Former middleweight champion Chris Weidman will fight just minutes from his home when the UFC lands in Long Island, NY this weekend, as he faces former Ultimate Fighter winner Kelvin Gastelum in the main event of the FOX UFC Fight Night card.
It’s a fight that could have a major impact on the middleweight division, and while Weidman has suffered through the toughest stretch of his career recently, with his hometown crowd in attendance there's little doubt he'll look to bounce back with a huge performance on Saturday night. Meanwhile, Gastelum has looked better than ever since moving to 185 pounds, and with a win over Weidman he could be inching very close to the title fight conversation.
Top 15 featherweights Dennis Bermudez and Darren Elkins will also square off on the card. Bermudez has built a reputation on being one of the most exciting fighters in the world at 145 pounds while Elkins is coming off one of the most incredible comebacks in UFC history when he stopped highly touted prospect Mirsad Bektic in his last fight.
In today's fantasy preview, we'll examine these fights and several more to see who has the edge and who might be primed for the upset at UFC Fight Night: Weidman vs. Gastelum.
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.
Chris Weidman vs. Kelvin Gastelum
Former middleweight champion Chris Weidman will look to bounce back from a string of recent losses when he fights at home against surging middleweight contender Kelvin Gastelum, who has gone undefeated in his past three fights.
Now Gastelum will be the first to admit that he's slightly undersized for a middleweight and that will be evident when he squares off with Weidman during fight week. Weidman will be five inches taller with a whopping seven-inch reach advantage. That being said, Gastelum has made great adjustments for being the smaller fighter since moving up to 185 pounds.
Gastelum may be giving up a size advantage, but he will definitely be the faster fighter and he also possesses serious sting in his punches. Gastelum lands over four significant strikes per minute with 44 percent accuracy, which means he's very active and he doesn't throw a punch or kick without typically landing on target. Gastelum has also showcased incredible defense throughout his UFC career while absorbing far fewer strikes than Weidman.
That means the former champion is going to have to use his reach and size to try and bully Gastelum around the Octagon. Weidman is a top-notch wrestler who averages nearly four takedowns per fight with over 50 percent accuracy. Weidman is no slouch on his feet either, but dealing with a quicker boxer like Gastelum might force him to put this fight on the mat. Weidman is like a bear when he's on top of an opponent, as he absolutely mauls the competition with a grinding attack while firing away with punches from inside the guard. The last place Gastelum can afford to be in this fight is stuck underneath Weidman eating punches round after round.
Still, Gastelum is no stranger to wrestling and he defends takedowns very well. If Gastelum can stop Weidman from putting him on the mat early, he could start to really take over with his powerful boxing game on the feet. Gastelum has shown incredible improvements in his striking game over the past couple of years while training under head coach Rafael Cordeiro, and that may continue to shine when he faces Weidman. With a considerable speed advantage, coupled with better conditioning as a middleweight, Gastelum has a great chance of peppering Weidman with punches round after round to earn a decision victory in his biggest middleweight fight to date.
Prediction: Kelvin Gastelum by unanimous decision
Light heavyweight competitors Patrick Cummins and Gian Villante will face off in a featured bout on the main card as each fighter tries to climb back into the top 10 at 205 pounds.
Cummins is coming off an incredible comeback victory where he defeated Jan Blachowicz in April. The former Penn State wrestler endured a ton of early punishment before finding a way to come back to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Cummins might need that same kind of durability when stepping into the Octagon with Villante.
Villante is a fast starter with massive knockout power in his hands. Villante is not only powerful but also accurate, and he lands with good volume as well. While he's certainly most dangerous in the opening round, don't think that Villante can't find a way to win late, as he's put opponents to sleep in the second and third rounds during his UFC career. If there's been a knock on Villante's style, it's that he gets a little sloppy in some of his exchanges, which opens him up to counter strikes from his opponents. Now Cummins isn't best known for his knockout power, but rather his tremendous wrestling base, so Villante should probably worry more about the takedown than any big punches coming at his head.
Villante's best offense in this fight may be a good defense, as Cummins will undoubtedly look to press forward with a wrestling heavy attack. Cummins averages over six takedowns per fight, so he rarely makes it a secret what he plans to do in the Octagon. Meanwhile, Villante has showcased over 80 percent takedown defense and that's where his advantages start to take form. If Villante can stuff Cummins' early takedown attempts, he can start to open up with his striking, where he'll look to punish the No. 11-ranked light heavyweight en route to another TKO finish.
Prediction: Gian Villante by TKO, Round 2
Perhaps the toughest fight to pick on the entire card is this outstanding bantamweight matchup between Jimmie Rivera, who is undefeated in his UFC campaign, taking on always exciting knockout artist Thomas Almeida.
Rivera has been very impressive through his first four outings inside the Octagon, including a win over UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber in his most recent fight. Rivera is best known for his volume striking and simply outworking the opposition, which has served him well as he's made a rise up the rankings to find himself in the top five at 135 pounds. Rivera keeps a blistering pace with good pop behind his punches, as well as solid accuracy, and thus far no one has found the formula to counter him.
Almeida will certainly present an interesting puzzle, as he enters the fight with knockouts in all but one of his wins in the UFC. Almeida not only hits like a truck, but he's one of the most creative and explosive fighters in the bantamweight division. It wasn't that long ago that Almeida was viewed as the top prospect at 135 pounds until he ran into future champion Cody Garbrandt, who handed him his first professional loss. Almeida bounced back with a nasty knockout against Albert Morales and now he'll try to do the same to Rivera.
Almeida is a very capable striker with huge knockout power for a bantamweight, but he's also very technically proficient. Almeida actually outlands Rivera in volume with nearly seven significant strikes per minute while also matching him defensively on the feet. Almeida will need to use both of those weapons if he hopes to get past Rivera on Saturday night. Almeida has to match Rivera's output, which won't be easy to do, but he's capable of keeping up for all three rounds.
Plus, Almeida's ability to finish with one strike is something Rivera hasn't seen yet in the UFC and it will be interesting to see if he makes any adjustments to deal with the Brazilian's blinding power. If Almeida can use his explosive standup game, along with a reach advantage to keep Rivera on the end of his punches, he could pull off the victory while putting himself back amongst the top fighters in the world at 135 pounds.
Prediction: Thomas Almeida 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.
Ryan LaFlare will look for his third straight win as he takes on Alex Oliveira, who is fresh off a submission victory against the always-dangerous Tim Means in his last fight.
Oliveira has built a reputation on being a fierce finisher throughout his UFC career, with four fights ending by way of knockout or submission since he joined the roster in 2015. Oliveira has also benefitted recently by moving up to welterweight, where he's no longer destroying his body in an attempt to get down to 155 pounds. Oliveira is a very crafty and dangerous fighter who isn't afraid to take chances if it means getting a win.
Unfortunately, LaFlare is more than capable of grounding Oliveira and keeping him there for three consecutive rounds. LaFlare averages just under three takedowns per fight with 52 percent accuracy, and he'll likely look to turn this into a grappling match as well. Now make no mistake, Oliveira is a slick submission artist, but LaFlare has grappled with Demian Maia in the Octagon, so chances are he'll be ready for anything that's thrown at him on the mat.
LaFlare is a punishing force when he's on top, as he peppers away with short punches while wearing out his opponents by keeping an absolutely grueling pace. Look for LaFlare to do the same thing when he steps into the Octagon with Oliveira as he uses a strong wrestling attack coupled with a top heavy attack that will be tough for the Brazilian to counter.
Prediction: Ryan LaFlare by unanimous decision
Tim Johnson vs. Junior Albini
Brazilian slugger Junior Albini will make his UFC debut against one of the top 15 heavyweights in the world when he meets Tim Johnson.
Albini is a solid prospect with a 13-2 record that includes nine straight wins as he steps into the Octagon for the first time. Albini has a slew of finishes on his resume with a mix of submissions and knockouts to his credit. Albini seems like a fighter who could make waves in the heavyweight division, but he's facing an uphill battle while taking on UFC veteran Tim Johnson.
Johnson has defined himself throughout his career with unbelievable toughness and the ability to fight out of virtually any situation. Like most heavyweights, Johnson hits hard, but his durability has helped carry him through numerous fights where others would have crumbled. Johnson may have to display that signature toughness against a heavy hitter like Albini, but his experience edge will be a huge advantage in this fight.
Johnson is a former Division II standout in wrestling and when you combine that with his Octagon savvy, it's tough to pick against him in this heavyweight matchup. Johnson will likely try to test Albini's takedown defense early while attempting to get a stoppage on the mat with a barrage of punches before the Brazilian even knows what hit him. There's no better way to take advantage of a UFC rookie than to look to pour on the offense during those first few minutes to see just how much the infamous Octagon jitters might shake them.
If Johnson does the same to Albini, he should walk out with his second win in a row.
Prediction: Timothy Johnson by TKO, Round 2
Darren Elkins vs. Dennis Bermudez
Darren Elkins pulled off one of the most insane comebacks in UFC history in his last fight as he took out highly touted featherweight prospect Mirsad Bektic back in April. This time around, Elkins will be facing an equally exciting fighter in Dennis Bermudez, who has won two of his last three fights while consistently putting on thrilling performances every time he steps into the Octagon.
Bermudez is a tough-as-nails wrestler who averages over four takedowns per fight while also putting a blistering pace on his opponents on the feet with more than four significant strikes landed per minute. Bermudez is like a hurricane in the Octagon because he's always moving and rarely slows down until the final horn sounds. Bermudez loves to stay on the attack, which often leads to thrilling victories, as very few people are able to keep up with him for three rounds.
That being said, Elkins has really transformed his game while working at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento. Once known as a grinding wrestler who could only hope to outwork an opponent on the mat, Elkins has picked up power in his hands training under head coach Justin Buchholz while continuing to improve his MMA wrestling and grappling with trainers such as Danny Castillo and Chris Holdsworth. The result lately has been a very successful campaign for Elkins, as he's won his last four fights, including that stunning knockout of Bektic in April.
Elkins just needs to keep doing the same things he's been doing and he should be able to pick up a win against a very game Bermudez on Saturday night. Elkins has to be careful not to over extend himself and allow Bermudez to counter with his wrestling. Still, Elkins will have a significant reach advantage on the feet and his grappling is just as formidable as Bermudez as long as he doesn't engage in a wild scramble on the mat with the former Ultimate Fighter finalist.
Elkins just needs to set the tone early by grounding Bermudez and unleashing an offensive output that may take him by surprise. Elkins has always been known as a grinder, but if he can surprise Bermudez early, he could pull off the upset against the No. 10-ranked fighter in the world at 145 pounds.
Prediction: Darren Elkins by unanimous decision