In the cage

A.J. Hoffman: Previewing UFC 224

Amanda Nunes heads up UFC 224. UFC.com

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.

PREDICTIONS:

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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Houston couldn't keep up

Astros fall to Blue Jays as Toronto gets homer-happy

Houston's bats couldn't keep up with Toronto's Saturday night. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

With an offensive clinic in the opener on Friday night, which helped them handily defeat the Blue Jays, the Astros returned to Minute Maid Park Saturday with a chance to secure another series. Toronto had other plans, though, reversing roles with Houston by getting big home runs to even the series.

Final Score: Blue Jays 8, Astros 4

Astros' Record: 17-16, third in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Steven Matz (5-2)

Losing Pitcher: Cristian Javier (3-1)

Toronto flips the script and turns on their offense against Javier

Toronto flipped the script from the night before early in this middle game of the series, dealing damage to Cristian Javier, who so far in 2021 had been able to limit his amount of earned runs. After retiring the first four batters he faced, a one-out walk in the top of the second set up the Blue Jays' first hit of the night, a two-run home run by Cavan Biggio, giving them a 2-0 lead over Houston.

After a leadoff home run made it a 3-0 score, Javier would deal with the fallout of more walks in the top of the third, issuing two to set up a two-out two-RBI double to give the Jays a commanding 5-0 advantage. Javier would battle back and complete five full innings, getting one out into the sixth before a walk would prompt Dusty Baker to make the call to the bullpen. His final line: 5.1 IP, 4 H, 5 ER, 4 BB, 8 K, 2 HR, 91 P.

Alvarez keeps mashing as Houston tries to claw back into it

Javier would exit with at least some runs on the board in support of him, with Yordan Alvarez hitting a two-run opposite-field homer in the bottom of the fourth to cut the lead to three runs. Alvarez accounted for another run in the next inning, coming through with an RBI-single to make it 5-3, which is where the game stood as Andre Scrubb would take over in the top of the sixth.

Scrubb finished that inning for Javier and returned for a 1-2-3 seventh to keep it a two-run game. Bryan Abreu was the next reliever, and he, too, was able to retire the Blue Jays in order in the top of the eighth. The Astros continued to chip away at Toronto's lead, getting another run in the bottom of the inning on an RBI by Yuli Gurriel to make it 5-4 heading to the ninth.

Toronto evens the series

Brooks Raley entered to try and keep it a one-run game with a clean inning, but instead, two runners would reach on a walk and error before Joe Smith would enter to try and strand them. Instead, a two-out home run put the game back out of reach at 8-4, with Houston coming up empty in the bottom of the inning, setting up a rubber match in the finale.

Up Next: This series's third and final game will be an afternoon start of 1:10 PM Central on Sunday. Zack Greinke (2-1, 3.76 ERA) will try to add more wins to his record for Houston, while Nate Pearson will be making his 2021 debut for Toronto.

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