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When the UFC lands in Maine for the first time ever this weekend, the preliminary portion of the card only runs four fights deep, but there are some great matchups, including two pivotal fights amongst ranked fighters in the flyweight and women's bantamweight divisions.
Zach Makovsky, who has looked extremely dangerous since coming to the UFC, looks to keep his perfect record in the Octagon intact as he takes on former No. 1 ranked flyweight Jussier Formiga. Also on the card, Olympic silver medalist Sara McMann looks to get back on track after a loss to women's champion Ronda Rousey in her last fight as she takes on undefeated newcomer and the only Invicta bantamweight champion, Lauren Murphy.
With this fantasy preview, all four fights will go under the microscope ahead of the UFC Fight Night card from Maine to give you the upper hand when it comes to scoring the points necessary to walk out a winner on Sunday.
JUSSIER FORMIGA VS. ZACH MAKOVSKY
Before the UFC had even decided to have a flyweight division, Jussier Formiga was considered the top dog in the weight class while training out of the Nova Uniao team in Brazil alongside champions and former champions like Jose Aldo and Renan Barao. Formiga has been knocked down a couple of notches since moving to the UFC with losses to both John Dodson and Joseph Benavidez, but he has also picked up wins over Scott Jorgensen and Chris Cariaso, who is the next fighter to challenge for the 125-pound belt against champion Demetrious Johnson.
Formiga seems to have gotten his feet under him after a rough start in the Octagon while still basing his attacks on a grappling-heavy pedigree coming from his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu background. His striking has still seemed rather rudimentary considering he's only averaging 1.1 significant strikes per minute with just under 33 percent accuracy. On the ground is where Formiga is at home, as he looks to apply his grappling pedigree while constantly fishing for submissions.
The opponents Formiga has struggled with in the past either have tremendous takedown defense (John Dodson) or come from a wrestling-heavy background (Joseph Benavidez and Ian McCall). Unfortunately, Formiga is running into another takedown machine, as Makovsky is a powerhouse in the wrestling department and he's going to frustrate the Brazilian with his grappling or anti-grappling, depending on which game plan he chooses to apply in this fight.
Makovsky averages 5.5 takedowns per 15 minutes, which is an incredible rate, and chances are if he wants to put Formiga down, he's going to be planted on the mat. Makovsky's wrestling defense also stuffs any takedowns his opponents throw at him and that combination is the exact weapon Formiga has not been able to counter yet, and chances are it won't start Saturday night in Maine.
Look for Makovsky to put Formiga down and wear him out with punches until he can find an opening to put him away, or the more likely scenario is he coasts to a unanimous decision victory.
SARA MCMANN VS. LAUREN MURPHY
The women's fight on the undercard could end up being the sleeper fight of the night as Olympic silver medalist Sara McMann takes on undefeated newcomer Lauren Murphy.
If you don't know Murphy yet, you'll definitely be hearing her name around the Octagon for a long time to come. She's not the most refined athlete or even the best at any one craft, but Murphy is just about the toughest fighter you'll ever meet in the women's bantamweight division. Training out of the MMA Lab in Arizona, Murphy works with head coach John Crouch and former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson on what has become one of the best teams in the entire sport.
Murphy has knockout power in her hands (six TKO finishes in her career) and she's a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and working to improve that area of her game every day. She won't wow anybody with perfect technique or spotless performances out of the gate, but she's an impossibly hard fighter to predict or to put away, and that's what makes her a great addition to this division.
The real pressure in this fight falls on the shoulders of McMann, who returns for the first time since suffering a crushing loss to Ronda Rousey earlier this year, when she took a knee to the midsection and dropped to the canvas from the blow. The fight was stopped and McMann tasted defeat for the first time in her career.
McMann is still going to be an impossibly tough matchup for just about anybody in the division given her wrestling prowess and commitment to the takedown. She averages nearly seven takedowns per 15 minutes in the cage and lands with 80-percent accuracy. Now those numbers won't stay as gaudy as she gets deeper and deeper into the division, but it's clear her commitment is to drag fights to the mat and she'll do it early and often. Putting Murphy on her back is the best way to negate any of her striking or ability to do damage from the clinch.
If McMann's mental game is back on point after suffering the loss to Rousey, she should be able to take Murphy down for 15 minutes and pick up the decision win. Still, Murphy is going to make her work for every takedown she lands and she'll be swinging hard and heavy on the way down until the fight gets stood up again. This first UFC fight may end as a loss for Murphy, but that doesn't mean she won't be a contender in this division in the long run.
TOM WATSON VS. SAM ALVEY
When Tom Watson arrived in the UFC following a string of knockout victories, it appeared as if the promotion may have another British star to build into a staple around Europe the way that Michael Bisping burst onto the scene years earlier when he won the third season of The Ultimate Fighter. Watson's time in the UFC hasn't gone nearly as well, however, as he's gone just 1-3 overall while struggling mightily to prove he belongs amongst the best fighters in the world.
Watson is a nasty, volume striker with a plethora of kicks and knees, as well as a solid boxing base to keep opponents on their toes during a fight. He doesn't look for takedowns, so it's easy to tell he'll be aiming for a stand-up fight, but the ground has been his enemy, as opponents have put him down numerous times and his ineffectiveness against wrestlers has been a huge crack in his armor thus far.
Luckily for Watson, chances are his next opponent will invite a striking fight and that could be just what the Englishman ordered.
Sam Alvey is a tough as nails fighter who trains out of Dan Henderson's Team Quest gym in Temecula, California, and he's also a former competitor on The Ultimate Fighter season 16. Alvey describes himself as a “of the night” type of fighter, which means he's likely going to be in the kind of scrap that earns him an award when the card is over. Alvey's pretty spot on with his personal assessment, but that kind of attitude is what Watson has been waiting for ever since he came to the UFC.
Alvey loves to throw hands with his opponents and he's more than happy to take a punch to dish out two or three more of his own. Against Watson that's a strategy that could backfire if the Brit is aggressive and looks to press the action in this fight. Watson has a great ability to put combinations together, and once he smells blood in the water he's a very effective finisher. The problem is outside of his one win in the UFC, Watson just can't seem to stay standing long enough to hurt somebody and then finish them with strikes.
This might be his chance since Alvey loves to get into an ugly fight with fists flying and jaws getting rattled. The downside for Alvey is the jaw getting rattled in this fight will probably be his own, which should keep Watson around for another fight and maybe earn both of them a bonus when it's all said and done.
NOLAN TICMAN VS. FRANKIE SAENZ
There's probably not a harder fight to pick on this entire card than the one that kicks off the entire event, as newcomers Nolan Ticman and Frankie Saenz face off in a bantamweight bout on the prelims.
Both fighters come from wrestling backgrounds - Saenz loves to grapple and it earned him a lot of success in his career, although naturally he's a flyweight, and he learned how to wrestle at Arizona State University, the same school that produced Cain Velasquez, Ryan Bader and CB Dollaway. Ticman, on the other hand, is a former wrestler from Cal State Fullerton who was around the same time as UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw, while also training out of Kings MMA, where he works with fighters such as Jake Ellenberger, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Beneil Dariush.
The jury is really out on how this fight will go, but based on athletic background, training and past performances, the safe bet falls on Ticman. He's eight years younger than Saenz, and he's also got some impressive Muay Thai striking in his back pocket after working with Master Rafael Cordeiro, who is also responsible for fighters like Wanderlei Silva and “Shogun” Rua learning Muay Thai.
Unless Saenz can put Ticman down and keep him there for 15 minutes, he will eventually give up something and that could spell his downfall.
Many times these opening bouts end up being the most exciting, as the fighters come to bring, and then leave, everything they have inside the Octagon. This time around, Ticman is the favorite to win and put Saenz away inside the distance, but with two brand new fighters, a huge load of responsibility to kick off the card the right way and the infamous Octagon jitters, anything can really happen in this one.