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A huge week with three fight cards will kick off on UFC FIGHT PASS, with strawweights Rose Namajunas and Paige VanZant headlining a show on Thursday night in Las Vegas.
Namajunas replaced former Ultimate Fighter housemate Joanne Calderwood, who suffered an injury several weeks back, and now the former title contender will look for her second win in a row after dispatching Angela Hill at UFC 192.
For VanZant, this is the biggest step up in her young career, as the 21-year old Team Alpha Male fighter looks for her first win over a top five-ranked opponent while attempting to keep her UFC record unblemished in the process.
Also on the card, perennial top 15 lightweight Jim Miller will take on former Ultimate Fighter winner Michael Chiesa, while 19-year old prodigy Sage Northcutt will look for his second UFC win after a blistering debut back in October when he won his first fight in under a minute.
With a slew of top 15-ranked fighters and a number of top prospects decorating this show, today's fantasy preview will focus on a few of those key matchups to get you ready for UFC Fight Night: Namajunas vs. VanZant.
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.
Paige VanZant (-190 favorite) vs. Rose Namajunas (+165 underdog)
This might be one of the toughest fights to pick all weekend long, and it really is a toss-up between two of the best young prospects on the entire UFC roster.
VanZant has looked nearly unstoppable in her last couple of fights, taking out both Felice Herrig and Alex Chambers while also developing her own unique style honed with Team Alpha Male in Sacramento. VanZant is all about unrelenting pressure, especially against the cage, where she's battered opponents in her last couple of fights using a Cain Velasquez-like approach, outworking and outpunching everybody who shares the Octagon with her.
VanZant's strong suit is still the ground game, where she's turned into a solid wrestler and grappler, but she'll have to be careful this time around dealing with Namajunas' flashy submission style, one that can strike from anywhere at any time during a fight. Namajunas has been known to throw flying submissions from time to time, so don't be surprised if VanZant's pressure is countered by a jumping arm bar or triangle choke attempt. Namajunas is so confident in her game that even if she doesn't land her submission, she's able to scramble out and get back into position to try again.
As good as VanZant has looked in her first few fights, this will definitely be her biggest step up in competition. Is she ready?
VanZant has shown improvements in each of her fights in the UFC and she also has the benefit of two of her teammates - Urijah Faber and Chad Mendes - both getting ready to fight on the same weekend, so the intensity in training camp had to be ratcheted up a few notches. VanZant lands over five significant strikes per minute on the feet while also racking up more than three takedowns per 15 minutes in the cage. If she can stave off Namajunas' submission attempts early, then look for VanZant to take over with each passing minute from the second round going forward.
Prediction: Paige VanZant by unanimous decision
Jim Miller vs. Michael Chiesa
Jim Miller and Michael Chiesa might be two of the toughest lightweights in the division, which makes their matchup that much harder to figure out, especially based on recent performances.
Miller has stumbled in his last two bouts against ranked opponents when he fell to Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Beneil Dariush, but he turned things around in his last bout against Danny Castillo. Meanwhile, Chiesa looked better than ever in beating Mitch Clarke, and that came one fight after losing to Joe Lauzon by TKO due to a nasty cut he suffered during the fight.
Miller is always going to be an impossibly tough fight for anyone at 155 pounds with his compact boxing style on the feet and a nasty submission game on the ground. Miller isn't great at any one thing, but he's certainly more than capable of winning anywhere during a fight. Miller has worked tirelessly on his boxing over the last few years, which compliments his great Brazilian jiu-jitsu arsenal on the ground. He might need to use all those weapons against Chiesa, who is an eerily similar fighter although his wrestling might be just a step behind Miller’s.
For Miller to win this fight, he needs to apply constant pressure and never let Chiesa get comfortable with his attacks. Miller will be giving up size to Chiesa, so the last thing he can afford to do is allow the former Ultimate Fighter winner to find his range and start using a long reach to his advantage. Chiesa needs to use his size to try and muscle Miller around the Octagon, but if he gives up a takedown or two early, it could negate his attempts to overpower the crafty veteran.
This is another impossibly tough fight to pick, but based on resume and experience, Miller holds a slight edge in this one. Still, don't be afraid to pick Chiesa in a slight upset. Chiesa has the size and skill to win this fight, but Miller's toughness and aggressive style should be enough to edge out a victory.
Prediction: Jim Miller by split decision
Tim Means vs. John Howard
Tim Means will look to rebound from a tough loss this past July when he takes on veteran welterweight John Howard. Howard is coming off a win over Cathal Pendred on the same fight card in one of his most complete performances to date, as he looks for a little consistency after an up-and-down record since returning to the UFC.
Howard is a tough fight for anyone at 170 pounds because he hits hard, has good takedowns and won't go away easily, whether it's the first round or the last. Howard has shown flashes of brilliance during his multiple stints with the UFC, but has struggled whenever he takes a step up in competition.
Means is a very dangerous striker with knockout power in his hands, feet, elbows and knees, and he uses his size and height advantage better than most fighters on the UFC roster. Means is punishing and relentless when he gets his opponent into trouble, so Howard has to use constant movement and never stand directly in front of the New Mexico-based welterweight.
Means' best path to victory is his typical style of walking down an opponent and bludgeoning them with strikes until they crumble. Howard needs to use a lot of side-to-side movement to avoid those strikes and then counter with his heavy hands and a good dose of wrestling to keep Means honest, while hopefully taking away his kicks out of fear of the takedown.
Considering recent performances, Means still holds a slight edge because he's been able to show off more than a few tricks in his arsenal recently, and as long as he avoids Howard's wrestling, he should be able to land with volume until he finally scores with the finishing blow.
Prediction: Tim Means by TKO, Round 3
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.
Sage Northcutt (-1250 favorite) vs. Cody Pfister (+850 underdog)
There's no bigger lock on this entire card than 19-year old phenom Sage Northcutt, who has become one of the most talked about fighters on the entire roster since making a big splash in his debut back in October. Northcutt is the new breed of mixed martial artist who trained all disciplines since he was a kid, and now he's showing off the total package inside the Octagon.
Northcutt is powerful enough with his striking game that he probably won't have to show off much else to get the job done in this one. Pfister is a veteran, but his striking and striking defense have shown a lot of holes and his best hope to win this fight is taking Northcutt to the ground and holding him there for three rounds. Chances are that won't happen and Northcutt will get another lightning fast finish to improve to 2-0 with another TKO on his record.
Prediction: Sage Northcutt by TKO, Round 1
Elias Theodorou vs. Thiago Santos
Elias Theodorou might be the best prospect to come out of Canada since Rory MacDonald first debuted, and he'll look to keep his undefeated record intact when he takes on Brazilian Thiago Santos.
Now, make no mistake, Santos is going to be a tough out because he has some of the deadliest knockout power in the world at 185 pounds, so if Theodorou decides to play with dynamite on the feet, he could wake up staring at the lights and walking out of the Octagon with the first loss on his record.
That said, Theodorou is smart enough to know his best way to win is to pressure Santos and take him to the ground repeatedly. Theodorou actually lands with good accuracy on the feet (over 48-percent), but with nearly four takedowns on average per 15 minutes in the Octagon, the former Ultimate Fighter winner has a great path to victory by just taking Santos down and punishing him on the mat.
Santos hasn't really had to face a good wrestler yet in his UFC career, and if Theodorou plays it smart, he'll stick to the Brazilian like glue and try to break him by the start of round three. Santos will be dangerous any time he's at distance, but it can be rather demoralizing task to get strikes off when an opponent takes you down multiple times. If Theodorou takes Santos down early, look for that same attack to repeat itself until he either grinds out a decision win or opens up his offense to get the finish on the ground.
Prediction: Elias Theodorou by TKO, Round 3
Aljamain Sterling vs. Johnny Eduardo
It's tough to say any fight between two top 10 competitors is a lock, but Aljamain Sterling might just be the biggest threat to the best of the best in the bantamweight division and he's facing Johnny Eduardo after the Brazilian is coming off an 18-month layoff.
While a lot of the attention on this card will likely fall on VanZant, Namajunas and Sage Northcutt, the person who might just be in line for a title shot ahead all of them is Sterling, who has looked virtually unstoppable thus far in his UFC career. Sterling trains with the Serra-Longo fight team alongside middleweight champion Chris Weidman, but his style is more akin to Jon Jones in his early days of the UFC, when he would take opponents to the ground and wrap them up like a pretzel before they knew what hit them.
Eduardo is an incredibly gifted striker, but those punches and kicks go right out the window once he's on the mat, fending off submission attempts from Sterling and chances are he'll be doing that early and often in this fight. Sterling has almost 42-percent accuracy with his takedowns and he's averaging almost four per 15 minutes spent in the Octagon.
Once Sterling gets Eduardo on the ground it's only a matter of time before he finds an opening to fish for a submission or land enough strikes to put an end to the contest.
Prediction: Aljamain Sterling by TKO, Round 2
Kevin Casey vs. Antonio Carlos Junior
There are a few prime candidates for upsets on this card - including the main event - but one fight to watch in particular happens in the middleweight division between Kevin Casey and Antonio Carlos Junior. Both fighters are well known for their Brazilian jiu-jitsu backgrounds, but Carlos Junior is the more accomplished grappler, with a wide variety of submissions at his disposal. He also looked fantastic in his lone fight at middleweight, as he took out former Ultimate Fighter winner Eddie Gordon in impressive fashion.
That said, Casey is no slouch on the ground and his ability to land strikes on the mat and get the better position in scrambles could be his route to victory in this fight. Make no mistake, if Carlos Junior is able to land takedown after takedown and keep Casey grounded, he could cruise to a decision victory. Still, Casey's power on the ground and slightly better stand-up could give Carlos Junior problems over three rounds.
Considering they both come from a grappling background, Carlos Junior may want to test Casey on the feet, which could then leave him open to a big counter shot or even losing the wrestling battle. It's not likely either fighter will submit the other, but Casey is great on top, and if he can put Carlos Junior on his back a couple of times while winning the striking battle, he could eke out a decision victory.
Prediction: Kevin Casey by split decision