UFC Fight Night will land in Oklahoma City this Sunday night with a huge lightweight showdown featured in the main event, as former Ultimate Fighter winner Michael Chiesa takes on surging contender Kevin Lee.
Chiesa and Lee are not only two of the brightest rising stars at 155 pounds, but they also have plenty of pride on the line after they nearly got into a fight well ahead of this card after a heated showdown at the UFC Summer Kickoff press conference.
Personal feelings aside, Chiesa and Lee have a unique opportunity to make a huge statement this weekend, with the winner almost assuredly nearing top five status in the division.
Meanwhile, in the co-main event, former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks continues his run as a middleweight when he takes on heavy-handed Tim Boetsch, while Felice Herrig looks to build on her recent two-fight win streak as she takes on former housemate on The Ultimate Fighter, Justine Kish.
It today's fantasy preview, we'll examine these fights and several more to see who has the advantage going into Sunday and who might be primed for an upset at UFC Fight Night: Chiesa vs. Lee.
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.
Michael Chiesa vs. Kevin Lee
Michael Chiesa will make his long awaited return this weekend after sitting out for the past year while dealing with injuries, but prior to his brief absence, the former Ultimate Fighter winner was coming off three victories in a row, including two impressive finishes over Jim Miller and Beneil Dariush.
Chiesa is a very dangerous grappler who really takes advantage of an opponent's mistakes when he catches them in a scramble. With his tall frame and long arms, Chiesa is a master at contorting his body to grab a submission from nearly any position on the ground and sometimes while standing. While Chiesa is best known for his grappling, he's no slouch on the feet either, but chances are he'll look to put this one away on the ground.
As for Kevin Lee, he's been tearing through his last few opponents en route to this main event showdown. Lee is a powerful wrestler who has adapted that style to become a grappling nightmare whenever he takes somebody to the mat. Lee averages nearly three and a half takedowns per fight with over 40 percent accuracy as well.
Statistically, Chiesa and Lee are nearly mirror images of each other when it comes to strikes landed, strikes defended, takedowns and even submission attempts. That's one reason why this fight is so tough to predict considering Chiesa and Lee are so evenly matched.
If there's even a slight advantage in this fight it might lie with Lee, who has been the more active competitor, while Chiesa has been out of action dealing with an injury. That being said, Chiesa has faced a higher level of competition during his UFC career, with notable wins against legitimate top 10 talent. It's really a tossup that could be decided by one fighter making a mistake and the other capitalizing, which is something Chiesa does so very well and that's why he retains a slight edge in this particular fight.
Prediction: Michael Chiesa by submission, Round 4
Tim Boetsch vs. Johny Hendricks
Johny Hendricks enjoyed his first fight as a middleweight when he picked up a win over Hector Lombard, and now the former welterweight champion will get his second bout at 185 pounds when he takes on Tim Boetsch.
Boetsch is a very heavy-handed fighter who has seemed to struggle most with opponents willing to put him on the ground and out grapple him. On the feet, Boetsch lands with staggering power, and he has scored two knockouts in recent fights against Rafael Natal and Josh Samman. Boetsch is a bruising fighter who likes to bully his opponents around the Octagon and it will be interesting to see if he goes for that same approach while facing a shorter opponent like Hendricks.
The difference that Hendricks brings into this fight is his top notch wrestling, which could be an equalizer in this matchup. Hendricks is a former NCAA national champion with powerful takedowns that can always be an equalizer during any of his fights. Hendricks averages over four takedowns per fight with over 51 percent accuracy, which is six points higher than the average in the UFC.
Of course, Hendricks will be giving up size and reach to Boetsch, but that probably won't be a major factor in this fight. Boetsch likes to fight in the clinch or while punishing his opponents against the cage, so that should negate the reach problems that Hendricks might have in this fight.
If Hendricks can establish a quick striking game on the feet while employing a few takedowns to put Boetsch on the mat, he should be able to win rounds and ultimately earn the decision. Boetsch is as tough as they come, so it's tough to see him being finished, but Hendricks should be able to mix things up enough with his striking and wrestling to get the win after three rounds.
Prediction: Johny Hendricks by unanimous decision
Felice Herrig vs. Justine Kish
Felice Herrig has looked better than ever in her last two fights as she earned victories over Kailin Curran and highly touted prospect Alexa Grasso, and now she'll take on Justine Kish, who is looking to keep her undefeated record intact after most recently defeating Ashley Yoder this past December.
Herrig would be the first to admit that many of her past problems when fighting have been mental errors when she's getting ready to step into the Octagon. Couple that with some physical ailments she got fixed and now Herrig looks like the kind of fighter who will be knocking on the door of the top 10 in the very near future. Herrig has always been a top-notch striker with good grappling as well, but now she's really putting it all together in a total package in her fights.
As for Kish, she's a very experienced striker as well who lands over four significant strikes per minute with incredible 50 percent accuracy. Plus, Kish is currently averaging just over two takedowns per fight in the UFC, so she clearly has no problem taking the fight to the ground as well.
Now if there's one area where Kish may struggle, it's with the tendency she has to put herself into troublesome situations before finding a sneaky way out of them. Kish will sometimes get over aggressive with her striking combinations or perhaps a position on the ground, and it can end in a precarious situation she's forced to fight out of. Kish can ill afford to do that with somebody like Herrig, who is not only crafty on the feet and on the ground, but also has a wealth of experience in her back pocket.
Considering Herrig can match Kish with her striking and grappling, it's those few key situations where she can take advantage of a bad position or poorly timed mistake that will give her the edge to get the victory.
Prediction: Felice Herrig by unanimous decision
Tim Means will look to get back on track when he takes on Alex Garcia in a very intriguing matchup at 170 pounds.
Means is regarded as one of the most vicious finishers in the welterweight division, with a long reach and a punishing striking game that includes nasty elbows and knees whenever he gets in close. Means lands over four significant strikes per minute with nearly 47 percent accuracy, and he's finished nearly 70 percent of his opponents by knockout or TKO. This time around, however, Means will probably have to brush up on his wrestling defense with Garcia looking for the takedown.
Garcia absolutely has knockout power, as evidenced by his win over Mike Pyle in 2016, but he's primarily a grappler who averages over four takedowns per 15 minutes in the Octagon. Garcia is also a powerhouse when he's locked up with an opponent, so chances are he'll look to get inside on Means and attempt to muscle him to the mat while trying to negate his strikes on the feet. Garcia has to be wary of Means' underrated ground game as well, but he'll almost certainly look to put him on the ground and grind him into the canvas as early as possible in this fight.
Still, Means is no slouch with his defensive grappling, and he has the ability to land incredibly well timed knees whenever an opponent tries to go for his legs. Look for Means to come out aggressively and put Garcia on his heels right away. Garcia hasn't fought in over a year and Means will almost certainly look to take advantage of that early before trying to put the fight away with another stunning knockout to add to his resume.
Prediction: Tim Means by TKO, 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.
Former champion Carla Esparza will look to get back in the win column after a very close decision loss in her last fight as she takes on fellow top 15 strawweight Maryna Moroz.
Esparza remains one of the toughest outs for anybody at 115 pounds, especially when considering her vast grappling background, which includes status as a two-time NAIA All-American in wrestling at Menlo College. Esparza averages just under five takedowns per fight in the UFC, so it's no secret that she'll likely use her striking to set up her grappling attacks against Moroz. Esparza is a powerfully strong fighter when she's on top, and she rarely relinquishes control to her opponents for a matter of seconds throughout an entire round. Esparza loves to strike from the top but she has a slick submission arsenal at her disposal as well.
Now Moroz could present some problems for Esparza on the feet and she also has a long history of armbar submissions that she can use on the ground. In fact, Moroz was introduced to the UFC when she pulled off that exact submission to put away Joanne Calderwood in her debut. Unfortunately, Esparza's grappling is at a much higher level, so it's tough to see Moroz pulling off that same submission in this fight.
What's more likely is Esparza engaging with her striking before planting Moroz on the mat repeatedly over three rounds. Esparza would love to get a finish her considering how she felt about the scoring in her last fight, but Moroz is tough as nails and won't go away until the fight horn. Still, the result should be the same, with Esparza getting the win.
Prediction: Carla Esparza by unanimous decision
It's never easy to predict a fight involving two competitors both returning from a year out of action, but based on recent performances Erik Koch remains a solid pick to defeat Clay Guida in this lightweight matchup.
Koch has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, but he still remains a very dangerous opponent for anyone facing off with him inside the Octagon. Koch is a nasty striker with knockout power in his hands and feet, not to mention a crafty submission arsenal that he'll use whenever the fight hits the ground. Koch lands with good accuracy on the feet, although his defense when striking isn't exactly sterling, but that's probably not an issue considering Guida rarely tries to out box his opponents.
Instead, Guida is a ferocious wrestler who will continue to push for the takedown from the first second of the fight until the very last. Guida averages nearly four takedowns per fight, so it's probably no secret that he'll be trying to out grapple Koch in this matchup as well. This time around, however, Guida is going up against a fighter with over 80 percent takedown defense, so Koch will surely be ready for that wrestling attack whenever it happens.
Meanwhile, Koch is a devastating finisher with enough power to rattle Guida as he's coming in to look for the takedown or just out strike him on the feet if no wrestling is initiated. Look for Koch to defend Guida's takedowns early before unleashing his striking attack during the second or third round to either get a knockout win or perhaps earn a decision victory.
Prediction: Erik Koch by unanimous decision