The next title contender in the women's bantamweight division could be determined when Valentina Shevchenko meets Julianna Pena in the five-round main event at FOX UFC Fight Night in Denver this Saturday night.
Shevchenko has quickly risen up the ranks since arriving in the UFC, and she put her name into title contention with a lopsided win over former champion Holly Holm last year. Meanwhile, Pena has been a force of nature since leaving The Ultimate Fighter, staying undefeated in the UFC with a series of big wins, including a victory over former title challenger Cat Zingano at UFC 200.
Now Shevchenko and Pena meet, with the winner to likely be next in line for a shot at women's bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes.
Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone will also get back in action, as he fights in his hometown of Denver against upstart welterweight contender Jorge Masvidal. Also on the card, former heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski returns to face rising star Francis Ngannou.
In today's fantasy preview, we will examine these fights and several more key matchups taking place this weekend to see who's got the edge, who is a lock to win and if there's an upset brewing at FOX UFC Fight Night: Shevchenko vs. Pena.
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.
Valentina Shevchenko (-110 even) vs. Julianna Pena (-110 even)
The battle between Shevchenko and Pena pits one of the strongest strikers in the division against possibly the best overall grappler, but there are still plenty of other ways this fight could play out.
While Shevchenko is best known for her striking acumen, she's also showcased some incredible takedown ability throughout her UFC career. Shevchenko has taken down all three of her past UFC opponents and actually put Holm on her back three times during their five-round fight last July. Of course, Shevchenko also presents all sorts of problems on the feet, where she lands at near 50 percent accuracy with very solid volume throughout all of her fights. Shevchenko also has the advantage of fighting southpaw, which can be very tricky for an orthodox fighter like Pena if she's not ready for the left-handed attack her opponent can throw at her.
As for Pena, her offensive output on the feet isn't that dissimilar to Shevchenko, except that she has a tendency to get a little more wild with her striking attacks. Pena certainly hits with power, but her technique is lacking when compared to a multi-time Muay Thai kickboxing champion such as Shevchenko. On the ground, Pena is an absolute monster. She's currently tied with champion Amanda Nunes for landing the most ground strikes in the women's bantamweight division and Pena rarely lets up on her attack until the fight is finished. Pena lands her takedowns with almost 67 percent accuracy — more than 20 points higher than the UFC average.
The deciding factor in this fight will likely be Pena's commitment to the takedown and whether or not she can keep Shevchenko grounded for five rounds. Pena has the wrestling to get this fight to the ground, but holding Shevchenko down and doing sufficient damage to keep the referee from standing them back up again could be a hindrance in a 25-minute fight.
Meanwhile, Shevchenko showed in her last fight with Holm that she's a diverse striker with the ability to mix in takedowns just to keep her opponents guessing. Shevchenko isn't a one-punch knockout artist, but that's good for her style while going up against a wrestler such as Pena. It means Shevchenko won't over commit to her punches and instead can keep Pena at a distance and crack her with straight punches all night long.
Ultimately, Shevchenko's durability to go for all five rounds while pouring on a heavy dose of striking throughout every minute should notch her the win in the end.
Prediction: Valentina Shevchenko by unanimous decision
Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone (-160 favorite) vs. Jorge Masvidal (+135 underdog)
An early pick for Fight of the Night, this matchup between Cerrone and Masvidal has fireworks written all over it. Cerrone has been on a tear since moving up to welterweight, where he most recently earned a jaw dropping head kick knockout over Matt Brown at UFC 206. Masvidal has found success at 170 pounds as well, including his most recent first-round TKO over Jake Ellenberger.
The book on Cerrone is well known. He likes to strike with his opponents and throws a barrage of kicks that do a lot of damage over the course of three rounds. Cerrone is a volume striker with great accuracy, but he has shown some holes defensively, which could come back to bite him in this fight if he's not careful. Masvidal's output is very similar, with nearly five significant strikes landed per minute and a 10 percent better average defensively.
Where Masvidal has struggled in the past is with his ability to really put enough damage on his opponents to earn a decision victory if it goes to the judges' scorecards. Masvidal always seems to end up in razor close decisions, which means he's never out of a fight but rarely dominates anyone either. Cerrone, on the other hand, is a devastating finisher who always looks to pour on the punishment until his opponent is finished with strikes or tapping out.
Based on his last performance, Masvidal will look for a quick start and try to overwhelm Cerrone, which has worked when implemented by some of his opponents in the past. That being said, Cerrone has worked tirelessly over the past couple of years to come out of the gate quicker than he did before and it's worked since he's moved up to the welterweight division. Round after round, Cerrone just has more fight finishing power, and while Masvidal is nearly impossible to finish, that kind of damage will score big with the judges when it's time to render a decision.
Prediction: Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone by unanimous decision
The featherweight matchup between Jason Knight and Alex Caceres is another ultra intriguing bout recently added to the main card in Denver. Knight is coming off two impressive wins in a row, while Caceres looks to bounce back after a hard fought split decision loss to Yair Rodriguez last year.
Knight has been a fun addition to the 145-pound weight class since arriving and his last two victories have really shown his potential. Knight isn't a prolific striker or wrestler, but instead employs the “Jack of All Trades” methodology, where he seems to be proficient everywhere a fight can go. As for Caceres, he's basically grown up in the UFC, and he’s really started to put together his entire MMA game in the years after first appearing on The Ultimate Fighter. Caceres has dramatically improved his striking game, and he still possesses a very slick submission game that he can employ at any time.
The key for Knight is to put pressure on Caceres early and often and then never let his foot off the gas pedal. Caceres fights best when his opponents give him space and time to work, so Knight needs to get in his face and stay there until the fight is over. Caceres certainly has more big fight experience in the UFC, so this spotlight shouldn't bother him one bit. Caceres has struggled at times when he's not able to find his range and timing early, but those problems haven't plagued him in recent fights.
If Caceres can find a home for his punches during the first few exchanges and keep Knight at a distance, he should be able to pick up the pace as each minute ticks away. Caceres is deceptively good with his striking, and when you combine that with his southpaw attacks, it could give Knight fits by the time this fight is over.
Prediction: Alex Caceres 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 (-440 favorite) vs. Andrei Arlovski (+350 underdog)
Former heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski will look to bounce back from a three-fight losing streak when he faces arguably the best rising talent in the division in Francis Ngannou.
Since arriving in the UFC, Ngannou has looked like an unstoppable force of nature, mauling all of his opponents in rapid-fire fashion, with no fight making it out of the second round. Most recently, Ngannou showed off his submission arsenal with a first-round finish over UFC veteran Anthony Hamilton to move his record to 4-0 inside the Octagon. In this fight, Ngannou will enjoy a huge six-inch reach advantage over Arlovski, who has struggled with physically dominant strikers in the past. Ngannou also lands with better accuracy and volume than Arlovski, although the former champion isn't too far behind statistically.
Unfortunately, Arlovski has suffered through some very tough losses recently, including two coming by way of knockout. “The Pit Bull” will definitely enjoy a speed and experience advantage, but as long as Ngannou doesn't wilt from the pressure of his first marquee fight, he should be able to use his size and power to overwhelm the former heavyweight champion early in the opening round.
It's a heavyweight fight, so anything can happen, but there's a reason why Ngannou is the biggest favorite according to the oddsmakers going into Saturday night.
Prediction: Francis Ngannou by knockout, Round 2
This middleweight matchup is far from a lock, but it's been impossible to predict which Nate Marquardt plans to show up on fight night and that could cost him against a fellow heavy-handed striker like Sam Alvey.
Marquardt has been very hot and cold in his recent performances. He knocked out Tamdan McCrory for his last win, but that was one fight after he got absolutely overwhelmed by Thiago Santos. Marquardt's rollercoaster ride through his past four fights leaves many questions about what he'll look like on Saturday night. Of course, Marquardt has a lot of motivation fighting in his hometown of Denver, but his tendency to not show up at times could leave him open for a rough night against Alvey.
Alvey has won his last three fights in a row, although he certainly didn't look his best during his last bout with Alex Nicholson. Prior to that fight, Alvey had finished his last two opponents while consistently putting on top-notch performances. Typically, the kinds of fighters who have given Alvey fits are the ultra aggressive opponents who come after him with a barrage of strikes and never let up until the fight is finished. Alvey also struggled in his grueling three-round battle with Elias Theodorou, but that was a fight contested almost entirely in the clinch, so it never gave him a chance to unleash his knockout power.
Against Marquardt, Alvey shouldn't have to worry about either of those factors. Marquardt is not typically seen as a volume striker who constantly steps forward on his opponents. Instead, Marquardt likes to counter, which could work against someone like Alvey but he'll be giving up a little bit of height and reach and those could both play into his opponent's hands. Given that Marquardt has struggled to stay consistent lately, the safe bet remains with Alvey to either score another big knockout or to earn a decision victory after three rounds.
Prediction: Sam Alvey by unanimous decision
Henrique da Silva will look to bounce back from a loss in his last fight as he takes on UFC newcomer Jordan Johnson.
Johnson comes to the UFC after fighting at heavyweight for most of his career while competing out of the MMA Lab in Phoenix under head coach John Crouch. Johnson has finished five out of his six opponents with a mix of knockouts and submissions, but he hasn't faced great competition outside the UFC, so it's hard to tell if he's as good as he's looked or if he's just rolling over fighters who don't belong in the cage with him. Add to that, Johnson will have to deal with the dreaded Octagon jitters and those kinds of nerves can hurt anybody in their debut.
Of course, da Silva has to erase the memories of his last performance where he definitely had a bad night at the office. Prior to his last loss, da Silva looked like a rising prospect at 205 pounds with a heavy-handed striking style coupled with a very well rounded ground arsenal as well. Da Silva is making a quick turnaround after that last fight, so hopefully that means he's ready to wash the bad taste of defeat out of his mouth. As long as he's composed and ready to do battle, da Silva has more weapons and more experience to dish out a rude welcome to Johnson in his UFC debut.
Prediction: Henrique da Silva by TKO, Round 2
A closely contested bantamweight matchup highlights the prelims on the FOX UFC Fight Night card as top five-ranked fighter Raphael Assuncao faces off with the always-exciting Aljamain Sterling.
For Assuncao, this fight signifies the chance to get back in the win column after a lopsided loss to former bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw at UFC 200. Prior to that fight, Assuncao had sat out for nearly two years dealing with a severely injured ankle. Now he's coming back with hopes of regaining his spot in the title chase, but Assuncao has a tough test in front of him, as Sterling will also try to erase a bad loss in his last fight against Bryan Caraway.
On paper, Assuncao certainly has the experience advantage, with a wealth of fights in the UFC against some of the best competition the featherweight and bantamweight divisions have to offer, and he is a true veteran with nearly 30 fights. That being said, Assuncao did not look his best against Dillashaw and while credit must be paid to the former champion for a masterful performance, it's impossible to ignore that the Brazilian barely seemed like same fighter as he did during a seven-fight win streak that put him into the top five of the division.
Sterling has a rare opportunity to take advantage of that by using his five-inch reach advantage to crack Assuncao on the feet while looking to win any scrambles if the fight hits the mat. Assuncao is a world-class grappler, but Sterling is especially dangerous on the mat and he can submit anybody in the bantamweight division if given an opening. Sterling's ability to win those scrambles and get into better positions on the ground will be a key to his victory, and if he can do that over 15 minutes, he should walk away with the biggest win of his UFC career.
Prediction: Aljamain Sterling by unanimous decision