UFC on Fox 22 is finally here, and, as most people have expected for a long time, the promotion’s two hottest young prospects serve as the main and co-main events of the evening. It was inevitable that Paige VanZant and Sage Northcutt would eventually be in these respective positions, and it’s crazy to think that their combined age is still four years younger than the age of Dan Henderson.
VanZant has her hands full coming off a dazzling knockout of Bec Rawlings. She faces longtime vet Michelle “The Karate Hottie” Waterson. The former Invicta atomweight champ Waterson hasn’t fought in a year and a half, but she has a ton of experience. Waterson’s last fight, which served as her UFC debut, ended with a submission of Angela Magana. VanZant was completely handled by Rose Namajunas a year ago, but the win over Rawlings gave her a chance to get back in the win column. She’ll look to turn that win into a streak on Saturday night. Both ladies need a victory to cement their status in the UFC’s strawweight division.
Northcutt is in a similar position as VanZant. His own hype train slowed way down in January when he was tapped out by short-notice replacement Bryan Barberena. Northcutt returned to the win column this summer at UFC 200. The undefeated Mickey Gall will stand across the cage from Northcutt. Gall rose to fame as the guy who fought CM Punk. He was originally brought into the UFC through Dana White’s Lookin’ for a Fight reality show, and the CM Punk fight was his second in the Octagon. Gall is no pushover. He could prove to be a very tough opponent for Northcutt.
The remainder of the main card rounds out with a veteran showdown between Urijah Faber and Brad Pickett, as well as a welterweight bout with professional model Alan Jouban taking on knockout artist Mike Perry. The undercard is a mixed bag of everything from undefeated prospects to longtime veterans like Eddie Wineland, Cole Miller and Takeya Mizugaki.
UFC on Fox 22 takes place on Saturday, Dec. 17, and features 13 bouts from the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Calif. The action begins at 3:30 p.m. ET with three preliminary bouts on UFC Fight Pass, before moving over to Fox Sports 1 for the remaining prelims at 5 p.m. ET. Then, it’s over to Fox for main card, which starts at 8 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Dan Kuhl preview the card in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
The UFC has had a soft spot for headliner Paige VanZant and co-headliner Sage Northcutt. Both of these young stars bounced back from devastating losses to pick up wins in their most recent fights, but have they been thrown to the wolves here in their respective fights against Michelle Waterson and Mickey Gall?
Huntemann: To say the UFC has a “soft spot” for VanZant and Northcutt is like saying Kanye West may just think a tiny bit too highly of himself. The UFC wants to make VanZant and Northcutt the wholesome, family-friendly faces of its future in the worst way as the organization continues to push toward mainstream acceptance. It’s smart business to do so, by the way. VanZant and Northcutt are young, seemingly wholesome individuals and are both very photogenic. Also, Northcutt can apparently rip an apple apart with his bare hands (search Twitter if you don’t know what I’m talking about). So, what’s not to like about them?
The UFC previously tried to push VanZant and Northcutt a little too much, too soon, and both fighters ended up with a little bit of the Roman Reigns treatment (a professional wrestling reference, in case you didn’t know). Their hype trains were emphatically derailed by Rose Namajunas and Bryan Barberena, respectively, last year, and many MMA fans enjoyed a nice bit of schadenfreude as a result.
Do I think VanZant and Northcutt are being “thrown to the wolves” by facing Waterson and Gall? In a word, no. One of my favorite media personalities is ESPN’s Bomani Jones. He likes to express surprise on his radio show and on Twitter when an athlete that was seemingly long forgotten reappears by exclaiming, “Wait, he’s still in the league?!?”
What does that have to do with this question? Simple. I think most UFC fans forgot Waterson was even a part of the organization. She last competed in July 2015 against Angela Magana, who’s not exactly well known in many circles (except by fans of her Twitter page). Injuries have kept Waterson out of the Octagon since then, and her fight against Magana was Waterson’s only UFC appearance so far after a stint in Invicta. In UFC terms, VanZant, who also competed in Invicta, actually has the experience advantage. Waterson may have more overall experience in MMA than VanZant, but the odds should not be emphatically slanted in Waterson’s favor.
Also, speaking of professional wrestling, Gall’s claim to fame so far is choking out ex-professional wrestler CM Punk is just over two minutes at UFC 203. It was Punk’s first MMA fight ever and Gall’s second UFC outing. I applaud Gall for calling out Northcutt afterward. He does present a challenge to the young star. He’s quick, with great grappling skills and three first-round submission victories to his credit, as well as punching power. If “Super” Sage takes Gall lightly, Gall could make quite a name for himself fairly quickly and at a fairly young age. But beating a 38-year-old former pro wrestler who never competed in MMA at any level shouldn’t make Gall a frightening, imposing figure to any other fighter. Not right now, anyway.
Kuhl: It’s hard to argue with my colleague’s assessment of the UFC’s intentions for PVZ and Northcutt. The promotion has always looked to them as the future. It never hurts to have fighters that have more than a face for radio. However, I will have to disagree with some of Mr. Huntemann’s assessment of their opponents.
Waterson more than “had a stint” with Invicta. She won and defended Invicta’s atomweight title, both by stoppage. In her career, the “Karate Hottie” has only been the distance three times in 17 fights. She has been active as a pro for nearly 10 years, has stopped 11 of her opponents, and she is no stranger to long layoffs. She also has multiple ”of the Night” accolades. PVZ may have more fights in the UFC, but Waterson has much more experience and is also one of the longer-tenured members of the Jackson-Winkeljohn team. In this case, this is a huge step-up in competition for the Team Alpha Male prospect VanZant. This will definitely be one of the toughest fights of her career.
The Northcutt/Gall fight is a little more closely matched. Northcutt is still largely unproven against high-quality opponents. While it was 15 pounds heavier than Northcutt’s normal weight class and came on short notice, his fight with Bryan Barberena provided him with his one truly bad-ass opponent. The youngster only made it halfway through that fight. Gall will also be coming in at a natural 170 pounds. Gall is not nearly as experienced as Waterson in MMA, but he is unbeaten in six combined amateur and pro fights. He’s a decorated grappler with backgrounds in wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The only time Northcutt has been beaten is when Barberena choked him out.
The biggest difference here is that the PVZ/Waterson affair brings two fighters to the table who have a lot to prove. Waterson has been out for a while and needs to show the UFC that she still has what it takes to be a champ, and VanZant needs to prove that she can beat a top-level opponent. For the Northcutt/Gall match-up, Northcutt has been put on a pedestal as this unbeatable golden boy, while Gall has been largely underestimated, only because he was willing to step up and take the CM Punk fight. If Northcutt wins, that would be expected from the prodigy in the eyes of the mainstream fan. Gall has nothing to lose, though, which is one of the most dangerous types of fighter to have standing across the cage, and especially when he is only 24 years old and could be a prodigy in his own right.
No matter what happens, I love these match-ups — stylistically, symbolically, and as an avid fan of the new wave of talent.
This event has five undefeated fighters — Mickey Gall, Mike Perry, Paul Craig, Luis Henrique da Silva and Josh Emmett — and also features the UFC debut of star Invicta bantamweight contender Irene Aldana. Which, if any, of these fighters will become breakout stars with the UFC?
Kuhl: I’ve never liked the “undefeated” moniker in MMA as some kind of accolade, because it really depends on whom a fighter has actually defeated. Gall, Craig and Emmett are out. I just don’t trust their records. None have a real record of besting any top talent more than maybe once or twice. Aldana is not undefeated, but she has stopped some of the top bantamweights in the world in impressive form. Now, when I take a step back and look at Perry and especially da Silva, those are some seriously scary dudes.
Perry has blasted everyone in his path by knockout, including seasoned vets like Danny Roberts and Hyun Gyu Lim. He has been training in some form of combat since he was a pre-teen, and at age 25, he is set to be a huge breakout star in the UFC. He will face Alan Jouban, who has two of his four losses by knockout. This puts Perry in a prime position to make a name for himself in the welterweight division.
Da Silva is also a tremendous striker. However, after winning his first 11 pro fights by knockout, he won his second UFC outing by submission over Danish star Joachim Christensen to earn “Performance of the Night” honors. Da Silva is one of those guys that not many people have heard of, but they soon will. This weekend, da Silva faces the aforementioned Craig, and I have a feeling Craig is in for a rude awakening. Craig is more of a grappler, winning most of his fights by submission, and da Silva has a recorded history of blasting grapplers with his striking. As he showed in his last fight, he’s no slouch on the ground either.
Of the fighters listed above, Perry and da Silva are definitely the two who have the best chances of maintaining their undefeated status through this weekend and really breaking out in the UFC.
Huntemann: Even though I find myself jumping on the Gall bandwagon with both feet, as evidenced by my fight picks below, I’m not quite sure how long his still-young undefeated streak will go and what his future exactly holds. If he gets by Northcutt, then I will firmly be in the Mickey Gall business. For now, I’m going to branch out a little and go with Aldana. She will make a welcome addition to the UFC women’s bantamweight division on the heels of her successful run in Invicta.
Aldana’s only loss in Invicta came to that organization’s bantamweight champion, Tonya Evinger, who is among the best female fighters in the world not currently on the UFC roster. Outside of her loss to Evinger, all of Aldana’s Invicta fights ended in a first-round finish. She could be part of the UFC women’s bantamweight division’s rejuvenation that also comes with the return of former champion Ronda Rousey at UFC 207. Aldana’s fellow countrywoman, strawweight Alexa Grasso, looks to be a breakout star for the UFC in her own right. I like Aldana to join her in continuing to put Mexican MMA on the map.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Huntemann: The fight between Colby Covington and Bryan Barberena could be fun as hell to watch. Barberena previously played spoiler and handed Sage Northcutt his first loss earlier this year. He followed that up with a convincing victory over Warlley Alves. Covington has won two in row, both by finish. These two guys are ornery and eager to prove themselves in an interesting welterweight division. They’re both definitely capable of delivering a performance that steals the show.
Kuhl: I wholeheartedly agree with my fellow writer. The Barberena/Covington fight should be full of the proverbial fireworks. I first started following Barberena in his UFC debut two years ago and have been a fan ever since. He’s super gritty, trains at the Lab, and can beat his opponents anywhere. Covington is also a super gritty fighter out of American Top Team. He only has one loss on his record and is already a six-fight UFC vet in less than two and a half years. Both of these guys are in line for a big fight after this weekend, and fans should expect an easy “Fight of the Night” candidate.
Pair this card with…
Kuhl: A box of what comedian Jim Gaffigan refers to as the Valentine’s Day “gamble chocolates.” Who freaking knows what’s going to happen at this event? There are good match-ups, bad match-ups, and a ton of untested fighters looking to make a name for themselves. Every fight brings a bit of the unknown, so sit down, take a bite, and see what’s inside.
Huntemann: I’m seriously running out of ideas to answer this question. How about your favorite Beach Boys record? You should check your parents’ record collection if you don’t know who I’m talking about. This card takes place in California and is chock-full of some of the most popular fighters from California, including Paige VanZant and Urijah Faber. So drop the needle on some Pet Sounds and lose yourself in some trippy California pop music while taking in a night of fights.
Main Card (Fox, 8 p.m. ET)
Women’s StrawW: Paige VanZant vs. Michelle Waterson
WW: Sage Northcutt vs. Mickey Gall
BW: Urijah Faber vs. Brad Pickett
WW: Alan Jouban vs. Mike Perry
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 5 p.m. ET)
LHW: Paul Craig vs. Luis Henrique da Silva
FW: Cole Miller vs. Mizuto Hirota
WW: Bryan Barberena vs. Colby Covington
WW: James Moontasri vs. Alex Morono
LW: Josh Emmett vs. Scott Holtzman
Women’s BW: Leslie Smith vs. Irene Aldana
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 3:30 p.m. ET)
BW: Eddie Wineland vs. Takeya Mizugaki
FlyW: Fredy Serrano vs. Hector Sandoval
WW: Sultan Aliev vs. Bojan Velickovic
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