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The next contender for the middleweight title will likely be decided in the main event of the upcoming FOX UFC Fight Night card from New Jersey when Lyoto Machida meets Luke Rockhold in a pivotal matchup at 185 pounds.
Since a loss in his UFC debut, Rockhold has been storming through every middleweight that's been put in front of him, and after winning three fights in a row it would appear he's one step away from finally fighting for the gold.
Machida knows what it's like to have a UFC title wrapped around his waist and he's determined to win it again, but to get there he has to beat Rockhold this weekend. He's already faced current champion Chris Weidman once before, but Machida would like nothing more than to avenge a loss and win the middleweight title at the same time.
Also on the card, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza faces a late replacement in Chris Camozzi while former top-ranked featherweight contender Cub Swanson tries to get back on track when he faces tough Hawaiian striker Max Holloway.
In today's fantasy preview, we're going to break down some of these matchups and see who has the upper hand come fight night and make a few predictions on what appear to be locks, upsets and bouts just too close to call.
These are the fights that are split down the middle with even the oddsmakers believing it could go either way. As it turns out, almost the entire main card is comprised of these fights, so making a correct pick is more important than ever.
Luke Rockhold (-140 favorite) vs. Lyoto Machida (+120 underdog)
The main event, as expected, is a fight that could go either way. Both Rockhold and Machida have looked virtually unstoppable as of late, but something has to give in this middleweight main event.
Rockhold has been a force of nature in his last three fights, tearing through Costas Philippou, Tim Boetsch and Michael Bisping, with none of the bouts going past the second round. Rockhold is already tied for third all-time for the most knockdowns in UFC and Strikeforce history combined, and his ground game is just as dangerous. Rockhold holds the record for the most submissions in UFC and Strikeforce history, so no matter where this fight goes, he's dangerous.
Of course, Machida is no slouch in any area of the fight game, but his striking is on another level than most fighters in the UFC. Machida has the third most knockdowns in UFC history for any fighter at any weight division. His karate-based style is not only tough to attack, but his counter strikes are as deadly as any combination in the sport. Machida's kicks might be his best weapon and he's got a lightning quick head kick as well as a vicious body kick that does a lot of damage without landing more than one or two times. Machida also possesses 81.3-percent takedown defense, so even getting him to the mat is a tough prospect.
To win this fight, Rockhold has to make it ugly and not just stand on the outside and play a kickboxing battle with Machida. While he does have a slight reach advantage, Rockhold just won't be as fast on the feet and Machida's ability to counter strike might be his most effective weapon. Rockhold is deceptively good on the inside when he wants to be, so putting Machida against the cage and looking for a dirty boxing battle could do wonders in this matchup. Thankfully, Rockhold has a training partner like Daniel Cormier, who is a master of fighting inside, to help him prepare for this one.
The fact of the matter is that this is a toss up and there's no clear favorite. Rockhold has more ways to win and the having a slight size advantage could help him to close the range and either put Machida on the mat or grind him against the cage while standing. Over the course of five rounds that could negate Machida's ability to fire off his deadly punches and kicks, which would eventually lead to a loss on the scorecards.
Prediction: Luke Rockhold by split decision
Cub Swanson (-150 favorite) vs. Max Holloway (+130 underdog)
The featherweight matchup between Cub Swanson and Max Holloway is just as difficult to predict a winner in because both fighters are very proficient at standing tall and striking until an opponent is either bloodied and beaten or just plain knocked out.
Swanson has a bit of a mountain to climb after a decisive loss in his last fight to Frankie Edgar, but this fight will favor him much more than a matchup against a wrestler like his previous bout. Swanson is ultra dangerous with his punches and kicks and he has true one-shot knockout power with any of his strikes that land clean.
Holloway is no slouch on the feet either, landing 5.62 significant strikes per minute with over 70-percent defense as well. He hits fast and accurately and it's tough to catch him on the counters. Holloway's losses in the UFC have mostly come from fighters with the ability to drag him to the mat, and chances are that won't happen in this matchup, so the young Hawaiian is in a fight that would normally favor him…if he wasn't facing somebody as good as Cub Swanson.
Swanson's loss to Edgar was a symptomatic problem of many of the best strikers falling against top wrestlers but when it comes to stand-up fighting he remains one of the top fighters in the world at 145 pounds. Swanson is good anywhere on the feet, whether it's at range or in close and Holloway has rarely faced a veteran as versatile as he will this weekend. Look for Swanson to pepper Hollaway early to let him know he's in a fight with a legit top five featherweight before looking for the kill in later rounds. Holloway won't go away easy, but Swanson will happily batter him for three rounds if that's what it takes.
Prediction: Cub Swanson by unanimous decision
Paige VanZant (-135 favorite) vs. Felice Herrig (+115 underdog)
There may not be a more even matchup outside of the main event than this tilt between two of the top 10 fighters at 115 pounds as Felice Herrig meets Paige VanZant.
VanZant's star has been on the rise ever since her UFC debut, where she beat fellow first-timer Kailin Curran and also earned Fight of the Night honors to boot. VanZant is still very young in this sport, but her potential is massive. She's a quick learner and for this fight camp she was able to spend her entire time with the coaches and fighters at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, which will only benefit her come fight time. VanZant is a very versatile fighter with good striking and incredible flexibility on the mat.
In terms of veteran experience, Herrig definitely has her opponent trumped because she's been fighting for several years and has faced a laundry list of top fighters in her day. Herrig comes from a Muay Thai kickboxing background, but it's her ground game that has given her the most success in recent fights. Herrig is proficient on top or off her back and she's always busy on the ground.
This fight really comes down to who wins in the scrambles. Can Herrig lock up a submission before VanZant can break for? Or can VanZant keep Herrig stifled long enough to land punches on the mat? It's a game of inches between these two, but VanZant's ability to find a way out of trouble may give her a slight edge. Herrig has panicked in moments where she's gotten in bad positions in the past and VanZant showed incredible ability to wiggle out of tough spots and take advantage of an opponent's mistake.
Prediction: Paige VanZant by TKO, round three
Patrick Cummins (-135 favorite) vs. Ovince Saint Preux (+115 underdog)
One of the bigger surprises in terms of the betting odds is this matchup of top 15 light heavyweights, considering the win Ovince Saint Preux just recently picked up over former 205-pound champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Still, Saint Preux's only loss in the UFC was to Ryan Bader in a fight where he struggled against the former NCAA All-American's wrestling and the same thing could happen against Patrick Cummins.
Cummins is a high-level grappler who averages over six takedowns per 15 minutes in the cage. The former Penn State wrestler makes no bones about his strategy to put an opponent on the mat and punish them until the fight is over. He's not as flashy as Saint Preux, but he's got the ultimate equalizer with his ability to take this fight to the mat whenever he feels the need.
If Saint Preux has drilled his wrestling to the point of exhaustion he has a shot in this fight because he's the better overall fighter than Cummins, but he still might spend 15 minutes planted on his back just gasping for air if he's not careful.
Prediction: Patrick Cummins by split decision
These are the fights on the card with a much better chance for one fighter to trump the other, but knowing how the bout will end could be just as important as who wins.
Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza (-1250 favorite over Chris Camozzi)
Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza got an unwelcome call last weekend when he found out that his original opponent Yoel Romero suffered a knee injury and was forced to withdraw from their co-main event bout this weekend in New Jersey. Instead, Souza now faces late replacement Chris Camozzi, who returns to the UFC following two straight wins outside the Octagon after being released from the promotion after four consecutive defeats.
Souza is very familiar with Camozzi because they already fought once before in the Brazilian's UFC debut. Souza won that fight by submission in the first round and chances are nothing will change in the rematch.
Souza is an elite middleweight and the only thing that could potentially cost him in this fight would be his own hubris if he just believes he'll walk through Camozzi because he did it once before. Outside of that highly unlikely scenario, Souza has been through a full training camp and he knows Camozzi already from beating him before. Everybody loves a good underdog, but unfortunately the odds are just stacked too high for Camozzi in this one.
Prediction: Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza by submission, round one
Corey Anderson (-280 favorite over Gian Villante)
Former Ultimate Fighter winner Corey Anderson remains a fighter to watch in the next year as he starts to climb the ranks in the light heavyweight division. Anderson is still very young, but has all the ability to one day be a top 10 fighter if he continues the progression he's had since doing the reality show and working with Frankie Edgar and his coaching staff in New Jersey.
Anderson is a powerfully strong wrestler with long range and better than average kickboxing as well. Anderson can be overwhelming at times, but where he shows real maturity is with his patience to let the fight come to him and not rushing into bad situations. His opponent, Gian Villante, is especially dangerous in the early going, but has struggled with his cardio in past fights. Villante will certainly be looking for the knockout early, which Anderson can counter with his wrestling.
Once this fight goes deep into the second and late into the third, Anderson should take over with a mix of takedowns, ground-and-pound and better conditioning. If Villante fades, Anderson will take advantage in a big way.
Prediction: Corey Anderson by TKO, round three
Eddie Gordon (-375 favorite over Chris Dempsey)
The other winner from the season 19 of The Ultimate Fighter, Eddie Gordon, is also back in action on this card, looking to recover from a highlight-reel knockout loss in his last fight to Josh Samman. There was no doubt the knockout was a shock to Gordon, who looked like a very solid prospect after leaving the show considering his size and power for a middleweight, not to mention training with the same coaches that produced current 185-pound king Chris Weidman.
Gordon should have a chance to get back into the win column this weekend because his opponent Chris Dempsey is woefully overmatched in almost every area of the game in this fight. Gordon is a powerful fighter on the feet with plenty of knockout power, which he combines with a good Greco-Roman wrestling game where he works well in the clinch and overwhelms fighters against the cage.
Prediction: Eddie Gordon by knockout, round two
Jim Miller (+160 underdog to Beneil Dariush)
New Jersey native Jim Miller will walk into the arena on Saturday night as an underdog to Beneil Dariush, who accepted the fight on short notice after Paul Felder was forced off the card due to injury. Dariush has looked very good lately, especially in his last win over Daron Cruickshank, and when you combine his rapidly improving stand-up with a world-class Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu game, it's understandable why he might be a popular pick on the card.
That said, Miller is a veteran who somehow continuously slips under the radar despite a wealth of experience against some of the best lightweights in the world. He has suffered several losses in the UFC, but only seems to stumble against the best fighters at 155 pounds. Otherwise, Miller has feasted on all the other fighters the UFC puts in the cage to oppose him, and while Dariush is certainly no pushover, it's still tough to pick against the veteran in this fight.
Miller is good everywhere and his ability to mix things up always keeps opponents guessing. He's got solid wrestling, better than average striking and a very good ground game. Dariush won't make it easy on him, but Miller has the know-how to win in the trenches and pull out of tough spots and that's something we just haven't seen from his opponent as of yet. Miller may not be a top five lightweight, but he'll always be an incredibly tough test for anyone knocking on the door of the top 10.
Prediction: Jim Miller by unanimous decision