UFC 219: Cyborg fight highlights a mildly interesting card

Cris Cyborg vs. Holly Holm highlights UFC 219. MMAfighting.com

UFC 219 isn’t the best card the UFC has put on this year. In fact, on paper, it is probably nearer the bottom of the pay-per view power rankings. It does, however, have a few intriguing storylines that for me are enough to fork over my $60. 

The headliner features the most dominant women’s fighter of all time, Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos (18-1), taking on Holly Holm (11-3), who knows a thing or two about overcoming the most unlikely of odds. Cyborg has not lost since May of 2005, and has rarely even been challenged in her bouts. Since getting to the UFC, she has had three fights, and won by TKO all 3 times. Holm is best known for head kicking Ronda Rousey’s career into a downward spiral, but even she has not faced a force like Cyborg. Holm’s technical boxing is tough to match for any woman, but Cyborg has the brute strength and closing pressure that has proven to be too much for any of her peers to handle. If the fight goest to the ground, it is difficult to see Holm surviving long, but as long as they are on their feet Holm has a chance to land a fight-ending kick. A win for Cyborg here would solidify her as the most dominant female fighter in history, while a surprise win by Holm would give her a legacy as a true giant-killer. 

The co-main event marks the return of Khabib Nurmagomedov (24-0), who is one of the most dominant fighters in the world, when he can make it into the cage. Khabib was supposed to fight Tony Ferguson for the interim title at UFC 209, but was hospitalized with complications during his weight cut. He hasn’t fought since, and has developed a reputation as injury prone that is serious enough that it could cost him a title shot. He gets Edson Barboza (19-4) here, who has won three straight since being submitted by Ferguson. Nurmagomedov will bring immediate and constant pressure, looking to use the same takedown recipe that Ferguson used to beat Barboza. Barboza will clearly want to stay on his feet, but as Michael Johnson and Abel Trujillo found, it is much easier said than done. 24 fighters have tried to land the kill shot on Khabib before being taken down and pummeled, and all 24 have failed. Barboza will look to be the first, but has a serious uphill climb. The winner of this fight is hoping to get a shot against Ferguson, and both fighters feel like they have something to prove, both against each other and against “El Cucuy”. 

The matchup between Cynthia Calvillo (6-0) and Carla Esparza (12-4) pits two grapplers against each other. Calvillo has worked her way into a high-level prospect, while Esparza has struggled in her UFC career after winning The Ultimate Fighter in season 20. This fight may be unspectacular, but the winner gets themselves into the conversation of strawweight contention. 

Carlos Condit (30-10) returns after a 16 month layoff that had people curious if he would ever fight again after he was pummeled soundly by Demian Maia. Neil Magny (19-6) is an intriguing opponent for his return, if for no other reason than it should make a stylistically interesting matchup. It is very difficult to know what we will get out of Condit here. He is only 33 years old, but has mostly been hidden away for the last year and a half, so it is hard to know where he is at physically and mentally. A win here instantly revives interest in him near the top of the welterweight division, while a loss may mark the last time we see Condit in the UFC cage. 

Mark Diakiese (12-1) had his shine knocked off by Drakkar Klose back in July. Diakiese was widely regarded as the top lightweight prospect in the world, but Klose, a fine prospect in his own right, was able to capitalize on his weakness and make it an ugly clinch fight. Daniel Hooker (14-7) doesn’t have a history of trying to make fights ugly. This is a good matchup for Diakiese to display his brilliant counter-striking and get his name back to the tip of people’s tongues. 

The undercard features Khalil Rountree, Myles Jury and Tim Elliott. 

Cyborg by TKO

Nurmagomedov by TKO

Calvillo by decision

Condit by KO

Diakiese by decision

Rountree by KO

Jury by decision

Smolka by knockout 

Vettori by decision

Elliott by submission

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Here's what the data tells us about Bregman. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Alex Bregman had a rough season in 2020 by his standards. He slashed .242/.350/.451 in 42 regular season games. His regular season included a trip to the 10-day IL for a hamstring strain he suffered in mid-August. His surface-level struggles continued in the postseason, where he slashed .220/.316/.300 in 13 games. However, that postseason sample size does include a tough luck game against the Tampa Bay Rays where he went 0-for-5 with five hard hit balls.

All-in-all, 2020 felt like a lost season for Bregman. He never really got going. He got off to a slow start, but he's always been a slow starter. Once he started to pick it up, he strained his hamstring, and he played poorly after returning from the hamstring strain. Then, he started to turn his batted ball quality around in the playoffs, but he hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

Hard Hit % - 33.6%

Barrel % - 3.9%

K% - 14.4%

BB% - 13.3%

Chase % - 18.1%

Bregman comes from the Michael Brantley school of hitters. He has elite plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills. This makes Bregman a fairly consistent hitter. That may sound odd considering his 2020 "struggles" but even an extended period of poor performance for him resulted in a .801 OPS and a 122 wRC+. If his valleys are still 22% better than the league average hitter, then that's a pretty reliable producer.

There aren't any alarming trends in Bregman's statistics. Yes, his K% was slightly up, his BB% is slightly down, but it isn't a massive difference in either category. His Chase % was up, but again, 18.1% is elite discipline. The biggest drop was in his Hard Hit%, where he fell from 38% to 33.6%. Even so, his average exit velocity only dropped .4 MPH, so there's not really a catastrophic trend here.

His .254 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was low, but he's never put up really high BABIP numbers. In fact, his BABIP has gotten worse every year of his career, from .317 to .311 to .289 to .281 to .254. While his BABIP will likely spike back up next year, it isn't enough to be the difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of himself. His xBA and xSLG weren't out of whack either. His .256 xBA isn't much better than his .240 AVG, and his .400 xSLG is actually worse than his .451 SLG.

Bregman is as forthcoming with his hitting mechanics, approach, and mental cues as any big leaguer out there. Here is what he had to say about his swing this year. This was a Zoom press conference with the media following the Astros game on September 25th against the Rangers.

Bregman says he wants to hit balls in the air to the pull side and on a line to the opposite field, but in reality, he was hitting flares to the opposite field and hitting them on the ground to the pull side.

The data mostly backs up that claim. In 2019, on balls hit to the pull side, Bregman had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH at an average launch angle of 16°, a 40% Hard Hit %, and a 16% HR%. Since Bregman has elite bat-to-ball skills, most of those metrics didn't change. In 2020, his average exit velocity was 90.6, essentially the same as 2019. His Hard Hit % was 42%, a touch better than in 2019. However, his average launch angle dipped from 16° to 11°, which contributed to his HR% dropping all the way to 9%. Bregman hit 47% of his pull side swings on the ground. In 2019, that number was 40%. He absolutely had less production to the pull side in 2020.

The data gets a little hazier going the opposite way when comparing 2019 to 2020, as Bregman actually performed slightly better to the opposite field in 2020 than 2019, but he also only had 20 batted balls to the opposite field all season. Considering the small sample size, it isn't worth diving too deep into the data.

He's right that most of the balls he hit that way were flares. He had an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH with an average launch angle of 32°, but that's about the same as what he did in 2019. A lot of the statistical drop off comes from balls that were backspun rockets to the pull side in 2019 becoming top spinners or roll overs in 2020.

Bregman also performed horribly against breaking balls in 2020. He batted .150 with a .250 SLG against them in 2020. He had an 84 MPH Average Exit Velocity against them and whiffed 26.5% of the time against them.

It was a far cry from 2019, when he hit .265 with a .588 SLG, 87 MPH average exit velo, and whiffed 18% of the time.

Those numbers lend credence to his statement on his mechanics. It's tough for a hitter to have adjustability against breaking balls if he's blowing out his front side and pulling off of the baseball.

Bregman will spend the offseason working on these mechanical fixes and getting back to the hitter he used to be. If he's consistently hitting the ball in the air to the pull side next year, and he's performing better against breaking balls, then he should be right back in the mix for AL MVP.

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