Luke Rockhold will defend his middleweight title for the first time this weekend at UFC 199 when he takes on bitter rival Michael Bisping, who stepped in to accept the fight following an injury to former champion Chris Weidman.
Rockhold defeated Bisping in their previous meeting in 2014, but the confident Brit is fired up for a second shot at the champion and that kind of disdain shared between opponents will likely bring the best out of both men.
In the co-main event, another long time rivalry comes to a head as Dominick Cruz puts his bantamweight title on the line against Urijah Faber. Faber and Cruz each have a win in their series, and this trilogy will come to a close with the championship bout at UFC 199.
In addition to those two title fights, UFC 199 features a slew of top 15 talent on the main and preliminary cards, so in today's fantasy preview we're going to examine some of these matchups to see who has the advantage and who might be primed for an upset on Saturday night.
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.
Dominick Cruz (-700 favorite) vs. Urijah Faber (+500 underdog)
The rivalry between Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber started almost a decade ago after the two fighters met in the featherweight division while part of the WEC. Now in 2016, Cruz will put his bantamweight title on the line as he faces Faber in the conclusion of a trilogy that will likely settle the rivalry once and for all.
Cruz came back in January after a long layoff due to several injuries, but it was clear that the time off didn't affect his game because he looked just as sharp as ever in his win over TJ Dillashaw to reclaim the title at 135 pounds. Cruz is still one of the most active fighters whenever he's in the cage, with constant movement and some of the best footwork in the entire sport. Cruz hits and rarely gets hit in return, although Faber managed to find his chin a few times in their last fight in 2011.
Faber has gone 3-1 over his last four fights, with his only loss coming to Frankie Edgar in a bout at featherweight. Faber remains one of the true stalwarts of the top five in the bantamweight division, with great grappling, solid boxing and a very good chin.
As it stands, the odds have Cruz as a massive favorite and it's understandable why he's the pick to win. Cruz is considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, but don't discount the fact that he always seems to bring the best out of Faber. No one pushes Faber to train harder than getting ready for a matchup with someone like Cruz. Also, don't forget that Cruz has rarely finished his opponents in the UFC, so the more time he gives Faber, the chances are greater that the crafty veteran could find a guillotine choke or another flash finish out of nowhere.
All that said, Cruz is still the pick, although this will probably go five rounds and Faber will likely steal a round or maybe two. Look for a barnburner, but when it's over, Cruz should still walk out with the title around his waist.
Prediction: Dominick Cruz by unanimous decision
Dustin Poirier (-230 favorite) vs. Bobby Green (+190 underdog)
Ever since moving back to the lightweight division, Dustin Poirier has looked like one of the top 10 fighters in the world as he's put on a series of blistering performances, including his last victory over highly touted Irish prospect Joseph Duffy. This weekend, Poirier meets Bobby Green, who returns from a long layoff as he looks to stake his claim among the best of the best in the lightweight division.
This matchup really comes down to attacks and counters.
Poirier is a very offensive fighter who loves to aggressively pursue his opponents with speed and power. He lands nearly five significant strikes per minute with 50 percent accuracy, so when Poirier is on the attack, he's almost always hitting his target. On the other side, Green is a very elusive fighter who moves side-to-side and circles a lot while trying to land his shots from the outside. Green is a quick lightweight with good pop behind his punches, and with over 68 percent defense, he's very hard to hit in return.
To win this fight, Poirier has to be tactical with his offense and not get caught in a bad exchange in which Green can counter with combinations. Green lives to frustrate his opponents, and Poirier has to be very careful not to fall into traps where the “King” baits and waits before unleashing his attacks. Where Poirier has an advantage is with his great accuracy, as well as his activity. Green has been out of action for over a year and it's hard to simulate in-cage experience, much less the timing it might take for him to finally land on Poirier at range. By the time Green figures that out, Poirier could have already dished out a lot of punishment through the early rounds.
Prediction: Dustin Poirier by unanimous decision
Max Holloway vs. Ricardo Lamas
Max Holloway will look for his ninth straight win as he returns to action this weekend against perennial contender Ricardo Lamas, who is coming off a big victory over Diego Sanchez in his last fight. Holloway has proven to be one of the most versatile and dangerous featherweights in the division and, with a win at UFC 199, it's going to be nearly impossible not to inject him into championship conversations. First things first, as he has to get past Lamas, and that's no easy task.
Where Lamas has the advantage in this fight is with his wrestling and clinch work. He has plenty of power in his striking, but throwing hands with Holloway at distance is a great way to get knocked out. Conversely, Lamas can take away all of Holloway's speed and reach by getting inside and pressuring him against the cage or planting him on the mat. Lamas has all the tools to make Holloway pay for every kick he throws by grabbing a leg and taking him to the ground. Currently, Lamas only averages 1.82 takedowns per 15 minutes in the Octagon, so he'll probably need to up that if he hopes to take away Holloway's best weapons on the feet.
On the other side, Holloway has looked like a much different fighter over the course of the last few years, as he’s shown a new level of confidence in every facet of his game. Holloway has over 81 percent takedown defense, but he can't get so concerned with takedowns that he forgets to produce his own offense. Holloway just needs to use constant footwork to keep Lamas guessing, and anytime he gets too close, the Hawaiian should circle away and take things back to the center of the Octagon. It's easier said than done, but Holloway seems like he has all the tools to make it happen.
This might be the toughest fight on the entire card to pick a winner, but a slight edge still goes to Holloway because of the momentum on his side and the fact that he possesses a complete MMA game. Lamas won't go away easy, and he'll probably find a way to win a round, but Holloway should be able to eke out a decision in the end.
Prediction: Max Holloway by unanimous decision
Beneil Dariush vs. James Vick
Beneil Dariush returns on short notice following a disappointing outing in his last fight to take on James Vick, who has looked like one of the top prospects in the lightweight division as of late.
Dariush is a world-class grappler who managed to get caught in a submission in his last fight with Michael Chiesa. Maybe it was the wrong place at the wrong time or maybe it was his own hubris that allowed him to get caught in a submission while thinking there was no way he'd actually get finished. Whatever the case, it was a humbling moment and one that Dariush will have to battle back from in his fight at UFC 199.
Vick is a very long, rangy striker with a lot of power in his hands and good technical footwork. Obviously, Vick knows that his best chance of winning this fight is to hurt Dariush on the feet and make him pay for every takedown he attempts. Dariush has become a much more proficient striker over his last few fights, but it's still a dangerous game to play if he chooses to stand on the outside and wing punches with Vick from a distance.
Based solely on performances against the competition they've faced thus far in their career, Dariush still remains a slight favorite in the fight, but don’t discount Vick's ability to pull off the upset. Vick is a very confident fighter with a lot of stinging combinations in his back pocket, and if Dariush returned too soon after his last fight, he might just pay for it. Still, Dariush has the experience and the skills to plant Vick on the ground and make this a ground battle, and that's one war this Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tactician should win.
Prediction: Beneil Dariush 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.
Luke Rockhold (-1100 favorite) vs. Michael Bisping (+700 underdog)
Michael Bisping waited 10 years to finally get his first crack at UFC gold, but he's accepting this fight on two weeks’ notice against arguably one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. Luke Rockhold has looked like an unstoppable machine through his last few fights. He dismantled former champion Chris Weidman in his last fight and that's only going to make Rockhold's confidence grow as he prepares for a rematch with Bisping.
The first fight between these two rivals ended with a head kick and a guillotine choke courtesy of Rockhold, and unless he vastly underestimates Bisping in the rematch, there's no clear sign that it won't happen again. Bisping has gotten better since his last matchup with Rockhold as he picked up three wins in a row, including a victory over arguably the greatest middleweight of all time, Anderson Silva. Still, Bisping's shortcomings against Rockhold are a lot to overcome, especially on two weeks’ notice.
Look for Rockhold to come out guns blazing to put the pressure on Bisping right away to test his chin and durability in the opening round. Bisping is smart enough to avoid damage early, but as the rounds wear on, it's going to be hard for him to avoid Rockhold eventually finding a home for one of his powerful kicks or even taking this fight to the ground, where he could finish with a submission or ground-and-pound. Either way, it's nearly impossible not to pick Rockhold to get the job done and retain his title at UFC 199
Prediction: Luke Rockhold by TKO, Round 3
Brian Ortega vs. Clay Guida
Brian Ortega might be one of the most promising prospects in the featherweight division thanks to a crafty submission game and very underrated striking. Ortega has pulled off some big wins thus far in his young UFC career, but beating a veteran like Clay Guida would be a huge feather in his cap.
Guida is no pushover because he's fought the best of the best at lightweight and featherweight for years and continues to be a threat to anyone in the top 15. Guida is a machine who averages just under four takedowns per 15 minutes in the cage, and he has a relentless pace that few fighters can keep up with over three rounds.
But Guida's greatest strength - his wrestling - plays directly into Ortega's biggest weapon, which is his versatile and dangerous submission game. Ortega has a world-class triangle choke that is nearly impossible to escape, and his sweeps from the bottom are always a dangerous weapon. Of course, Ortega has to be careful not to get too comfortable on his back if Guida takes him down because he could waste time and end up losing rounds.
As long as Ortega doesn't get too relaxed on his back, his attacks and escapes are going to put Guida on the defensive from the first time he lands a takedown. From there, it's all up to Ortega to either get on top and rain down punishment or lock up a submission and put the fight away.
Prediction: Brian Ortega by submission, Round 2
Dan Henderson vs. Hector Lombard
When you put two heavy-handed sluggers like Dan Henderson and Hector Lombard into the Octagon together, something crazy is bound to happen.
Lombard is the obvious favorite going into the fight despite a poor outing in his last bout, where his massive cut to welterweight finally backfired and he was finished by Neil Magny in Australia. So Lombard returns to middleweight, where he was once considered a vicious and powerful finisher. Lombard hits hard, hits fast and he's got a pressure game that's virtually unmatched in the UFC. Lombard is most dangerous in the opening round, when he lands with unreal power and usually just tries to overwhelm his opponents before they even know what hit them.
That said, Henderson has the kind of veteran experience where he can find a way to weather the early storm and then uncork one of his famous right hands that can put anybody in the world away - including Lombard. Henderson hasn't been at his best over his last few fights, but he knows how huge this moment is for him, and a loss to Lombard would be devastating to his career resume. At his best, Henderson can still be a threat to anyone at middleweight, and he just needs to show a little more diversity in his attacks and he could give Lombard problems on the feet.
Add in Lombard's questionable gas tank, and the longer this fight goes, the more it favors Henderson. Of course, Lombard may not need a third round with the way he unleashes power early, and this fight could be over in less than a minute. Still, Henderson has a one-punch knockout sitting in his right hand that could land at anytime and put Lombard's lights out.
Prediction: Dan Henderson by KO, Round 2