Breaking Down the UFC’s Deepest Division, the Bantamweights

Bantamweight UFC Division Breakdown

Umar Nurmagomedov is currently ranked “unofficially” on at 45th of all the bantamweights fighting professional mixed martial arts in the world. I know he should certainly be higher, there are other fighters from other organizations ahead of him on this list, and that this list isn’t official at all, BUT the fact is that the Bantamweight Division of the UFC is the most talent-rich of any other in the company.

I don’t know what it is about this weight class.

A big part of it is that fighters who are smaller have to be more technical because they don’t have nearly as many physical specimens that can decapitate their opponents with one shot. Eventually, every weight class in the UFC will be overflowing with extremely technical fighters. The sport is evolving, and I don’t think we can wrap our limited human brains around exactly how fast this is happening.

Please Note:
We think it’s going quickly, but if you know anything about the growth process, then you understand that in the beginning, there is always a higher rate of growth and learning, and that tapers as you progress in an art, science, or just into adulthood.

The UFC and mixed martial arts as a whole are growing in popularity all around the world. I know futbol will be the most popular sport in the world for a long time, but I truly believe that mixed martial arts fighting will replace it one day.

Not every country on the planet can practice futbol. Some people live on the sides of mountains, and there is no flat ground. The landscapes around the world, of course, vary immensely, but people can always find room for a fist fight.

It’s true.

I can remember my dad telling me how the smaller boxers always brought exponentially more action to their fights than the larger weights, especially the heavyweights, and for the most part, he was right.

You do see more knockouts at the higher weight classes, of course, but there is more action in the lower weight classes. The bigger guys have to be that much more careful, and the smaller fellas can throw more and absorb more strikes.

Using the word “Peaking” is strange with the UFC.

We just talked about the incredibly rapid evolutionary rate, but it does feel like the UFC’s Bantamweight Division is peaking right now. They’re at least setting themselves apart from every other division in the company, including the Lightweights.

Khabib Nurmagomedov is retired now, and Conor McGregor doesn’t at all appear to be the fighter he once was. We will see when he fights Dustin Poirier again this Summer. I think we are all pretty excited for that one.

If you look down at the fighters roughly ranked 40th in the UFC’s Lightweight Division, you won’t find the same level of talent, skill, and overall success as you do with the 35ers. I’m seeing names like Scott Holtzman, Bobby Green, Alexander Hernandez.

Compare those with fighters like Nathaniel Wood, Jack Shore, and Casey Kenney. Betting gets difficult when you have more fighters who compete at or around the same high level. There is another side to this coin, though.

Please Note:
There is more value in the betting lines, and the UFC betting sites are doing the same job we are to an extent. They do their homework, watch the fight tape, study the statistics, and even more, they probably have eyes and ears on the ground to keep them informed of who is training hard, who is injured, etc.

Their work is subjective also, and you see every week the mistakes they make. Well, usually, we naturally focus on our own mistakes, but it is very important to note how the books screwed up as well.

It comes down to mindset. Life gets harder for us over time because there will be more parody in the future. We are already seeing it in the UFC’s Bantamweight Division.

Do we quit or become less confident and decisive?

No, we step up our games so far that we know nobody is outworking us. This is fighting. Let’s handicap and make a few predictions on some of the biggest Bantamweight fights on the horizon.

Timur Valiev vs Raoni Barcelos

This is a dream matchup for the hardcore fans! Raoni Barcelos is one of the most underrated fighters on the entire UFC roster. The Brazilian has been on the mats since the age of 5, training first under his father, a member of the Brazilian National Wrestling Team, as well as a Coral Belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Wow. That’s intense.

Raoni also wrestled for the national team for a while before transitioning to mixed martial arts at the age of 25. He began his career with 7 consecutive victories only to have that streak broken by Tiger Muay Thai’s wrestling coach, Mark Dickman.

This was in Cheyenne, Wyoming, so I don’t think Mark was in the Land of Smiles just yet but a huge win for him because Raoni has not lost again.

He is now 5-0 fighting inside of the Octagon with 3 finishes.

Raoni has wins over talented striker and kicker Chris Gutierrez, Said Nurmogomedov, and most recently the highly touted Turkish German fighter, Khalid Taha.

Barcelos gets no love, though, from the UFC or the media. Nobody talks about this guy, but a Brazilian with wrestling this good is not something we see very often.

Please Note:
He and his opponents have won Fight of the Night twice in 5 tries, and still nada from the company or the media. Until now! This guy is legit legit. One thing working against the Brazilian, though, is his age. He is 34, and you know there is major mileage on that ride. It’s no surprise. He has been wrestling, wrestling competitively, not mostly BJJ, for 30 years now. At 16-1, though, and 5-0 fighting inside of the Octagon, Raoni Barcelos has a time, and it is now.

One thing I didn’t speak about earlier is how the Bantamweights age. There is a direct correlation of the average age of a fighter decreasing as the poundage of the division decreases.

Stipe, DC, Francis. These are all fighters in their mid-30s or older. Why is this? My theory is that there are several factors, and every fighter is different, but there is one big thing.

Reaction time.

It decreases with age and usually comes on around the age of 35. This is a bigger deal at the smaller weight classes because there is less range, so these guys have to react quicker. The punches are coming faster and more at a time than the heavier weights as well.

Speed also goes over time as someone gets into their 30s so if Raoni is fighting someone who is 25 years old, we have to take into account the near 10 year age gap in our handicapping process.

10 years means the younger fighter wins 2 out of 3 fights off the top.

Raoni’s opponent, Timur Valiev, is yet another Dagestani fighter, but he has taken his talents to Tom’s River to train with The Answer Frankie Edgar. I love that move for Timur because Frankie is one of the most complete and talented mixed martial artists of all time.

I remember when a teammate of mine took a short notice televised fight against Timur on the old World Series of Fighting show I think it was and boy did Timur show out. My friend was a great fighter but Valiev could possibly fight for the UFC title one day and there are just levels.

Valiev did receive a rude awakening in his first ever fight inside of the Octagon when he fought Trevin Jones. Timur looked great early, but he was a little too overconfident in his chin and decided to trade.

Everybody gets clipped, but Trevin has looked after that as well. Timur has only fought once since his debut, and it was against a fighter he was tailor made to defeat. Martin Day is a good striker but tall and skinny striker vs Dagestan…

Come on. That was gravy for the Russian. Raoni Barcelos, though, will not be an easy fight.

One question I like to ask myself during the handicapping process is:

“Has either fighter fought a guy who is very similar to their current opponent?”

Has Timur ever fought a guy like Raoni? The last 3 Brazilians he fought had a combined record at the time of 58-13. That’s pretty solid but are they national team level wrestlers like Raoni?

I think this fight mostly plays out on the feet, but I have to give Timur the edge there.

16-1 vs 17-2
The height and reach, and ages of the two men are all similar. Timur will be the thicker man in there and perhaps the stronger as well. It should be noted that Timur was fighting up at 145 for his first two UFC events, and we don’t know how his cardio is going to hold up having to lose an extra 10 pounds.

I think Timur, as the more explosive fighter, will come out here on the front foot and probably win the first round on aggression and explosiveness. Sometime either late in the second round or early in the third, I think he will slow down.

I see Raoni winning the 3rd round as his cardio has never really been an issue. It is the second round that will probably decide the winner of this matchup. Because I see Timur being the fighter pressing forward, I give him the edge but not by much.

Handicap: Timur Valiev (-130) vs Raoni Barcelos (+110)

Kyler Philips vs Rafael Assuncao

Let me tell you guys about Kyler Philips. This good looking mini caveman is part of the new generation of mixed martial artists. This kid grew up at The MMA Lab in Phoenix, Arizona.

He has a great frame for the division, standing 5’8” with a lengthy 70.5 inch reach. He isn’t too short, and he isn’t too tall. He isn’t too thick or too thin. He isn’t all shoulder width and no arms and vice versa.

I like this kid and his style. What is his style, by the way?

MMA? I’m trying to label the guy, but I just can’t do it. He is not just good everywhere, though. The kid is very good everywhere. When he starts fighting a higher level of competition, I think we will have a better idea of his strengths and weaknesses.

He came through as an underdog in his last fight with China’s Song Yadong. Yadong took Cody Stamann to a split decision and defeated Chito Vera on the cards as well, but Kyler was a step ahead of him the entire right.

I am very high on the 25 year old but he has potentially a stiff test in his next bout when he fights longtime litmus test at 135 pounds, Raphael Assuncao. Raphy is coming off of an absolutely devastating knockout at the hands of Cody Garbrandt who we will be talking about in just a few.

We have been fading Raphael Assuncao since his fight with Cory Sandhagen. Cory and Cody are different fighters, though, than Kyler Phillips. He isn’t on their level in the striking department, but you could argue that his overall MMA skills are quite comparable.

Assuncao has always had good takedown defense and solid defensive striking, so he could make this a close fight even at the age of 38.

That is a 13 year age gap which means this one is 70/30 off the top.

I think Kyler’s inexperience at this level, along with the experience of Raphy, the books might give the Brazilian too much love here, and I am waiting patiently for it. There is no way I am picking against one of the top talents in the UFC’s best weight class to lose against a guy 38 years old, 6 years older than the average age of a UFC Bantamweight.

Handicap: Kyler Phillips (-180) vs Raphael Assuncao (+160)

Cody Garbrandt vs Rob Font

This is a fun one, my goodness! Handicapping this fight is not going to be easy at all!

Cody has some hands but so does Rob, and the latter has a bigger frame for the weight class. Wow, both fighters seemingly at the peaks of their respective careers. I know that Cody was once the champ, and he fell from grace, but he won the belt against a guy who had nothing to match his power.

He was never really tested in that way, and when he was, he failed. I think this was just a step in the learning process. People gave him so much crap for biting down on his mouthpiece and exchanging in there when he got rocked. That is heart.

You want the guy to shell up and back down?

I get it. He is very technical, and he can be much more effective and durable if he stays smart in there. I think this whole thing was a massive growing process for Cody, and the fighter he is now is much better and complete than when he was the champ.

He grew from his losses, and he also grew up by becoming a father.

He looks good to me. The man can box. There is nothing more to it, and I would love to see him get back to throwing more kicks like he did when he was coming up through the ranks in his early UFC days.

He fell in love with the knockout as most of us would, but he has a strong team behind him that knows him better than he knows himself at Team Alpha Male.

Urijah Faber seems like a great leader.
He is laid back, but at the same time, values hard hard work, and that is what it takes to even play the game at this level. You’re going to need talent as well to be a world champion. We know Cody Garbrandt has that. His hand speed and power is nearly unmatched in the UFC’s Bantamweight Division.

His opponent later this month, Rob Font, might have something to say about that.

He has some pretty crisp boxing himself, and the New England Mafia member has been out for blood lately, even recording a knockout of Marlon Moraes in his last bout.

I’m sorry. It’s the New England Cartel, not Mafia.

Rob has sort of been in the shadows the past 4 years, and I don’t know why because he is 33 now, and 29-33 is kind of a sweet spot. He has only fought 3 times in the past 4 years.

He has won all three of those matchups, though, and looked better than ever each time.

I am not seeing betting odds for this fight yet, unfortunately, but let’s handicap it blind as we should.

The biggest difference in the attributes of the two men is the reach. They are both listed at 5’8”, but Cody kinda has the T-rex arms thing going for him, and Rob is built longer and leaner.

Please Note:
Garbrandt is used to this, though, and he loves to get inside and work anyway. The range this fight is fought will most likely determine the winner, and more than likely, we will be in the small Octagon and Garbrandt will be the aggressor.

I can see him having a hard time with the jab of Font in a close round one but we will give it to the man from Mass. The second round is when I could see Cody landing a big one. After he gets the timing of his opponent, he will work his way in and test out the liver of Font.

From there, the right hand will drop and Cody can now go up high with it and clip the chin for the TKO win. Nah, I don’t know if he will put him out but I can see Cody coming back strong and winning the second round.

In the third, I don’t know.

On paper, Font has never been finished and he has a massive reach advantage on Garbrandt who has been put out multiple times. So, Rob is the better guy on paper.

Speed will play a factor here and even with the better on paper thing, I am going to slightly lean towards the IT factor for Garbrandt.

Handicap: Cody Garbrandt (-120) vs Rob Font (+100)

In Conclusion

The Bantamweights almost always deliver! Merab Dvalishvili brought the action to Cody Stamann this past Saturday as well as some green to line your pockets.

Right now, we are locked in but I have the eerie feeling that the Bantamweights will be one of the first weight classes to develop a lot of parody. That is such an icky word. I don’t even like saying it but we must be aware.

We have to get out ahead of the online sportsbooks in the future because the parody will be on its way to all of the weight classes and things are going to get more difficult. That is why I want to stay on top and all over the 135ers.

If we can be successful with our betting at 135 then the rest of the UFC will be that much easier.

We aren’t just here to win.

We have to focus on improving as well because guess what, the next guy is. The sportsbooks pay well and their guys are working hard.

As for our handicaps today, the matchups are close and the lines, of course, reflect that but we have some leans. When these betting lines are released, I want you to jump on them if we have at least a 5% edge.

Please Note:
If there is a 10% edge on the sportsbooks as far as the implied probability of the betting odds goes, then make it a 2 unit play. A unit is 1% of your bankroll and the larger the edge we have, the more we want to take advantage of the situation and bet.


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Mike Pruitt / Author

Mike has been covering sports professionally since 2017 but on the amateur scene for 25 years since when he was 12. Before the internet changed the world, he would keep detailed statistical box scores of NFL and NBA contests, write recaps, and voluntarily commentate games and fights alone in his room. Mike's military experience, Bachelors Degree, and employment thereafter were always rooted in engineering, science, and teaching. Now he enjoys being able to express himself through writing about football, golf, and car racing among other sports but most of all fighting as his life has been rooted in mixed martial arts including competing and teaching for the past 15 years.

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