This Saturday, Stephen Thompson finds himself in a matchup with a former UFC champion, but it probably wasn’t the one he was expecting.
After a couple of failed bids to win the welterweight championship two years ago, “Wonderboy” has kept busy while also lobbying for bouts with past titleholders Robbie Lawler and Rafael dos Anjos. Neither booking materialized, which made Thompson’s standing in the rankings murky. Now Thompson has surprisingly been paired up with former lightweight king Anthony Pettis for the main event of UFC Nashville and it’s still unclear what a win here will do for Thompson’s title hopes.
Pettis has never fought at welterweight in the UFC and his last seven fights have seen him alternate between wins and losses competing in the 145- and 155-pound divisions. This appears to be a high-reward, low-risk opportunity for Pettis, who would become an unexpected contender at 170 pounds with an impressive performance against Thompson.
The co-headliner features two heavyweights looking for a measure of respect. Curtis Blaydes is coming off of a momentum-killing 45-second loss to Francis Ngannou, while Justin Willis is looking to continue a four-fight win streak that has flown under the radar of most fans.
In other main card action, John Makdessi and Jesus Pinedo meet in a battle of strikers, flyweight contenders Jussier Formiga and Deiveson Figueiredo collide, Luis Pena a.k.a. “Violent Bob Ross” fights Steven Peterson in a 148.5-pound catchweight bout, and Maycee Barber and JJ Aldrich face off in their flyweight debuts.
What: UFC Nashville
Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee
When: Saturday, March 23. The six-fight ESPN+ preliminary card begins at 5 p.m. ET, and the event continues on ESPN+ with a six-fight main card beginning at 8 p.m. ET.
Stephen Thompson vs. Anthony Pettis
This is a fun matchup if you don’t overthink the stakes. Stephen Thompson, one of the UFC’s premier technicians on the feet, taking on Anthony Pettis, one of its most creative all-around fighters. As proud as Pettis is of his jiu-jitsu, he’s also a fan of throwing unorthodox strikes and Thompson has to be wary of Pettis taking some risks.
Whether any of those attacks will land on the evasive “Wonderboy” is another question altogether. He is a master at establishing range and in a bout where he’s expected to have the size and reach advantage, it will be even easier for him to keep Pettis at bay and have him catching air with whatever he throws at Thompson. Ever patient, Thompson will be content to pick away at Pettis with kicks to the body and leg, wearing Pettis down in the opening rounds.
For Pettis, he can increase his chances of landing something spectacular by using all kinds of unorthodox movements. Even the best defensive fighters can be thrown off their rhythm with a clever use of feints and controlled aggression. The threat of a takedown will also serve Pettis well as he’s much more of a submission threat on the ground.
However, it’s in the grappling where Thompson’s size advantage is even more pronounced. Against the sheer strength of Tyron Woodley, Thompson had difficulties keeping the former champion off of him. But his takedown defense is constantly improving and he’ll do well to avoid scrambling with the tricky Pettis.
Should he do so, as I expect, Thompson will cruise to a decision victory or maybe even find a finish in the later rounds.
Curtis Blaydes vs. Justin Willis
With respect to Francis Ngannou, Curtis Blaydes simply got caught in his last outing. And if he doesn’t respect Justin Willis’s finishing ability, he could get caught again.
Blaydes will want to shoot in early and often against Willis, a developing striker with pop in his left hand. All it will take is one mistake for Willis to clip Blaydes and finish him like Ngannou did. So Blaydes has to at least present himself as a threat standing up, even if he doesn’t plan to stay there.
Because on the mat is where Blaydes can make his money. He has an outstanding wrestling pedigree, as well as both the technique and muscle needed to tie up the burly Willis and plant him on his back. Ground-and-pound will soften up Willis and drain his gas tank, giving Blaydes control of the action as the fight progresses.
But Blaydes cannot trade with Willis, even if he has some striking success early. Willis will happily invite Blaydes to slug it out with him and should that occur, Blaydes is essentially leaving the outcome of this fight to fate. Let’s hope for his sake that he’s smart enough not to do that.
John Makdessi vs. Jesus Pinedo
John Makdessi’s cardio better be on point, because he’ll have to chase Jesus Pinedo for 15 minutes. One might describe Pinedo’s movements as “jittery”, and I mean that in the most complimentary way.
It will be fascinating to watch Makdessi attempt to figure out Pinedo, a 22-year-old prospect from Peru who switches stances and goes from defense to offense at the drop of a hat. Makdessi is at a significant reach disadvantage, so he’ll have to be at his most tactical to draw Pinedo into a range where he’s comfortable. When he finds his rhythm, Makdessi can be a daring kickboxer in his own right, and he has an arsenal of spinning strikes with which to punish Pinedo.
I’m leaning towards the experience and precision of Makdessi here, though young fighters like Pinedo are always difficult to count out. Makdessi by decision.
Jussier Formiga vs. Deiveson Figueiredo
This looks like a troubling matchup for Jussier Formiga, who has long had problems with opponents who can avoid being controlled by his grappling and outwork him on the feet. Deiveson Figueiredo fits that mold.
Figueiredo’s jiu-jitsu might not be on the level of Formiga, but he’s an aggressive ground fighter in his own right and can do damage from inside Formiga’s guard if he decides to mix in some takedowns. When striking, he likes to throw single shots as opposed to combinations, but given that Formiga’s output is typically low, that shouldn’t be an issue. Figueiredo will have time to measure Formiga before launching the straight rights and left hooks that he’s so fond of.
Formiga has a chance in any fight if he can get his opponent to the ground, so Figueiredo will have to be more cautious than usual to avoid becoming the next victim to get choked out by the flyweight veteran. Still, this is Figueiredo’s chance to make a serious statement and I think he earns a knockout victory on Saturday.
Luis Pena vs. Steven Peterson
It’s a shame that Luis Pena badly missed weight Friday, because this would have been a great opportunity for him to show what he can do in a new division. Then again, considering “Violent Bob Ross” stands at 6-foot-3 and already towered over his opponents at lightweight, it’s probably not surprising that he had trouble making the cut.
Regardless, that size will be a boon in his matchup with Steven Peterson. Pena’s long limbs make him a serious threat on the ground and while Peterson isn’t a fish out of water down there, it’s going to take a lot of work for him to navigate the rangy Pena down there. Peterson is well-rounded, but also untested in the grappling department since joining the UFC.
What Peterson can do is brawl. He’s great at it. Pena, on the other hand, has looked reluctant to pull the trigger on the feet and if his chin is diminished at all by a bad weight cut, he could be seeing stars should Peterson manage to back him up and attack with a flurry. It remains to be seen whether Pena is able to make his jab a legitimate weapon or if he becomes the Stefan Struve of the lighter weight divisions.
If he leans on his grappling, Pena should be able to become the first fighter to submit Peterson.
Maycee Barber vs. JJ Aldrich
The unassuming JJ Aldrich is developing a reputation as a scrappy underdog. Can she keep that up against ultra confident 20-year-old Maycee Barber?
Barber’s standup is still a work in progress and Aldrich has looked more assertive in that area with every appearance. She pieced up submission specialist Polyana Viana in her last outing and if Barber isn’t careful, she could find her hype train being derailed fast.
That said, the aggression Barber showed in her UFC debut and her dogged determination when it comes to attacking with ground-and-pound are what make her such an intriguing talent. Even if the striking isn’t going her way, she has the stamina to keep attempting takedowns even into the latter stages of the contest.
This is one of the more difficult main card fights to pick. Barber has looked great so far, but Aldrich is a legitimate step-up from her previous opponents and could represent the first speed bump of Barber’s nascent career.
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