When the UFC returns to Vancouver this weekend, the welterweight division will take the spotlight as Demian Maia looks to cement a title shot when he faces former interim champion Carlos Condit in the main event.
Maia is currently riding a five-fight win streak, including victories over Gunnar Nelson and Matt Brown, but he'll have a tough test ahead of him on Saturday when he takes on one of the most vicious finishers in the sport in Condit.
In the co-main event, former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis makes his debut at 145 pounds when he faces exciting Brazilian featherweight Charles Oliveira. Paige VanZant also returns to action this weekend for the first time in nine months when she faces tough as nails Aussie strawweight Bec Rawlings.
In today's fantasy preview, we're going to examine some of the key fights happening this weekend to see who has the advantage and if there might be an upset or two brewing at FOX UFC Fight Night: Maia vs. Condit.
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.
Demian Maia (-115 favorite) vs. Carlos Condit (-105 underdog)
It might seem somewhat simplistic to label the main event between Demian Maia and Carlos Condit as a grappler versus a striker, but if there was ever a case to be made for that distinction, this fight is the one.
Demian Maia has been absolutely smothering on the mat during his current win streak, with ground control at a whopping 55 percent of his total time fighting as a welterweight. Maia still works on his boxing, but he's gone back to his best weapon in recent fights as he takes his opponents to the mat and starts looking for submissions almost immediately. Maia is a world-class Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner and there are few fighters in the world who can survive on the ground with him for very long before he wraps up a submission and earns the tap. Even against fellow grappling ace Gunnar Nelson in a fight last year, Maia absolutely dominated his fellow black belt like he was the teacher and his Icelandic opponent was merely a student.
On the flipside, Condit is one of the most creative and explosive strikers in the UFC, with a bevy of weapons at his disposal and a never say die attitude that keeps him in every fight, whether it's the first round or the last. Condit has 10 finishes as a welterweight between his career in the UFC and WEC and, overall, he's got a 93 percent career finishing rate.
The key for Condit in this matchup will be staying calm, cool and collected if Maia gets him down early - which he likely will - and then sticking around to take over late. Condit is a five-round warrior who gets better as each round ticks away on the clock and that's where he can take advantage of Maia even if he gives up takedowns through the first 10 minutes or so. Maia is aggressive and stifling on the mat, but he also exerts a ton of energy getting his opponents down and keeping them there round after round. If Maia starts to fade at any point past the second round, Condit will take over and likely earn another highlight reel finish.
Prediction: Carlos Condit by TKO, Round 4
Anthony Pettis vs. Charles Oliveira
Anthony Pettis will make a big move down to the featherweight division as he looks to jump-start his career following a couple tough losses at 155 pounds. Pettis is known for his lightning quick and highly effective striking arsenal and he believes he's found the perfect balance in his training camp after teaming up with Greg Jackson and his coaching staff in New Mexico. Of course, Pettis will be shedding an additional 10 pounds to make the featherweight limit and that's always a question mark for any fighter no matter how many times they've stepped into the Octagon.
For Oliveira, this is a chance to pick up a marquee win over a very well known opponent. Oliveira always seems poised for a run at the top five in the division, but his recent streak, where he's gone 5-1 over his past six fights, is the best he's ever been. Outside of a freak injury that stopped him in a fight against Max Holloway, Oliveira has been dominant and dangerous while finishing opponents in four out of his last five wins.
Where Oliveira has to be careful in this fight is allowing Pettis to stay at distance and land strikes. Pettis is deadly at range and if he can stand on the outside and just pick his shots, Oliveira could have a very short night. That being said, Pettis' last few opponents have all started to figure out that putting pressure on him takes away some of his best weapons and the former lightweight champion has struggled while backing up.
Oliveira has a nasty submission arsenal at his disposal and his striking isn't bad, especially when he gets aggressive and goes on the attack. That's the exact game plan Oliveira needs to enact against someone like Pettis, who feasts on counter strikers and anyone willing to sit back and allow him time to work. Thanks to a new weight class and some rough waters in recent fights, Pettis is a tough pick to make on this card and Oliveira might be worth the selection based on his recent wins and a style that could give the former champion a lot of headaches on Saturday night.
Prediction: Charles Oliveira by unanimous decision
Paige VanZant vs. Bec Rawlings
Following a runner-up performance on ABC’s "Dancing with the Stars" last season, Paige VanZant returns to action for the first time in nine months as she faces former Ultimate Fighter competitor Bec Rawlings. VanZant will look to rectify the disastrous outing she had last time she stepped foot in the Octagon when she was submitted by Rose Namajunas last December, while Rawlings will try for her third straight win in the UFC.
Rawlings won't keep her strategy a secret going into this fight - she wants to outbox and bully VanZant around the Octagon using her size and power against the Team Alpha Male fighter. Rawlings is a physically imposing strawweight who works well at distance or in the clinch, and once she finds her range, she'll put together stinging combinations in succession. If there's a knock on Rawlings, it's the fact that she gets drawn into brawls a lot and that opens her up for a counter attack that could cost her rounds if she's not careful.
That's where VanZant has to take advantage, because Rawlings' tendency to get a little wild leaves her open defensively. VanZant is typically the aggressor in all of her fights and the kind of pressure she puts on opponents will almost always overwhelm them by the time the final horn sounds. VanZant is a very well rounded mixed martial artist, so she's capable of winning exchanges on the feet, in the clinch or on the ground. VanZant's biggest advantage would likely be pressuring Rawlings against the cage and then putting her on the mat, where she can start raining down punches.
As long as the layoff didn't hurt her and the loss to Namajunas didn't break her mentally, VanZant has more ways to win and that gives her the decided edge when it comes time to make a pick in this fight.
Prediction: Paige VanZant by unanimous decision
The first time Joe Lauzon and Jim Miller met in 2012, it was the best fight of the year. Now they will do it all over again four years later, and while it's tough for anybody to duplicate that kind of previous performance, Lauzon and Miller seem like two guys ready to make this rematch even better.
Miller and Lauzon are extremely evenly matched, and that's what makes this fight so hard to pick, as well as why it will likely be a three-round war with plenty of striking and a ton of ground work as well. Both fighters are aggressive and fast starters, so don't blink because Miller and Lauzon will likely come charging out of the gate looking to overwhelm each other from the moment the referee says go.
So who has the edge?
Miller has certainly faced his share of adversity in recent fights, going just 2-4 over his past six, but his veteran experience against top notch opponents cannot be discounted. Miller is still an aggressive wrestler with great submissions and a huge arsenal of weapons on the ground. Miller is comfortable on the feet as well, with solid, technical boxing, although he might give up a bit of power to Lauzon if this turns into a kickboxing match.
As for Lauzon, he's been hard to figure out at times lately as well. While his Brazilian jiu-jitsu game is still brilliant, he came storming out of the gate in his last fight and blitzed Diego Sanchez with strikes and ultimately became the first fighter in history to finish him via strikes. Lauzon works tirelessly on his striking skills, but he has to be careful not to get too sloppy with his boxing or Miller will plant him on the mat numerous times.
Miller's wrestling could be the difference in this fight, much as it was when they met in 2012. That being said, Lauzon's ability to stop the takedown and fire back with bigger shots on the feet could be enough to swing the pendulum in his favor when it comes to a decision. It's hard to imagine a finish will happen in this fight, but Lauzon and Miller could absolutely battle to a three-round split decision when it's all over. While it really is a toss up, Lauzon seemingly has a bit more momentum going into the fight and that could get him the win in the end.
Prediction: Joe Lauzon by split 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.
Sam Alvey takes on Kevin Casey in another striker versus grappler fight on Saturday night and this could produce a highlight reel finish as well. Alvey has a ton of power in his hands and he's not afraid to mix it up and make this a dogfight, while Casey will undoubtedly look to drag this one to the mat, where he can ply his Brazilian jiu-jitsu game. Casey is strong on the ground and if he gets on top, Alvey could be in serious trouble - especially if it happens early in the fight.
That being said, Alvey is the better overall fighter, with bricks in his hands and a good enough ground game to survive on the mat with Casey. Alvey hits like a truck and he has no problem going out guns blazing against even the best submission fighters in the world. It also benefits Alvey that he's not much for kicking his opponents, which could help him avoid takedowns from Casey.
Alvey is dangerous at distance or in the clinch, and that kind of power could give Casey nightmares by the time this fight slips into the second or third round. Casey has faced a lot of ups and downs in his UFC career and by the time this fight is over, he might be in for another valley while Alvey could be staring at another bonus at the end of the night.
Prediction: Sam Alvey by TKO, Round 3
Ultimate Fighter Latin America winner Enrique Barzola will make his first appearance since winning the reality show when he takes on gritty opponent Kyle Bochniak in Vancouver. Bochniak is a tough customer with better than average power on the feet, decent wrestling and a good enough submission arsenal that he can be considered fairly well rounded.
Unfortunately, Bochniak is still very raw in all of those areas, so while he's proficient on the feet and on the ground, he doesn't excel in any one area during a fight.
Barzola is an experienced fighter with a lot of pop behind his punches and a style that can be hard to deal with over three rounds. During his time on the reality show, Barzola showed his ability to grind out a decision over the course of a fight and he also showed off his full arsenal of strikes when he made it to the finals with a vicious body shot knockout. Barzola was very impressive in winning the show and now he's moving down to featherweight where he'll be at a much more comfortable size than his previous bout in the UFC.
Bochniak is certainly the kind of fighter who could give Barzola trouble if he allows the American to bully him around the Octagon with his aggressive style in the cage. Barzola just has more weapons to use to pick Bochniak apart on the feet, especially if he starts working his punches to the body while trying to take the air out of his opponent's lungs. Barzola may not earn a big finish, but he should do more than enough to earn a decision over three rounds.
Prediction: Enrique Barzola by unanimous decision
The fight between Marlon Vera and Ning Guangyou is one of the tougher matchups on the card to pick and that's why it's the perfect storm for an upset. Now the odds on this fight are likely going to be close, but Guangyou's experience and knockout power should keep him the favorite going into the night.
That's why Vera is an excellent selection for an upset because while he's definitely shown some deficiencies in some of his fights, he's outstanding in scrambles and loves to get into a brawl where he can capitalize on an opponent's mistake. Vera is an active fighter on the feet and on the ground, and while he has to keep an eye on Guangyou's power, the ability to throw in a variety of submissions when he's on the ground gives him a chance to either catch his opponent and finish the fight or at least keep him guessing for the better part of three rounds.
Vera certainly has to be careful with Guangyou on the feet and he can't stand on the outside just winging punches. That said, Vera is a scrappy fighter and that kind of heart can sometimes do enough to get the job done, and for an upset pick, he's a solid selection on Saturday night.
Prediction: Marlon Vera by unanimous decision