This article is part of our MMA Barometer series.
It is the eve of the UFC 225, which may be the best card of the year from top to bottom. This event is so stacked that fan favorites such as Clay Guida, Joseph Benavidez and Rashad Evans are on the Fight Pass Prelims. The four fights on the Fox Sports 1 Prelims feature five top-ten fighters. The main card features two title bouts, along with a clash of titans between CM Punk and Mike Jackson (you thought I was serious for a second there). Jokes aside, the two title fights in this case are nothing short of exceptional. The co-main event is for the interim UFC welterweight title, and pits Colby Covington against former UFC lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos. The main event is a rematch of a UFC middleweight title fight from last July between Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero.
Covington and Dos Anjos is intriguing mostly due to fans wanting to see somebody quiet Covington's relentless trash talk, but it is an interesting stylistic matchup too. Covington is a powerhouse wrestler and Dos Anjos focuses more on striking, while also holding a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Dos Anjos will have the advantage standing, but the fight will turn on whether Covington is able to get the fight to the ground against Dos Anjos, who has traditionally possessed excellent takedown defense (Jake and Jon dive further into the takedown statistics on their UFC 224 podcast). If Covington can consistently get takedowns and use top pressure to negate Dos Anjos' BJJ, it could be a long night for the Brazilian. On the other side, Dos Anjos has looked like a new, fresher fighter since moving to welterweight and has lit up far better strikers than Covington. If the fight stays standing, it will be a long (or short) night for Covington.
The main event is a rematch between Whittaker and Romero for the middleweight strap. Whittaker won the vacant UFC middleweight title via unanimous decision against Romero last July. This is Whittaker's first title defense due to a knee injury suffered in that fight. My take on that fight is found below under "Check Status."
This should be an entertaining fight card and the pay-per-view is certainly worth purchasing, even for the casual fan. As always, below is your MMA barometer with rising, falling, and check status fighters.
Tai Tuivasa, UFC, Heavyweight
It may be a little early to start giving Tuivasa too much hype, but both of his performances in the Octagon have been impressive. This weekend is also a perfect opportunity for the Australian to get another finish and break out in the UFC heavyweight division. Tuivasa has a current record of 2-0 in the UFC, with both finishes coming via KO/TKO in the first round. In his debut against Rashad Coulter, he showed devastating leg kicks and surprising athleticism for a man his size. "Bam Bam" knocked Coulter to the ground with a leg kick towards the end of the first round, and as soon as Coulter got back to his feet, the 6-2, 264-pound Australian hit him with a flying knee that ended the fight.
In his second fight, Tuivasa showed his pressure and forward movement as he did not allow Cyril Asker to breathe and hit him with a barrage of fists and elbows. "Bam Bam" also showed striking prowess by not headhunting and mixing up strikes to the body and head. His next fight will be a big step up in competition and give Tuivasa the chance to show off more of his striking.
Andrei Arlovski is a legend of the sport and certainly more seasoned that Coulter and Asker. Arlovski is known for his striking and this fight is highly unlikely to find its way to the mat. It is a perfect way for Tuivasa to break through to mainstream fans, as the fight will take place on the pay-per-view card and there is virtually no chance he will be taken down and smothered. Arlovski is an older fighter who had lost five fights in a row (3 by KO/TKO) before winning decisions in his last two fights against Stefan Struve and Junior Albini. Arlovski is one of those older fighters who is still willing to trade strikes, but doesn't necessarily have the chin to withstand the pressure and power "Bam Bam" brings to the fight.
A concern this weekend is Tuivasa seemed to get a little sloppy with his defense when he had Asker hurt in his last fight. Asker was out on his feet, but Tuivasa's hands dropped as he was throwing strikes to finish the fight. If he does the same thing against a talented striker like Arlovski, even a wounded "Pitbull" could land a Hail Mary strike that would lead to an upset. This is a fight made to showcase Tuivasa, and he will likely improve to 3-0 in the Octagon, but he must stay disciplined to avoid getting caught by Arlovski.
Next Fight: Andrei Arlovski, UFC 225: Whittaker vs. Romero 2 (June 9, 2018)
Gregor Gillespie, UFC, Lightweight
Gillespie's style is best described as suffocating. He is a 2007 NCAA Division I national champion at 149 pounds and competes in the UFC's lightweight division. "The Gift's" professional mixed martial arts record is 12-0, with a 4-0 mark in the UFC. Gillespie utilizes his wrestling pedigree to perfection. He keeps the pressure on his opponent and has four or more takedowns in every UFC contest that has proceeded past the first round.
An aspect of his takedowns that is impressive is how often he finds himself in side control after a takedown. It lessens the transitions that Gillespie has to complete and allows him to get to mount in virtually every fight. Furthermore, he also has a sneaky weapon in the single leg takedown. Single leg takedowns are hard to come by in mixed martial arts because the combatants do not wear shoes. This allows the foot to slip out of the attempt and makes it difficult to complete.
As mentioned above, Gillespie gets to the mount in almost every fight. Once he achieves mount, he has a very tight squeeze in his preferred submission, the head and arm choke. Gillespie submitted both Jason Gonzalez and, most recently, Vinc Pichel with that submission. His dominant wrestling will make him a problem for any fighter in the division.
Though there are minor concerns about his striking defense, Gillespie must be given a top-15 opponent in his next fight. He's dominated overmatched competition to this point, the lightweights ranked 7-15 are currently tied to fights. It is unrealistic to imagine Gillespie would get a higher ranked fighter than that. In light of this, there are a few possible matchups after the aforementioned fights are completed. Two reasonable opponents could be Anthony Pettis or Michael Chiesa, though they are scheduled to face each other in July. Olivier Aubin-Mercier is also worth a mention, having just broke into the UFC rankings with a win over Evan Dunham.
Whichever way the lightweight picture develops, Gillespie is sure to be a factor in the division in the near future.
Next Fight: TBA
Robert Whittaker, UFC, Middleweight
Whittaker is currently on a tear through the UFC 185-pound division. "The Reaper" has won seven fights in a row, and finished four of them since his move up from welterweight. Whittaker has not fought in almost a year due to a knee injury he suffered in his last fight, which happened to be against the same opponent he will face this Saturday. There are two major questions going into this fight. First, will Whittaker show any long-term effects from the surgery or the injury? Second, will ring rust be a factor?
Neither of these questions can be answered until we see "Bobby Knuckles" fight Yoel Romero on Saturday. It just so happens Romero is the perfect barometer (see what I did there?) for where Whittaker stands. Romero was Whittaker's last opponent in July, 2017 when Whittaker won the UFC middleweight championship in a hard-fought unanimous decision. He won the fight after suffering a knee injury, which kept him out this past year, in the opening minutes. He was taken down four times by Romero, but he was able to almost immediately get back to his feet.
Whittaker's gas tank, even on an injured knee, was also superior to Romero's, as he won the final three rounds to claim the belt. If Whittaker is completely healthy and there is no ring rust, he should theoretically win an easy decision or finish Romero based on his performance when he was injured early in the fight. It is hard to imagine that a healthy Whittaker would not have finished Romero in the championship rounds of their initial meeting if his knee was at 100 percent. Romero merely survived the last two rounds in that fight.
That being said, if Whittaker's knee injury has lasting effects, he could find himself on his back often in this fight, lacking the explosiveness to get back to his feet. If he shows signs of ring rust it could be a very short night for him, as Romero is an explosive striker and has some of the most devastating power in the division. This is a world-class matchup, and as mentioned above, the perfect fight to gauge where Whittaker stands after his year-long absence and surgery.
Next Fight: Yoel Romero, UFC 225: Whittaker vs. Romero 2 (June 9, 2018)
Jake Ellenberger, UFC, Welterweight
Ellenberger has lost five of his last six fights. Four of those losses have come by way of KO/TKO. In three of them, he was finished were in the first round. This is not a good sign for a veteran fighter with 45 professional mixed martial arts bouts to his name. "The Juggernaut" made his first foray into the Octagon in over a year last Saturday against Ben Saunders at UFC Utica. He was promptly dispatched by Saunders in under two minutes. Saunders had previously lost three of his last four fights and been finished by KO/TKO in all three losses. Ellenberger still has power, as evidenced in his first-round knockout of Matt Brown, but never got a chance to use it in this fight.
It has become apparent that Ellenberger's chin has deserted him. This is a fighter who the UFC still advertises on its website as having a "granite chin." That is clearly not the case based on recent history. Up until 2014, Ellenberger only had one los via KO/TKO in a career that began in 2005. Since then, he has lost in the same fashion five times. That is a recipe for brain injuries and CTE. Ellenberger is only 33 years old, but with 45 fights in 13 years, he has a lot of mileage on him. It was only a matter of time before his chin was gone. At this point Ellenberger cannot be a stand-and-trade fighter or it is simple -- he will lose. He must go back to his base of wrestling which he developed as an NCAA Division II wrestler in order to avoid punishment. If "The Juggernaut" does not adapt this style, he will not be long for the UFC or the sport.
Next Fight: TBA
CM Punk & Mike Jackson, UFC, Welterweights
This is purely a PSA to not choose either of these fighters in any DFS lineup this weekend. Simply put, whoever emerges victorious is highly unlikely to garner enough striking points to land in the top scorers of the evening. Furthermore, betting on this fight is a gamble in the truest sense of the word, as anyone touting a particular outcome cannot be trusted -- there's just too much unknown. Neither of these fighters have much upside based on what we know in a very small sample size. Neither fighter has a professional mixed martial arts victory, yet they are the opening fight of a pay-per-view.
The two welterweights share a common opponent in Mickey Gall, who has a 1-1 record in the UFC in fights other than those against Jackson or Punk. Neither fighter was able to get out of the first round against Gall, with each ultimately succumbing to a rear-naked choke. The silver lining for Jackson is that even though he lasted less than a minute, he was able to land three jabs on Mickey Gall before being dropped by a straight right hand and submitted shortly thereafter. The silver-lining for Punk (real name: Phil Brooks) is he lasted a little over two minutes with Gall. However, Punk did not land one strike, takedown, or attempt a submission. A performance like that, with zeros across the board, has since been coined "punked" by MMA statisticians.
Taking the common opponent into account, it is unclear who has the advantage in this fight. Jackson does have boxing experience, which seemingly gives him the edge as the fight does start standing. If Punk has developed any sort of takedown offense and submission skills while training at Roufusport in Milwaukee, he may negate the striking of Jackson based on the grappling display Jackson put on in his short fight with Gall. As I mentioned above, do not choose either of these fighters for your DFS lineup and do not bet money on this fight (unless you truly just want to roll the dice). The lack of fight history and lack of skills makes it impossible to determine who will come out on top.
Next Fight: CM Punk vs. Mike Jackson, UFC 225: Whittaker vs. Romero 2 (June 9, 2018)