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The battle nearly a year in the making will finally go down this weekend, as featherweight champion Jose Aldo puts his title on the line against interim belt holder Conor McGregor in the main event of a star-studded UFC 194 event.
Aldo is still the only undisputed featherweight champion the UFC has ever known, but McGregor believes he's not only his equal, but superior to the Brazilian in every way. McGregor has been nothing but impressive since arriving in the UFC, but is he ready for one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport?
Also on the card, Chris Weidman will look to make another successful defense of his middleweight title when he faces former Strikeforce champion Luke Rockhold. Both fighters have looked better than ever in recent fights and Rockhold may ultimately become Weidman's biggest challenge.
As we gear up for an incredible card on Saturday night, today's fantasy preview will look at some of these key matchups to see who will walk away victorious at UFC 194: Aldo vs. McGregor.
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.
Conor McGregor (-130 favorite) vs. Jose Aldo (+110 underdog)
When it's all said and done, Jose Aldo may go down as one of the best to ever compete at mixed martial arts, but all signs are pointing towards his upcoming title defense as the toughest challenge of his career. Aldo has faced virtually every featherweight contender the UFC and WEC could throw at him, but he's never taken on an opponent as large or as dangerous on the feet as McGregor.
McGregor will hold a whopping four-inch reach advantage, which is something Aldo usually has on his side while facing shorter competition. McGregor's striking is nothing short of devastating, as he lands over five significant strikes per minute with nearly 45-percent accuracy. Aldo has also shown incredible defense throughout his career, but he did get hit with a barrage of big shots in his last fight against Chad Mendes.
While it's not likely this fight will hit the mat, Aldo does possess better than average takedown skills, and throwing that into the mix could keep McGregor honest when he's throwing his kicks or trying to engage with combinations. Still, Aldo's best weapon has always been his Muay Thai kickboxing, where he's as nasty as they come on the feet. Aldo has weapons from every angle and possesses the power to alter the outcome of an entire fight based solely on the power of his leg kicks.
McGregor does have the benefit of being a southpaw, which could help him combat Aldo's typical outside leg kick, but he'll still have to worry about his right thigh, which could then suffer the brunt of the Brazilian's attacks.
McGregor has shown great flexibility and movement during his UFC career and if he can force Aldo to make a mistake like committing to his leg kicks early or stuffing a takedown attempt, the momentum of this fight could shift in a hurry. McGregor has said numerous times that the damage Aldo has endured throughout his career could be a factor and that's absolutely true. Mendes battered Aldo over five rounds and sometimes it's nearly impossible to get back to 100-percent after something like that. Don't forget that Aldo has also been out since that fight happened and will return following a 14-month layoff.
Look for McGregor to put the pressure on Aldo and if his mind games have played any part in the lead up to this fight, he'll take advantage early and often.
Prediction: Conor McGregor by TKO, Round 3
Chris Weidman (-150 favorite) vs. Luke Rockhold (+130 underdog)
The middleweight title fight is just as difficult to pick because Chris Weidman has continued to improve and get better since beating arguably the greatest fighter of all-time in Anderson Silva, while Rockhold's prowess just continues to grow with each passing fight.
Weidman has good boxing at his disposal, and he matches Rockhold on paper in terms of accuracy and shots landed per minute, but his defense is problematic at times and chances are the middleweight champion will want to get this to the ground for his best chance to win.
Rockhold works with some of the best wrestlers in the sport, so he'll well versed in stopping the takedown, but to truly unleash his best strikes, which are often both his punches and his kicks, he'll need to take away Weidman's best weapon early. Rockhold has to make Weidman desperate to get the fight to the ground and then counter those attempts to keep the fight standing.
Weidman is more than capable of landing the knockout shot to put Rockhold away - just ask Silva about that one. But Rockhold has to know that his diversity on the feet could be the difference maker in this matchup while he’ll also be doing his best to stay off the ground, courtesy of Weidman's wrestling. There's a good chance this one goes five rounds no matter who wins, but those first 10 minutes or so could tell the story for the whole fight.
If Weidman can put Rockhold down early, he can continue to build that pressure and grind the top ranked challenger into the mat. If Rockhold counters and starts to let his hands go with Weidman having no exit strategy as the rounds move forward, he could begin eating a lot of damage as his chin gets really tested for the first time since joining the UFC. Weidman can't take that kind of punishment from Rockhold round after round or he's going to watch his title slip through his fingers.
Prediction: Luke Rockhold by unanimous decision.
Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza (-150 favorite) vs. Yoel Romero (+130 underdog)
The talent just doesn't stop on this card, because the third fight from the top will likely determine who the winner in the co-main event will face next, as submission specialist Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza takes on Olympic silver medalist Yoel Romero.
Souza has looked better than ever since coming to the UFC, and he's now won eight fights in a row as he hopes to secure a title shot with one more victory. Romero is no pushover, and his explosive power and sheer athleticism has led him to an impressive mark in the UFC, including his win earlier this year over former light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida.
If there's one knock on Romero, it's that he can be an impossibly slow starter, and he often has to fight from behind after allowing himself to go down on the scorecards. Now that wasn't the case against Machida, so maybe he's fixed that issue, but he was down two rounds to Derek Brunson and was nearly finished by Tim Kennedy before he was saved by the horn at the end of the round.
Romero can't play that game with “Jacare,” because the Brazilian submission specialist will pounce on him from the first minute until the last and won't let up along the way. Romero is the more powerful and accurate striker though, landing 3.51 strikes per minute with an incredible 55-percent of his shots hitting the mark.
Romero is also a world class wrestler, but he's given up takedowns in past fights thanks to his ultra aggressive style, and while he does great to get up off the mat, he can't afford to play that game with someone as good as “Jacare.”
Souza has worked tirelessly on his stand-up and boxing, and he's gotten quite good lately while still incorporating his world class jiu-jitsu. Souza just needs to capitalize on the openings Romero has given a great many of his opponents, and then not make a mistake where the Cuban can capitalize. If Souza does that, he should walk out with another win and hopefully stake the claim to get the next crack at the middleweight belt.
Prediction: Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza 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.
Max Holloway (-550 favorite) vs. Jeremy Stephens (+425 underdog)
The featherweight fight kicking off the UFC 194 main card is outstanding and features two of the best strikers in the weight class, but Max Holloway might be en route to a title shot soon enough and this bout should be a great showcase why.
Holloway is a high volume striker, landing 5.67 strikes per minute with just under 42-percent accuracy. Holloway's game isn't so much about one punch or one kick landing, but a volume of strikes that add up over the entirety of a fight. His takedown defense is solid, but chances are he won't need it much while taking on a prolific knockout puncher like Stephens.
Stephens has been knocking people out in the UFC for more than 20 fights at this point, and he's looked better than ever as a featherweight. His explosive punching power can stop anybody dead in their tracks, and even if he's down two rounds, Stephen is still ultra dangerous in the third.
That being said, Holloway's ability to rack up points with a very busy output could keep Stephens from landing enough significant strikes to do any real damage. Obviously, Holloway has to stay away from any huge exchanges, but if he cracks Stephens with a few shots and then moves, the young Hawaiian should see massive returns in his strategy once the final decision is read.
Prediction: Max Holloway by unanimous decision
Urijah Faber (-700 favorite) vs. Frankie Saenz (+500 underdog)
It's tough to pick against Urijah Faber most of the time, but it's nearly impossible when he's taking on a fighter from outside the top 10 in a non-title fight. For those keeping score at home, Faber has only lost once in his entire career in a non-title fight and that came in a five-round decision to Frankie Edgar this past May.
Faber feasts on the rest of the division whenever the gold isn't on the line and it's not likely much will change here either. Frankie Saenz is no joke, especially with the wrestling pedigree he's packing as a dangerous weapon, but to use that, he'll have to catch up to Faber and hope he doesn't get clamped down in a submission for his troubles.
Faber is good everywhere, but his guillotine is the stuff of legend, and he's a well-versed offensive wrestler himself. Faber also has a mental edge going into this fight knowing that with a win he could be looking at a bantamweight title shot in 2016, considering that his biggest rival, Dominick Cruz, is about to face his former teammate, TJ Dillashaw, with the belt on the line in January.
Either of those matchups would be big business for Faber, but to get there he first has to go through Saenz, and unless this ends up being one of the most lopsided upsets in UFC history, he'll go into 2016 off a win.
Prediction: Urijah Faber by submission, Round 2
Kevin Lee (-600 favorite) vs. Leonardo Santos (+450 underdog)
The lightweight matchup between Kevin Lee and Leonardo Santos is one of the most lopsided when it comes to the odds, although this one is a lot closer than it seems. Santos is a very dangerous Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner with a veritable arsenal of submissions at his disposal if he gets on the ground.
Santos has tapped out two opponents in the UFC already and remains a promising prospect out of his home country of Brazil.
The problem Santos faces in this fight is going up against a powerful young wrestler like Lee, who can counter virtually any takedown attempt and then flurry with his fast hands on the feet. Lee is still learning how to be great when he fights in the Octagon, but the tools are there for him to one day become a threat to the top 10. Lee is strong with his striking, and his takedowns - where he averages more than three per fight - are enough to alter the course of almost any matchup he'll face in the UFC.
Lee probably won't use much wrestling this time around except to counter Santos on the feet and then unleash his hands until it's clear on the judges' scorecards that he deserves the win.
Prediction: Kevin Lee by unanimous decision
Gunnar Nelson (+125 underdog) vs. Demian Maia (-145 favorite)
One of the best fights on the main card will pit two of the best submission fighters to ever compete in the UFC against each other, as Demian Maia takes on Gunnar Nelson. Maia is currently a slight favorite, but this really is a close matchup no matter how you cut it.
Maia has looked phenomenal lately with wins over the likes of Ryan LaFlare and Neil Magny, while he continues to show his world-class jiu-jitsu skills on the mat. Maia averages over three takedowns per fight, so don't be surprised if he drags this one to the ground as well and tries to maintain control on top of Nelson, who is also a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, with his degree coming from famed trainer Renzo Gracie.
Where Nelson has a great chance to pull off the upset is by stifling Maia's takedown attempts and keeping this fight on the feet. Nelson isn't exactly the most polished striker, but with just under 55-percent accuracy, when he does throw, he's landing his shots. Maia's striking isn't bad, but it's still not nearly on par with his grappling, and he's going to have to put himself into some bad positions to land a takedown in this one.
Look for Nelson to keep his range and try to frustrate Maia on the feet. If this fight hits the ground, look out for some serious scrambles and exchanges, but it's not likely either Maia or Nelson will get the finish there unless an opponent is hurt before landing on the mat in the first place. Nelson has a chance to make a real statement this weekend, and if he can show off some of the striking he's been doing alongside Conor McGregor for the past few years, he's got a great chance to pick up a signature win on Saturday night.
Prediction: Gunnar Nelson by unanimous decision