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The UFC returns to Germany this weekend with two of the best heavyweights to ever grace the Octagon, as former champions Andrei Arlovski and Josh Barnett duke it out in a five-round main event that's been years in the making.
When Arlovski made his UFC debut in 2000, his win over Aaron Brink preceded another heavyweight fight where Barnett took out Gan McGee by TKO in the second round. While the two fighters ended up competing on two more cards together, Barnett and Arlovski never got the chance to face off until now.
Also on the card, light heavyweight contender Alexander Gustafsson gets back in action as he looks to regain his footing after a heartbreaking loss to Daniel Cormier last October, while Ryan Bader also attempts to get back on track as he faces Ilir Latifi in another outstanding 205-pound matchup.
In today's fantasy preview, we're going to examine some of the key fights on this upcoming card to see who has the advantage and who might be primed for an upset at UFC Fight Night: Arlovski vs. Barnett.
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.
Josh Barnett (-140 favorite) vs. Andrei Arlovski (+120 underdog)
Josh Barnett and Andrei Arlovski are both in need of a big win after recent setbacks that saw them suffer losses inside the Octagon, but this matchup provides unique opportunities for a big finish, depending on who plays their cards right.
Arlovski is a very aggressive power striker who likes to stay in control with his blazing-fast combinations at range. Arlovski moves in and out very efficiently with lightning quick straight punches followed by power shots in succession. Arlovski has scored the second most knockdowns in UFC heavyweight history with 10, and he's scored the second most finishes as well with 11.
Arlovski also possesses nearly 88 percent takedown defense, which will probably be his best weapon against a wrestler as good as Barnett will be in this fight. Barnett is a physically intimidating grappler who loves to muscle his opponents around the Octagon and force them to fight his fight. Now as good as Arlovski has been at avoiding shots from the outside with most wrestlers, he's never fought someone like Barnett, who is extremely dangerous in the clinch and with his Greco-Roman style body lock takedowns.
Barnett's ability to bull rush an opponent and press them against the cage before unloading a barrage of shots or putting them on the mat could give Arlovski nightmares if he's not quick enough on his feet to circle away before getting trapped. Barnett tagged Roy Nelson with 95 significant strikes in the clinch when they fought last year and that was a new UFC record. Barnett is more than capable of doing the same thing to Arlovski and chances are that will be his game plan come Saturday in Germany.
Look for Barnett to impose his will against Arlovski in the clinch against the cage and punish him there until he either scores a TKO or he takes the fight to the ground and starts fishing for submissions. Unfortunately, neither one of those scenarios end well for Arlovski.
Prediction: Josh Barnett by TKO, Round 2
Ryan Bader (-275 favorite) vs. Ilir Latifi (+235 underdog)
Ryan Bader will look to bounce back when he returns to action this weekend for the first time suffering a crushing defeat to Anthony "Rumble" Johnson earlier this year, while Ilir Latifi tries to get a signature win over a top five opponent after winning his last three fights in a row.
Prior to the loss to Johnson in January, Bader had been on a great win streak of his own with five straight victories that saw him take down some of the top light heavyweights in the division. Bader is the picture of proficiency in his fights, with solid volume on the feet coupled with over three takedowns per fight, which usually results in his opponents trying to guess where he'll go next. Bader could certainly throw hands with Latifi, but if he chooses to wrestle, that could be his easiest path to victory. Bader is one of the best wrestlers when it comes to adapting his style to MMA, and if he chooses to shoot inside and put Latifi on the ground, he should be able to keep control for all 15 minutes.
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That said, Latifi is a spark plug with a ton of power in his hands and an all around grappling game that's not all that bad either. Latifi is best known as a power puncher who likes to trap his opponents in a bad exchange before just unloading on them with a barrage of shots against the cage. Latifi is a very offensive minded fighter who doesn't like to back up, so that will be a big factor in the early going with this matchup to see if he's plodding forward or staying neutral, waiting for Bader to attack. The latter is just about the worst case scenario for Latifi if he gets gun shy in this bout.
As much as Latifi has shown in recent fights, this is a decided step up in competition for him, and unless he lands a big combination early, Bader just has more ways to win. Bader has the power to knock Latifi out, the boxing to frustrate him and he certainly has the wrestling to grind him to a decision.
Prediction: Ryan Bader by unanimous decision
Possibly the toughest fight to pick on the entire card could be this showdown between Germany's own Nick Hein and South Korean fighter Tae Hyun Bang. Both fighters are best known as strikers with the ability to land the knockout shot, but neither one has developed a fierce, finishing reputation inside the Octagon.
Statistically, Hein and Bang are also eerily similar. Both land just under three significant strikes per minute with about 40 percent accuracy. Hein and Bang have equal 64 percent defense while blocking or avoiding shots from an opponent, and they each average just under one takedown per fight. So what separates them in this fight?
Well, don't discount the hometown crowd rising and falling with every punch Hein throws in this one, as he is a German fighter competing in his native country. While hometown fights don't always pay off, Hein seems like he could feast off of that energy and those crucial exchanges where he's willing to throw one more punch or look for one more takedown could be the key to securing the decision victory in the end.
Prediction: Nick Hein 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.
Alexander Gustafsson (-700 favorite) vs. Jan Blachowicz (+500 underdog)
Alexander Gustafsson has consistently been one of the best light heavyweight fighters in the world over the past few years and that's why he's enjoying his status as the biggest favorite on the entire card as he approaches his matchup with Jan Blachowicz. Now make no mistake, Blachowicz has the power in his hands and feet to earn a surprise knockout victory, but the odds certainly don't appear to be on his side.
Gustafsson has feasted on every top 10 light heavyweight he's faced outside of three losses to Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier and Anthony "Rumble" Johnson, and it's impossible to believe that he won't keep that streak alive this weekend. Gustafsson is a long, rangy striker with devastating hands, good kicks and an overall MMA game that's just tough to deal with round after round. Gustafsson also knows how to go for the kill when he smells blood in the water, and Blachowicz's tendency to sit back and wait for his opponents to attack spell his demise in this matchup.
Gustafsson will likely press forward and find his range before opening up with a devastating series of strikes as Blachowicz goes into survival mode. Gustafsson has been out of action since last October so it may take him a round to knock the ring rust off, but once he finds his rhythm, it's going to be a short, painful night for Blachowicz in Germany.
Prediction: Alexander Gustafsson by TKO, Round 2
Ashlee Evans-Smith vs. Veronica Macedo
20-year-old Venezuelan prospect Veronica Macedo wil make her UFC debut this weekend and she's got a very tough test ahead of her facing Ashlee Evans-Smith. Macedo is 5-0-1 as a professional with all of her fights taking place since March 2016. Macedo is best known as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist with knockout power in her hands and feet. She's a solid prospect for the future but she's going up against a stacked deck in her debut.
Evans-Smith is a ferocious wrestler with a ton of power in her hands and the kind of grappling game that could give Macedo nightmares throughout the course of this fight. Evans-Smith is also a physically imposing fighter who will enjoy a five-inch reach advantage on the feet while throwing and landing more than three significant strikes per minute. On paper, Evans-Smith actually has similar experience as her short notice opponent, but those records don't tell the real story when it comes to level of competition.
This will be Evans-Smith's third fight in the Octagon and chances are this will be her most impressive showing to date. With a wrestling pedigree and a ground-and-pound attack that will likely leave Macedo gasping for air, the UFC newcomer will do her best to survive more than have a great shot at winning this bantamweight showdown.
Prediction: Ashlee Evans-Smith by TKO, Round 3
Scott Askham vs. Jack Hermansson
In the realm of “knockout picks,” this is probably the toughest one to call, but the edge still falls enough to Scott Askham that he remains a very solid selection in his fight with newcomer Jack Hermansson.
Hermansson is a solid middleweight with good power in his hands and great range from the outside, where he lands his best shots. Hermansson has fought a good list of opponents outside the UFC, including a win over former Octagon veteran Karlos Vemola four fights ago. Hermansson has enough skill to stay in this fight with Askham, but his ability to deliver more shots than he'll absorb is probably where he loses this bout.
Askham is a very accurate striker, as he delivers nearly 58 percent of his shots on target, and while his defense is certainly suspect, his ability to land those power punches and kicks make him a very dangerous opponent for Hermansson if they start exchanging combinations. Askham has a long frame with good strikes inside and outside, and he mixes things up well with a creative arsenal that includes kicks, knees and elbows.
Now Hermansson could certainly surprise Askham with a looping shot from the outside, which he's more than capable of landing in this bout, but the British-born middleweight should have enough pop behind his punches to crack the newcomer before he gets popped in return. Askham remains a very solid pick to get the win by TKO, but if he starts trading with Hermansson early and this turns into a firefight, all bets are off.
Prediction: Scott Askham by TKO, Round 2
Nicolas Dalby (+105 underdog) vs. Peter Sobotta (-110 favorite)
Another ultra close matchup that could result in an upset is the welterweight showdown between Nicolas Dalby and Peter Sobotta.
Sobotta certainly has the veteran edge in this bout with a slew of UFC fights under his belt, but Dalby seems poised for a breakout performance and this could be the night where he finally gets the job done. Dalby earned a split decision in his only win in the UFC, while also going to a majority draw with Darren Till in a Fight of the Night effort last October. Dalby has the skill set to give anyone in the welterweight division a tough fight, and considering how inconsistent Sobotta has been throughout his career, this could be the moment when he's poised to get the job done.
Dalby is a volume striker who lands over four significant strikes per minute with nearly 40 percent accuracy. Add to that, Sobotta has shown some defensive liabilities in the past while only avoiding 58 percent of his opponent's strikes, and that adds up to the Polish fighter eating a lot of punches over three rounds. Dalby also possesses better than average grappling skills, with over two takedowns per fight and 53 percent accuracy when trying to wrestling his opponents to the ground. While he's not likely to employ that attack as much against Sobotta, he certainly has that ability in his back pocket.
All together, this just seems like a recipe for Dalby to come away with an impressive showing, even if he doesn't quite put Sobotta away before the final bell.
Prediction: Nicolas Dalby by unanimous decision