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This weekend the UFC returns to the state of Colorado for a UFC Fight Night card highlighted by former lightweight champion Benson Henderson bumping up a division to take on Brandon Thatch - a fighter often touted as the next big thing at 170 pounds.
Henderson's willingness to go up in weight only adds to his tradition of taking any fight against any person on any notice because that's just the kind of competitor he wants to be. It's no easy task moving up following a career at 155 pounds, because welterweights are not only bigger, but in Thatch's case, he's powerfully strong and very adept at knocking out opponents in less than five minutes’ time.
Also on the card, submission specialist Cole Miller makes his return to action against Hawaiian finishing machine Max Holloway, who looks for his fifth straight victory after a very successful campaign in 2014.
To get ready for this weekend's fight card, we're going to take a look at some of the key matchups - from the heavy favorites to the fights too close to call - as you prepare for a fantasy throwdown ahead of UFC Fight Night: Henderson vs. Thatch
These are the fights on the card that are so close that a flip of the coin may decide the winner. Hopefully, with a little added knowledge, there's an advantage to be gained over the rest of the fantasy players that provide the edge between victory and defeat.
Benson Henderson (-115 favorite) vs. Brandon Thatch (-105 underdog)
The odds on Saturday night's main event are as razor close as any fight can get and while both fighters are veterans in the Octagon, there are still a lot of unknowns to sort out before making a selection in this bout.
The biggest question for the main event has to surround Henderson's move to 170 pounds after a very successful career as a lightweight. He's a former champion at 155 pounds and he's faced a who's who list of fighters as a lightweight, but adding 15 pounds and going up a weight class isn't as easy as it sounds. BJ Penn found success early in his career going up from lightweight to welterweight, where he won the title and
gave Georges St-Pierre a battle early in his UFC career like no one else ever had. Unfortunately, size and power eventually caught up to Penn as he struggled towards the tail end of his run as a welterweight, losing in lopsided decisions in a rematch with St-Pierre as well as fights with Nick Diaz and Rory MacDonald. The same could be said for Nate Diaz, who dabbled at 170 pounds once upon a time in his career as well. He did well early with some solid wins over veterans like Marcus Davis, but when he faced Rory MacDonald and Dong Hyun Kim, Diaz found out that size really does matter when it comes to mixed martial arts.
Henderson will give up at least five inches of reach against Thatch, who is a big welterweight already. Henderson will have to rely on experience and savvy to escape the monstrous offense that's likely to come from Thatch as soon as the fight starts.
On the other side of the Octagon, Thatch is 2-0 in his UFC career while looking unstoppable in both fights. In 11 career wins, Thatch has put away all of his opponents in the first round, but as much as a compliment as that may seem, what happens when he goes out of the initial five minutes? Well, as of now it accounts for the only loss on his professional record. Thatch has already been preparing for a five-round bout, but getting ready for 25 minutes is much different than actually doing it.
This fight really comes down to execution. If Thatch can keep his offense steady early and not gas himself out going for a finish, he should get the win. He's a physically imposing fighter for 170 pounds and should be a prospect to watch in 2015 as he starts to inch closer and closer to the top 15 of the division. Henderson will have to deal with a long reach and a lot of power. The former champion has conditioning for days, but he may be playing defense more in this fight, trying to stave off the heavy attacks from Thatch. Don't be surprised if this one ends in a Fight of the Night award for both men.
Prediction: Brandon Thatch by TKO, Round 3
Max Holloway (-380 favorite) vs. Cole Miller (+315 underdog)
Cole Miller will walk into his fight against Max Holloway as a 3-to-1 underdog, but don't let the numbers fool you - this UFC veteran is still as dangerous as they come and should not be counted out. Miller is just 3-3 in his last six bouts, but once again the numbers don't tell you everything. Miller is tough as nails and in those three losses, he's fallen by decision every time and rarely is he ever counted out of any fight until the very end. Offensively, Miller is dangerous, especially with a submission game that has counted for seven career wins in the UFC. Miller's slick whether he's on top or on bottom, and with his long legs and arms, he can grab a limb from anywhere and find a way to get the tap out.
Holloway has to be aware of the submission arsenal that will be thrown his way from Miller, but if he can keep this fight standing and show his normal aggression, he'll come through with a victory. Holloway is a very tall and long fighter for 145 pounds, with nasty power in both hands as well as a developing Muay Thai game, where he puts elbows and knees to use regularly. The only thing that could backfire on Holloway would be a lack of aggressiveness if he starts worrying about Miller dragging this fight to the mat.
If Holloway presses the action and goes after Miller from the opening bell and never gives him room to breathe, he will find a way to get his fifth straight victory. The last thing Holloway can do, however, is give Miller an opening to pull him to the ground, especially early, where he'll start fishing for submissions in a hurry.
Prediction: Max Holloway by unanimous decision
Patrick Walsh (-170 favorite) vs. Daniel Kelly (+150 underdog)
Former Ultimate Fighter competitors Patrick Walsh and Daniel Kelly square off in a battle of wrestling and Judo in this middleweight bout on the main card. Walsh is a former college wrestler at The Ohio State University while Kelly is a multi-time Olympian in Judo out of Australia.
Walsh is still undersized for middleweight and his future in the UFC will likely be better served as a 170-pound fighter, but he's still more than capable of taking Kelly down and grinding him down on the mat to get a victory. Where Walsh has to be careful is dealing with Kelly's formidable submission game, especially a kimura, which he can grab from standing or on the mat at any time.
Walsh has the advantage when it comes to a style that can negate Kelly, as long as he can stay out of submissions. Walsh isn't a bad striker, but when he averages five takedowns per 15 minutes in the cage with over 71-percent accuracy, rarely does he have to show it. Walsh just needs to make this a pressure filled performance, don't allow Kelly to take his arm early and by the third round he should be in control enough to take home a decision victory.
Prediction: Patrick Walsh by unanimous decision
Once again the odds are as close as they can get in this flyweight matchup between Tim Elliott and Zach Makovsky.
Makovsky looked like he was on his way to title contention before he was thrown off his game by Jussier Formiga in his last bout. Makovsky has shown tremendous wrestling skill throughout all of his UFC bouts, highlighted in performances against Josh Sampo and Scott Jorgensen. He's averaging around four takedowns per bout and Makovsky has great ground control when he gets an opponent to the mat.
Elliott is no slouch on the ground either and he actually averages 4.21 takedowns per 15 minutes, so his rate is higher than Makovsky's, but just ever so slightly. Elliott is a big fighter for the flyweight division and he can usually bully opponents around the cage, which helps him employ a strong standing attack as well, landing 4.6 significant strikes per minute.
The key in this fight comes down to wrestling and who gets the best of a prescribed game plan. Makovsky will likely try to take this one down early and often, but can Elliott counter with his own wrestling prowess or just stuff his opponent's attempts and turn this into a stand-up affair? It's another tough call, but based on recent fights where Elliott has struggled against superior grapplers, the edge goes to Makovsky with a physically imposing wrestling and top game to take home the win.
Prediction: Zach Makovsky by unanimous decision
These are the fights were the odds shift dramatically in favor of one particular fighter with the biggest chance to come away with a victory on Saturday night.
Neil Magny walks into this weekend's fight card riding a five-fight win streak as he's continued to look better and better with each performance. Magny is a native of Denver, Colorado, so he's also going to be a hometown favorite on the card with an early advantage over his opponent with his lungs already acclimated to the thin air in the Mile High City.
Magny's biggest advantage against Kunimoto comes from a five-inch height advantage and a tremendous striking game which has earned him two TKO victories in his last three fights. Magny averages over 3.42 significant strikes per minute while also employing great takedown defense, blocking over 70-percent of the attempts against him. In other words, Kunimoto is going to struggle to get this fight to the ground, which is the place where he has the best chance to get a victory.
Kunimoto is a submission specialist with a variety of finishes on his record, but the biggest problem he'll likely have in this fight is just getting Magny to the mat. If Magny can keep Kunimoto on the end of his punches before opening up a barrage of combinations, the Japanese-born welterweight is going to be playing defense from the start of this fight until the end. Given Magny's proficiency for finishes lately, it could happen in a hurry, too.
Prediction: Neil Magny by TKO, round 2
The biggest odds-on favorite to win on Saturday night is flyweight competitor Ray Borg as he takes on Chris Kelades. Borg is a serious prospect at 125 pounds, with lightning quick hands and some of the best ground work you'll see in the division. Borg trains out of the same camp responsible for current welterweight standout Tim Means as well as the home to former interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit for the early part of his MMA career.
Borg is dynamic at finding a way to take his opponents to the ground, averaging over five takedowns per fight with just under 67-percent accuracy. He also tosses submissions around like most fighters look for punches. Borg currently averages 3.47 submission attempts per 15 minutes in the Octagon, so Kelades is going to have to play good defense if he gets stuck on the mat.
Kelades showed in his first UFC fight that he's not afraid to mix things up, however, especially considering his first win came over highly-touted Irish prospect Paddy Holohan. Kelades is a strong fighter for flyweight with a solid base in both wrestling and striking. If he can keep Borg from taking this fight to the ground, Kelades will make this interesting in a hurry. Kelades is tough to overwhelm and he's especially powerful in the clinch so he has the ability to shrug off Borg's attempts to get him to the ground. The real question is can he do it over and over again for 15 minutes?
Chances are Borg will eventually find a way to outwork Kelades to get the win and take another step closer towards a top 15 slot in 2015.
Prediction: Ray Borg by submission, round 3
It's a little shocking that No. 8 ranked featherweight Nik Lentz isn't the biggest favorite on this card considering he's a hard matchup for anybody at 145 pounds, much less a newcomer like Makashvili, who takes this fight on less than three weeks’ notice after Thiago Tavares was forced off the card due to injury.
Makashvili is a very well-rounded fighter with a strong base in wrestling as well as a stifling grappling game when he's in control. Makashvili isn't bad on his feet although most of his striking is used to set up a formidable ground attack, where he's most dangerous. The problem is that everywhere Makashvili is good, Lentz is just better.
Lentz is a suffocating fighter with the ability to push an opponent against the cage, grind them through the fence and just beat them up with dirty boxing and takedowns that can rarely be stopped. Lentz doesn't try to hide what he's doing in any fight. He averages over four takedowns per fight and lands over three significant strikes per minute, but where Lentz really excels is just wearing an opponent down to a nub over 15 minutes. There's not a featherweight on the planet who wouldn't consider Lentz a stylistic nightmare because he's so good at what he does that it's nearly impossible to stop him. Makashvili is going to be ice skating uphill from the time this fight starts and it's a tough proposition to imagine him finding a way to victory.
Prediction: Nik Lentz by unanimous decision