An injury to Tony Ferguson forced a change to the UFC 223 main event, but there's certainly no less intrigue now that featherweight champion Max Holloway has stepped in to face Khabib Nurmagomedov to determine a new king in the lightweight division.
Holloway has never shied away from a challenge, even if that means taking on the undefeated Russian wrecking machine on just six days’ notice.
It's a daunting task, but one that Holloway was more than happy to accept as he looks to become a two division champion while Nurmagomedov attempts to have a UFC title wrapped around his waist for the first time on Saturday night.
In the co-main event, Rose Namajunas will put her strawweight title up for grabs against the woman she beat to take the belt in a huge rematch at 115 pounds. Joanna Jedrzejczyk was obviously disappointed to lose her title, but now the Polish striker is anxious to get back into the Octagon with Namajunas to exact her revenge.
In today's fantasy preview, we'll examine these key fights and several more to see who has the edge going into Saturday night and if someone might be primed for the upset at UFC 223: Khabib 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.
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Max Holloway
Featherweight king @BlessedMMA told the world he'd step up and take on Khabib Nurmagomedov back in January. We got a title fight at #UFC223 #KhabibHolloway pic.twitter.com/oBNYYv6Pn2
— UFC News (@UFCNews) April 2, 2018
There's no doubt that the cards are stacked against Max Holloway as he steps into his fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov on less than a week’s notice.
Holloway hasn't been in full time training since his last fight against Jose Aldo in Dec. 2017 and while he is the best featherweight in the world, he's going to bumping up a division to take on one of the most feared and ferocious fighters on the entire UFC roster.
So how does Holloway win this fight?
Well, first of all, Holloway is a far superior striker and he will be arguably the best boxer that Nurmagomedov has faced during his entire UFC career. Holloway will throw kicks occasionally but he's best with his hands as he paws away at opponents with a lead jab and then follows through with stinging combinations in rapid fire succession. Holloway is very good at controlling the distance, which will be a huge asset in this matchup. Plus, Holloway hasn't been taken down in his past nine fights through 29 attempts from his opposition.
Of course, none of those fighters has been Nurmagomedov, who is an entirely different kind of animal when it comes to his ability to wrestle an opponent into submission. Nurmagomedov averages nearly six takedowns per fight with over 45 percent accuracy. If that's not enough, Nurmagomedov has some of the most punishing ground-and-pound the sport has ever seen.
Nurmagomedov loves to trap his opponents against the cage and just beat on them round after round until they either give up, the referee stops it or the punishment is so severe that it opens up an opportunity for a submission. The last place Holloway wants to be in this fight is on his back with Nurmagomedov on top of him, hammering away with punches and elbows.
If Holloway can stay away from the cage and shuck off a few takedown attempts early, his confidence will soar. Holloway is a pressure fighter who loves to pour on the punishment with each passing round and if he can stay standing, then Nurmagomedov is going to be in serious trouble on the feet.
That being said, Nurmagomedov might just be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport - he just doesn't have a belt around his waist yet. Nurmagomedov will undoubtedly go for those takedowns again and again, sucking the air out of Holloway each time he plants the featherweight champion on the mat. Holloway is as tough as they come, so he may win a round or two and it's likely he'll find a way to survive until the final horn, but in the end the result reads the same.
Khabib Nurmagomedov should be the new UFC lightweight champion after Saturday night is finished.
Prediction: Khabib Nurmagomedov by unanimous decision
Rose Namajunas vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk
Rose Namajunas was the first person to ever earn a win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk with a first round TKO victory last November, but the question going into the rematch is can she do it again?
Namajunas showed incredible confidence and poise in the first fight, showing off striking like she never had before while landing punches at will against arguably one of the best standup fighters in UFC history. Namajunas is best known for her grappling skills, but she proved that she's a force to be reckoned with on the feet now as well. Namajunas has good, technical kickboxing with long range and a solid arsenal of weapons on the feet. Of course, Namajunas' submission game is nearly unmatched as she uses her long arms and legs to wrap up an opponent like a pretzel any time the fight hits the mat. In many ways, Namajunas is similar in style to top-ranked featherweight contender Brian Ortega because she's learned to have so much confidence in her hands that she doesn't have to rely on her ground skills unless it's totally necessary.
Now the book on Jedrzejczyk is well known - she's as elite as you can get when it comes to world-class striking, with heavy hands and surgical precision. Jedrzejczyk is a volume striker as well and she has no problem putting together five, six or seven strike combinations on the feet. Jedrzejcyzk is also best at distance when she's able to use her long reach to keep opponents away from her, which is how she managed to dominate this division for so long.
What will define this rematch is Jedrzejcyzk's ability to bounce back from defeat and figure out how to prevent what happened the first time from taking place again. For Namajunas, she just has to do more of the same as last time and never allow Jedrzejczyk to get into any kind of rhythm on the feet.
If Jedrzejczyk can set the pace early with a long-range striking game where she's keeping Namajunas on the end of her punches while keeping her hands up and chin tucked, she's got a great chance of putting on another classic performance. It's just impossible to know if she can do that considering what unfolded the last time, as Namajunas showed no fear exchanging with Jedrzejcyzk on the feet and it's doubtful that is going to change this time around either. Namajunas will stay on the attack, counter Jedrzejczyk and look to land her punches whenever she can draw the former champion into those exchanges.
Namajunas just needs to stay poised under fire again and she has a great chance to go two for two against Jedrzejczyk this weekend. On the flipside, Jedrzejczyk has to avoid those big exchanges where she allowed Namajunas to slip through her defense and hurt her with those first few punches in the opening round. The longer this fight goes, the more it should favor Jedrzejcyzk with her volume punching, as she'll look to rack up points on the scorecards to earn a decision victory.
Prediction: Joanna Jedrzejczyk by unanimous decision
This lightweight matchup between Al Iaquinta and Paul Felder has all the makings of Fight of the Night as they kick off the main card on Pay-Per-View.
Iaquinta has won five fights in a row, with four of those coming by way of knockout. The New York native is a devastating boxer with serious power in his hands and the ability to pour on the punishment at the first sign of trouble from an opponent. Iaquinta is also incredibly durable, so he has no problem biting down on his mouthpiece and winging punches if that's what it takes to get the job done. Iaquinta has also shown solid defense in the past, to the point where he's not eating a shot just to give a shot when exchanging on the feet.
Felder has no problem with that type of fight either, as he loves to engage in a striking battle. While Iaquinta prefers to box, Felder is more of a classic Muay Thai fighter who will throw a lot of kicks, elbows and knees during a fight. Felder is also a very creative striker, so don't be surprised if he throws in a spinning back fist or spin kick just to keep Iaquinta guessing.
Felder has also looked better than ever lately while working under famed striking coach Duke Roufus, so he'll be primed and ready to bang as soon as this fight gets underway.
While this matchup is really a game of inches, Felder has been the more active fighter lately and he's gone from a solid lightweight to a serious contender at 155 pounds in his most recent fights. Felder seems to have turned the corner after jumping right into the deep end of the lightweight division early in his UFC career. While this will absolutely test Felder to find out if he's truly ready for the top 10 at 155 pounds, he's shown every indication that he's prepared for that kind of challenge. Make no mistake, this fight is a toss-up and arguably the toughest to pick on the entire card, but a slight edge remains with Felder thanks to his creativity on the feet and on the ground, and the activity he's been keeping while Iaquinta is making his first appearance in nearly a year.
Prediction: Paul Felder 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.
Former Ultimate Fighter winner Michael Chiesa will look for arguably the biggest win of his career when he takes on former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis this weekend.
Pettis has definitely suffered through the toughest run of his career lately, with a 2-5 record over his past seven fights. Now while that's not an easy pill to swallow, Pettis has shown improvements in his past two fights against Jim Miller and Dustin Poirier.
Pettis is first and foremost a striker with world class kickboxing skills, but he's also shown off a very slick ground game, with more submission wins in the UFC than he has knockouts. Of course, Pettis' ground game is usually a reaction from an opponent trying to take him down, and he'll probably have some of those same openings in this fight.
Chiesa is a ground technician with a submission-heavy skillset, so he'll undoubtedly look to drag Pettis down at some point over three rounds. Chiesa isn't exactly outmatched on the feet, where he lands with solid volume and accuracy while also holding a three-inch reach advantage in this fight. Still, Chiesa will definitely look to shoot on Pettis at some point and put this fight into his world on the ground.
If Chiesa can get Pettis down early, he not only puts the fight in his world, but he also forces the former lightweight champion to begin questioning his kicking game out of fear of being put back on the mat again. As the rounds wear on, Chiesa's ability to put Pettis on the ground should start to really separate the fighters on the judges' scorecards. Chiesa may wrap up a late submission if he can put the pressure on Pettis on the mat but, at worst, he should be able to do enough with his grappling game to earn a decision victory.
Prediction: Michael Chiesa by unanimous decision
Both Joe Lauzon and Chris Gruetzemacher will look to snap recent two-fight skids when they meet on the preliminary card at UFC 223.
Gruetzemacher is a very scrappy lightweight who likes to engage in scrambles and looks to take advantage of any mistakes an opponent might commit on the feet or on the ground. He also packs a solid punch, as he's shown with six career wins by knockout. Unfortunately, Gruetzemacher hasn't been able to transition that power into the UFC while struggling with superior grapplers on the mat.
This time around, Gruetzemacher will face another ground specialist in Lauzon, who has a similarly scrappy style on the ground, except his submission game is one of the best in the sport.
Lauzon has proven throughout his many years in the UFC that he can go with anybody in the world, whether the fight is on the feet or on the ground. Lauzon is a very durable fighter with very solid boxing on the feet, as well as good clinch work whenever he's forced to work against the cage. Of course, Lauzon is best known for his grappling game, and that's where he'll look to seize on the slightest mistake from Gruetzemacher in this fight.
Look for Lauzon to engage with Gruetzemacher early on the feet, but once this fight hits the mat, he'll begin fishing for submissions and it will only take one mistake from the former Ultimate Fighter competitor for him to get locked up in a choke on the ground, where he'll either be forced to tap or wake up on the canvas after going to sleep.
Prediction: Joe Lauzon by submission
It could be argued that Zabit Magomedsharipov is one of the very best prospects in the world right now as he approached his third appearance inside the Octagon.
As a training partner alongside Frankie Edgar, Eddie Alvarez and Edson Barboza, the Dagestani fighter has the best of the best helping him get ready every camp and he looks like he has the skills to become a future champion. Magomedsharipov is freakishly big for a featherweight, with strong striking and a grappling game similar to his countryman Khabib Nurmagomedov. In fact, Magomedsharipov is averaging more than seven takedowns per fight through his first two bouts in the UFC.
Now Bochniak is truly a tough customer, with good hands and a better than average ground game. He's also not taking this fight just to serve as a bump in the road before Magomedsharipov starts knocking on the door of the top 15 at featherweight.
That being said, Magomedsharipov is as good as advertised.
He hits hard on the feet and his grappling is unbelievable and it seems like only a matter of time whenever Magomedsharipov steps into the Octagon before he finds a way to get the finish. He will march Bochniak down and then decide if he wants to keep this fight standing or if he prefers to go to the ground. Either way, Magomedsharipov has a distinct advantage in both areas and it should just be a matter of time before he finds a way to put an end to this contest to earn his third UFC victory.
Prediction: Zabit Magomedsharipov by submission, Round 2
Felice Herrig will look to earn her fifth win in a row as she takes on former title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz.
On paper, this matchup looks like a striking battle between two elite strawweights, with Herrig putting her Muay Thai skills up against Kowalkiewicz, who is a more classically trained kickboxer. Kowalkiewicz is very slick on her feet, landing more than five significant strikes landed per minute with solid accuracy. Kowalkiewicz is a very active fighter as well and she's very dangerous when counterpunching with an aggressive opponent. Kowalkiewicz is a complete weapon on the feet and that's what helped make her one of the top five strawweights in the world.
That being said, Herrig has no problem throwing hands with anybody, as she's shown in her past few fights against some very stiff competition. Herrig comes from a Muay Thai background, so she's got plenty of pop in her punches and kicks. Herrig is identical in size and reach as Kowalkiewicz, but she doesn't equal the same output as her Polish opponent so she definitely can't get into those exchanges where she's landing one punch for every two she's taking back in return.
Where Herrig could begin to take advantage in this fight is by mixing in some takedowns or clinch work against the cage. Herrig is a very powerful strawwweight and she actually has some solid wrestling in her back pocket as well. If Herrig is able to make Kowalkiewicz start guessing where this fight might play out, it could give the former Ultimate Fighter competitor an advantage. That means Herrig has to set up takedowns off her strikes or set up strikes off her takedown attempts.
If she's able to employ her full arsenal of weapons to keep Kowalkiewicz on her toes the entire fight, Herrig has a great chance to pull out the victory in this key battle at 115 pounds.
Prediction: Felice Herrig by split decision