By Ike Feldman
"UFC Fight Night 144: Assuncao vs. Moraes 2" is UFC’s return to the homeland of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a mixed martial artist's most necessary weapon -- just ask Royce Gracie, who became the first UFC champion at UFC 1. On Saturday night, broadcast on ESPN+, Raphael Assuncao and Marlon Moraes will fight a rematch in Fortaleza in their home country of Brazil, each looking for a bantamweight title shot.
Only the United States (68) has produced more UFC champions than Brazil (15), and 16 out of the 26 fighters on Saturday night’s bill are Brazilian-born. Brazil is known in global sports as a country that has a deep history and love for soccer, but fighting is also prominent in the national sports DNA. The audience of MMA fans in Brazil is growing, and UFC brings approximately three events each year to the country.
Raphael Assuncao (27-5) vs. Marlon Moraes (21-5)
Assuncao vs. Moraes 2 is an extremely important fight for the UFC’s bantamweight division, a rematch that had to happen to determine a clear-cut No. 1 contender. The first fight, at UFC 212 in 2017, was a razor-thin split-decision in favor of Assuncao, though Moraes actually landed more strikes, according to FightMetric.com. It evokes the old adage: "Never leave it in the hands of the judges." Making the rematch a five-round main event is crucial in giving fans and judges those extra rounds to make sure nobody gets screwed in the end and a clear winner walks out of the cage.
Bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw in on the shelf after failing in his attempt to move down in weight and claim the flyweight title from Henry Cejudo earlier this month. Assuncao and Moraes need to make a statement about why they should fight for his title next. If the two Brazilians fight a five-round snoozer, Dillashaw and UFC can easily make a case for a Dillashaw-Cejudo rematch -- this time for the bantamweight title. With a title shot up for grabs and a raucous home crowd to please, expect these two well-rounded warriors to put on a good show.
Prediction: Moraes via first-round knockout.
Jose Aldo (27-4) vs. Renato Moicano (13-1-1)
Aldo, a former UFC featherweight champion, without question is on the Mount Rushmore of Brazilian champions. Aldo won 10 consecutive 145-pound title fights during his reign in World Extreme Cagefighting and UFC from 2009-14. Aldo’s record since then is 2-3, starting with an infamous loss in 2015 to Conor McGregor. Though he’s only 32 years old and theoretically in his prime, Aldo has been in a lot of three-plus-round battles (nine of his past 14 fights). Aldo relied heavily on his fast-twitch muscles for those highlight-reel knockouts. But, as of late, the Brazilian has been willing to sit in the pocket and trade blows, which is a coin-flip strategy most of the time. Opposite of Aldo is Moicano, a countryman who has been quietly climbing the featherweight rankings with his calculated striking and sharp footwork. Four years ago, at Aldo's peak, the UFC Fight Night 144 co-main event would have been Aldo versus the world, but many battle scars later, look for Moicano to outpoint and outwork his legendary Brazilian opponent.
Prediction: Moicano via split decision
Lyman Good (20-4) vs. Demian Maia (25-9)
Good-Maia is one of those fun stylistic matchups. Maia, the 2-time UFC title challenger and BJJ world champion, is the grappler attempting to take down the striker in Good, a Tiger Schulmann Karate prospect, and strangle him in front of the home crowd for his 20th UFC victory, which would move him into second place all-time. Maia is on a three-fight losing streak, the longest of his career, and it appears UFC is positioning Maia as a potential stepping-stone win for the very marketable Good.
Maia has faced some of the best MMA fighters in history, and his cage experience will be one of his biggest weapons on Saturday night. Maia has shown improved striking over his career, though his stand-up isn’t on Good's level. But if Maia can mix in enough takedown attempts, added with his respectable boxing, it could be an easy victory for the Brazilian. Look for Maia to make magic one more time and hand Good the first submission loss of his career.
Prediction: Maia via third-round submission
Charles Oliveira (25-8) vs. David Teymur (8-1)
Oliveira-Teymur is another grappler-striker matchup. Oliveira, UFC's all-time submissions leader, is trying to get his second win in a seven-week span. Teymur hasn’t fought twice in a four-month span in his entire career. Teymur, a precision striker from Sweden (a part of the world with a rich history of striking and kickboxing), must prove he can fight out of submission holds and positions of disadvantage if he wants to contend with the best UFC lightweights. The game plan is simple: Oliviera needs his opponent to enter his web of submissions, while Teymur must keep the fight on the feet and within striker's range. Will the home crowd carry the inconsistent Oliviera to another highlight-reel choke? If Oliviera wins, he will tie the longest win streak of his career (4). In between the winning streaks, he had a 2-4 record. Expect a scrap from two hungry lightweights.
Prediction: Oliviera via three-round decision
Justin Ledet (9-1) vs. Johnny Walker (15-3)
The second fight on the main card, a light-heavyweight bout, is a chance for UFC fans to potentially catch lightning in a bottle with Walker. Ledet, a former heavyweight (he was 3-0 in the division in UFC), is looking for his first win since dropping down a weight class. If he loses again, expect Ledet’s camp to reevaluate his whopping 40-pound trimdown. Walker, a 26-year-old Brazilian with a nifty taekwondo style, will look keep the fight upright and finish Ledet with a mix of dynamic strikes. In Walker’s last fight, at UFC Fight Night 140, he slipped a cutting elbow over the guard of Khalil Rountree for a first-round knockout. The performance got the crowd in Argentina on its feet and put Walker on the radar of other light-heavyweights. Fans have fallen in love with rangy fighters in the past. If the 6-foot-6 Walker can finish Ledet with style, look for him to get a much more prominent name as his next opponent. But a prospect can be exposed as hype if he's lacking a well-rounded game. Look for Ledet to test Walker’s ground abilities and wrestling. Ledet would be smart to counter Walker’s speed and length with well-timed takedowns. Does Walker steal the show at another Fight Night, or does Ledet make it a tough night for the young striker?
Prediction: Walker via second-round TKO