Islam Makhachev (14-1, 3-1 UFC) vs. Gleison Tibau (32-12, 17-10 UFC) - 155 lbs.
A notorious “gatekeeper” of the Lightweight division, Gleison Tibau, will return to action this weekend. The 27-fight UFC veteran recently served a 2-year suspension for the use of erythropotein (EPO), a banned substance due to it’s performance-enhancing qualities. Throughout his career, Tibau successfully cut large amounts of weight in order to fight at 155 lbs, showing up on fight night with a distinguishable size advantage over his opponents. He’s certainly not easing back into things, as he faces Islam Makhachev, a very worthy opponent. Following his first professional loss — a one-punch TKO dealt by Adriano Martins — Makhachev has rebounded nicely, picking up 2 straight decisions by dominating former D1 wrestlers, Chris Wade and Nik Lentz, in grapple-centric affairs.
The Dagestani fighter, who is a long-time training partner of Khabib Nurmagomedov, will look to once again out grapple an elite wrestler, this weekend. He should beware of Tibau’s dangerous jiu-jitsu skills. This will be Tibau’s first appearance in the UFC’s “USADA-era” and I expect that it will show. I don’t expect the veteran to offer anything that Makhachev can’t handle. Furthermore, I think we’ll get a good look at Makhachev’s slick kickboxing abilities this weekend.
Prediction: Makhachev via KO/TKO, rd. 1
Matt Bessette (22-7, UFC debut) vs. Enrique Barzola (13-3-1, 3-1 UFC) - 145 lbs.
Bessette’s recent apperance on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series didn’t go as planned, as he suffered a 1st-round knockout at the hands of former UFC fighter, Kurt Holobaugh. Despite the loss, the veteran fighter’s impressive resumé was enough to secure him a fight for this weekend, on short-notice. He was preparing to defend his Featherweight title in the CES MMA promotion on February 2nd, so the former Bellator fighter should be in decent physical shape for his UFC debut. Bessette may not be the most physically or technically gifted fighter, but you can never count him out. His biggest asset is his toughness — he certainly subscribes to the philosophy of “take a punch, to give a punch”. It is not uncommon for Bessette to be knocked down multiple times in a fight before flipping the script on his opponent and pulling off a finish.
Enrique Barzola, the Lightweight winner of TUF: Latin America (season 2), will be Bessette’s opponent. The Peruvian fighter has a wrestling background, but his stand-up game has steadily improved since he transitioned to MMA at the age of 22. His UFC career is off to strong start, and he will look to keep the momentum going this weekend. Following his TUF appearance, Barzola dropped back down to his natural fighting weight of 145 lbs.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out on the feet, as these two fighters tend to fight with different game plans. Bessette likes to stand in the pocket and trade shots, on the other hand, Barzola employs a more calculated approach — he doesn’t take too many risks, and likes to keep a comfortable distance between him and his opponent. A wrestler at heart, Barzola knows that his best shot of winning is on the mat, and I expect him to control this fight by utilizing a high-dose of wrestling and ground-and-pound.
Prediction: Barzola via decision
Dan Ige (8-1, UFC debut) vs. Julio Arce (13-2, UFC debut) - 145 lbs.
Both of these guys picked up wins on Dana White’s Contender Series. Julio Arce, a Golden Gloves champion as an amateur, put his boxing pedigree on full-display as he earned his UFC contract with a 2nd-round TKO. Although he started off as a boxer, he has shown a strong grappling and jiu-jitsu game, with 4 victories by submission.
Dan Ige is one of the most promising Hawaiian prospects in MMA. He has shown some decent boxing, but he got his start in jiu-jitsu and wrestling, and that is where his biggest strength lies. He pulled off a 3rd-round submission in his Contender Series appearance. Ige has made a handful of appearances in high-level regional promotions such as Pancrase (1 appearance), Legacy Fighting Championship (2) and Titan FC (1).
Of the two fighters, Arce has accumulated more professional experience. 11 of Arce’s 15 professional bouts have come in the Ring of Combat promotion, where he was a champion in the Bantamweight division. Later, he moved up and became the Featherweight champion. It is worth nothing that both of Arce’s losses were against current UFC fighter, Brian Keller.
Prediction: Arce via decision
#10 Dustin Ortiz (17-7, 6-5 UFC) vs. #11 Alexandre Pantoja (18-2, 2-0 UFC) - 125 lbs.
Many people are overlooking this fight, but it could have some serious implications in the flyweight division. Although he has had mixed results in his UFC career, Dustin Ortiz has fought some of the best that the division has to offer. His past opponents include John Moraga, Ray Borg, Joseph Benavidez, Wilson Reis, and Jussier Formiga — all fighters who currently inhabit the division’s top-10 rankings.
Alexandre Pantoja is one of the most promising fighters in the 125 lb. division. He has racked up an 18-2 professional record thus far, though the most impressive win of his career came in an exhibition bout, where he submitted Brandon Moreno on season 24 of The Ultimate Fighter.
Both fighters are very well-rounded, but I am intrigued to see how things unfold on the ground. It should be interesting to see how Ortiz’ wrestling holds up against Pantoja’s jiu-jitsu. One thing is for sure, this will be the toughest test of Pantoja’s career.
Prediction: Ortiz via decision
Sabah Homasi (11-7, 0-2 UFC) vs. Abdul Razak Alhassan (8-1, 2-1 UFC) - 170 lbs.
The rematch between these two fighters was immediately booked after a controversial early-stoppage put a damper on their bout at UFC 218. If that fight was any indication, this should be an absolute barnburner. However, now that each fighter has felt their opponent’s power, I expect them both to approach the rematch in a more methodical manner.
Although Razak Alhassan got the “win”, Homasi appeared to be landing the harder shots and seemed to be in control of the fight. There were several instances where Homasi nearly finished the fight. I can’t wait to see how things play out in this rematch of a fight that could have been a ‘Fight of the Year’ candidate, had it not been stopped pre-emptively.
Razak Alhassan is a decorated practitioner of judo, however, he seemed to have some difficulty utilizing his judo against Homasi. Furthermore, Sabah Homasi appeared to be the larger man in the octagon. I wonder if having to cut weight twice in a short span may hinder the performance of either fighter.
Prediction: Homasi via KO/TKO, rd. 2
Kyle Bochniak (7-2, 1-2 UFC) vs Brandon Davis (8-3, UFC debut) - 145 lbs.
Brandon Davis is a dynamic striker who does a great job of mixing up his attack. He turned in a very impressive performance on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, and showcased his full arsenal of versatile muay thai attacks.
Davis will face Boston-native, Kyle Bochniak. In 3 UFC bouts, Bochniak has shown good boxing and a strong right hand, in particular. All 3 of his fights have gone to decision, with his lone victory coming by way of a narrow split-decision. With the backing of his home crowd, I expect him to look for the first finish of his UFC career.
I’m very interested to see how Davis’ high-paced, head-hunting approach holds up against a fighter with experience at the highest level. He would be smart to approach this fight in a more conservative manner. I expect this to be a slugfest, as neither guy is very well-versed on the ground, although Davis did show-off some vicious ground-and-pound in his Contender Series appearance.
Prediction: Brandon Davis via KO/TKO, rd. 2
#10 Thomas Almeida (22-2, 5-2 UFC) vs. #14 Rob Font (14-3, 4-2, UFC) - 135 lbs.
With 4 of his 5 UFC victories (and 17 of 22 professional) coming by way of KO/TKO, Thomas Almeida is one of the most dangerous strikers in the UFC today. A title-shot has been just out of the 26-year-old’s grasp, with his two losses being handed down by title-contenders, Cody Garbrandt and Jimmie Rivera. With a 1-2 record in his past 3 fights, the accomplished muay thai striker will look to right the ship, as he faces Rob Font this weekend. If Almeida is to prove that he is a championship-caliber fighter, he absolutely needs to win this one.
Although I don’t think that Font is quite on Almeida’s level, he is certainly no slouch. Anybody who takes John Linker to a decision, is a tough son of a gun, in my book. Font has shown that he is strong in all facets of the sport. He is a very good boxer, but has shown some decent grappling ability as well. It remains to be seen what type of game plan Font will utilize this weekend. I expect a conservative approach, as he certainly doesn’t want to be another victim on Almeida’s highlight-reel. Font’s last fight ended with him tapping out to a guillotine in the 1st round, as he lunged for a sloppy takedown after getting rocked by a hard left hook. This is a great fight to kick off the main card and I am expecting fireworks between the two clinical finishers.
Prediction: Almeida via decision
#15 Gian Villante (15-9, 5-6 UFC) vs. Francimar Barroso (19-6, 4-3 UFC) - 205 lbs.
Barroso tends to move around the octagon in a stiff, flat-footed manner, preffering to throw well-timed bombs rather than stringing together combinations. He has also shown the ability to put some major power into his kicks, which he occasionally delivers to his opponents midsection. He is a long-time practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and he holds a black belt in the craft. He was somewhat of a knockout artist in the Brazilian MMA circuit, however, his power hasn’t really carried over to the UFC, as he is yet to pull-off a finish in his 8 appearances.
On the other hand, his opponent, Gian Villante, has proven to be a capable knockout artist at the highest-level. With 4 wins by knockout, Villante’s biggest weakness has been his inconsistency. The former D1 wrestler and NFL hopeful, who is on the midst of a 2-fight losing streak, will look to put it all together this weekend as he aims to claw his up the rankings. Throughout his career, Villante has proven himself as a competent boxer — he boasts an impressive rate of 4.15 significant strikes landed per minute in the UFC. He should lean on his athleticism and explosiveness as he desperately needs to win this fight. This is a very winnable bout for the New Yorker.
Prediction: Villante via KO/TKO, rd. 3
Shane Burgos (10-0, 3-0 UFC) vs. Calvin Kattar (17-2, 1-0 UFC) - 145 lbs.
Calvin Kattar debuted last year, snatching up a decision over UFC-veteran Andre Fili. What we saw was a gritty fighter with great boxing (tremendous lead-jab) and a strong chin. For a newcomer, Kattar appeared very composed in the octagon. Shane Burgos is the definition of a blue-chip prospect, coasting to a 10-0 professional record thus far. He is a patient counter-striker who stalks his opponent in the octagon, waiting to fire his loaded right hand at the perfect time. Burgos is an excellent all-around fighter, with no apparent weaknesses in his game.
I believe that Kattar’s style will present a tough task for Burgos. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Kattar hand the undefeated fighter his first loss. Both of these guys like to push a high pace and have great stamina, so this should be a fantastic brawl and potential Fight of the Night candidate.
Prediction: Kattar via decision
(C) Daniel Cormier (19-1, 8-1 UFC) vs. #2 Volkan Oezdemir (15-1, 3-0 UFC) - 205 lbs.
The first of two championship-bouts, this fight would be a main-event on most cards, however, this is no ordinary card. Fans will be intrigued to see how Daniel Cormier rebounds after suffering the first knockout of his career. The result may have been overturned, but you can’t overturn the brutal head kick and subsequent ground-and-pound delivered by the disgraced former champion, Jon Jones. For those wondering about the condition of Cormier’s chin, we will find out this weekend.
Volkan Oezdemir looks to cap-off his monumental climb of the Light Heavyweight divison by securing the championship belt, less than a year after he debuted in the UFC. The division was in desperate need of fresh-talent, and Oezdemir answered the call. Last Februrary, the Swiss fighter stepped in on short-notice to pick up a split decision over divisional mainstay, Ovince Saint-Preux. Since then, “No Time” has only spent 70 seconds in the octagon, knocking out both Misha Cirkunov and Jimi Manuwa in less than a minute each time. Obviously, the serial-“booper” hasn’t faced an opponent on the level of Cormier.
As impressive as Oezdemir’s run has been, I expect DC to stop the hype train in it’s tracks. Many are expecting Cormier to lean heavily on his wrestling, but he will need to be careful in the clinch, as Oezdemir has shown his capabilities with his back against the fence. Furthermore, I believe that Cormier’s boxing will hold-up against the relatively untested challenger. I’m interested to see how Volkan handles a grueling fight that could very well make it’s way into the championship rounds. The best part is that this showdown is merely an appetizer for the main-course.
Prediction: Cormier via submission, rd. 3
(C) Stipe Miocic (17-2, 11-2 UFC) vs. #1 Francis Ngannou (11-1, 6-0 UFC) - 265 lbs.
This has to be one of the most anticipated fights in recent memory. No matter what, the winner will make history. If Stipe Miocic retains the belt, he will become the first fighter in the history of the UFC’s Heavyweight division to successfully make 3-consecutive title defenses. If Francis Ngannou wins on Saturday, he will become the company’s first-ever African-born champion.
Both fighters are riding long win-streaks. Miocic has picked up 5 in a row, with his last 4 wins coming by way of 1st-round KO/TKO. Since making his UFC debut in December of 2015, Ngannou has won (and finished) all 6 of his fights. None of his last 4 bouts have lasted longer than 2 minutes.
This is such an intriguing match-up. The safest gameplan for Miocic, a former D1 wrestler, might be to take the fight to the mat and test the grappling abilities of Ngannou. Of course, that is easier said than done, as a well-timed uppercut from Ngannou could put an end to Miocic’s title-run in an instant. Not many are expecting this fight to last long, but if we see a 3rd round, cardio could be the decisive factor.
Prediction: Miocic via decision