The UFC returns to New York this Friday night for a special UFC FIGHT PASS card that features two heavy-hitting heavyweights at the top of the bill.
Derrick Lewis will look to build on his recent winning streak when he faces tough as nails Russian Shamil Abdurakhimov. Both fighters are ranked in the top 15, but a win in this main event showdown will make a strong case to crack the top 10.
Also on the card, rising heavyweight star Francis Ngannou will try to stay undefeated in the UFC when he faces crafty veteran Anthony Hamilton, while former Ultimate Fighter winner Corey Anderson will look to bounce back from a very close split decision loss in his last fight when he takes on the always exciting Sean O'Connell.
In today's fantasy preview, we'll take a look at some of the key matchups headed to Albany and whether or not an upset may be brewing at UFC Fight Night: Lewis vs. Abdurakhimov.
These are the fights that are just too close to call, but a few minor differences between favorite and underdog could lead one fighter to victory and the other to defeat.
Derrick Lewis vs. Shamil Abdurakhimov
There's no doubt that, on paper, Derrick Lewis will be favored to win in his fight against Shamil Abdurakhimov, but when it comes to the heavyweight division, there's no such thing as a lock. While Lewis has proven to be one of the toughest outs in the entire weight class, it's impossible to ignore the marked improvements Abdurakhimov has shown in recent fights.
After stumbling in his debut, Abdurakhimov has returned fire with two wins in a row while earning decision victories in both fights. While many heavyweights are accustomed to first round finishes, Abdurakhimov has shown great endurance and patience during both of those fights to move his UFC record to 2-1. The Russian heavyweight lands with good power on the feet while also hitting his opponents with good accuracy. Abdurakhimov hasn't shown off many ground skills yet because he hasn't been forced to the ground very often during his tenure with the UFC while blocking over 83 percent of the takedowns against him.
Meanwhile, Lewis has put on some of the most punishing performances in the heavyweight division in recent memory. There may not be a harder hitting fighter on the ground on the entire UFC roster than Lewis. There are times when Lewis is punching down on his opponents and it sounds as if his fist might just go through the canvas. Lewis is also incredibly accurate for a heavyweight, with nearly 58 percent of his strikes hitting the mark. Lewis is the master of taking advantage of an opportunity as well, because while he actually averages less than one takedown per fight, he only needs an opponent to slip and hit the mat before he's exploding with monstrous shots that typically force the referee to stop the action after only seconds on the ground.
Where Lewis has to be careful in this fight is not expending too much energy in the opening round of what could end up being a 25-minute war. Abdurakhimov has shown great conditioning and survival instincts that could serve him well if he can endure a fast start from Lewis before dragging this fight into the second and third rounds. From there, Abdurakhimov could easily take over while Lewis' gas tank is depleted.
That being said, Lewis is a force of nature in those first couple of rounds and it's a tall order for anybody to survive with him during those initial 10 minutes - especially if this fight hits the floor. Look for Lewis to blitz Abdurakhimov early before taking this fight to the ground, where he will likely finish for his seventh knockout as a UFC heavyweight.
Prediction: Derrick Lewis by TKO, Round 2
Francis Ngannou vs. Anthony Hamilton
Expect some heavy leather being thrown in this co-main event between Francis Ngannou and Anthony Hamilton.
Ngannou has proven to be one of the best prospects the division has seen, with three straight wins in which he finished all of his UFC opponents by knockout or TKO. The French fighter is an incredible athlete with a devastating fight-finishing ability seeing as he's never gone to decision in any of his victories. In this fight, Ngannou will also enjoy a massive seven-inch reach advantage, which is one of his best weapons while keeping opponents at the end of his punches before exploding forward with any number of combinations to finish the fight.
Hamilton won't go away easy, and while he's suffered some ups and downs since joining the UFC roster, he's learned a lot under the tutelage of head coach Greg Jackson. Hamilton has shown flashes of brilliance in some of his better performances in the UFC and he's coming into this fight as a heavy underdog so, in a way, he's got nothing to lose. That makes Hamilton a very dangerous fighter, especially with Ngannou enjoying so much attention right now as the next big thing in the heavyweight division.
When it comes to the matchup, all signs point to another Ngannou knockout, but he can't get over aggressive or he could get planted with a big shot from Hamilton. Ngannou is undoubtedly the stronger, more powerful fighter in this matchup, but Hamilton is gritty and won't go away easy. Still, it's hard to see any outcome that doesn’t end with Ngannou eventually trapping Hamilton against the cage and unloading with a barrage of strikes that earns him another TKO victory.
Prediction: Francis Ngannou by TKO, Round 2
Corey Anderson vs. Sean O'Connell
Since winning The Ultimate Fighter season 19, Corey Anderson has shown tremendous potential while also offering up some rather puzzling performances. He has managed to pick up some impressive wins while also failing to pull the trigger against opponents like Gian Villante and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. This weekend, Anderson will have to be on his “A” game against the always exciting Sean O'Connell.
O'Connell may not have the best record in the UFC - just 2-4 overall - but there's never a fight where he doesn't give his opponents something to worry about. O'Connell lands with incredible volume at over six significant strikes per minute, while hitting his target with remarkable 49 percent accuracy. O'Connell's biggest liability has been his woeful defense, but Anderson hasn't shown much fight-stopping power on the feet, so that may not be as much of an issue in this matchup.
Where O'Connell has to be careful is going up against Anderson's powerful wrestling attack. The former college wrestler averages just under four takedowns per fight with 48 percent accuracy, which means Anderson will more than likely try to ground O'Connell's powerful striking by planting him on the mat early and often. Anderson has been criticized for a less than exciting style at times, but playing with dynamite on the feet will only get him hurt against someone as strong as O'Connell.
The longer this fight stays standing, the more chances O'Connell will have to land something big that could end Anderson's night. Anderson has a great jab on the feet and he'll enjoy a five-inch reach advantage, but every minute he spends on the feet is just more time for O'Connell to uncork a haymaker that could end the fight.
Look for Anderson to find his range early before swooping in for a takedown and then repeating that strategy until the fight is over. It may not be pretty, but it's effective and right now, Anderson just needs to get a win.
These are the fights that appear to be a little more one-sided, but remember that this is MMA, where anything can - and usually does - happen.
Gian Villante vs. Saparbeg Safarov
It's never an easy task for any fighter to take a short notice bout against a top 15 opponent, but that's exactly what undefeated Russian prospect Saparbeg Safarov faces when he debuts against Gian Villante this weekend.
Safarov has good potential, joining the UFC with a perfect 8-0 record that has seen every one of his fights end by either knockout or submission. That kind of firepower is very impressive, but it also leaves a lot of unanswered questions about what Safarov will offer when he faces a little bit of adversity. The Russian light heavyweight does hold a win over former UFC fighter Rodney Wallace, but the rest of his record is littered with European fighters while also going through several long stretches of inactivity during his career.
The aggressive style that Safarov will bring into this fight will likely play right into Villante's hands as he looks to put the newcomer away early. While Villante has been on a rollercoaster ride since arriving in the UFC, he's still managed to pick up some hugely impressive wins over fighters like Corey Anderson and Sean O'Connell. Villante packs a massive punch and while he's shown some defensive liabilities in the past, he's still ultra dangerous whenever engaging any opponent on the feet.
Safarov may one day develop into a legit threat to the top 15, but he's facing a mighty tall order by drawing Villante on a week's notice. Expect fireworks, but don't look for this bout to go past the first or second round.
Prediction: Gian Villante by knockout, Round 1
Former Ultimate Fighter competitors Justine Kish and Ashley Yoder square off in an intriguing bout in the women's strawweight division. Yoder will return to action less than a month after she won a bout in Invicta FC with an impressive second round submission over Amber Brown. Yoder is a tall, rangy fighter who comes out of Dan Henderson's Team Quest gym in California, so she's certainly trained with a long list of top UFC fighters over the years.
As for Kish, she remains a very good prospect to watch for the future after her appearance on The Ultimate Fighter season 20, when the 115-pound division was first introduced to the UFC. An injury forced Kish out of the competition, but she was a dark horse favorite to make it deep into the tournament. When she finally made her debut, Kish won a decision over Nina Ansaroff, although it definitely wasn't her best performance to date. Still, Kish has a dominant style on the feet, where she lands just under five strikes per minute with over 53 percent accuracy. Add to that a slick submission game on the ground, and Kish seems like the kind of fighter poised to crack the top 15 in the near future.
While Yoder is certainly a game opponent with the ability to wrap up any opponent like a knot if she can get the fight to the ground, it's more likely she's going to be fending off an offensive onslaught from Kish in this one. Kish is a well-trained kickboxer with solid power and a large arsenal of weapons to keep Yoder guessing. This might turn into a real scrap if these two get locked into any scrambles, but ultimately it's tough to go against Kish finding a way to get the win in the end.
Prediction: Justine Kish by unanimous decision
Since arriving in the UFC, Juliana Lima has faced a laundry list of tough opponents, with her only losses coming to the current and former strawweight champion in Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Carla Esparza, respectively. Lima gave both of them everything they could handle over three rounds, and she dominated her other two opponents in the Octagon.
This weekend, Lima gets late notice replacement JJ Aldrich, who comes to the UFC after also appearing on The Ultimate Fighter season 23. Aldrich trains with former title contender Rose Namajunas and she's definitely deserving of a spot on the roster, but she might get a rough welcome when facing Lima on Friday night.
Lima is a monster on the ground, especially when she's the aggressor, taking the fight to the mat and landing on top. Lima has incredible control and it's likely she'll try to plant Aldrich on the mat as soon as this fight starts before looking to advance her position by either going for a submission or just hammering away with punches and elbows.
Aldrich will hang tough, but over three rounds she's likely going to feel Lima's power over and over and over again until the final horn sounds.
Prediction: Juliana Lima by unanimous decision
Since being discovered on Dana White's “Looking for a Fight” series, Randy Brown has remained a prospect to watch in the ever-growing UFC welterweight division. Thus far, Brown has racked up a 2-1 record in the Octagon, including a submission victory over former Ultimate Fighter Latin America winner Erick Montano in his last fight. Brown is a dangerous striker on the feet with an underrated ground game that can give anybody problems on the mat.
This weekend, Brown faces UFC newcomer Brian Camozzi - the brother of UFC middleweight Chris Camozzi. While this is his debut, Camozzi is no stranger to tough competition after spending his last few fights in the Resurrection Fighting Alliance - a promotion notorious for sending top talent to the Octagon.
Camozzi is a punishing finisher with five straight victories, with all coming by either knockout or submission. Camozzi is a well-rounded fighter as well, one who doesn't necessarily commit to one particular offensive attack, but instead shows willingness to engage with his opponents wherever the fight may go. While Camozzi definitely has a strong submission game, he definitely has some serious power on the feet, with a rich history in kickboxing very similar to his brother.
There's no doubt Brown will enter the fight as the prohibitive favorite. He's got the UFC experience and a dangerous skill set to give anybody problems, but Camozzi is on a roll right now with the right combination of power and unpredictability that could result in a big win in his UFC debut.
Prediction: Brian Camozzi by knockout, Round 2