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The UFC returns to Pittsburgh for the first time in nearly five years this Sunday night, with a welterweight main event capping off a 13-fight card airing live on FOX Sports 1.
At the top of the show, Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone returns to action while also moving up from the lightweight division, as he takes on Alex "Cowboy" Oliveira in the headliner.
Cerrone is looking for some redemption following a 66-second loss to lightweight champ Rafael Dos Anjos in his last fight, while Oliveira will try to add a signature win to his record after three straight victories inside the Octagon.
Also on the card, top middleweight prospect Derek Brunson will search for another big win as he takes on submission specialist Roan Carneiro, and Ohio native Cody Garbrandt looks to keep his UFC record flawless as he faces Augusto Mendes.
In today's fantasy preview, we're going to examine some of these key matchups to see who has the edge going into Sunday night's card and what the best picks are when the Octagon lands in Steel City.
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.
Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone (-280 favorite) vs. Alex Oliveira (+240 underdog)
It's a battle of the cowboys in the main event with Donald Cerrone making his move up to welterweight while Alex Oliveira tries for his fourth straight win inside the Octagon. Technically, Oliveira had just recently competed at lightweight as well, so there shouldn't be a huge size difference for either fighter at 170 pounds, but it will give both of them a chance to cut less weight ahead of their showdown on Sunday.
The book on Cerrone is well known - he's a lethal striker with unrelenting pressure on the feet and a very underrated ground game from the bottom. Cerrone comes from a classic Muay Thai style where he throws nasty punches and shin-splitting kicks that do maximum damage to the legs, body and head. Cerrone isn't known for having the fastest kicks, like former featherweight champion Jose Aldo, but he has deceptive quickness and he is very adept at launching an offensive that can overwhelm an opponent at any moment in the fight.
As for Oliveira, he's got real knockout power on his feet and a dazzling ground game to compliment his striking. He was able to submit power puncher KJ Noons three fights ago and he knocked out veteran fighter Piotr Hallman with a brutal strike in his last bout. Oliveira is quite unpredictable, but considering his tendency to get into a brawl on the feet his best course of action in this matchup might be dragging the fight to the ground.
Oliveira averages nearly three takedowns per fight, and he's very dangerous with long limbs and submissions from all angles that could keep Cerrone off balance or at least keep him from throwing so many kicks. Considering Cerrone looks at his kicking game as one of his best weapons, if Oliveira takes that away early with a couple stifling takedowns, he could completely shift the momentum in this fight.
That being said, Cerrone's attitude usually doesn't change much when it comes to his opponent's game plan and while that has been a hindrance in past matchups against Dos Anjos and fighters like Nate Diaz, in a bout like this it should serve him well. Oliveira doesn't have great defense - he actually blocks less than 50-percent of his opponent's strikes - and if he starts eating a lot of shots from Cerrone, he's going to have a short night inside the Octagon. Oliveira is definitely game, so he won't fade easily, but eventually Cerrone's potent offense should get the job done.
Prediction: Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone by knockout, Round 2
Chris Camozzi (-280 favorite) vs. Joe Riggs (+200 underdog)
Since returning to the UFC, both Chris Camozzi and Joe Riggs have experienced a few ups and downs, but their middleweight fight this weekend is a chance to shine on the main card in Pittsburgh.
Camozzi has a tendency to fight close to his opposition, which can be both good and bad at the top level in the UFC. He rarely gets dominated, but he also struggles to pull away, which has cost him some very close decisions in the past. Against a fighter like Riggs, Camozzi will need to keep the odds in his favor while facing one of the most dangerous strikers in the history of the sport.
Riggs is a real veteran of MMA and he's still improving after more than 50 fights during his career. Riggs got a win in his last fight albeit under some controversy after an illegal kick led to the disqualification of his opponent. Riggs definitely had some good moments that night and it appeared he was battling back from two consecutive losses, but to make sure he stays on track he'll have to get past Camozzi on Sunday.
There's no giant secret when dissecting Riggs' game - he's a power striker with the emphasis on power. Riggs is very strong with his hands but don't blink if he throws a surprise kick or knee that can do just as much damage. Riggs has worked tirelessly on his ground game as well, and while Camozzi will likely stand and trade with him throughout the fight, the veteran UFC competitor could toss in a takedown of his own to keep things interesting.
Camozzi will likely try to keep Riggs at distance in order to use his considerable six-inch reach advantage while staying out of his opponent's power range. Camozzi is a very capable striker, although not known for having nearly as much one-punch finishing power as Riggs. Camozzi lands in combination and volume with over four significant strikes hitting the target per minute at an over 44-percent accuracy clip.
Camozzi just needs to avoid those big exchanges where Riggs tends to eat his opponents alive. Riggs can explode forward at any time, and if he lands even one glancing shot, he can put Camozzi away. On the flipside, Camozzi just needs to stay smart and stay tactical while putting Riggs on the end of his punches and kicks. If he keeps Riggs at distance, Camozzi will be able to frustrate him for three rounds and get a decision in his favor.
Prediction: Chris Camozzi by unanimous decision
James Krause (-150 favorite) vs. Shane Campbell (+130 underdog)
A fun lightweight fight between James Krause and Shane Campbell not only kicks off the main card, but could end up being a bit of a show stealer when it's all said and done.
Krause has a tendency to always put on exciting fights, whether he walks out with a win or a loss. Although in his last fight, he didn't even give Daron Cruickshank a chance to get started, as he finished the bout in under 90 seconds. Krause is best known for his striking, where he lands at volume with nearly four and a half shots landed per minute, and his 74-inch reach usually gives him the advantage over an opponent at distance.
Campbell is no slouch while standing, with just under three and a half strikes landed per minute, but his accuracy is superior at just a shade under 55-percent. Add to that the fact that Campbell will look to take his fights to the ground slightly more often with slightly better accuracy as well. The Canadian will likely look to keep this fight standing, however, because he knows he has knockout power and great takedown defense to block Krause from dragging him to the mat.
So who has the edge in this one?
Well, Krause and Campbell are extremely evenly matched, which is what makes this fight so hard to predict. That being said, Krause has an experience edge and looked better than ever in his last fight against Cruickshank. Krause has also faced stiffer competition throughout his UFC career, and while losses are never fun, he's learned from those experiences and come back a better fighter for it. Krause might be the pick, but don't blink when it comes to Campbell's counters and a few surprises that could be lurking in this sleeper for Fight of the Night honors.
Prediction: James Krause by split decision
Marion Reneau (-190 favorite) vs. Ashlee Evans-Smith (+150 underdog)
Another potential crowd pleaser happens as the featured bout on UFC FIGHT PASS, as Marion Reneau takes on Ashlee Evans-Smith in a women's bantamweight bout.
Reneau looked like one of the top prospects in the division through her first couple of performances in the UFC, but she came up short in her last fight against current bantamweight champion Holly Holm. Reneau seemed to falter a bit in the spotlight against a future champion, but it was surely a learning experience for her as well. Prior to that setback, Reneau had looked fantastic in her previous bouts, with a nasty striking game complimented by a surprising submission arsenal on the mat.
Evans-Smith is a former four-time All-American wrestler who never hides her intentions while competing - she wants to get this fight to the ground and she'll do just about anything to take it there. Evans-Smith averages over three takedowns per fight, so she's relentless when it comes to putting her opponents on the ground. And from there, she's got a vicious attack from the top with smashing elbows and powerful punches.
The key for Reneau is stopping Evans-Smith from taking this fight to the ground. She's shown excellent 75-percent takedown defense thus far in her UFC career, but Reneau hasn't faced a wrestler like Evans-Smith before. If Reneau can stop the takedowns early and keep her distance with strikes, she'll find a way to win a decision. Don't discount Evans-Smith being able to stifle Reneau, however, and grinding her way to a victory. An early takedown or two could go a long way towards Evans-Smith putting Reneau on the defensive.
Prediction: Marion Reneau by unanimous 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.
Derek Brunson (-370 favorite) vs. Roan Carneiro (+310 underdog)
Roan Carneiro surprised more than a few people when he returned to the UFC a year ago and made short work of Mark Munoz with a devastating first-round submission in his first fight back inside the Octagon in seven years. Carneiro was best known as a welterweight during his previous stint with the promotion, but a bump up to middleweight seemed to do his body good, as he looked better than ever while beating Munoz last February.
Unfortunately, Carneiro is going to find out that fighting at 185 pounds isn't easy when facing a beast like Derek Brunson inside the Octagon.
Brunson might be one of the most feared prospects in the division with massive knockout power in his hands - as he showcased in his last fight against Sam Alvey - as well as collegiate wrestling good enough that he was able to put Olympic silver medalist Yoel Romero down a couple times when they fought in 2014. Another point for Brunson in this matchup is that while he often splits his time between training at home in North Carolina as well as New Mexico, this time around he spent the majority of his camp under the tutelage of coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn.
That experience working with two of the best coaches in the sport, as well as sparring daily with fighters like Jon Jones, can only help Brunson reach the next level of his game. If Brunson continues on his path with another big victory over Carneiro, he will be knocking on the door of the middleweight top 10 during 2016.
Carneiro is definitely capable of pulling off the upset, especially if he can suck Brunson into a ground battle where he has the superior Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. But with Brunson's wrestling prowess and knockout power, chances are he'll overwhelm Carneiro before he ever gets the chance to try for his first submission attempt.
Prediction: Derek Brunson by knockout, Round 1
Dennis Bermudez (-325 favorite) vs. Tatsuya Kawajiri (+265 favorite)
Dennis Bermudez has dropped his last two fights in a row, but that doesn't mean he still doesn't have top 10 potential in the featherweight division, and this weekend is his chance to prove it against crafty veteran Tatsuya Kawajiri.
Bermudez is a suffocating and powerful wrestler with good hands and tenacious offense. What he does well is almost exactly what Kawajiri does except Bermudez tends to do it slightly better. Where Kawajiri is at his best is when he can take an opponent on the ground, pressure them on the mat and continue his onslaught until he finds an opening to finish the fight or he'll just continue to rinse, wash and repeat until the fight is over.
Bermudez is nothing if not exciting, but he's not going to allow Kawajiri to play that game with him, especially considering his own wrestling prowess and nonstop movement from the time the fight starts until it's over. Bermudez isn't the most technically sound featherweight on the planet, but what he's missing in technique he more than makes up for with an unrelenting offensive game that rarely slows down for three rounds. As long as he doesn't blunder early and allow Kawajiri to land a takedown, Bermudez should be able to control the pace of this fight, work his striking and even put the Japanese featherweight on the deck a few times to rack up the points with the judges.
Prediction: Dennis Bermudez by unanimous decision
Anthony Smith vs. Leonardo Augusto Leleco
Stepping in on late notice is never an ideal situation for a fighter, but veteran competitor Anthony Smith is no stranger to competing on the big stage, and he'll actually have an experience advantage over UFC newcomer Leonardo Augusto Leleco.
Leleco is a bit of an anomaly with his offensive attacks because he loves to throw blitzing, powerful combinations, but rarely does so with a ton of technique behind them. He hits with a lot of force, but it's kind of like swinging a hammer at a wall and just hoping to hit the nail without actually aiming. Leleco does possess legitimate ground skills with a dangerous submission game, so Smith has to be aware of that when he's looking to strike with the Brazilian so that he doesn't get over aggressive and end up planted on the mat.
Leleco is a very good grappler, but his wrestling is extremely rudimentary, so Smith just has to avoid making any big mistakes and he should be able to avoid the ground.
On the flipside, Smith is a nasty knockout puncher with a wide variety of weapons at his disposal. He's currently riding a seven-fight win streak. including a knockout win over former UFC fighter Josh Neer in his last fight just a few weeks ago. Smith has started to hit his stride after a lot of ups and downs during his career, and with a chance to return to the UFC and make a big splash at the same time, this is his opportunity to seize the moment.
It's obviously not the best timing with only a few days to prepare, but Smith could be just the pick to pull off the late notice upset.
Prediction: Anthony Smith by knockout, Round 2