It is hard to know why the Ultimate Fighting Championship decided to make its debut in Moncton, New Brunswick, but this is not the most inspiring lineup. The main event is solid enough, but beyond it, the best thing this card has going for it is that it is the UFC’s first offering in three weeks. There are some interesting prospects on the prelims -- and a number of mediocre veteran matchups that do no do much to inspire on paper.
Let us get to the breakdown of UFC Fight Night 138, set for Saturday at the Moncton Events Centre:
Light HeavyweightsVolkan Oezdemir (15-2) vs. Anthony Smith (30-13)
ODDS: Oezdemir (-190), Smith (+165)
Few fighters did as much to improve their stock in 2017 as Oezdemir. He began the year as a complete unknown, a Bellator vet who was set to challenge for Titan Fighting Championship’s heavyweight belt when the UFC signed him as a late replacement for its Super Bowl weekend card. Oezdemir wound up winning that fight, a controversial decision over Ovince St. Preux in which neither man looked all that great, and immediately became a punchline; the big win came with a big ranking, and Oezdemir figured to be a footnote that would soon be brought down to the pack. Instead, he wound up as a top title contender, knocking out Misha Cirkunov and Jimi Manuwa in a combined 50 seconds to earn his shot at Daniel Cormier. Oezdemir’s wins over Cirkunov and Manuwa were some combination of luck and taking advantage of some lax moments, but none of that was present during the Cormier fight, as the champ took down Oezdemir and dominated him in fairly short order. While that loss was disheartening, Oezdemir’s already done the hard part of establishing himself as a light heavyweight contender and remains one of the few top 205ers still on the right side of 30 years old. Even if it is by attrition, Oezdemir figures to hang around the light heavyweight title picture for a while, and his comeback trail starts here against Smith.
Smith’s been the 2018 version of Oezdemir, coming out of nowhere to make a mark as a top light heavyweight, even if the Nebraska-based Factory X rep was a much more known quantity than Oezdemir coming in. After a first UFC tenure that consisted solely of a sub-two-minute loss, Smith earned his way back to the Octagon in 2016, earning a reputation as a fun, if flawed, mid-tier middleweight. Smith earned his stripes by outlasting his opponents, earning three straight come-from-behind wins. However, Thiago Santos turned on the pressure and made Smith fold in a fight in February, at which point “Lionheart” decided to make the move up to 205 pounds. Early returns have been outstanding, as Smith has beaten Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua in less than two and a half minutes combined, but those wins are a mixed bag. On the one hand, the main takeaway is Smith beating these guys when they are way past their prime; on the other, what is the UFC’s light heavyweight division if not a bunch of guys past their prime? Like Oezdemir, Smith can probably remain a concern at light heavyweight just by being decent and only 30 years old, but this fight should go a long way towards telling if he should be taken seriously as a contender.
Smith’s strengths and weaknesses are quite apparent. His defense is not good, both in terms of being hittable and easy to take down, and he can start to fold under pressure. Still, he has some vicious offensive weapons and becomes dangerous if his opponent lets him hang around. It remains an open question as far as how Oezdemir takes advantage of all that. His win over Cirkunov, while an indictment of Cirkunov’s lack of head movement coming in, was a low-percentage fluke, and while his knockout of Manuwa was spawned by some impressive clinch work, that is not as likely to be there against Smith, who has some strong clinch offense of his own. That makes the St. Preux fight the best sample size there is for this version of Oezdemir, and that performance was just mediocre. Again, throwing the clinch work out, Oezdemir’s offense shifted between being too patient for his own good and rushing forward while flailing wildly. If Oezdemir is able to stun Smith, is that wild offense the type of thing that can put him away? I lean towards no. Oezdemir could just run through Smith like he did Cirkunov and Manuwa, but I see him allowing Smith to stick around; and I am also not convinced Oezdemir has the gas tank to make it through later rounds. If this goes any length of time, this should tell a lot about how good Oezdemir actually is, but the pick is Smith via third-round stoppage.
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