Nowhere else is the ruthlessness of the lightweight division better exhibited than in the case of James Vick; “the Texecutioner” has looked incredibly promising, enough to earn opportunities against top fighters, only to get memorably sparked in both of his big breaks. Losses to Beneil Dariush and Justin Gaethje aren’t matters to be ashamed of, but the ninth-ranked Vick needs to regain some momentum to get a shot at another top fighter. The co-main event of UFC on ESPN is do-or-die for the Texan.
Vick’s opponent is also off a loss, but in far less dire straits. Paul Felder’s streak of vicious elbow knockouts came to an end at the hands of Mike Perry, as Felder lost a narrow split in a short-notice bout at a higher weight class; now back after recovering from an arm injury sustained in that fight, the violent lightweight is ready to return and perhaps earn a fight against the elite with a win in Phoenix. Felder’s last year has been frustrating, as his fights against Al Iaquinta fell through and his previous booking against Vick also fell through, but a win here may make it all worth it.
James Vick’s pivotal losses have left him in a mid-ranked purgatory, but his clear technical and tactical development leave him as a promising lightweight moving forward. This has largely hinged on his ability to use his length, where so many rangy fighters fail; while Vick’s pocket defense still isn’t good, he’s started to cover that up by competently keeping to range. In the Dariush fight in 2016, Vick threw himself into situations where his pocket defense failed him; once as he was carried into boxing range by a round kick and he stood perfectly still to get cracked with a left overhand, and then a second time as he tried to enter with a slow and committed rear straight that Dariush was too happy to punish. Since then, Vick has developed a solid jab and a good kicking game that does a far better job keeping him out the way of his opponent’s returns. He still sometimes throws running combinations that got him cracked against Francisco Trinaldo at times, but he’s grown more disciplined.
Vick’s fight against Joe Duffy was a great example of his developed jab, as he was able to needle Duffy on the way in, keep Duffy at range to find leg kicks or circle away from the fence, and eventually build off Duffy’s reactions to the jab to land an uppercut and end the fight. The Trinaldo fight was a better display of Vick’s kicking game; a mid-fight hand injury forced Vick to make do with a kick-centered attack. He still jabbed at times, but the southpaw Trinaldo made the jab of (the mostly orthodox) Vick more difficult to find, so he turned to a lead-leg side kick as the fight progressed to shove the pressuring Trinaldo out of range as he tried to step in. Vick’s worst moments are clearly when his back is against the fence; Vick is a defined outfighter with serviceable footwork to get out of tight spots, but Trinaldo found success pushing to the fence and landing a few combinations or body kicks as Vick tried to circle away, and Gaethje stood him still with a left hand on the guard before blasting him with the right.
Paul Felder, in contrast, is at his best when his opponent is allowed to step into him. Felder isn’t bad at distance as he has a rudimentary boxing game at range, but his biggest strengths are in close: in the clinch and as his opponent is looking to close distance. As a relatively large lightweight, Felder has oriented his striking somewhat around picking at his opponent on the outside with 1-2s and round kicks, and cracking them hard as they try to enter; this can take the form of a reasonably solid counter hook, an intercepting knee, or the form of flashy strikes like a spinning backfist or an upward elbow (both of which have led to finishes for Felder in the UFC). Felder is also extremely potent in the clinch and on top; his love for elbows applies there too, as seen in his fight against Charles Oliveira where he was able to wilt the Brazilian with close-range elbows and then get a submission to strikes with elbows from within the guard, and he basically knocked Stevie Ray out with a knee from the clinch. These skills aren’t really relevant unless his opponent enters the clinch or goes to the ground, since Felder isn’t a notable wrestler, but they’re in his back pocket if he needs them.
Conclusions and capping
The problem here for Felder is evident; since Felder doesn’t have particularly good defense at range nor the southpaw stance to somewhat insulate him, there’s very little to stop Vick from jabbing him from the outside, and that keeps Vick away from the primary ways that Felder can deal serious damage. The old Vick may have had some bigger problems with Felder; his tendency to blitz forward (ignoring his range advantage over everyone else) could’ve gotten him stung with Felder’s intercepting attacks, but with the jab and the kicking game in play, Vick has a very clear path to victory. Felder’s is about as clear, but far less viable for him; while Vick is possible to pressure to the fence and relatively liable to get cracked when he’s there, Felder isn’t a dedicated enough (nor a good enough) pressurer to believe it’ll happen. Trinaldo tried to just plod forward to pressure and largely ended up eating straight kicks, and the Gaethje fight trended similarly until Gaethje (a very sound pressurer) was able to cut Vick off. Vick has too many advantages in space, and too many ways to create it, to trust Felder to get this one done.
Prediction: Vick via decision. This writer caps Vick at -200.
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