th UFC fight just as much as it did in his first.
Melendez has a much more workable style for Alvarez, and that’s why I could easily see this being one of the best fights of the year — or even the decade — if it lives up to its potential. Both guys are more than willing to get into a wild brawl and throw haymakers; the wrestling for both men is good enough that it’s doubtful one could dominate the other on the mat; and both guys, due to their championship experience, have the gas tank to go at least 10 minutes longer than the 15 they need in this three-round affair. While normally I’d be a little afraid of Melendez trying to slow things down, I can’t see him doing that in front of a frantic crowd this weekend. The Mexico City fans are going to want a war, and “El Nino’s” going to give it to them.
DeRose: Indeed, this is the clear-cut favorite for “Fight of the Night” at UFC 188. These guys are pretty well matched, but Melendez should be able to edge out Alvarez and win this fight.
One of the benefits of routinely covering Bellator was the opportunity to watch Alvarez fight. Alvarez was insanely dominant in the promotion until Michael Chandler showed up at Bellator 58 and changed all that in what was one of the best fights of 2011. Alvarez stormed back with a complete decimation of Shinya Aoki at Bellator 66. Then he had a huge come-from-behind win over Patricky Freire at Bellator 76 in a fight he could have easily lost. Freire had him on the ropes, but the Brazilian couldn’t find a way to finish Alvarez.
Alvarez, while he is highly talented, seems to get clipped at least once in every fight. He always gets rocked. However, he is a Frankie Edgar type who has a tremendous persistence about him that very few fighters possess. His willpower has made for some excellent fights, and the characteristic has helped to make Alvarez into one of the best lightweights on the planet.
Despite the praise I’ve heaped upon Alvarez, I believe Melendez wins this fight. Alvarez will get rocked at least once, as usual, and Melendez is too good of a fighter to let that go to waste. When he smells a finish, he usually goes for it. Alvarez will impress — you can put stock in that notion — but he’ll do so in a losing effort. Melendez is just a little bit better on the feet, which is saying a lot when comparing him to someone like Alvarez, who has 14 knockouts in his career. There is no shame in losing to both Cerrone and Melendez, both of whom are clearly top fighters in the lightweight division. Alvarez just isn’t quite at the same level as the men he’s been paired with inside the Octagon.
Kelvin Gastelum was a top-10 welterweight as recently as his last fight, but weight-cutting issues forced the UFC to send the highly touted prospect back to the middleweight division, where he began his career. Can Gastelum, who is set to make his 185-pound return this weekend, make a statement and take out Nate Marquardt to start to prove his worth in the middleweight rankings?
DeRose: Marquardt has been slipping lately, which makes a victory over him seem like less of a big statement than it once was. Marquardt is 1-4 in his last five fights with his lone win coming over James Te Huna. It might be age or just an overall deterioration of skill after 49 career fights, but Marquardt seems to be a shell of his former self since his return to the UFC.
Gastelum was a strong and overpowering fighter at welterweight, but he also seemed to be just as strong and overpowering as a middleweight against Uriah Hall in his UFC debut when he won The Ultimate Fighter crown. I don’t know if I’d put Hall and Marquardt in the same category, although both seem to be vastly underachieving in their separate career arcs, but it does provide some idea of what we can expect from Gastelum in his return to the division.
Size is the one big thing that goes against Gastelum at 185 pounds. He isn’t the tallest fighter, and once he gets to the top five, he won’t be the strongest either in a division that houses gigantic fighters like champion Chris Weidman, top contender Luke Rockhold and a slew of former top light heavyweight talent.
Marquardt is a good start if Gastelum wants to get into the top 15, but Marquardt isn’t even in the top 15 himself and this isn’t as significant of an opponent as Gastelum could have hoped for in his return to middleweight. Gastelum certainly has the potential to be one of the better fighters in the division, but he will have to get past Marquardt first.
Carey: I wrote about this right after Gastelum was unceremoniously forced to move up to 185 pounds, and I’ll say it again here: Gastelum is in no way, shape or form a middleweight fighter. He has missed weight twice so early into his UFC welterweight tenure, which was unfortunate, but it’s clear from his body type that Gastelum isn’t going to be at his best as a middleweight. That’s not to say Gastelum couldn’t be a top-10 fighter in the division or even sneak into the top five under the right circumstances, but if we want to see the TUF winner at his best over the next few years, he needs to be competing at 170 pounds.
Despite the weight-cutting fiasco and suffering his first career loss in his last outing, Gastelum may have impressed me even more in that fight than he did in his first-round finish of Jake Ellenberger a few months earlier. After being hospitalized due to problems with the weight cut the day before the bout, Gastelum still came out and fought three hard rounds against Tyron Woodley, one of the top five welterweights in the world, and almost stole a split decision. Gastelum showed a ton of heart and convinced me that Gastelum could be a force in the future. However, he needs to make people forget about his recent struggles and force them to focus on his skills again.
Gastelum can definitely still hang with the bigger guys at middleweight. Since Marquardt has also alternated between middleweight and welterweight over the last few years, the size difference won’t be a big concern for Gastelum this time around. In fact, as far as both name value and a favorable match-up go, this pairing likely couldn’t be any better for Gastelum. At just 23 years old, Gastelum has improved his striking enough over the last year or so and won’t have a ton of problems on the feet. Meanwhile, his wrestling game is his bread and butter, and it should allow him to mix things up nicely and outwork Marquardt. Gastelum should win this fight, possibly via stoppage.
After a disappointing run on The Ultimate Fighter 20, Tecia Torres showed up in a big way against Angela Magana on the TUF 20 Finale card. Can a win over Angela Hill help Torres secure the next title shot against the winner of Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Jessica Penne? What does a win over Torres mean for 2-0 Angela Hill?
Carey: This is a massive opportunity for both fighters, but it definitely means more for Torres. A win for Hill would be considered huge because she’d have beaten a top-five strawweight and would make a massive leap up the 115-pound rankings, but there’s a lot more on the line for Torres.
Take a look at the top half of the strawweight top 10 and it’s pretty clear that Torres, with a win this weekend, is more than likely going to be the most viable option to fight for the title next. The fact that Torres beat both Rose Namajunas and Paige VanZant within the last few years is a huge deal. Those two ladies are possibly the two most popular women in the division, and the high-profile wins for Torres, along with her spot in the rankings, make it an almost certainty that she’ll be next in line for a shot at gold if she picks up another win.
Torres will leave Mexico City with a victory on Saturday, but I’m going to hesitate just a little bit when it comes to saying “The Tiny Tornado” gets the next title fight. With Jessica Aguilar, who’s long been considered among the elite women in the sport, currently sitting in free agency and more than likely headed to the UFC soon, it wouldn’t be shocking to see “Jag” step straight into a title fight if/when she signs her UFC deal.
It would be a little out of character for the UFC to grant a fighter an immediate title shot upon entering the promotion, but Aguilar was considered the cream of the crop when it came to female strawweights up until a UFC champion was crowned last year. The casual fan likely won’t have a major preference either way if it came down to Torres or Aguilar getting a title fight, so I have a feeling the UFC might go with the bout the hardcore fans want. That would likely put “Jag” in the driver’s seat.
DeRose: My colleague puts too much credence in the UFC granting an immediate title shot to Aguilar. She is one of the best female fighters, granted, but it seems like a little too much to give her the opportunity immediately in a division that the UFC just introduced and in which it still has plenty of women that could contend for the belt. There are so many fighters who were long considered the best in their division and then didn’t get an immediate title shot when they came to the UFC. Why should Aguilar be the exception?
While Hill is still relatively a smaller name and isn’t exactly someone against whom you can build a case for a title shot, Torres was one of the top seeds in The Ultimate Fighter house on the season that crowned the inaugural strawweight champion. Torres was upset by Randa Markos, however. She did receive another chance and lost in the quarterfinals to eventual strawweight champion Carla Esparza.
Torres has the resume to back up her claim to a title bid. She has defeated the likes of Felice Herrig, a relatively new Paige VanZant and Rose Namajunas, all before her time in the house. When the time comes, Torres should get the shot after recording a win at UFC 188. Everybody ahead of her in the UFC rankings has either recently lost, had a recent title shot or isn’t in the UFC yet. The timing even lines up perfectly, with the championship contest between Jędrzejczyk and Penne set for relatively the same time.
Meanwhile, if Hill picks up a win over Torres, it would be huge. Despite her lack of experience, Hill impressed in her fight against Emily Kagan. She looked great on the feet and really dictated the fight on her way to the decision victory. If the same Hill shows up against Torres, it’ll be tough for Torres to get the win. Hill brings some serious striking, and she holds a two-inch height and four-inch reach advantage over Torres. If Hill can get the range down early and keep Torres from closing the distance, Hill could get the win. However, it’ll be Torres who emerges with the victory. She is just a step above Hill right now and has a ton of potential to build on for the future.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
DeRose: I’ll go deep on the card and pick the welterweight battle between Andrew Todhunter and Albert Tumenov. Tumenov seems like another one of those tough fighters from Russia that are making their way through the UFC ranks. Outside of a split decision loss in his UFC debut, Tumenov has been pretty decisive in his victories. Two of those wins were first-round knockouts that brought his total to 10 career knockouts. Add in Todhunter, who has picked up all of his victories by submission, and a finish seems likely in this one.
Carey: I absolutely love the fight between lightweights Frank Trevino and Johnny Case on the FX prelims. Trevino was a really highly touted signing by the UFC when he was picked up over a year ago, but frequent injuries have kept him outside of the Octagon since his UFC debut in March 2014. Meanwhile, Case came into the UFC on an eight-fight winning streak and has since bumped that up to 10 by winning both of his UFC bouts via stoppage and looking damn good in the process. At 33 years old, Trevino can’t waste any time dropping fights to up-and-comers like Case if he wants to start making a run of his own, but Case could easily play the spoiler and really get his name out there with a big win this weekend.
Pair this card with…
Carey: Very rarely do I give in and use the event’s location for my pairing suggestion, but since we’re in Mexico City with a Mexican champion in the main event, it only seems fitting to go stereotypical and have a little fiesta this weekend. Fire up some Mexican food, grab some tequila or Coronas and watch the baddest man on the planet defend his belt.
DeRose: The Women’s World Cup! I love soccer and I know Mexico does, too. So I’ll follow my colleague’s lead and pick something that grabs the best of both worlds. Of course, we’re cheering for Team USA here as they march towards the finals to avenge a loss in the last World Cup. I’ll spend time watching both this card and the Women’s World Cup, and I hope everyone else does as well.
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
HW Championship: Cain Velasquez vs. Fabricio Werdum
LW: Eddie Alvarez vs. Gilbert Melendez
MW: Kelvin Gastelum vs. Nate Marquardt
FW: Yair Rodriguez vs. Charles Rosa
Women’s StrawW: Angela Hill vs. Tecia Torres
Preliminary Card (FX, 8 p.m. ET)
FlyW: Chico Camus vs. Henry Cejudo
LW: Drew Dober vs. Efrain Escudero
BW: Alejandro Perez vs. Patrick Williams
LW: Johnny Case vs. Francisco Trevino
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)
WW: Augusto Montano vs. Cathal Pendred
FW: Gabriel Benitez vs. Clay Collard
WW: Andrew Todhunter vs. Albert Tumenov
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