The UFC lands in South Dakota for the first time ever on July 13, with a main event featuring two of the hardest hitting bantamweights in the world.
Michael McDonald returned to action after a long layoff this past January, when he got a win over Masanori Kanehara, and he'll look to make it two in a row as he faces knockout artist John Lineker, who has been making a steady climb up the bantamweight rankings ever since moving to 135 pounds.
In the co-main event, Tony Ferguson will look to make it eight wins in a row and put himself into position for a title shot as he takes on late replacement and UFC newcomer Lando Vannata. It's a tough spot for Vannata, who accepts the fight on just two weeks’ notice but thankfully he's a part of the Jackson-Winkeljohn team in New Mexico, so he's got plenty of support heading into his UFC debut.
In today's fantasy preview, we're going to examine some of these key matchups from South Dakota to see who has the edge going into the special Wednesday night card in Sioux Falls.
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.
John Lineker (-175 favorite) vs. Michael McDonald (+155 underdog)
In a matchup between two heavy hitters from the bantamweight division, conditioning and the ground game might be the key to determine the winner between John Lineker and Michael McDonald.
Both fighters were thrust into the main event on short notice after an injury derailed the original headliner between Ferguson and Michael Chiesa from taking place, so in this particular case, the edge goes to McDonald based on his previous experience preparing for a five-round title fight. In that bout, McDonald faced former bantamweight champion Renan Barao, and while he came up short that night, he still got ready for a five-round war, and that kind of experience can be invaluable to a fighter, especially in a situation like this. McDonald was able to knock off the ring rust in his last fight after sitting out for well over a year, and now he'll get to use all his cage savvy while facing one of the most lethal strikers in the division.
Lineker is a blitzing knockout puncher with dizzying power in his hands, and he hasn't lost a step since moving up from the flyweight division two fights ago. If anything, Lineker has shown more potential lately without a detrimental weight cut dragging him down, and he's displayed tremendous improvements in his conditioning since moving up to 135 pounds. Lineker has also shown much better patience and technical prowess in his recent fights, rather than simply trying to overwhelm his opponents with huge barrage of shots like something he saw in an old school PRIDE Fighting Championships video on UFC FIGHT PASS.
As good as Lineker has looked lately, it's understandable why he's a solid favorite going into his fight with McDonald, but a few factors might work against him in this main event matchup.
First off, as previously mentioned, McDonald has experience with five-round fights, which is a huge deal, especially in a situation like this, where both men are taking this challenge on short notice. McDonald also has a very underrated ground game, with slick submissions that can come from anywhere on the mat. He's surprised more than a few opponents with his array of Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills, and Lineker might find himself in trouble if he lands on the mat in this main event showdown.
This really could turn out to be a five-round war, but the edge still goes to McDonald based on experience and overall skill set. Don't be surprised if this one goes down to the fifth and final round, with both men trying to edge the other for the win. Of course, given the power and finishing ability McDonald and Lineker both possess, this could just as easily be over in the first round.
Prediction: Michael McDonald by TKO, Round 4
Tim Boetsch vs. Josh Samman
Tim Boetsch has experienced a lot of ups and downs in his recent fights, but he'll try to get back on track when he faces former Ultimate Fighter competitor Josh Samman, who is coming off a loss in his last fight as well when he took on veteran middleweight Tamdan McCrory.
Boetsch has dropped three fights in a row, but don't discount the kind of veteran experience he brings into the Octagon with him. Boetsch is a brutally punishing fighter with extremely heavy hands and a mauling wrestling style whenever he chooses to use it. Boetsch has turned into a brawler in most of his recent fights and that's got him into trouble with some of those losses, although he's never been more than one punch away from getting back into the win column against any of those past opponents.
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In this fight, Boetsch needs to bully Samman and not give him any space to unleash his versatile striking attack. Boetsch arguably hits harder with his hands, but Samman is a force of nature at distance and he can uncork a fight finishing head kick at any time. Just ask former Ultimate Fighter winner Eddie Gordon about that. Samman will enjoy a three-inch height advantage and a five-inch reach advantage and he needs to use both to keep Boetsch on the outside if he wants any chance to win this fight. The last place Samman can afford to stay is locked in the clinch, with Boetsch beating him up with a strong dirty boxing game on the inside.
That said, Samman can pour on punishment on the feet and he only needs one or two shots to land before he'll finish this fight. Boetsch is a tough customer, but after three recent losses, it's impossible not to wonder if his confidence might be rattled a bit heading into this fight. Given Samman's striking attacks, Boetsch might get rattled by the time this one is over.
Prediction: Josh Samman by TKO, Round 2
Louis Smolka vs. Ben Nguyen
An early pick for Fight of the Night goes to this flyweight showdown between Louis Smolka and Ben Nguyen. Both of these up and coming 125-pounders have aspirations to tackle the top 10, and a win is paramount if they want to move higher in the rankings.
Smolka is a little more unpredictable with his range and movement, where he averages over four significant strikes per minute, combined with nearly two takedowns per 15 minutes in the Octagon. Smolka is very active both on the feet and on the ground, and he has an 80 percent finishing rate over the course of his career. As for Nguyen, he puts up even more volume on the feet, with over five significant strikes landed per minute, and he is an exact equal to Smolka with an 80 percent finishing rate throughout his career.
Expect this fight to be extremely fast-paced, with Smolka and Nguyen each getting the upper hand at some point between the first and the third round. Smolka will enjoy a slight reach advantage and he'll need to use that to keep Nguyen at bay on the feet before transitioning to take this fight to the ground. As for Nguyen, his ability to land strikes early and often will be the key to putting Smolka into a defensive mode where he's just trying to stave off his opponent's attacks.
The pace in this fight will likely be unreal, but Nguyen might be one of the most promising prospects in the flyweight division and this will be a chance for him to showcase that he's ready for a top 10 opponent. Nguyen hits fast and hits hard, and when the fight goes to the ground, he's got plenty of submission skills to either put Smolka away or make him squirm just to get loose. The real winners in this one are the fans who get to watch these two talented fighters throw down but, in the end, the edge still goes to Nguyen based on his striking prowess and ability to seize an opportunity based on any kind of small mistake Smolka might make over the course of three rounds.
Prediction: Ben Nguyen by submission, Round 3
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.
Tony Ferguson vs. Lando Vannata
Tony Ferguson won't get to fight Michael Chiesa as he originally planned, but he still has to get past newcomer Lando Vannata if he wants to remain on course for a title shot before the end of the year. Ferguson has looked like an unstoppable machine in his last few fights, but the worst possible scenario for him would be to get upset by a rookie like Vannata, who accepted this fight on just two weeks’ notice.
That said, Ferguson got to this position because he is one of the best lightweights in the world, and his steely resolve keeps him focused no matter who he's facing. Ferguson prides himself on training to be the best and not aiming at any one opponent when he's in camp getting ready for a fight. That will be an advantage for him this time around, considering Ferguson will be facing a much different opponent than Chiesa.
Vannata is a very good prospect out of the Jackson-Winkeljohn camp in New Mexico, which also serves as a home to Jon Jones, Holly Holm and Carlos Condit, amongst others. Vannata is an explosive finisher with a long list of submission and knockout victories under his belt. Vannata has no problem getting into a scrap with anybody he faces, but he's fighting an uphill battle against someone as good as Ferguson.
Vannata is definitely a name to watch in the future, but he's going up against a buzzsaw in Ferguson, who is a superior striker, superior wrestler and has far more ways to win this fight over the course of three rounds. Ferguson is also a blistering fast starter, and those Octagon jitters might just get the best of Vannata, who will likely be playing defense from the second the referee says go.
Prediction: Tony Ferguson by submission, Round 1
Aleksei Oleinik vs. Daniel Omielanczuk
It's been more than a year since heavyweight prospect Aleksei Oleinik fought in the UFC, but he'll get a chance to shine again when he faces Daniel Omielanczuk on Wednesday night.
Prior to injuries derailing his return to action, Oleinik was a fast rising star in the heavyweight division, and while he may not be one of the biggest fighters for the weight class, he more than makes up for it with his tremendous skill set. Oleinik has a wealth of experience, with 60 fights under his belt and he'll look to get his third UFC win in dominant fashion as he tries to climb up the top 10 rankings this year.
Omielanczuk is a physically imposing heavyweight fighter with heavy hands and very good accuracy for the weight class, landing more than 65 percent of his shots on the feet. Unfortunately, Omielanczuk is woefully outgunned in virtually every area in this fight with Oleinik, who is a better overall striker and far more experienced on the ground. Oleinik has a variety of submissions he can use, and he's already averaging nearly three attempts per fight during his UFC career.
Look for Oleinik to try and hurt Omielanczuk on the feet before taking this fight to the ground, where he will more than likely wrap up another submission victory. If Oleinik can stay injury free, he's a serious contender to watch this year and the rest of the heavyweight division should beware.
Prediction: Aleksei Oleinik by submission, Round 1
Lauren Murphy vs. Katlyn Chookagian
Lauren Murphy will look for another UFC win as she takes on newcomer Katlyn Chookagian, who makes her debut while trying to tackle a very stiff challenge ahead of her.
Chookagian is a natural 125-pound fighter, so right away she's going to be giving up some size and power to Murphy when they lock horns in the Octagon. Chookagian has a stiff jab and a background in kickboxing that gives her good power on the feet, and she's also developed into a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt on the ground. Chookagian is a well-rounded fighter, but that's probably still not going to be enough against a veteran as good as Murphy.
Murphy is a tough matchup for any of the top 10 women in the division, much less a UFC newcomer taking this fight on short notice. Murphy sets a blistering pace that's hard to keep up with, and she'll likely plant Chookagian on the mat in the opening seconds of the first round before unleashing a barrage of strikes on the ground. Murphy's control and pace will likely be her best weapon as she tries to maul Chookagian on the mat.
Given the situation, Chookagian will probably end up on her back, trying to survive an onslaught from Murphy as soon as the fight starts until the final horn sounds. Chookagian seems like a solid prospect for the future, especially if a 125-pound division ever opens up, but for now she's jumping into shark-infested waters with someone like Murphy and she's probably going to be in survival mode for most of her debut.
Prediction: Lauren Murphy by unanimous decision.
Matthew Lopez vs. Rani Yahya
Matthew Lopez makes his UFC debut after being discovered on Dana White's series "Lookin’ for a Fight," and he has a chance to make a great first impression against veteran submission specialist Rani Yahya.
Lopez is a wrestling specialist with a long history on the mats and he's also developed a very good boxing game to compliment his work on the ground. Lopez has shown great evolution as a fighter after working his way up from his grappling roots. Lopez can get a little wild on his feet, so he'll have to be careful against someone like Yahya, who feasts on an over aggressive opponent who allows him to drop to the ground and start looking for submissions.
Yahya is a master of drawing his opponents into a false sense of security before latching on to an arm or a leg and not letting go until he gets a tap. Unfortunately, as good as Yahya can be at times, his biggest enemy has been inconsistency. Yahya is a world class grappler, but there are many times his offense nearly disappears as he tries to find an opening, and he then proceeds to stand in front of his opponent for 15 minutes. Yahya has a very frustrating style that irks a lot of his opponents into making a mistake, and that's where he takes advantage while fishing for a submission.
So Lopez has to be careful to not get too aggressive or leave his lead leg out too far so Yahya can grab hold of it. Still, Lopez's background in wrestling should negate Yahya's takedowns, and so long as he doesn't get too crazy on the feet and leave himself open for a counter, his UFC debut should end well for him. Lopez is undefeated and will likely remain that way with an upset victory in his first trip to the Octagon.
Prediction: Matthew Lopez by unanimous decision.