The UFC takes over the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas for its annual year-end show at UFC 219.
In the evening’s headlining bout, Cris “Cyborg” Justino defends her women’s featherweight title against former UFC women’s bantamweight champion Holly Holm. Cyborg has looked like an unstoppable fighter. Her last 12 victories have come by knockout or TKO. Despite being in the middle of a 1-3 run, Holm will move up a weight class to take a crack at the UFC women’s featherweight belt. Holm has shown she can beat the seemingly unbeatable fighter before when she overcame Ronda Rousey, but Cyborg is an entirely different beast. Can Holm pull off another MMA miracle, or will Cyborg add another crushing victory to her resume?
Prior to the women taking center stage, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Edson Barboza square off in a pivotal lightweight contest. Nurmagomedov has proven himself to be among the division’s elite, but he hasn’t competed on a consistent basis in recent years. Barboza has struggled to get over the hump of beating a marquee name throughout his UFC tenure. The Brazilian features some of the best striking in the UFC, something he’ll undoubtedly need to use to derail the Nurmagomedov takedown machine.
The pay-per-view portion of the event also features rising star Cynthia Calvillo, who looks to take out former UFC strawweight champion Carla Esparza. The pay-per-view action kicks off with a battle of exciting welterweights, when Carlos Condit makes his long-awaited return against Neil Magny.
The preliminary portion of the card is packed with both recognizable names and quality action. Khalil Rountree welcomes Michał Oleksiejczuk to the UFC, Dan Hooker looks to derail the Mark Diakiese hype train, Myles Jury faces former World Series of Fighting featherweight champion Rick Glenn, and Louis Smolka takes on the surging Matheus Nicolau.
The festivities kick off with the UFC Fight Pass prelims at 7 p.m. ET before moving to Fox Sports 1 for the remaining preliminary bouts at 8 p.m. ET. From there, it’s off to pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET. COmbat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Kyle Symes preview the entire event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Holly Holm is 1-3 over her last four fights and just 0-1 as a featherweight in that span. Is she really deserving of this shot at Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino and the UFC women’s featherweight title? Is her mix of boxing and kickboxing enough to lead her to victory over Cyborg?
Huntemann: Is Holm deserving of a UFC featherweight title shot? No, she isn’t. That’s probably the easiest MMA-related question I’ve answered to date. The more I think about it, the more Holm’s victory over Ronda Rousey two years ago — and let’s not kid ourselves; that’s the only reason she’s even in this position — was a fluke.
Don’t get me wrong. Holm and her coaches had an absolutely flawless game plan coming into the fight against Rousey. And to Holm’s credit, she executed the game plan perfectly and exposed just how flawed of a fighter Rousey really was. But ever since that victory, Holm has looked like the thoroughly average fighter who barely squeaked by her first two UFC opponents before dethroning Rousey. I could go into detail about how pedestrian Holm has looked lately, but her record in that timeframe speaks for itself: one win and three losses, with that one win coming against Bethe Correia, who shouldn’t even be in the UFC.
The UFC women’s featherweight title is a joke, too, as is the UFC’s current process for determining who gets a title shot. It’s not Holm’s fault, and it’s not Cyborg’s fault either. There just aren’t enough talented female featherweights in MMA to go around. The UFC created a featherweight title for female fighters just to keep Cyborg under contract, as she is one of the few fighters out there who could still be considered a draw. And draws are in short supply for the UFC right now, since we still don’t know what Conor McGregor is going to do.
Now, to the actual question at hand. I like Cyborg in this fight. Holm can use her range, boxing and kickboxing to keep Cyborg at arm’s length and avoid her power, but Cyborg forces her opponents to engage. The Brazilian stalks her opponents down and presses the action because she doesn’t fear anyone else’s skill set and believes she’s the best striker in women’s MMA. She’s right, too.
Holm can hold out for a couple rounds, but eventually Cyborg will overwhelm her and finish the fight. Which then begs the question: who will Cyborg fight next?
Symes: The idea of “deserving a title shot” is one of a bygone era. It’s no longer about who deserves it, but rather what match-up makes for a bigger buyrate. Getting the big-name draws into title contention has always been the name of the game for fight promoters, but it seems like the concept of champions competing against the most deserving contenders has been completely thrown out the window.
With that in mind, I’d say Holm is the most deserving out of the choices the UFC had. The 135-pound champ, Amanda Nunes, is out until 2018. Valentina Shevchenko is dropping to 125 pounds. Julianna Peña is busy starting a family away from fighting. Raquel Pennington is on the shelf with an injury. Germaine de Randamie, the former UFC featherweight champ, has made it clear she wants no part of Cyborg. So, while Holm’s record is far from great, she’s the best remaining option.
As for the fight itself, I really like the clash of styles with Holm’s kickboxing and movement game going up against the raw power of Cyborg. However, one thing people may overlook is Cyborg’s ground game. Rather than chase Holm across the Octagon trying to pin her against the cage, Cyborg might look to mix in some takedowns to take advantage of Holm’s weakness there. Holm has the skills to neutralize Cyborg’s aggressiveness, but we’ve seen Holm be very hesitant at times, which is something you can’t do against the women’s featherweight champion. Cyborg is an unstoppable freight train that I have a hard time picking against until someone proves they can slow her down.
Khabib Nurmagomedov has had just two fights since 2014. Now, following more than a year on the shelf, he returns in a co-headlining slot opposite Edson Barboza. Is Nurmagomedov still a good bet to eventually hold a UFC title? Will his performance against Barboza launch him into a title fight?
Huntemann: This is probably the fight I’m looking forward to most on this card. This is yet another example of the clichéd striker-vs.-grappler match-up that fans and analysts love to pontificate about. But this is probably the best example of it that we’ve seen recently.
Barboza is one of the best pure strikers in the UFC. His head-kick knockout of Terry Etim in 2012 will forever be a part of UFC lore, but he also has memorable finishes against the likes of Evan Dunham and, in his last fight, Beneil Dariush. Barboza is such a quick, deadly and effective striker, and it’s amazing that he’s been in the UFC for seven years and has faced some of the best lightweights around, but hasn’t yet sniffed a title shot.
Nurmagomedov is probably the best around when it comes to neutralizing strikers. He just straight-up dominated another effective stand-up fighter in Michael Johnson in his last fight at UFC 205. Nurmagomedov’s credentials and skills on the ground are well known, so if he’s able to get Barboza down, then he might literally smother him for the win.
Of course, this is all assuming Nurmagomedov can make weight. We haven’t heard anything to the contrary yet, so let’s assume no news is good news. But Nurmagomedov’s planned fight against Tony Ferguson earlier this year fell apart at the last minute when Nurmagomedov went to the hospital the day before weigh-ins. You know what? I’m going to stop talking now and not risk jinxing it.
Symes: “The Eagle” has the skills and charisma to be a marketable champion for the UFC. His videos and social-media posts routinely do good numbers, but we’ve seen Nurmagomedov more on social media than in the Octagon for much of his recent career. To be a title challenger, he needs to become a more reliable employee for the promotion. We’ve seen UFC President Dana White sour on fighters who can’t hold up their end of the bargain, and despite Nurmagomedov’s impressive run, it’s tough for the company to trust him atop the lineup in a high-profile title match.
If Cyborg is the example of an unstoppable force on the feet, then Nurmagomedov is the other side of the coin. It seems like nobody can stop his grappling game. One of the few remaining specialists in MMA, Nurmagomedov has used his ground game to neutralize everyone in his path. It’s not just that Nurmagomedov takes people down at will, it’s the amount of punishment he delivers once he has his opponent on the mat. It’s hard enough to get back to your feet against a talented grappler like Nurmagomedov, but it’s even tougher while taking a devastating beating on the way up. How many people could get away with telling their opponent they need to give up in the middle of punching them on the ground? Nurmagomedov can.
However, to get the fight to the ground, Nurmagomedov is going to have to work his way around the dangerous striking game of Barboza. The Brazilian is not only one of the best strikers on the UFC’s roster, but he may be one of the quickest as well. His ability to launch crushing kicks and snapping punches will be paramount to his success in this fight. The name of the game will be keeping this fight on the feet, where we’ve seen Nurmagomedov look vulnerable at times.
As fast as Barboza’s kicks are, I don’t see his game working as well when he’s on his back foot. Although it was a few years ago, the aforementioned Johnson was able to neutralize Barboza’s kicking game to an extent by keeping the Brazilian on his back foot. Even if Barboza is able to fire off some strikes, they’re not going to have the same impact as they would if he was walking his opponent down.
Barboza might tag Nurmagomedov on the way in, but the forward pressure of Nurmagomedov will be the difference in this fight. Nurmagomedov by TKO.
Michał Oleksiejczuk and Mark De La Rosa — do we need to know these names?
Huntemann: De La Rosa is someone that we should keep an eye on. He’s stepping up on short notice against a tough fighter in Tim Elliott, who might be extra motivated to perform after getting the runaround from the UFC for the last few weeks. De La Rosa is undefeated, though, and five of his last six victories have come via finish. Hopefully Elliott doesn’t let his acrimony toward the UFC, no matter how justified it may be, affect his mindset for this fight.
Symes: Oleksiejczuk was scheduled to make his UFC debut at UFC 217 before the USADA took down his opponent, Ion Cutelaba. The Polish light heavyweight gets another shot in 2017 to make a successful UFC debut, but he draws an even tougher test this time around in Khalil Rountree. After a disastrous showing in the TUF finale, Rountree has improved drastically. We’ll see just how well Oleksiejczuk does against UFC-level competition. Even if he loses the fight, it’ll be viewed as a success if he can just keep it competitive against Rountree.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 219?
Symes: In the end, the biggest winner will be Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino. She’s been a dominant fighter for nearly all of her MMA career, but she has only one win against a big name (Gina Carano). That victory came back in the Strikeforce days, well before the new breed of UFC/MMA fans were tuning in. Cyborg has faced a lot of tough women throughout her career, but none of them have the name value of the woman who defeated Ronda Rousey. With a win over Holm, Cyborg will not only receive praise from well-informed MMA fans, but she also becomes a much more marketable name to the UFC’s casual fan base.
Huntemann: Khabib Nurmagomedov. I’m picking him to defeat Barboza, and I believe that doing so will solidify Nurmagomedov as the next No. 1 contender for the UFC lightweight title. We just need to find out if Nurmagomedov will finally have his showdown with Tony Ferguson, or if he will make the biggest payday of his career by targeting Conor McGregor instead.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 219?
Huntemann: I’m sure some people will scratch their head at this, but I’m going to say Cyborg. She will defeat Holm, but the UFC women’s featherweight title is a joke. Its first holder was stripped of the belt because she didn’t want to fight Cyborg, who won the belt after beating a third-choice replacement over the summer who wasn’t competing at her regular weight class. If Cyborg defeats Holm, then who is she going to fight next? The only possible match-up that sounds even remotely interesting is if bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes moves up to 145 pounds. Beyond that, Cyborg will continue to be a champion of a division that doesn’t really exist. She will continue to get the nice paychecks, but she won’t get much in the way of quality competition.
Symes: Quite a contrast in biggest loser/winner in this prediction, eh? At this point, Cyborg is more of an attraction to fans who simply want to see her knock out the opposition rather than see a match-up between quality contenders. As far as the biggest loser, I’m going to say the upper portion of the UFC lightweight rankings. If Nurmagomedov beats Edson Barboza, then “The Eagle” becomes yet another name in an already crowded title picture. You have McGregor, Ferguson, Eddie Alvarez, Dustin Poirier, Justin Gaethje and Kevin Lee all either worthy of a title shot or just one fight away from becoming a serious contender. With the logjam caused by McGregor’s absence from MMA, it’s highly unlikely we’ll get any type of clarity in the near future in regards to the UFC lightweight title situation.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Symes: I’m not sure how it’s flying under the radar — maybe because the overall card isn’t the best for a UFC New Year’s Eve event? — but the battle between Carlos Condit and Neil Magny has the makings of a “Fight of the Night” contest. I expect Condit to look revitalized after stepping away from the sport, making “The Natural Born Killer” an even more dangerous foe. Meanwhile, Magny doesn’t know the meaning of the word boring. This fight is the perfect choice to lead off the pay-per-view and get everyone hyped up for the evening’s remaining bouts.
Huntemann: The featured preliminary bout between Khalil Rountree and Michał Oleksiejczuk should do a more than adequate job of getting us excited for the main event. Rountree has back-to-back first-round knockouts of a violent nature, and he should be able to make it three in a row against Oleksiejczuk. You have to wonder who Oleksiejczuk upset to cause him to get booked against Rountree for his UFC debut.
Pair this card with…
Huntemann: Since this card takes place the day before New Year’s Eve, and I bet most of you probably stocked up on more bubbly champagne than you need, go ahead and pop one of those bottles open for this card. That way you can at least get a head start on the next day’s festivities.
Symes: A seat at your local sports bar. The card doesn’t have the biggest names, which means the bar isn’t likely to be as filled as it normally is for a UFC card. There are a number of fights that have a high potential to be exciting, so take part in a night out among friends and loved ones. However, maybe you want to take it easy on the alcohol since NYE is the next day. Do your liver a favor and get hydrated before Sunday’s festivities.
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
Women’s FW Championship: Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino vs. Holly Holm
LW: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Edson Barboza
Women’s StrawW: Cynthia Calvillo vs. Carla Esparza
WW: Carlos Condit vs. Neil Magny
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
LHW: Khalil Rountree vs. Michał Oleksiejczuk
LW: Daniel Hooker vs. Marc Diakiese
FW: Myles Jury vs. Rick Glenn
FlyW: Louis Smolka vs. Matheus Nicolau
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 7 p.m. ET)
BW: Tim Elliott vs. Mark De La Rosa
De La Rosa
MW: Omari Akhmedov vs. Marvin Vettori
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