Kicking off the much-anticipated UFC 281 card will be a battle between two high-potential but highly volatile fighters: Carlos “Black Jag” Ulberg and Nicolae “Nick” Negumereanu. Ulberg, teammate and training partner of Adesanya, is 2-1 in the UFC with one knockout and one decision win. Negumereanu is 4-1 in the UFC with two knockouts and two split decision wins.
Narrow odds suggest a close fight between two fighters with significant question marks.
Ulberg’s game, at times, is stunning. He, like many of his New Zealand teammates, comes from a kickboxing background, stands with a confident and careless tall posture, high chin, and low hands, and hits with speed and ferocity. Ulberg is an ex-Rugby player who transitioned to kickboxing and then MMA. In each sport, at each level, his athleticism is apparent. In the octagon, Ulberg has powerful striking, specifically kicks that crack. But, his defense is linear and predictable. When he moves forward, Ulberg uses his length well by keeping opponents at his range through his jab and leg kicks. But, when an opponent counters or pressures forward, Ulberg backs straight up on the center line, keeps his hands low, and exits the pocket with a high chin. Often being the much taller fighter with quick feet, Ulberg has been able to, at times, rely on this fundamentally problematic defense. But, in a fight where his opponent was able to reach his chin, Ulberg’s lights were shut out.
Ultimately, Ulberg is still inexperienced and fights like it. In an early fight, Ulberg nearly finished an opponent in the first round but blew his cardio out and was later finished himself. So, in the next fight, he overcorrected and barely through any volume. Then, much like Goldilocks, Ulberg found a strategy that is “just right,” and methodically applied pressure en route to a quick knockout without overextending. Each time he steps into the cage, because of his power, athleticism, and training partners, fans and backers of Ulberg are banking on the danger factor in his game. But, those fading Ulberg are relying on his inexperience, poor defense, and inconsistency in the cage. If the hyper-athletic and powerful version of Ulberg can develop fight IQ and consistency, he has the makings of a fighter to watch. But, if he remains unable to “click” his game together and find consistency, so too will his record be inconsistent.
Despite a four-fight winning streak, Negumereanu is also inconsistent in the cage. While Ulberg’s inconsistency revolves around aggression, fight IQ, and volume, Negumereanu’s inconsistency centers on game plan and strategy. In some fights, Negumereanu relies on his solid chin to get into 50/50 exchanges where he welcomes a brawl. In these fights, Negumereanu rushes forward, on the centerline, closes distance, and starts to swing wildly. He ignores defense in favor of offense and banks that his chin and power are better than his opponent’s. Sometimes, this results in a fan-friendly Twitter highlight knockout. But, sometimes, it results in him punching himself out, burning his gas tank, and allows his opponent to take over as the fight progresses. Negumereanu has won 2 split decisions where he was out-landed in rounds 2 and 3 after going all-out in round 1. Negumereanu’s striking, a more boxing focused attack, is rooted in power and aggression rather than technique and fundamentals. Defensively, much like his striking offense, Negumereanu relies on toughness and strength rather than movement or using his guard. More recently, though, specifically in his last fight, Negumereanu showed a more measured approach on the feet, incorporated a more varied striking attack, and attempted to defend some of the strikes coming his way. Much like Ulberg, Negumereanu’s most recent fight is the best example he’s shown of his game “clicking.”
The x-factor in Negumereanu’s game, and this fight specifically, is his clinch wrestling. Early in his career, Negumereanu used the clinch to give himself a break after a wild combination. But, recently, he’s started to use the clinch as a method of offense as well. He showed an ability to hold an opponent against the cage, land damaging blows in tight, and work for a takedown. This addition to his wild and brawling style provides another and more consistent avenue for victory. However, Negumereanu has continually proven that his game plan is unpredictable, that his cardio is unreliable, and that once the punches start flying, he tends to fall back into old habits of ill-advised brawls.
With his own power and clinch wrestling, Negumereanu has more paths to victory. But, Ulberg is more dangerous and has the allure of unknown progress each time he steps into the cage. Neither man has fought any noteworthy level of competition, and their matchup this week will be their toughest test yet. So, we’re flying a little blind here, which the odds suggest. Matchup-wise, I like the fighter with more explosive power and untapped potential in a fight with so many variables. More specifically, Negumereanu’s tendency to rush on the centerline should play right into Ulberg’s preferred kickboxing style. I’ll take Ulberg to get the momentum rolling for his New Zealand teammates.
Pick: Ulberg to win