New Year’s Eve has often served as a night of significant offerings from MMA promotions. Often, these events take place in Japan. However, this year, the World Series of Fighting is throwing its hat into the ring. In celebration of MMA’s recent entry into the state of New York, the WSOF takes to the Madison Square Garden Theater on Dec. 31 for WSOF 34.
The event features four title fights, although only three of these contests make it onto the main card.
The evening’s headliner features homegrown star and WSOF lightweight champion Justin Gaethje, who will put his championship on the line against Pride and Dream veteran Luiz Firmino. Former UFC welterweight stars Jon Fitch and Jake Shields meet in the co-main event, where Fitch’s welterweight title will be at stake. Earlier in the evening, bantamweight champion Marlon Moraes defends his crown against WSOF newcomer Josenaldo Silva.
Before the promotion kicks off its main-card broadcast on NBC, it serves up four fights on the NBC Sports Network. Capping off this portion of the prelims, two-division WSOF champion David Branch takes to the cage in defense of his middleweight belt. He’ll meet Louis Taylor, a surprise emerging contender at the ripe age of 37.
The New Year’s Eve festivities get started early, as the WSOF is fully aware that nobody wants to still be in the arena when the ball drops at midnight in New York City. The prelims start on the promotion’s website at 1 p.m. ET and head over to the NBC Sports Network at 2:30 p.m. ET for the final four prelims. Things wrap up on the NBC parent network at 4 p.m. ET with three title fights and a welterweight clash between Yushin Okami and Paul Bradley.
There are four title fights on this card: Justin Gaethje defends his lightweight crown against Luiz Firmino, Jon Fitch and Jake Shields square off for the welterweight strap, Marlon Moraes puts his bantamweight title on the line against Josenaldo Silva and Dave Branch clashes with Louis Taylor in a showdown for Branch’s middleweight belt. Which champions keep their belts and which challengers rise to the occasion?
Four men will enter as the defending champions, but only three will leave with that title intact.
Gaethje would appear to be the safest bet to retain his strap. The 28-year-old has been perfect thus far in his career, and it hardly seems likely that a 19-7 veteran like Firmino will succeed where the likes of Gesias “JZ” Cavalcante, Melvin Guillard and Luis Palomino (twice) have failed. The 34-year-old Firmino is no pushover, but he’s a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt with very little to offer in the stand-up game, and he’s taking on a frighteningly aggressive striker who will enjoy a height and reach advantage over the Brazilian. Firmino has some definite highlights in his lengthy career, but he won’t add another to the reel on New Year’s Eve.
Bantamweight kingpin Moraes gets a confident nod over Silva based on Silva’s lack of experience at this high level of the game. The 30-year-old challenger’s 26-3 mark can turn heads, but his most notable victories came against Paulo Robinson, Maike Linhares, Anderson dos Santos, Arivaldo Silva and Maikon de Carvalho. Don’t be embarrassed if you’re wondering who in the heck any of those men are, because you wouldn’t be alone. Silva’s most notable opponent, The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 4 alum Dileno Lopes, handed “Naldo” one of his few defeats. If Silva couldn’t get past Lopes, it’s unlikely he’ll top Moraes, a far superior opponent. Silva, an Evolução Thai disciple, might at least make things interesting, thanks to a striking arsenal that has brought an end to 15 of his fights and a grappling game that has accounted for four submission wins. However, Moraes will still have a belt around his waist when the dust settles.
Branch, who serves as the league’s middleweight and light heavyweight champion, will defend his 185-pound championship against Taylor, a worthy challenger. Branch’s dominance in the WSOF has been an eye-opener after a rather ho-hum UFC run that ended in a 2-2 record for the Renzo Gracie product. The champ crushed Dustin Jacoby, Paulo Filho, Danillo Villefort and Jesse Taylor en route to the middleweight strap and defended it successfully against Yushin Okami and Clifford Starks. He also ventured to 205 pounds and took out Jesse McElligott before defeating Teddy Holder for the vacant belt and defending it against Vinny Magalhães in his most recent outing. Branch has a solid grappling game and an improving stand-up attack. The 37-year-old Taylor does have a habit of choking out opponents, but it would be a surprise if he snags Branch’s neck for a finish. Branch will probably play the range game — he holds a reach advantage of roughly five inches over Taylor — and either score the knockout or settle for the decision nod.
Then, there’s the welterweight showdown between Jon Fitch and Jake Shields. One man (Fitch) is 38, the other is 37. Both men have stumbled in their post UFC careers, but Shields did so in a title showdown against Rousimar Palhares, while Fitch faltered against Josh Burkman in addition to Palhares. It could be said that Fitch has the momentum edge, thanks to his title win over João Zeferino that came on the heels of a victory over Yushin Okami. Shields, meanwhile, dropped his most recent fight against Palhares and has remained on the shelf ever since. Yet, Shields seems like the fighter with the best chance to unseat a champion. Fitch has regained some of his UFC form, but he does seem more vulnerable than he ever did inside the Octagon. Further adding to Fitch’s troubles is his inability to finish fights, whereas Shields has seemingly found his submission prowess since departing the UFC. Shields won his first two WSOF outings by first-round submission. He’s a better striker than Fitch, and he’s capable of ending Fitch’s night on the mat if Fitch makes even the slightest mistake. Shields might not run away with a victory over Fitch — it should be a close fight, actually — but he’s the challenger with the best odds of ripping a belt from the clutches of a WSOF champion.
Jared Rosholt makes his WSOF debut during the preliminary portion of this event. The heavyweight fighter hasn’t been in action since February after he was released from the UFC while posting a 6-2 mark inside the Octagon. Is Rosholt an eventual shoo-in to become the league’s heavyweight champion?
To call Rosholt a shoo-in would be to go a bit too far. The current champion in the division is Blagoy Ivanov, a man who holds a black belt in judo, an International Master of Sport rank in combat sambo and a win over the legendary Fedor Emelianenko in combat sambo competition. Ivanov is no joke, and his judo and sambo abilities make him a slightly tougher opponent to hold down and control for five rounds, which is what a wrestler like Rosholt would need to do.
Rosholt is, however, an easy pick to become a perennial challenger in a shallow division. This is a guy who was released from the UFC after a loss to Roy Nelson that marked only his second loss in eight Octagon appearances. He wasn’t exactly entertaining to watch, which is why the UFC brass used the loss as an excuse to part ways with the big man. He did get past everyone except the aforementioned Nelson and Oleksiy Oliynyk, who connected with his chin in the first round of their UFC Fight Night 57 affair. Meanwhile, Rosholt rolled to five decision wins and one finish via strikes. His list of victims included Walt Harris, Daniel Omielańczuk, Soa Palelei, Josh Copeland, Timothy Johnson and Stefan Struve. Most of these guys stand at the fringes of the UFC’s top 15, which features a lot more talent than the WSOF can dream of housing on its own roster.
Rosholt’s WSOF 34 opponent, Caio Alencar, could certainly find the same luck as Oliynyk — the 38-year-old Brazilian does have four prior wins via strikes and an additional five submission finishes — but he’s making his first trip to the United States for his first true big-show appearance. Rosholt should take advantage of Alencar’s nerves and ride out another one-sided, but awfully ugly, decision win. He’ll eventually land in the title hunt, even if it’s to the dismay of the fans who will have to watch him fight for five rounds, rather than three.
This card is loaded with notable veteran names, but there are some fresh faces as well. Is there anyone fans should keep their eyes on as a future member of the WSOF’s top tier?
It seems a bit unfair to use this space to highlight Josenaldo Silva or Louis Taylor, both of whom are already in title affairs on this card. That leaves us with prelim-card talent that includes Caio Alencar, Shane Kruchten, Bruno Santos, Vagab Vagabov and Andre Harrison.
Alencar is already 38 and likely doesn’t have much time left, and he’s also a good bet to come out on the losing end of a wrestling clinic against Jared Rosholt. Kruchten gets a mediocre opponent in Jeremy Mahon that should allow him to claim a victory, but his recent loss to Mike Corey is a big blemish on his record. Santos could be bound for big things with the promotion, but his 1-2 UFC run suggests that he could also turn out to be little more than mid-card material. The Brazilian’s opponent, Vagabov, has a head-turning 22-0 record, but he’s faced various levels of competition, including plenty of regional opponents with .500 records or very little experience.
This brings us to Harrison. “The Bull” is already a prospect who was highlighted in the Out of Obscurity list of emerging stars to watch out for in 2017. He’s a strong and dominant featherweight who was able to shine first on the Ring of Combat stage and then with Titan FC. He was crowned the featherweight champion in both organizations. Furthermore, he beat Kurt Holobaugh for the Titan crown and successfully defended it against a talented group of men that included Des Green, Steven Siler, Deivison Ribeiro and Alexandre Bezerra. Harrison is a grinder — his only recent finish came against the aforementioned Ribeiro — but he gets the job done.
Harrison is in a promotion where he’ll continue to see some big tests, but he could certainly rise to the challenge and eventually stake his own bid against reigning champ Lance Palmer. He draws Bruce Boyington at WSOF 34, but this should be a relatively easy first task for the decorated fighter and two-time NCAA Division II All-American wrestler. Harrison will dispose of Boyington with ease and work his way up the ladder to join the WSOF’s featherweight elite by the end of the coming year. The only shame is that this fight will be relegated to the WSOF.com portion of the preliminary card, rather than the NBC Sports Network broadcast.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
It has to be the middleweight battle between UFC castoff Bruno Santos and the unheralded newcomer Vagab Vagabov.
Santos, who debuted in 2007, stormed through the regional circuit in his native Brazil and claimed the Bitetti Combat middleweight championship before joining Bellator for a single fight in 2012. After he defeated Giva Santana in the Bellator cage, the 29-year-old inked a deal with the UFC. He fought two undefeated fighters during his stint in the Octagon, and he lost both fights. His one UFC win came via split decision against Chris Camozzi.
The 30-year-old Vagabov has made one previous WSOF appearance, a prelim-card destruction of Brian Grinnell at WSOF 23, but has primarily competed in Russia and the surrounding countries. His resume extends back to a 2006 debut, but he didn’t fight on a consistent basis until 2009. Vagabov was suspended by the WSOF for five months for striking Grinnell after a referee stoppage, and he has a history of similar actions, perhaps making him a candidate to be the striker’s equivalent of Rousimar Palhares.
Santos is a grinder, but it’s difficult to imagine him neutralizing Vagabov for three whole rounds. The DagFighter export should respond to his Brazilian counterpart’s efforts by releasing a barrage of strikes at every opportunity. Santos has never been finished — and he rarely finishes fights himself — so this could turn out to be an all-out war.
If the winner really impresses in this fight, they could position themselves as only another win or two away from a shot at middleweight champ Dave Branch. That alone makes this fight, which is so deeply buried on the prelim card, a sleeper.
Main Card (NBC, 4 p.m. ET)
LW Championship: Justin Gaethje vs. Luiz Firmino
WW Championship: Jon Fitch vs. Jake Shields
WW: Yushin Okami vs. Paul Bradley
BW Championship: Marlon Moraes vs. Josenaldo Silva
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