As the UFC once again touches down at the TD Garden in Boston, the UFC light heavyweight division looks to welcome a new challenger from the weight class below. Former middleweight champion Chris Weidman seeks a fresh start in a new division. Weidman joins a long list of former 185-pounders, including his former rival Luke Rockhold, who have moved up to try their luck at 205.
Weidman will be met by a tough force in the top five of the division: undefeated rising contender Dominick Reyes. Reyes, who is currently 11-0 as a professional, most recently put his perfect mark on the line against Volkan Oezdemir in March.
The co-headliner of the evening is a highly anticipated rematch between Yair Rodriguez and Jeremy Stephens. If you tuned in for UFC Mexico City approximately a month ago, then chances are you were most likely not happy with the result of the first fight between these two featherweights. The contest lasted exactly 15 seconds before it ended due to unfortunate circumstances — Stephens was deemed unfit to continue after getting poked in the eye. The two men will get another chance to go at each other on Friday night, with massive stakes on the line for both of their careers.
Also scheduled to compete is Greg Hardy, who faces promotional newcomer Ben “Seki” Sosoli. Hardy, who has looked excellent in the majority of his Octagon time, looks to continue the fast and explosive start to the MMA career. Sosoli will be given a great chance to put his name out there against one of the biggest names to come into the sport of MMA in recent memory.
While the card has lost some steam after Zabit Magomedsharipov’s fight with Calvin Kattar fell through, the strength of the card remains substantial, with the likes of Joe Lauzon, Kyle Bochniak and Court McGee also in the lineup.
Despite its name, UFC on ESPN 6 won’t actually be televised on ESPN. Instead, the preliminary card airs live on ESPN2 at 6 p.m. ET, and the main card follows at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2. Combat Press writers Matt Petela and Jaewon Paik preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Chris Weidman has won just one fight through his last five outings and suffered all of his losses in this stretch by some form of knockout. Dominick Reyes is undefeated with six knockouts on his resume. Is there any other possible outcome to this fight besides a big finish for Reyes?
Petela: Yes. Unlike the case of Luke Rockhold, Weidman’s chin hasn’t looked overly suspect in his losses. Whether it was the cumulative damage from Rockhold’s hellacious ground-and-pound, the jumping knee by Yoel Romero, or the big right hand from Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza after they went to war for the first two and a half rounds, Weidman hasn’t looked like someone who can’t take a punch anymore.
The big question is how he handles the transition to light heavyweight. We’ve seen some fighters — Daniel Cormier and Kelvin Gastelum, for example — look great when they go up a weight class. Recently, however, there have been cases where the plan backfired. Most notably, this happened when Max Holloway challenged Dustin Poirier for the interim championship at lightweight, and when the aforementioned Rockhold made the exact transition that Weidman is making and ended up on the wrong end of a Jan Blachowicz left hook that left him with a broken jaw and UFC President Dana White calling for his retirement.
If Weidman carries the weight well and doesn’t seem overly bulked to the point where it’s detrimental, then he has an opportunity to turn this fight into a grinding grappling battle where, as an NCAA Division I All-American wrestler, he should hold a distinct advantage over Reyes. If he tries to stand and trade with Reyes, then he could end up staring up at the lights and questioning whether it might be time to hang up the gloves.
Paik: Sure, there are other possible outcomes. There are always other possible outcomes. But that doesn’t give Weidman any better chances to win the fight.
Let’s be honest: Reyes is a tough, tough match-up for the former champ. He is undefeated, and even though his last fight involved some controversy, we cannot deny that Reyes is a legitimate contender at this point. Even comparing the two physically, Weidman has a slight edge in reach, but Reyes has a couple of inches over him in height. It will be tricky for “The All-American” to close the distance.
Given Weidman’s recent form, it would be tough to bet against Reyes in this fight, especially considering that Weidman is debuting in a brand new division. However, if there is something to think about, it is that some fighters have been helped dramatically by not having to endure a brutal weight cut. It is certainly possible that this is the case for Weidman, considering that he did struggle at times to make the middleweight limit.
How Weidman got used to his new weight class over the course of his training camp will indeed be a big factor in determining his performance. The edge goes to Reyes, but don’t count out Weidman.
Things turned ugly last month when, 15 seconds in, the fight between Yair Rodriguez and Jeremy Stephens was halted as the result of an accidental eye gouge. Fortunately, fans get a quick turnaround with the rematch in Boston. Will the events of UFC on ESPN+ 17 provide an extra spark for Stephens?
Paik: The result of the last fight between these two men caused at least slight annoyance in many people, this writer included. Both fighters had been jawing at each other leading up to the fight, so it was extremely disappointing to see the contest end the way it did.
Whether or not what happened last month will act as a motivating factor for Stephens remains to be seen, and, quite frankly, no one knows except for Stephens and his team. I don’t particularly believe this to be an important factor in determining the winner, but it would be foolish to assume such a thing in this game. However, what is worthy of consideration is the fact that Stephens is on a two-fight skid, which is more of a motivating factor for someone like him.
Stephens has the edge. The veteran has the tools to separate anybody from consciousness with his hands. Stephens has historically struggled with wrestlers or guys who managed to stick to him throughout the fight — guys like Zabit Magomedsharipov and Frankie Edgar. This doesn’t mean Rodriguez isn’t a dangerous match-up for Stephens. Rodriguez, as shown in his fight against “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung, has weapons in his arsenal that we have never even seen before. If Rodriguez utilizes the correct game plan, then Stephens could be left guessing the entire fight, which could ultimately spell bad news.
This is one of those fights where you just don’t question the quality, and I am extremely happy that we at least get a chance to see it one more time. It also holds great significance for the division and the future title picture. With a win on Saturday night, either fighter could be on their way to receive or fight for a title shot in the near future. It will depend on the performance, but it is tough to imagine a scenario where this fight turns out to be anything less than phenomenal, with great action throughout.
Petela: Stephens will definitely have an extra spark heading into this quasi-rematch, but it’s hard to predict whether it will propel him to a victory or ultimately be his downfall. He could get overly aggressive in search of a highlight-reel knockout that leaves him feeling vindicated for the way Rodriguez spoke about him after the eye poke.
As a 45-fight veteran, Stephens will be able to harness the extra motivation into a productive shortened training camp without becoming stubborn in hunting for a knockout throughout the fight. If Stephens can utilize the personal nature of this fight in a similar fashion to the way Khabib Nurmagomedov used his hatred for Conor McGregor to focus him on the task at hand — as opposed to the way Cody Garbrandt let the drama surrounding his fights with T.J. Dillashaw overwhelm him — then the Alliance MMA product should be able to come away with a victory in a match-up where he may very well be the less-talented fighter.
Ben Sosoli, Jonathan Pearce, Diana Belbiţă, Sean Woodson, Sean Brady, Brendan Allen and Tanner Boser — do we need to know these names?
Petela: Sosoli takes on spousal-abuser-turned-MMA-fighter Greg Hardy. While he may be overmatched in the athleticism department, he has shown the ability to go 15 hard minutes at heavyweight. He also has extraordinary power in his hands, even for a heavyweight. I’m not saying he is the next contender in the division, but he might just be able to pull out a victory and thrill fans who are looking forward to seeing Hardy’s demise.
Pearce is another Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series alum making his promotional debut. After a three-fight skid in 2016-17, he has gone on to rattle off five straight wins. Pearce trains at the MMA Lab under John Crouch, so he shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s tough to say what his upcoming fight against Joe Lauzon will look like, mostly because Lauzon isn’t the same fighter he once was, but it is a home game for the Massachusetts native Lauzon, who could announce his retirement regardless of this fight’s outcome.
I don’t expect much out of Belbiţă other than a fun fight with Molly McCann. She has gone to the scorecards just four times in her 15 professional fights, which is incredible in the women’s flyweight division.
Woodson won’t be a mainstay in the UFC. He looked great on the Contender Series, but he is being fed to Kyle Bochniak in front of Bochniak’s hometown. Bochniak hasn’t won since the last time he fought in Boston, but this should be a fight tailor-made for him to rebound from back-to-back losses.
Brady is a former Cage Fury FC champion. Cage Fury is the same regional promotion that brought us Paul Felder. The undefeated Brady takes on Court McGee, who is always a tough out but has lost three of his last four. This could be a winnable fight for Brady, but he isn’t quite at the contender level at welterweight.
Fans should know Allen, who was a Legacy Fighting Alliance middleweight champion before getting his shot on the Contender Series. Allen takes on Kevin Holland, who has rattled off four straight wins since dropping his own promotional debut to Thiago Santos. Win or lose, Allen will stick around the UFC and should be able to make his way into the rankings. After all, he is only 23 years old and has an impressive 12-3 professional record.
Boser is a Canadian heavyweight prospect who also won’t be a promotional mainstay. However, anything can happen in the heavyweight division, so his fight with Daniel Spitz could end up being a dud or result in a highlight-reel finish.
Paik: There are exactly three names on this list that particularly stand out, and they are Allen, Woodson and Brady.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Allen last year, when he was getting ready to fight Anthony Hernandez for the LFA middleweight championship. It was quite interesting to try to get a better insight on his mindset and motivation, and he told me then, “I’m hoping I can go onto UFC and start doing big things there.” This is exactly what he is preparing to do on Friday. He has already gotten off to a great start on the Contender Series, where he submitted his opponent in the first round. Allen has plenty of potential to become a threat, especially with some of the biggest names in the division moving out. The weight class could certainly use a prospect, and Allen is as good as it gets.
Woodson comes into the cage with an undefeated professional record of 6-0. His fight with Bochniak should be an exciting match on its own, but Woodson has shown excellent skills both on the feet and on the ground. His last fight on the Contender Series ended in a devastating flying knee, which earned him an opportunity to fight in the UFC. Woodson could slowly but surely climb the ranks in the future.
Last but not least, Brady comes into the Octagon with an undefeated record of his own. He faces a very seasoned veteran in Court McGee, who has been in the promotion for nearly a decade now. While a win over McGee would not exactly help Brady move up the rankings, it would be a statement win that helps Brady put the division on notice.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Paik: Kyle Bochniak and Sean Woodson.
Bochniak, as we remember from UFC 223, came in unknown to majority of the fans, but he walked out of the cage to a standing ovation after his loss against Zabit Magomedsharipov. Even in defeat, he had gained a whole lot. He was aggressive and tough. Even though his last fight against Hakeem Dawodu was not necessarily the most exciting affair, Bochniak always has the potential to pull off the biggest sleeper fight on the card.
Woodson is the right type of fighter to be in there against Bochniak to deliver the most entertaining show possible. Although he has submission wins on his resume and has proven before that he can win the fight anywhere, Woodson does tend to keep the fight standing. With an undefeated record of 6-0, he has the potential to be a threat in this stacked division. The best thing would be for the fans to notice him this weekend, win or lose.
Petela: Great choice. In addition to that fight, the pairing that could steal the show and turn out to be meaningful is the fight between Randy Costa and Boston Salmon.
Salmon came into the UFC with high expectations, only to be stopped just 25 seconds into his debut at UFC 236. Costa also dropped his freshman affair in the UFC that same night. The prospect who drops this bout will have a tough row to hoe if they want to become a promotional mainstay. This should be a fun fight between two guys desperately in need of a victory.
Pair this card with…
Petela: It’s Autumn in Boston, so the answer is clearly Sam Adams Octoberfest. If you’re not a beer drinker, then you should pick up a case of Downeast Cider’s pumpkin blend. They use actual pumpkins to get the flavor, the real deal. This is the perfect pairing with a card that looks to determine whether its headliners are the real deal as light-heavyweight contenders.
Paik: Remember what happened last time the UFC was at TD Garden? Stipe Miocic managed to defeat Francis Ngannou at UFC 220 in a grueling five-round battle. Well, in honor of that and Miocic regaining his championship not too long ago, I’m going to suggest a Modelo.
Main Card (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET)
LHW: Chris Weidman vs. Dominick Reyes
FW: Yair Rodriguez vs. Jeremy Stephens
HW: Greg Hardy vs. Ben Sosoli
LW: Joe Lauzon vs. Jonathan Pearce
Women’s FlyW: Maycee Barber vs. Gillian Robertson
MW: Deron Winn vs. Darren Stewart
Preliminary Card (ESPN2, 6 p.m. ET)
FW: Manny Bermudez vs. Charles Rosa
Women’s FlyW: Molly McCann vs. Diana Belbiţă
FW: Kyle Bochniak vs. Sean Woodson
BW: Randy Costa vs. Boston Salmon
WW: Sean Brady vs. Court McGee
MW: Kevin Holland vs. Brendan Allen
HW: Daniel Spitz vs. Tanner Boser
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