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The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s love affair with ESPN Plus is at least going to last more than one card, as the promotion’s return to Fortaleza, Brazil, on Saturday makes it 2-for-2 in terms of the streaming service netting a fun show. The top three fights are as good as anything you will find outside of pay-per-view, featuring two Brazilian legends and an excellent fight between two top bantamweight contenders. As with the last card from Brooklyn, New York, everything from top to bottom looks like it will be entertaining. The last few years have seen the UFC forced to overcome a slow first quarter, only to pick up the pace the rest of the year. It is nice to see the organization hit the ground running in 2019.
Let us get to the UFC Fight Night 144 “Assuncao vs. Moraes 2” preview:
BantamweightsRaphael Assuncao (27-5) vs. Marlon Moraes (21-5-1)
ODDS: Moraes (-185), Assuncao (+160)
This rematch between top bantamweights figured to set up the next title challenger for T.J. Dillashaw, but with Henry Cejudo dispatching Dillashaw so easily at UFC Fight Night 143, the stakes involved with this bout are now in question. Then again, getting jumped in line is nothing new for Assuncao, who continues to find himself just short of a bantamweight title shot despite only one loss since cutting down to 135 pounds in 2011. From a promotional standpoint, it is understandable why Assuncao has never gotten a huge push: He is a fairly colorless personality, and his defensive, counter-heavy style does not capture the attention of most of the fanbase. Bad luck has also played a role in Assuncao never quite getting a showcase spot. In fact, Dillashaw’s breakthrough performance at UFC 173 was only possible because Assuncao was too injured to fight Renan Barao for the bantamweight title; another injury took Assuncao out of a headlining spot against Urijah Faber in 2015. Assuncao did not come back from that latter injury until 2016, when Dillashaw managed to avenge an earlier loss and hand the Brazilian his lone defeat at bantamweight. Since then, Assuncao has gone right back to establishing himself as a contender, frustrating and breaking down opponent after opponent in impressive fashion. Even before Dillashaw’s loss to Cejudo, there was some concern that Moraes had jumped Assuncao in line for a title fight. Instead, Assuncao takes on Moraes for the second time in two years.
It has been a fascinating ascent for Moraes and one that came somewhat out of nowhere. His breakthrough win -- against former World Extreme Cagefighting champion Miguel Torres on the inaugural World Series of Fighting card -- seemed intended to be a comeback win for a former pound-for-pound standout before Moraes spoiled those plans. The WSOF decided to put its promotional weight behind Moraes, and he quickly rewarded the organization, rapidly earning a reputation as one of the best and most exciting fighters outside Bellator MMA and the UFC. Moraes was content to run through overmatched opposition for oversized paychecks until the WSOF well ran dry, at which point he signed with the UFC and was immediately thrown into the deep end, getting matched against Assuncao for his debut at UFC 212. Things went about as poorly as possible for Moraes. He got drawn into Assuncao’s fight, showed little of the dynamic offense that made him such a hyped talent and wound up losing a narrow decision to the perennial contender. However, Moraes would thankfully rebound in short order. His next win over John Dodson was not a particularly impressive one beyond the level of opposition, but Moraes followed that with brutal knockouts of Aljamain Sterling and Jimmie Rivera in a combined 100 seconds to get everyone excited about him once again. Like Assuncao, Moraes definitely deserves a title shot by now, but with the UFC more focused on superfights and Cody Garbrandt, Moraes will instead have to settle for trying to avenge his most recent loss.
This is still a fascinating fight for all the reasons that made the first one between them close. A fully healthy Assuncao can seemingly scare any opponent into his fight thanks to his accurate and surprisingly powerful counterstriking, which, when combined with an extremely strong grappling base that still shows up from time to time, gives his opponents very few options. In their first fight, Moraes was no exception. While he managed to land some hard strikes and had his moments thanks to his creativity, Assuncao generally disincentivized most of what Moraes was throwing his way. Moraes has reminded everyone in his last two fights that he is a vicious finisher, but Assuncao is defensively mindful enough that he should not leave himself open for a massive head kick like Sterling or Rivera did. Unless this is the fight where Assuncao finally slows down -- he is 36 years old, after all -- this should look a lot like the first one: a tense, technical affair where neither man distances himself much from the other. This feels like another split decision, but thanks to his superior defense, the pick is for Assuncao to hold serve, eke out the win on the scorecards and, given the course of his career, probably get passed over once again for the next title shot.
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