BantamweightsThomas Almeida (21-1) vs. Albert Morales (6-0)
THE MATCHUP: Pressure fighting is hard. A strategy consisting of constant forward movement and aggressive striking means spending a lot of time right in front of a man who very much wants to knock you out, take you down and just straight up ruin your night. Backing off to avoid strikes means letting up the pressure, so pressure fighters are encouraged to stay in the pocket, necessitating multiple layers of defense that do not emphasize the retreating footwork with which fighters of other styles are so comfortable.
Both Almeida and Morales are pressure fighters; both men have power in their punches and kicks; both men start fast; and both men get hit. However, Morales has a little more brawler in him than his Brazilian counterpart, while Almeida prefers the counter. In other words, this is a matchup of two fighters whose slight differences are extremely important, because their essential approaches are the same. For me, this is the main event.
Almeida has always been hittable early -- that is the pressure fighters’ bane -- but he was making some nice defensive strides leading into his fight with Cody Garbrandt. Unfortunately, the Chute Boxe product never got a chance to show off those improvements, as Garbrandt put him away before he could get through the necessary adjustment period. The setback dashes Almeida’s hopes of an instant title shot, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The win set up Garbrandt for a chance at the title, but being so young and inexperienced himself, he will very likely lose to the champion Dominick Cruz; that means a long, long road back to the belt. Almeida, on the other hand, gets a few more tune-ups to perfect his game -- not that Morales is a walkover.
Morales impressed in his UFC debut, drawing with veteran Alejandro Perez in a sizeable upset, despite the fact that his opponent was far more experienced. Like Almeida, Morales is a power puncher, but takedowns are an important part of his game, as well. These are usually completed near the fence, against which Morales likes to keep his opponent as often as possible; strength is as much a factor as technique in his completion of the shot.
Being so inexperienced, however, Morales has yet to match Almeida’s level of defensive craft. His is an upright, chin first, swarming style of pressuring, whereas Almeida likes to chip away with kicks and jabs before walking his opponent into a counter, frequently a right hand or overhand elbow. Like Perez before him, Almeida is far more experienced than his foe, but he is unlikely to back down when Morales invites him to trade. Where Perez lost confidence and resorted to creating space at all costs, Almeida will seek opportunities amidst the hailstorm of Morales’ strikes.
THE ODDS: Almeida (-295), Morales (+245)
THE PICK: This is not an easy fight for a man who was brutally knocked out in his last bout, but Almeida still has a decided technical advantage. He has taken enough time off to make any small adjustments the Garbrandt fight might have prompted. The deciding factor in this fight should be Almeida’s counters. Morales loves to pump away with right hands and left hooks, and these are strikes which Almeida delights in countering. His favored cross counter will be an effective weapon against the stock-straight posture of Morales, who powers through his punches without ever attempting to move his head. Morales’ chin will be tested for the first time in his short career, and it is very likely that it will fail. The pick is Almeida by second-round KO.
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