For the third straight week, the Ultimate Fighting Championship will broadcast from a shiny new locale, but with a weak card. All roads lead to UFC 225, and the rest is just filler until we finally get there next weekend. As with the last two events, UFC Fight Night 131 from Utica, New York, is headlined by an intriguing and divisionally relevant battle. Fortunately, Jimmie Rivera and Marlon Moraes should deliver where the last two headliners failed: in the action department.
The rest of the slate lacks anything else truly noteworthy. As with the last two offerings from Chile and Liverpool, that doesn’t mean the evening will be boring or devoid of action. But honestly, action and craziness are to be expected when the talent level is lower. The adage that gets tossed around by Dana White and some fans - weak cards on paper always end up delivering - doesn’t hold. 1) No, they don’t, and 2) why should we care? Action without stakes is fun, but it is ultimately empty calories. In many cases, I could see the same level of talent on Friday night on AXS or Paramount. Clearly, since I’m writing this article, I appreciate fisticuffs more than the average person. But the stream of endless events and nondescript, Reebok-clad fighters has become a slog. UFC Utica is the latest installment. I sure am glad, though, White is “in Maine blowing [his] brains out for three days celebrating” his ESPN millions, which will require a slight increase in the amount of (sub-par) content. Meanwhile, he lets ranked fighters walk or cuts them when his ego gets bruised, further diluting the product. Cool.
Enough bemoaning, though. It might not be tent-pole-type stuff, but the headliner is fire, the Teymur brothers are here to deliver exquisite violence, and two-division Titan FC champ and uber-prospect Jose Torres makes his debut.
Let’s get to the analysis and picks for UFC Fight Night 131.
FS1 Main Card
Rivera (21-1) vs. Marlon
Odds: Rivera (-115), Moraes (-105)
What a scrap this should be. The victor of these two thrilling bantamweight strikers is setting himself up for a potential title shot after champion TJ Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt settle things in August. At the very least, the winner will be in a position for a clear number-one contender tilt, possibly against a returning Dominick Cruz.
Rivera is a more varied and technical boxer than nearly anyone else in the division. Unlike Cruz and Dillashaw, he does not rely on his wrestling to set up his striking quite as much, and he isn’t the linear bomber Garbrandt is. The Team Tiger Schulmann standout is primarily a counterpuncher. His defense isn’t perfect - he’s been clipped and rocked in recent fights - but it is much better than average, layered in a way few can match. Rivera can slip and roll under shots, parry punches, or pull back a step before stepping back in to counter. His left hook -- which he sometimes uses as a check to cut an angle -- is a formidable weapon. The Kyokushin karate black belt has great timing as well. It enabled him to read Thomas Almeida’s first movement and counter before the Brazilian could start his attack. When Pedro Munhoz threw one power shot at a time, Rivera wouldn’t let him follow up, immediately firing back with three or four punches. Rivera mostly uses his hands, throwing combinations to the head and body, but he can mix in switch kicks to the body and leg kicks. The New Jersey native lands slightly more than one takedown per fight on average, adding another threat to his arsenal. His takedown defense also currently stands at 100 percent.
He is matched with Moraes, a lower-output but more dynamic striker. The Mark Henry protégé is absolutely strapped for bantamweight, but his hand and foot speed are in no way encumbered by his bulk. He tends to stay at longer range than Rivera, surging forward with sudden punching combinations or whipping devastating leg and head kicks at his foe. The Brazilian will switch stances a bit, and he particularly likes the left high kick when he goes southpaw. He supplements his straightforward Muay Thai with occasional and varied spinning attacks as well. But he doesn’t throw himself off-balance; Moraes is constantly poised to defend and counter. Not that his defense is airtight. Assuncao punished his lack of head movement with sudden, crushing overhands on two occasions.
The Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt is a solid wrestler in addition to being a lethal kickboxer. While he can be planted, Moraes is very difficult to hold down, much less control. The Ricardo Almeida student hunts aggressively for submissions whenever the fight hits the mat, and can use them to sweep to better positions or get up. John Dodson was able to catch a pair of Moraes kicks and turn them into takedowns, but the Brazilian immediately rolled for a leg, forcing the New Mexican to abandon top position.
Moraes fought a similar stylistic opponent to Rivera in his big-show debut. Raphael Assuncao is another bricked up counterpuncher with a potent right hand and very stout wrestling. Rivera is more aggressive and throws at a higher rate, but he generally likes to keep a closer range than Assuncao. All these factors lead to him eating more shots, hence why he’s been decked in several fights despite having great defense. Moraes’ explosive power and ability to land devastating offense at a variety of ranges will be the difference here. Rivera will try to walk him down and counter his punches and naked leg kicks, but he will be in range for flying knees and head kicks. Rivera will likely be winning rounds right up until Moraes lands a devastating strike that steals it. Unless Rivera can get his wrestling going in a significant way, “Magic’s” hand speed and vicious kicks will be the difference. Moraes catches Rivera and drives in the coffin nails in the third round.
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