Outside of the main event, what fight are you most excited to watch?
Riley Kontek: The fight I am most looking forward to will be Jan Blachowicz-Igor Pokrajac. Why? Somebody is getting knocked out. I am a big fan of Blachowicz and think he’s been dealt a tough hand since coming to the UFC. Pokrajac is a guy I don’t think should be on the roster, but I get his placement due to the fights being in Croatia. Regardless, these two will stand and trade. It should be a fun one, for sure.
Daniel DeMarco: By default, I have to go with Gabriel Gonzaga vs. Derrick Lewis. UFC’s first event in Croatia is exactly the kind of card you would expect when they go to a new country — it is stacked with a majority of fighters who are unrecognizable. You know a fighter is low on the totem pole when they do not have a Wikipedia page, and nearly half this card is constructed with such fighters. It does not mean the card will not be a quality event, it just means I’m limited in my expectations. But I can certainly expect Gonzaga and Lewis to put on a short, yet violent battle, likely with someone ending up unconscious. Those two are heavy-handed.
Travis Wakeman: Derrick Lewis vs. Gabriel Gonzaga. I’ve said it before, I’m a fan of heavyweight fights and I think this is a great test for Lewis, who I still feel can be a menace in this division if he can put together any kind of ground game. That said, Gonzaga is a crafty veteran and a loss for Lewis would knock him down a few rungs and would probably signal the fact that he’ll never be much more than a filler in the HW division. I feel it’s an important fight for Lewis. Not so much for Gonzaga, but he can still prove something with a win.
Go Paolo: There are plenty to get excited for but this UFC card may be the most unknown card ever judging by how many newcomers and foreign talent there are.
So I’ll run down some of the most intriguing fights. Let’s begin with Curtis Blaydes vs. Francis Ngannou. This is a showcase heavyweight fight between two beasts with explosive abilities and this is a good contender for a one-round finish from either guy. Don’t blink.
Maryna Moroz vs. Cristina Stanciu is a banger. Both women may be raw and not that technical but they make up for it with heart and ferocity. This will be unpredictably wild.
Mairbek Taisumov vs. Damir Hadzovic is an interesting tilt between two good strikers. Taisumov might be a step above Hadzovic, but the “Bosnian Bomber” will bring a fight with him.
Lastly there’s Robert Whiteford vs. Lucas Martins anchoring the UFC Fight Pass main event for good reason. Both fighters fight to finish and will make a good scrap that could win Fight of the Night.
Jordy McElroy: Outside of the main heavyweight fight, I’d have to say I’m particularly interested in the women’s strawweight bout between Maryna Moroz and Cristina Stanciu.
Some have made the mistake of writing Moroz off after she lost a tough unanimous decision to recent title contender Valerie Letourneau. After pulling off a spectacular first round submission win over Joanna Calderwood a year ago, “The Iron Lady” is still a serious prospect in the division.
And so is Stanciu, a former bronze medalist in the Wushu World Junior Championships.
Should a bad loss by Junior dos Santos signal the end of his UFC career?
RK: I don’t think it’s the end of his UFC career, but he needs to take some time off. The guy has been battered and beaten so badly in some of his most recent fights. For his decline to be so sharp is very troubling. It signals that he has taken too much damage in a short amount of time. If he loses to Ben Rothwell, especially via knockout, I think dos Santos needs to step away for a while and examine where his career is going.
DD: No, no, no. Leave the fighters alone. Losses are not the end of the world. Talented strikers with knockout power can stay relevant in the heavyweight division for a long time; Junior is just fine. If Rothwell beats him, it more means that Rothwell has genuinely crafted himself into a new fighter than dos Santos is just not good anymore. Although the latter is certainly possible; sometimes those wars in the cage take it out of you permanently. But I think a fighter is capable of knowing when it is the end for them. If Junior thinks so with another loss, then so be it. It is his decision though.
TW: Not necessarily, but it’s got to be close, which is shocking to say. He is just four-and-a-half years removed from knocking Cain Velasquez out and becoming heavyweight champion. More recently, he got a win over Stipe Miocic, the guy who is fighting for the title next. That said, it doesn’t seem like he’ll ever have the stuff to beat Velasquez again and his ugly loss to Alistair Overeem back in December showed that he’s clearly lost something. It’s not a must-win for JDS, but it’s awful close.
GP: There is a very good chance JDS gets finished by the destroyer that is Ben Rothwell. Sad to say but JDS’ best days are likely behind him. He was once the most dominant fighter in the division and won a UFC-record nine heavyweight fights in a row, most of them by devastating knockout.
If he loses to Rothwell I don’t think that’s the end of his UFC career. I don’t see the UFC cutting him so he either retires or gets told to. But a step down in competition could be the next logical step should he get clobbered by Rothwell and that would signal the end of his time as an elite fighter.
JM: There is no doubt that the two losses to Cain Velasquez’s took years off Junior dos Santos’ fighting career. He has looked significantly older and slower since that fight. Think about it. Here we are discussing his retirement, and he is only 32 years old.
Losing to Ben Rothwell by a devastating knockout should signal the death knell for dos Santos’ career. It’s better to get out too early than too late. However, I see Cigano sticking around at least a little longer regardless of the outcome.
Realistically, do you see the Overeem-Arlovski or Velasquez-Browne winners getting a title shot before a hypothetically victorious Rothwell?
RK: Overeem, yes. Arlovski, no. Velasquez, maybe. Browne, no. Rothwell has built himself up a nice little resume and has done so in destructive fashion. He’s also coming into this own when it comes to personality, so fans have taken to him well. I think the only thing standing in between him and a title shot is an Alistair Overeem victory. He has a win over Werdum and is similarly on a winning streak.
DD: Absolutely. I’m convinced that the UFC does not have a lot of faith in Rothwell as a fighter or as good business. If you ask me, his fight with Overeem was designed as a fight to make Overeem look good; Rothwell was being fed to Overeem. He flipped the script though, and since then the UFC has had to run with Rothwell’s unexpected resurgence in the division. The UFC would easily prefer one of the other four men to compete for the title though; they are all more marketable and more “suitable” to be champion of the promotion. And it is all the more reason to get behind the ultimate underdog of the heavyweight division.
TW: Yes, especially if it’s either Overeem or Velasquez. A dominant win by either or both of them would still have them ahead of Rothwell, even though Rothwell has beaten Overeem. Simply put, both of them are more attractive as challengers than Rothwell. However, in the case of Velasquez, he’d still deserve it over Rothwell. After all, he was scheduled to fight Farbricio Werdum in a rematch in February, but injuries changed that fight. There’s no way you could make a case that Rothwell deserves the shot over Cain, even if he beats dos Santos in the first round.
GP: It pains me to say as a “Big” Ben fan, but yes. I expect either of those two winners to get the next shot at the Werdum-Miocic winner. I won’t pretend to know how UFC matchmakers think, but I’d reckon the fighter’s overall persona, which includes their looks and character play a big role in determining where they stand with the UFC.
JM: I do.
Velasquez still appears to be leading the way as far as contenders are concerned, unless Fabricio Werdum successfully defends his title against Stipe Miocic and the UFC pulls a rabbit out of the hat and lands Fedor Emelianenko.
Despite putting together a four-fight win streak over stellar opposition, Rothwell still isn’t being taken seriously, and much of it is image-based. Rothwell doesn’t even look like a professional athlete, much less a UFC title contender. The god-awful post-fight belly dances aren’t helping his case either.
But it would be ludicrous to continue denying him a title shot. Rothwell is a dangerous heavyweight with exceptional skills. If he beats dos Santos, it would be a travesty to see him overlooked again.