On Sunday night, the UFC returns to Halifax, Nova Scotia for a UFC Fight Night card headlined by a heavyweight fight between two of the hardest hitters in the division.
Derrick Lewis looks to build on his recent win streak and continue to climb up the top 10 rankings when he faces Travis Browne in the main event. Browne has suffered through some tough losses in recent months, but he's looking to rebound by taking out Lewis and re-establishing himself as a major threat to anyone in the weight class.
In the co-main event, former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks makes his first appearance at middleweight when he takes on powerful striker Hector Lombard in a very interesting matchup at 185 pounds. Both Hendricks and Lombard have fought at 170 pounds, but now they will meet at middleweight, with each of them desperate to get back into the win column on Sunday night.
In today's fantasy preview we will examine these fights as well as several more to see who has the edge and who might be primed for an upset at UFC Fight Night: Lewis vs. Browne.
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.
Derrick Lewis (-120 favorite) vs. Travis Browne (+100 underdog)
Expect some serious leather to get thrown in the main event matchup between Derrick Lewis and Travis Browne. Browne has finished 88 percent of his opponents by knockout or TKO, while Browne has put away 78 percent of his opponents in the same manner throughout his career. It's hard to imagine this fight going to a decision, much less making it past the first couple of rounds.
Lewis has climbed up the ranks at heavyweight by using a potent attack that typically does the most damage when he gets his opponents to the mat. Lewis isn't known as a great wrestler, but he always seems to capitalize on a scramble or a mistake from an opponent to end up on the mat, where he rains down some hellish punches from the top. Lewis generates so much power that it sounds like he's going to punch through the canvas when he's blasting an opponent on the ground. While standing, Lewis is equally as dangerous but a little more predictable, and his takedown defense has cost him in previous fights as well.
On UFC Unfiltered: Derrick wants to fight the best Travis Browne
As for Browne, he's a long striker with knockout power in his hands and feet but works best at distance unless he can unleash his signature elbows to stop an opponent from going for a takedown against the cage. Browne is lethal with his power, especially when he gets comfortable at range and doesn't fear the takedown. Browne has fallen on tougher times as of late, but he's still a very scrappy heavyweight who has typically only lost to the best fighters in the division. But he has to know this is a do-or-die situation if he wants to remain in the top 10.
The key for Browne is attacking Lewis on the feet and never allowing this fight to make it to the ground. Lewis absolutely has fight-ending power on the feet, but he's not nearly as dangerous there as he would be on top of Browne, where he could uncork his vicious ground-and-pound attack. Browne's ability to stay calm in the face of pressure and not getting drawn into a firefight will be a major component in using his footwork and distance to frustrate and then hurt Lewis with his striking. If Browne can use his kickboxing attack to keep Browne away from the clinch or the takedown, he has a great chance of landing the knockout blow.
Prediction: Travis Browne by TKO, Round 3
Hector Lombard (-150 favorite) vs. Johny Hendricks (+130 underdog)
Johny Hendricks makes his middleweight debut against Hector Lombard, and while the former welterweight champion will undoubtedly give up size against some of the larger 185-pounders in this division, he'll actually stare at his current opponent eye-to-eye on Sunday night.
Hendricks has struggled lately largely due to the massive weight cut that he went through to get down to 170 pounds. Assuming Hendricks has maintained his weight after a heartbreaking loss to Neil Magny in December, he should be in prime condition to compete at 185 pounds without suffering to get down to the welterweight limit. At his best, Hendricks is a fast, powerful striker on the feet with dynamite in his left hand as well as world class wrestling that can put anybody in the world on the mat. Hendricks will be smart to use that grappling to negate Lombard's power, which is vicious, especially in the early parts of the fight.
On UFC Unfiltered: Johny is enjoying life again at Middleweight
Lombard has a judo background, but he's best known for extremely explosive striking that is absolutely deadly in the opening round of any fight. Lombard puts everything into his punches, which depletes his conditioning as the fight wears on, but he only needs to land one quality shot to put Hendricks, or any other middleweight, away. The last time Lombard was committed to middleweight in the UFC, he struggled against some of the bigger fighters in the division but that won't be a cause for concern this time around.
Still, Hendricks has the ultimate equalizer in this fight if he can wrestle Lombard to the ground early and absolutely zap his gas tank for the later rounds. Hendricks has shown the conditioning to go five hard rounds, so wearing down Lombard for 15 minutes should be well within his playbook. Look for Hendricks to go for that takedown over and over again until he either finishes an exhausted Lombard or cruises to victory by way of decision.
Prediction: Johny Hendricks by unanimous decision
Top Canadian prospect Gavin Tucker will make his UFC debut this weekend against hard-hitting featherweight Sam Sicilia in a guaranteed crowd pleaser on the main card. Tucker is a highly touted fighter who has amassed a perfect 9-0 record to earn his shot in the UFC. Tucker has looked very impressive on the local scene in his native Canada while earning several impressive finishes with a mix of submissions and knockouts.
As for Sicilia, he's best known for his stunning knockout power and ability to get into a dogfight with nearly every opponent he faces inside the Octagon. Sicilia loves to get involved in a slugfest, and while it has cost him from time to time throughout his career, it has also reaped some great rewards with a few jaw dropping knockouts over the years. This time around, Sicilia would be best served to see if he can lure Tucker into that kind of brawl in the early going because he might just catch the UFC newcomer sleeping, especially if he's dealing with any of those notorious first time Octagon jitters.
Sicilia hits like a truck, but his defense has cost him on more than one occasion in the past. For Tucker to win, he has to play counter fighter and allow Sicilia to plow forward with reckless abandon before firing back with crisp, precise combinations, or look to take the fight to the ground. If there's even a second of hesitation from Tucker in those exchanges, he'll end up eating punches in bunches from Sicilia, who is always looking for the knockout.
Ultimately, this fight is truly one of the hardest matchups on the entire card to pick, but Sicilia's experience and proven knockout power against notable fighters in the UFC gives him a very slight edge against Tucker, who will be performing for the first time in the Octagon while doing it in front of his home country crowd. That pressure has made many fighters wilt before and Tucker may just become the latest, especially with Sicilia swinging sledgehammers at him from the start of the fight until the finish.
Prediction: Sam Sicilia by knockout, Round 2
If Sicilia and Tucker don't earn Fight of the Night honors, it's a good bet this lightweight matchup between Paul Felder and Alessandro Ricci will get the job done to open the main card on Sunday night.
Felder has built his career in the UFC by being one of the most thrilling fighters on the roster, and while he's fluctuated between wins and losses, there's no doubt that “The Irish Dragon" possesses one of the most exciting styles to ever step foot in the Octagon. As for Ricci, he's a well trained Muay Thai specialist with serious kickboxing credentials, and if this fight stays standing, he's got the weapons to earn a spectacular knockout, even against someone as good as Felder.
For Felder to win, he has to use all of the tools in his arsenal to keep Ricci guessing. In his UFC debut, Ricci struggled to stop the takedown and Felder has shown good wrestling and clinch work in the past when he's actually employed that strategy. While Felder typically likes to bite down on his mouthpiece and just throw caution to the wind, he's a very good fighter from all areas of the game and he has to know that Ricci isn't as good on the mat as he is on the feet.
For Ricci, he has to be aware that Felder could employ a wrestling attack or even fake the takedown just to prevent him from throwing as many kicks. If Ricci can settle into a rhythm with a full striking game at his disposal, he could batter Felder from the outside or slice him up from the inside if he's not as concerned with the takedowns.
In the end, the odds still sit with Felder to get the job done because he's been here before and he knows the best ways to win. Felder loves to stand and trade, but the ability to mix in a takedown or to stifle Ricci in the clinch should give him the edge to earn the victory when it's all said and done.
Prediction: Paul Felder 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.
Sara McMann will look to build on her recent two-fight win streak when she takes on UFC newcomer Gina Mazany, who makes her promotional debut after accepting the matchup on short notice following an injury to former title challenger Liz Carmouche.
Mazany is an undefeated fighter with a perfect 4-0 record, but she did suffer one defeat when she attempted to make it on to The Ultimate Fighter 18, losing in her opening round matchup against Julianna Pena, who went on to win the entire show before moving onto the UFC. Of course there's no shame in losing to a fighter as good as Pena, but that wrestling-heavy style gave Mazany trouble and that's bad news while facing an Olympic silver medalist in McMann.
McMann is an absolute powerhouse at bantamweight and she's looked better than ever in her past two performances. McMann's wrestling is always top notch, but her control and ground attack have become serious weapons in recent fights. McMann was always viewed as a raw product that still needed to be molded into a top-level fighter. Judging by her two most recent wins, McMann has finally found that sharper edge that could put her back into title contention in 2017.
Mazany just has the unfortunate situation to face McMann when she's looking like a serious top five contender and that does not bode well for her on Sunday night. Look for McMann to go after Mazany with guns blazing in the early part of the opening round while punishing her on the ground. If McMann can put Mazany down, it's only a matter of time before she takes her out to earn her third straight victory.
Prediction: Sara McMann by submission, Round 2
Former strawweight champion Carla Esparza returns to action this weekend against fellow Ultimate Fighter season 20 competitor Randa Markos. While they were filming the reality show together, Esparza and Markos had one of the nastier rivalries on set, but they never got the opportunity to face each other until now.
On paper, Esparza and Markos are very similar fighters with great wrestling, ground control and solid striking to set up those takedowns. Unfortunately for Markos, Esparza is just a little bit better in all those areas and that's likely going to be the difference in this matchup.
While Esparza has continued to work on her striking to hopefully one day earn a rematch with current champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, she still possesses arguably the best wrestling in the 115-pound division. Esparza is relentless with her takedowns and she does especially well when trying to take down other grapplers. Esparza averages just under five takedowns per 15 minutes in the cage and she attacks with serious tenacity until she gets her opponent on the ground. Markos is no slouch when it comes to her own grappling, but it's tough to imagine a scenario where she doesn't end up on her back eating punches for the better part of three rounds.
Of course, Markos surprised a ton of people when she upset Tecia Torres in the opening round of The Ultimate Fighter season 20, which helped to put her name on the map. That said, Markos is certainly fighting a tough battle with a top-notch wrestler like Esparza, who will likely look to plant her on the mat and grind her through the canvas until the fight is stopped.
Prediction: Carla Esparza by unanimous decision
Canadian favorite Elias Theodorou will look to stave off a versatile ground attack when he faces Cezar "Mutante" Ferreira in a featured bout on the main card Sunday night. In his most recent fights, Ferreira has looked sharper than ever as he's gone back to his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to dominate his past three opponents. At his best, Ferreira is an animal on the mat with the ability to out grapple almost anybody at 185 pounds.
So clearly, the key for Theodorou is staying off his back and not allowing Ferreira to apply that grappling game. The good news is that Theodorou has tremendous takedowns and takedown defense, which should help him stop those attacks as he looks to frustrate Ferreira before applying his own offensive attack. Theodorou hasn't had to defend much wrestling during his UFC career, but he has shown a tremendous clinch game, which could be the perfect way to nullify Ferreira's takedowns in this fight.
Theodorou knows that Ferreira will look to drag this fight to the mat, so he will likely try to employ two specific strategies to get the win. Theodorou would be smart to try and strike at distance to keep Ferreira on the end of his punches and then punish the Brazilian with hard shots on the inside while clinching against the cage. Theodorou used that same game plan to keep Sam Alvey from uncorking his knockout power and he can do the same thing to negate Ferreira from taking this fight to the mat. If Theodorou can do that over three rounds, he should leave the Octagon with his second straight victory while doing so in front of his home crowd in Canada.
Prediction: Elias Theodorou by unanimous decision