It was Dec. 13, 2014. UFC on Fox 13. The main card wasn’t underway yet. Instead, two future headliners were battling it out in the top-billed fight of the prelims. The eventual contentious winner would go on to fight for a title. The loser would only fight once more in the next year and a half. Now, they meet again.
Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Claudia Gadelha.
Jędrzejczyk, a Polish kickboxer, was the controversial victor that evening. She punished Gadelha for every takedown attempt and tagged the Brazilian on the feet. It was enough to give Jędrzejczyk the split decision and a future date with Carla Esparza, who reigned over the women’s strawweight division at the time. Jędrzejczyk defeated Esparza to capture the crown and went on to defend it twice.
Meanwhile, Gadelha went back to the drawing board. The Brazilian, who had been forced out of numerous fights during her stays in Invicta FC, was forced out of her next UFC fight with a back injury. Finally, in August 2015, she returned to action and outworked top strawweight Jessica Aguilar. It was an impressive victory and enough to put Gadelha in line for a crack at the belt.
Following a coaching stint on The Ultimate Fighter 23, the pair will now collide in the headlining bout of the TUF 23 Finale. Gadelha’s team dominated the TUF 23 tournaments, leaving Jędrzejczyk with just one finalist slot out of four. Can the Brazilian dominate her rival coach in the Octagon as well?
The women’s strawweight title tilt serves as the main event for a card that also features the UFC debut of former Bellator lightweight champion Will Brooks. In addition, the UFC will crown two more The Ultimate Fighter winners when TUF 23’s men’s light heavyweight and women’s strawweight brackets are resolved.
The main card will air live on Fox Sports 1 at 10 p.m. ET. The preliminary card airs on UFC Fight Pass. Combat Press writers Rob Tatum and Bryan Henderson preview the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
In late 2014, Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Claudia Gadelha went the three-round distance in a fight Jędrzejczyk won by split decision. Will this fight be just as close, or will one of these fighters post a much more decisive victory in the rematch?
Tatum: Of course we have to go back to the pair’s UFC on Fox 13 match-up when talking about this fight. That night in Phoenix, the pair engaged in a hard-fought, back-and-forth affair that resulted in a fair amount of controversy. In fact, based on the data collected by MMA Decisions, 12 out 14 media members scored the fight in favor of the Brazilian Gadelha. I was one of three writers that gave Gadelha every round, while some felt that Jędrzejczyk’s flash knockdown of the Brazilian earned at least one round. Add that result to the pair’s recent stint coaching The Ultimate Fighter and the table is set for one hell of a title fight.
Since that first meeting, Jędrzejczyk captured UFC gold with a complete destruction of former Invicta champion Carla Esparza. She followed it by beating another Invicta titleholder — albeit at atomweight — in Jessica Penne. Finally, she went the full 25 minutes with Canadian Valérie Létourneau. In each of these fights, Jędrzejczyk showcased a superior striking attack, rarely letting the challengers mount any offense. The Polish fighter’s biggest success has come by using her length and firing with volume.
Gadelha, meanwhile, has fought just once since the questionable loss. However, it came against former World Series of Fighting champion and former No. 1-ranked strawweight Jessica Aguilar. Gadelha thoroughly dominated Aguilar, validating her status as the No. 1 contender to Jędrzejczyk’s belt.
On paper, this is a striker-vs.-grappler match-up, but against Aguilar, Gadelha’s striking was her biggest weapon. The question I have is whether she can build on that against Jędrzejczyk, or will she use her superior ground game to slow Jędrzejczyk’s high-volume attack? The other concern for Gadelha is that this fight is five rounds. While she’s gone the distance in six of her 14 fights, she’s never gone 25 minutes. If she can’t put Jędrzejczyk away, will she fade in the championship rounds? She has gone on record stating that she’s reeled in the amount of weight she’s cutting, but until there’s evidence of her cardio holding up, it remains an uncertainty.
Even though I scored the first meeting for Gadelha, I won’t argue that it was a close fight. Jędrzejczyk is clearly the better striker, but Gadelha has shown significant improvement in that area. Gadelha is one of the strongest fighters in the division and her grappling game is on a different level from Jędrzejczyk. As long as Gadelha’s cardio holds up, she’s going to prove that she’s the best strawweight on the planet. Look for her to take the title by unanimous decision, minus any controversy.
Henderson: Let’s start with my colleague’s questions. Which route will Gadelha go, striking or grappling? Well, a strong striking showing against someone like Aguilar is one thing, but now the Brazilian is set to meet a Polish fighter who can be a real killer on the feet. If Gadelha is smart, she’ll look to expose Jędrzejczyk’s weaknesses on the mat rather than rolling the dice in a stand-up war with a highly decorated Muay Thai practitioner and kickboxer who has four knockout wins as a mixed martial artist. Will Gadelha fade in the championship rounds? Quite possible.
The one thing of note in their first meeting — and quite likely the reason Jędrzejczyk took the controversial decision — is how well Jędrzejczyk performed in dishing out punishment even while she was playing defense. Gadelha worked hard to get takedowns throughout the fight. They came frequently for the Brazilian in round three especially. However, almost every time the Brazilian took her opponent down, that opponent was quick to return to her feet. Furthermore, while Gadelha worked for takedown, Jędrzejczyk delivered knees, landed strikes and, on occasion, reversed positions against the fence.
This alone is cause for concern. Yes, Gadelha has improved her stand-up game, but she’s going to be overmatched by Jędrzejczyk in this department. Then, she’s going to get punished when she shoots for takedowns. If she lands the takedowns, she’s going to be faced with a fighter who seemingly bounces back to her feet as quickly as she falls. Gadelha still managed quite a strong performance, but the third round featured a number of those short-lived takedowns. Now, imagine two more rounds of this. Gadelha might continue to score takedowns, but Jędrzejczyk’s response will cause the challenger to fade, due both to the effort she has to put forth to score the takedown and the body blows she endures in the process.
Gadelha is undoubtedly one of the best strawweights on the planet, but Jędrzejczyk seems to be her perfect foil. The champ is too much for Gadelha on the feet, and she’s likely too slippery on the mat as well. Jędrzejczyk’s going to retain the belt, but we can count on another hard-fought, back-and-forth affair that results in a razor-thin decision.
Ross Pearson is set to welcome former Bellator lightweight champion Will Brooks into the UFC fold. Is Brooks in for the same type of rude welcome Eddie Alvarez, another former Bellator champ, received upon his Octagon debut, or can Brooks immediately impress without any adjustment period?
Henderson: So far, Brooks has only gone down courtesy of a 43-second knockout at the hands of Saad Awad. Pearson does have a couple of stoppage victories via strikes, but he’s no lightweight equivalent of Dan Henderson. In other words, Brooks isn’t likely to get finished in his Octagon debut.
That doesn’t answer the entire question, though. Pearson is a scrappy UFC veteran who has shared the eight-sided cage with the likes of Diego Sanchez, Cub Swanson, Francisco Trinaldo and Chad Laprise, among others. He’s won some tough fights and should have won others (see: the aforementioned Sanchez). He’s not going to roll over and give Brooks an easy win, and that’s probably why the UFC paired him with the star newcomer.
While Pearson can hang with tough opponents and even earn some wins, Brooks seems to have something special. He’s rolled past Michael Chandler twice, and he also holds wins over Alexander Sarnavskiy and Marcin Held. This is a wrestler who avoided Held’s submissions for 25 minutes and finished Chandler in their second meeting. Pearson will be a great first test, but Brooks has the wrestling and knockout power to get the job done.
He’ll ride into the UFC a little more smoothly than Alvarez did, but let’s not forget that Alvarez was greeted by Donald Cerrone. That’s a contender we’re talking about. Pearson isn’t quite at that level.
Tatum: Yes, there’s a pretty wide gap between Cerrone and Pearson. It’s not that Pearson isn’t going to be a worthwhile opponent for Brooks, but this match-up allows the UFC to put some marketing behind Brooks and introduce him to casual fans. Unlike Alvarez, who was essentially thrown to the wolves, Brooks has the chance to get over any Octagon jitters in a very winnable fight.
That’s not to say that Brooks can come out guns blazing. Pearson has some heavy hands, as evidenced by his knockout wins over the likes of Gray Maynard and Sam Stout. Where he has struggled is against fighters who can easily switch between striking and wrestling. That happens to be where Brooks excels.
As long as Brooks isn’t overlooking Pearson because he’s got his mind on a title shot, this should be a great showcase fight for the former Bellator champion. He should be able to mix in some well-timed takedowns and outwork Pearson, all the while making a solid first impression on UFC fans and the rest of the lightweight division.
Gray Maynard and John Moraga stand out as two names lower in the lineup who were once contenders. Each man is welcoming their opponent to a new weight class. Are these guys stepping stones for the prospects they’re fighting, or is this the UFC’s way of working Maynard and Moraga back into contention?
Tatum: In the case of Maynard, contention for what? A pink slip? It’s amazing to see how far Maynard has fallen. I can remember being cageside for his battle with Frankie Edgar at UFC 125 and thinking how close he had come to a lightweight championship. Since that night, he’s lost four straight fights and is 1-5 with four losses by knockout. And even his lone win, which came against Clay Guida, was questionable (side note: that was one of the worst fights, well, ever). Now Maynard is dropping a weight class? Who thought this was a good idea? He was a large fighter at lightweight and now he’s shedding an additional 10 pounds. The only solace for Maynard is that his opponent, Fernando Bruno, has zero knockouts on his resume. This fight has all the makings of a grinding grappling affair. If Maynard can’t find the win, he’s definitely fought in the Octagon for the last time. If he comes out on top, it’s likely time for him to ride off into the sunset. No matter which division he’s fighting in, Maynard just has too big of a hill to climb to ever be called a contender again.
Moraga, on the other hand, has a total of four losses on his resume. The opponents in those fights were UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, Joseph Benavidez and John Dodson (twice). That’s the cream of the crop of the flyweight division. He has no reason to be ashamed. Not to mention, he’s won two of his last three fights, both by submission. He faces a tougher opponent in Matheus Nicolau than Maynard has in Bruno, but what is really blocking his path back to contention is the dominance of the aforementioned Johnson. Until Johnson either moves up in weight or is unseated, there won’t be many people screaming for another Moraga title shot anytime soon.
Back to the question at hand, a win for Bruno gives his record some name value, but a win over the current version of Maynard means very little. I won’t be shocked if Maynard ekes out a decision and then retires from the sport, but Bruno likely outworks him. Again, Moraga has a tougher test in Nicolau, but Moraga’s level of competition will be the difference. He tops the young Brazilian by third-round TKO, but stays in the middle of the pack at 125 pounds.
Henderson: These former contenders have been shackled with the task of handling a pair of Nova União upstarts from opposite ends of the age spectrum. Maynard draws a 34-year-old The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 4 runner-up in Bruno, whereas Moraga is up against a 23-year-old whose only loss came to experienced foe Pedro Nobre.
Maynard’s fall has indeed been an extreme one. This guy was near the top of the lightweight ladder when he was fighting Edgar, but now the 37-year-old can’t seem to find the win column. His last victory came in 2012, and his last victory before that came prior to his set of fights with Edgar. Maynard is slipping. His chin seems to be entirely gone, and he’s too willing to spend time on the feet rather than looking for a takedown. It’s true that Bruno doesn’t have a single knockdown to his credit — and this includes the fights in his TUF stint — but he won’t hesitate to swing for the fences. And against Maynard, he might find an easier time landing those home-run shots. Maynard will have to use his wrestling to floor Bruno and then lay it on heavy with ground-and-pound. Bruno is a skilled grappler, though, so Maynard won’t be entirely out of trouble if the fight does go the ground. Either way, the aging veteran has his work cut out for him.
When it comes to Moraga, I have to say that I haven’t been entirely impressed. Yes, he’s only lost to the cream of the crop, but I don’t see anything there that screams that he’ll be a top contender even if Johnson leaves the flyweight division. He’s a great gatekeeper to the top tier, but that’s probably his ceiling inside the Octagon. However, I, too, feel that Moraga’s experience against the likes of Johnson, Benavidez and Dodson says a lot about his abilities compared to a relative newcomer like Nicolau. The 23-year-old has torn through almost all of his competition, but he hasn’t been in the cage with someone as well rounded and successful as Moraga. Nicolau has a promising future in the UFC, but this will be a learning experience for him.
Moraga does have a chance to make it back into title contention, sure, but it will be in the same sense as when Cheick Kongo continually made it into UFC heavyweight title contention. Both men are borderline upper-echelon guys, but they’re not truly a part of the elite. Maynard, meanwhile, is at the tail end of his career. So, both men might win at this TUF Finale, but only one of them has a possible future near the top.
TUF 23 marked the third installment of the reality show to feature female fighters. With the UFC having just two weight classes for women, it appears the promotion is using the show to find actual contenders, not just add divisional depth. Can any of the fighters on this season actually pose a threat to the show’s coaches in the Octagon?
Henderson: “Actual contenders”? Is that what we’re calling Amanda Cooper and Lanchana Green? Oh dear.
This isn’t about contenders, if you ask me. What we should be looking at is whether the UFC will have the patience to play developmental league to its TUF semifinalists and finalists.
Cooper, while she has shown promise, is just 1-1 officially as a pro and lost to Aspen Ladd by submission at Invicta FC 14. Green, much to the befuddlement of UFC President Dana White, once again demonstrated her completely obvious lack of a ground game in her loss to Cooper on the reality show. If Green scores a UFC contract, she could quite possibly be the first 0-1 fighter to ink a deal in the UFC’s modern era.
On the other side of the bracket, we do have a little more experience from the remaining semifinalists. Kate Jackson is 7-2-1 and has been in the cage with strawweight champ and TUF coach Joanna Jędrzejczyk. However, Jackson lost that contest via TKO and boasts no other top-tier opponents on her resume. Tatiana Suarez features the best winning percentage of any of the surviving contestants, but three fights on the regional circuit is hardly enough to put her on the radar in a strong division.
So, are we really looking at contenders here? I’m inclined to say we’re not. This isn’t about divisional depth, necessarily, but I think this could be about setting up fighters who could become “actual contenders” a couple of years down the road. That is, if the UFC is patient enough to hang onto these ladies through their growing pains as fighters.
Tatum: Well, when you put it like that, the term contender is certainly a stretch. However, the point here is that the strawweight division, for all of its talent, is lacking in clear-cut challengers for fighters like Jędrzejczyk and Gadelha. Jędrzejczyk has already faced a former atomweight in one of her title defenses and Gadelha steamrolled through a former consensus No. 1-ranked fighter. It’s not going to be long before they’ve added names like Joanne Calderwood, Rose Namajunas and Karolina Kowalkiewicz to their list of victims. So then what?
It’s easy to write off Green based on her performance in the semifinals. Her ground game is clearly a massive problem. But her opponent, Cooper, might be more promising. Let’s not forget that she’s a former flyweight, so she is going to be bigger and stronger than a fair amount of fighters at 115 pounds. Add that to her boxing experience and she could be someone that grows into a contender.
As for the remaining two fighters, Jackson has already been stopped by Jędrzejczyk, so it’s unlikely anyone is screaming for a rematch anytime soon. Suarez, though, is where I think TUF has its future title challenger. Yes, she’s had just three MMA fights prior to competing on the reality show, but she also has two decades of wrestling experience and accolades that no one else on the reality show — or in the division, for that matter — can match. She wrestled at Lindenwood University in Missouri and has already earned her purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
While I’m inclined to agree with my colleague that none of these fighters are ready to step in the cage with the champion or No. 1 contender right now, I won’t be surprised if Suarez challenges for UFC gold in the not-so-distance future.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Tatum: There are a lot of options on this card. You’ve got an enticing lightweight match-up between Australia’s Jake Matthews and Detroit native Kevin Lee. Or there’s the guaranteed violence that will ensue between middleweight Anthony Smith and Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira. However, I’m going to go with the featherweight clash between South Korea’s Doo Ho Choi and Brazilian Thiago Tavares.
Choi is probably not a household name to most fight fans. But he’s gained some popularity recently thanks to the second iteration of EA Sports’ UFC video-game franchise. Although the real-life version of Choi may not be the juggernaut that his computer-generated likeness is, he’s still one of the most promising fighters in the division. With 10 of his 13 wins coming via knockout and his lone loss coming by way of split decision, the 25-year-old has a bright future. The question is, can he handle a veteran like Tavares?
This fight will be the 18th Octagon appearance for Tavares. The 31-year-old has had some wars in his career, but he appears to have found a home at 145 pounds. His 39-second guillotine choke finish of Clay Guida opened some eyes, and now he’ll have the chance to derail Choi’s hype train. Despite a 2013 failed drug test for drostanolone, Tavares has won three of his last four and will be a great measuring stick to determine Choi’s place in the division.
Henderson: My colleague listed a great set of fights as sleeper candidates and yet a match-up of undefeateds still slipped through the cracks. OK, neither of these men ran away with the victory in their Octagon debuts, but let’s give them a little bit of slack. Rarely does a fighter perform at their best when faced with the overwhelming prospect of a UFC debut. Now that Andrew Holbrook and Joaquim Silva have those debuts out of the way, though, it’s time to get at least a little bit excited for their upcoming battle.
Holbrook probably doesn’t deserve his current unblemished mark. His UFC debut at UFC on Fox 16 came against the tough Ramsey Nijem. Nijem seemingly outworked Holbrook for three rounds, but the UFC newcomer took the split verdict. It wasn’t an impressive performance for Holbrook, for sure, but the 30-year-old came into the fight with nine submission wins and threw a lot of submission attempts at Nijem. Now, he should be more composed. If he’s not in a rush to go for submissions, perhaps he can be more effective in actually locking up the holds.
The 27-year-old Silva posted a competitive showing against Nazareno Malegarie at UFC 191. Where it could be said that Holbrook stole his UFC debut win, Silva earned his in a close affair. The Evolução Thai product is at home on his feet, but his record contains a balanced set of four striking stoppages and three submission victories. Silva chose to stand with Malegarie, and he pressed the action enough to earn the split nod.
These guys barely held onto their perfect records through their UFC debuts, but one of them will have to suffer their first loss in this contest. Holbrook will be hunting for submissions, and Silva will likely opt to test Holbrook’s weakest aspect on the feet. With a combined 17 finishes in 19 fights, these guys should combine for a fun outing that doesn’t require the judges.
Pair this card with…
Henderson: Your DVR. International Fight Week can take its toll on even the most avid of MMA fans. We’re talking about three full fight cards within three days (and that doesn’t count the last episode of TUF, which technically makes it four straight nights with fights if you insist on watching everything live). This is the middle card in the UFC’s mega-weekend of events, but only the top two fights truly warrant live viewing. Take a breather on Friday night, set your DVR, tune in for the big fights and then save the remainder of the card to watch before UFC 200 kicks off on Saturday. This will allow for quick viewing, thanks to a fast-forward button that negates the UFC’s shoddy pacing and the need to watch those Farmers Only commercials, and it’ll give you and your friends an appetizer before the weekend’s biggest event takes place on Saturday night.
Tatum: Well, to my colleague’s point, this event is certainly better suited for diehard MMA fans. But that doesn’t mean you should skip it. If you don’t have the luxury of a DVR and are forced to watch the usual one-fight-per-30-minutes pacing on Fox Sports 1, get creative and start your own drinking game.
I don’t think you’ll get Mike Goldberg and the obvious triggers like “virtually identical” or “embrace the grind” — now you have an idea of how to stay entertained during UFC 200 — but if the stars align, maybe you’ll get to hear Goldberg mispronounce Jędrzejczyk over and over throughout the event. If that’s the case, you might not want to indulge every time he says it wrong or you might not make it to the main event.
That said, my guess is that you’ll get the always excellent combination of Jon Anik and Brian Stann (“Stanik”), but that doesn’t mean you can’t find some solid triggers to have a sip of an adult beverage. How about when Anik refers to Stann as “the greatest living American”? Or when Stann says he has trained with one of the fighters in the cage?
Regardless of who the announcing team is on Friday night, have a good time, but make sure you save some energy for Saturday’s pay-per-view card.
Bonus Question: There are still TUF semifinal fights remaining before the TUF 23 Finale event. On the men’s side, Josh Stansbury and Khalil Rountree are fighting for the right to advance on to the final opposite Andrew Sanchez. On the women’s side, it’s Tatiana Suarez and Kate Jackson who will vie for a finale date with Amanda Cooper. So, quick prediction time. Who wins each semifinal? Who ultimately wins the finals?
Tatum: On the men’s side, you’ve got the more experienced Stansbury against a fairly green Rountree. If not for a fluke injury on TUF 19, Stansbury might already be in the UFC. I’ll take his well-rounded skill set to best Rountree’s power and explosiveness and move onto the finals.
In the finals, it’s hard to ignore the wrestling credentials and underrated ground game of Sanchez. He’s looked fantastic, both on the feet and the mat, throughout the entire season. His record is misleading because he’s finished so many fights with strikes, but it’s his wrestling that will allow him to dictate where the fight with Stansbury takes place. Once on the ground, look for Sanchez to exploit the one weakness in Stansbury’s game and claim TUF 23 by second-round rear-naked choke.
As for the women, Jackson has more experience and has faced tougher competition, but she lacks the wrestling chops of Suarez. She’s a four-time high school champion and a two-time medalist at the Worlds in freestyle. Unless Jackson hits a hail-mary submission, expect Suarez to take her down at will and beat her up en route to the last spot in the finals.
If things play out as I described, the final on the women’s side will pit an experienced boxer in Cooper against Suarez, one of the better female wrestlers at 115 pounds. Cooper has a ton of grit, but she was ragdolled by Aspen Ladd in the Invicta cage — this is likely what prompted her to drop to strawweight — and I wouldn’t anticipate anything different against Suarez. Suarez captures the women’s side of TUF 23 with a lopsided decision win.
Henderson: The men’s side of the bracket looks ultra-competitive this time around. Stansbury does have a well-rounded skill set, but his chin failed him at the amateur level against Stipe Miocic. While Rountree is quite a step down from the reigning UFC heavyweight champion, he does pack a lot of power in his hands. I’ll give him the knockout nod over Stansbury in the semis.
That puts Rountree into the finals opposite Sanchez. My colleague has already touched on Sanchez’s underrated ground game, and that lack of respect for Sanchez’s skills seemed evident early on in the TUF season. Sanchez wasn’t presented as a heavy favorite throughout the show, but he probably should have been. He decisioned Myron Dennis and knocked out Eric Spicely en route to the finals, and he’ll present a ton of problems for either Rountree or Stansbury. No matter the opponent, Sanchez will emerge with the victory in the finals.
On the women’s side, Jackson does have the experience, but it’s hardly a resume that’s going to turn heads. She suffered a loss to Jędrzejczyk and dropped a decision to former prospect Hanna Sillen. In the win column, she has tangled with a string of fighters who hover around the .500 mark and have five or fewer fights under their belt. Suarez hasn’t done much better in terms of level of competition, but her aforementioned wrestling credentials are a true difference maker. Jackson is a European fighter who had seen only European foes before her time on TUF. Wrestling is the kryptonite for many a European fighter, and Suarez will prove as much in the semifinals with a decisive victory over Jackson.
Suarez has a tougher task ahead of her in the finals. Cooper is a strong boxer who has fought on American shores. However, Cooper hasn’t exactly demonstrated an ability to handle wrestlers either. Ladd took her to task in their Invicta contest. Furthermore, she has an amateur loss against Al-Lanna Jones, a fighter who has managed only a 2-7 mark as a pro. Cooper had difficulty making weight for her semifinal bout on the show, and while she might be a big strawweight, she could be one of those fighters who benefits more from a move up in weight than a move down. Suarez should be able to use her wrestling against a drained Cooper en route to a decision win and the TUF strawweight crown.
Women’s StrawW Championship: Joanna Jędrzejczyk vs. Claudia Gadelha
LHW TUF Tournament Final: Andrew Sanchez vs. Khalil Rountree
Women’s StrawW TUF Tournament Final: Amanda Bobby Cooper vs. Tatiana Suarez
LW: Will Brooks vs. Ross Pearson
FW: Thiago Tavares vs. Doo Ho Choi
LW: Andrew Holbrook vs. Joaquim Silva
FW: Gray Maynard vs. Fernando Bruno
FlyW: John Moraga vs. Matheus Nicolau
LHW: Cory Hendricks vs. Josh Stansbury
MW: Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira vs. Anthony Smith
LW: Jake Matthews vs. Kevin Lee
WW: Anton Zafir vs. Jingliang Li
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