With current bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling currently on the shelf following neck surgery, the division continues to roll on. In fact, bantamweights will headline this weekend’s UFC Fight Night: Font vs. Garbrandt festivities.
The first name on the marquee is that of the UFC’s third-ranked 135-pounder Rob Font. He comes into this contest on a three-fight winning streak that includes performance bonuses for his last two outings: a “Fight of the Night” decision win over Ricky Simón and a second-round TKO over Marlon Moraes that earned a “Performance of the Night.”
Font’s opponent is former champion and the UFC’s current No. 4 bantamweight Cody “No Love” Garbrandt. After suffering through a three-fight skid, Garbrandt got back to his winning ways in his last appearance when he scored a second-round knockout of Raphael Assunção. He was slated to move down a weight class and challenge Deiveson Figueiredo for the flyweight belt, but a serious struggle with the COVID-19 virus forced him out of that bout and has kept him sidelined for nearly a year.
The co-headliner is a clash between the women’s strawweight division’s third- and fourth-ranked contenders. Yan Xiaonan, who sits in the three spot, takes on Carla Esparza, a former champion who is looking to work her way back to the title. Esparza has won four in a row heading into this fight, and a fifth straight victory could very well earn her a title shot against the woman she defeated in the division’s inaugural championship affair, Rose Namajunas. However, Yan is also on a hot streak. The Chinese star hasn’t lost since in her last 12 fights, including a perfect six-fight run inside the UFC.
The main card also serves as a showcase for heavyweights Justin Tafa and Jared Vanderaa, female featherweights Felicia Spencer and Norma Dumont, and flyweights David Dvořák and Raulian Paiva. The main card opens with a rescheduled contest at middleweight between Jack Hermansson and Edmen Shahbazyan.
UFC Fight Night: Font vs. Garbrandt takes place inside the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, as will all other domestic Fight Night events for the remainder of 2021. The prelims get underway at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN+. The main card follows at 7 p.m. ET and can also be seen on ESPN+. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Each time Rob Font has built some momentum in the UFC, he has been derailed. Now, the bantamweight is on the biggest winning streak of his promotional run. Can he break his past trend and beat Cody Garbrandt in this weekend’s headliner?
Sumian: Font is certainly capable of defeating any top bantamweight when he is focused and calculated in his approach. Thus far in his career, however, he has been unable to capitalize on his success in the UFC. This is punctuated by key losses against John Lineker, Pedro Munhoz and Raphael Assunção. Recently, the Massachusetts native has seemingly broken this pattern with a winning streak that includes a finish of Marlon Moraes. He remains one of the most well-rounded competitors in the weight class and has the ability to finish fights both on the floor and the feet. Font has certainly found his stride and will look to quite possibly earn a title shot if he is able to defeat one of the division’s most dangerous strikers.
When Garbrandt connects hand to face, it generally ends with his opponent lying on the canvas wondering what happened and why the bout was stopped. This has been the case for a majority of his opponents leading up to a title shot against Dominick Cruz and the dominant decision victory that earned him the UFC belt.
“No Love” had a rough go after claiming the title. He suffered three consecutive knockout losses, with many people questioning his chin. While two of those losses came at the hands of T.J. Dillashaw, who has since served a two-year USADA suspension for doping, it was believed that the damage had already been done and had impaired Garbrandt’s ability to compete. He was quick to remind fans that this wasn’t the case when he rebounded with a stunning walk-off knockout of the aforementioned Assunção.
Font will want to stay on the outside and use his range to fire off his jab, leg kicks, and any other weapons to negate Garbrandt’s fierce pressure and resilient forward movement. Meanwhile, Garbrandt will want to bait Font into a close-quarters boxing match where he can fire off his powerful hooks and uppercuts in the hopes of eventually landing a knockout punch. An impressive stoppage for either competitor will be the key to jumping the line and earning a dance with either Sterling or Petr Yan, Sterling’s upcoming opponent.
In many ways, this fight is stylistically similar to the match-up between Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic. The first fight between those two heavyweights resulted in Cormier successfully luring Miocic in and then landing a powerful short punch that sent the champ to the canvas. Garbrandt will do the same to Font on Saturday night. The former divisional kingpin will use his incredible footwork, notorious speed, and powerful punches to get inside and connect to Font’s chin. The result will be a first-round TKO victory for Garbrandt.
Petela: There is no doubt that Garbrandt has benefitted from spending time training in New Jersey with Mark Henry and company. The former champion looked much more calm and collected in his win over Assunção than he had in the two grudge matches with Dillashaw or his loss to Munhoz. He found the right balance between the fire that brought him to the top of the division and the precision that he will need to get back there. There is no reason to think that he won’t have that same balance here.
The difference is that he will now have Font standing in front of him instead of Assunção. The New England Cartel star is at the point in his career where he is putting all the pieces together. This fight will provide fans with a look at the best version of both fighters.
These men want to keep the fight standing, which makes this main event a fan-friendly affair. Garbrandt is arguably the hardest puncher currently residing in the bantamweight division, so he will have the edge in power. Font can crack as well, though. Garbrandt does have incredible footwork, but Font is a student of the game who will quickly be able to make reads and anticipate where Garbrandt’s strikes are coming from. This will allow Font to avoid getting hit with any thunderous strikes.
The counter-striking ability of Font will catch the former champion off guard early and often. This will frustrate “No Love,” who will fall back into the old slugfest mentality that cost him his consciousness three fights in a row. A well-placed check hook from Font will catch Garbrandt charging in and close the show before the second round ends.
Whether this win earns Font a title shot, I don’t know. However, it certainly puts him in position for a title eliminator while also serving as the biggest victory of his career.
Yan Xiaonan and Carla Esparza have both made strong cases for a women’s strawweight title bid with their recent winning streaks. Which of these ladies will move one step closer to gold, and how will they get there?
Petela: Esparza, who was the division’s first champion under the UFC banner, will move her winning streak to four and assert herself as a threat to the title once more.
If there is one person that perfectly illustrates just how quickly women’s MMA, particularly the strawweight division, is evolving, then it is Esparza. The current version of Esparza is miles ahead of the one that won the inaugural title seven years ago. Back then, she relied heavily on her collegiate wrestling background to take her opponent down and get to work. While that is still her greatest asset, her striking has improved by leaps and bounds in the years that have followed. No longer does she look stiff and rigid as she throws punches. Instead, she now has a much better flow on her feet and can hide a level change behind punches or kicks. This will be her key to success against Yan
It won’t be a walk in the park against someone as tough as the Chinese kickboxer, though. Yan has looked remarkable thus far in the UFC. Her last two outings were incredibly impressive, with a bludgeoning of Karolina Kowalkiewicz and a performance in which she used her jab to thwart Claudia Gadelha’s attempts to close the distance.
Esparza will be able to do what Gadelha couldn’t. She will score an early takedown and hold down Yan for the majority of the first round. The same can be expected in the subsequent frames, much to the shagrin of fans. Esparza’s evolved striking will be the key in order for her to get the fight to the canvas and maintain the upper hand. Without the threat she now poses on her feet, “Cookie Monster” would be unable to take down Yan.
Sumian: This bout will be an incredibly high-level affair. Esparza has certainly evolved into a much more well-rounded mixed martial artist with tremendously improved striking to complement her elite ground game.
However, expect the Chinese protege Yan to get the job done using her own impeccable striking. Yan will land precise counter punches on the former champion and also unleash the thunderous body kick that has been a staple of her arsenal for years. Yan is a special talent in the UFC and will lock up a title shot with her performance on Saturday.
Chris Barnett, Sha Yilan and Rafael Alves — do we need to know these names?
Sumian: It’s hard to pinpoint a group of UFC newcomers that bring as much experience to the cage as these three gentlemen do. They all warrant some attention based on that experience, their finishing ability, and the respective divisions in which they will compete.
Out of the trio, Barnett’s debut is certainly the most compelling. The 5-foot-9 heavyweight has compiled a 21-6 record outside the UFC, and it includes 16 victories by way of knockout and an active six-fight winning streak. While his physicality may be questionable for the giants of the heavyweight division, undersized heavyweights such as Mark Hunt have found success in the UFC by using their jaw-dropping power to land overhands and hooks on taller opponents.
The problem for Barnett is that he faces a very experienced Ben Rothwell, who is accustomed to fighting the stiffest competition in the league. Barnett is likely to drop a unanimous decision to Rothwell, but it is not impossible to imagine Barnett landing a powerful blow on the taller Rothwell. Barnett will rebound in his sophomore UFC appearance and provide fight fans with more than one memorable knockout before his time in the company concludes.
The remaining two debuts come in the lightweight division. Sha, who holds a 19-9 mark, and Alves, who sits at 17-6, bring with them a plethora of experience as they prepare to make their first official walk to the Octagon. They will both ultimately fall short to their respective opponents.
Petela: Agreed. This is an exciting class of newcomers who could all eventually make their mark in the UFC. Don’t tune out these fighters because of a rocky set of debuts. They will all quickly grow into UFC staples.
The biggest red flag, though, is Alves’ drastic weight miss in his originally scheduled UFC debut. He came in 11.5 pounds over the featherweight limit. This time out, Alves is fighting up a weight class, so hopefully he won’t have the same issue.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Petela: Court McGee. The Ultimate Fighter alum has been in the UFC since the 2010 conclusion of the reality show’s 11th season. The end is certainly coming for McGee, who has won just one fight since 2017. His last victory came in 2018 over Alex Garcia to snap a three-fight skid. He was unable to pick up a win in his most recent outing against Carlos Condit and thus enters this affair in the same predicament. McGee takes on Claudio Silva, who is also coming off a loss. If he can’t get past “Hannibal” on Saturday, then this will be the end of the line for the longtime veteran.
Sumian: Yancy Medeiros. Despite an exciting style, the Hawaiian athlete has never been an elite talent in the UFC. He, too, is on a three-fight skid, and a loss to Damir Hadžović would put the Diaz Brothers teammate in a position to be released sooner rather than later.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Sumian: Jared Vanderaa and Justin Tafa. These two heavyweights throw with bad intentions, and they will land on each other early and often. One of them will eventually connect more precisely and finish the fight via TKO. It will be an exciting slugfest up until this happens. The winner of this clash will be in a position to take home “Performance of the Night” honors, while the pair might even gain recognition for “Fight of the Night.”
Petela: Yancy Medeiros and Damir Hadžović. Both men have their back up against the wall following multiple losses. Hadžović has dropped back-to-back contests, while Medeiros has been on the losing end of three consecutive affairs. This is the perfect recipe for an all-action contest that won’t disappoint. This one won’t need the judges’ scorecards
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Petela: Jack Hermansson. “The Joker” is coming off a loss to title challenger Marvin Vettori and is just 1-2 in his last three fights. That one victory, however, was a nasty heel-hook submission of Kelvin Gastelum. Hermansson won’t want to spend too much time on the feet when he faces Edmen Shahbazyan this weekend. This one will go to the mat early, and Hermansson will hand the Glendale Fighting Club product his second straight loss in bonus-worthy fashion.
Sumian: Felicia Spencer. The former women’s featherweight title challenger lost a one-sided contest via decision to Amanda Nunes, the greatest female fighter on planet, in 2020. However, she demonstrated her resilience and toughness in that outing. Here, those qualities will allow her to snag a submission victory over Norma Dumont.
Pair this card with…
Sumian: The pregame. The majority of this card is focused on the co-main and main event bouts that will come to shape a number of match-ups for the back half of the year. The winners position themselves for title eliminators or cracks at the belt, while the losers get a slight bump down the ladder. In addition, a lot of eyes will be on the middleweight scrap between Jack Hermansson and young gun Edmen Shahbazyan. Shahbazyan remains one of the more marketable young middleweights currently active in the UFC, and a win here is necessary to rebound from his lone loss. So, grab your favorite pregame drink and snack and get ready for a night of notable contenders positioning themselves for future success.
Petela: This is another weekend packed with action in the lower weight classes. So, keep things light for this quasi-matinee affair with an array of appetizers and anything other than an IPA. You won’t want something that hoppy weighing you down, as you may need to leap out of your seat for more than a few fights on this card.
Main Card (ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET)
BW: Rob Font vs. Cody Garbrandt
Women’s StrawW: Yan Xiaonan vs. Carla Esparza
HW: Justin Tafa vs. Jared Vanderaa
Women’s FW: Felicia Spencer vs. Norma Dumont
FlyW: David Dvořák vs. Raulian Paiva
MW: Jack Hermansson vs. Edmen Shahbazyan
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 4 p.m. ET)
FW: Bill Algeo vs. Ricardo Ramos
HW: Ben Rothwell vs. Chris Barnett
WW: Claudio Silva vs. Court McGee
FlyW: Victor Rodriguez vs. Bruno Silva
FW: Joshua Culibao vs. Sha Yilan
LW: Yancy Medeiros vs. Damir Hadžović
LW: Damir Ismagulov vs. Rafael Alves
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