In the cage

A.J. Hoffman: Previewing UFC 224

Amanda Nunes heads up UFC 224.

UFC 224 kicks off a run of 5 straight fight weekends for the UFC, and on paper it is a good, not great event. It lost the interim welterweight title matchup between Rafael Dos Anjos and Colby Covington to UFC 225 next month. That said, there are still some noteworthy fights on the card in Rio. 

The main event matches up Amanda Nunes and Raquel Pennington for Nunes’ 135 lb. title. After bludgeoning Ronda Rousey and Meisha Tate, Nunes took a tight decision over Valentina Schevchenko in her last matchup. Still, the UFC is having a hard time putting someone in front of her that presents a legitimate challenge, and she is again a massive betting favorite in this one at -1100. Nunes is a wrecking ball. She is incredibly aggressive, and probably hits harder than anyone not named Cris Cyborg in women’s MMA. Add that to her black belt in jiu-jitsu and a brown belt in judo, and she is a real problem for any woman to deal with. Pennington is tough and a solid grappler in transition situations, but at the end of the day, there are really very few scenarios where I can picture her taking out the champion, particularly in front of a partisan Brazilian crowd. 

The co-main would main event a lot of cards, and is probably the most anticipated fight on this card. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza takes on Kelvin Gastelum in what is unofficially a No. 1 contender’s bout for the middleweight title. Jacare is a force with his grappling, and is arguably the best pure jiu jitsu fighter in MMA history. He is a pressure grappler and adds to it by mixing in submission attempts with nasty ground and pound. His striking has also improved drastically since he got his start in MMA. Gastelum is a force. He couldn’t consistently make weight at 170 lbs., but has established himself at 185 with wins over Tim Kennedy and Michael Bisping. He also KO’ed Vitor Belfort, but the decision was turned to a no-contest when Gastelum tested hot for marijuana. He has a solid chin and is willing to engage. He is also faster and more athletic than the average middleweight, and Jacare has struggled with similar fighters (see Robert Whittaker). However, Whittaker moved well and changed angles, something that Gastelum doesn’t typically do. This should be an excellent fight. 

Mackenzie Dern takes on Amanda Cooper, as Dern hopes to return some of the shine to her prospect star. She didn’t look great last time out, but escaped with a split decision victory. Her grappling is on a level that most women aren’t accustomed to dealing with, though she has shown some struggles to get the fight to the ground. Her standup is sloppy, but again, if the fight hits the mat, she is unstoppable. Cooper is a really solid striker, and has added some solid ground and pound to her repertoire. A win for Dern puts her in the conversation for a shot at the strawweight title. 

Lyoto Machida takes on Vitor Belfort in a battle of 40-something year old former champions. Belfort is no longer the machine he was in his 20’s, when he had a chin willing to take a shot while he dished out two. He has struggled under duress in recent years. The good news for him is Machida has never been a pressure fighter, and is unlikely to change up his style to take on Belfort. Vitor has already announced that this is his last fight, and if he is able to get a win over Machida, it could be Lyoto’s as well. 

The prelims include several familiar faces, including former TUF winner Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira, Thales Leites, and a heavyweight battle between Junior Albini and Alexey Oleynik.


Nunes by submission

Souza by submission

Dern by submission

Lineker by decision

Belfort by decision

Ferreira by decision

Oleynik by submission

Ramos by knockout

Strickland by decision

Alves by knockout

Hermansson by decision

Emeev by decision

Perez by submission

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The Astros have JV this year, and Yankee Stadium will be packed. Composite image by Jack Brame.

How’s that New York, New York song go, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere? The AL West leading Houstonians are about to find out just where they stand among baseball’s elite. The Astros start a 4-game series tonight against the AL East first-place Yankees at Yankee Stadium, then a 2-game set against the NL East first-place Mets at Citi Field, then back home for a single game against the Yankees.

New York, New York indeed. And you can throw another New York in there for an encore.

When the dust clears, the Astros could be the best team in baseball or merely a good, solid team … just not the Yankees in the American League. Or the Mets in the National League.

The Yankees have the top record in the AL East, 51-18, a dozen games ahead the second-place Blue Jays. The Mets, even after dropping two to the Astros this week at Minute Maid Park, stand at 45-26, 4.5 games up on the Braves.

The Yankees and Mets have the two best records in the Major Leagues, with the Astros knocking on the door at 43-25.

It’s not yet July, but the next seven games could be the most important, interesting stretch of 2022 for the Astros, maybe for all of baseball.

Remember last year when the Astros visited Yankee Stadium, their first trip to The Bronx after the sign-stealing scandal broke? Yankee fans were lurking for the Astros like the Van Buren Boys waiting to mug George Costanza.

It was a different year last year for sure. The Yankees were barely over .500, headed for a third-place finish in the AL East. Didn’t matter, cold-blooded New Yorkers were out for vengeance. They remembered 2017 when they believe in their souls that the Astros were undeserving, big fat cheating champions and Astros second baseman Jose Altuve stole the AL MVP election from Aaron Judge. There seems to be a lot of that going around. Also with no evidence. Turns out that Altuve wasn’t one of the garbage can gang.

It also was baseball’s Covid season. The Yankees allowed only 10,500 fans to attend those games against the Astros last year. And they had security staff patrolling the ballpark ordering fans to wear their face masks. The only time fans lowered their masks was to eat or drink.

Or yell “F-Altuve” or “F-Astros” at the top of their New York lungs. They’re loud to start, and 10,500 fans sounded like a packed stadium. It could be a decibel-breaker tonight at Yankee Stadium.

It was brutal last season. Fans brought signs laced with profanity. They got personal with Astros players. Fans were dressed in homemade garbage can costumes. Party City doesn’t sell those. I watched small children yell the F-word and turn to their parents for a high five.

What a treat for Astros fans, seven games over eight days, all against dreaded powerhouses from New York. A dying sport? Half empty stadiums in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Miami? A vacant house in Oakland? Nobody’s ghosting baseball in Houston.

The Astros are loaded for bear this week. Their pitching is set up perfectly. Framber Valdez starts the opener tonight at Yankee Stadium, followed by Justin Verlander, Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy. Luis Garcia and Valdez are slated for the Mets at Citi Field. The bullpen is firing on all cylinders.

Then, one week from today, it’s Verlander vs. Gerrit Cole at Minute Maid Park. Game of the Year. Where the pitching rubber meets the road. TK, Blummer and Julia, get ready for World Series level ratings.

It’s go time. The only thing that could make that game any bigger and better – if it were a Tuesday Dollar Dog Night.

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