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As the UFC embarks on a return to Orlando, two of the best featherweights in the world are prepared to clash in the main event as Josh Emmett and Jeremy Stephens square off in what should be an absolute battle at 145 pounds.
Also on the card, a pivotal fight takes place in the women's strawweight division as No. 2-ranked Jessica Andrade looks to take one more step towards another title shot as she faces off with perennial contender Tecia Torres, who hopes to get her own chance at gold with a win on Saturday night.
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 event and if there might be an upset just primed to happen at UFC Fight Night: Emmett vs. Stephens.
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.
Josh Emmett vs. Jeremy Stephens
Two of the hardest hitting fighters at 145 pounds will clash in the main event as Josh Emmett will look to secure his third win in a row in the featherweight division while Stephens attempts to build on his last two victories over Gilbert Melendez and Dooho Choi.
On paper, Stephens has a lot of advantages when it comes to experience and savvy inside the Octagon. The former lightweight has fought the best of the best throughout his UFC career and he's never shied away from a tough fight. Statistically, Stephens is very similar to Emmett when looking at their output from a volume and accuracy standpoint. What those stats don't tell you, however, is the wealth of experience Stephens has against top notch competition throughout his career, as he's earned more than a few jaw-rattling knockouts as well as fought his way to some exciting decisions.
Stephens is a very aggressive fighter, but he also works well from a counterpunching perspective as long as he has an opponent willing to engage with him. While Stephens can do damage just based on his own forward pressure, he's at his best when he can get an opponent to engage in a big exchange with him, which is generally where he's landed his biggest knockouts.
Now that strategy could backfire against someone like Emmett, who hits remarkably hard and feasts on that forward pressure. Emmett isn't the most technical striker on the planet, but he hits like a truck while also possessing very good wrestling skills should he get into any trouble on the feet. Emmett averages over 52 percent accuracy on his takedowns with more than two per fight, so that could play a major factor in Stephens' ability to come after him with big combinations. Emmett obviously feels comfortable on his feet, but he'll have no problem snatching a big takedown if Stephens is just giving it to him.
The real 'X' factor in this fight is how Emmett is going to adjust to his first UFC main event and going five rounds with one of the best featherweights in the sport. Emmett looked great on short notice against Ricardo Lamas, but he also was able to earn a first round knockout and wasn't forced to push the pace for 15 minutes, and this time will be even harder. Stephens has gone those championship rounds before and he knows what it takes to explode when the time is right while still reserving something in the tank for later.
If Emmett can clip Stephens early, he's got a great chance of putting away another top 10 opponent. But the longer this fight goes, the more it favors Stephens thanks to his experience in digging deep to go five hard rounds if that's what it takes to win. He may not get the finish, but Stephens will be ready to go to war for 25 minutes and that might be the key to his victory on Saturday night.
Prediction: Jeremy Stephens by unanimous decision
Jessica Andrade vs. Tecia Torres
Jessica Andrade has looked nearly unstoppable since moving down to 115 pounds, but Tecia Torres will look to prove that the Brazilian powerhouse is still human when they meet in a pivotal strawweight co-main event matchup.
With dominant wins over several top ranked strawweights, Andrade is a monster with huge power on the feet or on the ground, and there may not be a stronger fighter in the entire division. The last place anybody wants to be is with Andrade attacking them from the clinch or if she's on top on the ground because she does maximum damage with each and every strike she throws. Andrade lands an incredible six significant strikes per minute with over 51 percent accuracy and she mixes in two and a half takedowns per fight with over 52 percent accuracy just to show how well rounded she can be. Andrade pours on the punishment and doesn't let up until the fight is over.
That means Torres has to stay away from Andrade's powerful grip whenever she can during this fight. Torres is a great karate stylist with quick kicks, fast hands and great footwork, and she'll need all three to deal with Andrade in this fight. Torres lands nearly five significant strikes per fight and her defense is outstanding as she avoids just over 70 percent of her opponent's offense on the feet. Torres has shown solid takedown defense but she really just needs to stay away from Andrade's grasp no matter where it happens inside the Octagon.
If Andrade can latch onto Torres and either drag her to the ground or trap her against the cage, she's going to eat a lot of punches and elbows over three rounds. Torres just needs to watch Andrade's lone loss in the strawweight division, when she failed to implement that strategy when facing former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who was able to stay on the outside and avoid any takedown attempts from the Brazilian.
Unfortunately, Torres doesn't have the reach or size that Jedrzejczyk possessed, so she's going to have to be doubly quick to avoid those situations with Andrade in this fight. On paper, Torres has all the tools to do that but it's still tough to pick against Andrade getting a hold of her at some point during this fight and blasting away with her fists and elbows.
Andrade knows how to rack up a lot of points on the judges' scorecards because her style usually mounts a lot of damage whenever she connects, and that's exactly what she'll aim to do on Saturday night. Just look for Andrade to get that first takedown or clinch in the opening round and if that happens, she will try to prevent Torres from getting away from her for the next five minutes. Over the course of three rounds, that adds up to a whole lot of punishment being dished out.
Prediction: Jessica Andrade by unanimous decision
With three wins in a row under his belt, Ovince Saint-Preux will look for No. 4 when he meets Ilir Latifi in this light heavyweight matchup on the main card.
Saint Preux has always been a top-flight light heavyweight talent, but lately he's really started to put everything together, from his wrestling to his submissions to his striking, and it's shown during that win streak. In this fight, Saint Preux will enjoy a massive seven-inch reach advantage over Latifi while also landing with better volume and accuracy on the feet. In the wrestling department, Saint Preux and Latifi are fairly similar except the Swedish "Sledgehammer" has never been taken down during his UFC career and that may be a big weapon for him in this fight.
Latifi is probably going to give up height and reach to virtually everybody at 205 pounds in the UFC, but he makes up for that with his ultra aggressive style, where he finds a way to get inside on virtually every opponent he faces. Latifi loves to dig to the head and body from the clinch while also landing just under three takedowns per fight to negate that reach advantage on the feet. The key for Latifi in this fight, like most of his contests, will be getting inside of Saint Preux's long arms and then mounting his offensive attacks from there.
The last place Latifi wants to be is standing on the outside eating big punches and kicks from a seriously powerful fighter like Saint Preux.
Now it's no secret that Saint Preux has a very strong ground game, especially when he's on top, but expect him to use that length in this fight while trying to keep Latifi on the end of his punches and kicks. If he can do that, Saint Preux has a great chance to land a big shot that could put a stop to the contest. Latifi gets a little wild at times during some of his exchanges and Saint Preux will feast on those openings if any are given to him.
Prediction: Ovince Saint-Preux by knockout, Round 2
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.
Mike Perry will look to add another knockout to his resume when he takes on Max Griffin this weekend in Orlando.
It's well known what Perry does best inside the Octagon, and that's pursuing his opponents with pure aggression and power until he renders them unconscious. Now Perry has faced some tough losses when he takes on a fellow striker willing to show off a little more technique rather than raw power, which has cost him in fights against opponents such as Santiago Ponzinibbio and Alan Jouban. This time around, however, Perry should have another willing opponent that will engage with him, and that usually spells bad news for whoever trades shots with him on the feet.
Griffin has definitely shown flashes of brilliance during his UFC career, including a nasty TKO over Erick Montano, but the fact that he's more than willing to engage in a standup war while not attempting a single takedown inside the Octagon means he'll be on his feet exchanging shots with Perry until this fight is over. Now Griffin certainly has enough pop in his shots to surprise Perry, but the odds are against him if he's standing in the pocket winging shots with this particular power puncher.
Look for Perry to draw Griffin into an aggressive exchange and that's when he'll unleash his best punches to get the knockout.
Prediction: Mike Perry by knockout, Round 1
Following an upset loss in her last fight, former title challenger Sara McMann will attempt to get back on track as she faces fellow top 10-ranked bantamweight Marion Reneau.
McMann rarely makes it a secret what she intends to do in a fight and that's using her world class wrestling to control where she wants an opponent at any given time during a round.
McMann averages nearly five takedowns per fight with over 66 percent accuracy, which means if she wants Reneau on the ground, that's probably where they will go.
Obviously, Reneau has to know that's the plan of attack so she's surely been brushing up on her takedown defense in preparation for this fight. Reneau is definitely the superior striker while landing with better volume and taking far less damage on the feet than her counterpart in McMann. Unfortunately, Reneau has only stopped about 57 percent of the takedowns attempted against her and while that's not a bad average, it may not be enough to keep McMann from driving through her legs and putting this fight on the mat again and again over three rounds. If Reneau can stop that, she has a great shot to pull off the upset, but given the averages and how determined McMann can be going for those takedowns, it's tough to imagine a scenario where she's not out grappling her opponent for 15 minutes.
Prediction: Sara McMann by unanimous decision
Alan Jouban vs. Ben Saunders
This is by far the toughest 'Knockout' pick because while Alan Jouban is the favorite, Ben Saunders certainly has plenty of ways to win this fight.
Saunders will enjoy a size and reach advantage in this matchup, not to mention a nasty ground game should this fight hit the floor. Saunders is best off his back, where he uses a rubber guard defense to set up any number of submissions, so that's the last place Jouban wants to be in this fight.
That being said, Jouban can be an impossibly tough matchup if he's able to control the pace on the feet just as he did in his fight against Mike Perry last year. Jouban is very good at hitting and moving to stay out of trouble on his feet. He's solid defensively while also managing to find a home for his best punches and kicks when acting as a counter striker. Jouban lands nearly five significant shots per minute with over 52 percent accuracy, and that should help him to pick apart Saunders over three rounds.
Jouban just has to be careful not getting caught up in those exchanges because the ground is the last place he wants to be in this fight with Saunders. As long as Jouban can hit, move and avoid the counter strikes and takedowns, he should be able to strike his way to a decision win in this welterweight matchup.
Prediction: Alan Jouban by unanimous decision.
Former bantamweight champion Renan Barao will attempt to get back in the win column when he takes on upstart contender Brian Kelleher at UFC Fight Night in Orlando.
On paper, Barao should have just about every advantage possible in this fight, given his wealth of experience against top-ranked opponents and a skill set that is still impossibly tough to deal with when he's at his best. Barao has blinding power for a bantamweight, combined with an overall striking game that's at a world-class level. Couple that with Barao's submission arsenal, which is underrated and very dangerous when he's on the ground, and it shows why he sat atop the 135-pound division for so long.
That being said, Barao has definitely struggled since losing a pair of fights to TJ Dillashaw in 2014 and 2015. Barao hasn't been able to connect with the same kind of power, and his chin has definitely been tested in recent fights. That's why Kelleher remains a solid upset pick on this card.
Kelleher is a well-rounded fighter with power in his hands and slick submissions in his back pocket, especially when he can catch an opponent in the scramble. Kelleher is best with the element of surprise, like when he's grabbing on to a guillotine choke or landing a spinning backfist to catch his opponents off guard. Now Kelleher has to be careful of those same weapons from Barao, but it's his willingness to get creative in the middle of a fight that have made him such a dangerous matchup during his short UFC career.
Plus, Kelleher knows he's the underdog yet again and he seems to thrive in those situations. All the pressure is on Barao to prove he still has something left in the tank after the toughest stretch of his career. That allows Kelleher to fight unfettered by those same lingering questions that will undoubtedly bombard Barao leading into Saturday night.
If Kelleher can clip or catch Barao with something early, he may turn the entire momentum of this fight into his favor. Kelleher is certainly the kind of fighter willing to try anything, even if it means it might put him in danger and that's why he's still the underdog but a solid selection to pull off this upset against a former champion.
Prediction: Brian Kelleher by TKO, Round 3