One of the greatest rivalries in UFC history will come to a head when light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier puts his title on the line against Jon Jones, who makes his return to the Octagon for the first time in over a year.
Cormier has looked better than ever in his most recent fights, including a submission victory against Anthony "Rumble" Johnson in his last title defense. Of course, the only blemish on Cormier's professional record is his 2015 loss to Jones, so the two-time Olympian is eager to even the score in the rematch.
Two more title fights will also be featured on the main card, with welterweight champion Tyron Woodley taking on submission master Demian Maia, while top women's featherweight Cris "Cyborg" Justino will take on former Invicta FC champion Tonya Evinger to crown a new champion at 145 pounds.
In today's fantasy preview, we'll examine these matchups and several more to see who has the edge, who looks like a lock to get a win and what upsets might be brewing at UFC 214: Cormier vs. Jones 2.
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.
Daniel Cormier vs. Jon Jones
It could be argued that Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones are already two of the greatest light heavyweights in history, considering the record they have amassed throughout their respective mixed martial arts careers.
Jones has been nearly unblemished during his entire career outside of a disqualification loss to Matt Hamill several years ago, and perhaps even more impressive is the fact that he's rarely lost a round in his fights, much less coming close to tasting defeat. If there is a mold on how to create the perfect MMA fighter, Jones would be the model. He's a very long, rangy fighter with good kickboxing, incredible wrestling and nasty fight-finishing power. Jones has also worked tirelessly on his Brazilian jiu-jitsu game, which yielded him a win over MMA legend Dan Henderson in a grappling match not long ago.
Of course, Jones' long absence from the UFC has to be a concern, considering the last time he sat out this long, his return fight wasn't his best night at the office when he defeated Ovince Saint Preux last April. Still, Jones was dominant, but not in the same way he's taken on similar competition in the past, so it's impossible to know for certain if he'll have knocked off all the ring rust before stepping into the Octagon with Cormier.
Cormier is a tough out for anyone in the world, and even Jones learned that fact in their first fight. Cormier will not go away, and with his strong boxing game combined with world-class wrestling, he can win this fight anywhere it goes. Now Cormier will be the first to admit that he got too emotionally charged the last time he fought Jones, who simply out worked him in the latter part of the fight. If Cormier can control those emotions to prevent an adrenaline dump early in the fight, he could take advantage of that lull in action that Jones has suffered for the past couple of years.
Cormier needs to press the pace and make Jones work for each and every strike he lands or takedown he attempts during this five-round fight. Jones has rarely looked tired in any of his fights, but Cormier would be smart to see if he's still got the same conditioning now as he had when they first met more than two years ago. Cormier's ability to grind on an opponent in the clinch, as well as with his punishing wrestling attack, could catch Jones off guard after such a long layoff. Surely, Jones has put everything into his training camp to come back as strong as ever before, but it's impossible to ignore how much time he's spent outside the Octagon as opposed to facing the best of the best, which is exactly what Cormier has been doing ever since their last fight.
If Cormier can pressure Jones early and really force the action without giving up any takedowns or just staying on the outside where the former champion could pick him apart, he's got a great chance at evening this series at one win a piece.
Prediction: Daniel Cormier by unanimous decision
Tyron Woodley vs. Demian Maia
Tyron Woodley will look to make another successful title defense when he takes on grappling wizard Demian Maia with the welterweight championship on the line.
Woodley has really started to come into his own as champion, although he had to fight a smart tactical battle in his last bout against Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson and he may need to do the same in this fight to drag it into the championship rounds. Woodley is a top-notch wrestler who also possesses some of the best takedown defense in the sport, as he blocks over 91 percent of the attempts against him. It's that defensive wrestling that will come in handy in this fight as Maia will undoubtedly look to get inside and drag him to the mat early and often.
Maia is arguably one of the greatest submission stylists to ever step foot in the Octagon and he's made no secret his desire to out grapple the competition during his recent win streak. Maia is most dangerous during the first two rounds before fighters are able to build up a sweat, and he'll look to find a way inside to lure Woodley into a grappling match with him. Of course, Maia has to be incredibly careful not to leave his head open for a big counter shot, because Woodley packs a serious punch with devastating knockout power.
The key for Maia is grabbing on to a leg while backing Woodley up against the fence. It's certainly possible if Maia looks back at Woodley's loss to Jake Shields from the early part of his UFC career when he faced another supreme grappler who wanted nothing more than to get the fight to the ground. Woodley spent so much time defending the takedown that he forgot to mount much offense of his own. Maia has to employ that same strategy, but it's tough to say if he can do that for five rounds if he can't get the early submission.
On the flipside, Woodley has a lot of ways to win this fight, including out working Maia on the ground if he can land the takedown and just grind him into the mat with his powerful wrestling attack. Woodley is certainly the better striker, and he has perhaps the most one-punch knockout power the division has ever seen. Woodley just needs to be smart with his offense during those first two rounds before unleashing his power on Maia in the third round and beyond. If Woodley does that, he should leave Anaheim with the welterweight title belt still around his waist.
Prediction: Tyron Woodley by TKO, Round 3
Robbie Lawler vs. Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone
There's probably no better pick for Fight of the Night than this welterweight slugfest between former champion Robbie Lawler and Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone.
Lawler has been out of action for the past year after suffering a knockout loss to Woodley before also enduring a change in training camps after exiting American Top Team in Florida. Of course, Lawler is a veteran of the sport who has seen it all during his career, but that time off, coupled with a new coaching staff, could lead to some potential openings during this fight as he gets warmed up during the opening round.
As for Cerrone, he's looking to get back on track following a loss to Jorge Masvidal earlier this year, which put a stop to his undefeated run at welterweight. Prior to that defeat, Cerrone had looked virtually unstoppable at 170 pounds thanks to a nasty striking game that translated beautifully to the welterweight division while also showcasing his highly underrated ground attack. There's little doubt Cerrone will gladly welcome a striking battle with Lawler, which could spell trouble for him if he's not careful.
Lawler is a brutal knockout artist with extremely heavy hands and deceptive technical abilities. Lawler hits like a truck, but he doesn’t just swing with reckless abandon. Instead, Lawler puts together slick combinations before unleashing the hammer that will typically earn him the knockout win. Lawler is also unbelievably durable, which makes him very tough to finish from the first round until the last. The key for Lawler is not showing any signs of the time off after he's been out for the past year because Cerrone is absolutely capable of knocking his head off as a welcome back to the Octagon.
That said, Lawler's experience and power edge has to be considered. Lawler just needs to get his feet wet again during those first few exchanges before uncorking one of those jaw dropping punches that should get a rise out of the crowd in Anaheim.
Prediction: Robbie Lawler by TKO, Round 2
Aljamain Sterling will look for the biggest win of his career when he takes on former bantamweight champion Renan Barao in a catchweight fight at 140 pounds.
Sterling was undefeated through the early part of his UFC career, but he ran into a rough patch with back-to-back losses to Bryan Caraway and Raphael Assuncao. Of course, there's no shame in losing to two of the top-ranked bantamweights in the sport, and Sterling got back on track with a win in his last fight. Now Sterling will look for a signature victory over a former champion while Barao looks to restart his career in the division he used to rule.
When Barao previously fought at bantamweight, he was a force of nature inside the Octagon, with extremely heavy hands, massive finishing power and a very slick ground game to boot. Unfortunately, Barao ran into a tough road with two losses to former champion TJ Dillashaw, and he's never quite looked the same again. On paper, Barao matches up very evenly with Sterling as they both deliver a similar output with strikes landed and accuracy. Where Barao has struggled is defensively, where he currently absorbs more than double the amount of damage as Sterling inside the Octagon.
While Sterling isn't a world-class kickboxer, his striking game is sufficient enough to do some damage to Barao on the feet before taking this fight to the ground. Sterling averages over two takedowns per fight with over 56 percent accuracy, so it's safe to say he's going to use his striking to set up his grappling attacks. Barao is very good on the ground as well, but he'll likely be in a defensive posture while Sterling will be searching early and often to wrap up another submission to add to his resume. Sterling may not finish Barao, but he's going to make the former champion work very hard to stay out of those submissions, and that kind of output can be quite draining.
Prediction: Aljamain Sterling 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.
Cris Cyborg vs. Tonya Evinger
Cris Cyborg will finally get her chance to become a UFC champion when she takes on veteran competitor Tonya Evinger in a bout that will crown a new queen in the featherweight division.
Cyborg has gone undefeated for more than decade, in large part thanks to her aggressive style, where she absolutely overwhelms the competition with her striking attack. Cyborg is also an animal on the ground, where she just mauls her opponents with punches until they simply can't take any more damage. Through her first couple of fights in the UFC, Cyborg has lived up to her reputation, with over eight strikes landed per minute at a 51 percent accuracy clip. Plus, Cyborg has rarely been damaged in her fights, much less taken to the limit where she was actually close to suffering a defeat.
Now make no mistake about it, Tonya Evinger is as tough as they come and she will bring the battle to Cyborg. Evinger is a relentless machine when she's fighting, and she has a very solid wrestling base and a tenacious approach where she's on the attack from the first bell until the very last. Evinger probably possesses some of the best takedowns that Cyborg has faced in recent years, so the Brazilian has to be wary not to overextend herself and allow the former Invicta champion to drag this fight to the ground, where she will have an advantage.
Still, as tough as Evinger may be, it's almost impossible to pick against Cyborg here. She's a monster in the women's featherweight division with incredible fight-finishing power, and Cyborg isn't just a brute force who looks to simply overwhelm her opponents because she’s also very technically sound in her striking attacks as well as her ground game. Evinger will likely present the toughest matchup Cyborg has faced in years, but with an 88 percent finishing rate throughout her career, it's tough to see how the Brazilian doesn't leave the Octagon with the title around her waist.
Prediction: Cris Cyborg by TKO, Round 3
Jimi Manuwa will look for his third win in a row when he returns at UFC 214 to face upstart contender Volkan Oezdemir, who has made quite a splash in his first two Octagon appearances with wins over Ovince Saint Preux and highly touted Misha Cirkunov.
Oezdemir comes from a kickboxing background and he's looked to outstrike both of his first two opponents in the UFC. Oezdemir lands 5.62 strikes per minute with just over 46 percent accuracy and he still hasn't attempted a takedown attempt in his UFC career, so chances are he'll look to keep this fight on the feet.
That's where disaster might strike against a very heavy-handed opponent like Manuwa, who has incredible knockout power in both hands and who has only gotten better in his recent fights. Manuwa has always been a devastating puncher, but since moving to Sweden to train full-time with fighters such as Alexander Gustafsson, he's no longer just raw power looking for the finish. Instead, Manuwa has been patient while looking for the opening before putting together a combination to finish his opponents.
Manuwa is unbelievably accurate on the feet, landing a whopping 59 percent of his strikes, and he's also very active as well. If Oezdemir is willing to test himself on the feet against Manuwa, there's a solid chance he might regret that decision after a few exchanges. Manuwa will likely look for the first time Oezdemir makes a mistake before he capitalizes with a fight-finishing combination to get his third straight knockout win.
Prediction: Jimi Manuwa by KO, Round 2
Featherweight prospect will take a decided step up in competition at UFC 214 when he faces off with former title contender Ricardo Lamas.
Lamas has faced the best of the best throughout his UFC career, defeating Charles Oliveira, Diego Sanchez, Dennis Bermudez and Cub Swanson along the way. Lamas has worked tirelessly over the past few years to add a better striking game to his arsenal, but wrestling remains his best primary weapon. Lamas is quick to get inside on the takedown and he's a very active fighter, rarely slowing down over three rounds.
That said, Knight could give him some serious problems if this fight hits the ground.
Knight is a very slick grappler with a laundry list of finishes on his record. With a very long, lanky frame, Knight is able to wrap up a submission from virtually anywhere on the mat and he's not afraid to fight from the top or the bottom. Knight is also relentless, which means he'll keep the same pace as Lamas and perhaps pressure him even more if they end up in scrambles on the ground. Knight is a master of taking advantage of an opponent's mistake, and Lamas only needs to make one and he might have an arm slipped under his neck looking for a choke.
Knight seems like the kind of fighter poised for a run at the top 10, and this could be the perfect showcase for him to get there. Lamas has only been finished once in his entire career, so Knight might need to stay on the attack for three rounds, but he's got a great opportunity here to pull off the upset.
Prediction: Jason Knight by unanimous decision