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The UFC's debut in Phoenix this weekend for UFC Fight Night will feature several top 10 ranked fighters on the preliminary card, including former title contender John Moraga taking on upstart newcomer Willie Gates.
And while the first ever women's strawweight champion will be crowned on Friday night, the next No. 1 contender may very well come from Saturday’s preliminary bout between two undefeated fighters, as Claudia Gadelha faces Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
As we look ahead to this weekend's card, today's fantasy preview will examine a few of the key preliminary matchups where the odds are very close, so picking the right winner and loser could make all the difference in the final scores tallied at the end of the night.
JOHN MORAGA VS. WILLIE GATES
Newcomer Willie Gates makes his promotional debut on short notice after an injury forced John Moraga's previous opponent, Jussier Formiga, off the card. Gates is a huge fighter for 125 pounds, standing 5'10" tall, so he'll definitely have a reach advantage over Moraga, but whether or not that will matter all depends on how good his takedown defense has gotten recently.
Gates is a striker who likes to throw kicks from the outside and big looping punches, taking full advantage of his size over pretty much everybody else who will fight him in the flyweight division. If Gates has a glaring weakness, it's his wrestling and wrestling defense, which is the exact spot where Moraga will likely take over in this fight.
Moraga is a former wrestler out of Arizona State University - the same program that produced fighters like Cain Velasquez, Ryan Bader and CB Dollaway. While Moraga never achieved All-American status like those three, he did make it to the starting roster for one of the best programs in the country at the time. Moraga also has a wealth of UFC experience against some of the best flyweights in the world at his disposal, including a championship bout against Demetrious Johnson.
Gates is a good prospect and he might be a name to watch in the future, but right now he's in over his head and he'll find that out the hard way against Moraga, who also happens to be fighting in his backyard.
Prediction: John Moraga by submission
CLAUDIA GADELHA VS. JOANNA JEDRZEJCZYK
It will be striker versus grappler in this battle of top women's strawweight fighters, with the winner potentially earning the first crack at the new champion crowned on Friday night in Las Vegas at The Ultimate Fighter Finale. Brazilian Claudia Gadelha might already be the No. 1 ranked fighter in the world if she ever got the chance to fight Carla Esparza while the two shared a roster spot in Invicta FC, but circumstances kept them from ever locking horns.
Gadelha is a world-class grappler with good takedowns and a high level Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu game. She'll need to employ that strategy against Jedrzejczyk, who is a kickboxer with solid technique and better than average takedown defense. Gadelha has to know that getting Jedrzejczyk to the mat is her best path to victory, and with over 83 percent accuracy with takedowns following her UFC debut, she's certainly got the skill to take the fight there.
What Jedrzejczyk has to do is show patience, but not fear. She cannot worry so much about Gadelha's takedowns that she forgets to throw strikes of her own. It was that exact mistake that cost Tecia Torres a chance to potentially upset Esparza on The Ultimate Fighter this season. Jedrzejczyk showed great ability to avoid the takedowns of her last Brazilian opponent, Juliana Lima, but Gadelha is at a higher level with a better overall grappling game.
It only takes one or two takedowns early on for Gadelha's confidence to surge and Jedrzejczyk's will to be broken. If the Brazilian can get the fight to the mat without much struggle early, she's going to make this a very long night for her opponent.
Prediction: Claudia Gadelha by unanimous decision
JOE RIGGS VS. BEN SAUNDERS
Following an eight-year absence from the UFC, Joe Riggs will return to the Octagon in his home state of Arizona to face veteran fighter Ben Saunders, who also just recently came back to the promotion and picked up a win this past August.
Riggs has been out of action for over a year now and matters only got worse when he suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound a few months back when a gun he was clearing misfired and hurt him in the process. Riggs is back now, but with the extended time off and the injury suffered, it's hard to predict how he'll be when he actually fights on Saturday night.
Saunders, in the meantime, looks motivated and ready to rumble. He was ultra excited to get back to the UFC and he promptly pulled off the first ever omoplata submission finish in his return bout. Saunders is still a very dangerous fighter on the mat, but he also has range as well as some of the best knees in the business if he can get locked up in the clinch with Riggs during this fight. Saunders has to be careful of Riggs' power because there's no doubt he's still one of the heaviest punchers in the world at 170 pounds, but if he can weather the early storm, it will be his time to take over late.
Saunders has good kicks and strong punches from the inside and out, although he prefers the dirty boxing game where he can beat up his opponents while standing close to them. It would be a nice comeback story for Riggs, especially competing in his home state, but it's an awfully long road for him to walk to be able to get past Saunders this weekend. Look for Saunders to set the pace early with an aggressive, yet tactical, striking game. Once he wears Riggs down, Saunders can begin to unload with the heavier, fight finishing punches and knees.
Prediction: Ben Saunders by TKO
ED HERMAN VS. DEREK BRUNSON
It's old school versus new school in this middleweight matchup, as former Ultimate Fighter season 3 finalist Ed Herman takes on Derek Brunson. Herman is coming off a win over Rafael Natal in his last fight, while Brunson picked up a win over Lorenz Larkin with a wrestling heavy attack.
It might be the same situation in this fight if Brunson fights smart against a crafty veteran like Herman. Brunson has an explosive double leg takedown and might be one of the stronger fighters at 185 pounds. It can't be overlooked that Brunson was likely up two rounds to none when he suffered a setback and got knocked out by Yoel Romero one fight ago. The win could have propelled Brunson into the top 10, but instead he's working his way back and the next stop is facing Herman this weekend.
Herman has a lot of different ways he can win this fight, but probably one way he can lose and that's getting out muscled and put on the mat. Brunson just needs to show patience and work to get Herman to the ground methodically and take away any hope he has for breathing room to open up his striking arsenal. Herman's punches aren't usually devastating, but Brunson shouldn't want to find out if he's gotten any better lately.
It may not be a thrilling performance, but it's the one that gets the job done.
Prediction: Derek Brunson by unanimous decision