International Fight Week gave us two excellent main events with major title implications. While UFC Fight Night 113 on Sunday in Glasgow, Scotland, does not have quite the same curb appeal, the card is stacked with an interesting and diverse array of talents. In the main event, mercurial finisher Gunnar Nelson will square off against hard-hitting action fighter Santiago Ponzinibbio. Now well into their Ultimate Fighting Championship careers, both men have grown into their games. Nelson is welterweight’s king of surprise, and Ponzinibbio is a successful gatekeeper with title aspirations. It sounds like fun.
In the co-feature, top prospect Cynthia Calvillo gets her first big test in the form of Joanne Calderwood, a tricky striker and a mainstay of the UFC women’s strawweight division. Further down the card, flyweight veteran Neil Seery will battle former Resurrection Fighting Alliance champion Alexandre Pantoja in his retirement fight, a fitting sendoff for a fighter who has been putting on exciting shows since he debuted back in 2005. On the UFC Fight Pass prelims, bantamweight wunderkind Brett Johns will test his aggressive takedown game against the boxing skill and athletic talent of Albert Morales. Overall, this is a fun card that should make for pleasant Sunday viewing.
Let us take a closer look at each UFC Fight Night “Nelson vs. Ponzinibbio” matchup, with analysis and picks:
WelterweightsGunnar Nelson (16-2-1) vs. Santiago Ponzinibbio (24-3)
THE MATCHUP: I have a difficult time predicting Nelson’s fights. In a sense, he is the welterweight division’s Yoel Romero. He does very little at range in terms of effective offense, landing merely 1.98 strikes per minute according to FightMetric. He is also remarkably hittable, avoiding only 51 percent of his opponent’s strikes. All the same, Nelson is a thoroughly surprising fighter. He closes distance with shocking speed and, judging by his knockdowns against Alan Jouban, Brandon Thatch and Zak Cummings, packs a wallop when he connects. Nelson will let minutes of fight time pass him by as he watches his opponent from long range, but when he explodes, he does so with accuracy and power.
“Gunni” uses these same, Karate-esque bursts of speed to initiate takedowns. He is a consistent takedown artist who uses complex, layered shots to off-balance and then drag his opponent to the ground. Nelson is also an underrated clinch wrestler. It can be difficult to trust him in the tie-ups simply because he an undersized fighter who claims to cut little weight to make 170 pounds. In his last two fights, however, Nelson has looked muscular and strong, suggesting that his strength and conditioning program has finally caught up to his wrestling skill. Whether by knockdown or takedown, Nelson is most dangerous on the ground. He is a brilliant guard passer, and whether he is raining elbows or locking up chokes, Nelson is cold and relentless on the floor. He does an excellent job of taking the back, often forcing his opponent to turn by way of ground-and-pound, and his superb guillotine choke is a deadly trap for fighters who become impatient as they try to regain top position or scramble to their feet.
Like Nelson, Ponzinibbio has given up two losses in the UFC. Unlike Nelson, Ponzinibbio’s inconsistency has not stemmed from a lack of process. Ponzinibbio is an aggressive kickboxer, comfortable pressuring or striking off the back foot. Footwork is a primary weapon, and Ponzinibbio is at his best when he is pressing ahead into the pocket, sticking out his jab before pivoting to one side or the other and following with powerful combinations. While he is not nearly as fast as Nelson and therefore still gets hit on the way in, he is much more defensively sound. Ponzinibbio avoids 63 percent of his opponents’ strikes and typically mitigates those that do land by landing punches of his own. Compared to Nelson’s 1.98, Ponzinibbio lands 4.03 strikes per minute, and though he likes to push the pace from the outset, his output and connect percentage go up with each successive round.
Ponzinibbio is not as durable as Nelson, but his pressure tactics may prevent the SBG Ireland rep from finding the long, sniping shots he likes to throw. In the pocket, Ponzinibbio is more active, more accurate and harder to hit -- even if he is easier to hurt. Whether or not Ponzinibbio can win will be decided by how well he does on the ground or, alternatively, how well he keeps the fight standing. Ponzinibbio’s takedown defense is respectable but unremarkable. He stuffs 60 percent of his opponents’ shots. More recently, however, Ponzinibbio’s footwork and distance management have made it harder for opponents to get in his hips: He shut down five of Cummings’ six takedown attempts, for example, and immediately scrambled back to his feet after the one shot which succeeded. Nelson is far better at locking down his foes on the ground, but if Ponzinibbio can use his distance and angles to force an ugly shot, he may well be able to stand up before Nelson can solidify position.
THE ODDS: Nelson (-160), Ponzinibbio (+140)
THE PICK: Nelson is so unpredictable and so dangerous that I rarely manage to predict his wins. As far as his losses are concerned, however, Ponzinibbio should be able to replicate the boxing success of Rick Story; and though he cannot challenge Nelson’s wrestling game as Story did, he is also much more agile and carries more power in his hands. Likely, Ponzinibbio will have to survive a scare in the first round before he can really get going. Though he likes to apply pressure from the get-go, he has historically been a slow starter, and the speed and creativity of Nelson will probably surprise him a few times early. If Ponzinibbio can make it out of the first round, we can rely on him to continually build his offense and avoid more of whatever Nelson throws back at him. Nelson is uncomfortable in the pocket and relies on his opponents to give him the fight he needs. So long as Ponzinibbio’s strategy is sound, he should be able to outwork Nelson in the pocket and wear him down over the course of the fight. The pick is Ponzinibbio by fourth-round TKO.
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