This article is part of our MMA Barometer series.
This Saturday marks the UFC's debut on ESPN. Although the TV lineup is a little confusing with the Early Prelims on ESPN+, Prelims on ESPN and Main Card going back to ESPN+, the card is a compelling one. Big name fighters such as "Cowboy" Cerrone, Glover Teixeira, Joseph Benavidez and Paige VanZant are included to ensure the UFC makes a big impact on casual ESPN viewers. The main event of the evening is a UFC flyweight title fight between current flyweight champion Henry Cejudo and current UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw. However, before that fight, the notorious Greg Hardy makes his UFC debut in the co-main event.
Hardy is a former NFL star who was essentially banished from the league due to domestic violence issues. He decided to practice MMA instead of trying to regain his status in football. Hardy is undoubtedly an elite athlete and currently holds a record of 3-0, with all three wins coming via first-round knockout. His competition has been mediocre to say the least, and in this fight he faces Allen Crowder, who is 9-3 with an 0-1 UFC record. Hardy will likely come out victorious, as the UFC intends to use his star power to add views, but I'm certainly not alone in hoping he gets finished by the more experienced Crowder.
The main event of the evening is an amazing fight. Henry Cejudo is fresh off a win over longtime flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, and Dillashaw is looking to become a "champ-champ." It seems as if everything but the weight cut is in Dillashaw's favor. He has a high striking volume and great footwork thanks to coach Duane Ludwig and will almost certainly have the advantage in the striking department. His MMA wrestling is arguably better than that of Olympic gold medalist Cejudo. It may seem as if Dillashaw has the advantage in many aspects of the fight, but Cejudo has shown steady improvement in his striking with each fight. He is also a very skilled wrestler. It will be vital for Cejudo to win the grappling exchanges if he wants to retain his title.
The ESPN debut of the UFC should be a great night of fights on an exciting new platform.
As always, below is your MMA barometer with fighters who are rising and falling, plus those in between.
Alexander Hernandez, UFC, Lightweight
Hernandez is currently riding an eight-fight winning streak which includes a pristine 2-0 mark in the UFC lightweight division. His impressive 10-1 professional mixed martial arts record boasts five first-round finishes. "The Great" is a well-rounded fighter who has a background in wrestling, and he has showcased his diverse skill set in his first two fights. In his UFC debut, on short notice, Hernandez starched UFC lightweight contender Beneil Dariush. In his second fight Herandez showcased his wrestling and cardio as he used a high pace and takedowns to win a unanimous decision against Olivier Aubin-Mercier.
This weekend will be a huge step up in competition for the young lightweight. He fights one of the most popular, and most dangerous, fighters in the UFC: Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone. The fight will be dangerous for Hernandez wherever it takes place. Cerrone is most well known for his striking but is a dangerous submission artist off his back. Hernandez's best path to victory is to jump on Cerrone early and try to get his sixth first-round finish. Cerrone is a notoriously slow starter. A victory in this matchup would catapult Hernandez up the lightweight rankings.
Next Fight: Donald Cerrone, UFC on ESPN+ 1: Dillashaw vs. Cejudo (January 19, 2019)
Gregor Gillespie , UFC, Lightweight
UFC on ESPN+ 1 showcases some of the most promising young fighters in the UFC. Gillespie is no exception. He is undefeated in his professional career with a record of 12-0, including a 5-0 mark in the UFC. "The Gift" has finished 10 of his 12 victories ,with a perfect balance of five victories via KO/TKO and five submissions. Gillespie is an elite wrestler. He wrestled for Division I Edinboro University and was a four-time NCAA Division I All-American and a 2007 NCAA Division I National Champion. Gillespie's striking has come along nicely and he is always a threat to dominate his opponent on the ground.
On Saturday, Gillespie faces a stiff test in the form of UFC veteran Yancy Medeiros. This is one of many fights that could garner Fight of the Night honors. As mentioned above, Gillespie has finished 10 of his 12 opponents. Medeiros has stepped into the Octagon on 11 occasions, and nine of those fight have ended in finishes. Combining those statistics with Medeiros' 83 percent takedown defense seems like a recipe for a fire fight. If Gillespie can pass this test with flying colors, he will undoubtedly be ready for a top-10 opponent.
Next Fight: Yancy Medeiros, UFC on ESPN+ 1: Dillashaw vs. Cejudo (January 19, 2019)
Alexander Volkanovski, UFC, Featherweight
Volkanovski is 6-0 in the UFC and made a huge statement with his second-round TKO of Chad Mendes in December. It was a back-and-forth affair that was awarded Fight of the Night. Volkanovski used his superior conditioning to outlast Mendes and get the finish in the second round when it appeared Mendes had gassed out. This marked two fights in a row that Volkanovski defeated tough veteran fighters, as his last win was a decision victory over Darren Elkins.
The win against Mendes resulted in "The Great" being the No. 4-ranked UFC featherweight. Brian Ortega and Jose Aldo are ranked one and two, respectively, but both have lost title fights to UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway. It seems the Australian is on the cusp of a title shot. Holloway is a tough matchup for any fighter, but Volkanovski's versatility could serve him well. He proved he was more than willing to engage in a striking contest in his fight with Mendes, but also showed he could force a grappling contest with 24 takedown attempts in his three-round fight with Elkins. It will be an interesting matchup if Volkanovski is awarded the title shot. If Holloway is looking for another formidable challenger before moving up to 155, Volkanovski is the fight to make.
Next Fight: TBD
Jose Aldo, UFC, Featherweight
Aldo only fought once in the past year since losing his bid to regain his title from Max Holloway. In his lone fight in 2018, he earned a first-round TKO victory over Jeremy Stephens after landing a beautiful liver shot that folded "Lil' Heathen." Based on that fight, it seems as if the Jose Aldo of old may be back. However, time is no longer on his side and the six-month layoff could have negative effects on the future Hall-of-Famer. Should Aldo be able to win emphatically against Renato Moicano in February, the UFC will have to entertain giving him a third shot at Max Holloway.
Aldo's fight against Moicano poses a lot of problems. Moicano is currently ranked third among active featherweights in significant strikes landed per minute (5.71), per FightMetric. On top of that, he is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with 7 of his 13 career wins coming via submission. This will be a big test for Aldo as Moicano is the No. 5-ranked UFC featherweight and looking to earn his first title shot. Aldo needs a similar performance to his fight against Stephens, or he could find himself on the losing side against the dangerous Moicano.
Next Fight: Renato Moicano, UFC Fight Night: Assuncao vs. Moraes (February 2, 2019)
Eryk Anders, UFC, Middleweight
Anders had a great start to his professional mixed martial arts career as he ripped off 10 wins in a row, including two in the UFC. However, since that time he has lost three of four fights. His first loss came against an aging Lyoto Machida, and the latest came against No. 14-ranked UFC middleweight Elias Theodorou. It seems that steps up in competition have been "Ya Boi's" undoing.
As mentioned above, it may have been a case of too much-too soon for Anders. Less than three years (and ten fights) into his professional mixed martial arts career he faced a UFC legend (Machida), a top-ranked UFC light heavyweight (No. 6-ranked UFC Light heavyweight Thiago Santos) and a top-15 middleweight (Theodorou). Moving forward it may be in Anders' best interest to fight a few opponents outside of the top-15 at middleweight. This will allow him to develop other aspects of his game, as he is essentially a pure striker that uses little grappling. If Anders can become a more complete fighter, he has a bright future in the sport and will fare much better against elite competition.
Next Fight: TBA
BJ Penn, UFC, Lightweight
Once again "The Prodigy" tried to make a comeback to the sport. The UFC tried to put him in the best position possible, pitting him against Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu wizard Ryan Hall. This seemed like a great matchup for the UFC legend because Hall is not known for his striking and Penn is a highly decorated BJJ black belt. He received his black belt after training for only three years and became the first American (and non-Brazilian) to win the gold medal in the black belt division at the World Jiu-Jitsu Championships.
None of these factors mattered in the fight. In his first action in 18 months Penn fell victim to a heel hook in the first round. The fight was standing, and Hall rolled for Penn's leg and quickly locked in the submission. It seemed that Penn injured his knee in the loss that was his sixth in a row dating back to 2011. The Hawaiian has been finished in three of the six fights and been beaten badly in decision losses in the other three. If his latest injury is not a sign that it is time for the future Hall of Famer to hang up his gloves for good, then nothing will stop Penn from continuing to attempt these sad comeback fights.
Next Fight: TBA