The UFC will return to Charlotte for the fourth time in history this weekend with home state favorite Derek Brunson looking to secure a spot in the top five rankings and potentially put himself into position to fight for a title as he takes on submission specialist Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza in the main event.
Souza has consistently been one of the best middleweights in the world, but he's suffered through some ups and downs lately and he'll look to get back on track when he faces Brunson.
Also on the card, always exciting featherweights Dennis Bermudez and Andre Fili square off in what should be a crowd pleasing affair, while top prospect Gregor Gillespie looks to stay unbeaten as he takes on Jordan Rinaldi in a main card bout.
In today's fantasy preview, we're going to examine these fights and several more to see who has the edge going into Saturday's card and if somebody might be primed for the upset at UFC Fight Night: Jacare vs Brunson.
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.
Dennis Bermudez vs. Andre Fili
A matchup with Fight of the Night written all over it, featherweights Dennis Bermudez and Andre Fili will both look to establish themselves in the top 15 of a very deep division.
Bermudez has suffered through a two-fight losing streak, although his defeats both came to fighters currently ranked in the top 10 in Darren Elkins and "The Korean Zombie." Chan Sung Jung. While Bermudez has struggled against many of the top 10 opponents he's faced in the past, the former Ultimate Fighter competitor has feasted on the fighters from outside the top 15. Bermudez is a high-paced, action-packed fighter with solid hands and good wrestling coupled with an underrated submission game.
As for Fili, he's gone on a roller coaster ride lately while bouncing back and forth between wins and losses. He's coming off a victory over the always-tough Artem Lobov and that came one fight after losing to Calvin Kattar, which was considered an upset at the time, but now the Boston native is 2-0 in the UFC following a spectacular knockout this past weekend. Fili is a very well rounded competitor with strong striking and a stifling ground game where he uses his long limbs to wrap up opponents on the mat. Fili will enjoy a massive eight-inch reach advantage, which he should definitely try to use as much as possible during this fight.
The difficulty will be keeping Bermudez from powering forward to get inside that reach, which is what he does best. Bermudez is a bull in the Octagon and while it's cost him at times against certain competition, he is tough to slow down when he's coming forward. Bermudez may not always go for takedowns, although he averages almost four per fight, but he is great at pressing the action against the cage and then doing a lot of damage from there. Unless Fili can find a way to either keep him at distance or try to reverse positions by taking him to the ground, he could be in for a grind for three rounds just trying to find room to breathe.
If Bermudez employs that tactic where he sticks to Fili like glue and never gives him any space to work, he should be able to edge out a decision on Saturday night.
Both Drew Dober and Frank Camacho will look for a second win in a row when they face off in a welterweight battle on the main card Saturday.
Dober is a UFC veteran with nine fights already on his record in which he’s picked up some impressive wins along the way over names like Josh Burkman and Scott Holtzman. Dober is a high output offensive machine who lands with solid accuracy and volume on the feet but isn't afraid to mix it up on the ground either.
In many ways, Camacho is a mirror image to Dober, although he lands with much more volume on the feet, but his body of work in the UFC is far less with only two fights on his resume. Still, Camacho loves a good standup fight but he will mix in a takedown or two if that's what it takes to secure a victory.
The biggest liability for both fighters is defensively, where they seem to take a shot for every one they dish out. That's a dangerous game to play and it's part of the reason this fight is such a tossup on paper. It really could come down to who lands first.
With that said, Dober's experience bodes well for him because has faced some tough competition in his UFC career and he's always shown signs of improvement. So as long as he can avoid getting lit up by Camacho in those exchanges, he should be able to land with better volume and accuracy over all three rounds to either get a decision win or potentially earn another knockout finish.
Prediction: Drew Dober by unanimous decision
Injuries have robbed Bobby Green and Erik Koch of a lot of fight time, but with both fighters healthy they will look to put on a show in this lightweight matchup featured on the preliminary card.
Green is coming off a split draw with Lando Vannata in his last fight where he showed off some improvements after dropping three fights in a row in the UFC. Green is a very skilled striker with good boxing and lightning quick hands. Green has also shown solid defensive wrestling in the past as well, stuffing more than 73 percent of takedowns against him. That may not be much of a worry in this fight, however, as Koch is best known for the kickboxing skills honed under head coach Duke Roufus.
Koch has adjusted to life as a lightweight after spending so much of his career competing at 145 pounds. Koch isn't a high volume striker, but he is a very dangerous fighter on the feet with knockout power in both hands and both feet. Coming from the Roufus camp, Koch trains with a ton of high-level strikers, including former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis.
The key for Koch will be landing his biggest shots while staying away from Green's range and speed. Green lands more than double the significant strikes, so Koch can ill afford to turn this into a point battle because that's one he'll likely lose. Instead, Koch needs to set up his best shots while Green is on the attack. If he can land a big counter punch or kick, he could put Green down and out.
Still, Green's high output and accuracy, where he lands nearly 48 percent of his shots, should be enough to earn him the decision win as long as he avoids the biggest punches and kicks coming from Koch.
Prediction: Bobby Green 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.
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Gregor Gillespie vs. Jordan Rinaldi
Gregor Gillespie might just be one of the best prospects in the UFC lightweight division, and he'll look to showcase why once again this weekend as he takes on Jordan Rinaldi.
Gillespie is a former Division I All-American wrestler with a high output grappling game where he's averaging six takedowns per fight, and he's absolutely relentless when he wants to get the fight to the ground. But Gillespie is no stranger to striking either, as he actually has solid output on the feet as well, with three significant strikes landed per minute with just under 44 percent accuracy. Of course, Gillespie is best on the ground, where he's an absolute machine with his takedowns and ground control.
Unfortunately for Rinaldi, he plays right into Gillespie's game with his base coming from wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu as well. While Rinaldi will definitely look to stuff those takedowns or potentially reverse positions to grab on to a submission, he's going to have an awfully hard time keeping Gillespie from planting him on the mat time and again. From there, it's up to Gillespie to either remain in control or work to finish the fight by either TKO or a submission of his own.
Prediction: Gregor Gillespie by TKO, Round 2
Long considered one of the best prospects on the UFC roster, Mirsad Bektic will look to bounce back from his first career loss after he suffered a stunning defeat to Darren Elkins last year after absolutely dominating the first two rounds. It was as much a testament to Elkins' toughness that he was able to survive long enough to stage an epic comeback, but that loss shouldn't deter anyone from believing that Bektic still has the potential to one day become a featherweight title contender.
Bektic is incredibly well rounded, with knockout power in his hands and very good wrestling to compliment his striking. Bektic lands with power and volume on the feet and then mixes in more than four takedowns per fight on average, marking him as an offensive machine who loves to pour on the punishment from the start of the fight until the finish.
That's why Godofredo Pepey might be in trouble in this matchup considering that defensively he's blocking less than 47 percent of the shots thrown against him on the feet. He absorbs more than three significant strikes per minute and that's a disastrous combination when facing someone like Bektic.
Look for Bektic to try and erase the bad memories from his last fight by taking it out on Pepey, and while he has to be careful of a big counter shot or even a surprising submission attempt, ultimately this should be his chance to showcase why he's still considered one of the best 15 featherweights on the planet.
Prediction: Mirsad Bektic by knockout, Round 2
Justine Kish will move up to a much more comfortable weight class this weekend as she makes her flyweight debut against Ji Yeon Kim.
Kish has always been seen as a dark horse contender ever since she first debuted as part of The Ultimate Fighter cast that crowned the first ever strawweight champion. Unfortunately for Kish, she suffered an injury that never allowed her to compete in that tournament, but she's since put together a 2-1 mark in the UFC, including an impressive win over Nina Ansaroff. Now Kish will move up to 125 pounds, where she won't be focused quite as much on her weight cut as she will be showcasing her nasty Muay Thai kickboxing skills and knockout power.
Kim has definitely shown great abilities in past fights, but she seemed a little bit out of sorts in her UFC debut. That could be just those notorious Octagon jitters at work, but while Kim did land with solid volume in her debut, she wasn't able to hit on target with great accuracy and she didn't even see the ground in that fight.
Now Kim will enjoy a huge eight-inch reach advantage, which will be a great weapon to use against a fellow striker, but Kish is well versed in getting inside to punish her opponents with knees and elbows courtesy of her Muay Thai upbringing.
Looks for Kish to push the case and put the pressure on Kim throughout all three rounds, and while she does have a tendency to get involved in a firefight, she should be able to land with more power and accuracy to get the win.
Prediction: Justine Kish by unanimous decision
Derek Brunson vs. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza
When Derek Brunson steps into the Octagon to face Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza this weekend, it will be a rematch of a fight they had back in 2012 in Strikeforce. At the time, Brunson was still a very raw product with 10 fights under his belt, while Souza was a former middleweight champion with a ton more experience. It took "Jacare" just 41 seconds to knock out Brunson to earn the victory.
A lot has changed since then, with Brunson developing into one of the most lethal fighters on the middleweight roster with knockouts in six of his past eight fights while rising up the ranks in the division. Brunson has evolved his game quite a bit since that first showdown with Souza, and he'll look to show off those skills this weekend.
Now just looking at his record, it's easy to see that Brunson packs a serious punch, but he's not just swinging wildly looking for the knockout. Brunson has worked tirelessly to improve his boxing, so he sets up his combinations very well now while usually looking for the finish with a big punch at the end. Brunson lands with speed and accuracy while also possessing arguably some of the best wrestling in the middleweight division.
That should help Brunson stave off any attempts from "Jacare" to get this fight to the ground, considering he has 100-percent takedown defense. On the feet, "Jacare" is certainly dangerous, as he's shown with several impressive knockouts during his UFC career, but he's coming off a loss to current middleweight champion Robert Whittaker where he got tagged hard on the feet, which led to the finish.
That could play a factor in this fight if "Jacare" is even the least bit gun shy to stand in the pocket and exchange strikes with Brunson. Now it must be said that Brunson's defense while striking hasn't been very good, but he's also improved that quite a bit since losing to Whittaker himself back in 2016.
The key for Brunson will be controlled bursts of energy when he sets up his combinations and makes "Jacare" pay every time they engage in an exchange. Of course, Brunson has to be careful not to get too cocky if he tags Souza a couple of times and then leaves his chin open for a counter shot. Still, if Brunson can stay composed and not get caught in a wild flurry of punches, he has a great chance to tag Souza's chin and put him away.
Prediction: Derek Brunson by knockout, Round 2