The UFC’s light heavyweight division seems to have stopped being the worst division in the promotion, finding a good number of prospects (Dominick Reyes, Magomed Ankalaev, Aleksandar Rakic, Darko Stosic) to jump above a stagnant heavyweight division in that regard.
The top of the division has also had a good deal of turnover in 2018, and two of the primary agents of that turnover face each other at UFC 232. Ilir Latifi snapped the winning streak of Ovince Saint Preux in violent fashion in February, forcing the borderline-contender down the rankings, and Corey Anderson broke through to becoming a contender with a dominant win over Glover Teixeira (who hadn’t lost to anyone below him in the rankings since 2014). The winner is in position for a title shot or an eliminator in early 2019, against the winner of the main event or one of the top contenders.
Corey Anderson has endured more than his fair share of dismissal (“I like Corey Anderson but you just beat Corey Anderson”), but he’s never been anything but a solid hand for light heavyweight. His boxing is serviceable enough to set up a reasonably strong wrestling game. He’s young and athletic, and he’s at a division weak enough that he could’ve been expected to be a future champion at one time. The problem is that his defense isn’t good and his chin is (comparatively) even worse; three of his four losses are via KO/TKO, one to the unremarkable Gian Villante, and the remaining loss to Mauricio “Shogun” Rua hinged on bad knockdowns. Anderson’s wrestling is the only thing that makes him a bettable quantity because his striking liabilities and durability issues cause exchanges to be consistently dangerous for him.
This causes him major stylistic issues against Latifi, a fighter very close to being a literal cube who can punch hard. Latifi’s stocky build alone makes wrestling him difficult, and Latifi is also a fairly good wrestler; he absolutely ragdolled Tyson Pedro, closing distance off caught kicks to throw him down to the mat on his head at one point. Latifi is one of the more conventionally athletic fighters in the division, seemingly impossible to match in raw horsepower for as long as he’s fresh, and while his striking isn’t as polished as Anderson’s, he brings power and explosiveness that makes him a bigger moment-to-moment threat as he bursts into flurries. Latifi’s finish of Ovince Saint Preux was almost the perfect encapsulation of his skills; Latifi sprung into Saint Preux’s space with a left hook to drop him and doggedly stayed on him with a flurry, before crushing his neck in a standing guillotine that seemed to hinge primarily on raw strength.
Anderson hasn’t really faced a wrestler like Latifi in his UFC career; his best win over a wrestler was probably Patrick Cummins, who was at an athleticism disadvantage that Latifi won’t have to compensate for. There’s good reason to think the wrestling is a wash at best for Anderson, which means that the striking is the question; while Anderson is more polished overall, his defense isn’t polished enough to trust him to get through three rounds of striking without eating a consequential strike, and he doesn’t have the power Latifi out of there early (Latifi is possible to knock out but it has taken a great effort, such as an intercepting knee from Ryan Bader or a very heavy body kick from Jan Blachowicz).
A heavily-declined Teixeira didn’t find it difficult to crowd Anderson early, and Latifi is likely to find the same opportunities to keep Anderson’s beasting under 15 minutes.
Prediction: Latifi via first-round knockout. This writer caps it: -300 Latifi.