With a nickname christened by Laura Sanko following his Dana White’s Contender Series win, Francis “Fire” Marshall steps into the octagon for his UFC debut on Saturday night. He takes on Marcelo “Pitbull” Rojo. Marshall, only 23, is 6-0 with four submissions and two decision wins. Rojo, over a decade older at 34, is 16-8 as a professional and 0-2 in the UFC with back-to-back third-round losses.
Marshall opened as a larger favorite but money has come in on Rojo to narrow the line.
“Fire” Marshall, a nickname I don’t tire of using, is a well-rounded fighter with reliable cardio and an ability to find the finish if the opening presents itself. Starting on the feet, as all fights do, tends to be more of a boxer than a kickboxer or Muay Thai striker. His movement is a bit stiff, especially early in fights, but he strikes in combination and the more he lets his hands go, the less robotic and more fluid his movement becomes. Marshall prefers to wrestle and grapple on the mat and is adept at chaining his striking and wrestling together. He’s shown a positive pattern of following up a multi-piece combination with a takedown attempt. Even if he is unsuccessful in the attempt, the ability to chain striking and wrestling together shows high-level ability and forces his opponent to defend multiple attacks. Further, Marshall’s strike-to-wrestle and wrestle-to-strike approach forces an opponent to defend for long periods of a fight.
Since Marshall has proven he can keep up a high pressure and not only avoid fading but improve as the fight goes on, his style allows him to weaponize cardio. That cardio, coupled with his strong wrestling and intelligent top control makes getting a takedown often inevitable. Once he secures the takedown and gets the fight to the mat, he immediately looks to take the back. While his striking is fundamental and rigid, Marshall’s grappling is more rhythmic and fluid. While his submission game may be his best path to victory and the most identifiable positive aspect of his game, Marshall’s best attribute may be his pressure and ability to evolve as the fight progresses. Looking specifically at his DWCS fight, Marshall was slow on the feet, hittable early, and looked a little out-of-place while striking. Then, in round 2, Marshall took a more movement-heavy approach on the feet, found success with his hands, and turned a boxing match from a concern to a path to victory. He showed that he can land a stiff 1, 2 combination with precision and power.
That ability to evolve mid-fight, coupled with his well-rounded game, makes him an exciting prospect. The concerns for Marshall, though, center around his rigidity on the feet and tendency to be a slower starter. It’s imperative that he defend himself intelligently, especially when he faces an aggressive fighter with more creative and natural striking. The bottom line is that Marshall is a well-rounded combination boxer who has strong wrestling and an ability to smoothly transition on the mat.
While Marshall is a multifaceted fighter, Rojo is more singular in his approach in the octagon. Rojo is hyper-aggressive, powerful, and looks to end the fight with every strike that he throws. Rojo has had the unfortunate circumstance of being matched up with two killers in back-to-back fights; and, even though he lost, he showed that he is dangerous until the fight is over, and he has a grizzled toughness about him that makes him tough to put away. Typically, Rojo’s strategy is to bull rush forward as soon as the ref yells, “fight!”
He will often take the center of the octagon with a wide stance and low base designed to generate as much power as possible while giving him the added advantage of a low center of gravity that makes takedowns more challenging. Once set, Rojo plots forward, keeping his base wide, and looks to take the head off of whoever is across from him. Rojo tends to swing from his hips with wide looping power shots that, if they land, deal real damage. But, in the fights against a more technical and fundamental striker, Rojo has swung big, missed big, and countered cleanly over and over. He has a -2 significant strike differential in the UFC, landing 4.9 but absorbing 7.07. Those numbers are a bit skewed though, as Rojo has faced two of the higher-end strikers in the division.
Regardless if he is landing or getting landed on, Rojo wants the fight on the feet. If the fight hits the mat, Rojo sprawls immediately because he struggles to defend submissions. His grappling is strength and explosion based, which works against poor wrestlers but is less successful against guys who know how to hold position. Bottom line, Rojo is a brawler with real power, a good chin, and has back-to-back fights against high-end fighters, which gives him a clear edge in experience.
Rojo has a clear path to victory: blitz and crack. Marshall is a slower starter, hittable on the feet, and outgunned in the power department. But that appears to be Rojo’s only real path to victory. As the fight goes on, Marshall will likely find more success on the feet. Beyond the striking, Marshall’s wrestling is a decided advantage as is his submission game. I expect Marshall to play keep-away on the feet early, wrestle late, and eventually find the neck for a submission win.
Pick: Marshall to win inside the distance (bet now at MyBookie)
Michael Pounders is a high school English Teacher, a boxer himself, and is a fan who loves, gambles on, and nerds out about all things MMA.