On Nov. 4, Michael Bisping was desperately trying to hold on to the UFC’s middleweight title. He failed. Returning star Georges St-Pierre took the Brit’s crown in the third round of their UFC 217 headliner.
On Nov. 11, Bisping was no longer the champion. However, news emerged on that day that another former champion, Anderson Silva, was popped for a USADA drug-test violation. Just one week after his loss to GSP and just two weeks out from UFC Fight Night 122, Bisping stepped up to replace Silva. The dethroned middleweight champ now looks for redemption when he travels to China to meet Kelvin Gastelum in the headliner of the show, which takes place at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai on Nov. 25.
UFC Fight Night 122 is heavy on Chinese fighters. The event is an attempt by the promotion to make inroads into the Asian MMA market. Among the featured Chinese stars, Jingliang Li takes on Zak Ottow in a welterweight showdown, Guan Wang draws Alex Caceres for a featherweight clash, and Muslim Salikhov meets fellow 170-pounder Alex Garcia. In preliminary-card action, female strawweight Xiaonan Yan goes up against Kailin Curran and female bantamweight Yanan Wu locks horns with Gina Mazany. The lineup also features featherweight prospects Zabit Magomedsharipov and Sheymon Moraes.
UFC Fight Night 122 kicks off with a preliminary card on UFC Fight Pass that gets underway in the middle of the night for American fans, at 3:45 a.m. ET. From there, it’s on to the main card, also on UFC Fight Pass, at 7 a.m. ET. Combat Press writers Zach Aittama and Bryan Henderson preview the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Roughly three weeks after dropping his middleweight title to the returning Georges St-Pierre, Michael Bisping will step in to replace Anderson Silva and fight Kelvin Gastelum. Will Bisping redeem himself?
Aittama: Bisping’s big gamble to take out an all-time great backfired when St-Pierre dropped the Englishman and put him to sleep with a slick rear-naked choke in the third round of their championship contest at UFC 217. Bisping had strong moments throughout the fight, but the former welterweight kingpin surprised many, including Bisping, with his ability to stick the jab, land his strikes, and take down the bigger man. St-Pierre didn’t look like a man who had been away from the Octagon for four years.
The loss puts Bisping in a precarious position in the twilight of his career. He has stated on multiple occasions that he enjoys the fight game and would continue to compete for as long as he was physically able to perform. However, pressure from his family has pushed that time table forward for the former middleweight champ. If Bisping would have defeated St-Pierre, it just might have been the last fight of his career. Now, the Brit has taken an opportunity on just over two weeks’ notice to try to wash the taste of defeat out of his mouth. This decision very well could be an even bigger gamble.
Gastelum proved his ability as a fighter before missing weight against Tyron Woodley in his first career loss. However, the fight did signal some red flags for the young The Ultimate Fighter winner. The UFC forced Gastelum to move up to middleweight, where he took out Nate Marquardt. Gastelum dropped back down to welterweight to fight Neil Magny and Johny Hendricks, but he missed weight for his scheduled fight against Donald Cerrone at UFC 205. Once again, the UFC nudged Gastelum to move up. This time he embraced the decision. Gastelum moved his training camp to California, and his skill level has continued to improve. Gastelum has gone on to reel off two straight wins, including a dominant striking performance against Tim Kennedy and a first-round stoppage over Vitor Belfort that was unfortunately overturned because of Gastelum’s positive test for marijuana. He lost his most recent outing against Chris Weidman, though.
This bout will be dangerous for the former middleweight titleholder Bisping in more ways than one. Gastelum presents some problems for the Brit on the feet. Stylistically, Gastelum is the faster, more agile fighter who has the ability to switch stances and land his strikes from varying ranges and angles of attack. Gastelum has a stiff jab that tends to be the all-star of his offensive attack. He does a great job of mixing in his boxing with his hard kicks to keep his opponents guessing. Gastelum’s ability to scramble in the wrestling and grappling exchanges keeps him out of trouble if the fight hits the clinch. However, former middleweight titleholder Weidman was able to exploit his size to wear on Gastelum and snap on the submission.
Bisping will have a size advantage when the fighters step into the Octagon. However, we don’t really know what Bisping’s headspace is like leading into a fight so soon after he lost his belt. It feels like Bisping jumped on this opportunity without much thought, which could either ultimately take all of the pressure off of Bisping or multiply the stakes should he lose back-to-back fights in less than three weeks time. This won’t be the last fight of Bisping’s career, whether he wins or loses. He will absolutely have his hands full with Gastelum on short notice, but let’s not forget that Bisping won the title on just two weeks’ notice.
Gastelum has all of the tools to pick up another huge win on his run toward contention, but expect Bisping to redeem himself in what looks to be his planned (at least to this point) final fight in London on March 17, 2018.
Henderson: Since he shifted to the middleweight division in 2008, Bisping has rarely had a major fight where people haven’t doubted him. The odds were near even for his fight with Denis Kang, for god’s sake. More recently, he was a betting underdog in what turned out to be winning performances against Anderson Silva and Luke Rockhold. He’s also lost in almost every other fight where he was the underdog — fights against Dan Henderson (in their first fight), Wanderlei Silva, Chael Sonnen and the aforementioned Rockhold (in their first meeting). Well, there’s some bad news for the Brit: BestFightOdds has the line at Bisping anywhere between +162 and +210 as I write this response. Gastelum, meanwhile, enjoys odds of anywhere between -227 and -275.
So, the general betting public is leaning toward a Bisping loss. It’s difficult to argue with that. The Brit did have his moments against St-Pierre, but his scrappy brawler style plays right into the hands of better strikers, wrestlers and grapplers. Bisping can adequately hang with almost anyone on the feet and defend himself well on the ground, but he’s also been prone to knockouts and fights where he just plain gets outworked for either a submission loss or a defeat on the scorecards.
Here’s the thing, though. Gastelum has struggled to post a signature win. He topped Belfort, but then the fight was overturned. He lost to Weidman, Magny and Woodley. He defeated Hendricks, Marquardt, Kennedy and even Belfort as all of those men were on the decline. So, I can’t confidently count out Bisping in this match-up. It’s hard to say the Brit is on the decline when he just beat Rockhold for the title less than a year and a half ago and has only lost to one of the all-time greats recently.
Gastelum will make this a tough fight, yes, but Bisping is always a tough opponent. The Brit has an incredible amount of experience and scrappy determination, and those qualities will shine through against Gastelum. Bisping will also benefit from the short-notice nature of the fight to redeem himself.
This card is heavy on local talent making their UFC debuts. While we’ll talk about those fighters more in the next question, which UFC veteran on the main card, outside of the main event, will make the biggest impact in China?
Henderson: Well, Jingliang Li draws fellow UFC vet Zak Ottow, who has given all three of his UFC foes a really tough time en route to split verdicts — two of which went Ottow’s way — so let’s rule them out. Alex Garcia, meanwhile, is too inconsistent, and he’s faced with a solid newcomer opponent in Muslim Salikhov. This brings us to the most unlikely of candidates: Alex Caceres.
Caceres is tasked with welcoming Guan Wang to the Octagon. The 31-year-old Wang is one of the best fighters in China, but the highly decorated Sanda, Muay Thai and kickboxing champion’s 19-1-1 mark in MMA comes through a career conducted mostly in his native China. Wang has faced a lot of subpar competition while padding his record. His only really tough test came against Bekbulat Magomedov, who was undefeated at the time and went on to capture the World Series of Fighting bantamweight title.
The 29-year-old Caceres can’t seem to string together victories too often, but he’s topped the likes of Cole Miller and Sergio Pettis during his UFC tenure. Caceres’ skills are often overlooked due to his flamboyant personality, but The Ultimate Fighter 12 alum is no slouch. He’s creative in the cage, and he has the UFC experience to know how to deal with tough situations. Furthermore, he works out of a camp with a strong wrestling background at the MMA Lab. That alone gives him an advantage over a fighter who hasn’t yet been exposed to the more wrestling-heavy American fight style.
Caceres might never earn a UFC title, but he can definitely play gatekeeper to a fighter whose record is likely embellished by low-level wins. Caceres will put up one of his stronger showings when he takes to the cage in China.
Aittama: Let’s continue for a moment with the discussion of Caceres and his fight with China’s Wang.
Caceres has produced inconsistent results throughout his UFC career, but he really is a solid fighter who has great moments at times. However, he has been hit with setbacks when facing high-level opponents or fighters who can frustrate him. Wang is capable of handing Caceres another one of the those setbacks.
While his resume is not that of his opponent, Wang does hold wins over Legend FC champion and ONE Championship title challenger Koji Ando, current Kunlun Fight featherweight titleholder Aliyar Sarkerov, UFC fighter Shane Young, and rising Chinese prospect Chengjie Wu. Wang has been competing in combat sports for over 15 years and has developed under the famed Xi’an University, which is renowned for its high-level wrestling and striking programs. Wang is very much a live dog in this contest, so expect the unexpected.
As for who will make the biggest impact in China, it’s Jingliang Li. “The Leech” has victories in five of his seven UFC bouts, with his only setbacks coming by split decision against Nordine Taleb and in a huge comeback for Keita Nakamura that resulted in a submission loss for Li in a fight Li was on his way to winning. Li has developed his game stateside and the results speak for themselves. Despite holding the Legend FC welterweight crown, he entered the UFC as an inexperienced fighter. His continued growth over the past three years lends to the fact that Li is here to stay in the UFC welterweight division. He is a fighter that has garnered headlines in his home country, and his return to compete in China will be big news for the local audience.
Guan Wang, Muslim Salikhov, Sheymon Moraes, Kenan Song, Xiaonan Yan, Bharat Khandare, Pingyuan Liu, Yanan Wu and Wuliji Buren — do we need to know these names?
Aittama: Yes, yes, and yes. This fight card features a heavy dose of Chinese prospects, and for good reason. This group of newcomers includes a blue-chip prospect, some high-level strikers, and the next wave of future MMA fighters in Asia. It’s tempting to write detailed breakdowns of each fighter, but let’s just tackle the important topics that could have a larger impact on the promotion.
Upon signing with the UFC, Salikhov is immediately one of the best strikers in the welterweight division. The “King of Kung Fu” is one of the most decorated Sanda practitioners in martial-arts history. He became the first non-Chinese athlete to win the King of Sanda tournament in 2006, and he holds multiple regional and world titles in the sport. Salikhov’s style of striking translates better to MMA than some more one-dimensional striking arts, because the sport includes takedowns, throws, trips and many more grappling techniques. The Dagestani fighter has found success since switching to MMA with 12 wins and 11 stoppages in his 13 pro bouts.
Salikhov’s striking is truly something to behold. Whether he is throwing spinning back kicks or a hard right hand, his opponent feels the power and technical prowess that Salikhov brings to the table. The Russian, who trains under coach Magomed Gadzhiev in Chengdu, China, won’t get an easy opponent in his UFC debut. He takes on Alex Garcia, who came to the UFC as a well-rounded fighter training out of the famed Tristar gym in Montreal. Garcia’s wrestling and athletic ability may give Salikhov problems. However, Salikhov can finish this fight at any point with one devastating strike.
Salikhov is a very popular fighter in China. His presence on this card and in the promotion will go a long way in the UFC’s development of the Chinese market, which is currently in the midst of a combat-sports boom. Out of all the fighters making their UFC debuts this weekend, Salikhov could make the biggest impact. Heck, he’s already calling out top-five welterweight Stephen Thompson in what actually is a winnable fight for the Russian striker.
Meanwhile, the blue-chip prospect of the bunch is Moraes. The Brazilian has won nine of his 10 professional bouts. He holds big victories over Luis Palomino, Robbie Peralta and Pedro Nobre. Moraes seems like the usual prospect to enter the UFC after 10 or so successful pro fights, but dive deep into his extensive striking background and incredible athletic ability and you’ll truly understand why he has such a high ceiling in this sport. Moraes was on my radar as a Muay Thai fighter who competed in Brazil and Thailand for many years before ever stepping foot into the cage. He put himself on the prospect map early in his career with five wins in his first year as a pro, including an absolute beatdown of UFC veteran and formerly unbeaten Nobre. Moraes’ striking level, combined with his athletic gifts, produced violent finishes as he continued his way up in the sport. The 27-year-old is defensively sound and will make an impact on the featherweight division.
Moraes’ first UFC outing comes against one of the bright stars on this fight card, Zabit Magomedsharipov. There is no doubt that this fight is going to be up for “Fight of the Night” honors, as both men are well versed in every area of MMA, especially on the feet. Even if Moraes kicks off his UFC career with a loss, he will have a bright future inside the promotion.
Henderson: Well, that covers Salikhov and Moraes. As for the others? Well, there are some maybes in there.
Wang needs to prove himself. I doubt he can do so against a fighter like Alex Caceres, but if he were to stun the former The Ultimate Fighter competitor, then he’d become a legitimate headliner for the UFC in China.
Song is coming into his Octagon debut while on a two-fight skid, so he’s probably going to have an uphill battle in the UFC. The promotion is giving him a potential softball by pitting him against Bobby Nash, who has two losses in a row via some form of knockout. Perhaps Song can put up a highlight-reel performance in his first Octagon outing, but it’ll be a struggle for him in any subsequent bouts.
Khandare is also entering the UFC following a loss, and Liu and Buren each have mediocre resumes in China. They’re all likely to see two fights each in the UFC, tops.
On the women’s side, there’s more hope. Yan and Wu each enter the Octagon with only one loss. The 28-year-old Yan has only lost once in her pro career, but the strawweight ended up in a no-contest outcome against Emi Fujino in the one bout that could have revealed whether she can hang with legitimate competition. Wu, on the other hand, has lost to Yana Kunitskaya, who stands as her only truly tough opponent. Yet, Wu, at only 21 years old, could still develop into a star that the UFC can at the very least utilize to promote events in the Chinese market.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Henderson: The prelim-card headliner between Sheymon Moraes and Zabit Magomedsharipov.
Moraes, who fights out of Team Nogueira, is a former World Series of Fighting bantamweight title challenger who has since moved up to featherweight. As a 135-pounder, he went into the third round with WSOF champ Marlon Moraes (no relation). As a 145er, he dropped UFC veteran Robbie Peralta and then decisioned the very seasoned Luis Palomino. The 27-year-old Brazilian has the potential to emerge as a contender in the UFC, too.
Magomedsharipov already has a submission win over Mike Santiago in the UFC. Prior to the 26-year-old’s arrival inside the Octagon, he held the Absolute Championship Berkut featherweight strap in Russia. The DagFighter export has six knockouts, but he’s also added five submissions.
These guys have a lot of finishing ability, and both men are underrated potential contenders. This should be an excellent war to end the prelims.
Aittama: The women’s strawweight division is consistently one of the most exciting divisions in the UFC. That trend continues at UFC Fight Night 122 when Kailin Curran takes on exciting Chinese newcomer Xiaonan Yan.
Curran has just one victory in her six-fight UFC tenure, but the 26-year-old has put on some tremendous fights in losing efforts. At this point, it’s hard to argue that Curran deserves to stay in the UFC after three straight losses, but she has benefitted from putting on exciting fights. Even before the UFC, Curran was in entertaining bouts with Kaiyana Rain and Emi Tomimatsu. During her UFC run, her inexperience reared its head when she took on an increased level of talent. She is in a do-or-die position with her potential fourth straight loss if she can’t perform in this upcoming bout. That should put the pressure on Curran and hopefully push her to raise her game.
Yan, 28, is a skilled striker who attended Xi’an university, China’s top Sanda school. She holds wins over fellow top Chinese MMA veteran Jin Yang and ONE Championship’s Gina Iniong. She started to gain some traction under the Road FC banner in her home country. Road FC was the first MMA promotion to be featured live on CCTV 5 in China, which has reported shows with more than 30 million viewers. The untapped potential that is the Chinese market is something the UFC is likely looking to take advantage of going forward. Yan is just one piece in that puzzle.
Yan is a wild striker who won’t back down in a firefight. She loves to throw lead-leg side and high kicks that keep her opponents guessing, but she won’t shy away from just throwing her hands in the pocket. Yan’s Sanda background keeps her on her feet, but she can be held against the cage against stronger opponents. Yan will bring the fight to Curran in what should be a surprisingly entertaining bout for fans unfamiliar with either fighter.
Pair this card with…
Aittama: A grain of salt. This event doesn’t have big-name fighters outside of the main event, but the match-ups will produce tremendous fights. There is plenty to watch for on this card, so before these names you likely cannot pronounce turn you off, do a little research and break through the negativity surrounding this event. It’s OK if this event doesn’t appeal to the western audience. It wasn’t meant to. The UFC produced an event that should be successful in one of the fastest-growing markets in the world. So, take this event for what it’s worth.
Henderson: I’m gonna go local on this one: some cream-cheese rangoons from Fire Kitchen. You know those crispy, overcooked things you can get at Panda Express? Well, this local downtown Albuquerque, N.M., spot makes something so much better. The batter is light and fluffy. The filling tastes delicious. It’s a perfect analogy for this card. There’s plenty of fluff — which is there for the Chinese audience — but it’s a delightful type of fluff that houses one hell of a tasty treat.
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 7 a.m. ET)
MW: Michael Bisping vs. Kelvin Gastelum
WW: Jingliang Li vs. Zak Ottow
FW: Alex Caceres vs. Guan Wang
WW: Muslim Salikhov vs. Alex Garcia
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 3:45 a.m. ET)
FW: Zabit Magomedsharipov vs. Sheymon Moraes
WW: Bobby Nash vs. Kenan Song
Women’s StrawW: Kailin Curran vs. Xiaonan Yan
BW: Bharat Khandare vs. Pingyuan Liu
HW: Chase Sherman vs. Shamil Abdurakhimov
Women’s BW: Gina Mazany vs. Yanan Wu
FW: Rolando Dy vs. Wuliji Buren
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