Donald Cerrone (28-7, 1 N/C; 15-4 UFC) vs. Alex Oliveira (13-3-1, 1 N/C; 3-1 UFC)
Action fighter extraordinaire Cerrone looks to quickly get back on track following his one-sided title loss to Rafael dos Anjos and draws late-notice replacement Oliveira in what should be a fun matchup.
This bout was initially supposed to pit Cerrone against Tim Means, but a potentially failed drug test (warning: strong language) pushed Means out of the bout. His replacement, Oliveira, has won three in a row since his debut loss to Gilbert Burns, most recently knocking out Piotr Hallmann in November.
The second loss to Dos Anjos snapped an eight-fight winning streak for Cerrone. That run, one of the longest in UFC history, included victories over Jim Miller, Eddie Alvarez, Benson Henderson and John Makdessi.
It seems clear at this point that a title isn't in Cerrone's future, and the bout with Oliveira represents a return to what he does best: fun, relatively low-stakes battling. For Oliveira, however, this is a huge chance to get the first big win of his young career and make a name for himself in the UFC.
Oliveira is an intriguing bundle of athleticism and raw skills that still needs some seasoning. The Brazilian is enormous—he reportedly tips the scales at more than 200 pounds between fights—and boasts a 76" reach.
Quickness, strength and snapping power make Oliveira a dangerous threat everywhere but especially on the feet. He bounces around at range, measuring with his jab and cracking away with low kicks as he circles, and then he explodes forward into a three- or four-punch combination. Uppercuts are a particular specialty, and his right hand packs serious pop however he chooses to throw it.
While his mechanics can be inconsistent, Oliveira has a great understanding of rhythm and timing, which makes it difficult to predict just when he'll drop his combinations. He pushes a great pace and wears his opponent down with work to the legs and the body.
While he excels at exiting on an angle, he's also willing to stay in the pocket to exchange. He's a bit overconfident in his head movement and relies on it to the exclusion of any other defensive skills, however, which makes him hittable.
The same forward-moving combinations that make Oliveira a threat at range also carry him forward into the clinch, where his enormous frame and obvious strength make him a powerhouse. He's willing to grind against the fence and excels at landing sharp knees and especially uppercuts from a single-collar tie.
From a technical perspective, Oliveira still has a lot to learn about wrestling and grappling. He's willing to hunt for takedowns but isn't a skilled finisher and expends too much energy. His constant movement and physicality make him difficult to take down, but again, he's not terribly efficient.
The Brazilian is aggressive on the mat, with strong ground strikes from the top, and has a particular knack for finding the back in scrambles. On the downside, he's still raw and has trouble maintaining position for too long. He also has a bad habit of going for the submission before he has secured the position, which often leads to getting reversed.
Oliveira's physicality gives him incredible potential and upside, but the skill gaps remain obvious.
Range striking is Cerrone's bread and butter. He is an out-fighter who does everything in his power to stay at distance, using a consistent jab and front kicks to set the range.
Given space to operate, Cerrone is a buzz saw of lengthy kicks and consistent activity. Punching combinations set up a steady diet of crushing low kicks, and the high kick—Cerrone's primary finishing tool—plays off the consistent threat of shots to the legs. The same angles and motions that lead to leg or body kicks draw the opponent's hands out of position, and Cerrone excels at setting it up.
Cerrone is an extreme example of a rhythm fighter. He almost always starts slow and is both exceedingly hittable and inactive for the first several minutes of the fight. It takes time for him to get his timing and sense of the range, but once he does, he picks up the volume and gets his game going. Perceptive opponents jump on him from the opening bell and don't let him get settled.
Aside from being a slow starter, Cerrone's other consistent weakness is pressure. He's an open-space fighter who needs room to operate, and aside from a stepping knee he lacks the counter game and tight footwork necessary to keep himself away from the cage against elite opposition. With his back to the fence, Cerrone's lack of power and upright stance make him easy to hit and not terribly dangerous.
At range, Cerrone has both real strengths and defined weaknesses, and the question is whether his opponents can exploit the shortcomings before he gets his combinations and kicking game on track in the later rounds.
While striking is Cerrone's strength, he excels elsewhere as well. His takedown defense is almost bulletproof in open space, where his quick sprawl and great whizzer come into play, but it's less effective against the fence. He has a slick arsenal of well-timed doubles and knee taps that he could probably stand to use more often.
On the mat, Cerrone's guard is aggressive and dangerous, with slick chains of submissions and sweeps. He is competent on top and one of the best in the sport at finding openings to get to the back in transition, particularly if his opponent is hurt.
Cerrone -280, Oliveira +240
Those odds seem approximately correct. If all goes according to plan, Cerrone should be able to stick Oliveira at distance and work him over with a steady diet of smooth, technical punch-kick combinations and exploit the skill gap on the feet. The American is a better technical wrestler and a vastly superior grappler as well, and if he can get the fight to the mat, he should have a distinct advantage.
There are reasons to be concerned, though. Oliveira is much bigger than Cerrone, who told MMA Junkie that he's walking around at 175 pounds the week of the fight. Contrast that with the 183 pounds that Oliveira carried into the cage against Hallmann in his last fight at lightweight, and the size difference becomes clear.
If Oliveira can get this into the clinch and pressure Cerrone against the fence, that size difference and the Brazilian's edge in raw power could give American fits.
It's more likely, however, that Cerrone gets himself into some trouble against the bigger, harder hitter early but gets himself back on track on the feet and eventually takes the fight to the mat, where he can exploit his grappling advantage. Cerrone finds the submission finish in the third round.
All betting odds via Odds Shark.
Patrick Wyman is the Senior MMA Analyst for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Heavy Hands Podcast, your source for the finer points of face-punching. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.