The UFC will land in Salt Lake City, Utah for the first time ever this weekend with a card loaded with up and coming talent, including a main event where Yair Rodriguez faces Alex Caceres in a very intriguing matchup at 145 pounds.
Rodriguez is poised for superstardom after his first few fights in the UFC, but if he wants to tackle the top 10 at 145 pounds, he's going to have to go through another highly touted prospect in Caceres, who looked better than ever in his last trip to the Octagon.
Caceres has faced a few ups and downs during his UFC career, but the potential in this former Ultimate Fighter competitor still exists, and he can rocket back into the top 15 with a win over Rodriguez on Saturday night.
Also on the card, perennial featherweight contender Dennis Bermudez is back in action against the always exciting Rony Jason, while No. 12-ranked middleweight Thales Leites faces off against the surging Chris Camozzi.
In today's fantasy preview, we're going to examine some of these matchups to see who has the advantage going into the card on Saturday night and if there might be an upset or two brewing as the UFC arrives in Salt Lake City.
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.
Yair Rodriguez vs. Alex Caceres
Yair Rodriguez has quickly become one of the most talked about fighters on the UFC roster after a series of explosive performances, most recently a vicious knockout over Andre Fili at UFC 197. Rodriguez is a perfect blend of mixed martial arts talent, with a versatile striking game, huge knockout power and a very solid skill set on the mat as well. Rodriguez is a machine inside the Octagon, landing 3.2 significant strikes per minute coupled with two takedowns per 15 minutes in every fight. He lands with accuracy on the feet while also showing the ability to take risks with flying knees, kicks and a wide variety of attacks. He's also got a slick submission game and, at this stage, he's averaging over two submission attempts per fight.
Caceres is no slouch on the feet or on the ground, especially since he's teamed up with the coaches at the MMA Lab in Arizona. Caceres has literally grown up in the Octagon, so while he's faced some tough losses, he's also learned how to fight in a trial by fire against the best fighters in the world. His most recent drubbing of Cole Miller on short notice showed just how much Caceres has learned over the past couple of years. He's no longer just a long, lanky submission fighter. Caceres has developed a legitimate striking attack and he's now just as dangerous on the feet as he is on the ground.
What that means for this main event fight is that Rodriguez and Caceres are likely ready to put on a real show for the fans in Salt Lake City. Both fighters set a frenetic pace that is hard to match, so expect the strikes, takedowns and submission attempts to come early and often once Rodriguez and Caceres begin exchanging in the middle of the Octagon. Caceres is definitely ready for this test, but Rodriguez seems a little more primed for the spotlight after his recent win streak.
Rodriguez is so calm and composed inside the Octagon that it's hard to imagine he's only nine fights into his pro career. Look for Rodriguez to test Caceres early on the feet and on the mat just to see where his opponent is looking to keep this fight and then he'll start to unleash his attacks as the second round bleeds into the third. Rodriguez is explosive but also methodical, so he won't make any mistakes while trying to put Caceres away. Once he sees an opening, however, look for Rodriguez to fire off a big kick or a flying knee to try and put Caceres away before the final bell sounds.
Santiago Ponzinibbio vs. Zak Cummings
Another potential show stealer on the card takes place in the welterweight division as dangerous striker Santiago Ponzinibbio takes on Zak Cummings.
Ponzinibbio is coming off a two-fight win streak where he put both of his opponents away by TKO, including a victory over former Ultimate Fighter winner Court McGee. Ponzinibbio is a vicious striker who is always on the attack when he's in control on the feet. The Argentinean averages over four significant strikes landed per minute with nearly 40 percent accuracy. He hits hard, hits fast and when he puts together a combination, Ponzinibbio is a deadly finisher.
Cummings is a physically imposing welterweight, who somehow still manages to be underrated in almost all of his fights despite a 4-1 record overall in the UFC, with his only loss coming to highly touted submission specialist Gunnar Nelson. Cummings is a beast on the mat with a grinding wrestling style on top, but he's also developed a very awkward yet effective striking style on the feet. Cummings doesn't do anything fancy while standing, but when he lands a shot, it's like getting hit by a truck doing 70 miles per hour on the highway.
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The fight really comes down to who controls the pace and whether or not Ponzinibbio can land the necessary strikes to put Cummings away. Ponzinibbio is lethal when his opponents allow him the space to work from the outside, and if he's able to bully Cummings with strikes, this could be a short night for the American. On the flipside, Cummings has the size and the power to push Ponzinibbio around the Octagon and make him work for every punch he lands. Cummings knows that he has more ways to win as long as he doesn't just stand flat footed and exchange strikes with Ponzinibbio.
Assuming that Cummings fights smart and he's willing to grind on Ponzinibbio in the early going to wear him down, he should be able to do enough over three rounds to get the victory.
Prediction: Zak Cummings by unanimous decision
Cub Swanson vs. Tatsuya Kawajiri
This matchup between two of the best veterans at 145 pounds should be an excellent showcase on UFC FIGHT PASS, as Cub Swanson takes on Tatsuya Kawajiri. Swanson recently returned from a year out of the sport and looked better than ever as he dismantled former top 10 competitor Hacran Dias over three rounds. Swanson looked like the same fighter who won six fights in a row while knocking on the door for a title fight just a couple years ago.
As for Kawajiri, this veteran Japanese fighter is the picture of consistency with his style and attacks inside the Octagon. Kawajiri is a ground specialist and he has no issues displaying his game plan going into any fight as he looks to put his opponents on the ground and work for his attacks from the top. Kawajiri probably paid special attention to Swanson's fight with Frankie Edgar, where he struggled to stay off the mat and instead ended up eating punches and elbows for the better part of five rounds before being finished late in the bout.
The key is Kawajiri's ability to take Swanson to the mat and hold him there for 15 minutes. Kawajiri averages nearly four takedowns per fight with over 50 percent accuracy, and the only time he's struggled is when he faces a better wrestler. Swanson is a lot of things, but he's not typically seen as a tremendous wrestler. That doesn't mean he can't stop Kawajiri's attempts while firing back with counters on the feet though. Knowing that Kawaijri will do almost anything to drag this to the mat may give Swanson the advantage in timing his takedowns and firing back with big knees or latching on to a submission as they fall to the ground.
Kawajiri could definitely pull off the decision with a three-round, grinding affair, but considering how effective Swanson looked in his last fight and the experience he brings into the fight, look for the former WEC contender to do just enough on the feet to eke out a victory over 15 minutes.
Prediction: Cub Swanson 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.
Dennis Bermudez vs. Rony Jason
Dennis Bermudez is known for his exciting fight style whenever he steps into the Octagon, and he'll have a willing dance partner this weekend with former Ultimate Fighter winner Rony Jason. Bermudez comes from a wrestling background and he shows off those ground skills with more than four takedowns per fight, but he's also willing to mix it up on the feet. Bermudez lands over four significant strikes per minute with over 45 percent accuracy, and he's by far one of the most active fighters whenever he's competing in the UFC.
Jason won't go away easy in this fight, but he's taking on a physically imposing force in Bermudez this weekend. Jason has slick submissions and an explosive striking style, but he's also very inconsistent with his performances and chances are he's going to be fighting off an offensive juggernaut when he takes on Bermudez. Of course, Jason could easily pull off a fight-ending submission or even land a big counter as Bermudez attacks, but the odds aren't on his side.
Look for Bermudez to pour on the offense from the opening bell until the final horn as he looks to simply overwhelm Jason over three rounds. Bermudez has some defensive liabilities that have cost him in the past so he can't get sloppy, but assuming he stays on the attack, Jason will be the one fending off strikes and takedowns for 15 straight minutes until he comes out on the wrong side of a lopsided decision.
Prediction: Dennis Bermudez by unanimous decision
Maryna Moroz vs. Danielle Taylor
It's never an easy position for a debuting fighter to get the call on short notice, but Danielle Taylor took the chance when she replaced Justine Kish for a fight against top 10 competitor Mayrna Moroz this weekend. Taylor is a solid prospect with a 7-1 record, including two straight victories by TKO. Taylor has been fighting since 2013 and has a wealth of experience under her belt, but she's stepping into a very tough test against an Octagon veteran like Moroz.
Moroz has been one of the best young additions to the strawweight division since joining the UFC roster and shaking up the top 10 with her quick submission finish over Joanne Calderwood in her debut. Moroz is stiff competition for anyone at 115 pounds, much less someone like Taylor making her UFC debut on very short notice.
Given the typical jitters that can accompany a first-time UFC competitor, Taylor will be fighting an uphill battle as she tries to stave off Moroz's attacks both on the feet and on the ground. Look for Moroz to try and overwhelm the UFC rookie early while dragging this to the mat and applying one of her signature armbar submissions. Taylor might be a prospect for the future, but she's walking into the lion's den for her debut.
Prediction: Maryna Moroz by submission, Round 1
Teruto Ishihara vs. Horacio Gutierrez
Teruto Ishihara certainly seems like a star on the rise after his impressive showing the last time he fought, as he knocked out former Ultimate Fighter competitor Julian Erosa and now he'll look to add another reality show veteran to his resume with former TUF Latin America contestant Horacio Gutierrez.
Ishihara is an explosive, exciting prospect out of Japan who fights with an unorthodox style that's tough to figure out, and he's only gaining confidence with each performance inside the Octagon. Ishihara doesn't do anything conventional when he's fighting, but he always seems to get the job done. His biggest weakness in the past has been a lacking ground game, but chances are he won't risk much against a fellow striker like Gutierrez.
Gutierrez seemed like a fighter to watch after his performance on The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, but he came out flat in the finale, losing to former housemate Enrique Barzola over three rounds. Gutierrez has a lot of potential, but he's still very raw as a fighter and he needs to be molded a lot more before he'll make any waves in the UFC. Still, he certainly has the kind of knockout power that could surprise Ishihara if he gets too cute on the feet while looking for a finish of his own.
That said, Ishihara is brimming with confidence after his last fight and he's looking to put on another impressive performance against Gutierrez. Given Gutierrez's tendency to leave himself open for counters whenever he's attacking with a combination, it's only a matter of time before Ishihara finds a home for a big punch or kick to put this fight away.
Prediction: Teruto Ishihara by knockout, Round 2
Chris Camozzi vs. Thales Leites
Thales Leites has enjoyed a real career resurgence since returning to the UFC in 2013, but he might be primed for an upset against Chris Camozzi this weekend.
Camozzi had a brief exit from the UFC as well after a losing streak that saw him drop four fights in a row before winning two more bouts outside the Octagon to get the call back to the promotion. Most recently, Camozzi put together a three-fight win streak that showed the kind of talent this former Ultimate Fighter competitor has always possessed. In his last fight, Camozzi bullied and battered Vitor Miranda over three rounds and he'll look to do the same thing to Leites in this matchup.
Now there's no doubt Leites has massively improved when it comes to his striking versus his previous stint in the UFC, but that confidence in his kickboxing game could come back to bite him against someone like Camozzi. Leites' best weapon in this fight would be to drag Camozzi to the mat and look for the submission, but he hasn't really used his ground game that much since returning to the UFC three years ago.
If this fight stays standing, Leites certainly has the weapons to win, but Camozzi has shown tremendous confidence lately with the kind of attacking style where he's truly looking for the finish with every punch and kick he throws. Camozzi isn't exactly throwing caution to the wind, but he's no longer concerned about winning every exchange just for the sake of impressing the judges sitting cageside. Instead, Camozzi is going for the kill and that kind of mentality shift has made him a very dangerous competitor in the middleweight division.
Prediction: Chris Camozzi by TKO, Round 3