UFC 231 Predictions: Bleacher Report Main Card Staff Picks
At this point, even the fans are tired of talking about it.
Anyone with even a passing interest in MMA knows the long story behind this fight, how it was canceled in July after Max Holloway, who is the UFC featherweight champion, showed some strange symptoms during a nationally televised interview. How the root cause of those symptoms, at least according to Holloway, has still not been identified.
Five months have passed, and now the match finally appears (for the moment) ready to launch. If it does go down, it will be Holloway's first fight this year despite a total of four—count them, four—attempts.
Saturday at UFC 231, he faces Brian Ortega, the brilliant challenger with the pop-idol looks. Dead-horse narratives (hopefully) aside, this is an outstanding matchup between two fighters at the peak of their games.
But the card doesn't end there. In the co-main event, Valentina Shevchenko and Joanna Jedrzejczyk battle for the vacant women's flyweight title. That's a lot of muay thai greatness in the cage, and there's no way that one won't deliver.
There are three more bouts on the main card to boot. Here's our predictions team to break it down and offer our picks: Matthew Ryder, Steven Rondina, Nathan McCarter and myself, Scott Harris. Let's get it on.
Jimi Manuwa vs. Thiago Santos
It's hard for me to imagine a bloated middleweight walking in and stretching a guy who's been at the top of the 205-pound heap for so long. That said, Jimi Manuwa has been near the top of the heap at a time when 205 was as bad as it's ever been, and Thiago Santos is a big, rugged guy when fighting at middleweight. I still think size counts, though, and Manuwa lands something nasty to get the win.
Manuwa, TKO, Rd. 2
Manuwa is good but undeniably on the decline, and I think the UFC is looking to take advantage of that by having an up-and-comer take a win off him. Santos is good enough to make the most of that opportunity, and he probably does that inside the distance.
Santos, TKO, Rd. 1
Technically, Santos made his light heavyweight debut in his last outing against Eryk Anders, but that was a short-notice fight where they agreed not to cut as much weight. This is his true 205-pound debut.
I don't think he'll be outgunned physically, but the striking of Manuwa will probably be a bit too much here. This could be a Fight of the Night contender with the two going back and forth. I'll take Manuwa by a third-round stoppage when Santos begins to slow down.
Manuwa, TKO, Rd. 3
Both of these guys are knockout guys. Usually, younger is better in these matchups. Since Santos at 34 is four years younger than 38-year-old Manuwa, and given Manuwa's two-fight losing streak, this one feels pretty open and shut.
Santos, TKO, Rd. 2
Hakeem Dawodu vs. Kyle Bochniak
I like Kyle Bochniak, even if I don't think he'll ever evolve into much more than an action fighter used to fill out a card. I'll take him in this one, probably after a little bit of plasma is spilled.
Bochniak, unanimous decision
Hakeem Dawodu is an interesting yet unproven prospect. I think that starts to change here. Bochniak is a fighter who should be able to challenge Dawodu a bit but still catch an L. It might not be easy or pretty, but Dawodu gets the job done.
Dawodu, unanimous decision
I'm sold on Dawodu here. In his two UFC fights, he has beaten one quality opponent and simply got caught in a quick choke the other. Bochniak should be a solid test for him, but I am not sure he is a step up in competition from what he has been fighting. It should be a 15-minute clean sweep for Dawodu.
Dawodu, unanimous decision
Bochniak is going to have to do more than beat Brandon Davis and Enrique Barzola if he's going to be considered a truly successful UFC fighter. Making it exciting isn't the same thing as winning. The next time any MMA fighter knocks out Dawodu will the first time. It won't happen this time.
Dawodu, TKO, Rd. 2
Alex Oliveira vs. Gunnar Nelson
Alex Oliveira has been a pretty steady performer, particularly as a welterweight. Gunnar Nelson has been a fan favorite for a while, and between his unorthodox striking and world-class grappling, he always seems to be on the precipice of a breakthrough. I've got Iceland's fighting son in a "y'all musta forgot" performance.
Nelson, submission, Rd. 2
It has always been tough to separate hypothetical fact from Joe Rogan-conjured fiction when it comes to Nelson, and he hasn't fought frequently enough to really help anyone draw conclusions. As such, I'm going to pick the tried-and-true workhorse Oliveira taking this by decision.
Oliveira, unanimous decision
I think the bloom is off the rose for Nelson as a potential title threat, but he's still a fantastic fighter. Oliveira is a dangerous opponent, but the methodical approach from Nelson will likely be the key factor of this fight. Oliveira takes more chances, and one chance too many occurs Saturday. Nelson gets him on the mat and chokes him.
Nelson, submission, Rd. 3
Welcome back to the UFC, Mr. Nelson. It feels like his bout with Demian Maia, widely viewed at the time as a matchup of the two best grapplers in the UFC, was more 2005 than 2015. Three injury-plagued years, a 2-1 record and most recently a 17-month layoff later, and it's hard to figure what Gunni has to deliver. Oliveira is a terribly inconsistent fighter, but his well-rounded skill set (including some outstanding jiu-jitsu) and recent win streak will catch the rusty Icelander flatfooted.
Oliveira, TKO, Rd. 2
Valentina Shevchenko vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk
Joanna Jedrzejczyk is among the greatest female mixed martial artists ever. Valentina Shevchenko appears to have the tools to get into that conversation. The two have fought as kickboxers, and Shevchenko has gotten the better of the bouts—a worrying trend if one contemplates that kickboxing has been Jedrzejczyk's path to greatness in MMA. Shevchenko will bully her way to wins at all ranges, and to one on the scorecards.
Shevchenko, unanimous decision
Jedrzejczyk is probably the better overall fighter in 2018, but size matters in MMA. Shevchenko is just going to be too big and too strong for Jedrzejczyk, and while I'm expecting it to stay competitive, I expect Shevchenko to walk away with a fairly clear-cut decision win.
Shevchenko, unanimous decision
I'm completely on the opposite end as Steven for this one. They've met on three occasions in muay thai, and Shevchenko won all three in 2006, 2007 and 2008. It's not just being the bigger fighter. She's better. Oh, and the ground game? Shevchenko is by far the better grappler of the two. Across muay thai, kickboxing, boxing and MMA, Shevchenko has lost just five times over a decade, and two of those are close fights against UFC bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes.
Jedrzejczyk is not necessarily a lamb being led to slaughter, but the pathway to the flyweight championship is very narrow. Shevchenko is the bigger, stronger, better fighter in virtually every aspect of the fight. She'll negate Jedrzejczyk's speed advantage and dominate in a five-round bout. I doubt she even looks like she has been in a fight by the end of the fifth.
Shevchenko, unanimous decision
Make it a clean sweep. Shevchenko has a size advantage and won't be chewed up or picked apart by Jedrzejczyk's muay thai. She has been champing at the bit for this moment since she set foot in the promotion. To the extent such a thing is possible in MMA, Shevchenko is a lock.
Shevchenko, TKO, Rd. 2
Max Holloway vs. Brian Ortega
This is about as good as it can get for the UFC in 2018: two young stars battling for a title made prestigious once again by a fighting champion. Max Holloway seems to be on another planet these days, absolutely shaming Jose Aldo in their two meetings. Brian Ortega is among the top grapplers in the sport and has shown frightening development in his stand-up with every fresh fight.
It's painful to have to pick against one of these dudes, but I'll take Ortega. There's reason to think we haven't seen his peak yet and that you might see pretty close to it come Saturday thanks to the improvements he's found in the gym.
Ortega, TKO, Rd. 3
The only thing that has me worrying about Holloway winning this is his health. The featherweight champ's cut down to 145 pounds is clearly taking a big toll on him at this point, and the fact that we have mystery health issues making him pull out of fights is beyond worrisome. Still, from an X's and O's perspective, he is among the best fighters in the world today. Ortega's great but just won't be able to handle a full-strength Holloway.
Holloway, TKO, Rd. 4
This stylistic clash is ridiculously intriguing. Ortega handles pressure well and combats it with his own. And pressure is a Holloway signature. Ortega's KO of Frankie Edgar also spoke to his fight IQ and calculated nature. He assesses the moments well to figure out the perfect moment to exploit his opponent and end the fight.
I'm all-in on T-City. The 25-minute nature of a championship fight can hurt fighters, but it is going to help him. He hasn't necessarily been a slow starter as much as he has used early rounds to figure out his opponent. That will play a critical role as he assesses the length and range of Holloway. Championship rounds will see Ortega get the fight to the mat and begin to assert a more dominant role. Holloway's biggest weakness comes to light, and Ortega strangles him as the new king of 145.
Ortega, submission, Rd. 4
These guys are going to meet in the middle and sort this out. And I can't wait. When two guys are this closely matched, I tend to go for experience. That favors Holloway. Both men have spectacular fight IQs, but if you can outthink Aldo twice, you're the smarter man unless proven otherwise. Ortega has that famous tendency to come on strong down the stretch, but I don't see that bothering Holloway. Assuming he can get past the weigh-in scales, the Hawaiian great hangs on to the belt.
Holloway, unanimous decision