At a division as deep as featherweight, even the best-regarded veterans can find themselves passed by in a very short period of time, and there are very few examples better than Cub Swanson. In late 2017, the Californian was in position to credibly lobby for a title shot when Frankie Edgar fell out of UFC 218; as late 2018 rolled around, the same man was on a three-fight skid, two of those to prospects. Swanson looks to right the ship, but it doesn’t get much easier for him in Ottawa.
Shane Burgos was a bit of a dark horse prospect for a while, but his aggressive and powerful style got him a showcase on the main card of UFC 220; unfortunately, Calvin Kattar made a name for himself at Burgos’ expense in an early contender for Fight Of The Year. Burgos returned in November to defeat Kurt Holobaugh, but it was a shaky one as he was dropped early before finding a submission from his guard. A dominant win over a name like Swanson would go far in re-establishing Burgos as a top prospect and establishing him among the top 15.
Cub Swanson is a fairly bizarre fighter in the sense that he has the ability to fight carefully and technically, but his best moments seem to come when he abandons that pretense and goes wild. Swanson’s success at featherweight has been formidable but he’s also been consistently defeated by the elite, and that’s a good place to start as to why; while he can switch between those phases at will depending on the moment, there are points where one or the other isn’t enough.
Swanson isn’t a bad operator when he decides to stand at distance; when he stays above his feet, Swanson’s boxing game is reasonably functional (not an amazing puncher but can put combinations together, and works the body fairly well) and he has a solid attritive kicking game. That said, the careful Swanson isn’t the Swanson who tends to take control of fights; Swanson’s unique edge is the creativity and wildness in his striking that rears its head from time to time, and while recklessness costs him in terms of defense, it pays dividends when he’s facing an opponent who isn’t defensively sound or threatening on the counter. When Swanson can’t enter this mode at will, he struggles; for example, when he was wary of the takedown threat in his rematch against Frankie Edgar, Swanson just didn’t know how to pull the trigger without the risk of getting wrestled. His takedown defense held up well, but Edgar just outstruck him when it became clear that Swanson was content to stand back.
Swanson’s fight against Doo-Ho Choi showcased both the careful Cub and the one who decides to go all-out; when he committed to outfighting, he did it reasonably well behind a good leg-kicking game and right hands from the outside, but his real triumph was pressuring Choi to take advantage of his suspect pocket defense. As he went into round 2, Swanson committed to pushing Choi back with long diverse combinations, chaining his hands with his kicks and eventually feeling good enough to start throwing his signature flashy blows.
It remains to be seen whether Shane Burgos will be as easy to back up as Choi proved; while Swanson/Choi was marked by Choi’s profound discomfort under fire, Shane Burgos’ career has been marked by the opposite. “Hurricane Shane” makes his living in the pocket, and he does a deceptively good job of it despite a style that is seemingly reckless as they come.
Burgos’ performance against Kurt Holobaugh was a bit disappointing on the defensive side, but in his previous fights (including in his loss to Calvin Kattar), Burgos looked like an extremely potent pocket-counterpuncher. In a nutshell, Burgos forces and entices his opponent to swing at his head, and counters them until they wilt; his hands-down style and his constant forward motion makes his opponent feel the need to back him off with strikes, but Burgos is constantly ready to slip and come back with the counter-right. Burgos is extremely good at landing cross-counters as his opponent throws to keep him off them, and he can put together excellent combinations in the pocket when he’s allowed to work there (as Charles Rosa found out; eating a right hand counter to a left hook, whiffing entirely on a spinning back fist as Burgos stayed in range, and getting his winging overhand right countered by a left hook that hurt him badly and allowed Burgos to walk him down).
What was arguably most striking in Burgos’ toughest fight – his only professional loss against Calvin Kattar – was his ability to switch things up when his early approach wasn’t working. When his defenses at range weren’t as effective against an extremely educated jab, Burgos started countering the jab by kicking the leg to an extent he hadn’t before and pushing to the fence with brutal combinations to the body, and it spoke greatly to the adaptability of Burgos’ style. If he can blow through Swanson, it isn’t unlikely that Burgos gets a fight against someone elite-adjacent at 145.
Conclusions and Capping
Burgos is a grueling man to fight, to the point where even the only man to defeat him (Calvin Kattar) had one of the hardest fights of his career in the process, so Swanson’s waning durability (getting dropped by Moicano’s jab) is definitely bad news. If it turns into a war, despite Shane also getting dropped in his last fight, Swanson is likely the less durable party. Burgos’ constant pressure is likely to keep Swanson from being able to be as careful as he tries to be early, and if Burgos can draw the wildness out of Cub before he’s definitively in control, he can pull the fight into where it favors him. Even as he adapted to take the Choi fight, Swanson took a great deal of clean power-shots; Cub has never been defensively noteworthy, and he faces a less hittable and more comfortable pocket-fighter than Choi in Ottawa.
An extremely loose comparison to this fight may be how Swanson was forced to deal with Brian Ortega; while Ortega isn’t nearly as slick as Burgos defensively, Swanson didn’t really have the tools to keep from being pressured and had to keep backing Ortega off with strikes. Swanson looked excellent against Ortega on the feet, working the body nicely and landing clean combinations in the pocket, but he still had to resort to throwing long leaping combinations to back Ortega up when he felt that he was in danger, and that just isn’t sustainable if getting countered consistently. If Burgos can commit to pressuring and can counter the flurries of Swanson when he’s forced to engage, it’s probably his fight.
Prediction: Burgos KO2. This writer caps Burgos at -170.
Long-time MMA fan. Catch my (incomplete) betting history at betmma.tips/sriramsays.