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UFC 222 lands in Las Vegas this weekend with a women's featherweight championship bout at the top of the card, as Cris Cyborg makes a quick turnaround from her last fight and takes on former Invicta FC champion Yana Kunitskaya in the main event.
Kunitskaya was already headed to the UFC before this fight was offered, but now she will attempt to pull off the upset while taking on arguably the greatest women's mixed martial artist of all-time.
The co-main event is a huge title eliminator, as Frankie Edgar takes on undefeated submission specialist Brian Ortega, with the winner expected to go on and challenge featherweight champion Max Holloway.
In today's fantasy preview, we're going to examine these fights and several more to see who has the advantage, who looks like a lock, and if somebody might be primed for an upset at UFC 222: Cyborg vs. Kunitskaya.
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.
Frankie Edgar vs. Brian Ortega
With a title shot on the line, the stakes are higher than ever in the co-main event between Frankie Edgar and Brian Ortega.
Of course, Edgar was originally supposed to face featherweight champion Max Holloway on the card, so he's been preparing for a five-round battle against the best in the world. Now there's always a chance that missing out on a title fight would take away some focus, but that's not the case with Edgar. In fact, when Holloway dropped off the card, Edgar insisted on finding a new opponent, so clearly he's ready to go for Saturday night.
In terms of matchup, Edgar is one of the toughest styles to deal with inside the Octagon. He's a powerfully quick wrestler who averages just under three takedowns per fight, and his ground control is some of the best in the sport. On the feet, Edgar possesses incredible boxing skills honed under head coach Mark Henry, where he lands with volume and accuracy while also boasting very good defense. Now when it comes to the ground game, Edgar will probably have to be careful in this fight, because while most opponents try to stop his takedowns, Ortega will likely invite it.
Ortega is a high-level grappler with a slew of submission finishes on his record. What Ortega does best is capitalizing on the slightest mistake from his opponents and then pouncing on a submission. Ortega is a tall, lanky fighter, which means he has long arms and legs to grab on to a variety of chokes when he's looking for the finish. Because he's not scared of the takedown, Ortega will also use his kicking game to try and do some damage against Edgar. As previously stated, Ortega has no problem going to the ground, but for as good as he can be off his back, he probably doesn't want to stay there past the first round with Edgar on top of him, raining down shots. As the fighters get warmed up and the sweat starts flowing, it does get tougher to lock up submissions because it's easier to slip free.
What Edgar will depend on is his vast experience and superior overall game. Edgar's boxing is top notch and Ortega's defense is suspect. Ortega absorbs over five significant strikes per minute and that spells disaster against a high output fighter with good accuracy like Edgar.
Look for Edgar to set the tone with his boxing and perhaps mix in a takedown or two to keep Ortega honest over the course of three rounds. Obviously, Edgar has to be wary of those submission attempts, but as long as he stays composed and doesn't get wild, the New Jersey native should stay right where he's at as the No. 1 contender in the featherweight division.
Prediction: Frankie Edgar by unanimous decision
When it comes to heavyweights, often the question comes down to who lands first.
In this case, Stefan Struve and Andrei Arlovski are both more than capable of landing a one shot knockout to put a stop to the contest. Struve isn't best known for his knockout power, but he does hold a TKO win over current heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, so obviously he doesn't fear a striking battle against the best on the feet.
Struve has a reach advantage over anybody he'll fight in the UFC, but the Dutchman has rarely used that in any of his fights. Struve has a tendency to fight at the same length of his opponents, which sometimes backfires because he puts his chin in the trajectory of a counter shot during an exchange. At the top of his game, Struve is more than capable of landing hard combinations on the feet and then wrapping up a submission on the ground. Thanks to those long arms and legs, Struve has very dangerous chokes, including a nasty D'arce choke, as well as a triangle choke should he get stuck underneath an opponent.
As for Arlovski, he's definitely faced his fair share of ups and downs lately, but he just bounced back with a win over top heavyweight prospect Junior Albini in his last fight. Arlovski still hits like a truck and he has shown a solid chin in the past despite fighting in a division where one shot can put you out. The key for Arlovski in this fight is to get inside of Struve's reach and really start pouring on the punishment. Struve struggles at times when facing an ultra aggressive opponent, so Arlovski has to bully him on the inside and never give him time to breathe.
Allowing Struve to settle into a rhythm and find his pace will likely hurt Arlovski over the course of three rounds. Still, Arlovski's power combined with Struve's inability to get out of the way of punches is a concern. Struve's defense is only 48 percent on the feet, so he's basically taking more shots than he's blocking, and one mistake is all Arlovski needs to make him pay for it.
Prediction: Andrei Arlovski by knockout, Round 1
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A potential Fight of the Night could unfold in this bantamweight showdown between always exciting scrapper Sean O'Malley and three-time UFC veteran Andre Soukhamthath.
Soukhamthath just recently picked up his first UFC win by knockout after losing a pair of heartbreaking split decisions. Soukhamthath is definitely a striker first while averaging solid output on the feet, and he hasn't even attempted a takedown since joining the UFC roster, so it's not likely he be looking to out wrestle O'Malley this weekend. What Soukhamthath does showcase is very good technical striking and solid takedown defense so he can keep the fight standing. Soukhamthath is a very tough out, so he'll be in O'Malley's face from the first second until the last.
Meanwhile, O'Malley is quickly becoming one of the fighters who is always dependable to put on a show. After first debuting on Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series, O'Malley got into a serious scrap in his UFC debut and he'll look to do the same this weekend. O'Malley is a high output offensive machine who is constantly looking to land punches and dish out some punishment against his opponents. O'Malley has even mixed in some takedowns when necessary, although he'll likely welcome a striking battle with Soukhamthath this weekend.
O'Malley definitely gets wild at times, and it can cost him, so he has to be careful not to pull Soukhamthath into a brawl where he's the one who ends up laid out on the canvas. That said, O'Malley's ability to draw his opponents into these big, wild exchanges should allow him to put on another instant classic while looking to land more shots on Soukhamthath than he takes back in return. O'Malley just has to be careful because he absorbed a lot of shots in his UFC debut and he can't do that again if he expects to walk out of UFC 222 with his undefeated record and another win under his belt.
Prediction: Sean O'Malley 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.
Cris Cyborg vs. Yana Kunitskaya
Cris Cyborg will look to secure the second successful defense of her UFC women's featherweight title just two months after her last win over Holly Holm, while former Invicta FC champion Yana Kunitskaya will attempt to do the impossible when competing in her UFC debut against one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport.
The book on Cyborg is well known. She's an aggressive striker with devastating knockout power and a ground game that is highly underrated. As Cyborg showed with her last fight against Holm, she can also put together a technical kickboxing match where she's just looking to land strikes and not get hit in return. Considering Holm is regarded as one of the best counter strikers in the women's divisions, Cyborg did a masterful job of landing her punches and then not taking any back in return.
This time around, Cyborg may just look to overwhelm Kunitskaya before she even has a chance to get comfortable in the Octagon. Kunitskaya does have a solid submission arsenal off her back and her striking game is solid. Still, Cyborg is such an offensive machine that she will undoubtedly look to expose those infamous Octagon jitters in the opening round as she will probably throw everything at Kunitskaya to see if she's truly ready.
Obviously, anything can happen in a fight, but Cyborg is definitely the biggest favorite on the entire card and it's tough to see a scenario where she doesn’t walk out with the UFC title still wrapped around her waist.
Prediction: Cris Cyborg by TKO, Round 2
Mackenzie Dern vs. Ashley Yoder
Highly touted prospect Mackenzie Dern will make UFC debut this weekend against former Ultimate Fighter competitor Ashley Yoder.
Dern is a world-class Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist who also trains for mixed martial arts at the MMA Lab in Arizona, where she's working alongside a laundry list of top UFC fighters, including women's flyweight contender Lauren Murphy. Now it's no secret that Dern will look to get this fight on the mat, and Yoder seems like the perfect opponent for her debut.
Yoder is nicknamed "SpiderMonkey" because she's very quick to latch on to an opponent with her long lanky body. Yoder is good in the scrambles and takes advantage of the smallest mistake from an opponent, especially on the ground. Unfortunately, this time around, Yoder is just facing a better overall grappler in Dern, who will undoubtedly look to set up her submissions with a rapidly improving striking arsenal and overall grappling game.
Yoder will make it interesting because she's not afraid to get into those scrambles, but ultimately it's tough to see how Dern doesn't eventually catch her with some sort of submission in those exchanges on the mat.
Prediction: Mackenzie Dern by submission, Round 2
Following an injury to Bobby Green, Beneil Dariush draws newcomer Alexander Hernandez at UFC 222 this weekend. Hernandez is a solid replacement, as he comes in with an 8-1 record with six victories in a row, including several by knockout or submission. Hernandez has faced solid competition but this will undoubtedly be a big step up.
Dariush is a tough matchup for anybody in the lightweight division, much less somebody making their debut on short notice. With a nasty array of submissions and a diverse striking arsenal, Dariush has beaten a Who’s Who of top lightweights, including James Vick, Jim Miller and Michael Johnson. Now there's always going to be a danger in fights like these because Dariush was preparing for a much different opponent and now he's facing a UFC rookie instead.
Still, Dariush just has too many weapons and too much experience to let that hurt him in this fight. Plus, Dariush has gone winless since 2016 thanks to a loss and a draw in his past two fights. Dariush will look to make a statement this weekend and it may be Hernandez's misfortune that he's the one on the receiving end.
Prediction: Beneil Dariush by TKO, Round 3
Cat Zingano vs. Ketlen Vieira
With injuries keeping her out of action for all of 2017, former title challenger Cat Zingano will return to action this weekend against ground specialist Ketlen Vieira in a very important bout at 135 pounds in the women's division.
Zingano may have been out of the Octagon, but she's never out of the gym, as she's stayed ready by working with the top-notch crew at Alliance MMA in San Diego. There, Zingano is training alongside legends like Dominick Cruz, as well as heavy-handed knockout artist Jeremy Stephens, not to mention a slew of women's fighters, including Angela Hill, Jessica Penne and Bec Rawlings. Zingano is a high output striker with very slick grappling on the mat and she packs some serious power in her punches.
Now Zingano will definitely have to be careful in this fight because Vieira is nasty on the ground and will not make many mistakes if she gets this fight on the mat. Vieira is world class with her submission arsenal and she's also shown the ability to grapple with top wrestlers like Sara McMann in the past. Vieira also holds a black belt in judo to accompany her black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, so she's also got plenty of throws and takedowns in her arsenal as well.
That said, Zingano knows there's a lot on the line for her in this fight after such a long layoff and that's usually when she's at her best. Zingano is a pressure fighter who comes forward and uses a lot of aggression to overwhelm her opponents. On paper, Zingano should be the better striker and she's no slouch when it comes to her grappling skills. Zingano is also a beast when she gets on top of an opponent, as she showcased with her third-round finish against current women's bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes. Zingano is relentless, and unless Vieira can catch her slipping on the ground, she could be in for a long night at the office.
Prediction: Cat Zingano by unanimous decision