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This Sunday at TD Garden in Boston, UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw looks to make his third successful defense when he takes on the former king of the division, Dominick Cruz, who returns to action following knee surgery that kept him out of action for the past year.
Cruz was, by far, the best bantamweight in the world when he suffered his first knee injury over three years ago, and now after two more trips to the surgeon and a long road to recovery, he's finally back and ready to try and regain the title he never lost in the Octagon.
More on Fight Night Boston: Reasons to watch Fight Night Boston | Cruz finally gets chance to shine after injuries | Watch: Robin Black breaks down main event | Watch UFC Boston Embedded: TJ Dillashaw vs. Dominick Cruz, Anthony Pettis vs. Eddie Alvarez | Old-school Alvarez ready for Pettis test | Mitrione: 'It's do or die for me' | Felder promising fireworks | Marine Gomez looks forward to debut | Rankings Report ahead of Boston | Under-the-radar fights to watch | Fight Night Boston fight card | Get tickets for Fight Night Boston
Also in action this weekend is former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, who returns to action for the first time in nearly a year after losing his belt to current titleholder Rafael dos Anjos last March. Pettis has a tough test ahead of him as he faces always tough lightweight contender Eddie Alvarez in a stellar co-main event.
There are a ton of close matchups on this card, so today's fantasy preview will examine some of those fights to see who has the edge and who might just pull off an upset at UFC Fight Night: Dillashaw vs. Cruz.
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.
TJ Dillashaw (-135 favorite) vs. Dominick Cruz (+115 underdog)
Since his unlikely win over Renan Barao in their first bout and then a subsequent rematch that was even more one-sided than the original, Dillashaw has cemented his spot as the best bantamweight in the world thanks to some of the best footwork and kickboxing in the sport. He'll face his toughest test to date, however, as Cruz looks to regain the title and prove that he's still the best 135-pound fighter in the sport.
Dillashaw has certainly looked unstoppable in his last three fights and he gives a lot of credit for his success to head coach Duane Ludwig, who has transformed the former college wrestler into one of the best strikers in the sport. Dillashaw lands just under six significant strikes per minute, which is just incredible output, and he lands with nearly 45 percent accuracy, so when he throws, he typically lands. Mix in that wrestling background, where Dillashaw always has the ability to put someone on the mat with good accuracy and it's tough to find a weak spot in his game. Also don't forget, Dillashaw has actually pretended to be Cruz in the past when he helped his former teammates at Team Alpha Male – Urijah Faber and Joseph Benavidez - get ready for the same exact fight.
Cruz isn't that dissimilar from the champion, as he delivers rapid output on the feet and possibly has some of the best defensive footwork and head movement that's ever been showcased in MMA. Cruz mixes in over three takedowns per fight to keep his opponents guessing and he has no problem going five hard rounds if that's what it takes to get the win.
It's undeniable that the big X factor in this fight is Cruz's bouts of inactivity over the past few years. Certainly, the last time he came back from two years off, Cruz looked like an animal as he tore through Takeya Mizugaki in a matter of seconds. But this time he's running into an elite bantamweight who can match him with speed and output and who has proven to have much more power. As long as Dillashaw stays controlled in his strategy and doesn't let Cruz get into his head before the fight, he should prove once and for all that he's the champion at 135 pounds.
Prediction: TJ Dillashaw by unanimous decision
Anthony Pettis (-320 favorite) vs. Eddie Alvarez (+265 underdog)
Despite a lackluster outing in his last fight, Pettis is still possibly the most dangerous striker in the world at 155 pounds, with his mix of creativity and blistering kicks that come from every angle and all do a lot of damage. Pettis prides himself on being better on the feet than anyone who could possibly oppose him, but he'll have to be careful this weekend when he faces a heavy-handed puncher like Alvarez.
Alvarez is much more traditional in his boxing stance as opposed to Pettis, who will certainly throw more kicks in this fight. That being said, Alvarez packs a serious punch and can put together combinations that start fast and end deadly. He may not have the flash and flair that Pettis possesses, but Alvarez has the kind of one punch finishing power than can change this fight on the drop of a dime.
Where Pettis has the ability to take over is with his pinpoint accuracy and devastating power from anywhere in the Octagon. Pettis is a monster at distance, and if Alvarez gives him time and space to work, he will find an opening and he will do a lot of damage.
On the flipside, Alvarez only needs to look at Pettis' last loss and see that the former champion struggled with a powerful opponent who could muscle him around the Octagon with great fundamental striking while never giving the prolific kicker much room to work for 25 minutes. Alvarez actually has a very underrated wrestling game, but he's gone away from that a lot in the past few years, and unless he somehow finds it again, he could be eating a lot of shots from Pettis over three rounds.
Prediction: Anthony Pettis by TKO, Round 3
Ross Pearson (-165 favorite) vs. Francisco Trinaldo (+145 underdog)
It's hard to predict which Ross Pearson is going to show up on fight night, but he won't have much of a chance to miss in his fight this weekend because Francisco Trinaldo has proven to be one of the toughest competitors in the lightweight division, as he is currently riding a four-fight win streak.
Trinaldo has looked better than ever lately, mixing a deceptive striking game with a dangerous ground attack that continues to catch opponents off guard. Most recently, Trinaldo stopped former Ultimate Fighter winner Chad Laprise in the first round. Now typically, Trinaldo hasn't been a knockout striker, but that win shows that he's capable of getting the finish if his opponent gives him the opening to land a big shot.
As for Pearson, on his best night he really could be one of the best lightweights in the division, but unfortunately, he's highly unreliable when it comes to pulling out those performances night in and night out. Pearson is a punishing boxer with great hands, but his defensive woes have cost him on more than one occasion, and if he's not careful on Sunday night, it could cost him again. Pearson needs to stick and move to land his shots while avoiding Trinaldo slowing the pace down to a grind and simply outstriking him for three rounds.
If Pearson shows up and looks his best, this could be another standout performance from the Brit. He's faced the stiffer competition throughout his career and he always seems to be one big win away from making a push into the top 15. If he can dispatch Trinaldo, it will go a long way to proving Pearson can shake off those bad performances and pick up a much needed second victory in a row after bouncing back and forth between wins and losses over his last six fights.
Prediction: Ross Pearson by split decision
Patrick Cote (-105 favorite) vs. Ben Saunders (-115 underdog)
Another impossibly tough fight to pick happens in the welterweight division between Patrick Cote and Ben Saunders. Both veterans are more than capable of putting the other away, and it's nearly impossible to tell who has the edge, whether it's striking or on the ground.
Cote is well known for his heavy hands and concrete chin, while Saunders possesses some of the best Muay Thai kickboxing in the sport and he lands with ridiculous accuracy at just under 60-percent, a rate that includes over three and a half significant strikes per minute. On the ground, Cote has shown off some great wrestling in recent fights, including a dominant win over Kyle Noke, while Saunders has a nasty submission game training under coach Eddie Bravo on the mat.
As much as Cote has worked on his wrestling in recent years, facing a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu stylist like Saunders on the ground probably won't end well for him. Cote does have the kind of knockout power that could give Saunders nightmares on the feet if he lands one of his signature combinations, and while “Killa B” is a more polished striker with nasty knees up the middle and solid boxing, he's playing with dynamite if he just stands on the outside and starts winging punches with Cote.
So who gets the win?
Well that's the tough call in this one, because Cote and Saunders could easily earn Fight of the Night when it's over. That said, Cote has shown great resiliency in his recent wins and he still has the ability to eat a shot to give back two or three of his own. Eating those shots, however, could be his undoing, because Saunders just needs to land one good punch, knee or kick to force the takedown and then start looking for submissions.
Prediction: Ben Saunders by submission, Round 3
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.
Paul Felder (-245 favorite) vs. Daron Cruickshank (+205 underdog)
Expect this lightweight matchup to be a non-stop action bout, with both fighters throwing down until one of them lands a finishing blow, and chances are that's going to come from Paul Felder this time around.
Felder has fallen on hard times since landing a nasty, spinning back fist to put Danny Castillo away two fights ago, but he's still more than capable of uncorking the same kind of hellish strike to finish Cruickshank on Sunday night. Felder is a good boxer and he's tough as nails, so even if Cruickshank lands his best shot, there's no guarantee it's going to put the Philadelphia native away.
Cruickshank has admittedly struggled with his weight cut in a few fights and with the new ban on IVs as part of the UFC's stringent drug testing policy, things might have just gotten harder for him. Cruickshank is more than capable of putting on a winning performance, but against an equally dangerous striker with an even better chin, it seems like it's only a matter of time before he catches a punch in the wrong place and goes down.
Felder should probably try to avoid eating too many shots, but he has plenty of pop in his punches to counter with one good haymaker to put Cruickshank away.
Prediction: Paul Felder by TKO, Round 2
Matt Mitrione (+135 underdog) vs. Travis Browne (-155 favorite)
When heavyweights start throwing punches at each other it only takes one to slip through for the fight to come to a crashing halt, so it should never be that much of a surprise when a favorite falls or an underdog rises to the occasion.
That being said, Matt Mitrione always seems like he's one fight away from climbing into the top 10, and while he is coming off a loss in his last fight, the three wins in a row he captured before falling by submission to Ben Rothwell proved that this one time Ultimate Fighter novice still has plenty of room to grow in this division. Mitrione has great speed and footwork for a heavyweight and his punches typically come quick and land hard to do maximum damage.
Travis Browne is certainly no slouch when it comes to his striking on the feet. Browne earned several Knockout of the Night awards before earning a No. 1 contender's match less than two years ago, but since then, the powerful Hawaiian has fallen on harder times. He switched camps and started training under head coach Edmond Tarverdyan and unfortunately, the work hasn't paid dividends yet. Browne was overwhelmed on the feet in his last fight against Andrei Arlovski and there's no doubt he's missing out on high level training partners like Jon Jones, Alistair Overeem and others while he was working in New Mexico under head coach Greg Jackson.
This upset is as much about Mitrione's potential as it is the questions surrounding Browne's own career path in recent months. Mitrione has been searching for a signature win to add to his resume, and facing Browne right now at this stage could be the golden moment for him to seize a big win over a top 10 opponent and prove that he's still a heavyweight who could one day knock on the door of a title shot before his career is over.
Prediction: Matt Mitrione by TKO, Round 1