UFC 196 could go down as one of the most highly anticipated events of the year, as Conor McGregor moves up two weight classes to take on Nate Diaz in the main event while Holly Holm faces Miesha Tate in a women's bantamweight title match in the co-main event.
McGregor was originally expected to fight for the lightweight title, but a late injury to champion Rafael Dos Anjos provided an opening at the top of the card. Enter Nate Diaz, who steps up to take the fight, which is now being contested at welterweight, and he’s looking to become the first UFC fighter to take out McGregor in the Octagon.
MORE ON UFC 196: Buy tickets to UFC 196 | McGregor vs. Diaz First Staredown | Watch: UFC Minute - Inside UFC 196 Numbers | McGregor - Rogan Riffs | McGregor on UFC 194 | Holly Holm - Ready to Defend | Miesha Tate - And New | Read: Reasons to watch | McGregor doesn't disappoint in verbal war w/ Diaz | Diaz steps up, states case against McGregor | Sanchez ready to entertain on UFC FIGHT PASS | Pre-order UFC 196 PPV
Following a stunning knockout over Ronda Rousey last November, Holm will make her first title defense against former Strikeforce champion Tate, who is riding a four-fight win streak with a ton of experience on her side going into the matchup.
Today's fantasy preview will break down these two fights as well as other key bouts taking place on the card. With a slew of top 15 fighters competing, as well as two marquee main events, UFC 196 has something for everybody and we're going to examine some of those key bouts to see who has the edge come Saturday night in Las Vegas.
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.
Holly Holm (-345 favorite) vs. Miesha Tate (+285 underdog)
Holly Holm shocked the world with her head kick knockout over Ronda Rousey at UFC 193, but she's going to have a tough test this weekend against Miesha Tate at UFC 196. The odds say that Holm is a massive favorite, but there are a lot of ways Tate can win this fight, so it's anything but a lock.
Tate is the kind of fighter who loves to work inside a phone booth - meaning she gets in close for her dirty boxing techniques and takedowns. She's gotten much better recently at fighting from distance, as she showed off in a dominant win over Jessica Eye where Tate scored a pair of knockdowns with punches. Still, Tate is most effective when she gets in close on her opponents and works them to the ground or punishes them inside. That particular style backfires against a fighter like Rousey, who feasts on opponents willing to test her judo from the clinch.
Holm prefers to stay on the outside, where she can land her long punches and nasty kicks. She's deadly at distance and has tremendous footwork to circle away from an opponent while landing hard, punishing counter shots. Obviously, Holm has a big striking advantage in this fight, but she can't underestimate Tate's power because she has shown in recent bouts that she has some pop in her punches.
If Tate can work inside on Holm and not rush into counter punches, she has a great chance to drag this fight to the ground and either win rounds or wrap up a submission. Holm has to know that fighting in the clinch is exactly what Tate wants, so she might have to stick and move a lot in this one as she counters with quick combinations and moves out of the way before the takedown can land. It's hard to pick against Holm over five rounds considering her speed and overall boxing game, but don't think for a second that Tate can't steal three of those rounds to get the win.
This should be a very competitive fight, but ultimately the edge still goes to Holm. She just needs to fight smart to avoid getting stuck in the clinch with Tate, and she should be able to eke out a victory.
Prediction: Holly Holm by split decision
Corey Anderson (-315 favorite) vs. Tom Lawlor (+235 underdog)
Corey Anderson remains one of the top prospects in the light heavyweight division, but he'll have his hands full against veteran competitor Tom Lawlor.
Lawlor is a strong wrestler with a lot of power in his hands who holds a knockout victory over Gian Villante - the same man to hand Anderson his only professional loss. Lawlor's veteran experience will go a long way to confuse and frustrate Anderson in this fight, especially if he can stuff takedowns and counter with power shots on the feet.
That being said, Anderson has started to develop into a much better, more well rounded fighter lately with his last two wins over Fabio Maldonado and Jan Blachowicz. Anderson is a very good grappler, but working with coach Mark Henry on his boxing has turned the former Ultimate Fighter winner into a tough matchup on the feet as well. Anderson doesn't do anything flashy, but he has developed a very stiff jab and, considering his length and range, that can be a very dangerous weapon.
Anderson just needs to stay patient and use straight punches to keep Lawlor away until committing to a takedown. Mixing things up is key for Anderson in this fight because the last thing he can afford to do is allow Lawlor to control the pace or get predictable with his offense. Lawlor is savvy enough to pick up on timing and tendencies, but if Anderson stays long on the feet and then powers through with takedowns, he should rack up enough points to get the decision win.
Prediction: Corey Anderson by unanimous decision
Jim Miller (-170 favorite) vs. Diego Sanchez (+130 underdog)
This lightweight matchup between Jim Miller and Diego Sanchez is certainly an early pick for Fight of the Night. Miller is known for having knock down, drag out affairs, and Sanchez has built a career around being one of the most exciting fighters on the entire UFC roster.
Miller has looked very good in the early part of a lot of his fights lately before fading late. He can't risk that against somebody like Sanchez, who is not only a conditioning machine, but one of the most relentless fighters in the world in the latter part of the rounds. Miller needs to dominate the early rounds and then make sure he still has something left in the tank for round three.
Sanchez has definitely favored a striking-heavy attack through most of his recent fights and he's definitely developed some strong punching power to compliment his incredible chin. On the other hand, Miller is a better technical boxer, with a good wrestling base and incredible submissions.
The key for Miller is winning the scrambles with Sanchez and never allowing the longtime veteran to put together too many combinations. Sanchez will never be accused of being the most accurate or prolific striker, but he can attack with furious aggression and it can be hard to deal with over three rounds. So as long as Miller can counter those shots and not get dragged into an all-out war, he should get enough done with his boxing and takedowns to come away victorious.
Prediction: Jim Miller 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.
Conor McGregor (-420 favorite) vs. Nate Diaz (+335 underdog)
Conor McGregor has stated numerous times that he's willing to fight anyone at any time and he'll prove that point once again this weekend as he moves up two weight classes to take on Nate Diaz.
Diaz will have a lot of size and reach on McGregor, which he will certainly try to use while looking to overwhelm the Irishman with his incredible output every round. Diaz averages 4.3 significant strikes landed per minute, and he's relentless with his move forward, punch-heavy boxing style. Now, on paper, McGregor actually lands about one strike more per minute, but those numbers are slightly deceiving because he's won so many of his fights in the first or second round that his averages go up when placed on a 15-minute scale.
Average output or not, McGregor will definitely have a power advantage in this fight and every time he unloads a left hand it could be the one to put Diaz away. McGregor's footwork and defense are incredible and his movement inside the Octagon is not only difficult to figure out, but it keeps him in control at all times. McGregor won't allow Diaz to just hunt him down with punches, and his counter shots are deadly.
The best place for Diaz in this bout would probably be on the ground, where he has a great Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu game, but chances are he won't look for too many takedowns unless he just tries to drag McGregor to the mat from the clinch. Outside of that, Diaz is probably going to eat a lot of shots in a short period of time on the feet as he attacks and McGregor hits and moves.
Enough of that over time leads to damage done, and eventually McGregor lands the finishing blow.
Prediction: Conor McGregor by knockout, Round 2
Amanda Nunes (-150 favorite) vs. Valentina Shevchenko (+110 underdog)
Amanda Nunes isn't a huge favorite over striker Valentina Shevchenko, but it's still awfully hard to see a way she doesn't win this fight on Saturday night.
Nunes is arguably the biggest threat to the women's bantamweight title right now aside from Ronda Rousey's eventual return to the Octagon. Nunes has looked amazing over her past two fights as she annihilated Sara McMann and Shayna Baszler just after losing a heartbreaker to Cat Zingano. Nunes is an incredibly fast starter who lands more than four significant strikes per minute, along with over two takedowns per fight. Nunes is punishing and absolutely brutal in her attacks on the feet and on the ground, especially during the first five minutes.
Shevchenko is a classically trained Muay Thai fighter with a lot of pop in her punches and knee-buckling power in her kicks. She landed over 72-percent of her shots thrown against former Strikeforce champion Sarah Kaufman in her debut, so there's little doubt that Shevchenko can pour on the offense.
The problem is that Shevchenko also gave up a lot of shots to Kaufman in their fight with a defensive rate of just over 38-percent. As good as Shevchenko can be offensively, if she gives up those kinds of shots to Nunes, she's going to be staring up at the lights wondering what just happened.
Nunes has unbelievable power for a bantamweight and all she needs is for Shevchenko to make one mistake and she'll pounce and finish the fight.
Prediction: Amanda Nunes by TKO, Round 1
Brandon Thatch (-300 favorite) vs. Siyar Bahadurzada (+220 underdog)
Of all the knockout picks, this is the toughest one to select because both Brandon Thatch and Siyar Bahadurzada have had some very ugly performances lately. That being said, Thatch still has a lot of upside if he can fight smart and avoid a haymaker from Bahadurzada during this matchup.
Thatch is a physically imposing welterweight with a lot of power in his punches and good wrestling as well. Thatch will have about a three-inch height advantage over Bahadurzada come fight time, and his ability to mix things up with both striking and takedowns could be the perfect way to win this fight.
Bahadurzada loves to throw looping, powerful bombs with his hands and he has the kind of consciousness-robbing power to change this fight in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, with a slew of long layoffs due to injury continuing to haunt him, Bahadurzada just hasn't been able to find any kind of rhythm or timing in his recent bouts in the UFC.
As long as Thatch respects the power Bahadurzada possesses and doesn't jump into a big shot, he'll find a way to land enough punches and takedowns over three rounds for the win.
Prediction: Brandon Thatch by unanimous decision
Gian Villante (+165 underdog) vs. Ilir Latifi (-215 favorite)
Gian Villante has continued to be one of the most exciting fighters in the light heavyweight division, but he has also consistently fallen short in some of his biggest matchups. He holds the only win over Corey Anderson, which is an impressive victory, but he also got knocked out by Tom Lawlor after a sloppy second round saw Villante get tagged and finished in dramatic fashion.
Still, Villante has enough knockout power in his hands to throw down with anybody in the division. He'll certainly have his hands full with Ilir Latifi, who has looked great lately with a couple of quick, nasty finishes in his recent fights.
The real key for Villante is keeping Latifi on the end of his punches while using the three-inch reach advantage he'll enjoy all night long. Villante has a tendency to get engaged in brawls, and that could be the exact kind of fight Latifi hopes to have on Saturday. Still, if Villante has enough conditioning, which is always a question with him, and he fights from the outside, he'll put enough together to get the win.
It might not be pretty, but Villante has more than enough power to tag and finish Latifi as long as he stays patient long enough to find an opening for the shot to put him away.
Prediction: Gian Villante by TKO, Round 2