For a card that is stacked with bouts that are either title fights or fights with title implications, there is an odd malaise surrounding Saturday’s UFC 238 show in Chicago.
Perhaps its the usual disinterest from the casual crowd when it comes to the lighter weight classes, but there isn’t much more the matchmakers could do to create a compelling show with two title fights at the top and a number of established names and future stars backing them up. We know the competitors will deliver. Is that enough to entice viewers in the ESPN era?
Though flyweight champion Henry Cejudo has done everything in his power to boost his own quirky brand during fight week, you can expect him to be all business when he returns to 135 pounds to battle Marlon Moraes for a bantamweight title that was vacated in the wake of T.J. Dillashaw’s USADA bust.
And the same can be said for flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko as she enters her first title defense. “Bullet” was anointed as the next dominant champion the second the UFC opened up the 125-pound division and the oddsmakers agree as the on-paper matchup has her demolishing a resurgent Jessica Eye. However, given that no UFC champion has recorded more than two successful title defenses in their current reigns, calling any title bout a sure thing would be foolish.
In other main card action, lightweight stars Tony Ferguson and Donald Cerrone face off in what is arguably the most anticipated bout of the weekend, Jimmie Rivera looks to hand bantamweight blue chipper Petr Yan his first UFC loss, and Tai Tuivasa meets Blagoy Ivanov in a heavyweight contest.
What: UFC 238
Where: United Center in Chicago, Illinois
When: Saturday, June 8. The four-fight early preliminary card begins at 6:15 p.m. ET and will air on ESPN+, followed by a four-fight preliminary card on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available for purchase exclusively through ESPN+.
With every historic victory, Henry Cejudo keeps silencing the doubters.
That includes me. I predicted that he would lose his rematch with Demetrious Johnson and that T.J. Dillashaw would overwhelm him as long as Dillashaw made weight. Cejudo eked out a win over D.J. and blew out Dillashaw. His performance against Marlon Moraes should fall somewhere in between.
Which is to say I expect him to win by decision, but in convincing fashion. Moraes is yet to face a wrestler of Cejudo’s caliber and I believe that will be the key to a Cejudo victory here. The Olympic gold medalist has rarely relied on his main discipline to find success in the Octagon, so this is the fight where he does his best “GSP” impression and uses his striking primarily to set up takedowns and neutralize Moraes. Every moment that Moraes is on his back is one where he isn’t able to clobber Cejudo with an overhand right or a knee up the middle.
There should be a ton of fun scrambles here as Moraes is more than capable of rolling with Cejudo, but over the course of five rounds Cejudo will control the majority of the action and gradually drain the fight out of Moraes. If Cejudo wants to be the pound-for-pound best as he claims, sometimes that means fighting safe and smart.
Sorry haters, “The King of Cringe” will rule at UFC 238.
There’s almost no way I can talk you or myself into a Jessica Eye win here, though out of respect for Eye let’s discuss what the challenger brings to the table.
Eye’s mental fortitude cannot be questioned. Yes, the UFC has given her plenty of chances, but to actually trudge through loss after loss and then find a way to turn things around once she was able to compete in her natural weight class is a journey that has to be appreciated. There’s nothing flashy about Eye either. She has a strong jab, good timing on her combinations, and enough wrestling to get by. That’s what she needs to win fights and she’s done just that.
It’s once she runs into a champion like Valentina Shevchenko that she’ll have problems. Shevchenko’s kickboxing is on another level and she’ll also be the faster fighter when the two start exchanging. She’ll punish Eye’s lead leg with kicks and blister her mid-section with knees in the clinch.
Shevchenko’s underrated grappling could actually be what makes the difference here. Once Eye gets tired of being picked apart on the feet, she might decide to shoot in for a takedown and I can see Shevchenko stuffing her, gaining superior position, and raining down ground-and-pound before finishing with a submission.
Donald Cerrone is unbeaten since returning to lightweight, but more importantly he hasn’t lost since becoming “Dad Cerrone.” I actually picked him to lose to Al Iaquinta in Ottawa, and despite that prediction getting stuffed in my face, I am again picking against Cerrone.
Depending on how much you think Tony Ferguson’s troubling personal issues will affect his performances going forward, there’s no reason to assume that “El Cucuy” is going to be stopped anytime soon by anyone not named Khabib Nurmagomedov. Ferguson is, quite simply, one of the two best fighters in the world at 155 pounds.
On the feet or on the ground these two will match up well, with Ferguson having the edge in wrestling and pure boxing, and Cerrone being an active submission fighter and the stronger kickboxer. What could cost Cerrone is if he gets off to one of his characteristically slow starts. “The People’s Main Event” is that only in name, so they will have just three rounds to work and that favors Ferguson.
I also see Ferguson as having the greater capacity for taking damage and coming back in dramatic fashion. Cerrone has pulled victory from the jaws of defeat before, but if it develops into a free-for-all to see who falls first, my bet is on Ferguson putting Cerrone down and keeping him there.
I’m picking Ferguson, but don’t be like me. Don’t pick against Dad Cerrone.
Petr Yan is fun, isn’t he?
The Russian striking sensation gets his toughest test yet in the form of Jimmie Rivera, once the owner of an incredible 20-fight win streak and now a fighter who has lost two of his last three bouts. As big a test as this is for Yan, the pressure is also on for Rivera to show that he is a legitimate threat to make a run at the title and not just a guy who knocks off other fringe contenders.
The problem for Rivera is that he’s at his best when he can exploit undisciplined, limited strikers, and that won’t be the case with Yan. Yan is as accurate as they come at 135 pounds. If Rivera wants to turn this into a point-fight, Yan can play that game and he also has an extra gear that Rivera has yet to show in the UFC.
Once Yan starts loosening up, switching stances, and unloading with his more creative techniques, Rivera won’t be able to keep up. He’ll make it to the final bell, but the scorecards will belong to Yan.
As far as heavyweight matchups go, this one could be a chess match. So a word of warning to fans hoping for a big-boy slopfest and a fast KO.
It will be fascinating to see how the 26-year-old Tai Tuivasa rebounds from his first loss. Does he approach Blagoy Ivanov with the same reckless abandon that got him off to a 3-0 start in the UFC or will getting humbled by Junior dos Santos force a change in mindset? Either way, he’ll have a hard time putting away Ivanov, whose head is as hard as his fists.
Also, like “Cigano,” Ivanov is a fundamentally sound striker. He’ll make Tuivasa work to find an opening for his flurries. That said, Tuivasa has a way of pouncing when least expected so if Ivanov fails to settle into a rhythm, he could be left flat on the mat.
I’m liking the more technical Ivanov here if only because I have zero clue as to how Tuivasa will react to defeat. He could become frustrated again and lose focus, letting Ivanov dictate the pace en route to a decision nod.
Grigory Popov def. Eddie Wineland