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The next challenger for the light heavyweight crown could be determined this weekend, as Anthony "Rumble" Johnson takes on Ryan Bader in a pivotal main event that headlines the UFC's return to FOX on Saturday night.
Johnson fell short in his last bid to take the belt this past May, but he returned with a huge win over Jimi Manuwa to get right back in line for another potential title shot. To get there, Rumble is going to have to go through Bader, who is currently riding a five-fight win streak that includes a victory over former champion Rashad Evans at UFC 192.
Also on the card, Josh Barnett and Ben Rothwell will go to war in a heavyweight showdown that could have title implications as well. Barnett is fresh off an impressive showing over Roy Nelson in his last fight, while Rothwell has won his last three fights, including a knockout over Alistair Overeem and a submission over Matt Mitrione.
Plus, rising star Sage Northcutt will get his first taste of a main card on FOX as he bumps up a weight class to take on Bryan Barberena in New Jersey.
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.
Anthony Johnson (-340 favorite) vs. Ryan Bader (+275 underdog)
There are so many different ways this main event could go on Saturday night, and that's what makes the matchup between Anthony Johnson and Ryan Bader so difficult to dissect.
The initial thought is that Johnson is one of the most powerful strikers in the division - most likely the most dangerous fighter on the feet - and it wouldn't be shocking to see him pull off another stunning knockout. Johnson accounts for the third highest knockdown rate in the UFC and has the most sub one-minute knockouts in UFC history. The point being that if this fight stays standing in the early going, Johnson has a better than average shot of landing one big punch or one huge kick to put Bader away.
But on the flipside, Bader has shown marked improvement in his striking over the past few fights, going toe-to-toe with Rashad Evans most recently and winning virtually every exchange. Bader is no longer the heavy-handed light heavyweight just winging shots and hoping one lands for a knockout. He's precise, calculated and has developed an incredibly stiff jab that has kept more than a couple opponents at distance and frustrated. Bader also has the highest striking defense in light heavyweight history, which bodes well for him against someone as dangerous as Johnson on the feet, and he possesses some of the best wrestling in the entire UFC, so it wouldn't be surprising at all to see him put Johnson on his back early and try to wear him out.
Conditioning is one of the biggest factors in this five-round battle because Johnson has been known to fade late and Bader seems to be built like a machine that doesn't really slow down much from round one until the final horn sounds. The longer this fight goes, the more it favors Bader in the long run and definitely gives him the opportunity to grind out a win.
Still, Johnson has the best single weapon in this fight and that's his striking. He was a couple of shots away from beating Daniel Cormier when they fought for the belt last May and he already holds knockout wins over Alexander Gustafsson and Jimi Manuwa. If Johnson can keep Bader on the outside, he'll continue to look for openings until he finally lands the shot that will get him another knockout win. But if this fight goes past round two, all bets are off because Bader can absolutely take over.
Prediction: Anthony Johnson by KO, Round 2
Josh Barnett (-155 favorite) vs. Ben Rothwell (+135 underdog)
This heavyweight matchup features two of the most experienced fighters on the roster, and with a potential title shot looming for the winner, both Barnett and Rothwell are looking to deliver an impressive showing.
Barnett looked better than ever in his last fight against Roy Nelson, as he dropped some weight and added muscle while showing off some very impressive conditioning over five rounds. On paper, it looked like Barnett would want to take Nelson to the ground the same way he'd probably want to deal with Rothwell, but he showed off some great clinch work and dirty boxing that could come in handy here as well.
Rothwell is a nasty striker on the feet with serious punching power. He dispatched Alistair Overeem with ease and there's little doubt he's one of the best strikers in the sport today. Rothwell also has an underrated grappling game, although chances are he won't want to trade submission attempts with Barnett on the ground.
The key in this fight is Rothwell's power early versus Barnett's strategy to keep him from unloading big shots from distance. Rothwell is dangerous in close as well, but negating those big looping punches the same way he did against Nelson is a great way Barnett could frustrate Rothwell and keep him guessing. Barnett is not only a veteran but he's smart enough to know where he's best and where his opponent is most dangerous.
Look for Barnett to press the action against the cage wall and force Rothwell to defend his takedowns. If Barnett fights a similar game plan to the last fight he had while also putting Rothwell on the mat, he could wrap up a submission or grind out another victory while taking one more step toward an eventual shot at the heavyweight title.
Prediction: Josh Barnett by unanimous decision
Jimmie Rivera (-170 favorite) vs. Iuri Alcantara (+150 underdog)
Another extremely tough fight to pick on the main card is this bantamweight bout between Jimmie Rivera and Iuri Alcantara. On paper, Alcantara has a vast Octagon experience advantage over Rivera, thanks to a lot of fights against top 15-level talent.
That being said, Rivera is a real prospect in this division who is coming off a win over another top prospect in Pedro Munhoz, so the hype around this 18-1 fighter is real and should not be discounted. Rivera is a blitzing striker, averaging over six significant strikes landed per minute, and his fast feet are tough to deal with while standing. Rivera also has solid striking defense, which is one area Alcantara has struggled with, blocking only 50-percent of his opponent's punches and kicks.
Alcantara definitely has a grappling advantage with an incredible 70-percent average when taking opponents to the mat. He's not the most prolific submission artist on the planet, but Alcantara is more than capable of wrapping an opponent into a pretzel and looking for the finish. Add to that the reality that Alcantara is going to have a reach and size advantage, as he stands 5'9" while Rivera clocks in at just 5'4".
Still, Rivera seems to have all the tools to be a solid top 15 competitor in this division, and if he can put together combinations on the feet like he has in his last two fights, he can land three or four shots in a row before Alcantara has a chance to counter or go for the takedown. Rivera can't allow Alcantara inside too often or he'll get planted on the mat, but if this one stays standing, the New Jersey local should be able to get the job done.
Prediction: Jimmie Rivera by unanimous decision
More on Fight Night Newark: Watch it on FOX this Saturday | Sage Northcutt's secret to success | Barberena happy to derail Super Sage's rise | Ortiz ready to cement comeback in Newark| Watch: Rothwell's rise | Watch free fight: Ryan Bader vs. Keith Jardine | Watch free fight: Anthony Johnson vs. Yoshiyuki Yoshida | Watch Road to the Octagon: Alcantara vs. Rivera, Barnett vs. Rothwell, Johnson vs. Bader
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 (-485 favorite) vs. Bryan Barberena (+350 underdog)
Highly touted prospect Sage Northcutt will look to go 3-0 in the Octagon when he faces late notice replacement Bryan Barberena in Newark, while he also goes up to welterweight after his original opponent fell off the card due to injury. Barberena is arguably a much tougher opponent for Northcutt, but he's still accepting the fight on extremely short notice, so there's no telling how much time he'll even have to prepare before fighting this weekend.
Northcutt is a versatile and creative striker with a lot of power in his hands. He showed good submission skills in his last fight as well, pulling of a guillotine choke against Cody Pfister, but that bout also raised some concerns about the young MMA prodigy.
Northcutt struggled to stop the takedown and while Pfister is certainly a serviceable veteran, he's not exactly a top-notch wrestler who is going to out grapple all of his opponents. Fortunately for Northcutt, Barberena averages less than one takedown per fight, so if he's diving for legs early, it's a clear indication that he's trying to expose a weakness in his opponent and it might just backfire on him.
Northcutt has incredible striking accuracy and good output with a blitzing style where he'll find an opening and then open up a barrage to put an opponent away. Northcutt is fast and he hits on target, and while Barberena is no slouch on the feet, he's more prone to a slugfest than a technical battle and that could hurt him in this matchup.
Look for Northcutt to make Barberena expend energy early and then put it on him during the second or maybe third round if the fight makes it that far. Barberena is a veteran and a solid fighter, but it's tough to pick him after he accepted the fight less than two weeks out.
Prediction: Sage Northcutt by TKO, Round 2
As we gear up for an action packed night of action, today's fantasy preview will examine the card to see who has the advantage and who might be in danger come Saturday night.
Olivier Aubin-Mercier (-260 favorite) vs. Diego Ferreira (+220 underdog)
Olivier Aubin-Mercier is definitely one of the best young fighters out of Canada and while still an unpolished product, he's an athletically gifted wrestler with great takedowns and stamina that should get the job done against veteran grappler Diego Ferreira.
Aubin-Mercier isn't going to blow anybody away with his flash and flair going into a fight, but he's technically sound and very fundamental with his approach. Aubin-Mercier admits that his hero coming into the sport was Georges St-Pierre and that's never more apparent than when he steps inside the Octagon and looks to put his opponents down on the mat repeatedly until the fight is over. He's explosive and lands nearly four takedowns per 15 minutes in the cage.
Now Ferreira isn't just a walkover by any means, especially if he's able to stuff the takedowns from the young Canadian. Ferreira is a very good submission specialist and if he can catch Aubin-Mercier in a scramble, that could spell doom for the former Ultimate Fighter competitor.
Still, it's hard to imagine that Aubin-Mercier won't be able to put Ferreira on his back at some point in the early going, press him against the cage and start working for ground-and-pound on the mat. Aubin-Mercier is still figuring out how to finish his opponents, so he may not drill a hole into Ferreira looking for the knockout, but his control and top game are on point and that should be more than enough to get him a win.
Prediction: Olivier Aubin-Mercier by unanimous decision
Levan Makashvili (-310 favorite) vs. Damon Jackson (+255 underdog)
Levan Makashvili will look to get his second UFC win this weekend as he takes on Damon Jackson, who has struggled mightily to get his feet on solid ground since landing in the Octagon last year. Jackson has faced two tough opponents in a row and he'll get a third this weekend as he faces Makashvili.
Makashvili is a tough fight for anyone in the featherweight division and he nearly knocked off a top 10 opponent in his last bout when he took on veteran fighter Hacran Dias. Makashvili is tough as nails with good striking and solid wrestling, and those fundamentals should be enough to handle a seemingly overmatched Jackson on fight night.
Jackson will enjoy about a three-inch reach advantage, but that will likely be negated by Makashvili's pressure game and clinch work, where he can punish his opponent on the inside. Jackson has shown good grappling, but he's once again going up against a superior wrestler in Makashvili and that spells disaster unless he's willing to work from the bottom while fishing for submissions inside his own guard.
Makashvili isn't going to stun anyone with a highlight reel knockout (although it is possible), but he's stronger and better equipped to win this fight with better power on the feet and a superior grappling game on the ground.
Prediction: Levan Makashvili by unanimous decision
Wilson Reis (+180 underdog) vs. Dustin Ortiz (-220 favorite)
Don’t sleep on Wilson Reis in his matchup with Dustin Ortiz, especially if he drags this fight to the ground, where he can display his world-class submission game.
Reis has been an underrated fighter since his first day arriving in the UFC, but he still managed to pick up a pair of impressive wins over Scott Jorgensen and Joby Sanchez while going to the scorecards with two more top 15 fighters in Iuri Alcantara and Jussier Formiga. Reis is a tough out for anyone in this division and that includes Ortiz, who has had more than his fair share of close fights throughout his UFC career.
Ortiz got a big finish in his last fight over Willie Gates, but he's typically involved in razor-thin decisions, as he's shown against John Moraga, Ray Borg and Justin Scoggins. A couple of those bouts came against top-notch grapplers, and he's got another one on his hands this weekend with Reis.
Now Reis isn't the wrestler that Moraga or Borg are on the ground, but he's not bad either. If he can mix in some takedowns to keep Ortiz guessing, this fight could be another tight decision and that's where the underdog pick becomes a solid choice. Reis rarely gets dominated, and Ortiz has a tendency to get drawn into close decisions.
Those two factors put together add up to a very tough fight to pick, but one worth risking when it comes to Reis as a very likable underdog.
Prediction: Wilson Reis by split decision