The UFC returns to Chicago this Saturday for FOX UFC Fight Night, as former women's bantamweight champion Holly Holm looks to secure her place back atop the division when she faces dangerous Muay Thai specialist Valentina Shevchenko.
Holm is coming off a heartbreaking loss in her last fight to Miesha Tate, and now she'll attempt to get another crack at the gold when she faces a fellow striker with a ton of experience under her belt. Shevchenko is viewed as one of the most lethal kickboxers in the women's division and after a close decision loss to current champion Amanda Nunes, she knows she has what it takes to battle with the best fighters in the world.
The winner of Holm and Shevchenko will likely be on a short list of potential opponents for Nunes, so this main event fight has a lot on the line.
Also taking place this weekend is a key matchup at 155 pounds as knockout artist Edson Barboza looks for another signature win when he takes on former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez. Local favorite Felice Herrig will be back in action as well, as she faces the always exciting Kailin Curran in a strawweight bout.
In today's fantasy preview, we'll examine some of these featured bouts taking place on Saturday to see who might have the edge and if there's even a potential upset brewing on the latest FOX card from Chicago.
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.
Holly Holm vs. Valentina Shevchenko
The main event showdown between Holly Holm and Valentina Shevchenko could be an easy pick for Fight of the Night before the card even starts because the possibilities in this matchup are endless. Holm is a world class boxer with legitimate power in both hands and feet - just ask Ronda Rousey about that one - and Shevchenko is a brutal Muay Thai specialist with the ability to knock out anybody in the women's bantamweight division.
Where Holm maintains a slight edge in this fight is with her elusiveness and counter striking, both of which could put Shevchenko in trouble based on her tendency to get aggressive during exchanges. Holm is masterful at hitting and then circling away from her opponent's power, while Shevchenko loves to attack in close with hard, fast combinations.
Shevchenko's ability to get inside is key for her to win this fight because she's giving up about two inches of reach and three inches of height, so she can't stay on the outside or Holm will likely pick her apart. If Shevchenko can bully Holm on the inside and batter her with elbows and knees in close, she could take the former champion out of her element and force her to scramble and make mistakes as she tries to exit the clinch.
For Holm, she just needs to stay patient and wait for Shevchenko to unleash one of her big combinations, where she can counterstrike at distance. Holm needs to implement a game plan against Shevchenko similar to the one that she used against Rousey, where she hits and moves before she can take any damage in return. Rousey just didn't have the striking skills to hurt Holm much on the feet, but Shevchenko has plenty of power and technique to fire back, so the former champion can't get sloppy or she might wind up face down on the canvas as a result.
Still, Holm's ability to hit and move should still do enough for her to avoid Shevchenko's power shots and, over five rounds, those punishing combinations will rack up a lot of points and a lot of damage to her opponent's face and body.
Prediction: Holly Holm by unanimous decision
Edson Barboza vs. Gilbert Melendez
If Holm vs. Shevchenko isn't Fight of the Night, this lightweight bout between Edson Barboza and Gilbert Melendez is probably the other top candidate.
Melendez returns to action after a year away from the sport, but his last fight against Eddie Alvarez was an ultra close decision that could have gone either way when the judges added up their scorecards. Now Alvarez is the champion and Melendez is champing at the bit for a rematch with the title on the line, but the only way he gets there is through Barboza.
Barboza picked up his biggest win to date when he chopped down former champion Anthony Pettis in his last bout, and now the Brazilian will attempt to get another big win as he inches closer and closer towards a title shot.
As far as the matchup goes, Melendez has to know that to beat Barboza he needs to turn this into a dogfight. Melendez has very good technical boxing, but his best attribute against Barboza will likely be his ability to swarm with punches and make the Brazilian brawl with him. Barboza is deadly at range, and if he has space to set up his kicks, Melendez will likely go home busted, bruised and defeated.
Barboza might just be the best pure striker in the lightweight division, and his kicks are without a doubt one of the most feared weapons in the world. Barboza probably won't have to worry much about the takedown in this fight, although Melendez has underrated wrestling tucked away for a rainy day. Still, Barboza has to know that his best shot at winning is to make Melendez miss and then keep him on the end of his punches. The more Barboza stays at distance, the better chance he has to win the fight.
Melendez could be a stylistic nightmare for Barboza if he fights to the best of his abilities and really makes his opponent get into a slugfest. Barboza has struggled at times when his opponents attack him without fear and get right in his face from the opening bell. That's what Melendez does best, and that could be the difference in this fight when the final scorecards are tallied.
Felice Herrig vs. Kailin Curran
Hometown favorite Felice Herrig will look to get back in the win column as she takes on Kailin Curran, who has quickly become one of the most exciting fighters on the strawweight roster.
Curran is still very much a raw product in the division, but she fights with so much heart that it makes up for her lack of experience in many areas. Curran is a tenacious fighter with a never say die attitude that has carried her through her first three fights in the UFC. She finally got her first win after defeating Emily Kagan last December and now she'll try to add a real veteran to her resume by facing Herrig this weekend.
Herrig has been out of action since last April, so the time off has to be a concern as she gets ready for this bout. At her best, Herrig is a ferocious competitor with solid striking and a dangerous ground attack. At her worst, Herrig struggles to deal with adversity and has seemed to mentally break in some past fights when the going gets tough.
That's a tough road ahead for Herrig in this fight because she might be the better fighter on paper, but Curran will not go away easy, even if she's down early. Curran's ability to make this a war could test Herrig's mental toughness and that's one area where she's consistently struggled throughout her career. What Curran lacks in technique, she makes up for with an offensive onslaught that sometimes gets her in trouble, but may be just what she needs to bend and potentially break Herrig in this fight.
Prediction: Kailin Curran by unanimous decision
Frankie Saenz vs. Eddie Wineland
The bantamweight matchup between Frankie Saenz and Eddie Wineland pits grappler against striker in a fight to see which one of these 135-pounders still wants to make a push to the top 10 in the division.
Saenz has proven to be a very tough out since he arrived in the UFC, and he even managed to take former title contender Urijah Faber to a decision in his last outing, although he did come up short in the end. Saenz didn't go away easy and he made Faber work for every position in that fight and it showed that the Arizona-based fighter will be a tough challenge for any 135-pound fighter in the world.
As for Wineland, he remains one of the best strikers in the division, but he's been wildly inconsistent over the past few years as the damage he's suffered in so many past wars has really started to catch up with him. Wineland suffered a pair of knockouts to Renan Barao and Johnny Eduardo - the latter of which ended with a broken jaw. Wineland then fell in a striking-heavy fight against Bryan Caraway, who is a very good bantamweight fighter but didn't seem like a standup fighter of the same caliber as the former WEC champion. Still, Caraway got the better of Wineland on the feet and it made many wonder what this veteran competitor had left in the tank.
Saenz will test that theory on Saturday night because with his wrestling, where he averages over two takedowns per 15 minutes in the cage, he's going to look to put Wineland on his back at some point during this fight. Wineland has shown incredible takedown defense - blocking nearly 86 percent of attempts against him - but he needs to make Saenz pay each and every time he tries to take the fight to the mat.
Wineland was a little trigger shy in his last fight and if he hesitates for even a second, he'll be fighting off Saenz in the clinch or on the takedown for all three rounds, and that doesn't bode well for victory. Of course, Wineland only needs to uncork one big shot and this fight changes course forever.
Prediction: Frankie Saenz 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.
Francis Ngannou vs. Bojan Mihajlovic
On paper, the biggest mismatch on the card is the heavyweight bout between rising star Francis Ngannou and newcomer Bojan Mihajlovic. Now, this is a heavyweight fight,a so it only takes one shot for fate to change course rather dramatically, but that being said, it's awfully hard to pick against Ngannou this weekend.
Ngannou is an extremely physical and athletic heavyweight with monstrous power in his strikes and he's a massive fighter with a height and reach advantage over his opponent. Ngannou lands over three significant strikes per minute and he lands with nearly 48 percent accuracy, so whatever he's throwing, he's usually doing so with precision.
There are a lot of unknowns regarding Mihajlovic, considering that this is his debut. The Serbian fighter is a short, stocky heavyweight who doesn't quite reach six-feet tall and that's going to put him at an immediate disadvantage when standing against Ngannou. Add to that, Mihajlovic is probably better suited for the light heavyweight division in the future and this might be the fight that forces him to make that switch. Mihajlovic isn't a bad fighter by any means, he's just overmatched against someone as dangerous as Ngannou.
Prediction: Francis Ngannou by knockout
Darren Elkins vs. Godofredo Pepey
Following back-to-back losses in 2013, Godofredo Pepey truly turned things around in his career with three huge wins in a row - all of which earned him a Performance of the Night bonus. Pepey pulled off a flying triangle choke, another triangle armbar and then a devastating flying knee to show off just how well rounded he's become since joining the UFC roster by way of The Ultimate Fighter Brazil.
Yet for all those exciting moves, Pepey faces an ultra tough test this weekend against Darren Elkins, who rarely does anything flashy, but he gets the job done with gritty, hardnosed performances.
Elkins is a grinder with phenomenal wrestling and tenacity that's hard to match for anyone in the featherweight division. Elkins has also started training full-time at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento and that move paid off huge with his last win and it may prove the same against Pepey this weekend.
Elkins has to be careful not to allow Pepey to pull off some kind of surprise finish because he's extremely explosive and can erupt at any moment. Still, Elkins’ ability to push, bully and grind Pepey should not only frustrate the Brazilian but it could lead him to make mistakes, which will give the American opportunity to punish him on the feet or on the ground.
Prediction: Darren Elkins by unanimous decision
James Moontasri vs. Alex Oliveira
Alex Oliveira has quickly become one of the better prospects in the welterweight division, and despite his short notice loss to Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone, this Brazilian still has plenty of room to grow in a very deep weight class. That being said, Oliveira could be primed for an upset as he faces a very dangerous fighter in James Moontasri this weekend.
Moontasri has been on a bit of a roller coaster since arriving in the UFC, but at his best, he's a lethal striker with huge pop in his punches and plenty of tricks up his sleeve to give Oliveira headaches if he's not careful. Moontasri possesses real fight-finishing power and he's shown incredible accuracy on the feet as well. Moontasri's ground game still has a lot of room to grow and that's probably where Oliveira will look to take this fight, but if this bout stays standing, watch out.
Moontasri has a huge arsenal of strikes and if he gets comfortable on his feet while avoiding the takedowns, Oliveira could be fending off a ton of shots and just looking to survive by the time the second or third round begins. Make no mistake, Oliveira is the safe pick here because he's got the experience and the better overall skill set, but for a potential upset brewing, Moontasri has all the skills to get the job done.
Prediction: James Moontasri by TKO