UFC Fight Night 93 is upon us and it could be a good one.
Barclaycard Arena in Hamburg, Germany, is where the mothership lands this week. The European fans will be treated to a card with a good mix of name fighters and those looking to make their mark. Everyone in the top three billed fights are within striking distance of a title shot. Even the underdogs in each fight make themselves relevant with a win over the favorites. Of those three fights, Vegas sees the heavyweight headliner between Josh Barnett and Andrei Arlovski as the closest and the light heavyweight showdown between Alexander Gustafsson and Jan Błachowicz as the most one-sided. It makes for an interesting night of fights as the UFC further grows its European fan base.
The action is exclusive to UFC Fight Pass. The preliminary card kicks off at 11:45 a.m. ET and the main card follows at 3 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Zach Aittama and John Franklin preview the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Headlining heavyweight Andrei Arlovski was enjoying a career resurgence until he ran into Stipe Miocic and Alistair Overeem. Meanwhile, his opponent, Josh Barnett, hasn’t been very active. Barnett has fought just twice since the beginning of 2014. Could this be the swan song for one or both of these men? Is either man capable of making one more run toward the title?
Aittama: These former UFC champions are past their best days inside the Octagon. That’s not to say that their technical aptitude, cage comfortability and understanding of the sport isn’t the best it’s ever been. However, the sheer wear and tear of the 79 combined MMA fights between these two heavyweight legends have eventually taken their toll. The damage accumulated throughout the terrific careers of these heavyweight sluggers might have finally caught up with them, but that doesn’t mean either man is ready to step down following this much-anticipated contest between two fighters who are still ranked in the top 10 of the division.
If this were to be the last fight for Barnett, the more likely candidate to hang up his gloves following the outcome in Hamburg, he would walk away as one of the greatest heavyweight competitors in the sport. The 38-year-old has compiled an outstanding winning mark above 80 percent in his 42 professional fights. The former UFC heavyweight champ racked up 34 wins over some of the biggest names in the sport, including former champions Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira and Frank Mir, plus Mark Hunt, Semmy Schilt and many other top heavyweights throughout his illustrious career that spans nearly 20 years.
Barnett’s latest win was a thrashing of heavyweight mainstay Roy Nelson at UFC Fight Night 75. Barnett used his size and aggressive clinch striking to break down his tough foe over the course of 25 minutes. The performance pushed Barnett further up the UFC heavyweight contender ladder after finally returning to the cage following a long absence. Those title-contention aspirations were quickly shot down once again when Barnett succumbed to a second-round front choke submission from fellow heavyweight contender Ben Rothwell at UFC on Fox 18 in January. Rothwell made his path to the title clearer while becoming the first man to submit Barnett with a grappling technique.
Arlovski fell victim to the ever-changing heavyweight landscape when his opportunity to earn a title shot ended with a series of rights and lefts from the soon-to-be UFC heavyweight champ Miocic. Arlovski’s six-fight winning streak came crashing to the mat in under 60 seconds. The 37-year-old former champion discovered a renewed confidence in himself during his stretch of four wins inside the Octagon. The Jackson-Winklejohn fighter found success with his right hand against Travis Browne and Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, but his winning streak was marred by controversial judging and the elephant in the room — whether or not his chin could hold up against the biggest punchers in the division. That wasn’t the case when Miocic ran through Arlvoski at UFC 195 in January. Arlovski was again presented with a chance to get back into title contention against former K-1 World Grand Prix and Strikeforce champion Alistair Overeem in May. Again the lights came crashing down on Arlovski. Overeem put Arlovski away with a jumping front kick and left hook that likely put the Belarusian’s name out of title contention for good.
Both men are looking to return to the win column. That doesn’t mean the victor is likely to contend for the title, nor does that mean the loser is completely out of the title picture in the revolving door of over-age heavyweight contenders. Arlovski cannot take another knockout loss if he hopes to regain his former championship glory. The “Pitbull” has been knocked out nine times in his professional career, one more loss than Barnett has total in his career. With a win, however, Arlovski could lay claim to another victory over a former UFC champion and all-time great. Arlovski has lost just three of his past 11 fights. It’s hard to say Arlovski is completely out of title contention if he can string another couple wins together. Barnett’s activity is his worse enemy, but despite losing to Rothwell and Browne in the past 30 months, the well-spoken heavyweight contender could potentially be back in the title mix with three of four consecutive wins.
It’s hard to imagine Barnett or Arlovski picking up the momentum to stop fighters like Cain Velasquez, Fabricio Werdum and Junior dos Santos, but in a wide-open heavyweight landscape outside of the top five fighters, I wouldn’t count either man out completely. I expect Barnett to get the victory on Saturday, and where he goes from there is anybody’s guess. If I were a betting man, I would bet against either man fighting for the title before they hang up the gloves for good.
Franklin: With age comes inconsistency, talk of retirement and questions of how many fights a fighter has left. Both Barnett and Arlovski have been down this road.
The line is a little curious to me. I understand Barnett has more paths to victory, but Arlovski has done better against higher-caliber opponents.
The Arlovski that knocked out Bigfoot and Browne and went the distance with Mir to get a decision victory still has the offense that can flatline anyone in the heavyweight division. The problem is that he may not have the defense to make it to the late rounds with Barnett. Arlovski can be had at this point in his career. Miocic got him in the first and Overeem got him in the second.
Barnett’s not much different. Who do we get? Do we get the Barnett who knocked out Mir and went the distance with Nelson? Or do we get the Barnett who was knocked out by Browne and strangled by Rothwell? It’s tough to tell. Barnett also is not a very active fighter. He’s the guy that fights when you need him to fight. He’s been in the UFC since 2013 and has fought just four times.
If we look strictly at opponents, what we know is that Arlovski has been in fights with the two highest ranked heavyweights in the UFC. That means he’s at least below them as a fighter. That could be spot three or it could be No. 10. What we do know is that Barnett isn’t better than Rothwell. There is a difference between getting choked out by Rothwell and knocked out by the heavyweight champ.
I’ll take Arlovski.
UFC Fight Night 93 has a large serving of top light heavyweights. Alexander Gustafsson meets Jan Błachowicz in the evening’s co-headliner, and Ryan Bader scraps with Ilir Latifi on the main card. Are these just tune-up fights for Gustafsson and Bader as they bounce back from losses, or will we see new contenders emerge at this event?
Franklin: The short answer to the latter part of the question is no.
Latifi does have a better shot than Błachowicz, but both men are facing high-level guys who are always at or near the top of the rankings. It’s a huge opportunity for either of these fighters, but I wouldn’t be expecting any upsets.
The legend of Gustafsson began the night he took Jon Jones, the greatest light heavyweight of all time, the distance. It’s that fight that will always color the way we look at him and his ability to be a championship contender. The problem with that thinking is that it may be flawed in its construction. That was the first time that Jones had fought a man as close to him in physical stature. Couple that with Jones’ alleged partying and drug use leading up to fight, and the win may have been based on circumstances.
Gustafsson was blown out of the water by Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, adding questions of his championship pedigree that are valid. His split decision loss to Daniel Cormier might make us feel a little better, but this is the filter through which we watch Gustafsson. It’s not enough that he looks good. Do we see improvements that give him a legit shot at the belt?
Bader and Latifi, meanwhile, are kind of an odd match-up. Latifi has the reach advantage despite giving up six inches in height. Will that benefit him in takedown defense? Logistically, it makes sense that it might, but Bader is such a stud in that department that he should crack the case quickly. Latifi has some pop and Bader’s chin can be had, but only at the highest levels of punching power. Bader has only been defeated by men who have fought for titles — Jones, Tito Ortiz, Lyoto Machida, Glover Teixeira and Rumble. He is definitely a level guy whose timing always seems off. The fact he lost to Jones early in Jones’ career and then the champion went on a run before losing some time has made it difficult for him to secure a rematch.
There’s a glimmer of hope for Bader with Cormier as the champ, because the two had a very high-profile press conference run-in. Both of those fights unfortunately for Bader may be a long way off. Bader secures the win here, but it is going to take an impressive performance over a guy who doesn’t get finished a lot.
Aittama: It would appear as though these two bouts were matched with the thought that the winners could potentially greatly increase their hopes at contendership. Gustafsson is the biggest favorite on the card at 7-to-1 odds to win on some betting platforms. Those odds would indicate the likelihood Błachowicz pulls off the upset are highly unlikely, but with a sport as crazy as MMA, anything truly can and does happen. I would have suspected Bader’s embarrassing beatdown at the hands of Johnson would have tempered expectations, but the top-10 light heavyweight was on the cusp of a title shot after five straight wins, including victories over top-10 opponents Rashad Evans, Phil Davis and Ovince St. Preux. Bader is now just a 2-to-1 favorite over the whimsical, horse-riding Swede, Latifi.
If I were to categorize Gustafsson as a fighter, it would be as one of the truly elite in the division. He is such a large favorite in this fight because of his combination of technical skills and physical attributes. Despite winning just one of his last four bouts, Gustafsson has impressed against two champions — the man who never lost his belt and is still considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport, Jones, and the current UFC light heavyweight champ, Cormier.
Gustafsson sent panic through the MMA community when he considered hanging up the four-ounce gloves after a tough stretch featuring those championships losses and the first-round knockout against Johnson. Gustafsson’s loss to Rumble was made worse by the atmosphere of nearly 30,000 silent Swedish fans in the Tele2 Arena after all three of the hometown athletes tasted defeat.
It’s hard to hold the knockout loss against the 29-year-old, though. Johnson is clearly the biggest puncher in the sport,with an outstanding run of 12 wins and nine knockouts in his past 13 fights. The loss was a setback, but Gustafsson has all of the tools to get back to work against former KSW champion Błachowicz. Gustafsson also has the chance to avenge the loss of his teammate, Latifi, who was defeated by Błachowicz in 2014. “The Mauler” returns to contendership with a decisive victory over the top Polish light heavyweight.
I expect a similar result from Bader when he enters the cage against Gustafsson’s training partner. Latifi has five victories in his past six UFC bouts with his only other loss inside the Octagon coming against top-10 fighter Gegard Mousasi. Latifi has won three fights in a row, including his most recent outing, a gritty decision victory over Gian Villante. Latifi is looking to employ his trademarked sledgehammer punches in hopes for another knockout to add to his collection of four first-round finishes inside the Octagon.
Latifi will have to contend with one of the best wrestlers above the middleweight division. The multiple-time NCAA All-American Bader used his superior wrestling skills to topple Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante and the aforementioned OSP. The stud takedown defender showcased his ability to control where the fight takes place when he earned decision wins over Davis and former champion Evans with his improved boxing skills. Bader made a mistake in his bout with Rumble with a rushed takedown attempt. I expect him to approach this bout with Latifi in a controlled and well thought-out manner. Bader sticks to the game plan and hits the key takedowns to take home the victory.
Wins from Gustafsson and Bader would place them just outside the top three fighters in the world — Jones, Cormier and Johnson. Only Bader and Cormier have yet to fight, which does give Bader some hope at a title shot against the current champion with a couple more victories, should Cormier hold onto the belt when he eventually defends against Johnson. Gustafsson could potentially face Bader in a future title eliminator, as the fighters haven’t crossed paths in their respective careers.
Once upon a time, Rustam Khabilov was a real prospect for the UFC, even headlining a card with Benson Henderson. He has since taken a couple steps back. Will a win over Leandro Silva remind MMA fans of who Khabilov once was?
Aittama: I wouldn’t consider losing a close fight against a former champion and a top lightweight as a step back. Khabilov splashed onto the global MMA scene with a pummeling of the previously unbeaten The Ultimate Fighter 16 alum Vinc Pichel in his UFC debut. He made highlight reels with his excellent slam takedowns. Khabilov continued his ascent up the lightweight rankings with a first-round knockout of Yancy Medeiros and a dominant decision win over top lightweight Jorge Masvidal.
Khabilov was then halted against Henderson in a fight where Khabilov showcased his ability to compete with a top lightweight. Henderson eventually fought his way back into the fight and locked in the rear-naked choke in the fourth round. Khabilov fought just once in 2015 after battling injuries and visa issues before taking a fight in Brazil against Adriano Martins. Khabilov fell short in the bout, but he quickly regained form in 2016 with victories over Norman Parke and Chris Wade.
Khabilov is a big favorite heading into this fight with TUF Brazil 2 alum Leandro “Buscapé” Silva. The more than 4-to-1 underdog has won three of his past five fights — one of those bouts ended in a no-contest due to a phantom guillotine choke and terrible officiating. The 30-year-old Team Nogueira member has wins over TUF 8 winner Efrain Escudero and Charlie Brenneman. His most recent outing was a split decision loss to Jason Saggo at UFC Fight Night 89 in June.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see Silva hold his own against the dangerous Khabilov. However, Silva has yet to face a fighter the caliber of Khabilov in his seven-fight UFC stint. A step up in competition on short notice is no easy task, and Khabilov will make sure nothing about this match-up will be easy for Silva. Khabilov should be victorious in what is turning out to be a comeback year for the 29-year-old.
Franklin: I don’t think a win over Silva in and of itself will change the course of Khabilov’s career, but it does give him an opportunity to do what he does best: dump people on their heads.
Khabilov can have some big moments in this fight. They certainly are available to him. The question becomes if he wants to go after them and do what it takes to impress the crowd in order to give himself an opportunity to advocate for bigger fights. What is sometimes lost in the UFC is that guys who have good performances that speak for themselves get more time to craft the futures of their careers in post-fight interviews. This is Khabilov’s chance. He just has to take it.
A number of top European prospects are making their UFC debuts in Hamburg. Who puts on the best performance in their Octagon debut?
Franklin: Jim Wallhead.
Yes, he’s been around for a while, but he has a resume that includes wins over Che Mills, Frank Trigg and Joey Villasenor. He has four knockouts within his last six fights. This may be the chance he has been waiting for, and he may be in the right place in his life and career to put together a good run.
His opponent, Jessin Ayari, has only fought in Germany. Ayari definitely has the home-field advantage, but he can’t match Wallhead’s experience and skill set. This could be a really big spot for Wallhead to make a name for himself. He’s in a stacked division, but a big showing here could go a long way to a non-European follow-up fight, which would be big.
However, my pick is Jack Hermansson. He is another solid candidate for a great performance in his debut. The 28-year-old Swede is matched with four-fight UFC veteran Scott Askham. This battle of former BAMMA middleweight champion Askham and former Cage Warriors middleweight champ Hermansson is one of the toughest fights to call on the card. A strong performance from Hermansson in his Octagon debut could go a long way in a division needing an influx of young talent.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Aittama: There are skilled prospects, veterans and newcomers looking to claw their way to the limelight from the first fight to the main event. The mix of European talent on this card won’t scream major name value for the American audience. However, this card plays to the fight fan looking to find out who could be the next potential name out of a market that produced arguably the biggest superstar in the history of MMA, Conor McGregor.
Picking just one sleeper fight on a card filled with talent was a difficult task. I stuck with a battle between UFC veterans that features one of only three German fighters on the card.
Nick Hein has quietly collected three wins inside the Octagon. His lone drawback came against the formerly unbeaten James Vick in Hein’s only fight in the United States. Hein has continued to develop his fight game in his home country of Germany and at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand. The actor and police officer has quickly become the best fighter from his home country to compete inside of the UFC. Hein brings an ever-improving striking arsenal, strong takedowns and a knack for using his brute strength into this battle with fellow UFC veteran Tae Hyun Bang.
The South Korean slugger has split wins and losses inside of the Octagon. Bang picked up victories over Kajan Johnson and Leo Kuntz, but he fell short to Mairbek Taisumov and Jon Tuck. Bang brings experience, toughness and punching power to the cage.
This fight has the potential to be the fight that makes both men exert their entire gas tank to find victory. These fighters have their strengths and weaknesses, and finding out who solves the other man’s puzzle will involve a clash of styles and a battle of attrition. This fight may look like a battle of lower-rung UFC fighters, but it has the potential to turn out to be a gritty, knock-down, drag-out war that the puts the fans on their feet.
Franklin: Well, my colleague stole a little bit of my thunder. I, too, like that fight a lot. However, the women’s fight has me intrigued as well.
Ashlee Evans-Smith is a young fighter who has shown a lot of promise. She was put on the map when she was willing to fight — and ultimately defeated — the controversial Fallon Fox. We know she’s tough. She followed the knockout of Fox with a knockout of Marciea Allen under the World Series of Fighting banner. In her next fight, she wasn’t ready for Raquel Pennington, who choked her out, but she has bounced back with a win over Marion Reneau. Evans-Smith has all the makings of a star, but she just needs to put it all together in the cage.
Her opponent, Veronica Macedo, is a relative unknown. She’s a winner, though. When she finishes, it’s in the first round. When she doesn’t, she toughs it out and finds a way to win. She has fought exclusively in Europe, so not having to make a trip to United States certainly helps.
I like Evans-Smith in this one, but Macedo is certainly set up with the more favorable conditions.
Pair this card with…
Franklin: It’s an early fight card, so get yourself some Brotchen, Quark and Wurst. That’s bread, cheese and sausage for you Americans! (Yes, I’m an American, too.) These early cards put you in a weird headspace, because fights are being viewed at times when they aren’t typically viewed. However, a fight is a fight. So, while you may be eating breakfast, make sure you fill your stein with your favorite brew and wake the neighbors while screaming for the main and co-main.
Aittama: Frühstück. Sorry, that’s breakfast for all of the English speakers out there. This card airs bright and early in North America, but there is still time to grab everything you need for a proper German Saturday morning breakfast. Head to your nearest fresh bakery and local farmer’s market to pick up an array of fresh breads, cheeses, sausages, and don’t forget the fresh fruit! Get your fill of a hearty breakfast for an afternoon of action-packed fights from across the Atlantic. Hell, it’s not too early to kick off that Oktoberfest party you’ve been waiting for all summer. Grab a Hefeweizen and turn on the stove, because fall is less than a month away and we get a preview of all the colorful action live on UFC Fight Pass from Hamburg, Germany.
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 3 p.m. ET)
HW: Andrei Arlovski vs. Josh Barnett
LHW: Alexander Gustafsson vs. Jan Błachowicz
LHW: Ryan Bader vs. Ilir Latifi
LW: Rustam Khabilov vs. Leandro Silva
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 11:45 a.m. ET)
MW: Scott Askham vs. Jack Hermansson
HW: Jarjis Danho vs. Christian Colombo
WW: Nicolas Dalby vs. Peter Sobotta
LW: Nick Hein vs. Tae Hyun Bang
BW: Leandro Issa vs. Taylor Lapilus
WW: Jim Wallhead vs. Jessin Ayari
Women’s BW: Veronica Macedo vs. Ashlee Evans-Smith
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