This article is part of our MMA Barometer series.
After a three-week layoff, the UFC finally returns this weekend in Nebraska. The spotlight is deservedly on the main event between James Vick and Justin Gaethje, as the latter has three fights in the Octagon with three "Fight of the Night" bonuses. The strategy for each fighter is discussed below, and although a "Fight of the Night" brawl would be ideal for fans, it may not be each fighters' best path to victory. No matter each fighters' respective game plan going into the fight, Justin Gaethje fights are almost always worth the watch.
Regardless of who emerges victorious, Gaethje fights generally represent prime DFS opportunities. Both fighters will likely land a lot of significant strikes, and each possess the chins necessary to stay standing and continue delivering offense. Vick is the favored fighter in this situation, but at just $7,600, Gaethje is a good value pick who would help allocate salary to fighters who are more of a "sure thing."
For instance, it might make it possible to draft Bryan Barberena who fights Jake Ellenberger -- the victim of three consecutive losses by KO/TKO who shows the characteristics of an aging fighter with a shot chin. If you're playing the odds, Eryk Anders is a (-1000) betting favorite that checks in at $9700. For a more comprehensive breakdown of this weekend's fights and good value picks, tune in to Fight IQ tonight (Friday, 8/24) at 8:00 ET on The RotoWIre Youtube Channel.
As always, below is your MMA barometer with rising, falling, and check status fighters.
James Vick, UFC, Lightweight
Vick has quietly amassed a 9-1 record in the UFC. He has won four straight fights and finished three of them. "The Texecutioner" is extremely well-rounded. He is a former Golden Gloves champion and has excellent boxing footwork. The Texan has also developed great kicks over the course of his career and is very effective at kicking to the body. Additionally, Vick has long limbs for a lightweight, which helps him maintain distance in striking. Furthermore, it permits him to have a sneaky-good ground game with a variety of chokes at his disposal -- as shown in his submission victories over Jake Matthews and Abel Trujillo. Vick may not need to employ his submissions in his fight on Saturday, but will certainly need to be on point with his body work and distance control.
The rising UFC lightweight will face the most significant test of his career on Saturday against Justin Gaethje. Gaethje is known for engaging in wild brawls each time he fights and has the goal of breaking people with forward pressure. He rarely takes fights to the ground and has yet to attempt a takedown over his three-fight UFC career. The former World Series of Fighting Champion came into the UFC undefeated, but is just 1-2 and on a two-fight losing streak.
The good news for Vick is that in Gaethje's last loss, Dustin Poirier laid out the blueprint for defeating the brawler. He employed a technical approach, using footwork to stay on the outside and working Gaethje's body to drain his gas tank and set up a late-round stoppage. This is the same strategy Vick used against Marco Polo Reyes and James Duffy, although he was able to finish those fights early.
Gaethje is a durable fighter, but if Vick can stay on the outside, and use his unusually long reach (76 inches) and footwork to avoid getting in a close-quarters brawl with the former WSOF champion, he should be able to break down Gaethje and get a late round stoppage.
Next Fight: Justin Gaethje, UFC Fight Night: Gaethje vs. Vick (August 25th, 2018)
Anthony Smith, UFC, Light Heavyweight
Ever since making the move from middleweight to light heavyweight "Lionheart" has looked like a championship contender. He has two consecutive first round KO/TKO since switching weight classes, and it seems that avoiding the big weight cut is an advantage for Smith, as it is for so many fighters.
However, there is a caveat with his last two victories in that he fought two fighters who are on their way out of the sport in Rashad Evans and Shogun Rua. Evans had lost four in a row before he fought Smith, and Shogun is 36 years old with over 35 professional mixed martial arts fights. Nonetheless, Smith made short work of both men and Shogun had won three in a row prior to being knocked out by "Lionheart." Smith also has above-average power, as shown by his five wins by KO/TKO in his last six fights.
Smith has skyrocketed up the rankings and is now the No. 9-ranked UFC light heavyweight after just two victories in the division. His credentials will be tested against No. 2-ranked UFC light heavyweight and former title challenger Volkan Oezdemir. Oezdemir is 3-1 in the UFC with victories over the likes of Ovince St. Preux and Jimi Manuwa. His lone loss is to current UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier. "No Time" has little interest in grappling (zero takedown attempts through four UFC fights) and will likely want to strike with Smith.
Both fighters have great power and this fight will almost certainly end in a knockout. The difference may come in the hand speed of the combatants, and the smaller Smith likely holds the advantage in that area. He showed the ability to beat both Evans and Shogun to the punch, and this could very well end up being the same situation -- landing a punch a split second earlier than his opponent. If Smith is able to get past Oezdemir, he will be very close to a title shot at light heavyweight.
Next Fight: Volkan Oezdemir, UFC Fight Night: Oezdemir vs. Smith (October 27th, 2018)
Justin Gaethje, UFC, Lightweight
Gaethje came to the UFC as the undefeated World Series of Fighting lightweight champion. He arrived with a bang, defeating Michael Johnson by knockout in a thrilling brawl. Since that fight, however, Gaethje has been shown why the UFC is the most difficult promotion in the world. His style is to pressure opponents, use his All-American wrestling to counter-wrestle and keep the fight standing.
Once he began to fight top-five UFC opponents, that style was not as effective. Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier are some of the best fighters in the world, and are equal in toughness to Gaethje. They are also experienced enough not to wilt under his pressure. "The Highlight" lost to Eddie Alvarez in a fight where Alvarez was willing to trade with him, and both fighters took a lot of punishment. Alvarez was the more technical fighter and worked both the body and head for the majority of the fight, and was able to get the finish late when Gaethje became tired.
As mentioned above, when discussing James Vick's proposed strategy against Gaethje, Dustin Poirier set up the blueprint for how many UFC fighters could defeat the former WSOF champion. After two knockout losses in five months it is up to "The Highlight" to change his style if he wants to defeat top tier UFC talent.
Saturday will be the first opportunity for Gaethje to show that he can evolve as a fighter at this stage of his career. Though he was an NCAA Division I All-American wrestler, he has yet to attempt a takedown in the UFC. For long-term success to be attainable, Gaethje needs to start to use his wrestling to mix it up and keep his opponents guessing (as well as to protect his health). "The Highlight Reel" has participated in two grueling fights since December, and ended up on someone else's highlight reel in each.
With another short turnaround, Gaethje is likely susceptible to another knockout if he engages in a brawl with James Vick. However, if he uses his wrestling and keeps Vick grounded, it will negate head trauma and likely slow down Vick's footwork and movement, which would allow for Gaethje to close the distance and tee off during the stand-up.
The good news for Gaethje fans is he has tweeted multiple pictures referencing wrestling practice and seems ready to use his seemingly-forgotten skill. His best chance is to mix it up and be a true mixed martial artist. If he tries to engage in a brawl with "The Texecutioner," he will likely be outpointed (and possibly finished) by a longer fighter who holds a significant reach advantage with a 76-inch reach compared to Gaethje's 70-inch reach.
Next Fight: James Vick, UFC Fight Night: Gaethje vs. Vick (August 25th, 2018)
Michael Johnson, UFC, Featherweight
Johnson is the last man to defeat Dustin Poirier, but since that win has had big problems in the Octagon, losing three-straight fights and being finished each time. The fights were against top-notch competition in Khabib Nurmagomedov, Justin Gaethje and Darren Elkins, but Johnson showed some obvious deficiencies in ability and strategy.
He was soundly out-grappled by Nurmagomedov, which is not uncommon in the UFC, but he was also out-grappled by Elkins. In the Gaethje fight, he was willing to engage in a brawl with the former World Series of Fighting champion, which is Gaethje's strength. He paid the price and was knocked out in the second round. A more technical approach may have kept him out of danger and allowed him to pick apart "The Highlight." Johnson will need to have better grappling and discipline in his fight against Andre Fili on Saturday.
Fili is a tough opponent who seems to be hitting his stride in the UFC. He has two consecutive wins and has a total of nine takedowns between the two fights. Johnson will likely want to keep the fight standing, as he has decent power and Fili only has two knockouts in six Octagon victories. If he can stay disciplined and not leave himself open for a takedown there is a good chance Johnson will have the advantage in the fight. However, if he is put on his back early it could be a long night for "The Menace." Fili has no submission wins in the UFC but has shown in his last two fights that he can grind out his opponents and win decisions.
Next Fight: Andre Fili, UFC Fight Night: Gaethje vs. Vick (August 25th, 2018)
Cub Swanson, UFC, Featherweight
Swanson has hit a rough patch over the past nine months, losing three fights in a row. Prior to the losing streak, he had won four fights in a row and was primed to get another UFC featherweight title shot. Then, he ran into Brian Ortega and fell victim to a slick guillotine choke. Following that he was soundly outpointed by Frankie Edgar and then submitted once again against Renato Moicano.
Swanson is 34 years old (old by lighter weight standards), and his better days may be behind him. His time competing at the top of the division may be over, as he has just four victories in his last nine fights. The four victories were against fighters who are not ranked in the top-15 of the UFC featherweight division, while all five losses came against fighters currently ranked in the top five.
Next Fight: TBD