Beyond The Odds series shines a spotlight on the intangibles of 3 fighters for each UFC card. Here are 3 of the more intriguing fighters competing at UFC on ESPN 3 this Saturday in Fort Lauderdale.

Ion Cutelaba

“The Hulk” is back! Ion Cutelaba makes his long awaited return to the Octagon this weekend in a light-heavyweight matchup that was rebooked due to injury. Cutelaba, 25 years-old with a 14-3 professional record fighting out of Moldova, takes on Brazilian warhorse, 39-year-old Glover Teixeira, who has continued to find success as he nears the tail end of an illustrious UFC career. Currently, Cutelaba sits at -110 betting odds.

One thing you can expect out of any Ion Cutelaba fight is high intensity. The intimidation tactics usually begin at the ceremonial weigh-ins, and carry into the fight. When it was permissible at one point in time, Cutelaba would go so far as covering himself from head to toe in green paint to set a tone for the face-off with his adversary. I doubt this strategy will be effective against someone as battle tested as Teixeira, who has shared the Octagon with the likes of Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, Ryan Bader, and Jon Jones.

Take the good with the bad, as all of the intensity Cutelaba brings to the table with his Greco-Roman wrestling and Sambo background can be nullified if he doesn’t get the job done early. In previous bouts, Cutelaba has run out of gas, and shown to be susceptible to opponents who implement a grappling heavy game plan. Although Glover Teixeira is known for his power punches, he also possesses a high-level ground game, being a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black under Luigi Mondelli.

A concern for Teixeira is that he’s slowed down dramatically over the past few years, and has been not only been battered, but also outworked in many bouts. The damage meter has reached red alert status when you factor in the wear and tear of a professional career that began in 2002, and consists of 35 professional fights against many heavy hitters. Teixeira looked sloth-like at times and was throttled in recent fights against Karl Roberson, Corey Anderson, Misha Cirkunov, Alexander Gustafsson, and Anthony “Rumble” Johnson. World-class BJJ skills did came in handy to turn the tide and aid Teixeira in a couple of the aforementioned fights. A matchup with Cutelabe is a dangerous fight.

The reality is that Glover Teixeira’s high mileage is beginning to glare, and I believe Cutelaba, a hungry fighter 14 years his junior, has what it takes to capitalize through getting to the chin early and often. Teixeira may have the fight IQ and grappling edge on his side, though, he’ll need to stay conscious and weather an early storm to execute his game plan. The pick here is Ion Cutelaba.

Greg Hardy

Greg Hardy’s foray with mixed martial arts takes another turn this weekend as he somehow managed to secure a second co-main event slot. This time around, Hardy is matched up against one of the lowest level heavyweights on the UFC roster, 34 year-old Russian, Dimitrii “The Lifeguard” Smoliakov.

Last time out, we saw Greg Hardy tested in his UFC debut against 9-3 vet, Allen Crowder. Unfortunately, that bout ended due to an illegal knee at 2:28 of the second round. There were a few takeaways from Hardy’s limited cage time. He hits like a truck, his gas tank is questionable, his takedown defense needs work, and he does not understand the rule set of the sport that he participates in.

Smoliakov, 9-2, is coming off of Kalinlingrad Challenge promotional win after dropping his previous two UFC bouts to Cyril Asker and Luis Henrique. The Asker and Henrique losses were telling, as Smoliakov was out-grappled and finished early in each fight. Smoliakov is a slow moving heavyweight who wings hooks, lacks defensive prowess, and has poor cardio. Although grappling has helped end fights in his favor on the regional scene, this matchup against a 3-1 Hardy is a huge step up in competition.

Let’s cut to the chase. This is in all likelihood feeding time for Hardy, who will look to light the plodding Smoliakov up early on the feet. Raw athleticism can take you far in this sport, and Greg Hardy possesses that, along with quick hands and heavy punches. We got to see glimpses of what he is capable of on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. The NFL convert who trains at American Top Team may meet his match sometime in the future. Though, on Saturday night, Hardy, this -300 favorite, should win by KO/TKO.

Cory Sandhagen

We have another rebooked fight ahead of us for this UFC Fort Lauderdale card, as 27 year-old, Cory Sandhagen fighting out of Team Elevation in Colorado takes a massive step up in competition to face 29 year-old, 31-8, “Hands of Stone”, Jon Lineker at 135 pounds. Get ready for fireworks, as both fighters throw punches in bunches and have great cardio. Sandhagen, 10-1, is the much more cerebral fighter of the two with technical striking, a 4-inch reach advantage, and a solid grappling game. Lineker, on the other hand, possesses a granite chin, dynamite in his hands, advanced BJJ that we don’t often get to see, and the ability to close distance fast.

What makes Sandhagen’s game so beautiful to watch is his ability to stay in his opponent’s face while slipping punches, peppering away with jabs, digging to the body, and landing leg kicks. The lateral movement and footwork is incredible. If he wants to change levels and take it to the mat, that is also an option. The young man is closing in on the total package, and is grounded by a strong team that has molded him through years in the training room. One concern of mine is that Sandhagen has been hurt in a couple of his fights. He was dropped by Alcantara and also got clipped by Bautista. Granted, he was able to wade through the fire and get wins in both of those respective matchups. Though, you do not want to get your chin tested against Lineker. Most fighters lose that game in the long run.

A great strength in any line of work is to show humility and recognize areas for improvement. That is when real change happens. In an interview with MMA Junkie Radio, Cory Sandhagen spoke how went back to the drawing board after his first pro loss to address certain aspects of his mental game. Sandhagen shared “I had a really good year last year as far as working on my mental game, and being a mental monster. That was where I lacked a little bit. From that one loss, I learned the best skilled fighter in there isn’t always going to win. I believe that is always going to be me. But, you’ve got to be strong in the brain, and that is what I worked on all last year.” Sandhagen will need all of his wits when he takes on a Jon Lineker, who is one of the rare Bantamweights who can end the fight with one punch. Lineker will be looking to take Sandhagen’s head off.

Any fight against a gun slinger such as Jon Lineker, is a dangerous one. This could be Cory Sandhagen’s coming out party if he plays his cards right, uses his reach advantage well, and sticks to the game plan. There is always the possibility Sandhagen gets clipped and put out. The blueprint to beat Linker is out there, and was completed by a TJ Dillashaw, a similar style fighter to Sandhagen, who also did not have an elite chin for the weight class. I’ll go out on the limb to take Sandhagen to score the upset, though expect a better line than the current +115 come fight time.

 


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