As the UFC returns to New Jersey this weekend, a pair of lightweights looking to get back into the title conversation will clash in the main event as Kevin Lee takes on Edson Barboza, while former champion Frankie Edgar makes a quick turnaround from his last fight as he takes on Cub Swanson.
Lee last appeared in the Octagon when he battled Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight title last October, and while he came up short that night, he certainly proved he belongs among the best fighters in the world at 155 pounds.
Meanwhile, Barboza is looking to get back on track following a loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov in his last fight and he'll attempt to take out his frustration on Lee on Saturday night.
As for Edgar, he couldn't wait to compete again after suffering a stunning loss to Brian Ortega in his last fight as he takes on Swanson, who is also coming off a defeat to the top contender in the featherweight division.
In today's fantasy preview, we're going to examine these two fights and several more to see who has the edge going into Saturday night and if someone is primed for an upset at UFC Fight Night: Barboza vs. Lee.
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.
Edson Barboza vs Kevin Lee
While it's tough to whittle away at this great main event and simply say it's a classic matchup pitting striker against grappler, there's little doubt that Edson Barboza will be looking for the knockout and Kevin Lee's best path to victory is probably on the ground.
That said, Lee has worked tirelessly on his striking over the past few years to bring his hands up to the same level as his wrestling and grappling game. Lee is a big fighter competing in the lightweight division and he will enjoy a two-inch reach advantage on the feet against Barboza. Lee's output on the feet is actually very similar to Barboza in regards to significant strikes landed and accuracy, but his one glaring problem is with his defense.
Lee defends only 52 percent of the strikes thrown at him and that's a dangerous game to play against a knockout artist as dangerous as Barboza. That's part of the reason why Lee will likely use his striking to set up his wrestling, where he averages over three takedowns per 15 minutes in the Octagon.
Of course, Barboza will undoubtedly attempt to stop that grappling game and unleash his powerful Muay Thai attack on the feet. Barboza is not only one of the deadliest strikers on the entire UFC roster, but he's also one of the most creative. Barboza will unleash flying knees, spinning wheel kicks and all sorts of other unorthodox strikes to keep his opponents guessing. Barboza's best weapon remains his crippling kicks, which do a lot of damage to the body and legs. If Barboza can settle into a rhythm early with his kicking game and stop Lee's takedowns, that will be a clear indication of where this fight is probably going.
On the flipside, if Lee is able to catch one of Barboza's early kicks and plant him on the mat, it could be a long night for the Brazilian. Lee's top pressure is relentless and he's very slick at passing guard and then unleashing punches and elbows. Lee is also a very good submission specialist, so don't blink if he gets the fight down on the ground and has Barboza in trouble almost immediately.
While this fight is the truest definition of a toss-up, Barboza has the weapons that could give Lee a lot of problems if he can't get this fight to the ground. Barboza's ability to land leg kicks and body kicks to suck the life out of Lee on the feet could really pay off in the latter part of the third round and beyond. If Barboza can stop the takedowns early, he's got a great chance of pulling off a late knockout in this main event matchup.
Prediction: Edson Barboza by TKO, Round 4
Frankie Edgar vs Cub Swanson
The last time Frankie Edgar met Cub Swanson back in 2014, the fight was just about as lopsided as any main event in recent memory. Edgar took Swanson to the ground at will, battered him with punches and elbows until finally putting a stop to the fight in the latter moments of the fifth and final round.
So what has changed ahead of the rematch in this three round co-main event?
Well, Swanson has certainly polished up his takedown defense as he looks to stop Edgar from planting him on the mat repeatedly in this fight. Swanson is still a very diverse striker with serious power in his hands, and the ability to hit and not get hit back in return will be key in pushing the pace in this fight against Edgar. Swanson has struggled with that at times in the past where he's willing to eat a punch to give a punch, but he can't play that game with Edgar or he's going to end up on his back in the same position where he spent the majority of their first fight.
For Edgar, the real question is how he bounces back from a knockout loss in his last fight that just took place in early March. Did Edgar have enough time to recover from that defeat to get back into the Octagon with a lethal striker like Swanson?
The answer will more than likely come during those first exchanges when Edgar will either decide to try and out box Swanson or if he's immediately looking for the takedowns to minimize danger on the feet. If Edgar uses his boxing to set up his takedowns, it could be a long night for Swanson in this rematch.
Edgar has incredibly well-timed boxing and he's very hard to hit on the feet, but following his last fight there's little doubt that he wants to prevent taking much more damage in this battle with Swanson. Look for Edgar to slip his punches early to get Swanson stepping forward and then he will look for the takedown. If Edgar is able to force Swanson to the ground in the early going, then it's his fight to win.
Prediction: Frankie Edgar by unanimous decision
Aljamain Sterling vs Brett Johns
In a matchup between two submission specialists, Aljamain Sterling will look to get back on track following a knockout loss in his last fight as he takes on undefeated Welsh bantamweight Brett Johns.
Now there's no secret that Johns is a grappler first, so while he's not afraid to trade punches on the feet, he's more than likely going to look to get this fight to the ground the first chance he's given. Johns will absolutely look to drag this fight to the mat whether that means he lands on top or even if he has to pull guard to pull Sterling into his world. Johns is most dangerous in the scrambles, so don’t blink if he ends up latching onto a submission at the blink of an eye if Sterling makes one wrong move on the ground. Johns is lightning quick with his grappling game and he'll seize on the smallest mistake if Sterling makes one.
That said, Sterling is no slouch on the mat, especially if he's able to secure the takedown and then work to take the back. Sterling jokes that he's like a backpack when he wraps himself around an opponent, but it's not a bad analogy given his ability to get the fight to the ground and then almost immediately transition to take the back. Sterling is most dangerous when he's able to stay on top after landing a takedown, which could be a key in getting a victory on Saturday night.
Johns will undoubtedly try to catch Sterling slipping and apply his world-class submission game. Unfortunately for him, Sterling is just as dangerous in those scrambles and he might be the one pulling off the surprise finish on the ground.
If this fight stays standing, Sterling is the better overall striker, with a better wrestling base to control where the action takes place. Sterling has to be careful if he begins exchanging with Johns on the mat, but if he sticks to the basics, he should be able to earn a victory based on superior striking and grappling control.
Prediction: Aljamain Sterling 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.
Justin Willis vs Chase Sherman
When it comes to fights in the heavyweight division, almost nothing is guaranteed, but Justin Willis seems like a solid prospect to watch as he takes on Chase Sherman this weekend in Atlantic City.
Training alongside former heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and current light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, Willis has the best possible people around him to eventually get him into those heavyweight rankings. Through his first two fights, Willis has been dominant but also managed to go three full rounds in his debut, so he's not earning victories based solely on getting his opponents out before the end of the first five-minute session. Willis also mixes things together very well while landing with good volume on the feet and then averaging more than two and a half takedowns per fight.
Perhaps the biggest indicator in this matchup, however, comes down to Sherman's defense.
Now Sherman is definitely dangerous in all facets of the game, so he could absolutely catch Willis with a big shot and end this fight in his favor. The problem is that Sherman actually absorbs almost as many significant strikes as he dishes out. He's currently eating over five significant strikes per minute and that's a deadly game to play with a power puncher like Willis.
This will certainly be an exciting matchup even if it only lasts for one round, but with Willis' punching power and Sherman's questionable defense, this might just end in a second straight knockout for the 6-1 prospect nicknamed "Big Pretty."
Prediction: Justin Willis by knockout, Round 1
Thiago Santos vs David Branch
Thiago Santos has looked like a killer in his past few fights, as he has put on several blistering performances in a row with a striking style that has to be considered one of the best in the entire middleweight division. David Branch will be his toughest test during this recent run of fights, but Santos seems like he has a style that could give Branch problems, assuming he can keep this matchup on the feet.
Branch definitely likes to outbox his opponents and while he has a world-class ground game, he usually sets that up with his strikes. Branch was able to ground Krzysztof Jotko in his return to the UFC last year with a barrage of takedowns that kept the Polish striker from mounting much offense on the feet. Now it's entirely possible Branch attempts that same strategy here, but it's going to be tough to eat any shots from Santos as punishment for diving inside for those takedowns.
Santos is a brute when he finds his range and begins unleashing with hellish power in his feet and hands. Perhaps the biggest improvement in Santos' game in recent months has been his ability to show patience rather than just automatically going for the kill as soon as the fight begins. If Santos is able to measure his shots and keep Branch from taking him to the ground, he might just have a signature win that will propel him into the top 10.
Santos seems like a very solid middleweight to watch in 2018 and this could be the perfect showcase to prove that he belongs among the best of the best at 185 pounds.
Prediction: Thiago Santos by TKO, Round 2
Magomed Bibulatov vs. Ulka Sasaki
Magomed Bibulatov definitely had a shocking result in his last fight, as he suffered a knockout loss, but that doesn't diminish the shine that this top prospect at 125 pounds has going forward in the UFC's flyweight division.
Bibulatov is a classic Russian-born fighter with heavy hands, good wrestling and a powerful ground game. Prior to the setback in his last fight, Bibulatov had gone undefeated through his first 14 fights with a string of dominant performances. He'll look to get back on that path when he takes on Ulka Sasaki this weekend.
Sasaki is more than capable of pulling off the upset in this flyweight matchup, just like he did when he submitted Justin Scoggins two fights ago. That being said, Sasaki has struggled with the best competition he's faced in the UFC and this might be another case where he's facing an opponent with a little bit more power and skill than him wherever this fight may go.
Look for Bibulatov to employ his ground game to put Sasaki on the defensive as soon as this fight starts as he'll attempt to pound away at him on the mat or potentially wrap up a submission if the opening is there. Bibulatov is still a fighter to watch in the flyweight division and this should give him the showcase to prove that his last loss won't define his run in the UFC.
Prediction: Magomed Bibulatov by unanimous decision
Aspen Ladd vs Leslie Smith
A fantastic matchup in the women's bantamweight division will cap off the early prelims this weekend as Leslie Smith looks to build on back-to-back wins as she takes on undefeated prospect Aspen Ladd.
Smith's record has certainly been decorated by a mix of wins and losses. but that doesn't even begin to tell the whole story on how tough this California-based bantamweight has been throughout her career. Smith is a very slick striker who possesses dynamite in her hands and feet while also having incredible toughness as she's shown in past losses to Jessica Eye and Cris Cyborg.
Smith is an offensive machine who averages just under eight significant strikes landed per minute with over 40 percent accuracy. That kind of outpouring of offense could give Ladd problems in her second UFC fight after a dominant debut. Smith will come gunning for her from the first second of the opening round until the final horn sounds to signify the end of the fight.
That said, Ladd could be a future title contender at 135 pounds as long as she continues to develop at the same pace that got her to 6-0 thus far in her career. Ladd is a big bantamweight, which may cost her in some early exchanges with Smith, who will be lighter and quicker on her feet.
Where Ladd can take advantage is by landing good, crisp counter shots and then mixing in takedowns to slow down Smith's kickboxing arsenal. Ladd was 100 percent accurate with her takedowns in her UFC debut and she'll need to use that wrestling to slow Smith down or she might be eating a lot of punches and kicks over the course of three rounds.
If Ladd is able to drag this fight to the ground early and then try to bully Smith around the Octagon using good clinch work, she has a great chance to pick up her first win over a top 10 opponent and make a statement that a new contender has arrived in the women's bantamweight division.
Prediction: Aspen Ladd by unanimous decision