In what could be one of the most historic cards of all time, heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic will meet light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier in the main event of UFC 226, which will cap off International Fight Week 2018.
Miocic is already the longest reigning heavyweight champion in UFC history, but he will have a whole new test to pass when Cormier returns to the division where he was undefeated before moving down to 205 pounds.
Holloway has gone undefeated in 12 straight fights but he may be facing his toughest opponent when he takes on Ortega on July 7.
Also on the card, heavyweight knockout artist Francis Ngannou returns to action against Derrick Lewis in a slugfest for the ages while former kickboxing champion Gokhan Saki makes his second UFC appearance when he faces off with Khalil Rountree Jr.
In today's fantasy preview, we'll examine these matchups and several more to see who's got the edge and who might be primed for an upset at UFC 226: Miocic vs. Cormier.
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.
Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier
Stipe Miocic will look to extend his record-breaking title defense streak in a champion versus champion showdown with light heavyweight king Daniel Cormier at UFC 226.
Cormier is returning to heavyweight, which is where he started his career and went undefeated through his first 13 fights with wins over the likes of Frank Mir, Josh Barnett and Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva. Cormier's reign at heavyweight was defined by his pressure-heavy style, relentless wrestling attacks and powerful ground game. Not much has changed for Cormier's approach at light heavyweight, but the real question going into this fight is can he do those same kinds of things to Miocic?
Miocic will have a massive size advantage going into this fight and that's not talking about weight. While Cormier definitely packed on the pounds to go back to heavyweight, Miocic's advantages will come from having a whopping eight inches in reach on his opponent as well as towering over him by five inches in height. Now Cormier has certainly taken on plenty of bigger fighters and done perfectly well - a win over Alexander Gustafsson comes to mind - but none of those opponents packed the kind of punch that will come flying at him the way that Miocic will be gunning for the knockout.
Miocic is a devastating power puncher with plenty of one-shot knockouts on his resume. Miocic is also punishing with his volume, as he lands nearly five significant strikes per minute with over 51 percent accuracy. Plus, Miocic has shown great defense on the feet as well, where he avoids taking much damage in return to deliver his best shots.
The other factor that will help Miocic in this fight will be his experience as a Division I college wrestler while going up against the former Olympian in Cormier. Of course, on paper, Cormier is the better wrestler and he's more than capable of launching anybody through the air with his incredible takedowns, but Miocic certainly has the tools to battle him in that area as well.
The real key for Miocic is not allowing Cormier to control the pace and work from the inside, which is where he's most devastating. Cormier had a few of those moments in his two fights against Jon Jones, who has similar size to Miocic, and that's when he did best on both occasions.
On the flipside, Cormier struggled when he was chasing Jones around the Octagon and unable to deal with the size and reach over him. Miocic needs to employ that same strategy to finish this fight and retain his title.
If Miocic can keep Cormier on the end of his punches and make the light heavyweight champion chase after him, trying to get the clinch or the takedown, it could be a good night for the Ohio native. Miocic just has to stop Cormier from getting him locked up in that grueling clinch position against the cage that will undoubtedly begin draining his energy.
Assuming Miocic does that, he's got the knockout power, the reach and the size to give Cormier a lot of problems in his first heavyweight matchup since 2013.
Prediction: Stipe Miocic by TKO, Round 3
Max Holloway vs. Brian Ortega
Featherweight champion Max Holloway will make the second defense of his undisputed title when he takes on Brian Ortega in the co-main event at UFC 226.
Ortega has gone undefeated in his career and just continues to get better and better with each performance. Most recently, Ortega has made waves with a submission win over Cub Swanson and then a TKO against Frankie Edgar that earned him the title shot.
Ortega is a deceptively well-rounded fighter who is best known for his submission arsenal, but he's certainly not afraid to throw hands as evidenced by his win over Edgar. Ortega is long and able to use that size to his advantage, especially whenever a fight hits the ground. If this matchup lands on the canvas, don't blink because Ortega is well versed at all sorts of submissions from triangle chokes to armbars and everything in between. Ortega is also a very offensive-minded fighter, so he'll definitely come forward looking for any opening that Holloway might give him.
As for the champion, Holloway got to this point in his career with a never say die attitude and some of the best striking the UFC has ever witnessed. Holloway is incredibly active while landing more than 6.2 significant strikes per minute with just under 44 percent accuracy. That means Holloway is constantly pressuring his opponents and, lately, no one has been able to hang with his pace. Holloway is a punishing force of nature when he starts pouring on the combinations with a Diaz brother-like output that is just tough for any fighter to deal with over five rounds.
Now Holloway will be facing someone of similar size for the first time in quite a while so he may need a round or so to really get his rhythm down against Ortega. That's why Ortega has to go out there looking for that early finish in the first or second round because the longer this fight goes, the more it favors Holloway.
Ortega also can't allow himself to get too far behind on the scorecards because Holloway will absolutely not give him breathing room in the latter part of this fight. Prior to his wins over Swanson and Edgar, Ortega was well known for his Hail Mary finishes, with four of his wins in the UFC coming by way of third-round TKO or submission. Ortega is always dangerous, but he can ill afford to let Holloway get off to a fast start or it could be a long night for him.
Chances are Holloway is going to find his rhythm sometime in the second round and then he will just transform into an offensive weapon that's going to be awfully hard to slow down. Holloway loves punishing his opponents round after round and then getting the stoppage, and that's what will likely happen again at UFC 226.
Francis Ngannou vs. Derrick Lewis
It's tough to imagine the heavyweight fight between Francis Ngannou and Derrick Lewis making it to a decision, although stranger things have happened.
Despite a setback in his last fight against heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, Ngannou remains one of the brightest prospects on the entire UFC roster. A physical freak, Ngannou has arguably the most devastating one punch knockout power in the entire UFC with a freakish ability to always find a home for his biggest punches. Ngannou has definitely faced some strong fighters in the past with knockout ability of their own, but he'll certainly have to be careful going up against somebody as dangerous as Lewis.
Lewis isn't the most technical striker in the world but his punches come flying in like sledgehammers when he's throwing with power. Lewis is also well versed at the art of ground-and-pound, where he's put more than a few opponents away in the past. Despite being such a dominant finisher on the ground, Lewis averages less than a takedown per fight. That means Lewis will typically get a fight to the mat after a scramble or a takedown attempt from his opponent. That's not an easy game to play with Ngannou, who will undoubtedly be gunning for the knockout from the first second of this fight until the last.
Ngannou will enjoy a four-inch reach advantage in this fight, and while he's not known for having the most prolific jab in the sport, he'd be wise to gauge his distance before throwing bombs with Lewis.
This fight might really come down to who lands the first clean punch but the edge still has to go to Ngannou with his ferocious power and ability to do damage even when an opponent is playing good defense. Ngannou is so good at winging those big knockout shots that it's going to be tough for anyone to get away from them without a better game plan than just returning fire. That's why Miocic weathered an early storm and then started controlling the fight based on his wrestling and takedowns.
Unless Lewis decides to alter his typical strategy, he's going to be looking for the knockout on the feet the same as Ngannou and that could be a recipe for disaster. Lewis could certainly do the same thing to Ngannou, but based on recent history, the slightest of edges still goes to the heavyweight from Cameroon.
Prediction: Francis Ngannou by knockout, 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.
Gokhan Saki vs. Khalil Rountree Jr.
Former kickboxing champion Gokhan Saki will make his second appearance on July 7 in a crowd-pleasing matchup against former Ultimate Fighter hopeful Khalil Rountree Jr.
While he may not be as well known for his knockout power, Rountree is certainly no stranger to throwing hands with any opponent willing to engage with him. Rountree is explosive with his power punching and he's especially dangerous in the opening round, where he will usually go for broke. Rountree is also creative with his striking combinations, so don't be surprised to see a few kicks or knees thrown amidst a flurry of punches at any time during this fight.
That said, Saki is a different kind of animal when it comes to his striking.
Saki is a world-class kickboxer with unbelievable power in his hands, elbows, knees and feet. Saki has no problem engaging in a slugfest with an opponent but he's best when he's the one forcing the action and really putting the pressure on with crisp striking combinations. Saki is incredibly active on the feet, as he averaged more than eight significant strikes landed per minute in his UFC debut. That means Saki will be gunning for the knockout early and often in this fight, but he won't just go head hunting. Saki possesses the full range of striking weapons, so don't be shocked if he pulls off a head kick after punishing the body for the first five minutes of the fight.
Saki still has a long way to go in his mixed martial arts evolution, but right now he's getting the kind of stylistic matchup that he should feast upon.
Prediction: Gokhan Saki by TKO, Round 2
Paulo Costa vs. Uriah Hall
Brazilian Paulo Costa has looked like a superstar in the making through his first three fights in the UFC, where he's knocked out every opponent he's faced. Costa will take on his toughest opponent to date in former Ultimate Fighter finalist Uriah Hall this weekend at UFC 226.
Hall has faced plenty of adversity since leaving the reality show, often bouncing back and forth between wins and losses. At his best, Hall is a dynamic striker with serious creativity and the kind of speed that will blind just about any opponent when he uncorks his best punches and kicks. At worst, Hall can be trigger shy and will sit back to wait on something to happen so often that he ends up losing a fight because he never bothered to really flip the switch and get going.
The danger of that kind of Jekyll and Hyde performance is why Hall is tough to pick at times, especially when taking on a ferocious knockout striker like Costa.
Costa will definitely be the more active fighter on the feet, where he more than doubles Hall's output in significant strikes landed with better accuracy as well. Costa has also shown good takedown defense, which means if Hall gets in trouble early, it's going to be that much harder to slow the action with some wrestling or clinch work.
Look for Costa to come out guns blazing and put it on Hall early and often in this fight. Hall has shown a good chin and the ability to bounce back from adversity like he did in his fight with Krzysztof Jotko. Unfortunately, this time around, Hall is facing a much deadlier knockout artist and it's tough to see how he would survive that kind of onslaught coming from Costa.
Prediction: Paulo Costa by TKO, Round 2
Font has gone 3-1 over his past four fights, including a spectacular knockout against Brazilian prospect Thomas Almeida in his last outing. Font has all the tools on the feet, including blistering speed, good footwork and a well-versed overall kickboxing attack. Font is dangerous at distance or in close, but this time around it's likely he'll try to use his five-inch reach advantage to get Assuncao away from him.
Assuncao is definitely the more well-rounded fighter in this matchup, with world-class jiu-jitsu skills to compliment his striking arsenal. Assuncao averages less than two takedowns per fight, but he might use that as a threat to keep Font from getting too comfortable with his kicks in this bantamweight showdown.
What Assuncao does best is mixing up his attacks from striking to grappling and then back again. As he keeps Font guessing, it's going to be harder and harder for the Boston-based fighter to land that one big combination that would swing the win in his favor.
It's more likely that Assuncao frustrates Font with his striking combinations, mixing in a few takedown attempts and then forcing his opponent to work that much harder to get anything done in this fight. By the time the third round rolls around, Assuncao should be in control and Font may be out of options.
Prediction: Raphael Assuncao by unanimous decision
In a potential show stealer on the undercard, Dan Hooker will look for his fourth win in a row when he takes on Gilbert Burns in a very intriguing matchup in the lightweight division.
Fighting at lightweight seems to suit Hooker, as he was cutting a lot of weight to get down to 145 pounds. Thus far, since returning to 155 pounds, Hooker has looked strong, fast and is definitely conditioned to deal with anything that's thrown at him in the division. In fact, Hooker's impressive performances have him favored to win yet again at UFC 226.
That's why this could end up being a solid upset pick because Burns has also managed to put together a pair of consecutive knockouts that compliment his world-class ground game.
When he first came to the UFC, Burns was painted as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace who was still developing other parts of his mixed martial arts game. Now that may have been somewhat true after Burns dropped a couple tough fights early on, but he's really started to turn the corner with his last two performances.
Burns has found a way to compliment his devastating ground game with equally nasty knockout power on the feet. Now Burns has to know that his best way to win this fight will be on the ground, so he'd probably be smart not to just stand on the outside winging punches with a longer, taller fighter in Hooker.
Hooker will enjoy a four-inch reach advantage over Burns and he'll certainly look to exploit that, especially if his Brazilian opponent gets sloppy when shooting for takedowns. Hooker has become quite good at timing takedowns and then unleashing a big knee strike, so Burns would be smart not to get caught by that.
Still, Burns’ ability to bully Hooker around the cage as the physically stronger fighter should serve him well in this matchup. Add in a few takedowns, as Burns is averaging more than two per fight, and he should be able to keep Hooker guessing. As long as Burns is smart with his strategy and doesn't just decide to turn this into a one-sided affair where he's just exchanging strikes with Hooker, he has a great opportunity to pull off the upset. Burns just has to play to his strengths and then seize on the smallest mistake from Hooker to get the win.
Prediction: Gilbert Burns by submission, Round 3