Back to the Drawing Board: Bantamweight Prospects Edition

Aljamain-Sterling-620x330In a new feature, Jay Primetown looks at prospects in MMA that recently lost. He looks at why they lost and what needs to change to take their talent to the next level. Thomas Almeida Overview: The 24-year old Chute Boxe product had perhaps been on the best run of form in mixed martial arts. He had won 20 consecutive fights; 19 of them by stoppage. He was quickly making his way up the UFC rankings when he met Cody Garbrandt in a Memorial Day Weekend main event in Las Vegas, Nevada. What Went Wrong: For as good of a striker as he is, his striking defense is the exact opposite. Almeida oozes confidence in his attack and that’s his downfall thus far in his career. He’s been clipped and dropped in two of his last three fights. It’s this confidence that he will easily knock out his opponents that needs to change. In MMA, it’s of utmost importance to keep one’s hands high and defend. Confidence can easily turn into overconfidence and that’s what has happened to Almeida. If Almeida is humbled by this defeat, he will be a very dangerous fighter moving forward. If he continues to fight aggressively without defending himself, he will struggle to reach the top of the division and furthermore, will shorten his career. What’s Next: The loser of the Erik Perez vs. Francisco Rivera fight at UFC 201. Both fighters are aggressive and will look to challenge Almeida’s chin. Almeida has a better skill-set than both fighters, but this puts him in a situation where he could be exposed if he doesn’t improve his defensive skill set.   Darrion Caldwell Overview: The 28-year old, New Jersey native is certainly one of the most credentialed wrestlers competing in MMA. Caldwell competed in wrestling at NC State University compiling a record of 109-13 winning a national title in his junior year at the school. A series of shoulder injuries derailed his chances to repeat as well as any aspirations at competing in the Olympics. Caldwell was a perfect 9-0 in his MMA career prior to a meeting with Joe Taimanglo at Bellator 159. What Went Wrong: Inexperience played a big part in his first career loss. Caldwell controlled the first two rounds of the fight and was easily up two rounds on the scorecards. He wasn’t having as much success towards the end of the second round with his wrestling, so it appeared he got a bit nervous heading into the final round. He didn’t need to push the fight at all in the third round and dove in for a takedown and got caught in a guillotine. While it certainly was a sign of inexperience, it was also a sign of a fighter who had never been in trouble before in a fight. He wasn’t able to control the fight as much as he wanted to and got desperate. This was a good learning experience for Caldwell as it will teach him to relax inside the cage more. When up in the fight and not threatened to lose the bout, there’s no need for desperation. What’s Next: Likely a match-up against Marcos Galvao. The Brazilian is a black belt in BJJ under Andre Pederneiras. While he has just one submission win in his career, he’s one of the top fighters in Bellator’ s bantamweight division and presents an all-around skill set to further test Caldwell. Michael McDonald Overview: The California-based fighter has been competing at the highest levels of MMA for a handful of years. A highlight reel knockout of then contender Miguel Torres propelled him to title contention. At just 22 years old, he was thrust into a title fight against then-champion Renan Barao. The Brazilian dominated the bout eventually securing a submission win. Since that time, McDonald has been put into the cage with a variety of veterans such as Masanori Kanehara, Brad Pickett, and Urijah Faber. He struggled with Faber, but finished his other opponents. Injuries have been a big issue keeping McDonald in the cage and he was on the verge of jumping back into title contention in a key bantamweight match-up against John Lineker at UFC Fight Night 91. What Went Wrong: McDonald put in a head scratching performance in this fight. First, and most importantly, he had a poor game plan. Anyone who has ever faced John Lineker, has been knocked out when trying to go punch for punch with him. The last thing a fighter wants to do is have a firefight with LIneker. McDonald wasted no time exchanging with the powerful Brazilian and paid the price. McDonald has really quick hands, but what he forgot to do is move his feet. A constantly moving approach is the key to beating Lineker in a standing exchange. Furthermore, McDonald continues to talk about a career after MMA in religion, so one has to wonder just how much he desires being champion. McDonald has trained at a relatively small camp throughout his career and has not made the strides to develop. For a young fighter, there’s certainly quite a bit working against him. What’s Next: A match-up that makes sense for both parties is McDonald paired against former Arizona State wrestler Frankie Saenz. McDonald needs to show he can put together a solid game plan and Saenz needs to prove he can beat a very good striker. Aljamain Sterling Overview: The Serra-Longo trained bantamweight was a two-time NCAA Division III All-American in wrestling and developed an interest in the sport after meeting Jon Jones. After rising up the ranks of the New York area MMA scene, Sterling was signed by the UFC and was considered a blue chip prospect. He dominated his four bouts inside the cage including submission victories over top 15 fighters Johnny Eduardo and Takeya Mizugaki. Sterling has shown many similarities to fellow bantamweight Darrion Caldwell in his grappling as he’s able to shoot from a distance for takedowns and utilize his athleticism to secure top position with an unorthodox approach. At UFC Fight Night 88, Sterling faced Bryan Caraway; his toughest opponent to date. What Went Wrong: Sterling fought an excellent first round. He had Caraway in some very difficult grappling sequences throughout the first round. He looked on his way to a rather straight forward victory after five minutes. What he didn’t account for was Caraway’s will and determination. Caraway tested Sterling’s physicality and drive. He forced the undefeated bantamweight into a dog fight where strength and positioning would be the difference in the bout. Caraway successfully secured takedowns and was relentless in keeping Sterling on his back. Sterling didn’t have the tenacity to keep up with Caraway when the fight got difficult. Perhaps it was a sense of overconfidence on Sterling’s part. He wasn’t expected to have his conditioning challenged like he did in this bout. Sterling wasn’t dominated in this match-up, so it was more of a lesson in how top fighters work over the course of three rounds. What’s Next:  A fighter who could present some challenges to Sterling is Canadian Mitch Gagnon. The Canadian has an excellent guillotine choke and has finished all but one of his victories by submission. A dangerous submission fighter is a good match-up for Sterling as he’s so grappling-based that it will be interesting to see how he handles submission attempts from opposition. In previous fights in the UFC, he’s been able to secure takedowns without the threat of submissions from his opponents.

Written by Jay Primetown

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