Opinion: ‘Don’t Sleep On This’ UFC 231 Edition

‘Don’t Sleep on This’ is a new segment I’m going to pump out leading up to every card about a fighter and/or matchup that should not be missed (a/k/a slept on).

The UFC is back in Toronto this weekend, the same place where Max Holloway won the interim belt on his way to becoming featherweight champion. Holloway will take on the undefeated Brian ‘T-City’ Ortega, who was originally scheduled to face Holloway back in July at UFC 226 before Holloway was pulled from the fight due to ‘concussion-like symptoms’. The co-headliner will crown the women’s flyweight champion, after Nicco Montaño was stripped of the title back in September. Valentina Shevchenko will face former strawweight champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk, in which many, (including myself) consider a superfight. The card is rounded out with the return of Gunnar Nelson, a fantastic light heavyweight bout between Jimi Manuwa and Thiago ‘Marreta’ Santos and possibly the next flyweight title challenger bout in Katlyn Chookagian versus Jessica Eye.

Kicking off the FS1 prelims, lightweights Olivier Aubin-Mercier and Gilbert Burns were rebooked after Burns was deemed medically unsafe to fight at UFC on FOX 28 in February. OAM was riding a four-fight win streak before losing to Alexander Hernandez at UFC on FOX 30 in July. Burns had a small win streak of his own before being stopped by Dan Hooker at UFC 226. Burns, who is a 2nd degree BJJ black belt, has been finding his hands as of late. Burns last two wins have come by way of devastating knockout, to Jason Saggo and Dan Moret. OAM on the other hand, scored his first TKO finish at UFC 223 against Evan Dunham; his other eight finishes have come by submission (seven by rear-naked choke). It will be interesting to see if Burns will try to use his power to get Aubin-Mercier out of there, or take it to the ground, which can result in a grappling clinic. My pick: Burns via submission

The fight that follows is one that carries some animosity. Erik ‘Ya Boi’ Anders had called out Canada’s own Elias Theodorou after his win against Tim Williams at UFC Fight Night 135 in August; but in September, Anders answered the short notice call and moved up to light heavyweight to face Thiago Santos in Brazil; a fight that didn’t go his way but was fight of the night nonetheless. Anders says this fight is ‘just business’, but Theodorou plans to show him there’s levels to MMA and ‘break’ him ‘mentally and physically.’ Anders was the first ever LFA middleweight champion before getting his call to the UFC. Anders’ only two losses in 13 professional fights were in Brazil to legend Lyoto Machida and LHW Santos. Elias Theodorou, the Ultimate Fighter: Nations winner, has gone 7-2 over his UFC career, but has been known to take the safe approach in fights, only scoring two finishes in those contests. Regardless, he has victories over notables Sam Alvey, Cezar Ferreira, Dan Kelly and most recently Trevor Smith back in May. I’m curious to see how Anders will approach this fight, and if he will fall into Theodorou’s pace. My pick: Anders

Up next is a potential women’s flyweight #1 contender fight. Katlyn ‘Blonde Fighter’ Chookagian takes on Jessica ‘Evil’ Eye. Chookagian went 2-1 as a bantamweight before returning to flyweight and has won two straight against Mara Romero Borella and Alexis Davis. Jessica Eye is on a two-fight win streak of her own since moving to flyweight, taking out Kalindra Faria and Jessica-Rose Clark. Eye had a rough and frustrating bantamweight run, going 1-5 with a couple split decision losses and a no contest due to testing positive for marijuana (a fight which she won). Now back at her natural weight of 125, Eye believes the flyweight title will be hers eventually. This is a very hard fight to predict, as Eye should have the upper hand in the stand-up, Chookagian is a BJJ brown belt under master Renzo Gracie. My pick: Chookagian’s height and reach will be the difference maker

Gunnar Nelson hasn’t fought since UFC Fight Night 113 in July of 2017. The result of that fight was KO loss to title challenger hopeful Santiago Ponzinibbio. Nelson was poked in the eye moments before the knockout, but nonetheless it marked the third loss on his UFC record. Nelson came into the UFC riding a nine-fight win streak and continued that with four straight UFC wins before dropping a split decision to Rick Story in his first main event. Nelson was scheduled to face Neil Magny at UFC Fight Night 130 in May, but withdrew with an injury. Now he’s scheduled to face Alex ‘Cowboy’ Oliveira, who’s riding a two-fight win streak and only has one loss in his last eight bouts. ‘Cowboy’ has beat the likes of former Bellator champ Will Brooks, Tim Means, Ryan LaFlare and former interim champ Carlos Condit. Oliveira has been more active than Nelson, but Nelson has spent this camp in his homeland of Iceland, instead of SBG Ireland, and has added some power lifting to his training, as you can see here. If ring rust is a real thing, Nelson might have trouble with Oliveira, who excels on both the ground and stand-up, while Nelson is primarily a grappler who has added a lot of strength to his game so it seems. My pick: Gunnar Nelson is back, and is going to put the welterweight division on notice

One of the fights I’m most looking forward to Saturday is the light heavyweight showdown between heavy hitters Jimi ‘Poster Boy’ Manuwa and Thiago ‘Marreta’ Santos. Jimi Manuwa was at one point in contention for a title shot after flooring Ovince Saint Preux and Corey Anderson in back-to-back fights, but losses to Volkan Oezdemir and Jan Blachowicz stalled that. Thiago Santos moved up to light heavyweight for his last bout, a win against Eryk Anders. Santos had won five of six fights before that at middleweight, finishing opponents in four straight; three ending with kicks, including title challenger hopeful Anthony Smith. Santos adds some new blood to the light heavyweight division, and Manuwa is looking to get back on track. One thing is for sure, someone is going to sleep, most likely early. My pick: Thiago ‘Marreta’ Santos by KO

Valentina Shevchenko holds three wins over Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Those wins are in amateur kickboxing bouts dating back to 2008. 10 years later these two will meet again for the vacant women’s flyweight championship. Shevchenko had a crack at the bantamweight title about a year ago, but couldn’t seem to figure out champion Amanda Nunes. Shevchenko then moved to the flyweight division in February with an absolute dismantling of newcomer Priscila Cachoeira, a fight that should have been stopped way earlier. Shevchenko was set to face former champion Nicco Montaño, but Montaño’s weight cut issues came up again and the fight was called off, and eventually Montaño was stripped. Long-reigning strawweight queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk defended her title five times before losing it to Rose Namajunas, but she bounced back in July with a win over Tecia Torres. When an opportunity came up to book Shevchenko and Joanna, two of the UFC’s best strikers, it was a no brainer. After a main event failed to materialize at UFC 230, Shevchenko was briefly linked to fight Sijara Eubanks for the vacant title at that event, but luckily the original fight got back on track when a main event was found. This is going to be a very entertaining fight not to be missed, and I’m curious to see if Shevchenko’s ground game will come into play at all. My pick: Shevchenko

The main event for UFC 231 was supposed to happen in July at UFC 226 but during fight week Max Holloway was showing signs of ‘concussion-like symptoms‘ and was taken to the hospital, subsequently calling the fight off. Holloway seems to be healthy now, and one of the most anticipated featherweight title fights in history will finally happen. Brian ‘T-City’ Ortega is an undefeated BJJ black belt under Rener Gracie who has run through the competition in front of him including Diego Brandão, Clay Guida, Renato Moicano, Cub Swanson and most recently former champion Frankie Edgar. Ortega is up for the challenge and wants to prove he’s ready to be a champion, but Max Holloway has an amazing résumé of his own. After losing to a just-getting-started Conor McGregor, Holloway has been on a 12-fight win streak, with names like Andre Fili, Cole Miller, Cub Swanson, Charles Oliveira, Jeremy Stephens and Ricardo Lamas on his win list. Holloway then won the interim title against Anthony Pettis in Toronto, so being back in the place it all started after beating Jose Aldo for the title then defending it in the rematch, has to be pretty special for Max. Ortega says he is weary of Max’s health issues leading up to fight week, but all signs point to a great matchup between a striker and a grappler. My pick: Ortega pulls off the upset

UFC 231: Holloway Vs. Ortega begins on UFC Fight Pass @ 6:00PM ET/3:00PM PT and continues with the prelims on Fox Sports 1 @ 8:00PM ET/5:00PM PT followed by the PPV portion of the card starting @ 10:00PM ET/7:00PM PT.