FeatherweightsAnthony Pettis (18-5) vs. Charles Oliveira (21-5)
THE MATCHUP: Long thought of as a small lightweight, Pettis makes his featherweight debut following three straight losses at 155 pounds. This is Pettis’ chance to redeem himself and fix the holes in his game, but he will have to go through one of the sport’s most dangerous finishers to do it.
A superbly gifted athlete, Pettis seems to have become a victim of his own talent. Against outmatched competition, he looks like an elite striker, but against disciplined, world-class opponents like Gilbert Melendez, Rafael dos Anjos and Edson Barboza, the chinks in his armor start to show. Pettis lacks the precise footwork that allows other out-fighters to smoothly navigate the space of the cage, and his boxing, both offensively and defensively, is not fundamentally sound. It is possible that Pettis’ losing streak has forced him to reevaluate the way he trains technique and strategy, but we simply will not know until the fight goes down.
Oliveira represents a stiff test for Pettis’ featherweight debut. In style, he is not unlike lightweight contender Tony Ferguson. The differences: Oliveira is nowhere near as durable as “El Cucuy,” and his striking is based more around kicks and the clinch than it is combination boxing. Oliveira is a very upright fighter, his defense based mostly on a tight high guard. Even with his hands up, Oliveira is hittable. He attempts to make up for this with aggression, walking down his opponents and reaching out to grab a neck. From there, he works knees and elbows and will even jump guard to pursue a submission.
Striking aside, that submission attack is still Oliveira’s most dangerous skill set. Thirteen of his 21 wins have come via submission. Since 2009, all but two of Oliveira’s 10 wins were submissions, one of them being a slam knockout. Many of those submissions came from the bottom, and Oliveira’s constant attacking style is the only way to make a guard game work in modern MMA. He is also quite dangerous in transitions from the top, with four of his last five submissions coming from the front headlock: two anaconda chokes and two guillotines. Pettis is similarly content to play guard, but that would be a mistake against Oliveira, who has submitted such talented grapplers as Nik Lentz, Hatsu Hioki and Darren Elkins.
THE ODDS: Pettis (-167), Oliveira (+142)
THE PICK: Sheer toughness is inarguably Pettis’ most underrated quality. There are few fighters on the planet that could have absorbed the five rounds of punishment dos Anjos put “Showtime” through and even fewer that would have continued looking for the finish to the very end. On the other hand, a lack of toughness is probably the one trait that will forever keep Oliveira away from a title shot. For all of his finishing ability, “Do Bronx” tends to falter when the pressure is on. Cub Swanson overwhelmed him in 2012; Lentz was seconds away from knocking him out in 2015; and Max Holloway stopped him via injury three months later. Pettis can take the best Oliveira has to offer, but Oliveira is unlikely to do the same. The pick is Pettis by second-round TKO.
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