UFC 219: Cris Cyborg vs. Holly Holm Early Main Card Preview and Predictions

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistDecember 4, 2017

UFC 219: Cris Cyborg vs. Holly Holm Early Main Card Preview and Predictions

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    Christian Petersen/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    UFC 219 has a tough act to follow in Saturday night's UFC 218. Still, the event headlined by the women's featherweight title fight between Cris Cyborg and Holly Holm might just be able to pull it off.

    The full card currently stands as follows:

    • Cris Cyborg vs. Holly Holm
    • Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Edson Barboza
    • Jimmie Rivera vs. John Lineker
    • Cynthia Calvillo vs. Carla Esparza
    • Carlos Condit vs. Neil Magny
    • Dan Hooker vs. Marc Diakiese
    • Kamaru Usman vs. Emil Weber Meek
    • Louis Smolka vs. Matheus Nicolau
    • Myles Jury vs. Rick Glenn
    • Marvin Vettori vs. Omari Akhmedov
    • Khalil Rountree vs. Michal Oleksiejczuk

    Bout order is yet to be confirmed, but in all likelihood, that listing will likely hold up when the card goes down on December 30. With just a few weeks before the event, it's worth examining the top five fights on the card and discussing the X's, the O's and the storylines therein.

Jimmie Rivera vs. John Lineker

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    Jimmie Rivera is still looking for respect after stomping Urijah Faber.
    Jimmie Rivera is still looking for respect after stomping Urijah Faber.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Division: Bantamweight
    Jimmie Rivera (21-1), John Lineker (30-8)

    Somebody always gets burned when a UFC champion takes his belt to another division. Frankie Edgar got left behind by Conor McGregor's rivalry with Nate Diaz. Robert Whittaker has been twiddling his thumbs with former welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre taking over the middleweight division. On and on...

    With newly minted bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw looking to take his belt down to the flyweight division for a match with Demetrious Johnson, Jimmie Rivera is lined up to be the man left behind at 135 pounds.

    On paper, Rivera should already be lined up for a title fight. 5-0 in the UFC (21-1 in his career), he has defeated all comers, including respected names like Iuri Alcantara, Thomas Almeida and Urijah Faber. He has experienced little resistance en route to those marks and, by all measurements, should be a real threat to take the strap. With former champion Dominick Cruz out of the picture for the foreseeable future due to a broken arm, Rivera is the only logical candidate for a bantamweight title shot.

    Alas, he is instead running on a high-speed treadmill and will have to defeat a dangerous John Lineker in order to avoid being dragged to the back of the line.

    That's a tall order for Rivera. Lineker is beloved in MMA circles due to his relentless, high-octane offense built around savage punches to the body. That style is as effective as it is entertaining, too, translating into an 11-3 record in the UFC (5-1 in the bantamweight division).

    Rivera is capable of wrangling him and taking this one on the scorecards. It's a shame he is being forced to walk that tightrope at all, though.

    Prediction: Jimmie Rivera def. John Lineker by unanimous decision

Cynthia Calvillo vs. Carla Esparza

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    Carla Esparza is the champion the UFC never wanted, and she's set to face one of the UFC's new favorites.
    Carla Esparza is the champion the UFC never wanted, and she's set to face one of the UFC's new favorites.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Division: Strawweight
    Cynthia Calvillo (6-0), Carla Esparza (12-4)

    It's no secret that the UFC plays favorites with its fighters.

    The UFC will fly a chef to Brazil to make celebratory hot wings for Ronda Rousey, then publicly chastise Holly Holm a few months later for no particular reason. Dana White will blame himself for Sage Northcutt losing, then the man who beats him ends up buried on Northcutt's undercard later that year.

    Back in 2014, Rose Namajunas was one of those favorites. The promotional brass were smitten by the 21-year-old super-prospect's stellar run through The Ultimate Fighter season 20, and the finale card was meant to end with her coronation as the inaugural strawweight champion. 

    Carla Esparza threw a wrench into those plans by handily defeating Namajunas, and the UFC's response was, essentially, to hide her under the proverbial bed.

    The champion was an afterthought ahead of UFC 185 where she was set to notch her first title defense (a fact she openly discussed). And when she handed the belt over to Joanna Jedrzejczyk? Well, the company made the move to wipe her from history.

    She was buried in the middle of the preliminary card for her return bout at UFC 197, which she won in decisive fashion. As a reward for that, she was pushed down even deeper in her next fight, taking on a similar role on a Fight Night card in Canada. From there, she was practically reaching the earth's core, with her next prelim bout being bumped down to the barely watched Fox Sports 2.

    Even after being squirreled away, however, the "first-ever UFC strawweight champion" label gives her promotional value, and the UFC is looking to make the most of that by having Esparza lose to their new favorite female fighter, Cynthia Calvillo.

    Like the now-champion Namajunas, it's easy to see why UFC brass would be enamored with Calvillo. 6-0 in her pro career (3-0 in the UFC), Calvillo's time developing on the amateur scene has left her far more well-rounded game than her short record would suggest. Her solid finishing skills make her a tough opponent for anyone, and her heritage makes her a valuable commodity for the UFC as it continues courting Mexican fans.

    While a pay-per-view main card is where Esparza rightly belongs, the UFC is hoping she loses at UFC 219 in order to legitimize Calvillo. That's possible, given how formidable the Team Alpha Male product has looked to this point, but odds are that the wily Esparza leverages her wrestling base to grind out the decision win. 

    Prediction: Carla Esparza def. Cynthia Calvillo by unanimous decision

Carlos Condit vs. Neil Magny

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    Carlos Condit is back after a yearlong hiatus.
    Carlos Condit is back after a yearlong hiatus.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Division: Welterweight
    Carlos Condit (30-10), Neil Magny (19-6)

    It's hard not to be torn on Carlos Condit's return at UFC 219.

    On the one hand, it's a treat from an entertainment perspective. The Natural Born Killer is one of the most exciting competitors in MMA history, delivering a number of all-time great fights over the years and maintaining "must-watch" status whether facing the cream of the 170-pound crop or fellow fan-friendly sluggers. 

    On the other hand, it's more than a little bit concerning. Returning from a yearlong retirement, Condit is 2-5 in his last seven fights with each of those losses coming at a staggering physical cost. Though he isn't old at 33 years of age, his career has been an arduous one, with UFC 219 marking his 41st professional MMA bout (not counting his runs in boxing or kickboxing).

    It's impossible to guess what Condit will look like here and the UFC seems to know it, too, pairing him up with Neil Magny.

    Magny is a tough fighter with a large toolbox, but not somebody who necessarily strikes mortal fear into the hearts of his foes. While he is a formidable opponent who has deservedly hovered around the UFC's welterweight top-10 over the last two years, he doesn't have the brutal edge that would cause serious concern about Condit's well-being.

    A focused, physically sharp NBK has what it takes to keep the fight standing, win the striking exchanges and get the victory by either decision or late stoppage. Unfortunately, odds are that he is just too shopworn and rusty to pull it off.

    Prediction: Neil Magny def. Carlos Condit by unanimous decision

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Edson Barboza

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    Khabib Nurmagomedov competing is far from a certainty, given his extensive history of pulling out of fights.
    Khabib Nurmagomedov competing is far from a certainty, given his extensive history of pulling out of fights.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Division: Lightweight 
    Khabib Nurmagomedov (24-0), Edson Barboza (19-4)

    Who is Khabib Nurmagomedov? It's a question that has many answers.

    For casual MMA fans, it's a literal one. Who is he? Nurmagomedov is a name that pops up frequently on social media, stays perched near the top of the lightweight rankings and gets dropped on broadcasts frequently. There's no real face to put to the name, though, given how incredibly inactive Nurmagomedov has been since 2014.

    For hardcore MMA fans, it's a debatable one. Who is he, as a fighter? He's achieved near-mythical status with a chunk of MMA fandom based on his 24-0 record and rapid rise to elite status from 2012 to 2014, but his struggles to stay healthy and on-weight since have left him with no noteworthy names in the division on his record. Granted, he has wins over current welterweight Rafael dos Anjos and newly minted featherweight Michael Johnson, but the division he seemed poised to conquer three years ago is long, long gone.

    Nurmagomedov is set to return to the cage after his latest extended layoff at UFC 219 opposite Edson Barboza. It's an important matchup for the Russian, and a great opportunity to show that he remains firmly entrenched as an elite-level lightweight. 

    If the fight comes together, Nurmagomedov will walk into the cage a heavy favorite. If he's the same man he was in 2014, he will justify that with a smothering victory.

    Both of those things, unfortunately, are big "ifs."

    Prediction: Khabib Nurmagomedov def. Edson Barboza by unanimous decision

Cris Cyborg vs. Holly Holm

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    Holly Holm could exorcise the demons lingering from her three-fight losing streak by adding Cris Cyborg to her resume.
    Holly Holm could exorcise the demons lingering from her three-fight losing streak by adding Cris Cyborg to her resume.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Division: Women's Featherweight
    Cris Cyborg (18-1), Holly Holm (11-3)

    Women's MMA in the UFC has been flawed over its brief existence. The promotion has long viewed the bulk of its female roster as little more than cannon fodder for its favored fighters, frequently funneling green contenders into the sights of dominant champions while rarely affording up-and-coming talents the opportunity to mature.

    Two of the fighters who bucked that trend are Cris "Cyborg" Justino and Holly Holm. Both were well-established before entering the UFC. Both women undermined the promotion's carefully constructed Ronda Rousey myth. Both received harsh backlash from UFC brass and fans for it. Both, ultimately, soldiered on and enjoyed inconvenient but unignorable success.

    Now, after a remarkably strange series of circumstances, the promotion is forced to rely on them to headline one of the biggest events of the year. And though the company might not like it, fans almost certainly will.

    It's an interesting bout between fighters with remarkably different styles. Cyborg, known for her lengthy highlight reel filled with savage knockouts, is a bruising in-fighter who lands hard combinations in phone-booth range. Holm, who became an overnight star for her performance at UFC 193, is a wily counter-striker who punishes offensive advances and slips away before foes can respond.

    While Holm has the tools to outland Cyborg en route to a decision, the Brazilian's consistent dominance makes it impossible to pick against her. This will likely be a battle of inches, though, and if Holm can find her range before Cyborg, things could get very interesting.

    Prediction: Cris Cyborg def. Holly Holm by TKO in Round 4