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While fun can be had here, this looks like one of the weaker Ultimate Fighting Championship main cards of 2020 if we ignore those that fell apart due to late cancellations. Michel Pereira guarantees entertainment, for better or for worse, but as is often the case, UFC Fight Night 176 on Saturday in Las Vegas hinges on the headliner. While Alistair Overeem has settled into a niche as a reliable UFC Fight Night draw, Augusto Sakai does not provide much entertainment in the other corner, even if he certainly deserves this shot. If there is some surprising violence in the main event, this should all tie together nicely as a breezy watch, but there is some worry that this ends on a sour note.
Now to the preview for the UFC Fight Night “Overeem vs. Sakai” main card:
HeavyweightsAlistair Overeem (46-18) vs. Augusto Sakai (15-1-1)
ODDS: Overeem (-145), Sakai (+125)
The UFC will once again rely on Overeem as a heavyweight headliner, as the Dutchman continues to chug along in what has been a surprisingly resilient career. Formerly a reedy light heavyweight all the way back in the Pride Fighting Championships days, “The Demolition Man” suddenly bulked up to massive proportions and began running over opponents in both mixed martial arts and kickboxing. By that point, Overeem was Strikeforce’s heavyweight champion, so when Zuffa purchased the promotion and started bringing fighters to the UFC, he figured to be a huge beneficiary. Indeed, the UFC immediately matched Overeem with Brock Lesnar, which ended in a quick finish that set up the Dutchman for a shot at UFC gold. That never came to fruition due to a failed drug test, and upon his comeback, Overeem looked to be quickly on the path to becoming one of the UFC’s biggest busts. He managed to blitz Antonio Silva and Travis Browne early but completely imploded once he was unable to find the finish, leading to his being victimized in two memorable come-from-behind knockouts. After one more knockout against Ben Rothwell proved that his methods were not working, a humbled Overeem changed his approach, beginning a phase of his career that has seen him constantly try to learn and adapt. Overeem has gotten much more patient and defensively minded to protect his gas tank and his chin, and he even mixed in an underrated clinch and wrestling game from time to time. That finally earned him his long-awaited title shot—it resulted in a loss to Stipe Miocic in 2016—and Overeem has spent the years since as a reliable fringe contender. Thanks to losses to the likes of Francis Ngannou, Curtis Blaydes and Jairzinho Rozenstruik, Overeem has not been able to get back over the hump to top contender status, but he has been able to dispatch everyone else and stay relevant years after most would have expected. He has also become a go-to opponent for the UFC to test its rising heavyweight talents, and he is in that role again here against Sakai.
It is a bit of a surprise to see Sakai get this headlining spot, not because the Brazilian has not earned it but because he is far from the type of exciting prospect the UFC likes to highlight. Most rising heavyweights are flawed knockout artists who run over their opponents and are untested in terms of overcoming adversity. Those traits do not describe Sakai. He is content to control his fights with a high-volume but low-power striking game, combined with some clinch work when needed. It is a decidedly un-heavyweight style, but Sakai has shown the durability to hold his own against his more powerful opponents; and despite a frame that is not cosmetically impressive, the Brazilian has also proven to have strong cardio and some deceptively decent speed. His lack of dynamism notwithstanding, Sakai has still managed to finish two of his four UFC bouts, with his 2019 win over Marcin Tybura serving as a hope that he can find a more exciting approach that is just as effective. For whatever reason, he showed some uncharacteristic aggression on route to taking out Tybura in under a minute, all of which had completely vanished by his next fight—a decision win over Blagoy Ivanov. Thankfully, he still has time to figure out things. While he is already nearly a decade into his career, Sakai is a 29-year old heavyweight, so he should have another decade or so to try and develop.
This fight is probably where Sakai meets his ceiling, at least in his current form. Overeem’s fights usually break down to a simple dynamic: The former title challenger is usually the more technical and skilled fighter in most areas, but he is nearly always in danger due to the combination of heavyweight power and his questionable chin. However, in terms of one-shot power, Sakai is close to the bottom of the list in terms of opponents Overeem has faced inside the Octagon. Overeem should be able to keep Sakai at bay with his boxing, as outside of the one-minute fight against Tybura, the Brazilian has never shown the aggression or athletic burst necessary to shock “The Demolition Man” and put him in trouble. Even in the clinch and wrestling phases, Overeem should have the advantage. In fact, thanks to his ground-and-pound, the Dutchman is probably in the rare position—at least nowadays—of having the better chance of finishing his fight on paper. Hopefully the relative lack of danger that Sakai poses means that Overeem presses the action a bit in an attempt to make something happen. Even with the smaller cage, the worry is that Overeem will be content to stick to a winning performance while Sakai either cannot or will not do anything to get the fight going. This could get dire, but the pick is for Overeem by decision.
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