Following a two-week break in the action, the UFC returns this weekend with a stacked card headed to Brazil, where women's bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes will put her title on the line for the third time when she faces Raquel Pennington in the main event.
Nunes has been a dominant champion since winning the belt in 2016, but now she'll face one of the grittiest competitors in the entire division as Pennington looks to build on her four-fight win streak when she takes on the champion at UFC 224.
Also on the card, a pair of middleweight contenders will look to cement a spot atop the rankings when submission specialist Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza takes on Kelvin Gastelum.
Super prospect Mackenzie Dern will also make her second appearance in the UFC when she takes on former Ultimate Fighter finalist Amanda Cooper.
In today's fantasy preview, we'll examine these fights and several more to see who has the advantage going into Saturday night and if someone might be primed for an upset at UFC 224: Nunes vs. Pennington.
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. Raquel Pennington
Since capturing the UFC women's bantamweight title from Miesha Tate in 2016, Amanda Nunes has not only been dominant in some of her performances, but she's continued to evolve as champion. The best evidence of that was her last fight, where Nunes went five hard rounds with Valentina Shevchenko. And while the result was probably closer than she would have liked, the reigning champion showed that she can push the pace for 25 minutes.
That attribute may come up again in this fight as Nunes takes on a very tough, gritty opponent in Raquel Pennington, who won't blow anybody away with highlight reel knockouts but always finds a way to make every opponent truly battle her.
Pennington is a solid striker and grappler, but it's the kind of pressure she exerts that can be a problem for any opponent looking to survive three or five rounds with her in the Octagon. Pennington lands with solid volume and accuracy on the feet and she has no problem going to the ground, where she's wrapped up a pair of submissions in the UFC, including a win over former title challenger Jessica Andrade. Pennington is just a hard-nosed competitor who refuses to go away and loves to battle in the trenches.
That's where Nunes has to be careful in the main event because she can ill afford to be drawn into a dogfight. Nunes is the better striker, the stronger fighter and the more dominant ground specialist. That being said, she can't allow Pennington to hang around because she will find a way to win rounds and transform this fight into a true back and forth battle.
The key for Nunes is to avoid Pennington's potent grappling attack, as she's landed the fourth most takedowns in women's bantamweight history, and then hurt her with shots on the feet. Nunes has the highest striking average for any fighter in the women's bantamweight division while landing just over 52 percent of her shots. She will also enjoy a two-inch reach advantage and Nunes is very proficient at throwing power shots from the outside. That could be a huge weapon for her to damage Pennington during those early exchanges.
The other major factor that can't be ignored is Pennington's long layoff. She hasn't fought since November 2016 and during her time away she suffered a broken leg and a shoulder injury that likely kept her out of the gym as much as it kept her out of the Octagon. It's no secret that even if she doesn't have ring rust, Pennington may still struggle to find her rhythm and timing in those early exchanges and that's when Nunes is most dangerous.
Now Pennington hasn't been finished since 2012 and she even managed to take former champion Holly Holm to a split decision in one of her only UFC losses. That's why Nunes has to pour on the punishment early just in case Pennington survives and sticks around to mount a comeback late in the fight. As long as Nunes controls her outbursts of energy and holds on to a little bit in reserve for those championship rounds, she should be able to do enough to hold on to the gold for another fight.
Prediction: Amanda Nunes by unanimous decision
John Lineker vs. Brian Kelleher
An early candidate for Fight of the Night is this bantamweight battle between John Lineker and Brian Kelleher.
Of course, everyone knows the book on Lineker as a power-punching savage who rarely takes a step backwards, as he typically will charge forward, guns blazing until he stops his opponent. Lineker packs a serious punch, but he's not just swinging for the fences. Lineker averages over five significant strikes landed per minute with solid accuracy, so he's got the volume to go along with his power. Lineker is best when he has an opponent trapped against the cage and can unload a barrage of punches and he batters the body and head with equal force.
Kelleher has to know allowing Lineker to back him up and control the pace is just disaster waiting to strike. What Kelleher has going for him is a very good striking arsenal of his own that includes higher volume and accuracy than his Brazilian opponent. Kelleher has to stay in constant motion and never get stuck standing in front of Lineker winging punches. It's possible he would survive that kind of onslaught, but that's also tempting fate if he wants to increase his odds of winning.
Much like in his last fight, where he took on former bantamweight champion Renan Barao, Kelleher has to show patience in the face of a firefight rather than just biting down on his mouthpiece and duking it out with Lineker. Stick and move - those are the two orders Kelleher needs to follow if he plans on frustrating Lineker and then have him walk into a counter shot.
Still, for all the ways that Kelleher might find a way to avoid Lineker's power, he still has to return fire with some of his own and that's where he runs into a problem. Kelleher also likes to be the aggressor in his fights so the question then becomes whether he either control the pace of this fight while chasing Lineker or can he fight off his back foot if he's not able to stalk his Brazilian opponent around the Octagon?
Plus, Kelleher actually eats almost as many strikes as he dishes out and that's a very dangerous game to play against someone as offensive-minded as Lineker.
Prediction: John Lineker by unanimous decision
Aleksei Oleinik vs. Junior Albini
Top 15-ranked heavyweights Aleksei Oleinik and Junior Albini will both try to bounce back from recent losses when they meet at UFC 224 this weekend.
Oleinik's UFC career has typically been defined by his jaw-dropping submissions, as he has earned three of his four Octagon wins on the mat, including a ridiculous Ezekiel choke three fights ago when he took out Viktor Pesta. Oleinik is a bear on the ground, as he will typically maul his opponents once he gets them into his world, and his submissions are nothing short of world class. Where Oleinik has struggled at times is when he's dealing with bigger, physically stronger opponents who are able to stave off his takedowns and keep themselves upright for the majority of the fight.
Albini is definitely capable of doing that, as he boasts a strong striking arsenal and hasn't been taken down yet in his brief UFC career. Albini hits hard and he's deceptively fast for a heavyweight while landing just under four significant strikes per minute on the feet. Now Albini hasn't even attempted a takedown through his first two fights and that probably won't change in this one as he'll try to stay out of Oleinik's world on the ground.
This fight really comes down to Oleinik's ability to take this fight to the mat and then find a way to force a submission against Albini. Oleinik hasn't won a fight by decision since 2010 and he's had 14 wins since then. That should tell you how Oleinik is make or break on his ground game and that's what he'll need to do to get past Albini this weekend.
It's been several years, but Albini's only two career losses have come by submission, so you have to wonder if he'll panic if he gets locked into a ground battle with Oleinik. There's no doubt Oleinik only needs one mistake and he will pounce on Albini with the submission and that's why he remains a slight favorite to pull off the win in enemy territory in Brazil.
Prediction: Aleksei Oleinik by submission, Round 2
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.
Mackenzie Dern vs. Amanda Cooper
Highly touted prospect Mackenzie Dern will make a quick turnaround from her UFC debut to face former Ultimate Fighter finalist Amanda Cooper in Brazil.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu world champion @MackenzieDern has a dream to impact the UFC like @demianmaia, @bjpenndotcom & Royce Gracie did. See if she can keep the hype going this Saturday at #UFC224 in #UFCMinute pic.twitter.com/G80MqSK725
— UFC News (@UFCNews) May 7, 2018
Dern is the most accomplished Brazilian jiu-jitsu grappler the women's strawweight division has ever known, with a long list of accomplishments from her days spent on the mat. Dern has never made it a secret that she likes to take her opponents to the ground and make them play in her grappling game, which is extremely dangerous. Dern isn't the best wrestler in the world, but she has an innate ability to lock her opponents up in the clinch and eventually drag them to the mat.
Now Cooper isn't going to just roll over and drop to the ground just to appease Dern's style in this fight. Cooper is a very slick boxer with good power in her hands, and she's shown a well-versed ground game of her own. Cooper is especially dangerous on the ground when she's on top throwing punches down on an opponent. Cooper showed off her power on the mat in her last fight when she bludgeoned Angela Magana with punches until the referee finally stopped the contest.
Unfortunately, it's Cooper's inability to stay off the ground that could come back to haunt her in this fight. Cooper only has 20 percent takedown defense, and chances are she'll be fighting off Dern's attempts to get this to the mat almost as quickly as the fight gets underway.
Look for Dern to close the distance, lock up the clinch and then bring this fight to the ground. From there it's only a matter of time before she finds an opening to lock up the fight-ending submission.
Prediction: Mackenzie Dern by submission, Round 1
Vitor Belfort will call it a career after his upcoming fight at UFC 224, but he will definitely have his hands full with former champion Lyoto Machida.
Machida recently put an end to his three-fight losing streak when he earned a hard-fought split decision over power-punching prospect Eryk Anders. Machida will now look to make it two in a row while facing his fellow countryman in Brazil.
Obviously, Belfort has a wealth of experience to draw upon to get him through this fight, as he displays blinding power and a very slick ground game that has earned him more than a few wins over the course of a Hall of Fame career. That being said, Belfort may struggle at times in this fight with Machida's long range punching, as “The Dragon” is an expert at hitting from distance and then moving away before getting caught with a counter shot.
Machida's unique karate-based style will give a lot of fighters problems and Belfort is no different. Machida's ability to stay long at all times with a quick jab and lightning fast kicks will likely frustrate Belfort as he tries to put together one of those powerful combinations that have earned him so many victories throughout his career. Belfort still packs a knockout punch, but Machida's defense has been far better in recent years, as he's absorbing nearly half the strikes as his opponent.
That ability to hit and not get hit in return should be the biggest different in Machida earning a win in front of a home crowd that will send Belfort off into retirement with a standing ovation whether he wins or loses on Saturday night.
Prediction: Lyoto Machida by unanimous decision
Warlley Alves vs. Sultan Aliev
Following a couple tough losses, Warlley Alves got back on track in his last fight and he'll look to make it two in a row when he faces Russian welterweight Sultan Aliev at UFC 224.
Alves has always been considered one of the best up and coming prospects out of Brazil, especially after he won The Ultimate Fighter Brazil and then proceeded to win his next three fights in a row, including a submission victory against upcoming interim title challenger Colby Covington. Unfortunately, Alves has fallen on tougher times in recent fights with those back-to-back losses to Bryan Barberena and Kamaru Usman.
Alves has struggled at times against physically imposing wrestlers who never give him an inch to breathe. Barbarena was also able to put the pressure on Alves, who just never had a counter to that kind of aggression. Alves will have an opportunity to show how much he's grown when he returns this weekend against a Sambo specialist like Aliev.
Aliev will undoubtedly look to step forward with an aggressive striking attack while likely attempting takedowns from the clinch. Aliev is a very strong competitor, so that could help him outmuscle Alves in some situations, but he's going to have a tough time dealing with the Brazilian's offensive output.
Alves lands with more than double the strikes on the feet and he matches Aliev everywhere on the ground. Alves may not be as proficient with his takedowns, but his ground game is still very dangerous, as it includes an arsenal of submissions that will come flying from every direction if the Russian makes a mistake. That all leads to a lot of ways for Alves to win this fight and pick up his second victory in a row.
Prediction: Warlley Alves by unanimous decision
Kelvin Gastelum vs. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza
With the middleweight title going up for grabs in June at UFC 225, Kelvin Gastelum and Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza have to know that their fight this week could position the winner in a very advantageous position to potentially challenge for that belt later this year.
Souza is coming off a stunning first-round knockout against heavy-handed middleweight Derek Brunson that shows once again how much this Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert has added to his overall arsenal since first arriving in the UFC. Actually, Souza has almost as many knockouts in the UFC as he has submissions. Souza will enjoy a size and reach advantage in this fight and, obviously, his ground arsenal is nearly unmatched in the UFC.
Where Gastelum has a great chance to pull off this upset is with his blinding speed and deceptive power. Gastelum has feasted on most of the competition he's faced at middleweight, including his eye-popping knockout over former champion Michael Bisping in his last fight. Gastelum is extremely quick on his feet and his boxing is some of the best the middleweight division has to offer. Of course, Gastelum has plenty of wrestling in his background as well, but chances are he'll be using that for defense rather than offense against a submission stylist like Souza.
Gastelum has learned to be quite adept at getting inside his opponents’ reach and then punishing them with lightning quick combinations that always end with a power punch. Gastelum lands with greater volume and accuracy than Souza and he's incredibly well versed at getting an opponent into trouble and then just pouring on the offense.
Gastelelum would probably do well to watch Souza's loss to middleweight champion Robert Whittaker when he took on another undersized fighter at 185 pounds who just used blistering speed and power to earn the knockout. If Gastelum can stick to a similar game plan to stay patient early and then unleash with five and six shot combinations, he could do a lot of damage to "Jacare" and even potentially land that knockout blow.
Prediction: Kelvin Gastelum by knockout, Round 2