The UFC returns to Florida this weekend with a star-studded card in Tampa, as former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans headlines the show against top five contender Glover Teixeira.
Evans is looking to get back on track after a setback in his last fight against Ryan Bader, and he'll have a chance to regain his footing in the division if he can get past Teixeira. It won't be an easy test, however, because the veteran Brazilian is anything but an easy out in this five-round main event.
Also on the card, former champion Lyoto Machida will attempt to stop a two-fight skid when he meets Dan Henderson in a middleweight co-main event. Both Machida and Henderson have suffered some tough losses lately and only one of them will be able to rebound at Amalie Arena.
As we look ahead to Saturday's card in Tampa, today's fantasy preview will break down some of those key matchups to see who has the advantage as we examine UFC Fight Night: Teixeira vs. Evans.
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.
Glover Teixeira (-230 favorite) vs. Rashad Evans (+190 underdog)
The main event this weekend features two of the best and most durable light heavyweights on the roster, as Glover Teixeira meets Rashad Evans in a five-round battle. Teixeira is coming off two straight wins over Ovince Saint Preux and Patrick Cummins while looking better than ever in the process. Teixeira is best known as a heavy-handed slugger, but he's gotten more disciplined lately, and instead of just throwing haymakers with his opponents until one of them falls over, he's been more precise and surgical with his attacks.
He'll need that kind of patience to beat someone as good as Evans, who definitely had an off night in his last fight, but that came after two years away from action. At his best, Evans is one of the best 205-pound fighters on the planet, with a sledgehammer for a right hand and arguably the fastest double leg takedown in the division. Evans has shied away from his wrestling at points during his career and it's ultimately cost him, but to beat a fighter as powerful as Teixeira, he's going to have to rely on his grappling or risk trading punches with a serious heavy hitter.
Evans will definitely be the faster fighter, so employing a quick, stiff jab to keep Teixeira from loading up on punches will be key. Backing that up with a good takedown to put Teixeira on the defensive will be another great tactic for the former champion. Teixeira has struggled under physically strong wrestlers before and Evans certainly has the ability to get on top and stay there for five rounds.
That said, Teixeira has fixed many of the problems that cost him two previous losses in the Octagon and he's actually looked better than ever lately. He's combining crisp, strong punches with a highly improved grappling game that's keeping his opponents guessing. If he does the same to Evans over five rounds, Teixeira should cruise to a victory at the end of the night.
Prediction: Glover Teixeira by unanimous decision
Rose Namajunas (-220 favorite) vs. Tecia Torres (+180 underdog)
This bout between two of the best women's strawweights in the world is actually a rematch from 2013, when Tecia Torres handed Rose Namajunas the first loss of her career by unanimous decision. The fight was actually a back and forth affair, with both women getting the upper hand at different points, although Torres seemed stronger on the feet while Namajunas was much better on the ground.
Torres has certainly grown since that fight and she continues to build on her striking arsenal with some of the fastest combinations in the division. Torres also showed off a strong wrestling game in her win over Angela Hill to prove she's got some diversity to go along with a lightning fast striking attack.
Of course, Namajunas has also come a long way since the fight with Torres, not only evolving with her grappling game, but becoming a much better stand-up fighter. Namajunas had to suffer through a tough loss to Carla Esparza in her UFC debut before bouncing back with two punishing wins over Angela Hill and Paige VanZant. If Namajunas can show some patience and attack Torres on the ground and on the feet, she has plenty of ways to win.
Namajunas just has to avoid getting frustrated if Torres is punching and moving a lot in this fight, as she's done in most of her wins. Torres attacks in a flurry and then circles away, and that can be a frustrating offensive game to deal with, but for Namajunas to win she just has to find the perfect times to counter with punches or takedowns. This one really is a toss up because these two women are so evenly matched, but a slight edge goes to Namajunas, who has really shown some maturity and skill in her past two wins. As long as she doesn't play into Torres' hands, she should be able to eke out rounds to get the victory.
Prediction: Rose Namajunas by unanimous decision
Beneil Dariush (-160 favorite) vs. Michael Chiesa (+140 underdog)
Beneil Dariush will look for another big win in the lightweight division this weekend, as he takes on former Ultimate Fighter winner Michael Chiesa, who has been begging for a chance to take on a top 10 opponent at 155 pounds. Chiesa will get his chance against Dariush, but he's got a tall mountain to climb if he wants to get a win.
Dariush is definitely one of the top rising stars in the lightweight division, with a world-class ground game, tremendous wrestling and deceptively powerful hands. Dariush has won five fights in a row and as his win streak continues, his confidence will grow. Dariush also trains at the same gym as lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos, so he has plenty of great coaches and teammates to prepare him for this upcoming fight.
Chiesa is not going to be an easy out for Dariush, considering he's a long, lanky lightweight with a very good ground game and one of the most durable chins in the business. Chiesa isn't the most proficient striker on the feet, but he uses his size and reach well enough to keep opponents at bay until he can take the fight to the ground, where he applies a ton of pressure with strikes and submission attempts.
As good as Chiesa is on the ground, Dariush is definitely better. He's a top notch Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, and while anything can happen in a fight, if Chiesa starts mixing it up with Dariush on the mat, it's probably not going to end well for him.
Prediction: Beneil Dariush 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.
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Darrell Horcher
It's been two long years since we've seen Khabib Nurmagomedov in the Octagon, but he'll finally make his return to action on Saturday night against late notice replacement Darrell Horcher.
Horcher is a top prospect on the east coast with a 12-1 record, including five victories in a row. Horcher is also a former high school wrestler, but he typically prefers a good old-fashioned slugfest, where he stalks his opponents and unloads a barrage of strikes on the feet. Horcher is a solid counter striker with a tendency to load up on his shots whenever an opponent attacks and that's where he feasts offensively.
That aggressiveness might work against a lot of fighters - but it probably won't do well against someone as good as Nurmagomedov. The Dagestani fighter is arguably the top wrestler in the lightweight division, with powerful takedowns, incredible ground control and he swarms on top like an animal eating its prey. Nurmagomedov is relentless with his pressure, and against someone like Horcher, who likes to attack offensively without a ton of defensive measures, he'll counter that with a big smile on his face as he plants the American on the mat with a huge slam, most likely inside the first three minutes of the fight.
Nurmagomedov is coming off a long layoff, so it's possible ring rust could play a factor early, but it's going to be a tough test for Horcher to survive one round, much less two, once the top-ranked lightweight contender gets warmed up.
Prediction: Khabib Nurmagomedov by TKO, Round 2
John Dodson (-500 favorite) vs. Manny Gamburyan (+400 underdog)
John Dodson returns to the bantamweight division and he also happens to be the biggest favorite on the entire card, as he takes on former Ultimate Fighter finalist Manny Gamburyan.
While he is a massive underdog, Gamburyan is no slouch, and he's pulled off two consecutive wins, although he had to grab on to a guillotine choke to finish Cody Gibson after taking a mountain of punishment early in that fight. Gamburyan is a hard-nosed grappler with good judo and a clinch game that he usually applies to stifle his opponent’s offense and work against the cage with his own shots from the inside.
He's going to have an awfully hard time doing that to someone like Dodson, who is not only a strong fighter anywhere in the cage, but he's also one of the quickest athletes on the entire roster. Catching up to Dodson enough to grab on to him won't be easy for the most seasoned grapplers and that's going to play right into his hand with this fight.
Dodson will likely dance on the outside before leaping in with big, powerful combinations to hurt Gamburyan on the feet. Dodson packs a serious punch, and while he may not finish Gamburyan with strikes, he'll load up and crack him several times over several rounds en route to a lopsided decision win.
Prediction: John Dodson by unanimous decision
Bethe Correia (+140 underdog) vs. Raquel Pennington (-160 favorite)
This is another impossibly tough fight to choose on the card Saturday night, but that also makes it a great play for Bethe Correia as the underdog, because this bout with Raquel Pennington looks like a split decision just waiting to happen.
Pennington is one of the toughest fighters in the women's bantamweight division, and she can go toe-to-toe with anybody at 135 pounds. In fact, Pennington took Holly Holm to a close decision in her UFC debut and she's more than capable of pulling off that same feat against anybody in the division. The problem is because Pennington tends to get drawn into close battles, it give Correia the chance to steal a decision.
Correia is fast on her feet, with good pop behind her punches, and she also lands with incredible volume. Correia currently averages over six significant strikes landed per minute, and if she can penetrate Pennington's defense with those combinations, it will help her add up points on the scorecards.
Correia isn't likely to put enough power on her strikes to seriously hurt Pennington, but if she can out land the former Ultimate Fighter competitor round after round, it still gets her the win.
Prediction: Bethe Correia by split decision