J.C. COTTRELL VS JASON GONZALEZ
The first-time UFC blues got to both JC Cottrell and Jason Gonzalez last year, but now the two lightweights get a fresh start in Saturday’s opener and it’s as close to a pick ‘em fight as you’ll find. Cottrell is the more experienced of the two, but Gonzalez has a versatile attack that will keep him on a level playing field with his foe. This should be a nice way to kick the night off.
ERIC SHELTON VS ALEXANDRE PANTOJA
Eric Shelton and Alexandre Pantoja came from different directions on season 24 of The Ultimate Fighter, but both impressed on their way to the semifinals. The question in this one is if Shelton can keep up the level he showed during the Tournament of Champions and upset Pantoja. This may be a debut for each fighter, but it’s an important one in a division in need of new challengers for champion Demetrious Johnson.
JEREMY KIMBALL VS MARCOS ROGERIO DE LIMA
Jeremy Kimball comes in on short notice to make his UFC debut against Brazilian banger Marcos Rogerio de Lima, but Kimball is no newcomer to the sport or to top-level competition, as he’s beaten the likes of Tommy Speer, Drew McFedries, Chidi Njokuani and Keith Berry over the years. And now that he’s got his Octagon shot, expect him to pull out all the stops in search of the win.
ALESSIO DI CHIRICO VS ERIC SPICELY
Italy’s Alessio Di Chirico is a legit prospect at 185 pounds, but after Eric Spicely’s impressive upset of Thiago Santos in Brazil last year, you can’t count the former TUF competitor out of any fight. Spicely’s jiu-jitsu prowess was on full display against “Marreta,” and while Di Chirico likes to implement a ground-and-pound attack, if he’s not careful, Spicely can end his night in a hurry, even from his back.
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JORDAN JOHNSON VS HENRIQUE DA SILVA
Some fighters don’t recover too well from their first loss, and at the very least they take a little time off to regroup. Not Henrique da Silva, who dropped a December bout to Paul Craig and jumped right back into the fray to face newcomer Jordan Johnson. And while it’s Johnson entering the Octagon with the perfect record this time, I’m sure the Brazilian wouldn’t mind introducing his opponent to the loss column this weekend.
BOBBY NASH VS LI JINGLIANG
With only two fights each in 2014 and 2015 and just one appearance last year, Li Jingliang’s biggest challenge in his Octagon run has been inactivity. That’s a shame, since the China native is an aggressive and entertaining fighter who always shows up to throw down. Hopefully this will be the year in which he gets in at least three fights, but he’s going to get a battle from former Michigan State University wrestler Bobby Nash.
ALJAMAIN STERLING VS RAPHAEL ASSUNCAO
In one of the best matchups on a stacked card, Aljamain Sterling returns to face Raphael Assuncao in a clash of top ten bantamweights. The stakes are understandably high for both fighters in a division with a new king on the throne, but to get close to a shot at Cody Garbrandt, a statement has to be made by the winner, and that means either a finish or a lopsided decision victory, yet both will be tough to achieve in this evenly matched bout.
SAM ALVEY VS NATE MARQUARDT
Lost in the many storylines surrounding this weekend’s card is that Nate Marquardt will be fighting at home in Denver for the first time since 2003. That’s a big deal for one of the sport’s most respected veterans, and while he’ll have to survive the incoming fire from Sam Alvey to get the victory, as he’s proven with his recent wins over Tamdan McCrory and CB Dollaway, “Nate the Great” has plenty of heavy-handed bombs of his own to send back at “Smile’N Sam.”
JASON KNIGHT VS ALEX CACERES
The FOX main card gets off to a rousing start with featherweights Jason Knight and Alex Caceres, and it could be a star-making turn for Knight, who has impressed in his last two bouts thanks to an action-packed style and willingness to scrap. That kind of attack is right up Caceres’ alley though, making this a rock solid Fight of the Night candidate.
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FRANCIS NGANNOU VS ANDREI ARLOVSKI
Does Andrei Arlovski have another great performance left in his back pocket? He may need it against rising star Francis Ngannou, who has all the momentum on his side heading into Saturday’s bout. Plus, the Cameroon native knows that a win over the former UFC champion shoots him even higher into the heavyweight stratosphere, but Arlovski still has experience on his side, and he may pull out all his veteran tricks to score the upset.
JORGE MASVIDAL VS DONALD CERRONE
Every “Cowboy” Cerrone fight is a fun one to watch, but this one may take it to a new level, as Jorge Masvidal is a fighter who doesn’t care about his opponents’ skill sets, standing in the division or press clippings. He’s going to fight Cerrone with little respect for the Colorado native’s attack, and Cerrone will, well, be Cerrone. Get ready for a barnburner.
JULIANNA PENA VS VALENTINA SHEVCHENKO
With a title shot likely going to the winner, Julianna Pena and Valentina Shevchenko have a lot on the line in Saturday’s main event. With that in mind, there is the possibility that the first couple rounds are tactical ones. But if this one hits the third, fourth and fifth rounds, expect to see an intense battle where game plans go out the window and it comes down to who wants it more, and in talking to both ladies, they’ll be fighting this one like it’s the last fight on Earth.
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