As UFC 216 descends upon Las Vegas this weekend, two title fights will headline the card as Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee battle to crown an interim lightweight champion, while Demetrious Johnson goes for a record-breaking title defense when he faces Ray Borg.
Ferguson and Lee have plenty to fight for this weekend, because not only will one of them become interim champion, but it could lead to a showdown with current lightweight king Conor McGregor.
In addition to the two title fights at the top of the card, former heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum is back in action this weekend as he takes on Derrick Lewis in a matchup that could produce fireworks. Plus, top rated prospect Tom Duquesnoy makes his second appearance in the UFC, and former teammates Will Brooks and Nik Lentz face off on the prelims.
In today's fantasy preview, we'll examine these fights and several more to see who has the edge going into Saturday night and if there's an upset brewing at UFC 216: Ferguson vs. Lee.
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.
Tony Ferguson vs. Kevin Lee
This fight for the interim lightweight title might be one of the most compelling matchups left to take place in 2017.
On one side stands Tony Ferguson, who has won nine fights in a row while carving his way through the lightweight rankings. On the other is Kevin Lee, an upstart contender who has looked unstoppable during a run that includes a first-round submission win over former Ultimate Fighter winner Michael Chiesa.
There's no doubt that Ferguson will have an experience edge in this fight, not only because he's been competing in the UFC longer, but also because he's gone five rounds previously in his career. In fact, it was Ferguson's last fight when he used a smart game plan and incredible conditioning to wear down former champion Rafael Dos Anjos and earn a unanimous decision win. Ferguson is also a devastating finisher with a nasty jab as well as quick wrestling and a very slick submission arsenal. Ferguson's length will give any lightweight problems on the feet, but he's just as good on the ground, where he uses those long arms to wrap up the D'Arce choke, which seems to be his favorite submission.
As for Lee, he's worked tirelessly to improve his striking game to go along with a top notch grappling skill set that's virtually unmatched at 155 pounds. Lee is very aggressive with his ground attack because he can wrestle an opponent to the mat and then unload powerful punches before looking to put the fight away with a submission. The last place Ferguson wants to be in this fight is stuck on the mat with Lee looking to take his back. If Lee can get to that position, Ferguson is in serious trouble.
To put this fight into his favor, Lee has to take advantage of any mistakes that Ferguson might make. Ferguson got caught and nearly finished by late notice replacement Lando Vannata when he got a little sloppy in their fight last year, and if he does the same thing against Lee he could be in trouble. That said, Ferguson has more weapons with his boxing and overall grappling game that he should be able to stave off Lee's attacks early before truly taking over the fight late in the championship rounds. It all adds up to a win for Ferguson, but it won't be easy because this will be a grueling battle for both fighters over 25 minutes.
Prediction: Tony Ferguson by unanimous decision
Top 15 lightweights Beneil Dariush and Evan Dunham will square off in one of the toughest matchups to pick at UFC 216.
Dariush is coming off a loss to Edson Barboza in his last fight, but he had a good showing until the Brazilian caught him with a jaw-dropping flying knee that stopped the contest. Prior to that setback, Dariush had won two fights in a row, including a knockout over James Vick as well as a unanimous decision over Rashid Magomedov. Dariush has earned his place among the top 15 in the lightweight division for his world class grappling skills and his evolving striking game.
Dunham will bring a ton of Octagon savvy with him into the matchup with Dariush as he looks for his fifth straight win. Dunham has faced the best of the best throughout his UFC career while still showing improvements with every performance. His wrestling game is on point and his striking looks better than ever in his most recent fights. Dunham also lands with higher volume than Dariush, so he'll certainly look to use that work rate to his advantage as the fight wears on into the second and third rounds.
The key for Dariush is not allowing Dunham to control the pace of this fight. Dariush sometimes falls in love with one part of his game or another and then forgets the other weapons held back in his arsenal. If Dariush is having success striking, he'll rarely revert back to his ground game and while that can be a sound strategy, he has plenty of tools that he could use to hurt Dunham over three rounds. If Dariush can mix up his strategy with a solid striking attack combined with good groundwork, he should be able to keep Dunham off balance enough to earn the win. Don't sleep on Dunham, however, because if Dariush comes out only looking for a boxing-heavy attack, that could leave him open to some diverse counters from his opponent on Saturday night.
Prediction: Beneil Dariush by unanimous decision
Will Brooks vs. Nik Lentz
In a battle of former teammates from American Top Team in Florida, Will Brooks faces off with Nik Lentz in a fight that could become a war of positions.
Lentz is a notorious grinder who loves to push his opponents against the cage wall and work for takedowns while punishing them to the body and head with a dirty boxing style that's hard to contest at times. Lentz averages nearly four takedowns per fight, although he's struggled a bit more at times getting opponents to the ground since returning to the lightweight division. Still, Lentz is like a magnet in the Octagon while gluing himself to an opponent and just wearing them down round after round after round.
Now Brooks is no stranger to wrestling, where he's also shown very good tendencies both offensively and defensively, including nearly two takedowns per fight on average. On the feet, Brooks is a little more diverse while landing more than four significant strikes per minute with incredible accuracy just under 59 percent. Brooks also has far better defensive skills on the feet than Lentz and that could be a factor in this war of attrition.
Where Brooks seemingly takes over in a fight such as this is with his power and endurance over three rounds while looking to use his strength to muscle out of Lentz's takedowns and grappling exchanges. Brooks is a very strong fighter at 155 pounds and his ability to reverse positions with Lentz against the cage and then counter with his own offensive wrestling could give his former teammate fits in this fight. Brooks has stumbled a bit since arriving to the UFC, but this fight could give him the perfect opportunity to shine.
Prediction: Will Brooks 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.
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 man with the most successful title defenses in UFC history.
Prediction: Demetrious Johnson by submission, Round 4
Tom Duquesnoy vs. Cody Stamann
Highly touted prospect Tom Duquesnoy makes his second appearance in the UFC this weekend as he faces off with another up and coming talent in Cody Stamann. Both fighters won in their respective UFC debuts, but now each of them will try to make a statement while fighting at UFC 216.
Duquesnoy is certainly one of the most interesting additions to the UFC's bantamweight roster since Cody Garbrandt joined the promotion. Duquesnoy has blinding speed, incredible power and a submission arsenal that is vastly underrated. Duquesnoy got a little sloppy in his first fight in the UFC and that allowed Patrick Williams to ding him up a bit in the opening round, but once the 24-year old French fighter settled down, he took over.
Expect Duquesnoy to do the same and even better in his second appearance after getting past those initial Octagon jitters.
Stamann is no joke, of course, and he's got the record to prove it. Stamann is 15-1 in his career with a long list of victories by way of knockout or submission, so he could certainly surprise Duquesnoy in this fight. That being said, Stamann's tendencies to push forward and get aggressive with his striking attacks could play right into what Duquesnoy does so well with his lightning quick punches and devastating power.
Duquesnoy seems like he's poised for a run at the top 15, but this will be a good test to see how he's handled life since becoming a fighter in the UFC with a very bright spotlight on him. If he can perform as well as he's done throughout the rest of his career, Duquesnoy could put on a Performance of the Night kind of fight where he's walking away with a bonus when the night is over.
Prediction: Tom Duquesnoy by KO, Round 2
Walt Harris vs. Mark Godbeer
Like almost every heavyweight matchup in the UFC, there's no such thing as a sure thing, but Walt Harris has looked like an absolute beast lately and he'll try to showcase that once more when facing Mark Godbeer at UFC 216.
A basketball player turned fighter, Harris had all the athleticism to turn into a true terror at heavyweight, but he needed time to develop. Lately, Harris has shown flashes of that promise with a pair of devastating knockouts and he'll look to make it three in a row this weekend.
Now Godbeer definitely has veteran savvy that could keep him in this fight, which is what he has to do to survive the early onslaught from Harris. The longer this fight goes the more it gives Godbeer a chance for Harris to wear himself out and that's when the direction of this matchup could shift course.
Still, Harris' power and strength will be a lot to handle in those early rounds, especially with his overall size advantage, where he's three inches taller and will likely be about 15 pounds heavier than Godbeer once they step into the Octagon together. Harris is finally living up to the hype and this should be another showcase of that talent that could eventually earn him a spot in the heavyweight rankings.
Prediction: Walt Harris by KO, Round 1
Derrick Lewis vs. Fabricio Werdum
Former champion Fabricio Werdum will look to right the ship this weekend after a heartbreaking decision loss in his last fight as he takes on heavy-handed monster Derrick Lewis. Werdum is definitely the favorite and, make no mistake, he has plenty of ways to win this fight given his incredible resume, not to mention a bevy of possibilities to finish Lewis with strikes or submissions.
That being said, Lewis has readily admitted that while he's been making his surge up the heavyweight rankings for the past couple of years, he hasn't been putting in the work of a champion. In fact, Lewis says his nutritional plan was virtually non-existent not to mention a lack of total training to get ready for his fights. The problem was that Lewis was doing so well getting by on the bare minimum that he never felt there was a reason to change. That was until he suffered a TKO loss to Mark Hunt in his last fight and that woke up "The Black Beast", who is now training like an animal and eating like a true professional athlete.
It all adds up to Lewis believing that he's in the best condition of his career, with more power and speed than he's ever shown before. That's a scary prospect, considering Lewis already sounded like a jackhammer going through the bottom of the Octagon canvas whenever he threw a punch on a downed opponent. Of course, Lewis has to be smart in this fight and not allow Werdum's reach to play a major factor or to get locked up in a submission.
If Lewis can bombard Werdum with strikes on the feet and then somehow pin him on the ground, where his submissions aren't as much of a factor, the Texas based heavyweight could rain down some serious punishment on the veteran Brazilian fighter. Lewis is definitely fighting an uphill battle in this one, but he's got the skills that could give Werdum nightmares, especially if he fights with the same kind of confidence that helped him earn six wins in a row before his recent setback.
Prediction: Derrick Lewis by TKO, Round 2