In the days of the IFL, there were two dominant heavyweights ruling over the team-based league. Those men were Ben Rothwell and Roy Nelson. Nelson would eventually become the league’s heavyweight champion once the promotion shifted its focus toward individual achievements, but the one and only heavyweight champ of the now-defunct organization did suffer one loss while with the promotion. That loss came to the aforementioned Rothwell. Both men eventually moved on to the UFC with high expectations following them. Nelson quickly took center stage, whereas Rothwell seemed to take the scenic route. Now, it’s Rothwell’s turn to grab the spotlight.
The former member of the IFL’s Quad Cities Silverbacks, which were coached by Pat Miletich, is one half of the headliner at UFC Fight Night 86. The man standing in the other corner of the eight-sided cage will be former UFC heavyweight kingpin Junior dos Santos. The Brazilian was once seen as part of the future of the division, but two losses to Cain Velasquez and a beating at the hands of Alistair Overeem has painted the picture of a fighter on the decline.
Rothwell’s long path to UFC title contention has led to this match-up. The big man could take advantage of the holes that have developed in his foe’s game and touch on a chin that is starting to falter for dos Santos. Meanwhile, the Brazilian would like to post a win and hang on to his spot among the division’s top contenders.
The heavyweight tilt between Rothwell and dos Santos tops a bill that is quite heavy, literally. The six-fight main card includes four heavyweight bouts and features a number of European prospects who are still looking to establish themselves under the UFC banner. It all takes place Zagreb Arena in Zagreb, Croatia, and marks the UFC’s first visit to the European nation.
UFC Fight Night 86 kicks off at 10:30 a.m. ET on April 10 — a Sunday — with three fights on UFC Fight Pass. The action shifts to Fox Sports 1 at 12 p.m. ET for the remaining four prelim bouts and continues on the network with the six-fight main card at 2 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Emma Challands and Bryan Henderson preview the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Ben Rothwell has been flirting with contention in the UFC heavyweight division ever since he entered the promotion. His latest test is former champion Junior dos Santos, who has lost two of his last three fights. If Rothwell emerges with the win, does his recent resume make him next in line for a title shot?
Challands: This is a tough one.
Rothwell is going to be on a five-fight winning streak with a win over a former champ if he beats dos Santos. These kinds of runs barely exist in the heavyweight division these days. You’d expect it would be enough to make him a genuine contender — and he is — but the unfortunate issue for Rothwell is that there are a lot of other guys in the mix right now.
You’ve only got to look at the lineup of fights over the next three months to see the list of potential title contenders the UFC has to work with in the division. There’s no doubt that if Alistair Overeem beats Andrei Arlovski, then he will likely go to the head of the pack. Even though Rothwell beat Overeem, the latter man just renewed his contract and is ranked third with the promotion, which means that the UFC has a strong interest in its investment and seeing that investment pay dividends.
Then you’ve got Travis Browne and former champion Cain Velasquez. Given Velasquez was going to fight for the belt against Fabricio Werdum before the bout was scrapped due to injuries, it seem likely that Velasquez would be right back in contention with a win against Browne.
It’s actually a really crappy situation for Rothwell, given how successful he has been of late. His only saving grace at this point is that the fans love him and he’s marketable thanks to his quirky personality. He will make the fight fun and the promotion leading up to it entertaining, which is more than we can say for the other potential title challengers.
However, in a nutshell, there is no immediate title shot waiting for Rothwell.
Henderson: It’s hard to argue with those points, and I’m not going to try. Pure and simple, Rothwell is going to have to keep working his tail off to convince the UFC that he belongs in a title bout. Why? Well, because, just like in any business, money trumps everything else.
Rothwell, despite his crazy personality and usually entertaining fight style, just isn’t viewed as headlining material quite yet at the championship level. The UFC sees names like Overeem, Velasquez and dos Santos, despite his recent setbacks, and dollar signs light up in the company’s collective eyeballs. These are names that the organization trusts as headliners the general public will know. Rothwell, not so much.
That’s not to say that this can’t change. Rothwell, who has recent victories against Overeem, Josh Barnett and Matt Mitrione, on the right track with this fight against dos Santos, which comes in a headlining spot on the Fox Sports 1 network. Think of it as a test. If Rothwell delivers a crushing finish and gets on the mic and says something that makes the audience remember him, then the UFC will consider him for a No. 1 contender’s fight. He’ll have to beat one more notable opponent — maybe Browne or Overeem (for a second time) — or avenge one of his prior losses to Velasquez, Arlovski, Mark Hunt or Gabriel Gonzaga. If he can clear that additional hurdle, then he’ll be in the cage with the champion in his next outing.
First, though, he has to get past dos Santos. That much, he can do. The Brazilian, while still a game opponent, isn’t quite at the championship level anymore. Rothwell is a beast of a big man with heavy hands. It won’t be an easy fight, but Rothwell will emerge with the victory.
Derrick Lewis and Gabriel Gonzaga face off in the co-headliner. These are two big heavyweights with very different styles. How does this fight play out?
Henderson: Gonzaga, through two separate stints separated by only one regional fight, has been in the UFC for what seems like an eternity. In actuality, it is somewhat of an eternity, given that his first Octagon appearance came in 2005 and he has had 21 fights total under the UFC banner. The one consistent through his tenure is his tendency to crumble under the pressure of a heavy striker when that striker presses forward. Give Gonzaga room to breathe, and the fight’s outcome becomes a lot less predictable. When Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic first fought Gonzaga, the Croatian hesitated too much and got caught. In their rematch, Cro Cop was more aggressive and it led to a finish of Gonzaga.
Lewis presents an interesting opponent for Gonzaga. He’s extremely aggressive, but he’s sloppy and overcommits. Furthermore, he tends to put his all into the first few minutes of the fight and then fades. And, to top it off, he doesn’t have the strongest chin, as proven by Matt Mitrione and Shawn Jordan. Lewis has looked like a beast at times — he has five finishes, including three in the first round, via strikes — but he’s not an unstoppable force.
Gonzaga has power, and also owns one of the best grappling arsenals of any UFC heavyweight. He has routes to victory in this affair, but it really all depends on how he handles the initial barrage from Lewis. He’s almost certain to get rocked. If he turtles up, this one is over. If he can maintain his senses and recover, Lewis is unlikely to hold up against such a savvy veteran.
I still have plenty of doubts about Gonzaga. However, Lewis comes with even more doubts. His habit of overcommitting causes him to lose advantageous positions and get into sloppy back-and-forth ground fights. He has still emerged with a solid winning percentage despite these faults, but any mistake on the mat will be much more costly when it comes against someone as skilled as Gonzaga.
So, initially, Lewis will look like he’s going to win this fight. Then, he’ll make a mistake and Gonzaga will take full advantage. The end comes on the ground, but it’ll be Gonzaga’s choice as to whether he snags a submission or beats on a gassed Lewis until the referee steps in.
Challands: I agree. The sad reality of this match-up is that it will come down to who makes the first mistake and who capitalizes on said mistake.
I don’t see this fight getting out of the first round, to be honest. Lewis is going to stick with the game plan and come out firing, throwing a high volume of strikes. He’s going to overwhelm Gonzaga, who will go into panic mode.
Lewis will be too strong and aggressive. Gonzaga is going to get finished early.
This card is a heavyweight showcase, from the contender-level bout at the top of the bill on down to the numerous prospects that fill the card as far down the lineup as the UFC Fight Pass early prelims. Two heavyweight up-and-comers, Bojan Mihajlović and Ruslan Magomedov, were also on the card at one point before each was scrapped from his respective match-up. Does this card hold the future of the UFC heavyweight division, or are we looking at a bunch of guys that won’t be with the promotion in a year’s time?
Challands: There are some really exciting heavyweight prospects on this card.
Francis Zavier Ngannou, who is slated to meet Curtis Blaydes, is 6-1 in his career and made an impressive debut for the UFC in December with a win over Luiz Henrique, a talented young fighter that hadn’t lost since 2012. Ngannou brings an athleticism to the division that we don’t often see. He is surprisingly well rounded, too.
We have a number of debutants for the heavyweight division as well. The standouts include the aforementioned Blaydes, an exciting up-and-comer. Blaydes, 25, has never lost a fight. He is a well-rounded fighter who can knock out opponents or take them to the mat with his exceptional wrestling skills.
The other debutant to watch is Marcin Tybura. He was one of the best heavyweights on the European regional circuit before the UFC picked him up. He isn’t a big striking guy, mainly using it to get into the clinch, but he is really good on the mat at wearing out opponents and ultimately breaking their will before submitting them.
The heavyweight division is in desperate need of some new blood. These three guys are just what it needs.
Henderson: If this isn’t the future of the UFC’s heavyweight division, the big men might be in trouble. The “youth” of the UFC’s roster at the top level currently consists of Stipe Miocic, Travis Browne, Cain Velasquez, Ben Rothwell and Junior dos Santos. JDS, surprisingly enough, is the youngest of this crowd at age 32. Miocic, Browne and Velasquez check in at 33, and Rothwell is 34. Every other top big man is 35 or older.
This card provides a huge injection of youth from either UFC debutants or fighters making only their second or third appearance with the promotion. Blaydes is 25, Ngannou is 29, Tybura and Cyril Asker are 30, Timothy Johnson is 31 and Jared Cannonier is 32. Magomedov also checks in at 29, leaving Mihajlovic, 36, as the only one of these prospects who is truly up there in years.
There is plenty of hope here for the UFC’s future. My colleague already touched on Ngannou, Blaydes and Tybura. These three men appear to have the best chance to excel with the promotion. Ngannou and Blaydes might need more seasoning, whereas Tybura should jump right into the mix.
Then there are the others. Johnson pushed the recently released Jared Rosholt to the limit, but he’s probably no better than an entry-level gatekeeper for the promotion if he sticks around — and the smart money’s on Tybura showing Johnson the exit. Asker and Cannonier are also likely to be fighting elsewhere by this time next year. As for the scrapped duo, Magomedov has a potentially bright future inside the Octagon, whereas Mihajlović is likely to be back in the regionals before long.
Cristina Stanciu is making her debut against Maryna Moroz. Given the state of the women’s divisions generally and the ladies not fighting very regularly, is the UFC making the right decision in bringing in yet another debutant in lieu of giving a rostered fighter a much-needed bout? Or is the UFC smart for bringing in a European fighter to appeal to the locals?
Henderson: There are just north of 30 ladies on the UFC’s strawweight roster. Quite a few of these ladies haven’t competed yet in 2016 and don’t have an upcoming bout on the docket. So, yes, it would be great to have them compete more often. When Moroz defeated Joanne Calderwood, the Ukrainian-born fighter jumped into the division’s rankings. Granted, Valerie Letourneau sent Moroz right back out of the mix, but Letourneau’s win was enough to boost her to a title shot. Why not give Moroz another borderline top-10 or top-15 fighter and see what happens? Instead, she draws Stanciu, an undefeated Romanian who has defeated a string of fighters that don’t even register as strawweight prospects.
Location does matter, though. The UFC is on a mission to expand its brand across the globe, and if that means finding the first relevant Romanian female strawweight, then so be it. So, yes, appealing to the locals matters. This is a smaller card that can allow the promotion to mine for prospects.
Furthermore, maybe it gives Moroz a chance to bounce back after her loss to Letourneau. Moroz skyrocketed into the rankings for her aforementioned win over Calderwood, an established contender. But Calderwood was going through tough times outside the cage and didn’t seem completely focused for the fight. Moroz looked to be far less of a force against Letourneau and now stands at 6-1 overall. Stanciu, with five fights under her belt, is probably the perfect level of fighter to pair with Moroz. Moroz can come out with the win, the UFC will benefit either way and the company will face less headaches with arranging visas for American fighters while also saving a pretty penny on fighter salary by bringing in Stanciu. And if Stanciu pulls off the victory, the UFC has another European fighter to market.
So, as much as we may want to see the deserving members of the UFC’s roster get more fights, the UFC is playing it smart with this move.
Challands: As frustrating as it is, I do tend to agree. The UFC is trying to build a sustainable brand in Europe and in doing so it’s important to utilize local talent and build up stars in the same fashion as the company has done with Conor McGregor. It also means that the UFC can capitalize on the fan base that the local fighter brings to the table, which means ticket sales and so on.
There’s nothing better as a fan than to have a local man or woman to support and watch their career go from the grassroots level to the biggest promotion in the world, much the same as watching a local band get their time in the sun. There’s a sense of ownership which fans love and the UFC can obviously see the benefits in. It’s also important for the UFC to continue to find the best, most competitive prospects to ensure depth within the division and to keep things fresh and interesting.
However, the UFC needs to support and promote the ladies that are already rostered. The fact that some of these fighters sit on the shelf for a year and can’t compete anywhere else is ridiculous. The UFC needs to make a committment to have at least one women’s fight on every card — and two would be better — if the promotion wants to see its investment in the divisions really grow and flourish.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Challands: The sleeper match-up for this card will be the lightweight bout between Mairbek Taisumov and Damir Hadzovic. Both of these guys are skilled finishers who are in their athletic prime, which always makes for a fun fight.
Taisumov is a top prospect in the UFC. He has only one loss within the Octagon since making his debut in 2014. During that time, he’s managed to notch up a “Performance of the Night” bonus with his knockout of Alan Patrick, the 13th knockout or TKO of his career.
Taisumov is a versatile striker and a clear threat on the feet. Not to be considered one dimensional, though, he is also very skilled on the mat, where he has earned nine submission finishes. Takedown defense is the one area where he does fall short. While I can’t see this fight necessarily going to the ground against someone like Hadzovic, it is a chink in Taisumov’s armor.
Hadzovic is making his debut for the UFC. He is currently on a six-fight winning streak, with four finishes. Hadzovic, like most debutants, will be very keen to make a good impression on the UFC brass and won’t want to leave any stone unturned. Expect him to stand and trade with Taisumov and put on a memorable show for the fans.
Let the fireworks begin.
Henderson: I will admit that my pick here has as much to do with nicknames as it does the match-up. How can I possibly resist naming a battle between the “Silverback” and the “Killa Gorilla” as the fight to watch?
In all seriousness, while I don’t see either of these men moving on to an eventual title berth in the UFC, I do see a lot of potential for an entertaining scrap between big men here. Asker, the “Silverback” in this battle of ape-themed nicknames, has seen the scorecards in just a quarter of his fights. Cannonier, the “Killa Gorilla,” has gone the distance on just one occasion.
These guys look for finishes, which should make for an entertaining first heavyweight fight of the evening.
Pair this card with…
Henderson: Polka music and Sunday brunch. This is the UFC’s first trip to Croatia, which happens to be right next door to Slovenia, where my mother was born and grew up. In fact, the last time I visited our family there — I was nine years old at the time — Slovenia and Croatia were part of the same country. My mom inundated me with polka music from her homeland in my youth, and that’s one of my biggest associations when I think of this region of Europe. Meanwhile, the location also means that this will be an afternoon event Stateside. So, chow down on some brunch and watch a bunch of big men punch each other in the face to a soundtrack of polka music on a Sunday afternoon.
Challands: Coffee. And lots of it. For those of us not lucky enough to be in Europe or the United States, this card is going to be showcased literally in the middle of the night! Let’s just hope that given the number of heavyweights on display, we see plenty of quick finishes. Wait, this is a Fox card, isn’t it? Scratch that.
Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 2 p.m. ET)
HW: Ben Rothwell vs. Junior dos Santos
HW: Derrick Lewis vs. Gabriel Gonzaga
HW: Curtis Blaydes vs. Francis Zavier Ngannou
HW: Timothy Johnson vs. Marcin Tybura
LHW: Igor Pokrajac vs. Jan Blachowicz
Women’s StrawW: Maryna Moroz vs. Cristina Stanciu
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 12 p.m. ET)
WW: Nicolas Dalby vs. Zak Cummings
LW: Mairbek Taisumov vs. Damir Hadzovic
BW: Ian Entwistle vs. Alejandro Perez
BW: Filip Pejić vs. Damian Stasiak
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 10:30 a.m. ET)
FW: Robert Whiteford vs. Lucas Martins
HW: Cyril Asker vs. Jared Cannonier
WW: Bojan Velickovic vs. Alessio Di Chirico
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