The UFC returns on Saturday, Aug. 25, with an action-packed evening from the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Neb.
Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje headlines his third UFC card in four fights against streaking top-10 opponent James Vick at UFC Fight Night 135. Gaethje entered the UFC on a 17-fight undefeated streak, but he has since dropped two of his past three and two straight fights, albeit against top-level competition in the form of former UFC champion Eddie Alvarez and top contender Dustin Poirier.
Vick, on the other hand, has won four straight bouts and nine of his past 10 inside the Octagon. He has scored stoppage victories over Joe Duffy, Jake Matthews and Polo Reyes.
The narrative surrounding this main event screams entertainment value. However, a win for Vick likely catapults him into contendership, while a loss for Gaethje would be devastating. Should Gaethje turn his fortune around, he’ll keep his name relevant in the top 10.
The night’s co-headliner also features one fighter looking for redemption and another looking to take the next step in his career. Former top-10 lightweight Michael Johnson has struggled in his past six fights, losing all but one of those contests. It’s not like Johnson was given an easy road, however. He was faced with the likes of current UFC lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov, the aforementioned headliner Gaethje, people’s champion Nate Diaz and Darren Elkins. Now, Johnson is looking to move past his setbacks. His opponent, Andre Fili, is riding back-to-back wins against Dennis Bermudez and Artem Lobov. The 28-year-old could be on the verge of contendership with an impressive performance against Johnson.
In the evening’s other main-card action, ranked women’s strawweights Angela Hill and Cortney Casey battle for divisional positioning, former top-10 welterweight Jake Ellenberger meets grizzled veteran Bryan Barberena, former UFC title challenger John Moraga fights top-15 flyweight Deiveson Figueiredo, and former Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Eryk Anders looks to come back from his first career loss against Lyoto Machida when he takes on Tim Williams.
On the preliminary card, The Ultimate Fighter 23 winner Andrew Sanchez looks to end his two-fight skid against former Legacy Fighting Alliance middleweight titleholder Markus Perez, former top-15 bantamweight Iuri Alcantara meets prospect Cory Sandhagen, Dana White’s Lookin’ for a Fight signee Mickey Gall battles East Coast grinder George Sullivan, and TUF Brazil 3 winner Warlley Alves takes on fellow TUF veteran James Krause. In the UFC Fight Pass prelim headliner, No. 15-ranked women’s strawweight Joanne Calderwood takes on former Titan FC women’s bantamweight champ Kalindra Faria.
The early prelims air live at 6:30 p.m. on UFC Fight Pass. The preliminary card continues live on Fox Sports 2 at 8 p.m. ET. The six-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1. Combat Press writers Schwan Humes and Zach Aittama preview all of the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Jame Vick has put up an impressive 9-1 mark in the UFC, but now he collides with former World Series of Fighting champion Justin Gaethje. Does Vick have any chance in this fight?
Humes: Vick has a chance, given his length, his ability to get better as the fight carries on, his boxing ability and his poise. However, he hasn’t faced a fighter who produces the volume, pressure and power of Gaethje, nor have Vick’s opponents had the physicality or durability possessed by the former WSOF champ.
In every fight, Vick has started out slow. He’s been out-struck, out-wrestled and physically manhandled in almost every one of the fights in his recent run. Then, he’ll make an adjustment. He’ll use his length, up his volume, engage in grappling exchanges or aggressively counter forward pressure. These adjustments allow him to turn the tide and take the victory.
Vick has faced athletes with comparable athleticism, such as Francisco Trinaldo, Jake Matthews and Abel Trujillo. He has also faced better boxers — Joe Duffy — and better grapplers — Trinaldo and Beneil Dariush — so we know Vick can navigate rough waters against fighters who have the skills, athleticism and experience necessary to finish fights or, at the very least, ride out clear decisions. The question is whether Vick can stand strong in the face of the maelstrom that is Gaethje.
Gaethje won’t be dissuaded. He won’t stop fighting. He won’t stop forcing the pace. He will, however, make Vick pay a price for every moment of success.
Vick is probably the better all-around grappler and the fresher fighter, since he has not endured as much punishment as Gaethje. Vick is clearly the better boxer, too. Gaethje has been exposed, extended and finished by fighters who have exploited his lack of boxing acumen. Vick is more than capable of doing the same in theory, but is he the caliber of fighter and warrior capable of surviving the war he will inevitably encounter? That’s yet to be seen.
Aittama: The read on the style match-up in this fight is pretty clear. It’s pressure versus distance and volume against precision, and it comes down which fighter can outlast the other.
Prior to Gaethje’s UFC debut, he was talked about as the next big thing in the division. His unstoppable streak of destructive finishes and incredible wars in the WSOF led to this unbeatable persona. Gaethje brought that aura into his fights with perennial contenders Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier. However, both fighters were able to use their superior boxing ability to eat up Gaethje’s energy with punches to the body. Both Alvarez and Poirier struggled in the early going with Gaethje’s forward pressure and low kicks. However, as the fights wore on, Gaethje started to get picked apart, walked into shots, and was no longer fighting efficiently or effectively. Now, that doesn’t mean Gaethje is so stubborn that he won’t try to mix in his wrestling, which would actually improve his chances on the feet by using feints and getting inside the reach of Vick, but based on his 20 fights prior, it’s likely he doesn’t look to fall back on his wrestling experience in this one.
This is the fight Vick has been calling for. “The Texecutioner” has spoken about it in interviews and taken to social media about wanting a guy in the top 10 for the past two years. Vick currently has one of the best records in one of the deepest divisions in the sport, so a step up in competition has been deserved. However, he’s been given the appropriate steps for his career to this point, having taken on difficult challenges in Duffy and Trinaldo in his past two fights. Gaethje will be another step above those fighters, but now seems like the right time for Vick to test himself in his biggest opportunity to date.
Vick has proven his skill set against the second tier in the lightweight division. Now, he will need to prove how bad he wants it against an opponent who won’t be willing to give him an inch of space. This fight will be an uphill battle from the onset. However, Vick should be up for the challenge.
Andre Fili grabs the co-headlining slot opposite Michael Johnson. Johnson is 1-5 over his last six outings, but that one win came against Dustin Poirier. Is Johnson capable of turning his career around, or will Fili be the latest fighter to hand him a setback?
Aittama: Johnson is absolutely capable of turning his career around, but this fight won’t be the measuring stick for that metric.
Fili is a bit of an enigma in the featherweight division. He’s never really taken his game to the next level or gained any momentum inside of the Octagon. For the large majority of his UFC career, he’s traded wins and losses — that is, until his most recent run of back-to-back victories to halt the pattern. Fili isn’t the most dynamic fighter, but he’s flashed his striking chops throughout his career. Fili tends to fall into the standard Team Alpha Male mode of wrestle-boxers with a good-to-average ground game. He might be best served to try to get Johnson on his back, where Johnson has been shown to have a limited number of options to get back up. Johnson has shown he can stop the initial takedown, but as his gas tank runs out, those attempts will become easier and easier, especially if Fili is be able to establish control and land some strikes from the top position.
As for whether Johnson can turn it around, the answer is a layered one that not only includes his current training camp, how he’s adjusted and improved since his downward spiral and, most importantly, his confidence level and his overall mental outlook on his career. Johnson has not only lost in fights where he was finding success, but he’s been broken and battered too. His last three fights have shown that despite Johnson’s standing as the superior athlete in the contest, there are major technical lapses in both his striking game and his ground game. Johnson has a very difficult time dealing with pressure on the feet. His best option for escaping this pressure is to throw punches to get his opponents off of him, which isn’t a bad option under the right circumstances and in a calculated manner. However, he limits his offensive options while moving backward without any real threat of a powerful counter strike. Despite Johnson’s limitations and seemingly stagnant skill set, his athleticism and physical strength should play more of a factor in this fight than his previous bouts against the likes of Khabib Nurmagomedov and UFC Fight Night 135 headliner Justin Gaethje.
Humes: Indeed, Johnson is more than capable of turning things around.
In this fight, Johnson is still the superior athlete, wrestler and more accomplished overall mixed martial artist. The main concern is whether the inertia of this losing skid has become too much for him to manage. On paper, there should be no way he loses this fight against Fili, who generally struggles when facing opponents he can’t physically overwhelm or athletically outclass. Fili isn’t going to be able to do either of those things to Johnson.
Win or lose, Johnson has been competitive with the very best, most experienced, durable, skilled and dynamic opposition. He has hurt some of them badly and out-worked them before eventually succumbing to them.
Johnson seems to have been found out, though. He hasn’t really improved the finer points of his striking. His approach, while effective, is incredibly obvious and somewhat limited defensively. So the book is out on him. He has only so many ways to attack, counter and defend. When an opponent can extend him where his athleticism isn’t as big a factor, then the holes in his game — his lack of defensive awareness and footwork, conditioning and counter grappling — become apparent. Johnson hasn’t addressed these flaws. Instead, he merely dropped a division to where his strength, power and durability should offset any balance found in improved quickness, agility and pace of opposition at featherweight.
Team Alpha Male isn’t great with game plans, defense, nuance or adjusting to fighters. Fili might not have the power or durability necessary to work through the tough spots against a guy of Johnson’s caliber athletically. Fili is capable of extending and finishing Johnson, but he may struggle to navigate the rough spots.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Humes: Angela Hill and Cortney Casey.
Neither fighter is particularly high in the strawweight rankings, but the constant upheaval of the division, as well as the amount of women who have or are planning to move up to flyweight, means that any standout win can make move a fighter by leaps and bounds.
Hill has the personality and social-media presence to be a star. However, she hasn’t been able to get enough wins or the right wins to get to the ranking she wants or justify the attention she has been able to create.
Casey has athleticism, and she has had the opportunities necessary to break through. Much like Hill, though, Casey hasn’t gotten the right wins to enter the elite levels or generate any real interest. If Casey scores a win over Hill, especially an exciting one, then it would instantly reignite her career.
Aittama: The battle between ranked flyweights Deiveson Figueiredo and John Moraga.
Unbeaten 30-year-old Figueiredo has racked up 14 wins in his pro career under the tutelage of the Marajó Brothers. After winning his first three fights inside the Octagon, Figueiredo will fight outside of his home country of Brazil for the first time. The Brazilian wild man is a powerful, athletic fighter who is well rounded in all areas of the game. “Daico” flashed his power in the Octagon when he dropped Marco Beltran with an uppercut and floored Joseph Morales with a short left hook. However, his bread and butter is his grappling game, where he is a bully on top with ground-and-pound and a sneaky submission offense.
Figueiredo faces his biggest test to date when he meets the former title challenger Moraga. The Arizona native has won three straight to put himself back into the top-10 rankings after dropping three fights, including ones to top competitors Joseph Benavidez and Sergio Pettis. Moraga still seems to be a largely underrated fighter in the division despite his success outside of encounters with elite fighters.
Moraga will likely be able to hang with the Brazilian on the feet. Figueiredo relies on his speed and power when attacking, which often leaves him open to be countered. Figueiredo is likely to bring this fight to the floor if Moraga starts opening up with his boxing combinations on the feet. Figueiredo is the superior grappler, but he is more likely to try to finish this fight with striking than a submission.
It seems like a quick rise for the Brazilian, but the match-up should provide the fans with an entertaining back-and-forth fight that has some meaning in the flyweight rankings.
Pair this card with…
Aittama: Your anticipation for college football. The fights will take place near the home of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, an illustrious university which has produced success in the college game. Prior to the kickoff of the college football season next weekend, watch what should be an entertaining night of fights. If you’re not a football fan, then you will continue to have your freedom on the weekends. Oh wait, this is a Fox Sports 1 card. Nevermind, you’re going to be stuck in front of your television for at least seven hours anyway. Enjoy!
Humes: Alcohol and friends. Most of these fights aren’t made to force growth or change in the division. Instead, they are winnable but competitive fights made to keep certain fighter active, paid and winning. With the exceptions of the Hill/Casey fight and the Gaethje/Vick bout, none of these fights will really cause dramatic swings in their respective divisions. The rest of the fights, even if there are upsets, won’t turn any division upside down or establish new contenders. We should see good fights, but not necessarily important ones.
Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 10 p.m. ET)
LW: Justin Gaethje vs. James Vick
FW: Michael Johnson vs. Andre Fili
Women’s StrawW: Angela Hill vs. Cortney Casey
WW: Jake Ellenberger vs. Bryan Barberena
FlyW: John Moraga vs. Deiveson Figueiredo
MW: Eryk Anders vs. Tim Williams
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 2, 8 p.m. ET)
WW: James Krause vs. Warlley Alves
BW: Iuri Alcantara vs. Cory Sandhagen
MW: Andrew Sanchez vs. Markus Perez
WW: Mickey Gall vs. George Sullivan
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)
Women’s FlyW: Joanne Calderwood vs. Kalindra Faria
LW: Drew Dober vs. Jon Tuck
BW: Luke Sanders vs. Rani Yahya
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