Justin Gaethje (Phil Lambert/Combat Press)

WSOF 33: Gaethje vs. Dugulubgov Preview and Predictions

Once again, the World Series of Fighting brings its A-game to Kansas City, Mo., with two title fights on the main card and two of its biggest promotional stars leading the way.

The WSOF 33 headliner pits the always entertaining lightweight champion Justin Gaethje against title challenger Ozzy Dugulubgov in what should be another fun affair likely to end in a knockout. Gaethje has torn through the lightweight division in his tenure with the promotion and will look to add another victory to his mantle. He hasn’t just beaten his opponents, but finished them as well.

In the co-main event, two-division champ Dave Branch puts his light heavyweight belt on the line against another familiar face, Vinny Magalhães. Magalhães is a jiu-jitsu specialist who will look to put an end to Branch’s reign and perfect 8-0 mark under the WSOF banner.


The main card also features four other bouts. Two of those fights come in the lightweight division, where Jason High clashes with João Zeferino and Luiz Firmino battles Brian Foster. Welterweights will also see action when Abubakar Nurmagomedov takes on John Howard. The main card kicks off in the heavyweight division, where Shawn Jordan takes on Ashley Gooch.

The preliminary card actions begins on Friday at 7 p.m. ET on WSOF.com. The six-fight main card will air at 11 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports Network.

So far, WSOF lightweight champion Justin Gaethje has defeated Nick Newell, Luis Palomino and Brian Foster in title defenses and stopped Melvin Guillard in a catchweight affair. Now, Gaethje puts his title on the line against Ozzy Dugulubgov. If Gaethje defeats his Russian-born challenger, will he have effectively cleaned out his division?

Yeah, there is no doubt Gaethje will have cleaned out his division. He has defeated some good fighter along the way, but the UFC has a lot of the talent in the lightweight division and that should ultimately be Gaethje’s next test.

The champ is 16-0 for good reason. Eight of his nine fights in the WSOF have been knockout victories. This is a pretty decisive way to be a champion. It’s no knock on Dugulubgov, but Gaethje has proven himself to be a clear cut above the rest of the division outside of the big promotions. This is Gaethje’s fight to lose.

Dugulubgov does have a chance if he can find the button on Gaethje’s chin that many fighters before him have struggled to locate. Gaethje likes to exchange in brawls. He wins those types of fights with pure accuracy and devastation in his punches. Dugulubgov should try to take this fight to the ground, where he probably has a better shot. However, Gaethje has the wrestling to stuff the shots.

Basically, we’re down to a puncher’s chance in this fight.

After this fight, Gaethje is really floating out aimlessly on the waters of the WSOF lightweight division. There really aren’t any names that jump to mind from the organization’s roster. It should be time that Gaethje tests the waters elsewhere, specifically in the UFC or Bellator. These are promotions that have the veterans and top guys to really challenge Gaethje as a fighter. Gaethje may hold a perfect record, but none of the guys he has fought are in the top 15 in the UFC. He needs some new challenges.

Dave Branch has been tearing up the WSOF middleweight and light heavyweight divisions. Will he continue this tremendous run against fellow UFC veteran Vinny Magalhães? Is he legitimately on par with the bottom half of the UFC’s top 10 in either division, or does he still have a lot left to prove after his dismal UFC stint?

It really is tremendous, isn’t it? I wouldn’t say that Branch’s UFC run was dismal — he did go 2-2 — but the way he lost those UFC fights were pretty abysmal. Branch last fought in the UFC in March 2011, so it’s likely that he has improved in the almost six years since his last UFC outing. He has been steamrolling through the WSOF in two different divisions. It has been extremely incredible to watch his rise through the ranks. His success certainly raises his stock to make a run in the UFC’s light heavyweight or middleweight division.

Speaking of dismal UFC stints, Branch’s opponent, Magalhães, is probably one of the first names that comes to mind. The elite grappler was incredibly hyped up leading into his UFC debut, only to get decisioned by Phil Davis and then smoked by 40-year-old Anthony Perosh. He was not just smoked either, but knocked out in 14 seconds.

Magalhães is a very high-level jiu-jitsu practitioner. Since leaving the UFC, he has gone 4-0. Magalhães seems to do better on the smaller circuit than in the UFC. He has picked up three submissions in that span, most notably against Jason Brilz and Matt Hamill.

Branch has very few holes in his game. His priority should be to keep the fight off the ground. Magalhães’ guard game is intimidating, unless you’re the aforementioned Davis and can just smother anyone. Branch definitely holds the edge in the striking game. He uses his striking very well and doesn’t rush into anything stupid. He makes very few mistakes. Branch does have more submission victories (6) than knockouts (5), but there shouldn’t be any way he gets the submission victory over a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt like Magalhães.

Now, whether or not Branch is a backend top-10 fighter in the UFC is another question. He’s likely to land just outside of the top 10. However, he doesn’t have a lot left to prove in the WSOF. He has shown a lot of improvement over the Branch we saw in 2011.

The remaining main-card fights feature a number of familiar names, including Octagon vets John Howard, Brian Foster, Jason High, João Zeferino and Shawn Jordan. Will any of these UFC castoffs follow in the footsteps of WSOF middleweight and light heavyweight champ Dave Branch in mounting a career resurrection under the promotion’s banner?

A career resurrection like Branch? No, not happening. How about we settle for just a simple career resurrection of any sort?

Ask that question, and I’ll point to High. In his second stint with the UFC, High went 2-2 with losses against future lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos and, at the time, a bright prospect in Erick Silva. High only left the promotion after shoving the referee when he lost to dos Anjos. This is ancient history now. High has apologized for the incident, and he should be on the quick path back to the UFC if he just keeps his head down and continues to accomplish big things with the WSOF.

High has dispatched two UFC veterans in his tenure with the promotion. He beat Estevan Payan with a nasty knockout and then took out Mike Ricci with a late knockout in the second round. It has only been highlight-reel footage for High so far. He is 34 years old and might not have much left in the tank, but another win like his previous two should make this a moot point. High has proven that age has yet to really take a toll on him.

While High is the best pick for a resurgence of sorts, Jordan could also be a safe bet to eventually mount a return to the UFC. This is mainly due to the UFC’s lack of depth at the heavyweight level. Foster is also a possibility. He has finished all but one of his victories, and the UFC likes guys who are entertaining and look to finish the fight. This is all dependent on a Foster win against Luiz Firmino and possibly a couple more after that.

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

Abubakar Nurmagomedov gets a nice test against UFC veteran John Howard. Of course, the name Nurmagomedov jumps out to fans — Abubakar’s cousin, Khabib, has been something of a destroyer in the UFC’s lightweight division. Abubakar has been on a good run himself in his early career, but Howard is the first real veteran test he will have faced so far. That alone puts this fight over the top. It might have a bigger implication on the lightweight division than any other fight on this card.

Fight Picks

Fight Pick
Main Card (NBC Sports Network, 11 p.m. ET)
LW Championship: Justin Gaethje vs. Ozzy Dugulubgov Gaethje
LHW Championship: Dave Branch vs. Vinny Magalhães Branch
LW: Jason High vs. João Zeferino High
LW: Luiz Firmino vs. Brian Foster Foster
WW: John Howard vs. Abubakar Nurmagomedov Nurmagomedov
HW: Ashley Gooch vs. Shawn Jordan Jordan
Preliminary Card (Combat Press, 8 p.m. ET)
BW: Chris Gutierrez vs. Timur Valiev Gutierrez
BW: Jesse Brock vs. Bekbulat Magomedov Magomedov
WW: Michael Arrant vs. Abu Azaitar Azaitar
LW: Islam Mamedov vs. Alonzo Martinez Mamedov
WW: Bobby Cooper vs. Magomed Magomedkerimov Magomedkerimov
FW: Bryce Mitchell vs. Brandon Phillips Mitchell