Who are these guys?

That could be a common question surrounding the undercard of UFC 143. After all, five of the 12 fighters competing during the preliminary portion of the event will be setting foot inside the Octagon for the very first time.

The UFC gets a new “Lil Evil,” as Max Holloway brings memories of Jens Pulver’s nickname back into the promotion. Holloway has a long way to go if he wants to live up to that moniker, however. The X-1 veteran has a perfect record, but it only consists of four fights. We’ll get to see what he’s made of when he takes on consensus top-ten ranked featherweight Dustin Poirier at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.

Another undefeated fighter makes his first journey into the eight-sided cage, when judo practitioner Michael Kuiper takes on Rafael Natal. Kuiper holds an unblemished mark through 11 fights, but can the 22-year-old transition from the European circuit to the bright lights of the UFC?

The final undefeated newcomer to the UFC gets a somewhat less daunting first task, as 5-0 Stephen Thompson makes his debut against another first-timer in the 7-1 Daniel Stittgen. Perhaps facing another fighter who will be suffering from Octagon jitters will allow Thompson a better chance at remaining undefeated.

Rounding out the preliminary card lineup, former TUF competitors Matt Brown and Chris Cope square off in the hopes of extending their UFC careers, “Bruce Leroy” returns to action against Edwin Figueroa and Matt Riddle welcomes the debuting Henry Martinez to the Octagon. The first two fights of the event will stream live on Facebook, with the remaining four prelim tussles airing live on FX.

The MMA Corner panel of Bryan Henderson, Brian McKenna and Richard Wilcoxon break down the action of all six prelim match-ups in this edition of the Round Table.

MW: Rafael Natal (13-3-1) vs. Michael Kuiper (11-0)

McKenna: Not to be confused with tennis player Rafael Nadal, Rafael Natal will be stepping into the Octagon for the fourth time in his career to kickoff UFC 143. He is coming off a unanimous decision victory over Paul Bradley and he looks to carry that momentum into the cage with him in this fight. The Brazilian holds a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and, with that, it is no surprise that he has achieved a submission victory in seven of his 13 career fights.

Hailing from the Netherlands, Michael Kuiper will enter the Octagon for the first time in his career on Saturday. He comes to the UFC with an undefeated record of 11-0, a record which he accumulated while fighting in various European promotions. Everything that I have seen about this 22-year-old is positive in that he excels at kickboxing and Muay Thai along with BJJ and judo, but the thing that scares me about him is the relative unknown factor that comes with him. I don’t want to knock European MMA, but having never heard of a promotion that he has fought in nor a fighter that he has faced really stamps the question mark on him.

Rafael Natal (Peter Lockley/Sherdog)

But to me what is really interesting when you look at the numbers on Natal is that all three of his UFC fights have gone to decision. His second UFC fight was against Jessie Bongfeldt and after controlling the first two rounds, he fell victim of a 10-8 third round which turned the fight into a draw rather than a win. All of this tells me that he lacks killer instinct and because of that, I am going to go with the newcomer Michael Kuiper in this one by first-round knockout even though I have a lot of questions about him.

Wilcoxon: Kuiper’s nickname is “Judo” and he does in fact hold a black belt in the discipline. However, I share Brian’s skepticism about the organizations that Kuiper’s has competed in and the competition he faced. In doing a little research, I learned the last five fighters he faced have a combined record of 21-31-1 and not a single one has a winning record. I also searched for some video of his fights, but the only videos I could find were against opponents not listed on his Sherdog record, adding a little mystery as well.

Natal is a BJJ specialist. He may not be a world-beater and he may never hold the belt. However, he has competed in the best organizations in the world and has won there. He also holds a win over Travis Lutter, which is a far bigger name in the MMA world than anyone Kuiper has faced.

Kuiper has faced suspect competition, it has been nine months since he has competed in any MMA fights, and he runs the risk of having Octagon jitters with this being his first time out. I will stick with Natal to do his thing and get his first submission victory in the UFC.

Henderson: There’s not much left to say about this fight. I think both Brian and Richard hit on the big points about Natal: he’s fought higher level competition on a bigger stage, having some success, but also lacks killer instinct.

The concern about Kuiper’s previous foes is a valid one, as well. The guy has been a finisher and is undefeated, but even I have not heard of the organizations he has fought in, and my work on Out of Obscurity usually leads me to be more familiar with even the more obscure shows from around the world.

Kuiper is a judo black belt, but has also earned honors in Brazilian jiu-jitsu competition. While he has knockout victories to his name, he might be willing to go to the ground with Natal, which would probably be a bad decision. I think this fight will eventually end up on the mat, whether due to a takedown from Natal or Kuiper utilizing his judo to get Natal to the ground. While Kuiper has found success in the BJJ arena, he’ll be outmatched here. Natal submits him in the second frame.

WW: Dan Stittgen (7-1) vs. Stephen Thompson (5-0)

Wilcoxon: Bryan started off this post with the question “Who are these guys?” and the question could not be a better fit for this fight. Both fighters are not only debuting in the UFC, but this is the first time either one has been in an organization bigger than King of the Cage. It also feels a little like the UFC is reaching to the bottom of the barrel on this fight. Stittgen’s last five opponents have a combined record of 23-26, while Thompson’s opponents have had a record of 16-19.

Out of the two, Stittgen has slightly more experience and is the one who has appeared in KOTC. Everything I have seen on him indicates he is looking to get this fight on the ground and latch on a submission. That is probably a good strategy to use against Thompson.

Thompson is a former kickboker. He is going to want to keep this fight on his feet where he can land a devastating kick.

Stittgen is the guy I want to win. He is an intense guy who seems to love to fight. He is also 31 and has finally made it to the big show. It is the type of story I can get behind. But I have a funny feeling the UFC brought him in to be a highlight reel KO.

This is really a coin flip for me. It is going to come down to who can overcome their nerves and impose their will. I usually take the grappler over a striker in these types of match-ups and that is what I will do here. Stittgen will grind out a decision.

Henderson: Thompson might have just five fights under his belt as a professional mixed martial artist, but he has fought 62 times combined between MMA, pro kickboxing and amateur kickboxing. And the number of losses he’s suffered over the span of that career? Zero.

Stephen Thompson

I’m also inclined to choose grapplers in this type of match-up, where one fighter appears to be such a pure striker. But, in this case, I think I’d be more confident in making such a pick if Stittgen had some fighters of note on his resume, or had about thirty fights of experience. I’d also be more confident if Thompson’s background didn’t also suggest that he might be an even more well-rounded fighter.

What I see is a kickboxer in Thompson who has survived to the final bell twice in his five MMA outings, and has gone into the second round twice. When you tally up the minutes he has spent in official MMA competition, he actually has logged more total cage time than Stittgen. On top of that, Thompson holds a black belt in Japanese jiu-jitsu and trains Brazilian jiu-jitsu under the tutelage of an eighth-degree black belt (his brother-in-law, Carlos Machado). Georges St-Pierre’s trainer, Firas Zahabi, speaks highly of Thompson as well, calling him the best striker he’s seen, all-around, in any sport.

The one area where I do agree with Richard is in seeing this as a situation where the UFC booked a fight in hopes of a highlight reel knockout. The difference is that I see Thompson delivering on those hopes. Stittgen’s only chance will be to submit Thompson early. Stittgen has only gone beyond the first round once in his career, and only beyond the three-minute mark twice. Thompson’s skill-set should allow him to survive Stittgen’s early aggressiveness and take Stittgen into deeper water. Once there, Thompson’s high-level striking will do the job. Thompson scores the knockout midway through the bout.

McKenna: To me, this fight is pretty simple. Thompson wants to keep the fight standing and use his great striking ability while Stittgen is going to want to bring the fight to the ground to avoid striking and try to earn career submission number six.

It is hard for me to really go into much more depth than that, having never heard of either of these fighters prior to this event, but the fact that Thompson appears to be so one dimensional scares me. I recognize the fact that he has never lost a fight, ever, but I question the level of grapplers he has faced before.

Stittgen’s strategy in this fight should be to immediately close the distance so that his opponent’s range is screwed up, and work the takedowns from there. When you get a guy like Thompson on the ground, it is only a matter of time until you can catch him in a submission, and I see that happening. Stittgen by submission in the second round.

WW: Matt Brown (12-11) vs. Chris Cope (5-2)

Henderson: Regardless of how much heart both of these fighters have, it’s almost hard to believe they’re still under Zuffa contracts. Brown, especially.

“The Immortal” is 1-4 over his last five outings in the UFC. Brown’s one recent win came via decision over John Howard, while he’s lost to the likes of Chris Lytle, Ricardo Almeida, Brian Foster and Seth Baczynski. There’s no way he continues with the UFC if he loses again. But who knows? I could be wrong…the UFC does seem to love Brown’s effort.

Cope is probably on a short leash himself. He was a feel-good story as an underdog on The Ultimate Fighter 13 and managed to win his fight against Chuck O’Neil at the show’s finale event. But his sophomore appearance in the Octagon didn’t go so well, ending in a TKO loss to Che Mills after just 40 seconds of action.

While Brown is only one fight over the .500 mark for his career and has dropped four of his last five, he still has to be the favorite here. His losses have come against solid competition and he has posted a number of wins over competition that’s a notch above what Cope offers.

Brown’s weakness comes against the threat of submissions. Out of his 11 losses, nine have come by way of submission. Unfortunately for Cope, submissions are not his strong game. He tends to prefer the striking game. I believe Brown has better striking than Cope and he seems to be the longer fighter. Brown should get the better of the exchanges and survive to see at least one more Octagon outing. Brown wins via TKO.

McKenna: Bryan laid it out well by saying that as far as the welterweight ladder is concerned, these two fighters are clinging onto the bottom rungs. Matt Brown is the better of the two fighters as he enters the Octagon, but he has had the rougher path to this fight.

It can be hard to hype up a fighter who has not strung a pair of victories together since 2009, but one of the reasons that the company has hung onto “The Immortal” is because of his competitive spirit. The UFC loves to have guys that come to fight and bring it even though they may be on a long losing streak –such as Yoshihiro Akiyama and Dan Hardy –because they have a big fan base, but considering that Brown lacks the fans of those fighters, what good is he still doing with the promotion? The answer is his ability to end fights. In his first four UFC victories, he stopped his opponent each time and my guess is that the promotion hopes that he can score a highlight reel knockout to reel more fans in towards the pay-per-view.

Across the cage from Brown will be Chris Cope, or in this case, it might be safe to call him the sacrificial lamb. As was already mentioned, the one way that Cope could really control this fight would come from the ground, but considering the fact that “C-Murder” doesn’t excel on the ground really limits his options here. But I am questioning Cope’s chin, considering that Ramsey Nijem beat him by TKO on The Ultimate Fighter and Che Mills dropped him in less than a minute. If you add all of these factors up, it equals disaster for Cope. I am going to agree with Bryan here and also take “The Immortal” by TKO.

Wilcoxon: I think both of my colleagues have laid it out accurately. Brown is the clear favorite heading into this fight. I actually believe Brown has the better ground game of the two. For me, I only see one path to victory for Cope. He would have to weather the storm of Brown early and have the deeper gas tank to steal a victory at the end. I don’t think that is realistic, as Brown has an excellent gas tank and, as Brian pointed, you have to question Cope’s chin. Brown is going to win this, but I actually think he will submit Cope after stunning him with strikes.

BW: Alex Caceres (6-4) vs. Edwin Figueroa (8-1)

Wilcoxon: Alex Caceres, better known as “Bruce Leroy,” rose to fame on season 12 of TUF more because of his colorful personality than his fights. As a star of his season, the UFC continued to give him opportunities after he dropped his first two fights in the organization. After losing those fights, he dropped down to bantamweight and finally picked up a win.

Figueroa is a well-rounded fighter. He prefers to stand and trade, but does have some ground skill. His only loss comes by decision from the fast-rising phenom Michael McDonald, so no shame there.

I actually feel like this is an excellent fight. Kudos for Joe Silva on putting it together. The fight will be a step up in competition for both guys. I am not a Caceres fan and maybe that is at play here, but I see Figueroa winning this fight. On the feet, I think he has more power and is more technically sound and on the ground, well all four of Caceres’ losses have come from submission. Figueroa by rear-naked choke in the second round.

McKenna: Honestly, I was surprised that the UFC gave “Bruce Leroy” a third chance in the Octagon after he dropped back-to-back fights against Mackens Semerzier and Jim Hettes in his first two promotional fights. Sure, he was a big draw from TUF, and that was probably the reason he was hung onto, but he just wasn’t very impressive in both of those fights. Richard mentioned how he dropped to bantamweight and won his first fight for the company, but what he left out was it was to Cole Escovedo, who is no longer with the promotion.

But I am excited at the chance of getting to watch Edwin Figueroa again. He has shown a lot of promise in his two fights with the UFC and the loss to McDonald is nothing to hang his head about. However, I am a little shocked at this particular match-up because you have a rising star in Figueroa taking on someone who is clinging onto his promotional life, and simply based on how good Figueroa looked his last time out against Jason Reinhardt, I have to take “El Feroz” in this fight via submission in round two.

Henderson: While Caceres’ colorful personality turned him into a TUF star, I can’t say I was ever impressed with his actual abilities inside the Octagon. He is no Bruce Lee, not matter how much he likes to think so.

I can’t exactly say much about Figueroa’s win over Reinhardt though, considering Reinhardt’s history in the UFC. What I like more is that he also took out Johnny Bedford prior to Bedford’s stint on The Ultimate Fighter and hung in there against McDonald for the full three rounds. Figueroa has also never been finished.

Figueroa should be able to dominate all aspects of this fight. Caceres is susceptible to submissions, but he’s also a little too flashy on his feet. Figueroa will showcase the crisper striking and score a third-round TKO of Caceres after wearing him down both on the feet and on the mat.

WW: Matthew Riddle (5-3) vs. Henry Martinez (8-1)

McKenna: This fight will be between two fighters who were not supposed to be here in the first place. Originally, Amir Sadollah was supposed to face Jorge Lopez. Sadollah had to pull out with an injury and was replaced by Matthew Riddle. Then on Monday, it was confirmed that Lopez was injured and that newcomer Henry Martinez would take on Riddle.

Martinez comes in with one of the best fight camps in the nation behind him, Jackson’s MMA. His 8-1 record is fairly solid outside of the fact that he has not defeated anyone that you would have ever heard of. His lone loss came at Bellator 2 by the hands of Wilson Reis, who is by no means a slouch. To me, the interesting part about that loss was that he was 4-0 entering the fight, and then has gone on to win his next four, which tells me that the loss motivated him to get back in the gym and work harder. It is those types of unmeasurable attributes that I like in a fighter.

But the man standing across the cage is almost the exact opposite as Martinez when it comes to UFC experience. Riddle is one of those few fighters whose only professional fights have come with the UFC. He came into the UFC from the promotion’s reality show and worked his way to a 5-1 record until dropping his last two. His strongest discipline by far is his wrestling and I expect him to try to continue to use it in this fight based on the fact that this fight has a last minute aspect to it.

I realize that Riddle has dropped two straight and hasn’t really shown the promise that he first showed in the very beginning of his career, but the fact that he has been fighting at this level for so long really gives him an edge in this fight. This could very well be the hardest fight that Martinez has ever had, and considering that he will come in with a short camp and having just fought on Jan. 21, I don’t see it in the cards for him. Riddle will live another day in the promotion after he grinds out the unanimous decision, but I am really curious to see how Henry Martinez does in his second promotional fight, one he should get no matter the result here based on the fact that he is stepping up on short notice.

Henderson: Riddle is a grinder. He grinds out fights and waits for the judges to determine his fate. That’s a stark contrast from the impact he made the first time we saw him on national airwaves, when he sent his opponent out of the cage on a stretcher. But that exhibition performance seems to be an oddity when compared to a 5-3 record that includes five fights that have gone the distance.

Martinez’s loss to Reis also went the distance. But what’s more notable about that fight is that we’re talking about Martinez fighting Reis. Reis is not a welterweight. In fact, Martinez’s loss to Reis came in Bellator’s inaugural featherweight tournament. That’s 145 pounds, folks. Martinez also stands just 5-foot-7, compared to Riddle’s 6-foot-1.

So, essentially, Martinez is a featherweight/lightweight fighter stepping in on short notice after having fought just two weeks prior and will fight a taller opponent who normally fights at welterweight and uses wrestling and top control to grind out decisions. I’m thinking this looks pretty grim for Martinez.

Martinez is out-sized and will have a hard time overcoming Riddle’s style. Given Riddle’s tendency for inconsistent performances, there’s always a chance Martinez could take this one, but I have to go with the fighter who holds a significant size advantage and who is already at home inside the Octagon. It likely won’t be the most thrilling fight on the card, but Riddle will control Martinez en route to another decision win.

Wilcoxon: Coming in on less than two weeks’ notice to make your UFC debut is hard on any fighter. Bryan made my next point as well, coming in on two weeks’ notice to fight a weight class above where you have ever competed in your career is even tougher. When you are scheduled to fight a guy who was formerly even heavier and uses wrestling to grind out a decision, it is nearly hopeless. That is the situation we have here.

Martinez is actually one of the better fighters skill-, record-, and experience-wise debuting on this card. But he is debuting in a weight ckass he has never competed at. He will come in as the much smaller man.

Riddle will have to watch for submissions Martinez throws up from his back, but other than that, Riddle should cruise to victory.

FW: Dustin Poirier (11-1) vs. Max Holloway (4-0)

Henderson: When you’re on your third scheduled opponent for an event, you might end up with an opponent that seems a lot less threatening than your first two proposed adversaries. That appears to be the case for Poirier, who was slated to meet Erik Koch, and then Ricardo Lamas, but now gets UFC newcomer Max Holloway.

You can’t completely count out Holloway, as the 20-year-old has posted four wins in his pro career and defeated WEC veteran Harris Sarmiento to claim the X-1 lightweight title. The problem is that Holloway’s other three wins have come against foes with losing records and the Sarmiento victory came via split decision. In addition, two of Holloway’s other wins went the distance. In other words, he doesn’t have finishing ability, even against low-level opponents.

Poirier is a top featherweight, and while I’d like to see him notch another quality win (against the likes of someone like Koch or Lamas, for instance), I still see him as far superior to Holloway. There is always the chance that the rookie will pull off a surprise, but Holloway’s resume leads me to believe that he will try to grind out a decision. Poirier should be able to end things before it gets that far. I see Poirier winning by whatever method he prefers, likely in the first round.

Wilcoxon: I would have loved to see Poirier face off with Koch, but injuries happen in the sport. I will say that Holloway is the type of newcomer I like to see in the UFC. He has fought some real veterans in the sport, so a step up doesn’t seem as far of a reach as some of the other debuting fighters on this card.

But at the end of the day, Poirier is not the guy you want to make your debut against. After rising to fame for crushing then No. 1 contender Josh Grispi, he has done nothing but win and show that fight wasn’t a fluke. While there may be questions if this guy is a top contender, he is a tough out for anyone. Poirier will win this by overwhelming Holloway in the first.

McKenna: Yeah, the last thing I want to do is pile on in picking against “Lil Evil” here, but I have to. The kid is 20 years old and has a lot of promise, but he is virtually being thrown to the wolves here by the UFC.

To me, the biggest thing that Holloway has going for him in this fight is that he has the relative unknown factor on his side and even we the writers don’t know what to expect.

What we’re expecting is for this fight to be very one-sided, but who knows? It would be an awesome story if Holloway came in and shocked everyone by winning this fight, but let’s be honest and admit that it probably won’t happen. “The Diamond” will continue his winning ways when he gets the TKO sometime in the first round.

Top Photo: Dustin Poirier (Sherdog)

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