This Sunday, the UFC lands at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas with a stacked card featuring some of the best prospects in the sport battling it out, and in the main event, it’s a clash between two of the top up-and-coming bantamweights in the world.
Thomas Almeida has looked virtually unstoppable through his first few fights inside the Octagon, remaining undefeated while destroying his opposition. Almeida has reached Top 10 status in the 135-pound weight class, but if he hopes to tackle a title shot any time soon, he's going to have to go through another knockout artist.
Cody Garbrandt is possibly the best prospect to come out of Team Alpha Male in Sacramento since Chad Mendes and TJ Dillashaw first burst onto the scene, and this Ohio native has all the makings of a future title contender.
Also on the card, former bantamweight champion Renan Barao bumps up to the featherweight division where he takes on dangerous veteran Jeremy Stephens, while welterweights Tarec Saffiedine and Rick Story both look for a signature win as they continue to climb the ranks.
In today's fantasy preview, we're going to examine some of these key fights to see who has the advantage going into UFC Fight Night: Almeida vs. Garbrandt.
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.
Thomas Almeida (-150 favorite) vs. Cody Garbrandt (+130 underdog)
Both Almeida and Garbrandt have been tearing through their competition since joining the UFC roster, and it's hard to imagine a scenario where the winner of this fight isn't challenging for a title in the next year.
Almeida came into the UFC with a mountain of expectations heaped on his shoulders and thus far he hasn't disappointed one bit. Almeida is an ultra aggressive striker with huge knockout power in both hands and a flashy style that sees the young Brazilian take a lot of chances in his fights that always seem to pay off for him. Almeida lands a ridiculous 6.82 strikes per minute with over 50 percent accuracy - and both of those stats are far above the UFC average.
The same could be said for Garbrandt, who doesn't take nearly as many chances as Almeida, as he prefers to stay more controlled and technical with his boxing and striking, but that doesn't make him any less dangerous. Garbrandt actually averages more knockdowns per 15 minutes in the cage than Almeida, while also mixing in just under two takedowns per fight. Garbrandt is good everywhere, but he definitely has an advantage in wrestling after spending most of his life on the mats while growing up in Ohio.
This fight is incredibly close in every facet, but there are two areas that will likely make the difference. The first is Almeida's unreal ability to land shots from anywhere in the Octagon. He has no qualms about throwing flying knees, spinning back fists and kicks that seem like he's jumping from halfway across the cage before landing them. That also brings up the second factor to watch in this fight - Almeida's defense.
Through his first four fights in the UFC, Almeida is averaging just under five strikes absorbed per minute, which means he's still out landing his opponents, but not by much. In other words, he's throwing a lot of shots and he's also eating a lot of shots in return. Almeida can't have that happen against Garbrandt or he might just be the one on the floor staring up at the lights when the fight is over.
Prediction: Cody Garbrandt by TKO, Round 2
Renan Barao (-160 favorite) vs. Jeremy Stephens (+140 underdog)
Former bantamweight champion Renan Barao moves up a weight class, where he'll face power puncher extraordinaire Jeremy Stephens. During his reign as the king of the 135-pound division, Barao was known for being one of the biggest fighters in the weight class, one who was explosive, powerful and nearly impossible to defeat. That was until TJ Dillashaw found a way to make Barao look human before finishing him with strikes on two separate occasions. Couple that with a disastrous weight cut that often left Barao feeling depleted all the way until the next day, and a move to 145 pounds just seemed logical
In his featherweight debut, Barao will have no easy test as he takes on one of the most devastating strikers in the division in Jeremy Stephens.
Stephens is a monster with his hands, especially when fighters decide to stand in the pocket and exchange with him. It's not fair to define Stephens as a brawler either, because with over 44-percent accuracy, he's not only looking to land with power, but he's always on target as well. Stephens is also a very big featherweight after having spent most of his UFC career at 155 pounds.
Barao's path to victory comes with a lot of question marks. How does he look at featherweight? Will he have the same kind of power at 145 pounds that he had at 135 pounds? How will he fare against must bigger and stronger opponents? How will he bounce back from two consecutive TKO losses?
There's no doubt that on his best day, Barao is one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport and that's why he remains the pick in this fight, but don't count Stephens out. Stephens hits hard, and if Barao's chin is even slightly diminished after his last two fights, the heavy-handed American could hand him a third consecutive loss. Still, it's hard to bet against Barao, especially if this move up in weight allows him to be healthy, happy and strong the day before the fight and then again 24 hours later.
Prediction: Renan Barao by unanimous decision
Lorenz Larkin (-140 favorite) vs. Jorge Masvidal (+120 underdog)
Lorenz Larkin returns to action against Jorge Masvidal in a fight between two of the toughest veterans currently competing in the welterweight division.
Larkin is best known for his knockout-heavy style on the feet, where he possesses technical prowess and a lot of pop behind his punches and kicks. Larkin is a phenomenal kickboxer with nearly 45 percent accuracy on his feet and 3.66 strikes landed per minute. He's also shown tremendous takedown defense, which is a weapon his opponent may try to use against him if this fight goes south on the feet.
Masvidal is best described as a "Jack of all trades" who doesn't really have a specialty but instead dabbles in being a very well rounded mixed martial artist. Masvidal has very solid boxing and he can also mix that in with good wrestling and an underrated submission game as well. Since moving up to welterweight, Masvidal has faced some ups and downs, but he remains one of the hardest outs in the entire division.
So who has the advantage going into this one?
Larkin remains the odds on favorite for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is his patience and power on the feet. Larkin has become a very tactical striker, while still unleashing some very creative and nasty strikes on the feet. Masvidal will actually have a slight reach advantage, but given Larkin's pedigree on the feet, it's likely the American Top Team fighter might start fishing for a takedown earlier rather than later.
Masvidal is harder to predict when it comes to his in-cage style, but Larkin knows going into this matchup that the longer he can keep it on the feet, the more it falls into his favor. As long as Larkin doesn't underestimate Masvidal - as many of his past opponents have done - he should be able to stick, move and land some hard punches and kicks before the Floridian knows what hit him.
Prediction: Lorenz Larkin by unanimous decision
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.
Abel Trujillo (-290 favorite) vs. Jordan Rinaldi (+245 underdog)
Jordan Rinaldi will make his UFC debut on very short notice after replacing Diego Ferreira on the card against heavy-handed striker Abel Trujillo. Rinaldi is actually a very solid prospect with five consecutive wins, including victories over UFC veterans Clay Harvison and Diego Saraiva. Rinaldi is a slick submission specialist with a bag of tricks on the ground, but he's definitely not in an advantageous position while facing a serious striker with knockout power in both hands and a ferocious style inside the Octagon.
Trujillo is a very fast starter, which probably won't bode well for Rinaldi as he tries to get his feet wet in the UFC for the first time. Trujillo hits hard, fast and he's unrelenting with his pressure once he gets an opponent into trouble. He's slipped up against some of the better competition he's faced in the UFC, and while Rinaldi has a ton of promise, he's not a top 15 fighter just yet.
Look for Trujillo to come out aggressively as he attempts to pour the punishment on Rinaldi early and often. He'll look to expose those first fight jitters that attack so many competitors in the UFC, and it's hard to pick against Trujillo in this situation. Rinaldi might still have a very bright future in the UFC, but he just stepped into a hornet's nest for his debut.
Prediction: Abel Trujillo by TKO, Round 2
Paul Felder (-255 favorite) vs. Josh Burkman (+215 underdog)
Paul Felder got back into the win column with his last fight against Daron Cruickshank after a disappointing two-bout losing streak inside the Octagon. Felder remains a very tough opponent for anyone in the lightweight division and with the addition of a new team that includes the same coaches responsible for featherweight contender Frankie Edgar, he's going to get even tougher.
This weekend, he faces a true veteran in Josh Burkman, who is never going to just fold up shop and walk away from any battle he's drawn into. Burkman made a successful debut at lightweight with a win over KJ Noons back in February, but he'll be in for a serious fight against Felder this weekend. Burkman certainly has some advantages, especially if he decides to wrestle Felder to the mat and keep him there.
Outside of that weapon, however, Felder is a very dangerous fighter on the feet with good boxing and a great chin. Felder has a slightly longer reach, lands with more volume and is almost equal to Burkman in overall accuracy. Felder just needs to make sure he doesn't get locked into the clinch with Burkman and he should win the exchanges on the feet. Adding a wrestler like Edgar into his camp had to do wonders, so look for Felder to stay on the outside and land at volume while hurting Burkman to the head, body and legs.
Burkman won't likely get finished, so don't count him out, but Felder should have enough in his arsenal to get the win.
Prediction: Paul Felder by unanimous decision
Aljamain Sterling (-440 favorite) vs. Bryan Caraway (+350 underdog)
When it comes to the future of the bantamweight division, Aljamain Sterling might just sit at the top of that list. A true MMA prodigy, Sterling is a hybrid fighter with natural athleticism coupled with a skill set that's virtually unmatched at this level of the sport. Sterling is a ground wizard with submission skills honed under former welterweight champion Matt Serra and he also has plenty of boxing that he's learned from noted instructor Ray Longo. Sterling is smart, patient and, most of all, a finisher any time he's in the Octagon.
This weekend he'll face another ground specialist in Bryan Caraway, who is often underrated going into his fights before surprising his opponents with a wide array of takedowns and submission attempts. Caraway is a very worthy foe for anyone at 135 pounds, but he's running into a bit of a mirror image against Sterling on Sunday in Las Vegas.
Sterling is arguably a slightly better wrestler, a slightly better submission stylist and when you couple that with his speed and power, it makes this a very tough fight for Caraway to win. Of course, Caraway has surprised more than a few people who have picked against him in the past, but considering he's fighting a buzz saw like Sterling, it's really hard to see a way he walks out of this fight with his hand raised.
Sterling wants to make a statement in this fight after asking to face Caraway for several months, so he'll look to show off some of his best weapons while constantly looking to finish the fight before the horn sounds. Caraway can't afford to make one mistake or Sterling will pounce on him until the fight is stopped and he's walking away victorious.
Prediction: Aljamain Sterling by submission, Round 3
Rick Story (+115 underdog) vs. Tarec Saffiedine (-135 favorite)
A key welterweight matchup on Sunday night pits Rick Story against Tarec Saffiedine in a fight that will keep the winner in the top 10, with the loser sitting on the outside looking in.
Story is a tremendous underdog pick for a number of reasons, not the least of which is his tenacious, pit bull-like style that forces fighters to compete at his pace and not the other way around. Saffiedine is a very dangerous fighter with knee buckling leg kicks, but he works best and distance, and chances are he'll be struggling for air against a pressure-heavy fighter like Story.
Story is a grinding wrestler with good boxing on the feet who works best inside with short power punches to the body and head. Story is very comfortable in the clinch or on the ground, and the less space he gives Saffiedine the better. Saffiedine is the kind of fighter who likes to find a rhythm and routine with his striking before picking his opponents apart. He probably won't get that luxury with Story, who will be in his face from the time the referee says go until the fight is stopped.
Story might just be the most underrated fighter at 170 pounds, and he'll look to prove that he belongs in that top 10 conversation with a dominant win over Saffiedine on Sunday night.
Prediction: Rick Story by unanimous decision