International Fight Week is upon us, boys and girls. It’s that time year when the UFC pulls out all the stops during the summer months to give us an entire week of terrific fights and activities. This year, International Fight Week is building up to the biggest card in the UFC’s history, UFC 200. But before we can enjoy that jam-packed card, other quality fights will be shown to fans all over the world, including only the second-ever title fight shown exclusively on UFC Fight Pass.
The main event of this Fight Pass-only UFC Fight Night 90 card delivers a lightweight title fight between Rafael dos Anjos and Eddie Alvarez. The champion, dos Anjos, was supposed to defend his title against featherweight champ Conor McGregor at UFC 196 in March, but dos Anjos was sidelined by a foot injury. Now that he’s fully recovered, he needs a new opponent since McGregor decided to just skip an entire weight class and move all the way up to welterweight.
Enter Alvarez. The former Bellator lightweight champion joined the UFC with much fanfare in 2014 and gave Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone all he could handle in Alvarez’s first UFC fight, which ended in a decision loss. Since then, Alvarez has rattled off victories against Gilbert Melendez and former UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis to receive a title shot.
Can Alvarez become the first fighter to hold titles in both the UFC and Bellator? Will dos Anjos continue his recent run of dominant performances and begin entering the conversation of the pound-for-pound best fighters in the world?
The UFC Fight Pass broadcast begins with the preliminary card at 6:30 p.m. ET and continues with the main card at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Zach Aittama seek to answer the above questions and more in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Eddie Alvarez, long thought to be the best lightweight not in the UFC, now gets his crack at becoming the best lightweight in the UFC. Will he succeed?
Aittama: Eddie Alvarez, UFC lightweight champion. Those are words I never thought I would hear when the Philly native signed with Bellator in 2009. It’s not that I thought he could never compete at the upper echelon of the lightweight division — Alvarez is one of the top lightweights to ever compete in MMA — but I truly never thought I would see the day Alvarez made his way to the UFC.
Alvarez impressed early and often in his career before making his way to the bigger shows of the time. After advancing to the finals of the Dream lightweight grand prix, he sustained an injury that led to the postponement of his fight with Shinya Aoki. Alvarez eventually lost to the submission specialist when Aoki wrapped up a heel hook in just over 90 seconds. The setback was just Alvarez’s second loss in 17 bouts. He immediately got back in the win column after taking home the inaugural Bellator lightweight tournament and subsequent marquee showdowns. Alvarez claimed his 21st career win against former Bellator featherweight champion Pat Curran before facing off with the undefeated Michael Chandler. Chandler locked up the rear-naked choke in the fourth round in a shocking upset after what was considered one of the best fights in 2011. Alvarez took the loss in stride, knocking out the aforementioned Aoki and Patricky Freire in his next two bouts.
Alvarez’s next fight came after signing with the UFC on an eight-fight deal. Unfortunately, the showdown happened in the courtroom and not the Octagon. Alvarez’s long-awaited UFC debut was put on hold when Bellator remained in control of Alvarez’s services. In a move that seemed to backfire for the Bjorn Rebney-run Bellator, Alvarez got his revenge on Chandler after another phenomenal championship bout in 2013. A scheduled third bout between the budding rivals never came to fruition when Rebney was let go, presumably to Mexico, and former Strikeforce head Scott Coker was brought in to run the promotion. Will Brooks, now a UFC fighter himself, stepped in to fight Chandler in Alvarez’s place, throwing a wrench in the plans of the promotion when he won the interim lightweight title. With the aura of the Chandler-Alvarez trilogy fading, Coker and the promotion gave Alvarez his release from the promotion in August 2014.
Alvarez hit a setback in his Octagon debut against former UFC title challenger Donald Cerrone. In his first contract with the promotion, Alvarez was scheduled to make his first appearance in the promotion in a lightweight title bout. That contract didn’t work out, though, so the best lightweight outside of the UFC had to fight his way to a title. The loss to Cerrone didn’t drop Alvarez too far back, however. He fought Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez in his next bout and took home the decision victory in Mexico after a close fight. Alvarez met former UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis next. Alvarez used his superior wrestling and grappling ability to control Pettis, keeping the dangerous striker out of his preferred comfort zone.
Now, here we are, nearly two years later, and Alvarez is fighting for the UFC lightweight title.
Rafael dos Anjos won’t be phased by the accolades, record and fighting style of Alvarez. The Kings MMA product has slowly built one of the most impressive runs in UFC lightweight history behind wins over Pettis, Cerrone (twice), Nate Diaz (twice) and Benson Henderson. Not only has dos Anjos continuously found himself in the win column, but he has dominated almost every fighter in his path. Alvarez will be another large obstacle to overcome.
The beauty of this fight is that it could seemingly take place in any aspect of the sport, or in every aspect. Both men are high-level grapplers with a knack for trading kicks and punches in the pocket. Alvarez has found himself in trouble in his past fights, getting dropped more times than could be counted with two hands (and maybe two feet), but he has shown time and time again that he can fight past any adversity thrown in front of him and come out victorious. I don’t know if the same can be said for dos Anjos. The Brazilian champion has run through his past few opponents, but the last time he was met with adversity, he lost. The undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov took a decision from dos Anjos in the middle of his impressive 11-fight run with only one loss.
Alvarez is a strong wrestler, but he doesn’t nearly have the technical aptitude of Nurmagomedov. Dos Anjos will have an edge on the mat as one of the top grapplers in the division and a longtime Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt. Dos Anjos has shown incredible improvement under Rafael Cordeiro. His striking pressure made former champions crumble in under five minutes. However, Alvarez won’t take a backward step, whether he engages dos Anjos on the feet or the ground.
This is a moment the hardcore fans have been waiting for, no matter how the fight plays out. Alvarez has been a huge fan-favorite for a very long time. It feels good to see him finally getting his shot to become the best lightweight in the world. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Alvarez get his hand raised after a closely contested bout, but the safer bet is dos Anjos. He has the all of the tools to prey on the weaknesses of Alvarez, and I believe he does so in a convincing manner.
Huntemann: Geez, I hate having to follow my colleague’s responses. He always writes a friggin’ tome, every single time, and leaves me with nothing but the scraps. Sigh. I’ll do my very best to contribute to this discussion, but once again I’ve been beaten to basically everything I wanted to say.
Alvarez is knocking on the door of being the best lightweight in the UFC. He’s certainly improved over the course of his UFC career. When he debuted against Cerrone in 2014, it looked like Alvarez was a little overwhelmed by the bright lights of the big stage. That is perfectly understandable. The UFC is a huge step up from Bellator, both in competition and in the overall experience.
Alvarez went toe-to-toe with Melendez, and it was every bit as entertaining as you would expect out of a fight between two tough guys who just love throw down and scrap. Alvarez’s toughness was on full display in that contest, and he followed up with a dominating performance against Pettis earlier this year.
However, there are other contenders breathing down Alvarez’s neck to stake their claim as the best lightweight in the UFC. Though he’s battled injuries for the better part of the last two to three years, the aforementioned Nurmagomedov is viewed as an almost unbeatable lightweight when he’s at 100 percent. And there’s Tony Ferguson, who is on an absolute tear, having only lost once in the last four years and having won his last seven fights.
If Alvarez takes the title from dos Anjos, then yes, you can call him the best lightweight in the UFC. But his reign as champion and as the best lightweight in the UFC may not last very long when he sees who will still be waiting for him.
Roy Nelson and Derrick Lewis are two heavyweights with big power, but can either put together a more complete package to contend for the heavyweight belt in the future?
Huntemann: Anyone who pays attention to anything I say — which likely isn’t very many people, let’s just admit it — knows that I’m not the biggest Roy Nelson fan. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a solid fighter. But I never got what his appeal is with fans, beyond his appearance. Yeah, Nelson has great hands and can be counted on to deliver an entertaining performance. But facts are facts, and when he has squared off against the upper tier of the UFC’s heavyweight division, Nelson has come up short. His best wins are probably his knockout of Stefan Struve in 40 seconds or the knockout of a clearly past-his-prime Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira.
What I’m saying is, Lewis has more upside here and is more capable of becoming a contender at heavyweight. He’s gone 6-2 so far in the UFC, and every one of his fights, win or lose, has resulted in a knockout. He’s won three in a row, including a first-round knockout of Gabriel Gonzaga in his last fight.
Nelson will be a good test for Lewis. Nelson is the very definition of a gatekeeper. He’s not a contender himself, but he can help determine if Lewis is ready for the next step up the ladder in the UFC heavyweight division. I think he is.
Aittama: Nelson is a fighter who, despite his inconsistencies, has only lost to the upper echelon of the heavyweight division. Nelson put together his career-best performances what seems like years and years ago, but “Big Country” has had flashes in the proverbial pan. He’ll need to break out the eggs, the bacon and a little smash — I mean hash — if he expects to fry the expectations of “The Black Beast.”
Lewis is a rare commodity at heavyweight. He is a heavy-hitting big guy with finishing power, but that’s not what makes him a rare commodity. Power punching is at a premium in the UFC’s heaviest division. What makes Lewis’s run unique in modern heavyweight MMA is that he is on the better side of 35 years of age. Despite being already into his 30s, Lewis is one of the youngest heavyweights making his way up the rankings. He is sitting at 12th in the latest UFC rankings. Of the fighters sitting in front of him in the heavyweight ranks, he is the youngest fighter by almost two years. Only Stipe Miocic and Travis Browne, at the spry age of 33, are even close.
Lewis’s three-fight winning streak is also one more piece of the puzzle to what makes this fight so exciting. He is one of the few heavyweights moving up the ladder without taking significant setback losses on his journey through the rankings. Nelson returned to the win column in his most recent outing by out-striking Jared Rosholt in a less-than-thrilling affair. He won’t have to contend with a decorated wrestler in Lewis, but he will certainly have his chin tested by a man who has finished all six of his UFC wins.
Don’t count out Nelson’s ability to land his own right hand, but Lewis should have the tools to pull out the victory with a series of heavy shots that forces the referee to stop the bout.
Much was made when the UFC signed “Irish” Joe Duffy in 2014. After all, he was the last person before Nate Diaz to defeat Conor McGregor. There was even talk of Duffy eventually squaring off against McGregor once again under the UFC banner. However, Duffy was defeated by Dustin Poirier earlier this year, seemingly halting his momentum in the process. But is it still too early to write off “Irish” Joe? Or was there really anything there to write off to start with?
Aittama: This answer is pretty simple, so I’ll keep it short and to the point. Not only is Duffy a fighter that has already broken into the top 50 or so fighters in the deepest division in MMA, but he has yet to reach his full potential.
Duffy stepped away from the sport in 2011 to pursue a professional boxing career. He returned to MMA in 2014 with two wins inside the Cage Warriors cage before making his much-anticipated UFC debut in 2015. With two wins inside of the Octagon, Duffy earned a UFC Fight Pass headliner opposite Poirier in his home country of Ireland. Unfortunately, the fight was postponed when Duffy suffered a training injury at the Tristar gym in the week leading up to the fight.
The fight eventually came together as the featured UFC Fight Pass prelim on UFC 195. If not for the incredible “Fight of the Year” contender between Robbie Lawler and Carlos Condit in the evening’s main event, Poirier and Duffy would have won “Fight of the Night” honors. Duffy didn’t quite have enough to topple over his first top-10 opponent. That setback doesn’t mean the fans should write off Duffy, and it certainly doesn’t mean Duffy was in any way overrated. I believe the outcome of the fight has more to do with the major improvements Poirier has made to his game since he was defeated by the aforementioned McGregor at UFC 178.
Duffy is a fighter who will continue to improve as he gains more experience in the Octagon. The loss will be beneficial for Duffy in the long run as he gets back in the cage with another strong lightweight. Mitch Clarke will attempt to put Duffy’s aspirations to bed in what should be a scrappy, gritty affair. The Canadian lightweight has shown improvements in his past UFC bouts after getting mixed results since joining the promotion in 2011. Clarke shouldn’t be written off either, as he showed in his third-round submission upset of top lightweight Al Iaquinta. With that said, you won’t find many people getting behind the underdog in this bout. Duffy gets it done and gets some of his detractors back on the hype train.
Huntemann: Do you remember when read-option quarterbacks were all the rage in the NFL a few years ago, thanks to players like Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson? Teams went searching high and low for quarterbacks who could run and throw and keep defenses guessing. Besides Wilson, not many of those players had a long run of success.
This is where I find similarities with Duffy. He got caught up in the wave of attention that has come down on Irish fighters, thanks to the success of McGregor. Now, many people think that Ireland is a breeding ground of MMA fighters that has yet to be tapped. I’m just not sure that’s the case. At least not yet.
Don’t get me wrong. Duffy is a talented fighter. You don’t make it to the UFC if you’re not, regardless of which country you hail from. But there was probably a reason Ireland wasn’t really seen as a hotbed of talent before McGregor came along. Are there talented fighters in Ireland? I have no doubt there are. But world-beaters? The jury is still very much out.
Duffy looked very impressive in winning his first two UFC fights against Jake Lindsey and Ivan Jorge, fighters with solid records. But once Duffy experienced a step up in competition against Poirier earlier this year, he came up on the short end in fairly convincing fashion. Duffy has the potential to be a good fighter — maybe even a champion — in the UFC, but let’s pump the brakes a little. He ain’t there yet.
Alan Jouban has been the measuring stick for the welterweight division since debuting in 2014. He is up against Belal Muhammad, another up-and-coming welterweight, on Thursday night. Can Jouban keep his place as the gatekeeper for the top half of the division, or will Muhammad build on his impressive Titan FC title win with a victory in his UFC debut?
Huntemann: Is it really fair to call Jouban a gatekeeper? In my view, a gatekeeper is a fighter who either experienced glory once upon a time, but is now on the downswing of his/her career, or a fighter who seems to hit a ceiling that he/she can’t quite break through. I’m not sure either of those descriptions fits Jouban.
“Brahma” has a solid 4-2 record in the UFC and is coming off a first-round knockout victory in just over two minutes in March. He is a fighter on the rise. His two losses came to the always dangerous Albert Tumenov and solid prospect Warlley Alves. However, Jouban will face a stiff test in Muhammad.
Muhammad’s TKO victory over savvy veteran Steve Carl in Titan FC opened a lot of eyes. Muhammad is definitely a rising prospect and will be a steep challenge for Jouban. I don’t expect either guy to give an inch. This fight is a definite sleeper.
Jouban toughs it out and emerges the victor and as someone to reckon with in the welterweight division.
Aittama: Yes, Jouban is a fighter still on the rise, in the sense that he has more strong performances in his future. However, he is a gatekeeper in the sense that he has defeated the fighters he was supposed to beat and lost to the top up-and-coming prospects in the welterweight division. It’s not a bad place to be for a skilled fighter. Yet, as a 34-year-old, he might be stuck here for awhile.
Jouban has put together an impressive record with four wins in the UFC. He isn’t done performing at a high level, but he is pretty close to being a finished product. Fighters can and have continued to add technical ability as they age, but many fighters with an athletic style tend to hit their peak and lose steam pretty quickly once their athletic gifts begin to subside.
I don’t believe that’s the case for Jouban yet, but Muhammad is going to test that theory on Thursday night. Muhammad impressed in 19 minutes of work against Bellator and World Series of Fighting veteran Carl to win the Titan FC welterweight title. His most recent performance wasn’t the only solid performance in his undefeated career. Muhammad’s diverse offensive attack and well-rounded game led him to victories over Bellator veterans A.J. Matthews, Garrett Gross and Quinton McCottrell.
My colleague and many others believe Jouban will leave the Octagon victorious on Thursday night. I don’t. Muhammad will bring the fight to Jouban quickly, and will certainly do everything in his power to put Jouban away in under three rounds. This fight should be one of the best of the night.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Aittama: The clear-cut sleeper fight is the bantamweight showdown between Anthony Birchak and Dileno Lopes. There are other solid fights on the undercard, including a match-up of bantamweights Russell Doane and Pedro Munhoz that should be particularly exciting. The best fight far and away, though, is the potential scrap between Birchak and Lopes, a man who throws heavy leather.
Birchak is a skilled offensive fighter with a knack for the MMA game on the feet and the ground. The same can be said for Lopes, who has a relentless pace to his game. Lopes lost in The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 4 finale to Reginaldo Vieira, but the judges could have mixed up the names when reading the scorecards. The only other defeat for Lopes in 21 fights was at the hands of former ONE Championship flyweight champion Adriano Moraes due to a nasty body kick after an absolute war.
This fight will be brutal, back-and-forth and everything we expect to see when top-level fighters meet in the center of the cage. Birchak will be hungry to put Lopes away with strikes after contending and failing against the ferocious Thomas Almeida. Between these two fighters, they have only gone the distance four times in a combined 32 wins. The numbers don’t lie. Expect a wild fight when these men collide in Las Vegas on Thursday night.
Huntemann: The fight between Jouban and Muhammad could steal the show. This is one you don’t want to miss.
Don’t let Jouban’s extremely pretty face fool you. The dude hits and hits hard. He has nine knockout wins in his career and is always looking to put opponents’ lights out.
Muhammad is undefeated, coming off a finish of a longtime MMA veteran. He grinds down his opponents.
Something has to give in this fight, and the results could be spectacular.
Pair this card with…
Huntemann: A notebook. Because, while there are plenty of familiar faces on this card (dos Anjos, Alvarez, Nelson, Lewis, Duffy, etc.), there are also plenty of fighters on the rise who are eager to make a name for themselves. You may want to keep a notebook handy to jot down the names of some of these fighters, so you can remember them for later. Who knows? You could even tell your grandchildren where you were the day you saw Łukasz Sajewski for the first time.
Aittama: UFC Fight Pass. If you don’t already have the UFC’s digital streaming service, you have already missed exciting cards from Singapore to Krakow, and much, much more. The service and it’s head, Eric Winter, are bringing even more stars and even more fights as the UFC ramps up for the summer. The $9.99 a month is a small price to pay for what should be an essential medium for fight fans around the world. If you haven’t signed up to watch the first male title fight on the streaming service this Thursday night, you will be sadly missing out.
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 10 p.m. ET)
LW Championship: Rafael dos Anjos vs. Eddie Alvarez
HW: Roy Nelson vs. Derrick Lewis
LW: Joe Duffy vs. Mitch Clarke
WW: Alan Jouban vs. Belal Muhammad
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)
LW: Mehdi Baghdad vs. John Makdessi
BW: Anthony Birchak vs. Dileno Lopes
WW: Mike Pyle vs. Alberto Mina
WW: Alvaro Herrera vs. Vicente Luque
LW: Gilbert Burns vs. Łukasz Sajewski
BW: Reginaldo Vieira vs. Marco Antonio Beltran
BW: Russell Doane vs. Pedro Munhoz
BW: Felipe Arantes vs. Jerrod Sanders
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