By Dwight Wakabayashi
Here’s a breakdown of the main card of Saturday’s UFC on Sportsnet: Barao vs. McDonald in London, England.
Che Mills (15-5) vs. Matthew Riddle (7-3) – welterweight
This is a battle between two very good and serviceable UFC fighters who are trying to make a sustained run up the division ladder. Mills is an effective striker with a very good reach who got a gift win in his last fight when Duane Ludwig blew out his knee early in the fight. Prior to that win, Mills was beaten badly by Rory MacDonald to knock him back in the pecking order while exposing some glaring weakness on the ground.
Riddle is a popular, if not polarizing fighter who always looks to entertain when he steps in the cage. He fights well, and he fights with a smile on his face. Riddle got a nice win over John Maguire at UFC 154 and can surprise some with a win over Mills. Riddle may want to test the waters on the feet but may be wise to take this to his grappling advantage right away.
Depending on how dominant the performance, the winner here gets a very relevant fight in the division for his next test.
James Te-Huna (15-5) vs. Ryan Jimmo (17-1) – light-heavyweight
Neither one of these two primary strikers made the top 10 in the first release of the UFC light-heavyweight rankings but they are both sitting right on the cusp. Jimmo thrilled with a seven-second knockout over Anthony Perosh in his UFC debut last July and will look to pinpoint Te-Huna’s weakness and bury him with it. Jimmo has excellent technical striking which has only improved since he joined the Blackzilians camp in Florida last year.
Te-Huna is a big, tough, brawling type fighter who gained a Fight of the Night bonus in his win over Joey Beltran. Te-Huna comes hard and he comes straight ahead and he doesn’t mind standing and swinging until somebody turns the lights out. If he can stay in Jimmo’s face all night and not give him any time and space, it will be the perfect blueprint for him to get the win.
The winner here gets a top-10 light heavyweight as his next opponent.
Gunnar Nelson (10-0-1) vs. Jorge Santiago (25-10) – welterweight
This one seems to be a little bit out of place on the main card compared to other fights but speaks to Nelson’s popularity in England. Jorge Santiago makes his return to the UFC after he was released in 2011 following a loss to Demian Maia. He is coming off two first-round wins in a row in the Titan FC promotion and will look to get his place back in the division by beating Nelson. Santiago does everything very well, but is not elite at any one skill and will have to mix it up and keep Nelson off balance throughout.
Nelson won his catchweight debut via submission over DaMarques Johnson in England last September and will look for a solid follow up to get some momentum on his side for 2013. Nelson has seven submissions in his 10 wins and he will look to get this fight to the ground at some point, but don’t be surprised if he tests the waters on the feet with Jorge.
Not much at stake here except keeping a firm place in the promotion.
Jimi Manuwa (12-0) vs. Cyrille Diabate (19-8) – light heavyweight
Similar to the other light-heavyweight bout on the main card, this one has the makings to deliver some fireworks and end quickly in a knockout or a submission. Both these fighters like to play to their strengths and makes for a battle of attrition. Manuwa puts an undefeated record on the line.
Manuwa is coming off a successful debut, getting a TKO (doctor’s stoppage) against Kyle Kingsbury last fall and has a strong fan following in the U.K. I see him bringing more power in his strikes but less technique than Diabate can use. Manuwa’s 11 knockouts in 12 wins says Diabate will need to stay sharp, mix it up, and possibly turn this fight into a ground fight. The Frenchman Diabate has six submission wins in his career and it may be his best chance at victory.
These two fighters sit in a similar position in the division as Jimmo and Te-Huna and could also earn a top-10 opponent with a win.
Cub Swanson (18-5) vs. Dustin Poirier (13-2) – featherweight
This fight could be the most exciting fight on the card as these two battle to cement their spot at the very top of the featherweight division. Swanson is a 23-fight veteran, in the middle of a career resurgence and Poirier is a young lion pegged as a future champion.
Swanson is on the most solid run he has ever been in his career with a three-fight winning streak that includes George Roop, Ross Pearson and Charles Oliveira. His last two wins have earned him two Knockout of the Night bonuses. Not only is Swanson’s confidence at its peak but he is quite motivated and ticked off coming into this fight. Swanson believes he should be higher in the UFC rankings and will look to batter Poirier to make a statement. His power and speed is undeniable and he will want to keep this one an in-close striking battle as long as possible.
Poirier bounced back nicely after his Fight of the Year loss to Chan Sung Jung by choking out Jonathon Brookins in the first round in December. He is an excellent all-around fighter who looks better each time he enters the cage. He is a long and lean handful and will have a reach advantage over Swanson, though I’m not sure he will choose to use it. Poirier has a better advantage over Swanson on the ground and may decide to take the fight to his strengths as soon as the bell sounds to open the bout.
Anthony Pettis is already set to challenge Jose Aldo for the title in August in a match-up that has the rest of the division, including these two, crying injustice. Chan Sung Jung and Ricardo Lamas are also right in the mix with these two fighters and this fight will be the starting point in sorting things out once and for all.
Renan Barao (29-1) vs. Michael McDonald (15-1) – bantamweight
The UFC is doing its best in the absence of champion Dominick Cruz, and this is an electric fight to anchor the card. Brazilian phenom Renan Barao earned the interim title by beating star Urijah Faber in July and he will defend that belt for the first time against fellow youngster Michael McDonald.
Barao has virtually unstoppable striking prowess from both his hands and his feet, and his distance control and footwork are almost as good as anyone in the world. He picks his opponents apart from a distance but can explode in for the kill as well. Barao will most likely look for a duplicate performance of the one that defeated Faber, using his legs to keep McDonald’s elite boxing at bay.
At 22 years old, McDonald is looking to be the youngest champion in UFC history and this is a huge step-up or him. He earned this opportunity with four straight wins in the UFC including back-to-back knockouts over Alex Soto and Miguel Torres. McDonald has some of the fastest and most dangerous hands in the world but I think he will need to showcase more of his tool box to get past Barao. McDonald is destined to be one of the best fighters of all time, but I’m not sure he is ready to hold the belt.
The interim title is at stake and both men will be firing on all cylinders, but I think it will be a case of too much, too soon for McDonald.
Dwight Wakabayashi is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report UFC and regular contributor to Sportsnet.ca’s UFC section. Follow him on Twitter @wakafightermma.