Two of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s premier light heavyweights find themselves on center stage, as Anthony Johnson meets Ryan Bader in the UFC on Fox 18 main event on Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. In the heavyweight co-headliner, former champion Josh Barnett squares off with Ben Rothwell.
Meanwhile, a bantamweight clash matching Iuri Alcantara with the surging Jimmie Rivera and a welterweight scrap pitting 19-year-old prospect Sage Northcutt against Bryan Barbarena rounds out the main draw. Welterweight mainstays Jake Ellenberger and Tarec Saffiedine will collide to highlight the undercard, along with a pivotal flyweight showdown between Dustin Ortiz and Wilson Reis.
Let us take a closer look at each UFC on Fox 18 matchup, with odds, analysis and picks:
Light HeavyweightsAnthony Johnson (20-5) vs. Ryan Bader (20-4)
THE MATCHUP: Bader has been an up-and-down fighter for many years. He has competed in the UFC since 2009, and in that time, fans have seen him lose on four different occasions, each and every one a spectacular finish. As a result, fans and journalists alike tend to write off Bader whenever he faces top-tier competition. However, Bader has been a very good fighter for all of this time, and he continues to improve and polish his game. Merely because we have seen all of his career low points we discredit his skill set, when in reality he has an excellent resume. A one-in-a-million loss to Tito Ortiz aside, there is no shame in any of Bader’s defeats. Jon Jones, Lyoto Machida and Glover Teixeira are not names to be taken lightly.
Now riding a five-fight winning streak, there is no longer an excuse to discount Bader. Against Rashad Evans, Bader seemed to finally put it all together. He and striking coach Chaz Turner are clicking, and Bader’s striking has never looked better. He kept a quick, stiff, educated left hand in Evans’ face for 15 straight minutes, moving lightly and evading Evans’ vaunted right hand in the process. His muay Thai is more dangerous than ever before, too. Bader throws hard kicks to body and leg and slashes with elbows in the clinch; and the wrestling that has always been his base is as strong as ever. Bader can shoot from the outside or grind it out in a scramble with equal ease.
As favorable as the Evans and Phil Davis fights were in retrospect, however, Johnson is certainly a different animal. He is quite possibly the hardest hitter at 205 pounds and a stout defensive wrestler, to boot. Like Evans, he will most likely look to pressure Bader, but there is no doubt that Johnson is far better suited to the task. “Rumble” likes to stalk his opponents aggressively, keeping himself between his prey and the center of the cage. He probes as he does this, extending his hands to check his opponent’s offense and measure the range for his own strikes. Johnson switches stances on offense so as to more effectively cut off escape with his strikes, varying between looping punches and vicious head and body kicks.
Bader has fallen to punches enough times to favor Johnson in this bout, but the man that picked apart Evans with ease could finally rewrite the narrative that has haunted him his entire career. Bader has tended to grow discouraged in the past, throwing himself into dangerous situations after running out of ideas. Johnson has a similar problem himself, however, as demonstrated in his loss to light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier. When Johnson’s opponent does not go down early or show him the respect he feels he is due, he can resort to wild, desperate swings. A confident opponent who grapples with Johnson often finds that, as the bout goes on, he loses either stamina or heart. Fighters as different as Cormier, Josh Koscheck and Vitor Belfort have all managed to thwart Johnson by staying composed and dragging him to the ground -- and not getting knocked out, of course.
THE ODDS: Johnson (-320), Bader (+265)
THE PICK: I suspect I am having a harder time picking this fight than most. This is because I suspect that I have far more respect for Bader’s skills than most, and as such, I can absolutely envision him winning this fight -- particularly with five rounds to work. Johnson’s problems are well-known, and Bader is equipped to exploit them. However, Bader has problems of his own, and Johnson is by far the more dangerous fighter. For Bader’s style of striking and wrestling to work, he needs opponents to respect him. He needs them to back up when he feints, so that he can cover that space with a long jab or a left kick. He needs them to give him enough room to skip away from the fence. He needs them to become so focused on his strikes that they open themselves up for takedowns. This could happen as the fight progresses and Johnson loses confidence, but “Rumble” does not strike me as the type to care greatly about supposed threats in the early going. Every time Bader pulls away with his head high and centered, every time he extends both hands to create space, every time he leans away from an incoming punch, he will be in danger; and all it takes is one. It becomes a different fight after a round or two, but I do not see it going that far. Johnson wins by first-round knockout.
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