I still have a hangover from last weekend’s fights.
It’s a good hangover, though, and not the “give me a gallon of water and a bottle of Advil, stat” hangover.
Mixed martial arts once again reminded me why I love it so much. The highly anticipated title fight between Max Holloway and Brian Ortega absolutely delivered. It was a four round war, and I don’t think my mouth closed for any of the 20 minutes. In defeat, Ortega showed the heart of a warrior, continually firing back in the face of record-breaking striking output. For Holloway, it was just another impressive win on one of the best resumes of any active fighter. It certainly seems like Hawaii has produced another all-time great mixed martial artist.
Speaking of Hawaii, Bellator has not one, but two cards live from the islands. Bellator 212 and 213 will both take place from Honolulu on Friday and Saturday respectively. The UFC will air its last card on FOX before making the switch to ESPN, with UFC on FOX 31. Invicta FC 33 features a title fight rematch as their headliner, while ROAD FC 51 and M-1 Challenge 100 are also airing for your viewing pleasure.
There are so many fights to watch this weekend. Let me help you prioritize which three you just cannot miss!
Edson Barboza vs. Dan Hooker
UFC on FOX 31
Saturday, December 15
The UFC’s final show on FOX airing live from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, features a very solid rematch between Kevin Lee and Al Iaquinta in the main event slot. No disrespect to either, I’m just much more intrigued by the clash in the co-main event.
Edson Barboza will meet Dan Hooker in a pivotal bout, not only for the makeup of the lightweight division but for the future of both men’s careers.
After a rocky start to his UFC career, the New Zealander Hooker has found a new home at lightweight and with it, a four-fight winning streak. Hooker will look to keep his career trajectory heading upward towards a title shot but has one gigantic hurdle to clear in the form of Brazilian Edson Barboza.
The fruits of Hooker’s labor from training at the red-hot City Kickboxing gym have been on full display as of late. Most recently, “Hangman” ended the night of Gilbert Burns with a beautiful left to the body followed by a check left hook to the jaw. The knockout punch was the cherry on top of a finishing streak that included two knockout knees and a guillotine choke. Hooker provides a serious threat to the chin and durability of Barboza after taking career-altering punishment in his last two outings.
While Hooker’s stock has risen, the stock of veteran Barboza has been trending in the opposite direction as of late. Barboza is facing his third straight loss, and while his previous two came against top names like Khabib Nurmagomedov and Kevin Lee, getting back on track will be no easy task against a young, hungry fighter like Hooker. Despite making a living at the top of the lightweight division, and being a human highlight reel, there certainly seems to be a consistent path to victory against Barboza. Pressure has been the Achilles heel of the 32-year-old. Barboza has struggled with the pressure of dominant wrestlers like Khabib and Kevin Lee, and the pressure of smothering strikers like Tony Ferguson. Any fighter who doesn’t give Barboza room to breathe and set up his offense exponentially increases their chances of victory against him.
Thankfully for fans of Barboza, Hooker doesn’t really fit that criteria.
Before I get swarmed by rabid Hooker fans, I am not saying he does not provide a serious challenge to Barboza. Hooker just does not have the wrestling chops of the upper echelon grapplers of the division, and does not have the pace and output of a guy like Ferguson. While Hooker likes to move forward, he gets hit at the rate of 4.38 strikes per minute. That could be quite problematic against a guy like Barboza. If your defense isn’t on point, you may have to choose between a slow or quick death. A quick death would be in the form of a knee to the grill that turns your lights off immediately. The slow death involves 15 minutes of crippling kicks to the calf. Pick your poison.
Come Saturday, Barboza can prove that his recent two-fight skid was just a product of two tough matchups and that he’s still the elite Barboza we all know and love. Hooker will look to make sure that doesn’t happen, and prove to the remaining skeptics that his recent surge is indicative of much more significant things to come.
Neiman Gracie vs. Ed Ruth
Saturday, December 13
I have this fight ranked higher than the Bellator 212 title fight between Primus and Chandler, and higher than the Bellator debut of Lyoto Machida.
Yeah, it’s that serious.
The first fight of Bellator’s Welterweight Grand Prix tournament will take placing during its second Hawaiian card of the weekend, and the pedigree of both men is just ridiculous.
Ed Ruth is a four-time D-1 wrestling All-American, a three-time D-1 National Champion and has represented the USA in both the World Wrestling Championships and Wrestling World Cup.
His opponent, Neiman Gracie, has an equally impressive grappling resume in the jiu-jitsu world. If you couldn’t tell by his last name, he’s pretty good at that stuff. Gracie was a Pan American champion in 2008, a Pan American No-Gi champion in that same year, an American National champion in 2007 and an NY International Open champion in 2009. For the sake of brevity, I’ve only included his major wins. If I mentioned his impressive runner-up and bronze medal finishes, I’d be here until Sunday and ignoring my advice about not missing this fight.
Now, these grappling wizards will meet on one of the most anticipated Bellator cards of the year under mixed martial arts rules. Oh, and they’re both undefeated. Sign me up.
If you are a fan of MMA or ANY discipline of martial arts for that matter, a clash between these two guys should have you really, really excited.
The matchup of a dominant wrestler vs. a dominant submission artist is already so enticing. One fighter’s strength plays directly into his opponent’s game. At Bellator 213 we get to see it play out at the highest of levels. This fight may very well come down to who has adapted to MiMA the most, as Ruth may not want to implement his wrestling and Gracie, who relies a lot on takedowns to carry out his submissions, may find trouble in that department. The athletic freak that is Ruth will have to display just how far his striking as come. Gracie, on the other hand, will look to show the world just how far jiu-jitsu can take you.
If things do get to the mat, we could very well witness an “immovable object meets unstoppable force” match up.
We’re in for a violent chess match between two potential stars of the sport.
Ilima-Lei MacFarlane vs. Valerie Letourneau
Saturday, December 15
I’m a little salty that the Hawaiian native doesn’t get to lay claim to headlining Bellator’s first-ever event in Hawaii. In the same vein as Max Holloway and BJ Penn, MacFarlane embodies the Hawaiian fighting spirit. I support Bellator in providing an event for military personnel and family with Bellator 212, but headlining the first Hawaiian card belonged to MacFarlane.
We’re going to have to talk about this, Scott Coker. (It’s a little-known fact that Scott Coker’s week isn’t complete without reading a Tom Tierney article. Don’t fact check it, though.)
For MacFarlane, Saturday is a chance to stay undefeated and pass the biggest test of her career in front of her people. The superstar-in-the-making, Bellator loyalist is getting rewarded with the biggest fight of her career on the biggest stage imaginable.
The 35-year-old Letourneau will look accomplish what eluded her in the UFC. This is the latest chapter in a redemption story of sorts for Valerie. After three Zuffa losses, both sides moved on, ending her career in the UFC. Now, “Trouble” has been reinvigorated in Bellator and is 25-minutes or less away from a title victory.
Fans watched “The Iliminator” essentially “grow up” on one of the biggest stages in all of mixed martial arts. Seven of her eight professional fights have taken place in the Bellator cage. That growth culminated when she captured the company’s inaugural Flyweight championship. Now, Hawaii’s daughter will look to defend that belt for the second time in front of her hometown crowd.
Ilima-Lei has a grappling-heavy attack, but has shown immense progress on the feet. Instead of winging hooks to close the distance, Ilima-Lei has shown comfort striking for longer periods. In her fight against Emily Ducote, we saw more multi-punch combinations from MacFarlane than ever before, and including a rejuvenated jab to set it all up.
However, it’s still safe to say that MacFarlane’s “bread and butter” is in the grappling. Five of Ilima-Lei’s eight wins have come by submission. That’s not a surprise from someone who trains with the grappling wizards over at 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu San Diego. Don’t expect Ilima-Lei to stall and give you a breather. Top position is not enough for “The Iliminator” She’ll be looking to snatch an arm and take it back to Hawaii with her.
Her dance partner is a 35-year-old vet in the form of Valerie “Trouble” Letourneau. Letourneau is a former UFC title challenger who was able to take a round off of Joanna Jedrzejczyk when she was in her peak “boogeywoman” phase. Despite dropping a decision, this was a time where Joanna was brutalizing her opponents until the ref intervened, so a decision was admirable.
There are no glaring holes in the game of the Canadian, but at the same time, she does not display a clear advantage in any one area. I believe she is the more polished striker than Ilima-Lei, displaying a smooth kicking game that lacks any telegraphed movement. However, she has struggled with a lack of volume. Additionally, those aforementioned kicks can also play to her detriment, as they provide Ilima-Lei an easier route to the ground. The experience factor will certainly be an asset for “Trouble.” She has double the pro fights as Ilima-Lei and will not be going in with the added pressure of fighting in front of her hometown. If Ilima-Lei shows any sign of getting lost in the moment, Letourneau will know how to capitalize.
While the Hawaiian fans may not agree, we’re in for a special night regardless of the outcome. The same rings true for any of the three fights I feel are the best to watch this weekend.
Enjoy yourselves, fight fans!