Flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson will attempt to make history on Saturday night in Kansas City when he faces Wilson Reis, as he has an opportunity to tie Anderson Silva for the most title defenses in UFC history.
Johnson is the only flyweight champion the UFC has ever known, and he has stormed through the 125-pound division for several years, but now Reis is the last obstacle standing in his way as he goes for a 10th consecutive successful title defense.
Also on the card, top rated strawweights Rose Namajunas and Michelle Waterson face off in a crucial bout at 115 pounds, while submission specialist Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza takes on knockout artist Robert Whittaker in a matchup that could have serious title implications.
In today's fantasy preview, we'll examine these fights and several more to see who has the edge going into Saturday night and who might be primed for an upset at FOX UFC Fight Night: Johnson vs. Reis.
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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.
Rose Namajunas vs. Michelle Waterson
While it's not the main event, the showdown between Rose Namajunas and Michelle Waterson is one of the most highly anticipated fights of the first half of 2017. Namajunas has built a reputation for being one of the toughest strawweight competitors in the world, while Waterson has made a meteoric rise following a first-round submission win in her last fight against Paige VanZant.
These two fighters are very similar in style and approach, with Namajunas maintaining a slight height and reach advantage over Waterson going into this fight. At her best, Namajunas is a slick submission specialist who has shown off an impressive striking attack throughout her UFC career. Unfortunately, Namajunas has come up short in a pair of her biggest fights against former champion Carla Esparza and former title contender Karolina Kowalkiewicz. To get back into the title picture, Namajunas needs to look better than ever against Waterson, who could be anointed the next in line for a title shot with a win.
While Waterson's nickname is "The Karate Hottie," this veteran mixed martial artist is every bit as dangerous on the ground as she is on the feet. Waterson hits quick and fast on the feet, but she's unrelenting with her pressure on the ground. Waterson averages over three takedowns per fight and she hasn't been stopped once during her two fight UFC career when looking to put her opponents on the mat. Waterson may not struggle much with that game plan against Namajunas either, considering the former Ultimate Fighter competitor had no problem engaging in a ground battle with any of her past opponents.
Where Waterson could take advantage of some shortcomings from Namajunas is by pushing her on the feet with fast combinations and then getting out of the way of her counters. Namajunas absorbs three times as many strikes on the feet as Waterson, and that could come back to bite her if these two start engaging in a kickboxing match.
From there, Waterson can certainly drag this fight to the ground, but that's no guaranteed victory by any means. Namajunas is a nasty ground practitioner, but she works best when she's in control. If Waterson can get Namajunas to the mat and maintain top position, she could rain down a lot of punishment that would certainly score a lot of points in the judges' eyes. In the end, this really is a pick ‘em fight that could steal the show, but given Waterson's recent performance coupled with a very well-rounded skill set, she maintains a very slight edge over Namajunas in this matchup.
Prediction: Michelle Waterson by unanimous decision
Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza vs. Robert Whittaker
This middleweight showdown is the true old school grappler versus striker match. Souza is arguably one of the greatest grapplers to ever step foot inside the Octagon, while Whittaker is a fierce and ferocious striker with huge knockout power combined with a tactical kickboxing attack that can give anybody fits on the feet.
While Souza is best known for his groundwork, he's shown off some knockout power since arriving in the UFC, although playing that game has cost him in the past. Souza got caught with a nasty spinning back fist courtesy of Yoel Romero when they faced off, and that knockdown may have ultimately cost him a decision in that fight. Souza can't make those same mistakes against Whittaker because he's just as explosive and packs a serious pop in all his strikes.
Whittaker has to know that Souza will look to drag this to the ground at some point and that could take away his kicking game out of fear of being dragged to the mat. If Whittaker can keep Souza at a distance, he lands an incredible five significant strikes per minute with nearly 42 percent accuracy, and he doesn’t take much damage in return. Whittaker's best offense could be his defense, because his ability to win this fight could come down to blocking Souza's attempts to take this to the mat.
Souza isn't the greatest wrestler in the UFC, but he has a variety of trips and throws that come in handy whenever he wants to take his opponents down. He averages over three takedowns per 15 minutes in the Octagon, and his easiest path to victory will be closing the distance on Whittaker and taking him to the ground early and often. Now Whittaker has shown incredible takedown defense throughout his UFC career, but he's never faced a submission specialist as good as Souza. The sheer threat of going to the ground with Souza could force Whittaker into making some mistakes, and that could be the difference between a win and a loss in this middleweight matchup.
Prediction: Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza by submission, Round 2
Louis Smolka will look to get back on track when he returns in Kansas City to face former Ultimate Fighter winner and recent title challenger Tim Elliott. While Smolka has dealt with back-to-back losses, he remains one of the most dangerous and capable flyweights in the sport. As for Elliott, he is a massive fighter for this division who has the innate ability to make any fight ugly, and that always seems to play into his favor.
The real key in this matchup will be Smolka's ability to avoid the takedown so he's not stuck under Elliott for three rounds fighting for air. Smolka endured a similar fate against Ray Borg in his last fight. Now Borg is a better wrestler than Elliott, but the crafty veteran is a huge fighter for 125 pounds and that size could play a huge factor in tossing Smolka to the mat and keeping him there for the better part of 15 minutes.
To win this fight, Smolka has to win the scrambles when Elliott looks to get this fight to the mat and make him pay every time he attempts a takedown. Elliott can get a little sloppy when he approaches a takedown, so Smolka has to be ready to counter with a choke or a big strike any time he sees his opponent pressing forward with a lot of momentum.
While Elliott may be riding high after putting up a great fight against flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, the title fight hangover could cost him against a slick submission specialist like Smolka, who can take advantage of the smallest of errors to finish a fight. Elliott has a tendency to put himself into bad positions before capitalizing on a mistake. This time around, Smolka would be smart to pounce on any error from Elliott to latch on to a submission until his opponent is forced to tap out.
Prediction: Louis Smolka 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.
Demetrious Johnson vs. Wilson Reis
When his career is over, Demetrious Johnson will likely go down as one of the greatest fighters to ever step foot in the Octagon, while also probably holding numerous records for his run as flyweight champion. In a video game where a player could build the perfect fighter, Johnson would be the template. He's a phenomenal wrestler with incredibly fast hands and a devastating submission arsenal to match. There's nothing Johnson doesn't do well and that's why he's been so tough to topple.
Wilson Reis will look to do what no one at 125 pounds has been able to do when he faces Johnson in the main event. Now there are advantages that Reis may have in this fight, most notably his size, where he'll enjoy slightly better reach and height over the champion. Reis is a former bantamweight, so he's definitely a bigger fighter competing at 125 pounds, and he'll need to use that to his advantage because he simply can't match Johnson in the quickness department.
Reis has to force Johnson into a grind where he takes this fight to the ground near the cage and then attempts to control him there for five rounds. Reis averages over five takedowns per fight, so that will be his best bet at staving off Johnson's potent offensive onslaught. Then again, that task is much easier said than done.
Johnson will likely be able to pick his shots in this fight, especially as each minute ticks away that much closer towards the championship rounds. Johnson is a conditioning machine and he loves to wear out his opponents because he has non-stop aggression from the first second of the fight until the very last. Reis may hang tough through the first two rounds, but once Johnson drags him into the third and beyond, it's his fight to win.
Look for Johnson to start to really take over in that third and fourth round before he either finds an opening to earn a TKO victory or he'll just wear Reis down by the time the final horn sounds in the arena.
Prediction: Demetrious Johnson by unanimous decision
Following nearly a year away from action, Renato Moicano will return for his second UFC fight against one of the scariest featherweights in the world in Jeremy Stephens.
Stephens is the definition of a knockout artist, someone who can absolutely decimate his opponents with just one punch or one kick at any point from the first round until the last. Stephens has also worked on his technical kickboxing, allowing him to set up those big powerful strikes much better than he did during the early part of his UFC career. Stephens now attacks with good accuracy and volume before unleashing hell with jaw-dropping efficiency.
Moicano is a submission specialist with a high level grappling background that has served him well throughout his career. Submissions have been one area where Stephens has struggled before but the key is Moicano finding a way to get this one to the ground and that's not going to be an easy task to complete.
Look for Stephens to set up Moicano early by baiting him into a bad takedown, and once he sees an opening the strikes will come in huge, flurrying combinations until he finds the right punch or kick that will put a stop to the contest.
Prediction: Jeremy Stephens by knockout, Round 2
Ashlee Evans-Smith will look for her third consecutive win when she faces off with Brazilian ground specialist Ketlen Vieira. Vieira is best known for the groundwork she showcased in her UFC debut against Kelly Faszholz, but she's probably going to struggle if that's the same strategy she tries to use against Evans-Smith on Saturday night.
Evans-Smith is a powerfully strong former collegiate wrestler who has some of the best takedowns in the women's bantamweight division. Now it's safe to say that Evans-Smith hasn't quite matched up her striking to the same level as her grappling, but that probably won't matter much in this fight because Vieira will probably give her plenty of openings to take this to the ground.
Vieira will certainly try to put Evans-Smith on her back, which is the last place a wrestler wants to be, but it's really tough to see that happening in this fight. Instead, look for Evans-Smith to control the distance on the feet, where she lands just over four significant strikes per minute, until Vieira tries to drag this to the mat and that's where she can counter and show off her own grappling acumen. Evans-Smith is a future top 10 bantamweight and this should be another opportunity for her to showcase those skills against Vieira, who may just be outgunned by a better wrestler in this fight.
Prediction: Ashlee Evans-Smith by unanimous decision
Alexander Volkov could be a threat to the top 10 in the heavyweight division one day, but he's got to get through Roy "Big Country" Nelson to stay on track and that's no easy task.
On paper, Volkov has all the physical advantages to win this fight.
He's a hulking heavyweight with a seven-inch height advantage and a whopping eight-inch reach advantage who hits with power and just under 60 percent accuracy, which is a big deal for this division. Volkov absorbs less damage and has a wealth of experience under his belt to carry him deep into a three-round fight if necessary.
All that said, Nelson knows better than anybody how to topple a giant like Volkov when the odds aren't on his side. Nelson has crumbled more than his fair share of big, muscular heavyweights who have a size advantage over him. He has a ridiculous ability to sneak inside on his opponents before uncorking a baseball pitch right hand that starts at his hip before making it all the way around to absolutely demolish whoever is standing in front of him. Nelson has silenced more than a few opponents with that punch over the years.
Of course, Volkov could pressure Nelson against the cage and try to wear him down over 15 minutes, but that's not going to be easy, no matter how hard he tries. Nelson has a granite chin, and while he may not have great conditioning, he's still dangerous no matter when he unleashes his knockout power. Volkov may enter this fight with a higher ranking next to his name, but he'll probably leave with a loss on his record and perhaps some questions about how he lost because most opponents don’t see Nelson's best punch coming until it's already too late.
Prediction: Roy Nelson by knockout, Round 1