Two title fights will highlight the UFC's return to Canada this weekend, as Demetrious Johnson looks to break the all-time record for title defenses when he takes on Ray Borg, while women's bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes looks to settle the score once and for all with top-ranked contender Valentina Shevchenko.
Johnson will look for an 11th consecutive title defense, which would push him past Anderson Silva as the all-time record holder in the UFC. Borg has been champing at the bit to get a shot at Johnson, and now he'll get his shot while trying to become the second flyweight champion in UFC history.
Meanwhile, Nunes and Shevchenko were originally scheduled to meet in July, but the champion fell ill in the lead up to the fight and the bout had to be postponed. Now just a couple months later, Nunes is anxious to get a second successful title defense under her belt, while Shevchenko looks to avenge a past loss and become women's bantamweight champion.
In today's fantasy preview, we'll examine the two title fights and plenty more from this upcoming card to see who has the edge and who might be primed for an upset at UFC 215: Johnson vs. Borg.
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.
Amanda Nunes vs. Valentina Shevchenko
Amanda Nunes has a win over Valentina Shevchenko already, but the women’s bantamweight champion is also well aware just how tough this challenge will be when the two fighters meet in a five-round rematch.
In the first fight, Nunes was able to dominate the early portion of the opening round after taking Shevchenko to the mat and punishing her with strikes. To her credit, Shevchenko survived the early onslaught and came back to win a decisive third round, although she ultimately came up short on the judges’ scorecards.
To win this rematch, Nunes will either have to get another signature finish in the early going of the fight or retool her game plan to adjust for a possible five-round championship fight. Nunes has been criticized in the past for her struggles with conditioning, but she has repeatedly stated that the issue was fixed prior to winning the belt against Miesha Tate last year. Nunes hasn't had the opportunity to show off her improved conditioning because she's finished her last two opponents inside the first round, and there's definitely a chance she could do it again at UFC 215.
Nunes is an incredibly fast starter with powerful hands and a brutal ground game to compliment her overall skill set. Nunes lands just under five significant strikes per minute with over 53 percent accuracy. Nunes also averages more than two takedowns per fight with a solid submission average as well. In other words, Nunes is very good no matter where this fight takes place.
The key for Shevchenko will be surviving that early storm and then pushing the pace on Nunes after the first round comes to an end. Shevchenko is a highly technical kickboxer with slick hands and nasty kicks. While she has struggled to defend takedowns at points during her UFC career, Shevchenko still has great grappling, as she showcased against Pena earlier this year, when she won the fight with an armbar from the bottom. Make no mistake, Shevchenko wants to keep this fight standing, but she'll show no fear if Nunes is able to get this to the ground.
Nunes has been such a dominant finisher that it's nearly impossible to pick against her now that she's run through so many top contenders, including Tate and Rousey in her recent fights. Still, Shevchenko went three rounds with Nunes before and her confidence was brimming in the latter half of that fight when she took control. If Shevchenko can survive the early onslaught, look for her to start putting together punishing striking combinations as the fight pushes into the championship rounds. While the fight remains an absolute toss-up, a slight edge goes to Shevchenko just based on her past performance against Nunes as she looks to avenge her prior loss with a better showing this time around.
Prediction: Valentina Shevchenko by unanimous decision
It's been just over a year since Ilir Latifi stepped into the Octagon and suffered a knockout loss to Ryan Bader that brought an end to an impressive three-fight win streak. He'll attempt to get another streak started when he takes on highly touted light heavyweight prospect Tyson Pedro, who is currently 6-0 in his career with back-to-back victories to begin his UFC career.
Looking at this matchup, Latifi will more than likely try to keep this fight on the feet, where he can punish Pedro with a heavy-handed striking style that comes at different angles and lands with maximum impact. Latifi's nickname is "The Sledgehammer" for a reason, because he hits like a ton of bricks, especially when he's able to get inside and work away at the head and body. Latifi will be giving up six inches in reach, so he should look to close the distance and press Pedro against the cage while unloading punches in bunches.
Pedro is a well-rounded fighter with knockout power in his hands, but it's more than likely he'll try to get this matchup to the ground, where he will have a bigger advantage. Pedro has wrapped up four of his six wins by submission, and his most recent victory against Paul Craig came after he took the fight down to the mat and unloaded with a series of punches and elbows. Look for Pedro to employ a similar tactic here to drag Latifi to the mat before unleashing his ground-and-pound attack. Pedro currently averages more than three takedowns per 15 minutes in the Octagon, and that should give a clear indication of what he'll plan to do here.
Pedro just has to avoid those big, powerful strikes coming from Latifi whenever they get clinched against the cage. If he can do that and then force the fight to the ground, Pedro's punishing style on the mat should end with his seventh career victory and definitely the biggest of his career as he climbs one step closer towards the top 10 at 205 pounds.
Prediction: Tyson Pedro by TKO, Round 2
In a matchup between two of the most experienced fighters on the roster, Gilbert Melendez makes his debut at featherweight while taking on hard-hitting knockout artist Jeremy Stephens.
Melendez moves down to 145 pounds following a storied career at lightweight, where he was a former Strikeforce champion and a two-time title contender in the UFC. Melendez has fallen on harder times lately with three straight losses, but those defeats have come against two former champions and a top five-ranked lightweight in Edson Barboza. At his best, Melendez is a well-rounded fighter with bricks in his hands and a very underrated ground game that he hasn't used much in the UFC, but certainly still exists in his arsenal of weapons. Melendez is best known for his slugfest style, where he likes to step into the pocket and just unleash hell with his combinations. Very few fighters have been able to stand up to the kind of storm Melendez unleashes when he bites down on his mouthpiece and starts firing punches in succession.
Now Melendez has to be careful with that sort of game plan this time around, considering Stephens has devastating one-punch knockout power. Stephens is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous fighters competing in the featherweight division because he's always one shot away from altering the course of any fight. That being said, Stephens has fallen in love with his heavy-handed striking style so much lately that he's gotten away from a more dynamic strategy just in case he doesn't land that one big shot. Thankfully, Stephens has acknowledged those problems and worked with head coach Eric Del Fierro to make a few changes in his approach leading into this fight.
There's little doubt this is the toughest fight on the entire card in which to pick a winner because Melendez and Stephens are so evenly matched. If there is a slight edge, it might lie with Stephens, because he's been competing in this division for a couple of years now and has already faced a laundry list of top opponents. Melendez is making the move for the first time in the UFC, and there are always going to be questions surrounding the weight cut and recovery, especially for someone moving divisions after so many years spent competing at 155 pounds. This one truly is a toss-up, but Stephens might be the safer pick just based on his activity and ability to hurt anyone with one big shot landing on the chin that could make all the difference in this fight.
Prediction: Jeremy Stephens by split 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.
Demetrious Johnson vs. Ray Borg
Demetrious Johnson will attempt to make history this weekend with his 11th consecutive successful title defense as he takes on Ray Borg, who is currently riding a two-fight win streak, with victories in five of his past six bouts.
The book on Johnson is very well known by this point. If the UFC was a video game, Johnson is like the 'create a fighter' option with every skill set amped up all the way to 10. Johnson is a superb wrestler with a nasty submission game. He's a lightning quick striker with knockout power in his hands, his conditioning can go for days and he's never rattled in the face of danger, which has rarely happened during his title reign. Johnson can virtually pick his poison when it comes to how he approaches a fight. He could choose to show off his boxing for two rounds and then adjust to a ground attack for the final three rounds if that's what will get him the victory.
That means Borg is going to be fighting an uphill battle to find a solution to this puzzle, as Johnson has barely been rattled over the course of his title reign. Borg is a tenacious wrestler with real power on the ground, so that might be one course of attack that could help him slow Johnson down in the early rounds. Borg averages over three takedowns per fight with just over 47 percent accuracy, so he's got plenty of wrestling moves that he could use to ground Johnson in this fight. Borg also averages just under two submission attempts per fight, which means he's not only getting the fight to the ground but he's constantly working for the finish.
Still, it's nearly impossible not to pick Johnson just based on his incredible resume and the numerous ways he could ultimately win this fight. Johnson may decide to stop Borg's wrestling and just out work him on the feet. He could also opt to out grapple the wrestler and put Borg on his back at some point during this fight. Either way, it's tough to see how Johnson doesn't walk into the fight as the flyweight champion and walk out as the longest reigning champion in UFC history.
Prediction: Demetrious Johnson by submission, Round 4
Ketlen Vieira has looked very good through her first two fights in the UFC, but she might be running into a brick wall this weekend as she faces Sara McMann in a women's bantamweight bout at UFC 215.
Vieira is a very solid fighter at 135 pounds, with a background in both judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, so her ground skills are very good, but she's also shown off a strong striking game since arriving in the UFC. Vieira averages just under three significant strikes landed per minute and then also does tremendous work on the ground, where she's putting her opponents on the mat just under three times per fight.
Unfortunately, Vieira's takedowns might struggle a bit more in this matchup as she takes on McMann, who is a silver medalist in Olympic freestyle wrestling and one of the best takedown artists in the UFC. McMann averages a whopping five takedowns per fight, and her ground control is unreal. McMann has incredible accuracy with her takedowns as well, landing over 70 percent of her attempts, and no opponent in the UFC has been able to put her down. McMann has also recently teamed up with Team Alpha Male in Sacramento to add a few new weapons to her arsenal, so it will be interesting to see what coaches like Justin Buchholz and Danny Castillo have added for this fight.
All in all, McMann's wrestling and ground control should be too much for Vieira over three rounds. Vieira will do her best to make it tough for McMann to drag this to the mat, but over the course of 15 minutes, she may spend a lot of time on her back just trying to play defense.
Prediction: Sara McMann by unanimous decision
In a battle of former flyweight title contenders, Henry Cejudo will make his return to action against Wilson Reis.
Cejudo is actually coming into the fight off two straight losses, but one defeat came courtesy of Demetrious Johnson and the other was a hard-fought battle against top-ranked contender Joseph Benavidez. In fact, Cejudo probably looked better than ever before in that fight with Benavidez despite coming up short on the judges' scorecards.
Cejudo is obviously a world-class wrestler after winning a gold medal in the Olympics, but he's also worked tirelessly on adding other elements to his mixed martial arts game. Cejudo averages just under four significant strikes landed per minute with very good accuracy on the feet as well. Cejudo also has excellent defense on the feet while blocking over 71 percent of his opponents' strikes.
Reis is a seasoned veteran with some of the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the flyweight division. He averages nearly five takedowns per fight with a very active ground game as well. That strategy might backfire on him this weekend, however, with Cejudo's wrestling arguably amongst the best in the entire sport.
If Reis struggles to get this fight to the ground, he may not have the striking prowess to really damage Cejudo on the feet. On the flipside, Cejudo has shown tremendous improvements in his boxing while also possessing takedowns that could put Reis on his back at any time during this fight. If Cejudo fights smart, he should leave UFC 215 with another win on his record.
Prediction: Henry Cejudo by unanimous decision
At some point, the world will stop doubting Neil Magny as a legitimate contender in the 170-pound division.
Magny steps into his latest challenge against former lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos as the underdog, despite sporting an 11-2 record in his past 13 fights that includes a win over former champion Johny Hendricks in his most recent performance. Magny is an incredibly tough matchup for anybody in the division thanks to his long reach, constant work rate and a skill set where he's able to do a lot of damage on the feet or on the ground. Magny will enjoy a size edge in this fight as well, with an incredible 10-inch reach advantage over Dos Anjos, who is making his second appearance in the UFC’s 170-pound division.
Dos Anjos looked great in his welterweight debut, taking out former Strikeforce champion Tarec Saffiedine with a constant barrage of strikes on the feet. Dos Anjos possesses a nasty Muay Thai striking game that includes powerful punches and punishing kicks. Dos Anjos rarely slows down, and he has the kind of pressure game that can break most of his opponents over time.
It's certainly possible that Dos Anjos will be able to employ a similar strategy in this fight, where he'll attack Magny with the same kind of ferocity that Lorenz Larkin used to beat him last year. In that fight, Larkin went on the attack from the very start of start of the fight, looking for leg kicks and a barrage of punches that eventually broke through Magny's defense. Dos Anjos has the power to do the same thing, but he will be giving up a lot of size and reach in this fight.
If Magny can keep Dos Anjos at the end of his punches early and then work his way to get the fight to the ground, he could rack up a lot of points on the judges' scorecards. Magny just has to be smart about how he gets inside without allowing Dos Anjos to eat him alive with kicks, punches and elbows. On the ground, Dos Anjos has a very slick submission game, but he might be stuck under Magny, which is probably the last place he wants to be in this fight. Magny just needs to stay patient and work with whatever opening Dos Anjos gives him. Perhaps that means a takedown-heavy attack to counter the kicks or Magny could look to target Dos Anjos with long, rangy kicks and punches from the outside while using his size. It's just tough to see a way Magny doesn't give Dos Anjos some trouble during this fight, which is why he remains a solid upset pick.
Prediction: Neil Magny by unanimous decision