Jimmie Rivera has quietly become a title contender, but Marlon Moraes is seeking a belt in his second promotion. Who will take the next step toward the belt at UFC Utica?
The UFC bantamweight division has had gridlock the last several years, being mostly ruled by Dominick Cruz and TJ Dillashaw. Former champion Renan Barao has fallen out of the rankings and Cody Garbrandt held gold only once. However, two surging contenders are looking to break the stranglehold at the top as Jimmie Rivera and Marlon Moraes collide for the next shot at the bantamweight title.
Jimmie Rivera has only tasted defeat once, and it was a decade ago in only his second night as a professional. Since then, he has put together an amazing 20-fight win streak that included a four-fight stint in Bellator and five victories so far in the UFC. His breakthrough performance came in 2016, on a night where he bested former title challenger Urijah Faber to alert the MMA world to his presence. An eye injury would keep him out of action for roughly a year, but he would return to turn-back young upstart Thomas Almeida.
Let’s be clear on the situation. I’m in Vegas ready to fight. Missed Thanksgiving. Missed Christmas. Missed honeymoon. Was prepared. Was a professional. Cruz out. Lineker out. Marlon full of shit.
— Jimmie Rivera (@JimmieRivera135) December 26, 2017
That victory led him to a bout with Dominick Cruz in what was supposed to be a title eliminator last December. Cruz would pull out of the bout with an injury and it led to a well-publicized search on Christmas Day to possibly have Marlon Moraes step in. The bout failed to materialize and Rivera was left without an opponent after having missed the holidays and postponing his honeymoon in preparation for the bout with Cruz. While it will now be nearly another year since he has been inside the cage, the bout with Moraes is expected to finally secure him a fight for the belt.
For Marlon Moraes, he has recovered from an inauspicious start to his UFC career to now be on the cusp of title contention that was expected of him when he signed in 2017. Moraes first burst onto the scene in the inaugural event of the World Series of Fighting where he shocked former WEC star Miguel Torres in 2012. He would go on to win the championship in 2014 and make five defenses of his title before he signed to fight in the Octagon. His debut would be spoiled by perennial contender Raphael Assuncao, but he would go on to notch back-to-back wins over John Dodson and Aljamain Sterling, the latter being a candidate for knockout of the year.
For his part, the fiasco with Rivera over Christmas did not do him any favors with the fanbase. But his performances and body of work make him a breath of fresh air in a division that has been struggling to find new blood. Should he win against Rivera, and do so impressively, there is no question he would be a highly anticipated opponent for the winner of Dillashaw and Garbrandt in August.
Stylistically, the bout pits two of the more well-rounded fighters in the division against each other. While Rivera is not known for finishing opponents, his versatile attack and durability make him a nightmare match-up for most of the division. He should look to use high volume and not allow Moraes to get into a rhythm to counter with his powerful striking. Furthermore, he should look to threaten with takedowns throughout the fight. Moraes is an underrated grappler but a steady pace of ground-and-pound could be the difference in helping Rivera steal rounds should things be closely contested on the feet.
For Moraes, he should look to punish Rivera every time he comes inside with powerful kicks. Doing so will hurt Rivera’s mobility and open up Moraes’ attack on the feet. It also will make it easier for Moraes to set-up his own takedowns if he wishes which could prove vital if he feels he is unable to do enough damage on the feet with Rivera. Both men have been tested in five rounds fights in the past so cardio does not look to be a factor for either man.
The winner puts themselves at the unquestioned next in line for the winner of TJ Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt in August. Should they escape Saturday’s bout healthy, it would also be in their best interest to stay physically ready should circumstances keep either man out of the cage. Regardless, the once-proposed champion vs. champion fight with Demetrious Johnson appears to be a dead issue, which means there is no reason to think no less than a shot at gold is in the cards for Saturday’s winner.