Five Takeaways From UFC Utica

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Marlon Moraes
Image Credit: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Yesterday (June 1st), the UFC ventured into upstate New York to host UFC Utica — the company’s first ever event to be held in Utica, NY. 5,063 fans were in attendance for the Friday night event. Let’s recap the action and discuss a few things we learned:

MARLON MORAES IS READY FOR A TITLE SHOT

Most fighters will jump at the chance to sign with the UFC, even before they’re truly prepared for the step-up in competition. The status and fame associated with being a UFC fighter is just so much more appealing than the idea of fighting in a lesser-known, regional promotion. Every once in a while, you’ll see an elite fighter who passes up the opportunity to sign with the UFC, in order to hone their skills in a smaller promotion.

Case in point: Marlon Moraes. The Brazilian fighter was a staple for the World Series of Fighting (WSOF) promotion and successfully defended the 135 lb. championship five times before vacating and signing with the UFC in 2017. He was certainly not given any “tune-up” fights, as he faced Raphael Assuncao and John Dodson in his first two UFC appearances — this should tell you all you need to know about the UFC’s confidence in Moraes. Both contests resulted in split-decisions, with Moraes on the losing end against Assuncao, but picking up the win against Dodson. Previously, Moraes had not lost a fight since 2011 — before he had even joined the WSOF.

Now 30-years-old, Moraes has really turned the corner in his last two fights. His knockout of Aljamain Sterling at Fight Night 123 (Fresno) was one of the most vicious knockouts of 2017. With his brilliant head kick KO of Jimmie Rivera last night, Moraes proved that his previous performance was absolutely not a fluke. Over the past year, we’ve seen other WSOF champions such as Justin Gaethje (155) and David Branch (185) follow similar career paths, although Moraes has undoubtedly found the most success.

If T.J. Dillashaw successfully defends his title against Cody Garbrandt at UFC 227, I’d like to see Moraes get the next shot at the belt. On the other hand, if Garbrandt is victorious, it’s very likely that Dillashaw will be granted an immediate rematch. In that case, Moraes should face either John Lineker or Dominick Cruz. Regardless, “Magic” is a very welcome addition to the 135 lb. division and has certainly made things more interesting.

GREGOR GILLESPIE CAN’T BE STOPPED

After submitting Vinc Pichel last night, former Olympic hopeful and NCAA D-1 wrestling champ Gregor Gillespie is now 5-0 in the UFC. He hasn’t really faced a high-level opponent thus far, but I expect that to change soon. Gillespie’s wrestling ability is nothing short of elite, and he’s leaned heavily on it. His striking game leaves a lot to be desired, but it hasn’t hampered him just yet. The question is: how far will Gillespie’s wrestling take him?

We’ve seen many former Olympic wrestlers find success in the UFC. Yoel Romero, Henry Cejudo, and Daniel Cormier have all been able to bridge the gap between their grappling and striking. Of course, Gillespie wasn’t actually an Olympic wrestler, but he was very close. If he hadn’t been in the same weight class as possibly the greatest American wrestler of all-time, Jordan Burroughs, Gillespie very well could have been an Olympian.

I’d like to see Gillespie face Desmond Green next — a fellow New Yorker who was also victorious last night in Utica. Green is only 28-years-old, but has compiled an impressive 21-7 record since turning professional in 2012. I’m interested to see how Gillespie handles a highly-experienced and well-rounded fighter such as Green, who was also an excellent collegiate wrestler.

THE WOMEN’S FLYWEIGHT DIVISION HAS A LONG WAY TO GO

If you think that the women’s bantamweight division needs work, you should take a gander at the flyweights. The UFC jump-started the women’s 125 lb. division with season 25 of The Ultimate Fighter, but it’s just not where it should be. The division’s only elite fighter is Valentina Shevchenko, however, i’m excited to see how the division fills out as more 115-135 “tweeners” join the ranks. For now, the majority of the division’s ranked fighters are simply not up-to-par with UFC standards. Last night, #2-ranked Sijara Eubanks and #3 Lauren Murphy faced off in a possible title-eliminator match, but the quality of the fight was definitely not what you’d expect between two top-5 fighters.

It’s been well-documented that former 115 lb. champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk has a hard time making the strawweight limit, so perhaps a move to 125 is in her future. A matchup between Jedrzejczyk and Valentina Shevchenko would certainly bring some much needed excitement to the division.

DON’T TRY TO BODY SLAM JOSE TORRES

Jose “Shorty” Torres made his highly-anticipated UFC debut last night, facing Jarred “The Monkey God” Brooks. Torres earned a second round TKO in truly bizarre fashion. I won’t even attempt to explain how the knockout unfolded — check out the highlight and see for yourself.

It was an unfortunate loss for Brooks — he was dominating the fight and nearly finished Torres in the first round. Brooks has already proven that he is a UFC-quality fighter and I expect him to bounce back from this loss. Torres clearly struggled with the jump in competition but he is only 25-years-old and relatively inexperienced. I’m sure he will make adjustments and come out of the gates stronger next time.

Torres’ fellow newcomer, Nathaniel “The Prospect” Wood (very creative nickname, by the way), also turned in an impressive comeback performance.

I LOVE THE CONTENDER SERIES!

I’ll admit, when the UFC first announced Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series last year, I was intrigued, but not overly excited about it. The Contender Series returns on June 12th for it’s second season and I couldn’t be more excited! (No, this isn’t an ad)

Over the past year, several young and promising fighters have joined the UFC as a result of the Contender Series. If it weren’t for this platform which allows the UFC to schedule fights between less experienced fighters, guys like Sean O’Malley, Julian Marquez, and Karl Roberson may still be unknown. One of the most successful products of the series has been Julio Arce, who picked up his second UFC victory last night. In his short time with the company, the 28-year-old Arce has shown a lot of potential. He is an outstanding boxer with a surprisingly dangerous ground game.

The key to booking these fighters is to give them winnable fights. I’m not a fan of “padding” a fighter’s record, but the truth is, the UFC has identified them as exciting fighters with good upside. Many Contender Series “graduates” are still in the single-digits in terms of professional fights, so it’s important that the UFC builds them up slowly.

Did you enjoy UFC Utica?