One of the most stacked cards in recent memory marks the UFC’s return to Dallas, with the heavyweight title up for grabs in the UFC 211 main event, as Stipe Miocic looks for payback against the last man to beat him, former champion Junior Dos Santos.
The next title contender at 170 pounds could also be determined when submission specialist Demian Maia takes on Jorge Masvidal, while rising featherweight star Yair Rodriguez gets his toughest test to date when he faces off with Frankie Edgar.
From top to bottom, UFC 211 is loaded with talent, and in today's fantasy preview we'll break down some of these key matchups to see who has the edge and who might be primed for an upset come Saturday night.
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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.
Stipe Miocic (-125 favorite) vs. Junior Dos Santos (+105 underdog)
The first fight between Miocic and Dos Santos from 2014 was an epic, back and forth slugfest over five rounds. It's not very often a heavyweight fight goes 25 minutes, let alone a war of attrition that comes down a very close call on the judges' scorecards. That was the case when Dos Santos bested Miocic over five rounds in a razor close decision, but can the former champion duplicate that performance or do even better this time around?
While Dos Santos has suffered through a lot of ups and downs over the past few years, his most recent outing against Ben Rothwell was a complete performance from start to finish and he won that fight with a shoulder injury that essentially gave him only one arm to punch with full power. Dos Santos has also dedicated himself to training full-time at American Top Team in Florida, where he works with a laundry list of top fighters and coaches to get him ready for this rematch.
As for Miocic, he hasn't fallen since the loss to Dos Santos in 2014 and, if anything, he's only gotten better with each consecutive fight. Miocic has knocked out his last four opponents, including a win over Fabricio Werdum to take home the heavyweight title before successfully defending it against Alistair Overeem this past September. Miocic is a Golden Gloves-level boxer with serious grappling skills at his disposal after wrestling during his college days at Cleveland State.
Miocic hits with power and accuracy, landing over 50 percent of his punches and kicks, while also boasting better defensive statistics than Dos Santos during his UFC career. Miocic will also enjoy a three-inch reach advantage, which he didn't seem to use much in his last fight with Dos Santos, but that was a lesson learned ahead of the rematch.
Dos Santos is a powerfully strong heavyweight with some of the best boxing the division has ever seen. That being said, Miocic can match him shot for shot and he's really come into his own lately with ferocious finishing power that's second to none in the heavyweight division. As long as Miocic doesn't punch himself out early, which was part of his problem in the first fight, he should eventually find a home for one of his big combinations to put Dos Santos away.
Miocic has only been finished by strikes once in his career and he's shown a tremendous ability to come back from adversity. Dos Santos is as tough as they come, but he's suffered through a few more knockouts in the UFC and Miocic only needs one big shot to slip through his defense to earn another successful defense of his title.
Prediction: Stipe Miocic by TKO, Round 3
Joanna Jedrzejczyk (-160 favorite) vs. Jessica Andrade (+140 underdog)
Joanna Jedrzejczyk is undoubtedly one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet, but she runs into a very tough obstacle this weekend as Jessica Andrade looks for her fourth straight win since moving down to the strawweight division.
Andrade has been a wrecking machine after dropping from 135 down to 115 pounds while still possessing the same level of power she had at the bigger weight class. Andrade gets a little wild with her striking, but she's so overwhelming with her power and pressure game that it's tough for anyone to counter when she's moving forward with a blitzing combination. Andrade actually lands with more accuracy and volume than the champion, but it's tough to say whether or not she can keep that up for five rounds if the fight goes that long.
The book on Jedrzejczyk is well known throughout her career as champion.
She's a fearsome fighter with some of the most technical kickboxing on the entire UFC roster. Jedrzejczyk lands with good volume and accuracy and she is always protecting her chin while absorbing nearly two times less as many strikes as her opponent at UFC 211. Jedrzejczyk will also enjoy a three-and-a-half-inch reach advantage, which could play a huge factor in this fight because she always does a fantastic job of establishing her jab with powerful straight counter shots. Because Andrade likes to press forward with big, looping combinations, it could allow Jedrzejczyk to fire back with stiff, straight punches that could tag her time and time again.
Of course, Andrade arguably possesses the most power of anyone who has faced Jedrzejczyk during her UFC career and the champion has been dropped a couple of times in past fights. If Andrade connects with a big shot early, she could absolutely put Jedrzejczk away.
Still, as the fight wears on, that's where Jedrzejczyk truly takes over with accuracy and volume while just wearing her opposition out by the time the final horn sounds. Jedrzejczyk somehow finds a way to get better and better with each passing minute, and that kind of endurance is tough to deal with, especially for a fighter like Andrade who has never gone into the championship rounds before.
Prediction: Joanna Jedrzejczyk by unanimous decision
Frankie Edgar (-130 favorite) vs. Yair Rodriguez (+110 underdog)
Rising star Yair Rodriguez gets his toughest test to date when he takes on former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar in a featured bout at 145 pounds.
Rodriguez has quickly become one of the most talked about young fighters on the UFC roster thanks to his explosive style inside the Octagon. Most recently, Rodriguez steamrolled UFC Hall of Famer BJ Penn and now he'll look to jump to the front of the title chase line with a win at UFC 211 over Edgar.
Rodriguez has been an offensive machine thus far in his UFC career, averaging more than four significant strikes landed per minute with just under 44 percent accuracy. He's also shown off a lot of creativity with a variety of spin kicks and flying attacks that have caught more than a few opponents off guard. He'll also enjoy a three-inch reach advantage, as well as a whopping five-inch height advantage over Edgar in their fight.
All that said, Edgar has remained at the top of the sport for so long for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that he's a complete mixed martial artist, from his striking to his grappling to everything in between. Edgar is a tremendous boxer, especially since working with head coach Mark Henry over the last few years. Fundamentally, Edgar has fast footwork and quick head movement, coupled with combinations that come together fluidly over the course of a fight. Mix that together with a top notch wrestling attack where he averages just under three takedowns per fight, and that could be a big weapon to stave off Rodriguez's kicks, which are one of his primary weapons.
If Edgar can make Rodriguez second guess his offense with a series of takedowns, that could shift the momentum in this fight in a big way. Edgar is the picture of consistency and the only fighter he's lost to at featherweight is current champion Jose Aldo. Rodriguez may be the next big thing, but it might just be too soon for him right now.
Prediction: Frankie Edgar by unanimous decision
Jorge Masvidal (-125 favorite) vs. Demian Maia (+105 underdog)
Since moving to 170 pounds, Jorge Masvidal has looked better than ever, especially thanks to his one-sided beat down on Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone back in January that earned him this fight with Maia at UFC 211. Maia has won six fights in a row, including submission victories over former interim champion Carlos Condit and Matt Brown, while also dominating other top 10 competition such as Gunnar Nelson in his most recent performances.
During his current run, Maia has gone back to his best weapon, which is a world-class grappling game that has been virtually impossible to stop. Maia may just be the best submission specialist in the UFC, and once he gets an opponent to the ground, it seems like only a matter of time before he grabs on to a choke or an arm and gets the tap out a few seconds later. Maia averages three takedowns per fight and chances are he'll be looking to drag Masvidal to the ground sooner rather than later in this one.
Masvidal will certainly present some problems for Maia because not only does he possess 78 percent takedown defense, but the American Top Team welterweight also hits with a ton of power and speed and puts on unrelenting pressure when he has an opponent hurt. One of the things that has made Masvidal so dangerous during this current run at welterweight has been his ability to close the distance and punish opponents with a barrage of strikes. Of course, he has to be careful getting too close to Maia because the Brazilian will likely look for any opportunity to grab on to him and pull this fight to the mat, even if that means landing on the bottom just to get there.
It's also been over eight years since Masvidal was last submitted in a fight, although if there's one guy in the UFC who could end that streak it's Maia. Still, Masvidal seems to possess the perfect counter to Maia getting this fight to the ground because he he's very quick on his feet, and his ability to scramble out of a bad position could keep him out of trouble even if this fight does hit the mat. Masvidal has looked better than ever lately and this could be a chance for him to make a huge statement with a win at UFC 211.
Prediction: Jorge Masvidal by TKO, Round 3
Dustin Poirier (-115 favorite) vs. Eddie Alvarez (-105 underdog)
It might seem a little surprising that Dustin Poirier is a favorite over Eddie Alvarez going into this fight, but the odds makers know that this isn't an easy fight for the former champion, who is just one bout removed from a lopsided loss to Conor McGregor at UFC 205 last year.
Poirier has become one of the fiercest fighters in the lightweight division since moving to 155 pounds, with his only setback coming against fellow top 10 fighter Michael Johnson. That fight backfired in large part due to speed and reach, as Johnson lit Poirier up early and never gave him a chance to recover. This time around, Poirier will actually enjoy a three-inch reach advantage while matching Alvarez for speed in any striking situation.
Poirier also out lands Alvarez on the feet, with nearly five significant strikes per minute while connecting with better accuracy as well. Of course, Alvarez does possess a nasty clinch game and wrestling pedigree that has come in handy during his UFC career, but coming back from that last loss, he could look to prove a point with his striking in this fight.
Alvarez was able to blitz and finish former champion Rafael Dos Anjos to win the title last year, but in many of his other UFC fights he's used a stifling clinch game to stop his opponents from landing much offense on the feet. Poirier has to be able to get free of that grip and circle away from the cage if he wants to punish Alvarez with his formidable offense. While this fight really is a tossup on paper, Poirier seems primed to pick up the biggest win of his career as he catches Alvarez coming off a tough loss that isn't always that easy to get past.
Prediction: Dustin Poirier 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.
Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo enjoys some of the heaviest odds in his favor for anybody on the UFC 211 card, but as much as he's expected to win, it's not a sure thing that he'll roll past Sergio Pettis on Saturday night.
Pettis has looked better than ever in his most recent performances, maturing into a true mixed martial artist as he's grown up in the UFC. Pettis is a striker at heart, landing over four significant shots per minute with solid accuracy, and he has good defense as well. Pettis has also showcased very good takedown defense, blocking 71 percent of the shots against him, but he's also never faced a wrestler the caliber of Cejudo during his career. Pettis definitely has ways to win this fight, particularly if he can keep Cejudo on the end of his punches and make the former Olympian chase him around the Octagon for 15 minutes.
That said, Cejudo has just now started to come into his own during his MMA career while facing the two best flyweights in the world in back-to-back fights. Most recently, Cejudo lost a razor close decision to Joseph Benavidez, which was certainly heartbreaking, but it also proved that he's quickly rising the ranks as one of the top 125-pound fighters in the sport.
When Cejudo mixes up his offensive attacks between a very technical boxing game as well as his world-class wrestling, he just has more ways to win. Cejudo is an accurate striker with good hands and his ability to take this fight to the ground - which could keep Pettis from throwing many kicks on the feet – so it could shift the momentum decidedly towards the Olympian.
Prediction: Henry Cejudo by unanimous decision
David Branch will make his return to the UFC for the first time in over six years when he returns at UFC 211 to face Krzysztof Jotko, who is currently riding a five-fight win streak in the UFC that includes wins over Thales Leites and Tamdan McCrory in his most recent fights.
Since leaving the UFC, Branch has turned into a world-class middleweight who even dabbled at light heavyweight in order to become a two-division champion. Branch has dramatically improved his striking since the last time he stepped foot into the Octagon, and he still possesses a nasty ground game that has produced a long list of submission victories. Branch has also gone into the championship rounds more than a few times recently, so he's also got incredible conditioning that should adapt well to a 15-minute fight with Jotko at UFC 211.
Of course, Jotko has a great chance to win as well, thanks to precise striking where he lands with nearly 47 percent accuracy and better volume than his counterpart. Jotko also has the UFC experience under his belt and this is Branch's first time back in several years, so those Octagon jitters could play a factor.
Still, Branch didn't get back to the UFC by accident, and he wants to prove that he belongs among the elite middleweights with a win over Jotko. Branch has the ability to turn into a serious contender in this division, but first he has to get started at UFC 211. While he may suffer through a slow start early, look for Branch to take this fight to the ground at some point late into the first round or the opening of the second as he drags Jotko into deep waters and looks to drown him.
Prediction: David Branch by submission, Round 3