Is this finally it for “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series? The Ultimate Fighting Championship has shot down rumors of its demise, but there has been no word on Season 29. While rivalries like Joanna Jedrzejczyk-Claudia Gadelha have shown the show can be worthwhile with the right conflicts, the concept is long enough in the tooth that there is really no point in it going forward. If this does wind up being the end, at least the series goes out with a good card.
The undercard is littered with your usual mix of entertaining prospects -- ironically, many of them from Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, which has mostly supplanted “The Ultimate Fighter” -- and there is a legitimately excellent main event, pitting one of the true rising stars at 170 pounds against an opponent who still has the potential to be a two-division champion. With this being a two-UFC-card weekend, it may get lost in the shuffle, but “The Ultimate Fighter 28” Finale on Friday in Las Vegas should provide a fun way to kill a few hours.
On to the breakdown:
WelterweightsRafael dos Anjos (28-10) vs. Kamaru Usman (13-1)
ODDS: Usman (-270), dos Anjos (+230)
Is this where Usman finally turns the corner? Usman’s obvious comparison as a prospect is Colby Covington. The UFC has matched them similarly coming up the ladder, and both are converted high-level wrestlers. However, while Covington’s odious persona has gotten him some attention and the UFC’s promotional backing, Usman has remained mostly unnoticed despite being the better prospect most of the last few years. Moving up the ranks, Usman established himself as one of the best wrestlers in the entire promotion, capable of dominating almost any opponent with a crushing top game; and during the brief times when Usman would go out of his way to make a statement, he showed some impressive standup skills, as well. In late 2017, “The Nigerian Nightmare” walked through the awkward striking game of Sergio Moraes and crushed him with a knockout punch that sent the Brazilian into a somersault. However, Usman’s most recent win, a five-round decision over Demian Maia, raised some concerns, with Covington once again serving as a helpful comparison. While Covington managed to beat Maia by relying on a relentless offensive pace, Usman’s extended win showed that he is not the most natural striker, and while he is well-schooled and technically sound in moments, he might be too methodical when facing the welterweight elite. Usman still managed to wear out Maia in what was a forgiving style matchup, but now comes the real test. As it did with Covington, the UFC has followed the Maia fight by matching Usman with dos Anjos.
It does feel like dos Anjos’ loss to Covington has sapped his momentum as a contender, but despite letting a lot of people down in that spot, the former UFC lightweight champion is still among the top fighters at 170 pounds. Dos Anjos went from journeyman to champion in a way that few have done: He was an anonymous mid-card lightweight for a few years before developing an increasingly effective pressure striking game and capping off a 9-1 run with a win over then-dominant lightweight champ Anthony Pettis. Dos Anjos seemed poised for an historic run, and while he held the belt for a year and a half, injuries limited him to only one title defense. After losing two straight bouts to Eddie Alvarez and Tony Ferguson, he relocated to 170 pounds. The move has proven fruitful. By the end of 2017, dos Anjos had established himself as one of the best welterweights in the world, with wins over Neil Magny and Robbie Lawler, and landed an interim title fight with Covington to kick off his 2018 campaign. The Covington bout raised some of the eternal concerns about dos Anjos’ weaknesses. Despite the strength of his pressure game, he can cede said pressure just as easily, and Covington’s constant pace -- even with mostly ineffective offense -- overwhelmed the Brazilian over the course of five rounds. Still just 34 years old, dos Anjos likely has another run or two left in him with the right matchmaking; it remains whether or not this fight can be judged as such.
This is an absolutely fascinating matchup, particularly from dos Anjos’ standpoint. There is a clearly defined style that can beat the former lightweight champ, but Usman falls on the more forgiving side of that archetype. The Moraes win showed that Usman has some dangerous power, but his striking pressure is not particularly relentless. In truth, you can almost see the wheels turning in Usman’s head as he assesses his options. While dos Anjos will likely be moving backwards -- it is surprising how often he cedes pressure for someone so effective when he starts moving forward -- this could be a lot like the Lawler fight, where “Ruthless Robbie” spent a lot of time moving forward, only to find himself on the worse end of almost every exchange with dos Anjos. However, concerns about Usman’s durability seem overrated, and the difference between Lawler and Usman is that when the latter can pressure things into the clinch, he should be able to dominate the fight from there. This should look a lot like dos Anjos’ fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov, where the current lightweight champ managed to smother the Brazilian without much issue. This fight is five rounds instead of three, and while dos Anjos probably has the better cardio and should be able to win a lot of exchanges in open space, this is also a matchup where he is probably going to give up that space as long as Usman is willing to take it. It will not be pretty, but the pick is Usman via decision.
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