UFC returns to Fox tonight with a card dotted with interesting matches and a couple that seem intended to introduce newer fans to some of its rising talent. They’ve used this formula to success with fighters like Paige VanZant and undoubtedly hope to do the same with Sage Northcutt who will be facing Bryan Barberena on short notice. Northcutt’s original opponent, an injured Andrew Holbrook pulled out of the fight on January 22.
The card will be headlined by a light heavyweight confrontation between two top competitors vying to stay in the hunt for a title shot, possible as early as 2016. Anthony “Rumble” Johnson (20-5 MMA, 11-5 UFC) returns to take on Ryan Bader (20-4 MMA, 13-4 UFC), and the co-main features two heavyweight favorites when Josh Barnett collides with “Big” Ben Rothwell. It may not have the same star power as previous UFC on Fox outings, but it’s fairly rounded and has a high stakes main event worth watching. Let’s take a look at the matches.
Anthony Johnson vs. Ryan Bader
Ah, the classic battle between a world class wrestler and a fighter whose kryptonite is the rear naked choke. Four of Rumble’s five losses ended in this fashion. Fighters like Koscheck and Cormier who have successfully put Johnson on his back usually do so by maintaining constant pressure and waiting for him to eventually wilt. Does Bader have this ability? Love him or hate him, Ryan Bader has been hitting the sweet spot lately between mixing successful standup strategies with his takedown game, but like man, he’s never been hit by anyone with hands like Johnson. Bader has one of the most consistent records in the division, but he has also never quite been able to cross the threshold between a gatekeeper and a truly elite light heavyweight. Defeating Johnson, the last person to stake a claim for the light heavyweight title, would help put him in the hunt for a shot, probably against either Daniel Cormier or Jon Jones depending on how that situation pans out.
Johnson has the reach and knockout power to end this in one punch. He’s rendered putty some of the most durable chins currently competing in the division. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira went to sleep in just 44 seconds, and Alexander Gustafsson, last year’s most hyped prospect to defeat then-champ Jon Jones, was done before the halfway mark of the opening frame. A disciplined Rumble has the ability to win this one, but he’s got to keep this one on the feet. It won’t be surprising to see him attempt at least one head kick KO during this one and utilize his surprising speed and footwork to keep Bader off balance.
Prediction: Anthony Johnson wins by first round TKO
Josh Barnett vs. Ben Rothwell
Former heavyweight champ Josh Barnett (34-7), one of the most decorated wrestlers the division has ever seen, will face on and off again knockout artist Ben Rothwell (35-9). Rothwell has put together a string of three straight wins, his longest streak in the UFC, while looking more impressive than ever in his last couple of outings. He returned after a one year suspension in 2014 to knockout Alistair Overeem, winning the fight as a large underdog, and he went on to submit Matt Mitrione in the first round of a 2015 victory.
He likely will not have the chops on the ground to roll with Barnett though. Barnett suffered a nasty TKO via elbows while attempting to drag Travis Browne to the ground at the end of 2013, but he’s been successful before and since that loss. In 2014 he became the first person to submit Dean Lister in a grappling contest at Metamoris IV, and in September he took Roy Nelson all five rounds for a decisive win. Barnett isn’t just a great grappler, he’s also one of the best tacticians in the sport. Look for him to use this skills to win another one.
Prediction: Josh Barnett wins via second round submission.
Iuri Alcantara vs. Jimmie Rivera
Have you heard of Jimmie Rivera (18-1)? Rivera is another young prospect looking to showcase his skill set on tonight’s event in a clash against fellow bantamweight Iuri Alcantara (33-6). Rivera began his career at 18, went 7-0 as an amateur, and turned pro just two years later. Rivera made his rounds before being signed by the UFC. He’s competed without loss within Bellator, WSOF, KOTC, and most recently won the CFFC bantamweight championship. Within the UFC, he’s 2-0 with wins over Marcus Bridge and Pedro Munhoz.
Alcantara’s record is a bit strange. Though he debuted in 2003, he only had nine fights in his first five years as a pro, and 31 occurred over the last eight years. Alcantara submitted Francisco Trinaldo in a 2010 match-up and KO’ed Ricardo Lamas, a former future title challenger, in a 2010 WEC match. Though he has eleven fights in the UFC, he has yet to have success of that caliber within the organization.
Both fighters are hit or miss and neither has shown anything particularly remarkable yet. That’s a bit more telling considering Alcantara has had considerably longer to move up in competition. Rivera will likely be defeated sometime in 2016 but tonight will not be the night. It’s another decision that should go his way.
Prediction: Jimmie Rivera wins via unanimous decision.
Sage Northcutt vs. Bryan Barberena
Bryan Barberena (10-3) isn’t exactly fodder, but the fight is meant to showcase Northcutt (7-0), an undefeated prospect at 170. Northcutt picked up three wins with Legacy FC, two in his most recent outing with the promotion, before receiving the call from the UFC. Northcutt is 2-0 in the UFC with wins over Francisco Trevino and Cody Pfister. He looks to continue the roll against Barberena who is taking the fight on short notice. We’re giving this one to Northcutt, but we’re going for the controversial win.
Prediction: Sage Northcutt wins via split decision.