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The Ultimate Fighting Championship has done a good job of stacking events and showing that it cares under the new ESPN deal, but it was only a matter of time before the well ran dry. Exhibit A: UFC Fight Night 146. This is not necessarily a bad card, but it does feel like something straight out of the Fox Sports 1 era. The UFC on Saturday enters a new market -- in this case Wichita, Kansas -- so it has thrown together the best available heavyweights, padded the lineup with one or two relatively meaningful bouts and pieced together the rest of the card. There are fights to like, particularly in the welterweight division, but nothing here appears to be all that essential. It looks like the first take-it-or-leave-it event in a while.
On to the analysis and picks for UFC Fight Night “Lewis vs. Dos Santos” at Intrust Bank Arena:
HeavyweightsDerrick Lewis (21-6) vs. Junior dos Santos (20-5)
ODDS: Dos Santos (-245), Lewis (+205)
It was not that long ago that dos Santos was left for dead as a heavyweight contender. Much was made of how his trilogy of title fights against Cain Velasquez took everything out of both men, and indeed, the post-Velasquez version of dos Santos looked obviously diminished. He managed to eke out a decision win over Stipe Miocic, but a subsequent knockout loss to Alistair Overeem made it apparent that the former champion had lost a step, as well as some durability. That started the talk that dos Santos was effectively done at a high level. Thankfully for him, he resides in the heavyweight division, where it is almost impossible for a veteran contender to fall completely out of the title picture. All it took for dos Santos to return to top contender status was a win over Ben Rothwell and a long layoff. While that championship fight resulted in a one-sided loss to Miocic, dos Santos continues to hang around and wait for his next turn. In a division where a lot of fighters are dependent on big knockouts, dos Santos has managed to turn away opponents with solid boxing fundamentals and a sense of distance. Blagoy Ivanov and Tai Tuivasa were mostly kept at range and could not get inside for a finishing blow. Dos Santos still walks a tightrope -- one hard shot to the chin could still put him out -- but having a strategy and being fundamentally sound is enough to turn away a wide swath of the heavyweight division, particularly since fighters there usually have the opposite approach. Lewis fits that mold.
Even with the stagnant nature of the heavyweight division, it does feel like Lewis had his moment and saw it pass, as he became an unlikely title contender against Daniel Cormier in November. Lewis’ style should not work nearly as well as it does. For the balance of the fight, he has learned not to do much of anything, often taking damage and not reacting to it all that well. However, when Lewis finds his opportunity -- assuming fatigue has not taken hold first -- he can spring into action with surprising agility for a man his size, crushing his opponent with knockout power. It was a fun sideshow for a while, particularly since Lewis would cut charismatic and off-color interviews after each of his fights, but after getting picked apart by Mark Hunt in 2017, Lewis briefly retired with a sense that he had reached a clear ceiling. In 2018, the fates somehow aligned for Lewis to become the top contender. His return bout against Marcin Tybura was a typical comeback affair, but then Lewis had the good fortune of fighting an overly timid version of Francis Ngannou before beating Alexander Volkov, just as the UFC was looking for a headliner for Madison Square Garden. Lewis was as good a choice as any -- the Volkov win, along with his memorable “balls was hot” interview, came on the gigantic UFC 229 card -- so within a month, Lewis was getting out-wrestled and beaten in short order by Cormier, but at least he got paid a bunch of money and finally received his title shot in the process. Now Lewis finds himself back in the tumbler with all the other top heavyweights, wading through fights in the hopes of putting together a strong enough winning streak to get another title shot. However, for someone with this kind of unreliable process, it does feel like it would be recapturing lightning in a bottle.
This is about the best the UFC can do with either guy, but it does feel like an uninspiring fight since it represents variations on a theme we have seen before for both men. Dos Santos wants to keep a safe distance and pick apart his opponent to avoid getting rushed and knocked out, while Lewis will lose rounds, roll the dice and hope he can find a finishing opportunity before the final horn. This is probably the most extreme variation of this fight that there has been for dos Santos. Of the Rothwell-Ivanov-Tuivasa class of opponent, Lewis is the most effective in short bursts but also the least willing to press those moments. For Lewis, dos Santos is on the harder spectrum to hit among his recent opponents, so this fight probably looks a lot more like the Hunt loss than it does the Volkov win when it comes to the odds of Lewis finding that knockout blow. This remains a coin flip -- such is usually the case with heavyweights -- but the pick is dos Santos via decision.
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