The UFC returns to Brazil this weekend with a featherweight title unification bout at the top of the card, as Jose Aldo faces Max Holloway to determine the undisputed champion at 145 pounds.
With Conor McGregor gone from the division, Aldo reclaimed the title with a dominant win over Frankie Edgar at UFC 200 while Holloway won the interim belt with a TKO victory against Anthony Pettis this past December.
Now the two featherweight champions are on a collision course that leads to the main event at UFC 212, with only one of them leaving with a title around their waist.
Meanwhile, in the co-main event, Claudia Gadelha and Karolina Kowalkiewicz meet in a huge matchup in the women's strawweight division. The only fighter to hand either of them a loss in the UFC is current champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, so this matchup could determine which one will be that much closer to a potential rematch while the other will take a step back in the division.
Legendary fighter Vitor Belfort will get a home game in Rio when he faces Nate Marquardt in a featured bout on the main card that takes place more than 20 years after his Octagon debut.
In today's fantasy preview, we'll examine these fights, as well as several others, to see who has the edge, who looks like a lock to win and who might be primed for an upset at UFC 212: Aldo vs. Holloway.
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.
Jose Aldo vs. Max Holloway
Outside of his lone loss in the UFC to Conor McGregor, Jose Aldo has been a force of nature in the featherweight division, tearing through virtually every contender that's been thrown in his path, including Frankie Edgar, Chad Mendes and Ricardo Lamas. Meanwhile, Max Holloway has gone on an unprecedented 10-fight win streak while seemingly getting better and better with each performance inside the Octagon.
There aren't many secrets left when it comes to Aldo's game inside the Octagon, although the problem for most of his opponents has been trying to find a way to stop him. Aldo is a punishing and creative striker who has incredible technical skills on the feet while also unleashing some very powerful and flashy shots that can come from anywhere at any time. Aldo also possesses a brutal leg kick that has decimated more than a few opponents over the years, and he has a highly underrated ground game with world-class submissions. But maybe most important is his nearly impenetrable takedown defense, where he's stuffed nearly 93 percent of his opponent's attempts to get him to the ground.
Holloway is no slouch on the feet either, as he's adopted a very strong kickboxing game that he's used to batter his last few opponents from one side of the Octagon to the other. Holloway lands nearly six significant strikes per minute with over 43 percent accuracy, which means he's very active and on target at almost all times. Holloway has a slick submission arsenal at his disposal as well, although that's rarely his favorite form of attack. Instead, Holloway likes to keep his opponents on the outside as he picks them apart with his long reach and dangerous kicking game.
On paper, there might not be a more evenly matched fight in the UFC than what we're about to witness with Aldo and Holloway. Aldo is a blistering striker with knockout power, but he also has the kind of striking game that can simply out work his opponents over five rounds. Holloway might have the perfect counter with his long reach and equally dangerous striking attack while also putting a little bit more pop behind his punches in recent fights.
The X factor in this matchup could come down to timing and mentality.
Aldo has been out since last July when he won a decision against Frankie Edgar before contemplating retirement for several months after the summer. Aldo finally decided to return to action, but it's impossible to know where his head is at going into this fight. As for Holloway, his confidence has been growing with each performance and he's not only ready for this fight with Aldo but it appears he's ready for a passing of the torch by facing the champion in his own backyard.
Of course, the odds say Aldo should win a decision in this fight and that's not a bad pick to make. Discounting the loss to McGregor, Aldo has been nearly flawless during his UFC career and nothing seems to point to any kind of rapid decline over the last few years. That being said, Holloway has all the intangibles to make this a brawl and he has the finishing power to put a lot of damage on Aldo over five rounds. Aldo's chin has been tested plenty and he's almost always withstood the storm, but eventually that catches up to every fighter and Holloway could be the one to dish out a lot of punishment in this five-round battle.
Prediction: Max Holloway by unanimous decision
Claudia Gadelha vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz
The two best strawweights in the world not named Joanna Jedrzejczyk meet this weekend in a huge matchup at 115 pounds. Since arriving in the UFC, Claudia Gadehla has dominated every opponent she's faced outside of her two bouts with the current champion, and she's come within inches of defeating Jedrzejczyk both times they faced off. Gadelha is a world-class grappler who has dramatically improved her striking over the years, but she did recently move to a new training camp in the United States, so that's a factor that could play a part in the outcome of this fight.
Karolina Kowalkiewicz is very similar to Jedrzejczyk in her approach, with lightning quick striking on the feet and a technical kickboxing attack that's tough to stop over three rounds. Kowalkiewicz doesn’t have a ton of stopping power in her hands, but she's more than capable of adding up a ton of volume over three rounds to make it easy for the judges to give her a decision win. On top of that, Kowalkiewicz has showcased over 87 percent takedown defense, which could be a huge weapon going up against a top-notch grappler like Gadelha this weekend.
Gadelha is in her second camp with coach Chris Luttrell, a former student under Greg Jackson in New Mexico who is well versed in working with top fighters. Luttrell has actually worked with former interim champion Carlos Condit in the past as well, so he's no stranger to championship competition in the UFC. And while Gadelha is still in the early stages of creating real chemistry with her coaches, the good news is that after facing Jedrzejczyk on two separate occasions, there's not much Kowalkiewicz should be able to throw at her that would be a surprise. Kowalkiewicz is a very technical and proficient kickboxer who typically outpoints her opponents rather than gunning for the finish.
If Gadelha can find her way inside to work from the clinch or grab on to the takedown, she should be able to control the pace and outwork Kowalkiewicz over three rounds. Gadelha is, by far, one of the strongest fighters at 115 pounds, so she might try to just out muscle Kowalkiewicz to drag this to the mat and apply her world-class Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Kowalkiewicz won't go away, so Gadelha will need her conditioning on point for all 15 minutes, but she should be able to do enough to earn the decision victory.
Prediction: Claudia Gadelha by unanimous decision
Vitor Belfort vs. Nate Marquardt
Vitor Belfort will make the walk to the Octagon in front of his hometown fans in Rio de Janeiro as he faces Nate Marquardt in a middleweight matchup.
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Belfort returns while trying to erase a lot of bad memories from recent fights, where he's suffered a trio of TKO losses. Of course, Belfort still possesses that nasty rapid fire punching power that can put anybody away, but his defense has become a real liability lately, so he has to protect his chin, especially against a fellow power puncher like Marquardt.
Marquardt has gone through a lot of ups and downs lately, but he still has plenty of knockout power left in his hands, so he can end the fight with one shot. Where Marquardt has struggled is when his opponents have been able to put unrelenting pressure on him and he's had no space to counter. That could be a key factor in this match, especially in the opening round, because Belfort is well known as a fast starter who loves to come after his opponents with a ton of aggression. If Belfort can force Marquardt to fight off his back foot, he's got a great chance to land a knockout in the early part of the opening round.
The longer the fight goes, the more it favors Marquardt, so he has to weather that early storm if he hopes to escape Brazil with a win. Still, Belfort will certainly feel the energy from a raucous crowd in his hometown and there's little doubt he'll feed off of that as he looks to get back into the win column.
Prediction: Vitor Belfort by knockout, Round 1
Raphael Assuncao vs. Marlon Moraes
Outside of the main event, perhaps the toughest fight to predict on the entire UFC 212 card is the bantamweight battle between savvy veteran Raphael Assuncao and newcomer Marlon Moraes, who makes his UFC debut this weekend.
Moraes may be appearing in the UFC for the first time, but he's well known in the mixed martial arts community. Moraes is a ferocious striker with some of the most devastating finishing power at 135 pounds. Moraes trains at a top camp, working under head coaches Mark Henry and Ricardo Almeida while working alongside UFC stalwarts like Frankie Edgar, Eddie Alvarez and Edson Barboza. Moraes has incredible footwork and some of the nastiest leg kicks in the world. He is a striker first, but he also has a slick ground game that he'll use if the right opportunity presents itself.
As for Assuncao, he's been the picture of consistency since moving to the bantamweight division. Assuncao is a world-class grappler who has developed into a very solid striker with power in his hands and feet. Because he possesses such a good ground game, Assuncao has no fear being aggressive with his striking attacks because he's not worried about giving up a takedown to go to the mat. Now he probably won't have to worry much about that with Moraes, but Assuncao could mix things up to keep the UFC newcomer guessing on whether or not he should let those leg kicks fly or risk being taken to the ground.
Assuncao is a tough out for anyone and he knows how to win a close decision by doing the things that get him past nearly every opponent he faces. That means Moraes is going to have to dish out a lot of punishment and force Assuncao to second-guess his game plan to really add up the points on the judges' scorecards. Assuncao has never been finished at 135 pounds, so it's not likely Moraes will be the first, but if the UFC rookie can fight through those notorious Octagon jitters, he has all the skills to make a real impact in his debut. Moraes has speed, power and knows how to throw with volume, and if he can do that over three rounds, he could leave with a win on Saturday night.
Prediction: Marlon Moraes 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.
Paulo Borrachinha vs. Oluwale Bamgbose
Expect some serious fireworks in this matchup between undefeated Brazilian Paulo Borrachinha and Oluwale Bamgbose.
Borrachinha is currently 9-0 in his career, with eight of those wins coming by way of knockout or TKO including a stunning performance in his UFC debut against Garreth McLellan. Borrachinha hits like a truck and he's ultra aggressive, so don't blink when he starts to unleash his combinations on Saturday night. Now Bamgbose has no fear of throwing down with any opponent because he also possesses serious knockout power, but he also has a tendency to get a little wild in his exchanges, which can cost him while facing a fellow striker like Borrachinha.
While this fight could come down to who lands the big shot first, Borrachinha just has more power behind his punches while displaying a stronger overall striking game on the feet. If Borrachinha can catch Bamgbose early, he could add another knockout to his record. If Borrachinha doesn't put Bamgbose away, this could be an early candidate for Fight of the Night at UFC 212.
Prediction: Paulo Borrachinha by knockout, Round 2
Antonio Carlos Junior vs. Eric Spicely
In a matchup between two ground specialists, Antonio Carlos Junior will look for his third straight victory when he faces former Ultimate Fighter competitor and fellow grappler Eric Spicely.
Now Spicely has surprised more than a few people with his recent performances in the UFC, including a pair of submission victories in his last two fights. Spicely has a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and has no fear grappling against anybody willing to go to the ground with him. Unfortunately, Spicely isn't just facing another grappler this time around.
Carlos Junior is absolutely world class on the ground, with a laundry list of grappling titles to his credit. Carlos Junior has also been working full-time at American Top Team in Florida, so he has added onto his striking arsenal to compliment his deadly ground game. Of course, Carlos Junior knows his best path to victory will always be on the mat and he'll likely find a willing opponent since Spicely is coming from the same exact background.
While the scrambles on the mat could be outstanding, it's just impossible to pick against Carlos Junior in a fight against an opponent with a similar set of skills but not quite on his level.
Prediction: Antonio Carlos Junior by submission, Round 2
Matthew Lopez vs. Johnny Eduardo
In a classic matchup of striker versus grappler, Brazilian bantamweight Johnny Eduardo will undoubtedly look to keep his fight with Matthew Lopez on the feet, but that might be easier said than done.
Lopez is a top-notch grappler with a relentless style when trying to take his opponents to the ground. He's currently averaging over three takedowns per 15 minutes in the Octagon with nearly an 86 percent success rate. In other words, when Lopez goes for the takedown, more often than not he gets it. Lopez is a beast on the mat, not only with his submission skills, but also with a punishing ground attack that includes ferocious elbows and punches when he's on top. Now Eduardo will enjoy a two-inch reach advantage, so his best way to win this fight is to keep Lopez on the end of his punches and never allow the American fighter to get inside for those takedowns.
It's not an easy task because Lopez will shoot on Eduardo's legs early and often as he attempts to drag this fight to the ground. Now Lopez isn't completely out matched on the feet, but he has to know that's the best way Eduardo can win this fight. On the flipside, Lopez is a force on the ground, and if he can get Eduardo there early, he could make it a very tough night for the Brazilian. Aljamain Sterling wrote a bit of a blueprint on how to attack Eduardo when he won their fight back in 2015, and Lopez would be smart to attack with a similar strategy.
If he does, Lopez might just walk into enemy territory and walk out with a submission win.
Prediction: Matthew Lopez by submission, Round 3