T.J. Dillashaw (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC Fight Night 81 Preview and Predictions

Thanks to the seemingly unyielding power and influence of the NFL, a UFC fight card that would be worthy of a pay-per-view broadcast is relegated to a Sunday night on Fox Sports 1. The latest incarnation of UFC Fight Night features the triumphant return of former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz.

After spending the better part of three years on the sidelines with knee injuries, Cruz briefly teased us with a dominating return performance against Takeya Mizugaki at UFC 178 in 2014. Unfortunately, Cruz went back to the injured list with another knee injury. But now “The Dominator” appears to be 100 percent and ready to reclaim the title that he never officially lost.

That title is currently held by T.J. Dillashaw, who seems to have usurped Cruz as the most dominant fighter in the bantamweight division after brutalizing former champion Renan Barão to take the belt, then doing so again in a rematch, with a beating of Joe Soto included in between for good measure.


As if that wasn’t enough, we also have a possible lightweight title eliminator in the co-main event between former champion Anthony Pettis and Eddie Alvarez. So, far as Sunday night fight cards go, this is a pretty good one. Who will come out on top in some of UFC’s lighter weight divisions?

The action begins with five preliminary bouts on UFC Fight Pass at 6 p.m. ET. The festivities then move to Fox Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET for four more preliminary contests and the four-fight main card at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Bryan Henderson and Chris Huntemann preview the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Dominick Cruz. He was a dominant champion in his prime, but now he’s coming into a title fight with T.J. Dillashaw after competing only once in the last four-plus years. Is the UFC playing with fire here?

Henderson: Playing with fire? The organization may as well have doused itself in gasoline and then lit a match. Cruz’s history since 2011? A torn ACL that sidelined him and caused the scrapping of a post-The Ultimate Fighter showdown with Urijah Faber in 2012. A groin injury that jettisoned his 2014 comeback fight against Renan Barão and resulted in the UFC stripping Cruz of his title. An amazing showing seven months later when he destroyed Takeya Mizugaki in 61 seconds. And, finally, a torn ACL in his other knee that put him back on the sidelines for more than a year. I’m a baseball fan and I’ve taken to referring to Dominick Cruz as MMA’s Troy Tulowitzki. The only difference is that Tulowitzki seems like the Bionic Man in comparison to Cruz.

The fight itself is an intriguing one. Dillashaw has drawn countless comparisons to Cruz for his movement and footwork. In Cruz’s absence, Dillashaw’s style has kept Cruz even more relevant in the conversation than he already was as a champion who never technically lost the belt. The reigning champ Dillashaw dethroned Barão, defended his belt against Joe Soto and then turned around and beat Barão again to show the first time was no fluke. However, Cruz, always a dominant champion despite his lack of finishing ability, really turned in an eye-opener when he decimated Mizugaki. If Cruz was dangerous before, well then, look out. The former champ is determined to get his belt back, and he’s still a good bet to do so. Dillashaw may have adopted a similar style, but Cruz is still the master of the style. Furthermore, a refreshed and healthy Cruz is obviously a beast. If these men remain healthy enough to step into the Octagon for this title tilt, Cruz is coming out as the titleholder.

Now, back to the five-alarm blaze the UFC is setting… Another Cruz injury is inevitable. This guy absolutely cannot stay healthy. The odds are low for him making one defense before he has to withdraw from a fight again. The odds of two defenses without incident? The odds of winning the billion-dollar Powerball jackpot would be slightly better.

Huntemann: Now, now. I have my Powerball ticket. So hopefully your premonitions are misguided, Boss Man. Who’s banking on early retirement? This guy!

Wait, what are we talking about? Right, Dillashaw/Cruz. There’s definitely some element of fire-playing at work here. Before Cruz shredded his knees, you could make the argument he was among the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. While knee injuries aren’t as catastrophic as they used to be, the fact it kept happening to both knees, plus a groin injury thrown in, gives for pause.

This question gives me pause as well. Originally, I was picking Cruz and felt pretty confident about it. But there’s no question that Dillashaw has been a dominant champion that pretty much no one is talking about. When he defeated Barão for the bantamweight title in 2014, it was Barão’s first loss since his very first MMA fight in 2005. Dillashaw went nearly five rounds with Soto, an unexpected opponent, in his first title defense before finishing Soto and then making quick work of Barão in their rematch. Dillashaw looks to be on the cusp of the same run of dominance Cruz had enjoyed pre-injury. That’s why this is such an interesting fight. These two men are basically mirror images of each other. Dillashaw may have a little more power in his striking, while Cruz is a master of angles and was one of the quickest fighters around. Does he still have the same quickness post-knee injury? I guess we’ll find out.

You can see who I pick to win below. However, if Cruz is victorious, I’m confident he can keep his health issues behind him. If he doesn’t, then the UFC strips him again. As the old saying goes, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…

Anthony Pettis and Eddie Alvarez have long been considered to be among the best 155-pounders around. Is the winner of this contest the no-brainer choice for the next lightweight title shot? Is Alvarez good enough to ever realize his goal of becoming a UFC champion, or will Pettis become the second UFC/WEC-bred contender to hand the Bellator veteran a setback?

Huntemann: It seems as if there’s a never-ending traffic jam in the UFC’s lightweight division, doesn’t it? Just when you think things might begin to sort themselves out, we have an influx of new contenders. Donald Cerrone lost to champion Rafael dos Anjos in surprisingly quick fashion at last month’s UFC Fight Night card, but a couple of new contenders made their case recently.

Tony Ferguson continued his ascent up the ladder with an impressive victory over Edson Barboza, and Nate Diaz looked better than he has in years as he completely outclassed Michael Johnson. Plus, it was announced last week that dos Anjos will face featherweight champion Conor McGregor at UFC 197 in March. It is indeed a fun and interesting time in the UFC lightweight division.

But back to the question at hand. The winner of Pettis/Alvarez should be considered the No. 1 contender, especially if Pettis wins. While Pettis was dominated by dos Anjos en route to the Brazilian becoming champion last year, Pettis never received his rematch. An impressive showing and victory against Alvarez would prove that Pettis is still one of the very best lightweight fighters in the world and should get him the chance to take back the belt.

Alvarez’s UFC career has been pretty unique. He made his debut against Cerrone in 2014 and looked a little overwhelmed, frankly. He rebounded nicely by defeating Gilbert Melendez last year — I scored the fight for Melendez, but perhaps another viewing would change my mind — and if he knocks off a former champion like Pettis, then, yes, Alvarez should receive a title shot.

Pettis is the betting favorite against Alvarez, who is still not a guy you want to underestimate. Alvarez will give it everything he has, and he has the tools to win.

Henderson: Ferguson and Diaz, who somehow remains below Michael Johnson in the UFC’s rankings, may be rising contenders, and then there’s Khabib Nurmagomedov’s eventual return and the whole McGregor venture into the division, but this fight should determine who is next in line after the dust settles between dos Anjos and McGregor.

Alvarez’s arrival in the UFC was long overdue. The rumblings about how he’d perform inside the Octagon go beyond his time in Bellator and extends all the way back to his time in the Japanese-based Dream organization in 2008. So far, Alvarez has demonstrated that he is indeed a top-tier lightweight, but he has only managed a loss to Cerrone and a very close decision win over Melendez.

Alvarez is tough and never turns in a boring fight. Pairing him with Pettis is pure genius on the UFC’s part. If this fight doesn’t deliver, it’d be a shocker. However, Alvarez’s recent performances and an overall trend of the Bellator champ getting rocked and put in trouble is enough reason for concern. Pettis is going to land and capitalize. He might not finish Alvarez, but he’ll at the very least outpoint Alvarez and hand him a decision loss.

The loss won’t be the end of Alvarez’s title aspirations, however. He’s capable of sticking around near the top of the division and finding his groove after a few more fights with the organization. Pettis is likely bound for another title shot in the near future. Alvarez’s time might not be right now, but it will come eventually.

All of the fighters currently ranked ahead of Travis Browne at heavyweight are either scheduled to fight soon or have fought recently. Browne boasts wins over the likes of Alistair Overeem, Josh Barnett and Gabriel Gonzaga, but suffered a first-round knockout loss to Andrei Arlovski in his last fight. Does a victory over the 14th-ranked Matt Mitrione, who also suffered a first-round defeat in his last fight, put Browne any closer to a heavyweight title shot?

Henderson: Closer? No. A win would keep Browne in a holding pattern. That’s all.

Browne sits in the sixth spot in the UFC rankings. So, he trails champ Fabricio Werdum, obviously, plus Cain Velasquez, Stipe Miocic, Overeem, Arlovski and Junior dos Santos. Dos Santos did lose recently, but he’s an established former champion who should still carry enough cred to keep him ahead of Browne. Arlovski also lost, but his victory over Browne is still recent enough that it should factor into the rankings and keep Browne below the Belarusian. Overeem has experienced a remarkable turnaround since his loss to Browne, and Velasquez and Miocic are top contenders.

Best case, Browne does leapfrog Arlovski and JDS. However, he also has to turn in an impressive showing against Mitrione to fend off the winner of the upcoming fight between Josh Barnett and Ben Rothwell, both of whom are nipping at Browne’s heels in the rankings and get a more credible win than Browne would be in line for against the inconsistent Mitrione.

Browne should succeed against Mitrione, a heavy-handed brawler who is likely to fold under Browne’s own power striking. Browne’s previous fight with Werdum, in which he pushed the future champ to a five-round decision, helps his case for a title bid, but it’s not enough. Even in the best-case scenario, he’s probably looking at a slot somewhere between his current sixth-place ranking and the four spot. You could say that he will be an inch closer to the title shot, but it’s all semantics. He needs to put together at least a couple of wins and beat another fellow top contender before the UFC gives him a look for a championship affair.

Huntemann: I agree with my esteemed colleague. A win over Mitrione doesn’t do much for Browne’s title chances. It certainly doesn’t hurt, obviously, but even with recent losses by guys like JDS and Arlovski, there’s still a logjam at the top of the heavyweight division. Miocic seems to be next in line for a title shot, presumably followed by Overeem, assuming he stays with UFC.

Mitrione seems to swing for the fences the minute his game plan doesn’t work, whereas Browne seems to be able to remain patient and pick his shots (at least when he’s not facing Arlovski). If Browne defeats Mitrione, which I believe he will do, then he’ll basically have to bide his time and wait for the top of the heavyweight division to thin itself out a little more.

But if Browne loses? Then he inches ever closer to Gatekeepersville.

This card is definitely a mix of past, present and future. The past is represented by Patrick Cote, Ben Saunders, Ed Herman and Tim Boetsch. All of these men have had their runs at contendership, and Cote has even challenged for a belt. Is there anything left in the UFC, besides a mid-card career, for any of these men?

Huntemann: You see, I’m determined to make Gatekeepersville a thing. I mentioned it earlier when referencing a possible loss by Travis Browne, and I already think Clay Guida has taken up permanent residence there. I thought Miesha Tate had too, but she has one more chance to avoid it with her title shot against Holly Holm in March. What I’m getting at is, I think the men featured in this question are right on the precipice of Gatekeepersville.

Cote still has a chance to emerge as a contender after having won his last two fights and only having lost two fights, period, since returning to the UFC in 2012. Cote faced former middleweight champion Anderson Silva when he had the belt and has faced some of the best in the middleweight division. Now, he’s a member of the welterweight division, where the competition is just as tough.

Saunders is on a winning streak of his own, but his best victory came against Joe Riggs. Herman has alternated wins and losses in his last five fights, and Boetsch’s latest attempt at a comeback was derailed by Dan Henderson’s right hand.

So, in short, Cote might still have a chance for one last run at the top. However, considering who populates the top of UFC’s welterweight division right now, that might be just a smidge too much to ask of “The Predator.” The other guys mentioned in this discussion should probably contact Guida and ask if they can get a group rate to, you guessed it, Gatekeepersville.

Henderson: What, no mention of Cheick Kongo in this mythical Gatekeepersville?

With a 2-5 mark over his last seven fights, Boetsch can be firmly declared as a resident of this town already. And Herman could almost be considered one of the founding fathers of the place after losing his first two UFC bouts way back in 2006 and never stringing together more than three victories in his subsequent UFC outings. In other words, the light heavyweight division shouldn’t be trembling in its shoes about either of these former middleweights making a career resurgence in their new division.

This leaves us with welterweights Saunders and Cote.

Cote’s newish home in the weight class — he’s been fighting at 170 pounds since 2013 — has served him well. He’s 4-1 as a welterweight during his current UFC tenure. His only loss came on the scorecards against Stephen Thompson and he did post an impressive performance against Josh Burkman in his most recent fight. Cote is 35 years old and could still join the recent trend of fighters who find their groove late in their career. However, the Canadian will struggle against strong wrestlers and other fighters in the mold of Thompson who have the reach and striking prowess to match him on the feet.

If any of these fighters has a chance to rise above mid-card territory, though, it could be Saunders. His first UFC campaign had all the makings of classic Gatekeepersville stuff. He streaked out with three wins, but then went 1-3 over his next four contests and departed the promotion. He ended up in Bellator and participated in numerous tournaments, only losing to eventual Bellator champ Douglas Lima twice and Bryan Baker once. Despite the second loss to Lima, Saunders was brought back into the UFC fold and has again scored three straight wins to kick things off. If he can add Cote to his list of victims, he might just have something going for him.

What makes Saunders a strong bet is a combination of his age — he’s only 32 — and his skills. He’s a tall welterweight who can make very effective use of knees in the clinch when he’s on his game. If he can build more consistency in this regard, he could become a real threat. He’s also a long fighter who will attack with submissions from his back and can be a very strong grappler. Possibly his biggest weakness is his tendency to get beat up on the mat. He’s too content to stay there, too, and work for submissions when he should be looking to get up as quickly as possible.

Cote’s striking might still be too much for Saunders, so the Canadian will get the best immediate chance at escaping the mid-card ranks. In the long run, however, Saunders could be capable of putting it all together and going the furthest of any of these veterans. We’re not necessarily talking title runs, but he could climb into contention at some point. It’s a long shot, granted, but not quite the same long shot as what the other three men are looking at.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Henderson: There are plenty of good options, but the best might be the bantamweight battle between Rob Font and Joey Gomez. Font turned heads with his big first-round knockout of George Roop in July 2014, but his name has faded while he has sat on the sidelines with injuries for a year and a half. Gomez, meanwhile, is an undefeated UFC newcomer who has put away all six of his previous opponents with strikes in the first round. Font has a pretty good first-round finishing rate as well, so these two men should combine for some hectic action once the cage door closes. Font gets the nod based on level of competition, but this fight really comes down to who gets caught first.

Huntemann: Keep an eye on the bout that kicks off Sunday night’s main card. While he has alternated wins and losses in his last six fights — even though he was straight-up robbed against Diego Sanchez — Ross Pearson can almost always be counted on to deliver an entertaining fight. He’s faced some of the better-known names out there, including Sanchez, Gray Maynard, Al Iaquinta, Evan Dunham, Melvin Guillard and Cub Swanson. Pearson’s opponent, Francisco Trinaldo, is a fighter on the rise in the UFC. Trinaldo has won his last four fights, including a first-round TKO victory in his last bout. It seems Pearson is going to serve as a true test for Trinaldo. Pearson will press the action, grind it out and take Trinaldo into deep water. Can Trinaldo handle it? If he can, then expect fireworks in this one.

Pair this card with…

Huntemann: A cup of coffee, with perhaps some brandy or Jameson mixed in (do you see a theme when I answer this question during fight previews? But I promise I’m not an alcoholic). Again, since the NFL still dominates the month of January during playoff time, the main card for this event doesn’t start until 10 p.m. on a Sunday night. Honestly, that’s past my bedtime. But for the rest of you, the coffee can keep you awake and the booze can give you a pleasant buzz as you watch some of the more exciting fighters in the UFC duke it out.

Henderson: A first aid kit. This card might as well be the UFC’s ode to the injury withdrawal. Within the last week, light heavyweight prospect Abdul-Kerim Edilov was forced out of his fight with Francimar Barroso due to a torn meniscus and Jimy Hettes dropped out of his bout with Charles Rosa due to an injury. The card has also undergone the departures of Patrick Williams, Beneil Dariush and Dennis Bermudez due to varying injuries, including a staph infection for Bermudez. Meanwhile, Dominick Cruz, Anthony Pettis and Rob Font are all making their returns after extended stays on the disabled list. Toss in Ben Saunders, who was injured earlier in the year, and this card is all about injuries and returns from injury.

Fight Picks

Fight Henderson’s Pick Huntemann’s Pick
Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 10 p.m. ET)
BW Championship: T.J. Dillashaw vs. Dominick Cruz Cruz Cruz
LW: Anthony Pettis vs. Eddie Alvarez Pettis Alvarez
HW: Travis Browne vs. Matt Mitrione Browne Browne
LW: Ross Pearson vs. Francisco Trinaldo Trinaldo Trinaldo
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
WW: Patrick Cote vs. Ben Saunders Cote Cote
LW: Chris Wade vs. Mehdi Baghdad Wade Wade
LHW: Ed Herman vs. Tim Boetsch Boetsch Boetsch
FW: Maximo Blanco vs. Luke Sanders Sanders Blanco
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6 p.m. ET)
LW: Paul Felder vs. Daron Cruickshank Felder Felder
FW: Charles Rosa vs. Augusto Mendes Mendes Rosa
LHW: Ilir Latifi vs. Sean O’Connell O’Connell Latifi
BW: Rob Font vs. Joey Gomez Font Gomez
LHW: Elvis Mutapcic vs. Francimar Barroso Barroso Barroso