Former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold will make his first appearance inside the Octagon in over a year when he takes on David Branch in the main event when the UFC returns to Pittsburgh on Saturday night.
Rockhold is definitely looking for redemption following a shocking knockout loss to Michael Bisping in June 2016, and now the former champion is determined to get back to the top of the division. Standing in his way is Branch, who returned to the UFC earlier this year with a victory over Krzysztof Jotko to move his overall winning streak to 11.
Also on the card, heavy-hitting welterweight slugger Mike Perry will look for another big knockout when he takes on former title challenger Thiago Alves. Hector Lombard will also return this weekend to face off with Anthony Smith in a middleweight fight with fireworks written all over it.
In today's fantasy preview, we'll take a look at these fights and several more to see who has the edge and who might be primed for an upset at UFC Fight Night: Rockhold vs. Branch.
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.
Luke Rockhold vs. David Branch
Luke Rockhold will look to put himself back into position for a title fight this weekend as he faces David Branch in a pivotal matchup at 185 pounds.
Prior to his upset loss to Michael Bisping last year, Rockhold looked like a fighter who could reign for years over the middleweight division. He's admitted to losing focus ahead of that fight and now he's back to reclaim his spot atop the weight class. At his best, Rockhold is a force of nature inside the Octagon with some of the nastiest striking combined with a devastating grappling game that can put anyone away on the ground. Rockhold lands over four significant strikes per minute with incredible 48 percent accuracy. His lead kick to the body is a crippling strike that has cut down more than a few fighters over the years and there's no doubt Rockhold will look to establish that weapon in this matchup. Of course, Rockhold has to be careful with his kicks early because Branch is a world-class submission specialist who will look to snatch that leg and take the fight to the ground.
Branch has improved his boxing game by leaps and bounds over recent years, but he's still best known for his high-level grappling game. Branch averages nearly two and a half takedowns per fight with great ground control whenever he does get an opponent down on the mat. Now Branch will enjoy a four-inch reach advantage on the feet, so don't be shocked if he sets up his takedowns with a long, rangy boxing game from the outside while looking to frustrate Rockhold early and often.
While Rockhold will give up some reach with his hands, he does have that kicking game that will likely even the score on the feet. Rockhold just needs to be careful with how he throws his kicks or Branch will grab onto one and take him to the ground. Now Rockhold can win on the mat as well, but getting stuck underneath a grappler like Branch is probably the last place he wants to be.
As long as Rockhold can knock off any ring rust from being out over the past year, he should be able to use his striking game to keep Branch off balance and then start to pick him apart on the feet. If Branch gets too desperate looking for a takedown, Rockhold could take advantage with a barrage of punches, knees and kicks that could earn him another impressive finish.
Mike Perry vs. Thiago Alves
If there's an early pick for Fight of the Night, this welterweight co-main event between Mike Perry and Thiago Alves might be it.
Perry is one of the most aggressive strikers on the current UFC roster and he's finished all three of his Octagon victories by knockout. Perry has jaw-dropping power in his hands but he's also smart with his attacks. Perry lands nearly five significant strikes per minute but also hits with nearly 45 percent accuracy, so he's not getting too wild in his exchanges. Perry hasn't attempted a single takedown during his UFC career, though, so it's safe to assume that he'll be looking for a striking war and Alves will likely oblige him.
Alves is a classic Muay Thai kickboxing stylist with nasty punches, devastating leg kicks and he can also punish an opponent to the body with his knees. Alves has faced a few ups and downs in recent years while attempting an ill-fated move down to lightweight, but he returned to form in his last fight with a lopsided victory over Patrick Cote. When Alves is on his game, he is a blistering striker with a ton of power behind every shot he throws while also displaying great takedown defense. Now chances are Alves won't need that defensive wrestling in this fight, which could allow him an opening to throw more leg kicks than usual.
The key in this fight might be Alves' willingness to engage and Perry's ability to land his power shots. Alves usually has no problem standing in the pocket with an opponent and unloading a barrage of strikes. That's a dangerous game with someone like Perry, who hits with incredible power from inside and outside. While this fight remains a toss-up and likely the hardest one to pick on the entire card, the edge goes with Perry just based on the stopping power that could give Alves some problems on the feet.
Prediction: Mike Perry by TKO, Round 2
Hector Lombard vs. Anthony Smith
Hector Lombard will look to bounce back from three straight losses when he returns this weekend to face surging middleweight Anthony Smith, who has won three out of his last four fights, including two knockouts in a row.
Smith has always been considered a very tough out for anyone in the middleweight division, but recently he's looked better than ever since coming back to the UFC in 2016. Smith has a well-rounded game, but he's best known for his devastating knockout power, as witnessed in his past two fights. In this matchup, Smith will tower over Lombard with a whopping seven-inch height advantage and a six-inch reach advantage. Both of those factors will do well for Smith, who loves to use a distance striking attack, including an arsenal filled with kicks that go to the legs, the body and head. Smith is also very active on his feet, so look for him to add up a lot of volume with his striking attack as well.
Lombard may be dealing with a tough period of his career, but that doesn’t make him any less dangerous. At his best, Lombard is a ferocious power puncher who also happens to have world-class judo in his back pocket whenever he needs to look for a takedown. Lombard tends to get focused on head hunting a bit too much on the feet, so he has to be careful not to give into those habits while chasing a taller and longer opponent like Smith. Look for Lombard to swim inside with his strikes before battering Smith to the head and body while pressing the action towards the cage.
If Smith can avoid the clinch and keep Lombard on the end of his punches, he's got a great shot at pulling off the win here. Smith is more active with better accuracy on the feet, and if he can employ both of those weapons he can start to chop away at Lombard from the first round until the final horn sounds. Smith may not finish the fight, but he's got plenty in the gas tank to outwork Lombard over three rounds.
Prediction: Anthony Smith 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.
Gregor Gillespie will look to keep his undefeated record intact when he takes on Jason Gonzalez, who picked up his first UFC win back in January with a submission victory against J.C. Cottrell.
Gonzalez is a big, strong lightweight who will enjoy a three-inch reach advantage, and he'll definitely need to use that if he intends to pull off the upset against Gillespie. Gonzalez has a solid striking attack, but he's not the most active fighter on the roster, so he'll need to change that if he hopes to disrupt Gillespie's relentless attacks.
Gillespie is an incredibly high-level wrestler as a former multi-time All-American at the same college where former title challenger Josh Koscheck once attended. Gillespie averages nearly five takedowns per fight, so it's no secret that he'll likely look to plant Gonzalez on the ground before unleashing his powerful attacks from the top. Gillespie is a monster when he gets an opponent on the ground, and it's likely Gonzalez will spend as much time trying to fend off takedowns as he will attempting to mount any of his own offense.
As Gillespie spends more time in a very deep lightweight division, he'll run into fighters who will be able to stave off his nasty ground attack, but it's tough to see how he doesn't pull it off again this weekend. Gillespie is a name to watch this year and beyond because he has top 10 talent and he'll look to show that off again while facing Gonzalez.
Prediction: Gregor Gillespie by TKO, Round 2
Speaking of super prospects in the UFC, Kamaru Usman is near the top of that list as he continues to build his way towards the top 10 in the welterweight division. Usman has remained undefeated in the UFC with five straight victories while getting more and more dominant with each win.
KAMARU USMAN FEATURED ON TUESDAY'S UFC UNFILTERED
Sergio Moraes will likely offer up the toughest challenge that Usman has faced in the UFC thanks to his veteran experience and a very high level grappling game. Moraes has great control and a very good ground game whenever he takes the fight to the mat. Moraes has several submission victories on his resume and carries a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Unfortunately, it's Moraes' tendency to take the fight to the ground where he may suffer the most against Usman.
Usman is an incredibly fast wrestler with powerful takedowns that he can land from the outside or from the clinch. Usman is relentless with his pressure, especially if he can take an opponent to the ground and trap them against the Octagon wall. From there, Usman is a punishing force of nature with the kind of offensive onslaught that typically keeps his opponents from ever getting back to the feet again until the end of a round. While Moraes might show Usman some interesting submission attempts from the bottom, it's more likely that the former Ultimate Fighter winner will be battering away at him with punches and elbows until the final horn sounds.
Prediction: Kamaru Usman by unanimous decision
It's tough to predict any heavyweight fight as a lock, so take that advice when looking at this matchup between Anthony Hamilton and Daniel Spitz.
Spitz made his UFC debut earlier this year and came up short against Mark Godbeer, which accounted for the first loss of his professional career. Prior to that setback, Spitz had won five fights in a row, including a victory over UFC veteran Wesley "Cabbage" Correia. Spitz is a former college football player, so he's very athletic for a heavyweight and he seems to like to do battle on the ground, where he's wrapped up three career submissions.
Hamilton has been very hit and miss during his UFC career, but he's still a very tough matchup for anybody in the heavyweight division. Hamilton hits very hard, as evidenced by the numerous knockouts on his record, but he's also found a way to win three-round decisions in the past as well. Hamilton has struggled at the higher levels when facing the best heavyweights in the sport, but he's also decimated a few top fighters in the division as well.
The key for Hamilton in this fight is to get inside of Spitz's long reach and then start to punish him to the head and body. Hamilton comes from a wrestling background and he actually averages just under three takedowns per fight. This time around, because Spitz has such a slick submission game, it's likely that Hamilton will avoid the ground and look to do damage on the feet. If Hamilton can overwhelm Spitz early, he may not make it to the second or third round. Neither fighter is well known for great defense, but Hamilton's power could make all the difference in those exchanges as he looks to get back on track following a couple heartbreaking losses.
Prediction: Anthony Hamilton by KO, Round 1
Tony Martin vs. Olivier Aubin-Mercier
Ever since his stint on The Ultimate Fighter: Nations, Olivier Aubin-Mercier has remained a top prospect to watch and lately he's finally hit his stride with two very impressive submission victories in a row. Aubin-Mercier has always been an incredible athlete with powerful wrestling attacks, but lately he's started to figure out how to really apply his grappling game to not only dominate opponents on the ground but to put them away as well.
So it stands to reason why Aubin-Mercier is the favorite going into his fight this weekend, but Tony Martin presents an interesting challenge and that's why he could pull off the upset victory.
Martin has shown tremendous strides in his overall mixed martial arts game in recent fights, where he's won three in a row while displaying marked improvements in his striking and grappling games. Martin is a very tall fighter who likes to use his reach to pick apart opponents from the outside and he will enjoy a three-inch reach advantage in this fight. Being able to strike at a distance will be a key weapon against Aubin-Mercier, who will undoubtedly look to lock him up in the clinch before working for the takedown. Now Martin is no stranger to grappling, but the last place he wants to be is stuck under Aubin-Mercier for three rounds.
If Martin can stay active early and hurt Aubin-Mercier with his striking attacks, that could force the Canadian to make an ill-advised takedown attempt from the outside. That's where Martin can really take over by tiring Aubin-Mercier out with his wrestling attempts and then systematically breaking him down with a strong kickboxing game from the outside. It's a tall order because Aubin-Mercier is as good as advertised, but don't be surprised if Martin finds a way to hurt him on the feet and then maintain that control throughout all three rounds.
Prediction: Tony Martin by unanimous decision