Following a successful performance in his most recent fight at middleweight, Kelvin Gastelum will face his toughest test to date as he takes on former champion Vitor Belfort in the main event of the UFC’s return to Fortaleza, Brazil this weekend.
While Gastelum struggled to make weight during his run at 170 pounds, the former Ultimate Fighter winner looked better than ever in his win over Tim Kennedy this past December. This time around, Gastelum will face a true legend in Belfort, who looks to perform in front of his home country fans while also trying to bounce back from a pair of recent losses.
In the co-main event, former light heavyweight champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua looks to build on his two-fight win streak when he takes on heavy-handed contender Gian Villante. Meanwhile, Edson Barboza will also attempt to keep his recent run alive when he faces submission specialist Beneil Dariush in a featured bout on the main card.
In today's fantasy preview, we'll examine these fights and several more to look ahead at who has the advantage going into Saturday night's card and if somebody could be primed for an upset at UFC Fight Night: Belfort vs. Gastelum.
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.
Kelvin Gastelum (-360 favorite) vs. Vitor Belfort (+300 underdog)
As much as Kelvin Gastelum has insisted throughout his UFC career that he's better suited for welterweight, it's his productivity at 185 pounds that seemingly disagrees with him. Gastelum is undefeated at middleweight in the UFC while putting together several impressive victories, including his last win over Tim Kennedy. Without going through a rigorous weight cut, Gastelum is quick on his feet and powerful with his punches.
While Gastelum entered the UFC primarily as a wrestler with good groundwork, he's developed into a very good boxer with fast hands and tremendous footwork. Gastelum may be slightly undersized in terms of reach at middleweight, but he more than makes up for that with his speed and ability to get inside on his opponents before unleashing a barrage of strikes that do a lot of damage. Gastelum lands nearly four significant strikes per minute with very good accuracy and when combining that with his wrestling background, he's got plenty of ways to beat an opponent.
As for his opponent, the book on Belfort is well known and documented throughout his UFC career. Belfort is best known as a devastating striker with blazing speed, especially when he opens up his combinations on an opponent trapped against the cage or just backing up from him. Belfort doesn't throw a lot of volume, but instead uses accuracy to zero in on his opponents before unleashing his strikes. Belfort is also an underrated ground specialist with a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu that has come in handy throughout his career.
Of course, Belfort is a true finishing machine in the opening round. He typically comes storming out of the gate looking to put his opponents away and that's helped lead him to an incredible 84 percent finishing rate during his UFC career. Unfortunately, Belfort's fast starts often lead to a less than spectacular finish. Belfort is most dangerous in those opening two rounds, but if Gastelum can survive that early flurry, he can take over as each minute passes on the clock.
Gastelum has shown good patience in his past fights and as long as he can weather an early storm from Belfort, his boxing and endurance - especially at middleweight - should earn him the victory by the third or fourth round.
Prediction: Kelvin Gastelum by TKO, Round 3
Mauricio "Shogun" Rua vs. Gian Villante
Mauricio "Shogun" Rua will look to continue his recent resurgence in the light heavyweight division when he takes on Gian Villante in Saturday’s co-main event.
Villante is best known for his dominant finishes on the feet, where he packs a serious punch every time he lets his hands go. Villante lands four significant strikes per minute with nearly 50 percent accuracy, so he's a high volume striker who is very dangerous during his first few exchanges in a fight. Villante rarely uses his wrestling offensively, so he'll likely be gunning for the knockout, and with an 80 percent finishing rate during his career, it's a good possibility that's how he'll win the fight.
As for Rua, he's certainly endured some ups and downs in recent years, but time off and rest have allowed the former champion to get back into peak condition while putting together a two-fight win streak with victories over Corey Anderson and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Rua is no longer the Muay Thai wrecking machine of old where he would go head hunting with reckless abandon because his chin was so durable that it was nearly impossible to put him down, let alone knock him out. Yet with age and experience, Rua has figured out that defense can sometimes be an even more effective offense.
What Rua has to worry about in this fight is the blinding power that Villante will look to land in those opening exchanges. Villante loves to overwhelm his opposition, and if Rua's not careful, he could find himself on the canvas looking up at the lights after only a couple of punches taken. That being said, Rua definitely has the ability to return fire with precision, and Villante's own defense has become a liability several times throughout his career. While this fight is definitely a tossup depending on who lands first, Rua's experience in these kinds of moments give him the slightest of edges.
Prediction: Mauricio "Shogun" Rua by TKO, Round 3
Edson Barboza (-175 favorite) vs. Beneil Dariush (+155 underdog)
Quite possibly the sleeper fight on the main card pits striking expert Edson Barboza against top 10 contender Beneil Dariush. On paper, this might appear to be a top-notch striker taking on a world class grappler, but a deeper look proves this fight could be won by either competitor on the feet or on the ground.
Dariush comes from a Brazilian jiu-jitsu background, but he's also become quite the striker over the past few years. Dariush lands with precision and power, which is always a deadly combination on the feet, and he's put away a few fighters on the ground after setting up his submission attacks with his dazzling work while standing. Dariush will primarily look to out box his opponents, but he'll certainly need to be wary of his footwork in this bout against arguably the greatest leg kicker in the UFC since the days of Pedro Rizzo and Marco Ruas.
Barboza doesn't just use his leg kicks to set up other strikes - he will absolutely demolish an opponent's foundation with his blistering power to the shins and the thighs. Barboza torques so much power behind his leg kicks that he's cut down more than a few fighters during his UFC career and has even managed to defeat two separate opponents with that method of attack.
Barboza is fundamentally one of the best Muay Thai kickboxers on the roster because he's controlled in his aggression but absolutely devastating when he unleashes combinations. The only thing that has come back to bite Barboza on occasion has been his willingness to get into wild exchanges with his opponents, which has cost him a couple of times. That being said, Barboza has seemingly gotten that tendency out of his system working with head coach Mark Henry in recent years because now he employs the same dangerous offense while also showcasing much better defense in return.
Dariush could certainly land a big shot or look to drag the fight to the ground, but Barboza's takedown defense and counter striking should keep him off the mat for the most part. Assuming this matchup stays on the feet for the majority of the fight, Barboza should be able to control the distance while battering Dariush at range to earn the victory.
Prediction: Edson Barboza by unanimous decision
Alex Oliveira and Tim Means will face off for a second time after their original bout came to an end following a pair of illegal knee strikes the precipitated the end of the contest. That night, Means uncorked the knees thinking they were allowed, but replays clearly showed that Oliveira was down and following the blows, he was unable to continue.
The rematch presents an interesting showdown considering these two just faced off a couple of months ago with each of them having success in the early exchanges.
Oliveira has proven to be a nasty striker, especially in the clinch, where he can unload elbows and knees while looking to overwhelm his opposition. In the first fight, Oliveira also showed off his wrestling because he has to know Means will be looking for the knockout and that may leave him open for the takedown. Oliveira has a very dangerous ground game with a slew of submission wins on his record, but the key is not only getting Means down, but keeping him there.
Means isn't best known for his grappling skills, but he's definitely not at a loss if the fight hits the ground. He's shown solid takedown defense, but Means is definitely not scared to go to the mat if he's able to unleash a huge knee or kick while taking the chance on landing a fight-finishing blow. Means has definitely looked better than ever in his most recent performances, but he can't get too sloppy or risk Oliveira landing a big bomb or latching on to him for a submission if he slips up and falls to the ground.
Still, Means' ability to control the pace of a fight with his aggressive offensive onslaught is tough for anybody to handle and at some point over three rounds it's tough to imagine he won't find a combination that puts Oliveira down and out.
Prediction: Tim Means by TKO, Round 2
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.
It might sound strange that Kevin Lee is a lock to beat No. 11-ranked Francisco Trinaldo, who enters the fight on a seven-fight win streak, but styles make fights and this one definitely seems to favor the American prospect.
Lee has been touted as one of the best up and coming lightweights in the sport in recent years, and while he suffered a setback four fights ago, he's since recovered and looked better than ever recently. Lee dismantled rising Australian star Jake Matthews before locking up a submission victory over Magomed Mustafaev in his last fight. Lee seems to be hitting his stride on all cylinders right now, with a top notch wrestling game coupled with blistering speed in his striking on the feet.
Trinaldo has proven to be one of the most underrated fighters on the roster while quietly climbing the ranks based on his recent win streak. Trinaldo has beaten a very respectable list of opponents during his recent run, including Paul Felder, Ross Pearson and Yancy Medeiros.
Unfortunately, Trinaldo's better than average striking and solid grappling game will likely both get trumped by Lee in this performance as long as he looks as good as he has in his most recent fights. Lee is a powerhouse wrestler with a strong grappling game that can give anybody trouble on the mat, but he also lands strikes on the feet with a higher average than Trinaldo, with solid accuracy as well. Lee can ill afford to just get into a firefight with Trinaldo on the feet, but he's more than capable of using his striking attacks to set up takedowns, where he's putting his opposition on the ground with near 46 percent accuracy.
It all adds up to Trinaldo spending a lot of time on his back with Lee raining down punches from above. Lee may not get a finish in this one given Trinaldo's veteran experience and toughness, but this should be enough for him to earn a very important win while also likely cracking the top 15 rankings in the lightweight division.
Prediction: Kevin Lee by unanimous decision
Ray Borg's biggest enemy during his tenure with the UFC has been his own inability to make weight at 125 pounds, but once he steps into the Octagon, he's been a great addition to the division with several impressive wins in recent fights. Borg uses a dominant wrestling arsenal to plant his opponents on the ground, and he rarely lets them back up again until the horn sounds or he's found a way to finish the fight.
Now Formiga is no slouch on the ground, but that wrestling-heavy attack from Borg could give him problems if he decides to take this fight to the ground. Formiga's lone loss over his past five fights came to former Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo, but that matchup rarely hit the ground at all. Instead, Cejudo was able to use the threat of the takedown to set up combinations on the feet to eke out a victory.
Borg won't likely play those same games on the feet but instead will look to shoot on Formiga's legs early and often to drag this fight to the mat. Born lands just under four takedowns per 15 minutes in the cage along with an incredible 55 percent accuracy. He also averages over two submission attempts per fight, so Formiga will be doing his best to stay off the ground while also trying to stave off Borg's great grappling attack as well.
Over three rounds, Borg is a tenacious animal that's tough to fend off, and that may be enough for him to get the job done with a victory over one of the best flyweight fighters in the world.
Prediction: Ray Borg by unanimous decision