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Former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks will look to get one step closer to another title shot when he faces upstart contender Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson in the main event of this Saturday’s UFC Fight Night card in Las Vegas.
Hendricks suffered through a brutal weight cut before his last fight that forced him out of the bout against Tyron Woodley, but now with a new nutritionist handling his diet, he's fit, trim and ready for action in this five-round battle.
Thompson will look to get the biggest win of his career by beating a former champion as he also hopes to secure a title shot in 2016.
Also on the card, heavyweight slugger Roy Nelson takes on Jared Rosholt while Ovince Saint Preux looks to bounce back from a recent defeat when he takes on knockout artist Rafael Feijao.
With a slew of top 10 fighters competing this weekend, the latest UFC Fight Night card is stacked from start to finish and today's fantasy preview will break down some of those key matchups to see who has the advantage going into Saturday night.
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.
Johny Hendricks (-220 favorite) vs. Stephen Thompson (+180 underdog)
It's not as easy as it might seem to peg this main event as “striker versus grappler,” considering Johny Hendricks packs a serious punch while Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson has worked tirelessly on his ground game while training with former middleweight champion Chris Weidman. Of course, Hendricks is best known as a former NCAA champion wrestler while Thompson is considered one of the top strikers in the sport thanks to his background in karate and kickboxing.
Hendricks approaches this fight with a title shot on his mind, but he has to know performance counts, so simply taking Thompson to the mat won't be enough to secure another chance at championship gold. Hendricks does hold the ultimate equalizer, however, with his ability to put Thompson on the mat and keep him there if that's what his game plan dictates. Hendricks has over 48-percent accuracy with his takedowns, averaging nearly five per fight. Mix that together with a pretty active striking game and Hendricks is dangerous on the feet and on the ground.
It's no secret that Thompson's strategy will center around stopping Hendricks' takedowns and lighting him up on the feet. Thompson is one of the most creative strikers on the roster, but he's not just looking for a single knockout punch or kick to finish a fight. Thompson has a blitzing style, with combinations that will often see him land three or four shots in a row before he caps it off with an exclamation point at the end. Thompson also lands with over 50-percent accuracy, so whatever he's throwing, he's typically on target.
So who wins this matchup?
Well, Thompson definitely has the kind of striking that could give anyone in the division a world of trouble, and thoughts of him matched up with someone like Robbie Lawler or Carlos Condit just has "Fight of the Year" written all over it. But he's about to face the best wrestler at 170 pounds in the UFC and it's nearly impossible to think that won't affect his approach in this matchup. If Thompson hesitates even for a second to unload a kick out of trepidation that Hendricks will put him on the mat, he's probably going to end up there anyways.
Hendricks can absolutely land a knockout punch, but chances are he's going to take Thompson down and then grind him against the cage to take away any space the prolific striker needs to ply his craft. From there, it's wash, rinse and repeat until Hendricks secures the win.
Prediction: Johny Hendricks by unanimous decision
Roy Nelson (-160 favorite) vs. Jared Rosholt (+140 underdog)
Another intriguing matchup happens at heavyweight, as knockout artist Roy Nelson looks to erase a tough three-fight losing streak when he takes on tough-as-nails wrestler Jared Rosholt.
Nelson actually has better than average wrestling and serious Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills, but he doesn't use them very often, instead favoring the knockout as his preferred method of finish. On the other side, Rosholt is a behemoth when he gets his opponents on the mat and he's unrelenting with a grinding pace that can wear a fighter down to a nub over three rounds.
Nelson has to know that Rosholt wants this fight on the mat, and thanks to the fact that he rarely throws kicks, he's not going to give the former college wrestler any extra opportunities to put him on the ground. On the feet, Nelson doesn't land at volume or with particularly great accuracy, but he doesn't really need it when he only has to uncork one overhand right hand on target before his opponents go to sleep.
Rosholt – like most of Nelson's opponents – is aware of that fact, but the key is stopping it. Rosholt has to get inside to take this fight to the ground because the longer he stands at the end of Nelson's punches, the better chance one of them is going to slip through and put him down and out. Rosholt is a very good, physical wrestler who can control Nelson on the ground should he get him there, but he's been rattled before by other heavy hitters during his career and that kind of bad memory could play a part in how he approaches this fight as well.
All Nelson needs is one moment of panic from Rosholt when he doesn't land a takedown and he can counter with a shot that will render him unconscious.
Prediction: Roy Nelson by knockout, Round 2
Ray Borg vs. Justin Scoggins
Maybe the best fight on the entire card takes place on the prelims, as two of the best up and coming flyweights – Ray Borg and Justin Scoggins – face off.
Borg is a fierce wrestler who is currently averaging nearly five takedowns per fight with a staggering 77-percent accuracy rate. He's tenacious when attacking his opponents on the ground and his ferocity has typically kept fighters off balance and trying to gasp for air underneath him. Borg doesn't do nearly as much on the feet, but when he throws his shots, he's very accurate and he uses that to perfection to set up his takedowns.
As for Scoggins, he's extremely scrappy and tough to counter thanks to his fast footwork, solid grappling and striking. Scoggins is probably the more well rounded of the two fighters, as he strikes with fluidity and confidence while also mixing in over four takedowns per fight, matching Borg's rate throughout his UFC career. Scoggins is a very dynamic offensive fighter, but how he counters Borg's wrestling is really the key to the outcome of this matchup.
Borg will eventually look to take Scoggins down, and whether or not Scoggins can stop that or land a takedown of his own will really tell the story in this fight. Borg is relentless and rarely gives up, even if an opponent blocks his first attempt. He'll keep pushing forward until he lands the takedown or traps his opponent against the cage. Scoggins has the kind of movement that could give Borg trouble early, but the New Mexico product’s constant pressure will eventually lead to takedowns and the takedowns will lead to submission attempts and ground-and-pound.
Borg may not get the finish, but he'll do enough damage over three rounds to get the job done.
Prediction: Ray Borg by unanimous decision
Mickey Gall vs. Mike Jackson
The preliminary fight between UFC newcomers Mickey Gall and Mike Jackson may just determine the first opponent for former WWE superstar CM Punk, so the stakes are plenty high in this matchup.
Gall was first seen on Dana White's "Lookin’ for a Fight" series, where he won his first professional fight and then immediately called Punk out in the cage. As far as his credentials go, Gall is a legitimate prospect training out of New Jersey and working under lightweight contender Jim Miller and his brother Dan Miller. Gall is a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, so he has a very solid ground game.
As for Jackson, he comes from a kickboxing background with knockout power in his hands and feet while training out of Texas. Jackson isn't a slouch on the ground, but he has to know his best chance to beat Gall will be on the feet, where he's most comfortable. Jackson may not panic if the fight hits the ground, but that has to be the last place he wants to end up with a seasoned grappler looking for the finish.
Obviously, both fighters could end up facing the dreaded Octagon jitters, but all eyes are certainly on Gall since he's been promised the fight with Punk with a victory. Gall has been nothing but calm, cool and composed ever since the matchup was announced, and unless he's hiding his nerves really well, he seems more than ready for this opportunity. Of course, Gall has to be careful with Jackson once the fight starts because he could absolutely end his first UFC fight as the victim of a knockout.
But if Gall is patient and works his way inside in order to drag this fight to the ground, he'll eventually find an opening to get the finish and send a message to Punk, who will be sitting cageside for the action.
Prediction: Mickey Gall by submission, Round 1
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.
Ovince Saint Preux (-360 favorite) vs. Rafael Feijao (+300 underdog)
Ovince Saint Preux is still looking for a signature win over a top five opponent, but he's feasted on every other fighter he's faced who sits outside of the top of the rankings since coming to the UFC. This weekend will give him a chance to add another name to his resume.
More on Fight Night Las Vegas: Full fight card | Watch UFC Countdown: Hendricks vs. Thompson | Scoggins ready to show off full arsenal | Hendricks still motivated | The 10: February’s biggest fights | See the fights live in Las Vegas
Rafael Feijao has struggled to find his footing ever since arriving in the UFC and while he still possesses the ability to pull off a huge knockout, facing a stronger, more athletic fighter like Saint Preux doesn't bode well for him. Feijao can certainly end this fight with one punch or possibly a big knee off a blown takedown attempt, but outside of those moments, he's probably going to struggle to keep Saint Preux from manhandling him on the feet and on the ground.
Saint Preux has better wrestling, faster hands and overall more ways to finish this fight, and it seems likely only a matter of time before he hurts Feijao and finds an opening to put the Brazilian away.
Prediction: Ovince Saint Preux by knockout, Round 3
Joseph Benavidez (-430 favorite) vs. Zach Makovsky (+345 underdog)
Joseph Benavidez remains the best flyweight in the world not named Demetrious Johnson and it's going to take a lot to steal that crown away from him. Zach Makovsky is as good as they come at 125 pounds, but he's likely going to struggle dealing with Benavidez and a diverse attack that can come from anywhere inside the Octagon.
Benavidez has powerful hands, great wrestling and slick submissions that have caught more than a couple Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belts over the years. He's one of the most complete fighters on the roster, and while he's come up short against Johnson in the past, Benavidez might just prove to be the only equal he has in the entire division.
Makovsky is a game fighter, and he won't go away without giving Benavidez everything he can handle, but unless he can slow the pace down to a crawl and put the former title contender on his back searching for a way out, he's probably in for a long night in the Octagon. Makovsky is a very solid wrestler who averages over three takedowns per fight, but it's not only going to be tough to put Benavidez down, but maybe even tougher to keep him there.
Over time, Benavidez will continue to light him up on the feet and as frustration mounts, Makovsky will likely make mistakes. Makovsky won't just fade away, but chances are as each minute bleeds off the clock, Benavidez will continue to rack up points and secure another win over a top 10 opponent in the UFC.
Prediction: Joseph Benavidez by unanimous decision
Sean Spencer vs. Mike Pyle
One of the toughest matchups on the card takes place in the welterweight division as Mike Pyle takes on Sean Spencer.
Pyle is a veteran with as much in cage experience as almost anyone in the game and he's a Jack-of-all-trades. Pyle has scored huge knockouts and he has a slew of submission victories under his belt as well. Pyle has never quite cracked the welterweight top 10 in the UFC, but he's faced a who's who list of contenders during his career and he remains one of the toughest outs for anyone in the division.
Sean Spencer has been out of action for over a year but he's definitely looking to get back on track after a disappointing decision in his last fight cost him a loss to recently retired Irishman Cathal Pendred. Prior to that setback, Spencer had gone 3-2 in the UFC while getting some impressive experience along the way.
Spencer is very good on his feet, where he lands just under five significant strikes per minute, and that kind of volume and activity is exactly what he needs to stifle Pyle in this matchup. Pyle definitely has the experience edge and he'll enjoy about a three-inch reach advantage, but that could give him a false sense of confidence while taking on a faster striker like Spencer, who can land two and three-punch combinations with speed before his veteran opponent can return fire.
Look for Spencer to stay elusive on the outside to keep Pyle guessing, and while he's going to have to wade through some power shots and maybe even some takedown attempts, ultimately he should be able to get enough done on the feet to earn a decision victory.
Prediction: Sean Spencer by split decision